Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
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Voyage of the Centuri Dream

by Joe Vadalma

The Listener

10.15.2134 0103 ESDS Time

Out past Pluto's orbit floated a tiny grain of sand in a vast ocean of everlasting night and near absolute zero temperatures. The Extraterrestrial Signal Detection System, ESDS for short, rotated slowly as it reoriented its antennas. If it had eyes, the sun would seem only slightly brighter than the myriad of other light points that surrounded it. It was the size of a three-story building, ungainly and ugly, a mess of antenna dishes and other devices that protruded at odd angles, so that it resembled a floating junk pile. It was a listener. It listened for minute signals, a few nanowatts, mere whispers, so tiny that they were not measurable by ordinary radio telescopes, from every part of the milky way galaxy at a billion different frequencies. It amplified the infinitesimal bits of information to microvolts, digested and analyzed them with a powerful artificial intelligent computer looking for that one in a billion signal that had intelligent content.

Twice it detected signals it considered worthy of further investigation. These it broadcast to a relay satellite in orbit around Jupiter. This artificial satellite, in turn, sent the amplified signal to the astronomical center at Clavius crater on the moon. Both instances proved false alarms. The first was from an erratic pulsar. The second was a sporadic anomaly in the satellite's own circuitry, which was corrected by telemetry from Clavius.

On October 15, 2134, at 0134.43 hours according to its atomic clock, ESDS pointed its main dish at a section of sky not previously surveyed and detected an unusual signal in the microwave range. It performed tests to ensure that its own circuitry was not producing the phenomena and analyzed the signal. According to the criteria coded into it, the transmission contained data that an intelligent being might send. It activated its amplifiers and beamed an alert signal to the Jupiter relay station.

The first transmission reached Clavius several hours later. The receiver recorded the signal and sounded the IMR (Intelligent Message Received) alarm.

* * *

In the cramped quarters of the SETI section of the Clavius astronomical complex, Matthew Harding sat reading a science fiction paperback. He felt his job was cushy, although severely boring. Essentially he was being paid for doing nothing. For the past two years, each day he gabbed for a few minutes with the person he relieved, checked that the equipment was operating properly and sat on his tush for seven hours.

When a buzzer sounded across the room, Harding mumbled, "What's wrong now?" He stretched and sauntered across the room. A red light flashed on the SETI receptor. He pressed the Alarm Reset button to turn off the irritating sound and read the label under the glowing indicator. It read, "Signal Received."

That was unprecedented. A signal had come in from the ESDS. Quickly, he pulled the manual from the desk drawer. He wanted to be sure that he followed procedures to the letter. This was too important to screw up. He read the manual: "If the Signal Received indicator comes on, do the following: Press the Alarm Reset button." He had already done that. There was also a warning, "DO NOT TOUCH ANY OTHER CONTROLS." The second item on the list was to call the chief of SETI Operations.

After several rings, a sleepy voice answered, "Hello. Aaron Warner here."

"This is Matt down at SETI Operations. The Signal Received indicator has come on."

"Wow. That's great. Don't touch anything. I'll be right down." He clicked off.

Twice before Harding had come to the moon, ESDS had sent a signal. Both times had been false alarms. "Well, third time's a charm," he muttered.

Minutes later Warner, flushed with excitement, rushed in. He was barely dressed, hair uncombed, shirt unbuttoned, no socks. He was followed by two SETI scientists, Kate Hatchway and Lu Dong. All three ignored Harding and went directly to the SETI receptor. Warner flipped two switches and nervously lit a cigarette although smoking was not allowed anywhere inside the complex. All three peered anxiously at the computer monitor. Beeps and squawks came from the speakers.

Harding peered over the Warner's shoulder. Columns of numbers slowly floated upward on the monitor screen. "What's happening?" he asked. "Is it really a signal from an alien intelligence?"

Warner grinned like a Cheshire cat and shrugged. "We won't know for a while. I relayed the signal to the supercomputer in the main complex. It'll number crunch for a couple of hours before we'll know for sure. If it says yes, that's when the real fun begins. It may take months, maybe years to translate the information."

* * *

For the next three years, the top mathematicians, cryptologists and linguists from all over the world worked on decoding the data. It was definitely from an alien intelligence and came from the Nihal star system two hundred and fifty light-years distance, but that was all they knew.

The signals repeated every four hours. Parts of the data simply consisted of a progression of prime numbers. Everything that followed was gibberish. No one could make head nor tail of it. Many cryptographers, language experts and mathematicians worked on the problem without result. Although the signals never stopped, the official effort was abandoned after a new administration came to power. A month later, the ESDS malfunctioned. As a result, funding for the entire SETI project was stricken from the Clavius budget.

The recorded signals were stored away as a curiosity. Over the years many experts and amateurs tried to decipher the message with no more success than the original team.

Jacque Roget

July 7, 2155 Jacque Roget, a graduate student who majored in ancient languages with minors in chaos theory, number theory and cryptology, stared at the intricate pattern of the screen saver on his pocket computer. His mind was far away as he tried to decide on a research project to obtain his doctorate. Roget wanted to choose the most difficult subject for the challenge. Because he was especially adept in seeing patterns in chaotic information, his fellow students called him Genius Jacque. It was a joke that he did cryptology problems in his head while making love -- not that Roget dated much; he was too busy with his studies.

He was having difficulty deciding, because most of the problems he might have chosen did not seem challenging enough. For days he had surfed the Internet and gone through the entire university library of books dealing with classical problems in ancient languages, cryptology and mathematics. Nothing appealed to him.

He decided to call it a day and invited his roommate, Jim Kapinski, an astronomy major, to join him for a beer at a bar on the outskirts of the campus.

After they ordered, Kapinski asked Roget, "Have you decided on research project yet?"

Roget shook his head sadly as he sipped the foam off his beer. "Most of the problems I might select, I could probably solve in a week. Bor-ing. You know me. I need something that will really stimulate my mind."

Kapinski chuckled. "Well, I know of a problem in decoding that's been hanging around for several years. Not too many people know about it anymore, because most of the experts have given up trying to solve it."

Roget perked up. "Really? And how come you know about it?"

"Came across it while doing research on astronomical history. Several years ago, the World Space Agency had a project going to detect signals from possible alien intelligences. They sent this artificial satellite into an orbit beyond that of Pluto. Twenty years ago, it received a signal from the direction of the star Nihal, which is about two hundred and fifty light years away. The thing is that, although they were sure the signal contained information sent by an alien race, no one can decipher the message. As a result, eventually the whole project was dropped."

Roget became quite excited, so much so that he knocked his glass over, spilling his beer. "So it was an actual message from an alien race in another stellar system, but no one knows what it says?"

"Yep. It's quite an astronomical mystery."

"How was it recorded?"

"The recording technology used in those days were memory cubes. But I'm sure it has been recorded and re-recorded into more modern systems, such as microdots."

"Where can I get a hold of one of these recordings?"

Kapinski rubbed his chin. "I suppose the World Space Agency has them in its archives somewhere."

Roget called the waitress over. He said, "I'm paying for the drinks. If my friend wants any more, put whatever he desires on my tab." He pressed his thumb on her crediting device. He got up and said, "See you later, Jim."

"Where you going?"

"To contact the WSA, of course."

* * *

From the World Space Agency, he obtained a memory dot of the raw information sent by ESDS, logs from the SETI project and notes from various attempts to decode it. He was not interested in anything except the original data, which displayed on his computer monitor as rows and columns of numbers. He noted that by grouping them, they formed patterns. For the next two weeks he barely ate or slept. He rearranged them, converted them into letters of various alphabets and other symbols. He examined each group immediately following the prime numbers for clues. Nonetheless, even he was stumped.

One night, he dreamed that he lived in ancient Babylon. He was a priest and was walking toward the towering ziggurat, the great pyramidal shaped temple to the god Marduk. He strolled through street filled with ancient Babylonians going about their business, men and woman chatting about domestic subjects, street vendors hawking their wares and street urchins running about shouting at each other.

He entered the temple at a doorway above which was written, "Home of Marduk, the Magnificent." A pretty serving girl naked to the waist approached him and bowed. "How may I serve you, Priest Roget?"

"Fetch the tablets of mystery, Volume Seven and Thirteen."

As the servant hurried away to complete her errand, Roget watched with admiration the waggling of her well shaped rear. When she returned with the scrolls, he pinched her cheek. "You responded quickly. You deserve a reward."

She bowed her head. Nonetheless, a smile appeared on her face. "I was only doing my duty."

"Yes. At this evening's service, I will bestow upon you the great honor of performing the ritual of the love between Marduk and Ishtar."

Her face became flushed. "As you wish."

Roget studied the tablets for a while, which were written in cuneiform. Afterwards he removed his robe and went into the holy of holies, where the important rituals were performed. The servant girl awaited. She lay stretched out on the altar, her beautiful body arousing Roget. He pronounced the words that were written on the tablet and moved his hands above her in the proper symbolic way. He lay on the altar next to her and consummated the marriage between the god and goddess.

* * *

When he woke from this sensuous dream, he had an inspiration. He rushed to his computer and replaced certain combinations of numbers with symbols that represented phonetic sounds. Soon he saw words and a grammar that bore a slight resemblance to ancient Babylonian. Two days later, exhausted from lack of sleep with his stomach grumbling from the awful stuff he had put into it, he had a small portion of it translated. He saved the translation, collapsed on his bed and slept thirty-six hours straight.

Later that week, he submitted his conclusions to a linguistic journal. His "paper" included the translation and reported how he accomplished it. Soon after the paper was published, the entire academic world buzzed about his achievement. Eventually he received a Nobel prize.

For those who were interested in learning about the aliens, the message itself was a disappointment. It gave no information about their appearance, history, culture, philosophy, technology or psychology. It was cryptic and made vague references to mystical beings, gods or demons and strange and fantastic events. A minority thought that it warned of some danger. Many felt that it was a religious tract. It did, however, gave a definite indication that it originated from a planet orbiting Nihal, a G-type star, approximately two hundred and fifty light years from the solar system.

* * *

Ten years later a robotic probe was launched toward Nihal. Traveling at fifty percent of light speed, it would take the probe, five hundred years to reach its destination and another two hundred and fifty years for its electronically transmitted report to reach the solar system. Nonetheless, although the scientists, engineers and backers of the probe knew that they would be long dead by the time the information about the aliens arrived, they felt that they had left a legacy of the utmost importance to future generations.

The Mission

As it turned out, several of the scientists involved with the probe to Nihal were still alive when a quantum physicist made a discovery that would enable faster-than-light travel. Two years later, his discovery was turned to a practical application. The quantum drive was invented. It would enable a vessel to reach the Nihal system in a fraction of the time that the probe would take. This sparked immediate world wide interest in Roget's paper. Pressure was put on the World Space Agency to send a manned mission to the point of origin of the signal.

In little over a year, a fully equipped starship had been built and was orbiting Jupiter, ready to travel into interstellar space. While the starship, named Centuri Dream, was being constructed, a crew was chosen and trained using simulators. Finally, the starship was completed, tested and supplied. The all volunteer crew was sent to the WSA base on Callisto for a final briefing before they were taken aboard the Centuri Dream.

The briefing took place in a small auditorium and conference room in the base built especially to hold the ground personnel associated with the interstellar mission. In addition to the crew and two scientists that would be going aboard, ground control personnel were present. The crew consisted of two groups, a human contingent and artificial intelligence personnel, who were mostly humanoid robots, colloquially known as humbots.

The human crew consisted of Captain Steven Amlada, ship commander; Commander Shirley Thompson, second in command and navigation officer; Lieutenant Celia Gigilioni, medical specialist, biological sciences officer and shuttle pilot; and Chief Petty Officer Kirk Schmidt, ship engineer. The humbots were Lieutenant Commander Thomas Dawson, third in command; Lieutenant Evbot, morale officer and assistant medical officer; and Crewman First Class Adambot, assistant engineer.

One artificial intelligence person was not present at the meeting, Centuri Dreamer Prime, referred to as Centy by just about everybody associated with the mission. Centy was an artificial intelligent supercomputer which controlled the ship's systems. Without Centy's ability to make control decisions in nanoseconds, navigation of a quantum drive starship would be impossible.

The two civilian scientists going on the journey were Doctor Jacque Roget, the man who broke the alien code, and Doctor Sharon Miller, anthropologist and theoretical xenopologist.

Launch Director Michael Kophazi stepped up to the podium, tapped the microphone a few times and said, "Greetings, crew of the starship Centuri Dream, mission specialists and esteemed scientists. Mankind's great journey into the unknown is about to begin. Only a few days remain until launch. This will be your final briefing before you board.

"First I want to applaud the courage of the people who, despite the dangers they will face, willing volunteered to embark on this mission into the great unknown. Stand up please. What brave people you are."

The crew and the two scientists stood. Kophazi clapped his hands loudly. The others present also applauded, whistled and cheered. After a few moments, Kophazi signaled for everyone to be seated. When the applause faded, he said, "I also wish to thank everyone associated with the mission for all your hard work and dedication. We could not come this far without you.

"Now I want to go over a few items concerned with the mission. Much of this you already know, but I think it bears repeating. The starship has two methods of propulsion. For travel within a stellar system, it uses an antimatter drive. For interstellar distances, it uses a new technology called a quantum drive. With this device, the starship navigation system simply enters a coordinate somewhere within a radius of fifty light years, engages the quantum drive, and the ship instantly appears at that location. No one, not even its inventors, are exactly sure why it works. Some theoretical physicists have theories. They say that it has do with quantum entanglement on macro level. They believe that the starship passes through one or more dimensions other than the familiar four."

Kophazi shrugged his shoulders. "The main thing is that it works. However, there drawbacks to both technologies. One is that they require antimatter/matter reactions. Antimatter is terribly dangerous stuff to deal with. We have taken every precaution. At the first sign of any sort of leakage or any other problem with the antimatter containment system, explosives will blast the entire antimatter module as far as possible away from the ship. Double, triple and quadruple safety measures are in place. Any questions or concerns?"

Roget remarked, "We've been told all this before. I'm sure an antimatter explosion will be the least likely event to occur of the dangers we'll be facing."

Kophazi grinned, "Right you are. I just want to ensure that all of you are aware."

Roget said, "I have a question. Why are we launching from the vicinity of Jupiter? I thought one of the requirements of the quantum drive is that it not be near any bodies with large gravity fields."

"A good question. A second drawback of the quantum drive is that it needs massive amounts of fuel. Each jump required a ton of deuterium half of which half is converted to antimatter deuterium and slowly allowed to collide. The resulting energy creates a field that drives the ship into a quantum Eigenstate. This means that the ship must refuel after each jump. In addition the Centuri Dream needs fuel for the antimatter impulse engines that it uses within a star system, plus electricity for life support and the antimatter converter. Such copious amounts of deuterium can only be harvested from a gaseous giant planet such as Jupiter. It is for this reason that for each jump we've chosen navigation points near star systems that we are certain contains at least one gas giant.

"There's also a second quirk of the quantum drive. It requires a month cool down period before it can be used again. This means that you will have a month of idleness after each leap of fifty light years toward your destination. But I'm sure Captain Amlada and your morale officer, Lieutenant Evbot, will not allow you get bored.

"At this point I want to point out some unique features of the Centuri Dreamer. Projection, please." A diagram appeared on the wall in back of Kophazi which illustrated the layout of the spaceship. He took out a light pointer and sent the narrow beam on the portions of the ship that he was discussing. "Although the starship is enormous -- two kilometers from bow to stern -- most of its bulk is for fuel storage. It consists of five modules. The antimatter impulse engine module is furthest aft and contains the drive, maneuvering rockets, their fuel and navigational controls. At launch the drive will send the ship hurtling toward the sun at a speed of 720,000 km/h."

"Why toward the sun?" asked Sharon Miller.

"We are going to use a gravity assist to speed the ship away from the solar system as quickly as possible. That is one of the reasons that you and the other humans aboard need to be placed into cold sleep for the first part of the journey. The G forces would kill you."

Kophazi paused for a moment and pointed to another section of the diagram. "Just forward of the drive module is the quantum drive and the enormous tanks to hold the deuterium fuel that it needs. Forward of the quantum drive is the command module, which contains everything needed to support the mission, the bridge, crew quarters, life support, electronic and control gear, deep sleep unit and Centy. The hump on the back of the command module is the shuttle or planetfall module. Its secondary function is an escape craft."

Commander Shirley Thompson asked, "If we need to abandon ship, where would we escape to?"

Kophazi cleared his throat. "That depends. If there's a planet nearby that could sustain life, you could head for it. There are cold sleep facilities aboard the shuttle. You could simply send out a distress signal and go into cold sleep. Perhaps a rescue mission could be mounted."

Thompson grinned. "However, right now, no such rescue starship is in plan by the WSA. My understanding is that the Centuri Dream is to be a one-of-a-kind vessel. It took a lot of lobbying by many groups before the billions of world credits need to build it were voted by the world parliament. And that bill was carried by only a slim margin. Unless there's an imminent threat of an antimatter explosion, in case of an emergency, I think I'd stick with the Centuri Dream."

Captain Amlada remarked, "That would depend on the type of emergency."

Kophazi said, "Well, that would be up to you people to decide. I'm afraid the planetfall module is the best we can offer in the way of an escape vessel. As I mentioned before, the humans aboard will be placed in cold sleep for the first phase of the mission. You have all experienced this for short periods of time. Have any of you had any problems or concerns about cold sleep?" He paused and looked around the room. Each of the women and men who would subjected to the condition shook her or his had in the negative. "Good. During this period, Lieutenant Commander Dawson will be charge of ship operations.

"That's all I have to say except good luck, good voyaging and God speed. Does anyone have anything else?"

Thompson spoke up. "When we arrive at Nihal, we will likely encounter the aliens who sent the message. They may be hostile. Are there weapons aboard in case we have to defend ourselves?"

"Yes. Hand weapons. Should you attacked by a fleet of let us say spaceships, there are no weapons aboard to defend you from that sort of combat. Your best bet in that case is to get the hell out of there as quickly as possible. You must use discretion. Armed conflict must be a last resort. We don't want to start an interstellar war. Anything else?"

No one spoke up.

"Very well. This meeting is at end. God speed."

As they were leaving the conference room, Thompson whispered to Dawson, "I think the aliens may be our biggest danger. We don't even know whether our two scientists will figure out a way to communicate with them."

Dawson replied, "You may be right."

* * *

Four days later, the five humans and three humbots were brought out to the two kilometer long starship. Once aboard, the humans were placed into cold sleep, their temperature brought down to a level just high enough to sustain life, their heart slowed to five beats a minute, and their brains placed in an induced coma.

Evbot and Adambot strapped themselves into the cushioned acceleration couches. Dawson took the couch on the bridge that would be the captain's when he awoke from his deep slumber. When the countdown began, together with Centy and mission control, he performed several last minute checks. When everything was "go" and the countdown went to zero, he pressed the button that started the impulse engine. "Ignition initiated," he said into his microphone. With explosive force, the ship started on its journey into the vastness of space.

Commander Dawson's Log

Commander’s Log: 04.30.2179 1400 hours. My name is Thomas Dawson. For the time being, I am in command of the Centuri Dream. Earlier today, I and my fellow crew members and passengers boarded her for the first time. The human crew and the two scientist passengers were put into cold sleep. I spent the last few hours checking systems. The countdown is down to twenty minutes. We’re ready to roll. For several reasons I thought it would be prudent to start a log before actual launch. First, the importance of this historic flight can be compared to Columbus’s voyage to America, Magellan’s circling the globe, the Apollo 11 moon landing and the Perceival Lowe Mars landing. It is the first mission to a destination outside of the solar system, our first baby step into the great ocean of night. The Centuri Dream is a starship destined for the star Nihal, from which a communication from an alien race was received some years ago.

A second reason for keeping this log is that should anything happen to me and the crew, and the ship is found, there should a record of everything that occurred. Although the ship keeps its own account of events, I believe a human perspective is called for. Thirdly, my duties, once we’re underway, will leave me with much free time. This log is one more item on my agenda to keep from becoming bored. Finally, all the great seafaring and spacefaring captains of literature and video, real and fictional, kept personal logs. It’s a splendid tradition. I hope Captain Amlada also keeps this tradition.

Earlier I referred to myself as human. Strictly speaking, I'm not. I'm a humbot with the memories of a human being, Thomas Dawson, who died over a hundred years ago. Nonetheless, I feel as though I were the original Thomas Dawson. I intend to describe how this came about, but I'd rather save that story for later in the voyage. Sufficient to say that since I have a robotic body, I don’t need to eat, drink, respire or sleep. This is a major advantage to this part of the mission, since life support systems are not required until the human crew is brought out of cold sleep.

The other two humbots aboard are Lieutenant Evbot and Crewman First Class Adambot. The major difference between them and myself is that they do not have a human’s memories. Despite the fact that I'm a mechanical construct with artificial intelligent software as they are, I have a hard time not thinking of them as machines in human form and myself as human in machine form.

Evbot has the features and body of a comely human female. She is our morale officer, psychologist and counselor. She is also medical assistant to the human doctor, Lieutenant Gigilioni. Her main duty, however is to keep everyone on an even keel psychologically. In my mind, it’s a bad joke that the mission people had presented the robotics company with a design that made her look like a beautiful woman. I just heaved a great sigh. I recall very well the joys of sex (with anguish at present, since I can never enjoy that pleasure again). However, sex is simply not feasible in my present body. As far as the human males aboard, I doubt whether they would have a romantic relationship with Evbot. But, who knows.

The other humbot, Adambot, is aboard to assist our engineer, Chief Petty Officer Kirk Schmidt. He performs all maintenance functions while Schmidt is in cold sleep. He will also do any repairs that might be dangerous, for example, one that required an EVA. He has been especially engineered for maintenance work inside and outside the ship and has special software to make him an expert in repair of artificial intelligences. That makes him the medical doctor for us humbots and Centy. His hands are removal so that the proper tools can be attached to his forearms if required. If, for some reason, I become incapacitated, he and Evbot are designed to take over my duties. I wonder. Can a strictly artificial intelligent humbot make decisions that require intuition and imagination?

There’s a fourth artificial intelligence aboard, the supercomputer who runs the ship, Centauri Dream Prime, Centy for short. It does the actual running and navigating of the ship. It controls everything aboard except the crew and passengers, is extremely intelligent and has decision making capabilities, although under extreme circumstances it can be overridden by one of us. If it were human, it would be a genius. This seems daunting, but it’s necessary because of the quantum drive. Complicated decisions must be made more swiftly than any human or humbot can think. I contact Centy by calling its name. If I desire, Centy can appear to me in a holographic form. Since I have not needed to have a face to face conference with Centy, I don’t really know whether it will appear to me as male or female. Personally I don’t see the point of a projection.

Well, I’d like to continue this log, but duty calls. The countdown has begun again. Very soon the great voyage will be underway.

* * *

Commander's Log: 05.05.2179 2000 hours. The dates and times I enter into this log are in ship time. At this point in our voyage, ship time corresponds to GMT time on earth. Because of relativistic effects, after the Centuri Dream goes into quantum mode, this will not be true. In addition, communication with mission control on Callisto will be time delayed longer and longer as the ship travels away from it. After we make our first quantum jump, communication will be impractical since it will take electromagnetic signals fifty years to travel back to the solar system..

Six hours ago, the Centuri Dream left its orbit around Jupiter. The first three months of our voyage are powered by an antimatter ramjet. Before I get into the construction of the ship and its route to the stars, I want to talk a little about myself. The truth is that in the twenty-second century I am like a fish out of water. The original Tom Dawkins was born in the twentieth and lived most of his life in the twenty-first. Culturally speaking, I'm a twenty-first century person. Many people think of me as a humbot, even though I feel human. In a social situations, I’m often treated as furniture; people talk in front of me as though I didn’t exist. A real humbot would not care. But being what I am, it hurts. In addition, I’ve been called derogatory names or not considered for positions because of my robot body. Despite my appearance, I have human emotions. They are not as crisp and deep as I recall them being for my alter ego, the original Dawkins. Nonetheless, I have them. In the world of the twenty-second century, I'm an outcast, not part of human society and not a humbot.

* * *

Commander’s Log: 05.12.2179 1005 hours. The past week has been hectic. Several minor problems cropped up. But that’s good. It’s best that anything that might jeopardize the mission gets resolved while communication with mission control is still possible, requiring only minutes or hours of delay between the time signals are sent until they are received.

I finally met the holographic Centy, who appeared to me as a middle-aged woman. Apparently, she (I’ve decided to treat her as female since she appeared to me that way) chose that persona herself. Perhaps next time she’ll be in a different guise, and I’ll have to use the masculine pronoun.

I’m grateful to Adambot. He's done a fine job making repairs without delay. Also, I must give credit to Evbot, who keeps me calm during every crisis.

A dangerous and tricky part of the mission is fifty-three days off. To give the first impetus to achieve maximum velocity out of the solar system, the Centuri Dream will dive toward the sun, going within 0.2 AU of old sol, inside the orbit of Mercury. This will give the starship an enormous gravity assist. Once we reach sufficient distance from the solar system, I and Centy will engage the quantum drive.

Somewhere in this log, I should describe the structure of the ship. It’s a marvel of engineering. But that’s for another day. First I wish to enumerate the possible dangers of the sun diving maneuver. There's the heat and radiation from the sun, which if it were not for the ship's shielding would destroy our electronics, including the ones inside my humbot body. Dawkin's memories, which I consider my own and hold so dear, would be erased. There's also the possibility that a sudden solar flare could catch us unaware, although both mission control and Centy are monitoring solar activity closely. This would definitely fry us, as the radiation would be beyond the capacity of our shields to absorb. Another danger is the enormous gravitational forces. A biological being, such as human, would be crushed. Thankfully, Evbot, Adambot and I are constructed of hardened plastic with a steel skeleton. Our delicate electronic parts are located deep within our shells and cushioned by foam. Nonetheless, although we've been tested against high G forces prior to the mission, they never quite simulated Gs as high as we’ll be forced to endure during that maneuver.

Into the Ocean of Night

Fifty three days after Dawson's last entry in his log, the Centuri Dream dove toward the sun. Just prior to this maneuver, the three humbots strapped themselves into their acceleration couches. Dawson initiated a controlled burn of deuterium and antideuterium into the firing chamber. The resulting thrust accelerated the starship toward the sun. Although Dawson was a creature of metal and plastic, his gravity sensors screamed warnings as the crushing forces on him pushed him far back into cushions of the couch. It was as though steel clamps had held him. He could not move any limb or his head. He realized that a human being would have perished under the punishing blow. Luckily, the human personnel were safely ensconced in a liquid gel that would prevent any harm to them, or at least that was the theory.

Under the immense pressure, his jaws refused to move, so he sent out a mental signal to two humbot companions. "Is everyone all right?"

Adambot sent back a brusque, "Unharmed."

Evbot replied, "We are fine. We were built to withstand many G's. You should not worry yourself about us."

Dawson would have smiled if he could. Evbot seemed more troubled by him worrying than her own comfort.

As the sun's gravity grabbed the vessel, the G-forces kept increasing, until Dawson began to wonder whether his internal electronics could stand the pressure. This was much fiercer than anything he had experienced in the centrifuge used to test their endurance in a high-G environment.

The sun grew larger in the view screen. The turbulent, boiling blob of superheated hydrogen quickly filled the plasma tube. Dawson prayed that Centy's software was precise as they dove toward that horrendous flaming sphere. At times it seemed as though the ship was going to fall right into it. As they passed through the sun's outer atmosphere, fiery gas reached out to the starship like the tongue of a toad towards a fly. The exterior temperatures rose to just below the melting point of the bulkheads. Even with the cooling system working at full blast, the heat in the interior was close to the boiling point of water.

The intense heat and pressure lasted several hours. Finally the starship was flung away from the solar system at one percent of the speed of light. The acceleration let up as they headed into the dark between the stars. Dawson sighed with relief as the force on his body suddenly went from several G's to null. He contacted Adambot and Evbot. "Everybody still in one piece?"

Adambot said, "Aye, aye, sir." A perfect spaceman's reply.

Evbot replied, "We are fine. Congratulations, Commander. We came through the gravity assist with no problems."

Dawson disconnected the straps that held him to acceleration couch and floated upward. He called to Centy, "Start rotation for artificial gravity."

The command module began to rotate. It turned at a rate to produce the feeling of gravity, much less than earth normal, but enough that the crew and passengers would not feel as though they were floating or falling all of the time.

Dawson, with the aid of Adambot and Centy, checked that all systems onboard were working normal and inspected for damage sustained during the maneuver. To Dawson's relief there was only minor breakage that Adambot repaired easily. Although some items were destroyed by the intense heat, replacements were available. The items that could not be replaced were not crucial. After he, Adambot and Centy made all checks of the starship's health, he radioed mission control.

"Lieutenant Commander Dawson reporting. The gravity boost was successful. Our current speed is one point one percent LS. All systems are go. We are in good shape. We should reach the designated quantum jump point in approximately eight days. I will send another message at that time. Signing off."

Four days later, he received an acknowledgment to his message.

* * *

Commander's Log: 07.04.2179 0900 hours. Today is Independence Day of my country of origin. I celebrated with Adambot and Evbot by making a little speech comparing our freedom from the solar system to the freedom from English tyranny enjoyed by the English colonists after they initiated the revolution.

Our current speed is roughly one percent of light speed. My experiments give indications that could be considered relativistic effects. Some things came as a surprise. For example, I received an automatic message from the mission control yesterday. I wasn't expecting it for another two days. What I'd forgotten was that two extra days have passed in the solar system than on this ship. This delay is in addition to the hours that the message takes to reach us at our current distance from the senders.

In a way it's frustrating, almost a joke. Once we make our first jump, communication with the solar system will no longer be possible. The message I received is six or eight days old depending on perspective. It congratulated me on a splendid start. It said that they've been tracking me very well. Actually the ship they've been tracking is a ghost located where I was days ago. It included news of the world I left behind, news not only eight days out-of-date, but which seems absolutely irrelevant to my world -- this ship. Ground control asked how I was doing. How am I doing? I had a laugh at that. By the time they receive my answer, I could be dead for days, weeks, even longer as the journey progresses. Nonetheless, I answered that I was fine, that the ship was fine and that I had started this log.

Actually, the message depressed me. It made me realize how cutoff I am from the solar system and humanity. I shouldn't feel that way. I'm not entirely alone. Adambot, Evbot and Centy are fine companions. And soon I will have human companions.

Commander’s Log: 07.08.2179 We are approaching the jump point. The last few days I have been having an attack of homesickness. You wouldn't think that this could happen to a being who is essentially a robot. I don't have hormones or a heart. Yet every once in a while, emotions like homesickness buried in my memory rise to the surface. That's why Evbot is aboard. She's my councilor, therapist and confidant. She helped me come to terms with my situation. In truth, even before this journey, I was cutoff from my own time and place. (Note to myself: I must add a brief autobiography so that whoever reads this log it can understand who I am and what is behind my actions.)


At the jump point, Dawson made a final check of all systems again. "Well folks, I'm ready. Once I give Centy the order, we'll be cutoff completely from the solar system. Any last thoughts?"

Adambot said, "None, sir."

Evbot said, "Don't forget Commander, once we reach the Castor system, we will have human company. That should make things more pleasant."

"Yes, there's that." Dawson sighed. He wondered whether human companions will relieve his homesickness or whether it will be worse for him. One of the reasons he volunteered for this voyage was to get away from a civilization he no longer understood.

He sent a message to mission control. It would be the last one until they returned to the solar system. In it he included the state of the ship, and his log. He thought, If we never return, perhaps it will become some sort of historical document. It gave him a small amount of satisfaction knowing that the mission would go into the history books, regardless of whether it succeeded or failed.

Everything was in readiness. He said, "Centy, initiate quantum mode to the first set of coordinates. Make it so."

Dawson had a moment of disorientation as though he passed through a universe designed by M.C. Escher. When he glanced at the view screen, the configuration of stars was different than it had been seconds before. He said, "Centy, what is our position?"

"We are approximately ninety point oh five A.U. from the multiple star systems known as Castor."

"Set a course for the Jovean size planet orbiting Castor Ab using planetary drive. At arrival, orbit the planet."

"Understand. Course set and launch initiated."

Dawson again felt the pull of acceleration pushing him against the couch. "Centy, keep the G-forces down a bit. There's no need to rush at this point."

The invisible force decreased to a more comfortable level. Although, it would be a strain on a human being, Dawson was able to function and even leave the acceleration couch for short periods. He checked their speed. Once the ship reached the speed that he felt was nominal, he ordered Centy to shut all engines. They were back in null-G. He reinstated artificial gravity rotation. It would take about two weeks to reach the gas giant.

He decided that he might as well take out the human crew out of cold sleep.

* * *

The day after Dawson woke the humans from their deathlike sleep, Captain Amlada made a speech. He gathered the crew and two civilians together into the combination recreation and mess bay.

"Officers, enlisted personnel and esteemed passengers, this a great day for all of humanity. We have successfully completed the first leg of our mission into the unknown. First I wish to congratulate Lieutenant Commander Dawson and his robotic crew. They have done a superb job."

Dawson, who had been leaning against a bulkhead, said, "Don't forget Centy. She's a great navigator and pilot. We simply told her when to execute her duties and made some minor repairs. She did everything else."

"Uh, yes. Well done, Centy. You and others of my crew and our two civilian scientists are the first citizens of earth to venture out of the solar system. I have great confidence in you. I have served with many of you on interplanetary missions. On my last long mission, which was to make repairs to the ESDS, my second in command, Lieutenant Thompson and I became lovers. She was an Ensign at the time. Although we no longer have a romantic relationship, we're good friends. Perhaps, on this mission things between us could heat up again" He winked at Thompson, who stared at him coldly. "I only mention this because we have long idle periods between quantum leaps. From a morale standpoint, it would be good for people to pair up. It would be one more activity to keep you occupied."

After his speech, he approached Chief Petty Officer Kirk Schmidt. "Kirk, I want you and Adambot to go over every inch of the ship to ensure that everything is shipshape."

Kirk saluted snappily, clicking his heels. "Aye, aye, Captain." He and Adambot left to inspect the ship from the bridge to the stern.

The two scientists asked Amlada where they could work on further decoding of the alien message. He showed them to the combination laboratory and sick bay. They immediately loaded the signal into the ship's computer and began to discuss the possible meaning of the untranslated portion.

* * *

A few days passed before the crew was fully recovered from cold sleep and were back to work. Amlada took the captain's chair between Commander Thompson and Lieutenant Commander Dawson. His two subordinates had arrived on the bridge earlier. Dawson, who did not need to sleep or eat, rarely left it. Thompson was in her preassigned place, the navigation position, and Dawson occupied intership controls. Amlada said to Centy, "Fuel status, please."

The disembodied voice of Centy replied, "Fuel level is nineteen percent below maximum." A stream of figures concerning usage floated across the main screen. "Now tell me about this Castor system."

"Castor consists of three binaries gravitationally linked. Hence, there are six stars in the system, two A-type blue-white giants and four M category red dwarfs. There are several smaller objects in orbit around each star." The star positions relative to each other were illustrated on the main screen and data about the stars were shown on the smaller monitors at each console position.

Amlada studied this data for a while and turned toward Dawson. "Tom, why did you choose Ba?"

"It has a large Jovean which according to spectral analysis is perfect for refueling."


Just then, a light flashed on Amlada's console. He pressed a button and said, "Yes?"

Kirk Schmidt's voice came through a speaker. "This is Chief Petty Officer Schmidt. I've finished my inspections. All systems are nominal, Captain."

"Thank you, Mister Schmidt." The light went out indicating that Schmidt had cutoff communication.

Amlada sighed. "That Kirk, not a man for a lot of words. So what do you think about our two geniuses?"

Dawson said, "They were anxious to get to work immediately after coming out of cold sleep. I don't think they'll get in the way of ship operations in any manner. They seem quite content to do research and argue over finer points of the alien message translation."

Thompson said, "That Roget is an odd duck who keeps to himself unless he's debating with Sharon Miller. But I suppose that's the nature of genius."

Amlada said, "Our anthropologist is only twenty-seven, and quite attractive, don't you think?"

Thompson chuckled. "Back to your old tricks, eh Steve. Is sex all you ever have on your mind? How did you ever become captain of a space going vessel with your inappropriate behavior?"

Amlada blushed, but did not reply to her snide remarks. "The thing is, when I flirted with Sharon, she was seemed cold and annoyed."

"I don't blame her, you old pervert."

Dawson listened to the by-play between his two senior officers and wondered at their familiarity. To him, it did not seem appropriate for them to speak that way to each other in front of him, a junior officer. But, perhaps, since he was a robot, they regarded him as simply another machine, part of the furniture.

Amlada continued his discussion of the anthropologist. "Well, who knows? As time goes by, sheer boredom may drive her into my arms." He turned to Dawson. "Once we reach the Jovean planet, we'll have plenty of time on our hands before we can make the next quantum jump. Since Castor is a sextuple star system made up of three binaries. It would be incumbent to do a little exploring and make a report on such things as planets, detailed astronomical information and any other scientific data of interest. What do you think, Dawson?"

"I agree. Who do you propose go on the ad hoc mission?"

"Myself for one. And perhaps Lieutenant Gigilioni, since she's our biological science officer. Perhaps, we'll find a planet with life on it."

Thompson laughed. "You bugger. You just want to get her alone on the shuttle."

* * *

As planned, while the engineering crew supervised by Thompson and Dawson performed the intricate task of sucking up deuterium from the giant planet's atmosphere, Amlada and Gigilioni went off in the shuttle to examine the complex Castor system. They explored two of the six stars in the Castor group, Castor Aa, a main sequence blue white dwarf and its companion red dwarf, Castor Ab. The stars were separated by a little over a million miles, and orbited each other in nine days, causing great flares to leap from one to the other.

They also discovered an earth-like planet orbiting both stars at a distance approximately that of Jupiter in the solar system. Because of the radiation given by its two suns, water existed in liquid form. They orbited it and made observations. There seemed to be plant life, as there were great stretches of green across the continents.

By this time, Amlada and Gigilioni had become intimate. Gigilioni said, "Steve, let's take the shuttle down and explore a little. This is quite a find, the first native life outside of earth."

"Sorry Celia, I can't authorize that. We have no idea what dangers we might face. We can't afford to risk losing personnel until our primary mission is accomplished."

When they returned to the Centuri Dream, Gigilioni resisted Amlada's advances and began to flirt with the genius, Jacque Roget, who was flattered that the young, buxom and pliable woman should be interested in him. As a result, they paired up. Whenever Gigilioni was off duty and he had enough wrangling with Sharon Miller over the meaning of the alien message, he would find his way to her cabin.

The fun loving Shirley Thompson had also taken a lover, Chief Petty Officer Schmidt. Amlada was taken aback by this, since she was his second choice. He wondered what she saw in the stiff-back by-the-book German engineer. The only other human woman aboard was the frigid Sharon Miller. He felt that he had my work cut out to unfreeze her. He also considered Evbot, but dismissed the thought. He would have to be desperate indeed to want to make love to a robot.

The New Year

Commander’s Log: 01.01.2180 1305 hours. A new year has arrived aboard the Centuri Dream. To celebrate the new year, I had Evbot and Adambot put on homemade party hats, and Centy played rock and roll music from the twenty-first century. It was funny watching the awkward humbots dance (not that I'm much better). All the humans aboard got smashed on Scotch Amlada had smuggled aboard. That is, all except Sharon Miller, who is a teetotaler. Centy made an appearance as a beautiful woman in an evening dress. Have you ever tried to dance with a hologram? Impossible. Everyone who tried ended up walking through her. At midnight, we yelled Happy New Year and embraced each other, including Evbot and Adambot.

New Years is a time to make resolutions. So here goes. I resolve to have better relationships with my fellow voyagers and try not to let my own inadequacies interfere. Last year, whenever I had a conversation with the two humbots, I found them boring. Adambot only talks about ship things, mechanics, electronics and so forth, although he does play a mean game of chess. I haven't beat him yet. Evbot's software is such that she's all sympathy, advice and analysis. In other word, she's the consummate therapist. It would be nice to simply have a pleasant inconsequential conversation with her. Speaking to Centy is better. Nonetheless, she's too intelligent. I feel inferior to her. She always knows more about any subject than I do. Most of the time I have her appear to me as a young woman, usually someone from my past, although Evbot tells me that's not healthy.

I have had conversations with the humans aboard, but when I speak to any of the women, I keep thinking of my inadequacies in the sex department. Besides, they usually only speak to me in the line of business. I get along fairly well with Schmidt and Amlada, but again they are from an era over hundred years from the time the original Tom Dawkins lived. If I talk sports, entertainment, books or some other subjects that interests me, my thoughts are a hundred years out of date. About the only person I really relate to aboard the ship is Jacque Roget. We often speak of the ancient world. Sometimes, Sharon Miller joins these conversations.

My other resolution is to start on my autobiography soon.

Captain’s Log: 01.05.2180 0800 hours. It's been four days since I resolved to put my autobiography in this log. Evbot has been prodding me to do it. She thinks that telling my story may resolve some of my issues. So here goes.

Biography of the Creature Known as Tom Dawkins

Why would anyone, even one who has gone through as many deaths as I have, volunteer to be locked up into this tin can for years on such a dangerous mission into the unknown? Perhaps I and my fellows aboard this ship are slightly insane. They all seem a little quirky to me. Nonetheless I believe it is my destiny. Once Roget asked me whether I was immortal. I replied, "Perhaps. But nothing lasts forever. Someday I'll perish, even if it's ten billion years from now. Of course, death is no stranger to me. I've died many times."

He said, "You mean, close to death?"

"No, I mean I literally died. Or let's say someone died. That someone was me in a way."

Roget laughed. "You're talking in riddles. Do you mean reincarnation? Or are you a ghost?"

"Both. I'm the ghost of someone who lived long ago. Putting it another way, you might say that I've been reincarnated many times. Before I puzzle you anymore, let me begin at the beginning."

And that leads me into the story of Tom Dawkins, my alter ego, who I will refer to as the subjective "I" since I feel that I am him. If there is such a thing as a soul, I have his soul.

I was born in 1999 as a real flesh and blood human being. My life expectancy was between seventy to one hundred if I lived the average number of years of people in that era. If I was extremely long-lived, I might make it to as high as one hundred and twenty. In those days that would be unusual.

The twenty-first century was an era of interplanetary exploration and expansion. The first landings on Mars occurred during my first lifetime. Nonetheless, during the first forty-five years of my life, space did not interest me. As far as I was concerned, exploring and colonizing planets or living in a space habitat was for brave astronauts or people who were a bit off. I was more concerned with mundane things, first college, then making money and dating, and finally marriage and a career in business. I went to school for the proper number of years, married a woman known for her beauty, charm and connections and worked hard to obtain a middle management position in the accounting division of an investment firm. I worked too hard. So hard in fact, my heart became diseased. Or maybe it wasn't my hard work, but my life style, eating fatty, rich foods, sitting at a desk all day, hardly ever exercising.

Late one evening, while I was examining reports, I felt a sharp pain as though someone had stuck a knife in my chest, and my left arm went numb. When I realized what had happened, I called for help. Nonetheless, I died.

An indicator just went on that I have to attend to. I'll need to continue this another day.

* * *

Commander’s Log: 01.07.2180 0900 hours. Here in the Castor system, Captain Amlada has assigned several experiments for me to perform. I believe that they are simply so much make-work to keep my mind occupied. Evbot probably put the bug in his ear. I have spoken to her often of my homesickness and self doubt. It is the responsibility of Evbot and the captain to ensure that our morale remains high. What they don't seem to understand is that I'm homesick not so much for a certain place, but for a certain time. Besides, I don't think Amlada's own morale is very high at this point, since he has no female partner to share his insatiable sexual urges.

To continue my autobiography. I described my first death. I don't really know whether it could be considered a real death. The EMTs who brought me to the hospital told me that I had died. That is, when they found me, my heart had stopped, and I was no longer breathing. They said I was lucky that the hospital personnel were able to bring me back to life before I experienced brain damage.

While I was unconscious, I had a strange experience. It might've been a dream, a hallucination or my soul -- if there is such a thing -- leaving my body. It seemed as though I was looking down at myself slumped over the desk. I floated away, higher and higher. After a while I was walking through a tunnel toward an extremely bright light.

The next thing I knew I was in a hospital bed. Although weak, I was chipper. I had survived a heart attack, didn’t I? It was a fine spring morning. Outside the hospital window a sparrow chirped on the window ledge. I thought, What a beautiful day for a game of golf. I figured that in a few days I'd be out playing.

(Note: Golf is a game no one plays anymore. None of my fellow voyagers have ever heard of it. Briefly, it was a game played outdoors which consisted of hitting a small ball around with stick to get the ball into a hole using the least amount of strokes.)

* * *

Commander’s Log 1.8.2180 0900 Hours. Yesterday, as I dictated this log, Evbot came into the room and peered over my shoulder. She said, “This game you mention. Golf. Did you enjoy playing it?”

Very much. But it’s been fifty years since I played a round of golf.”

Since you enjoy it, we will play. Explain the game.”

This was one thing that annoyed me about her. If she discovered something, anything, that might give me pleasure, she went out of her way to provide it. Anyone who has not experienced someone like her cannot know how awful it is to have someone like that around, especially in cramped quarters such as ours.

I howled with laughter. I said, “We cannot play golf. It's a game that requires special equipment that we don't have. Besides it requires a great deal of room. It's played outdoors.”

She stared at me for a few moments, the wheels spinning in that plastic head of hers. “I will look into the matter.”

Enough of Evbot's nonsense. I should describe our ship's routine. Since there's not a lot to do on this voyage until the next jump, I set up a schedule to keep myself busy. Starting around 0800 hours, Kirk, Adambot and I inspect the ship to ensure that everything mechanical and electrical is operating nominally, and that we haven't been holed by a micrometeorite. When we finish our inspection, I return to my room to keep this log. Afterwards, Evbot and I conduct my therapy session, where I tell her my thoughts and concerns to which she listens carefully and sometimes offers advice. If I'm really down, she pats me on the shoulder and offers words of encouragement. During these sessions, I often wonder what it would be like if we were living beings and could make love -- or even hold a real conversation. Then I sigh. It'll never happen.

After my therapy session, I perform whatever experiments Amlada has set for the day. Usually, Adambot or Centy help me with these. Next, I ask Centy about the ship's progress and the status of her systems. The rest of the day is for recreation, unless there are repairs or other matters to be dealt with. I usually read, watch holovision or play games on my personal computer. Since I don't sleep or eat, this is how I spend most of my free time.

* * *

Commander's Log 01.09.2180 1700 Hours. Evbot had a surprise for me. I was in my cabin when she rapped at my door. I was watching an entertainment holograph, a comedy. I switched it off and told her to enter. She said, “I am sorry to disturb your pleasure, Thomas, but there is something I wish to show you.”

That’s all right. The holo wasn’t that great. So what is it?”

You recall yesterday when we talked of playing golf?”


I researched the game. I understand now why it cannot be played aboard this ship, but I learned of a lesser version, called miniature golf. Come. I will show you.”

To my amazement, using odds and ends of equipment, junked parts, and tools, she had set up a miniature golf course that ran the length of the crew’s section of the ship. She handed me a putter and a golf ball, both of which she had manufactured somehow using ship’s equipment.

We will start by the entrance to the control room. That cup is the first hole.”

Because she had gone through so much trouble, I went along with the gag. We spent several hours playing, and I actually enjoyed it. For one thing, in low gravity it was a challenge to hit the ball softly enough so that it did not go flying all over the place.

At one point I asked Adambot whether he wanted to play.

Do you want me to play the game?”

And that's his most annoying feature, he won't do anything outside of his normal duties unless ordered to.

I said, “Only if you wish to.”

He replied, “I do not wish. Wishing is not part of my software. But I will play the game if it is your desire.”

Perversely I ordered him to play. He did well. He was as precise as always, and usually hit the cup with his first stoke. It was the same as playing chess with him, no fun at all.

Evbot and I taught the humans aboard the game. I could beat the captain every time. Commander Thompson, athlete that she is, did well at the game, so did the two scientists. Kirk thought it was a waste of time, and Lieutenant Gigilioni was our worst player.


Commander's Log 02.18.2180 0900 Hours. During the three months that we've been in the Castor system, the ship has had a host of problems, some minor and one major. The major one was when a micrometeorite holed one of the deuterium storage tanks. Luckily, it was not one that contained antideuterium. We would have been obliterated in a spectacular explosion. Centy immediately sent repair bots to patch the hole. Nonetheless, this required a dangerous EVAs by Adambot and Schmidt to make a permanent repair. It also became necessary to stay in the system for two weeks longer to replace the lost fuel.

Another problem that's very worrisome is that an electrical short occurred in a part of Centy's main computer. She assured me that it would have no affect on her performance or abilities, since her critical functions are triplicated. I hope she's right. If she made any sort of error during a quantum jump, who knows where we would end up.

Well, those are my excuses for not continuing my autobiography. But now I must go on.

* * *

In the hospital after my heart attack, my doctor's expression told me that my health had suffered badly. My stomach tightened into a knot as he spoke.

Look Tom,” his physician said, “I'm going to give it to you straight.” He stared glumly at my x-rays. “You need a transplant.”

I shuddered. A heart transplant was dangerous surgery.

And if I don't go for it?”

You'd be lucky to live six months.”

Six months to live. Unless you've experienced the fear of such a death sentence, you cannot know the terrible anguish that I felt. When the full impact of what the physician had said hit me, I felt death's frosty breath. My mind went numb. Suddenly there was no future, only the past. I turned to it for comfort. Instead I received torment. When I contemplated my life, I realized that I'd been living a chimera. I had an expensive house that I barely saw on weekends, a fancy car that sat in my garage, a closet full of clothes, half of which I'd never worn, a trophy wife and a lot of gadgets that I barely knew how to operate. I'd spent my days scheming, sweating and kowtowing in a job I despised in order to obtain useless material possessions. The hours that I'd sweated over figures that seemed meaningless were a horrible crime that I'd committed against myself. Right in front of his doctor, I wept unabashedly.

Look Tom," he said, "You needn't worry. Nowadays artificial hearts perform extremely well. There are risks, but ninety percent of the people who've had their tickers replaced are walking around feeling better than they had for years. Besides, you don’t have any options. I said you could live six months without a transplant. That's an optimistic estimate. In truth, you could go at any time. You're heart's in that bad a shape.”

I agreed to the procedure, although I had a dread premonition that I wouldn't survive it. The few hours before surgery my senses became intensely acute even through a veil of drugs. From my window I watched the sunrise, glorious in all the hues from powder-puff pink through deep rose. A breeze wafted the good smell of fresh-mowed grass into my room. A truck rumbled by. My skin tingled from starch-stiff sheets. I never felt more alive than on this what I believed was my last day alive.

Too soon, the nurse's aids placed me on a gurney to take me to the operating room. The surgical team rendered me unconscious, carved out my heart and replaced it with one of plastic, silicon and metal. That was my second death.

* * *

Commander’s Log 03.01.2180 0900 Hours. We had another emergency. Just before we were going to initiate the next quantum jump, Schmidt discovered that the electrical short which had messed with Centy's brain two weeks ago had done more damage than first thought One of her long term memory units had been wiped clean. Now large gaps exist in her data and programs. My only hope is that it doesn't affect crucial functions. From now on Adambot, Schmidt and I will need to double check her every major decision.

I asked the captain whether we should abort the mission. He replied, "We would need to do a quantum jump to return to the solar system. If Centy screws up, it won't make much difference whether we're headed back home or forward to complete our mission. What do you think, Shirley?"

Commander Thompson replied, "How true. We should press on. If we get jammed up the ass, so be it. How do you vote, Dawson?"

"I agree with you. Since the chances of becoming lost in another dimension are about the same either way, we may as well press on."

"Should I explain the situation and poll the crew and passengers?" asked Amlada.

Thompson gave him a disgusted look. "You're the fucking captain. Don't be polling anybody. You make the decision."

"Well, since you two agree that we should continue forward, that's what we'll do."

Thompson smirked. "Sure. Then if things go wrong, you can always blame us. Tell everybody that you got bad advice from your junior officers."

She turned and walked away.

I could see her point. Poor Amlada was too weak to be commanding a starship. Actually, Thompson should be the captain. She's strong and decisive. When it comes to running a starship, we need a dictator not a senator.

* * *

To return to my autobiography, my heart operation was a success of course. Otherwise I would not be sitting here now. Or maybe I would. Only I would be someone other than Tom Dawkins. Who knows?

After I left the hospital, I resolved to change my life. I vowed to stop wasting it slaving away trying to be the richest man in the grave. I was financially well off enough so that I could quit my job. With the money I'd accumulated, I became an hedonist, devoting myself to experiencing every known pleasure and thrill. I left my wife and dated extremely beautiful and desirable women. I gorged myself on exotic dishes and sipped the finest wines and champagnes. I tried extreme sports from sky diving to big game hunting. I smoked marijuana, sniffed cocaine, shot up heroin, drank alcohol to excess and tried many other drugs. I toured the world, viewing the majestic vistas of the Himalayas and the incredible works of Michelangelo. I, who'd never given a thought to space, toured the solar system. Every worthwhile drama, comedy, musical and concert saw me front row center.

For years I lived in this dissolute manner. But it was wrong for me. I became jaded and bored. Every thrill, every sensation had to be greater than the last, or I got nothing out of it. I found myself working as hard to amuse myself as I had making money. Finally, all I felt was weary and empty. About this time my former wife died. All at once I longed for what I'd given up. But it was too late.

During the next six months I hid from the world, staring for hours into the crackling flames of my fireplace asking himself the same questions over and over. What was wrong with me? Why had the last five years seem emptier than the previous thirty? Can only the young in their innocence be happy?

I took to reading philosophy and learned many things -- but not the key to happiness. Certainly each author, and the philosophers and holy men they quoted, had his favorite method for reaching a joyful existence (at least those who were not nihilists and believed that death and nothingness was the ideal state). In most cases, they contradicted themselves and each other or wrote in such abstract terms as to be meaningless. The only thing they mostly agreed upon was that the best way to obtain bliss was to give to others, to become a humanitarian.

As a result I decided to devote the remainder of my already long life to furthering causes that I believed would improve the human condition. The same drive that made me a business success and a failure as a playboy made me a famous philanthropist. For a long time I was happy enough, especially when someone or some organization that I'd aided expressed their gratitude.

Nevertheless, a small core of dissatisfaction remained to irritate me. For one thing, as my fame increased, I was called upon to act as administrator of various charities. My life was not much different than it had been when my main concern was business.

During those years, medical science made enormous strides. Because I had become rich, famous and well-respected, those benefits were mine for the asking. As a result, I lived to the previously unthinkable age of one hundred and forty. At that time I experienced a real death. There was no reviving my ancient corpse. The only thing that could be done was to make resounding eulogies and bury the husk in the ground. Actually I attended the funeral, keeping well into the background so as not to annoy Tom Dawkin's mourners.

The memory of that time is too much. I don't know whether I can finish this autobiography.

Gomeisa and Mu Leoporis

The third jump put the Centuri Dream in the vicinity of Gomeisa, a group of five luminous giant blue stars. Captain Amlada decided that it would not be worthwhile to do any exploring in that region. As they headed toward a Jovian planet, a problem developed with the impulse engine. Schmidt sent Adambot on a EVA to make the repair.

Amlada said to Dawson, "It's too bad we didn't know about this problem at Jump Point 2, where there were no nearby stars. The crew was extremely bored. It would have given them something to do. In fact, I'm at my wits end trying to think of ways to keep everybody busy."

"There's always miniature golf."

"That was a good idea of Evbot's. How did she come to think of it?"

"Don't know. Maybe from being around humans she's developing a creative ability."

"Do you really think so? I always thought that it was impossible for an artificial intelligent being to be creative -- unless they had human memories, like you."

"Who knows what is possible and what is not when it comes to intelligence, whether artificial or biological. We know so little about what constitutes intelligence and how it operates."

"I suppose."

They conversed for a while in a philosophical vain. Finally Dawson told Amlada that he has something to do. Bored, the captain played a game of chess with Centy. Although among the chess players he knew, he was considered quite good, Centy won every time. Discouraged, he went into the laboratory to see what was going on in there.

He was immediately struck with how attractive Sharon Miller was. Because the lab was warm, she had removed her coveralls and was dressed only in shorts and a tank top. She was well endowed and wore no bra, so her nipples showed through the thin cloth.

Amlada sat down next to her. "How's the translation going?"

"Not too well. Jacque and I can't agree on the meaning of certain passages."

The captain moved closer and peered at their computer monitor as though studying the symbols being displayed, although they were completely meaningless to him. He put his hand on Miller's bare thigh as though to steady himself as he leaned forward. She slapped it hard enough to sting.

"Please don't touch me, Captain."

"Oh, I'm sorry. You're a beautiful woman and it's been a long journey. Many aboard indulge in sexual activity for recreational and morale purposes. Perhaps, you should too. It may relax you and clear your mind."

She stared daggers at him. "You may be right, but it certainly would not be with you. For one thing, I'm a lesbian. You would have to change your gender before I would even consider it."

Roget, who would had been listening to this by-play without commenting, chuckled. "Ah Captain, don't you think I have tried with her. What she says is true. She is not interested in men. Nonetheless, she is a brilliant woman and has been quite helpful doing this translation."

Amlada moved his chair back. He sighed. "I understand. I will not bother you in that manner again. So what is it that you and Jacque do not agree on."

Roget said, "There are several passage in the message that refer to some sort of monster or animal. It is my belief that the aliens are describing some sort of mythological creature, such as a demon or a dragon."

Miller said, "That doesn't make sense. Why would they send a message out into space regarding some mythological creature."

"Perhaps it is a religious message. They may be religious evangelists trying to spread their faith throughout the universe."

Miller shook her head.

Amlada said, "And what is your opinion, My Dear?"

"I believe that the word refers to an enemy. It's very possible that the message is a distress call asking for help to defeat a formidable foe."

"I see. I suppose we will learn which of you is right once we arrive at the Nihal system. Not to change the subject, but according the ship's calendar, we are nearing the end of December. I would like to plan a Christmas party. Would you two be interested?"

Roget said, "Of course."

Miller replied, "On one condition. That you call it a Yulefest party. I'm a Pagan and do not celebrate your Judeo/Christian/Muslim holidays."

"A Yulefest party it is then."

When Amlada got up to leave the room, Roget and Miller were in a heated argument about the meaning of the debated passage and seemed to have forgotten that he was still in the lab bay.

* * *

The Centuri Dream made its fourth quantum jump. The nearest star was Mu Leoporis, an O type blue giant. Its only planet was a brown dwarf from which the starship was able to extract deuterium. Since the next jump would be to their final destination, Nihal, where the alien signal originated, excitement began to build. The crew became restless. Among other symptoms of their boredom and restlessness were changes in romantic partners.

To Captain Amlada's chagrin, during the last idle period, Lieutenant Thompson, Chief Schmidt and Miller became involved in a menage a trois. When heard the news from Thompson herself, he asked, "How could you become involved with that stodgy engineer person? I've rarely seen him smile. He speaks in monosyllables and does everything by the book."

Thompson rolled her eyes, giggled and pinched his cheek. "Not everything. Jealous Captain? I bet you'd love to be Schmidt now, wouldn't you? You know what your problem is; for the captain of a starship, you're too namby-pamby, always worried what people think of you. Kirk is a real man. Besides, you don't know what he's like in the privacy of cabin, especially with two naked women all over him."

Amlada winced. "I thought women liked sensitive men."

"Maybe some women do. Not me. I like a man who's not afraid to order me around. Besides, you're not just sensitive, you're a downright wimp. You're so cautious about everything. Look how you wouldn't let Celia take the shuttle down to that planet."

"She told you about that? There could've been deadly danger."

"A real man would've gone with her to protect her. We have weapons aboard the shuttle."

Amlada turned crimson. In retaliation, he said, "How does Sharon Miller fit in with you and Kirk. I never thought of you as a lesbo before."

She laughed at me. "Oh Steve, you're such a dope. Sex is sex. I enjoy variety. Miller is quite passionate with women. She does anything I ask. Are you and Celia going to do anymore exploring? I'm sure you two had a ball on the shuttle last time."

"I'll have Giglioni do a report on the star and its companion, but there'll be no need to use the shuttle."

Amlada stalked away.

* * *

During their idle time at Mu Leoporis, there was a major shift in sex partners to Amlada's advantage. One day after the dinner meal, Lieutenant Celia Gigilioni came to the captain's cabin.

She knocked timidly.

Amlada had been playing a video game on console. "Who is it?"

"Lieutenant Gigilioni. May I come in?" Her voice was cracked and squeaky.

"Of course, Celia."

After she entered, she started to perform a salute, but suddenly burst into tears. Amlada rushed to her side and put a comforting arm around her. She leaned against his chest and wept softly.

Once her sobbing diminished somewhat, Amlada asked, "What's the matter, Celia?"

"Doctor Roget is evil. A very bad person."

"What did he do?"

She shook her head. "I can't say."

Amlada led her to his bunk. They sat next to each other with their knees touching.

"Did he harm you physically? If he did, I have the authority to discipline him, civilian or not."

At first she did not reply, mere stared at her hands in her lap. Finally, she said, "It's not necessary." She gazed at the captain, her eyes big and round, filled with tears. "He wanted me to make love to Adambot, a robot, while he watched."

"That's awful. I didn't think that was possible."

"He brought the machine to his cabin and told me to undress, which I did. Then he ordered Adambot to remove its clothing. In the awful thing's pubic area was a penis. I don't know what it was made of, some sort of rubbery material. Roget ordered him to simulate an erection." She covered her face with her hands. "It was awful. I-I grabbed my clothing and ran from the room. I did not put them back on until I locked the door to my cabin."

Amlada's vivid imagination caused him to see in his mind's eye, Gigilioni running down the gangway naked, her large breasts bobbing up and down. He licked his lips. He wished he had been there to see that spectacle in person.

"What should I do about it?" he asked.

"Put your arms around me."

Amlada held her tightly for a long time. Finally they kissed. He undressed her and himself, and they made wild, furious sex. Afterwards Amlada gazed down at her sleeping naked form and thought, Celia is now mine. She's exhausted from the wild sex we just had. Praise be, my year of celibacy is over.

The following day, Amlada told Thompson what had happened.

"So you finally got your wish, someone to have sex with during the remainder of the journey. I'll bet Celia will be very loyal and will let you come to her whenever you please. She's just right for you, Steve, a sexy body and very pliable. She'll probably do anything you ask."

Soon afterwards, Amlada heard that Thompson had broken off her relationship with Schmidt and Miller. To Amlada's stupefaction, she proceeded to seduce Roget. What he found even more dumbfounding was that Miller stayed with Schmidt. He thought, What does that man have that even a lesbian wants to be his lover?

Arrival at Nihal

Commander’s Log 08.10.2180 1500 Hours. The great moment has arrived. We've just passed the troposphere of Nihal. In another few days we'll reach the source of the alien signal, which we now believe to be an artificial satellite in orbit around an earth-size planet in the inner system. The signal is now reaching us strong and clear. Roget and Miller, however, are still not in agreement about the meaning of message. They each have their own translation which they each insist is the correct one. Hopefully, we'll soon find out the truth.

I believe Captain Amlada's morale has improved one hundred percent since he hooked up with Lieutenant Gigilioni. Celia must've had a doozy of an argument with Roget, because she refuses to have anything more to do with him. She also avoids Adambot for some reason. I believe the captain knows the reason for this, but he is keeping mum.

The affair between Roget and Commander Thompson seems to be working out well, and Miller and Schmidt are still a pair. I don't know whether I will ever understand these people of the twenty-second century. They seem to regard love and sex as games to be played. Perhaps they are right. Who am I, a man out his time, to say?

Another good thing has happened. I've finally accepted myself as I am. With the help of Evbot, I've learned to focus on the advantages of being a robot instead of mourning my lost pleasures as a human being. I can think better. I've even learned to beat Adambot at chess, but not Centy. I have ten times the strength of an ordinary man. Baring accident or violence, I'm likely to live nearly as long as the universe. When any part of my body wears out, all I need to do is replace it, even my brain. I have copies of my memories duplicated on other media that I can download into another robot. I can change my appearance at will.

And although the pleasure of sex is denied me, I can still love. I've fallen head over heels for Centy, although this is an unrequited affair. I even hug Evbot sometimes, to which she responds with pleasure. She likes to please me so much. Maybe that's love too.

* * *

As the Centuri Dream entered the Nihal system, the human crew and the two scientists celebrated with the bottle of Champagne that Captain Amlada had put away for the occasion.

After the celebration, Amlada spoke to the entire crew. "Our next step is to head directly toward the transmitter of the alien signal. Since at this distance it's a powerful beacon it won't be difficult to locate. Of course, we're two hundred and fifty years later in time from when the signal was detected in the solar system since the quantum drive has gotten us here in a little more than a year. Many things may have changed in all that time."

* * *

A month and half later, as they approached the inner system planets, Celia pinpointed the source of the signal. As Dawson predicted, it came from an artificial satellite orbiting an earthlike planet somewhat closer to Nihal than the earth is to the sun, since Nihal is smaller and cooler than the solar system sun.

There was rejoicing as Celia pinpointed the signal's source. Amlada declared a holiday and a general celebration. His own morale was much improved since he hooked up with Celia. His thoughts were all happy ones. He thought, This is a great day, a successful mission, a beautiful mistress who is great in bed and a crew who seem to have finally settled happily into their assignments and partners. The only fly in the ointment is that now we must travel several months on impulse power to reach the inner system. It will be a busy six months, however, since this is a full blown star system with many objects of interest, an outer and inner comet belt, several gas giants with moons and rings, and smaller planets. We'll record everything.

* * *

They stopped their progress inward to orbit a gas giant planet for refueling. It was larger than Jupiter, with an enormous ring system and many moons. As Captain Amlada gazed at it through the bridge viewscreen, it was such a marvelous sight that he choked up in awe at its beauty. Thompson caught him with tears in my eyes. She laughed at him. "See what I mean about you, Steve. You cry like a woman at the drop of a hat."

"And you have no appreciation of beauty." Nonetheless, Amlada felt that the remark was flirtatious in a weird way.

According to the ship's calendar, it was July 4, 2181. Thompson, Dawson and Sharon Miller, the three Americans aboard, celebrated the American Independence Day. Amlada would not allow fireworks to be set off, not even sparklers or small firecrackers. He said, "I can allow you to light candles, however."

Amlada also allowed Celia to take the shuttle to explore one of the moons. She was extremely happy about that. He told her, "It will give you practice in maneuvering the shuttle. I can spare Adambot. Perhaps he should go along for protection."

"Absolutely not." She frowned. "I do not want to be confined in a small place with that ... that thing. Besides, the moon I plan to visit is absolutely lifeless. What good would he do?"

"But, if you leave the shuttle and something happens to you, someone should remain to signal us."

"And what good would that do. We have only one shuttle. You could not send a rescue party. Nonetheless, I believe you are right. A second person could return with the shuttle if I had an accident -- to return it. You'll definitely need it when we reach the satellite with the signal's transmitter. Can you spare Commander Thompson?"

"Thompson? Of course."

Amlada was relieved. He did not want to send any of the males to be alone with her. He thought, The entire time she's gone I'll worry about her. Perhaps I've grown overly fond of her. A starship captain should keep a little reserve when dealing with the crew, even the one who is his current mistress. It was better when I was with Thompson. She and I never took our loving making as anything but fun sex.

The Artificial Satellite

The Centuri Dream eventually reached the object of its mission, an artificial satellite consisting of a metallic sphere several meters in diameter covered with microwave dishes. It orbited an earthlike planet, which Captain Amlada told the crew they would explore after they examined the transmission station. He had Centy place the Centuri Dream in an orbit around the planet that would make the satellite easy to reach with the shuttle. Under his order Centy, with the cooperation of the two scientists, beamed signals towards the object. Nothing resembling a reply was received. The transmitter simply kept repeating the same message that they had been receiving all along.

When Centy reported this to Amlada, he said, "Perhaps the aliens are receiving on a band other than the one they're using to transmit. Or perhaps they do not understand what we're trying to say to them."

Roget said, "Neither of those seem plausible to me. I think the satellite is unattended and is broadcasting an automatic message."

Miller said, "I don't think so. If my theory is correct and the signal is some kind of SOS, we've probably arrived too late. Whatever the menace was, the beings that sent the message have probably been defeated already."

"What about Occam's razor? My theory is the simplest, so must be correct."

Miller ground her teeth, but only said, "We'll see tomorrow when we explore the artifact."

* * *

Amlada assigned Gigilioni as pilot since she had the most experience with the shuttle. When he discussed the mission with her, he said, "Since the shuttle holds only four persons, I'll send Roget, Miller and Adambot with you."

"No Steve. I don't want that robot aboard in the cramped quarters of the shuttle."

"But Celia, we should send an engineering person to figure out the working of the electronics and machinery aboard the artifact. Roget and Miller will be there. I'm sure that Adambot will not do anything inappropriate as long as they're with you. Besides, he only follows orders."

"I don't care. If you need an engineering person, then send Chief Schmidt."

"Very well, it will be you, the two scientists and Schmidt."

Amlada did not like the idea of the petty officer in close quarters with Gigilioni. He thought, That man has a way with the ladies. I'm sure that he won't be satisfied with that lesbo, Miller, for long. This is what I get for becoming too close to one of the crew. I allowed her to overrule me and logic. I'm wondering whether what Shirley said is true. I'm too softhearted to be in command. I have a tendency to allow subordinates to subvert my decisions.

* * *

Gigilioni felt tremendous excitement as she piloted the shuttle away from the Centuri Dream. As a biologist, she felt honored and delighted to one of the first humans to explore an alien artifact and possibly meet an intelligent alien species face-to-face. For her, however, what they actually found was a letdown, although the historian and the anthropologist were in their glory. In addition, Chief Schmidt enjoyed poking around the alien machinery and electronics. Because of his reputation with women, Gigilioni was happy that he stayed away from her. She thought, I don't know what the other women aboard our ship see in him. He seems like a cold blooded fish. As for Roget, I simply despise him for what he tried to make me to do.

Although the docking facility on the satellite was similar in structure to the one on the Centuri Dream, it was not a perfect fit for the shuttle. Nonetheless, Gigilioni was such an expert pilot, she managed to deal with the differences, although docking was tricky at times.

After they docked, Schmidt found it a simple matter to open the hatch to enter an airlock. A lever closed the outer door, filled the airlock with an invisible gas and opened the inner door. Schmidt tested the atmosphere and found that it was a mix of nitrogen and oxygen not much different from the air on earth.

Roget remarked, "Simply by entering the satellite we've learned much about the aliens already. The size of the hatches reveal that they're similar to us in size, perhaps slightly smaller, and that they're oxygen breathers."

Gigilioni removed her helmet and almost vomited as a strong stench of death and decay reached her nostrils. She quickly put it back on and took a deep breath of pure oxygen. Miller, who was about to remove her own helmet, asked, "What's wrong?"

"There's a strong stench of death in here."

Miller smiled. "You'll get used to it after a few minutes. Catacombs and tombs all smell like that." She removed her helmet and stepped through the entrance. Roget did the same.

Feeling like a fool since she had certainly enough experience with the scent of death when she did autopsies, Gigilioni again removed her helmet and followed. On this occasion the shock of breathing in that odor unexpectedly did nasty things to her stomach. After she breathed the air for a few moments, the stench seemed only musty, like walking into a room of old used books. Libraries and used book stores had a similar stench.

Inside they found only death and unusable equipment. This did not bother the two scientists or Schmidt, who found much to explore. They snapped pictures, bagged samples and took parts from broken equipment.

Several dead aliens were scattered about in various positions. They had bodies somewhat like chimpanzees covered with greenish hair, their faces were almost human except that they had no noses, simply nostrils and their eyes were set further apart. They had six fingers on each hand and six toes on each foot. This confirmed Roget's theory that they used a duodecimal system instead of a decimal system for counting and mathematics. They also had tails.

Gigilioni chose two of the best preserved mummified corpses of the aliens and carefully laid them flat on the deck. "Doctor Miller, may I interrupt you work for a few minutes?"

Miller, who had taken a liking to Celia, came over by the younger woman and said, "Sure. What do you need?"

"Pleas help me prepare these corpses so we can bring them back to the shuttle."

Gigilioni sprayed them with a preservative as Miller turned them when necessary. The two women tagged them and slipped them into plastic bags.

The scientists found the transmitter, which was a machine for repeating over and over the message the ESDS had intercepted. The satellite's power source was atomic, but the radioactive element was almost all turned to lead. The ESDS and the Centuri Dream had intercepted the message just in time. A few more years, and the station would have shut down permanently as the power source was depleted.

Gigilioni radioed Captain Amlada with the results of their investigation. He ordered her and the others to return in two hours. When she relayed this information to Roget and Miller, Roget said, "That's ridiculous. We need much more time to assess this place. We've barely begun our examination."

Miller agreed. "We need at least two days. Why couldn't you and Kirk return to the starship and leave us here?"

Gigilioni shook her head. "No-can-do. Captain Amlada was very determined that we leave the satellite within the next two hours and return together." Actually he had not been quite that resolute about the matter, but she wanted to get away from the stifling atmosphere in the satellite and did not relish being in the shuttle alone with Schmidt.

Two hours later, the scientists hauled several sample bags to the shuttle. The two men returned to the satellite with stretchers to take the alien corpses aboard.

Mission to the Alien Planet

The day after the personnel returned from their exploration of the satellite, Captain Amlada called a meeting with Roget, Miller, Gigilioni, Thompson and Dawson to discuss what their next move should be.

Roget said, "I think we should continue to explore the satellite. After all, that was the origin of the signal. I'm sure there are more clues to its meaning to be found there."

Everybody else wanted to go down to the planet. Miller put it succinctly. "The alien civilization is below us. Once we find out more about the alien's way of life, the items on the satellite will make more sense."

Amlada put it to a vote. It was four to one for exploring the planet, with the captain abstaining. Thompson gave him a smirky look as if to say, "There you go again, avoiding making a decision. If I were captain, I wouldn't put a major decision like that to a vote."

He looked away from her. "I've decided that the planetary mission should consist of Doctors Roget and Miller, Adambot and Commander Thompson as pilot. The robot's strength and imperviousness might be needed if you run into trouble. Dawson can monitor the mission from the Centuri."

"What about me?" said Gigilioni. She sounded disappointed that she would not be part of the landing party.

"You will be needed to do autopsies on those alien corpses. We should find out as much as possible about their makeup." Amlada added mentally, And spend your nights pleasing me.

* * *

Excerpt from First Officer Lieutenant Shirley Thompson's Report of the Mission to the Alien Planet (Day One)

To choose a landing spot for the shuttle, I orbited the planet -- temporarily named Nihal Two since it is the second planet from the star -- at a low altitude and surveyed it with the high resolution camera. N2 has four major continents and several large islands. The rest is all ocean, which I determined to be liquid water. The atmosphere consists of an oxygen-nitrogen mix with other gases including water vapor. In other words, the planet is almost identical to earth. The continents are covered with forests, deserts, mountains and so forth, again in an earthlike mix.

During my first pass the land areas seemed uninhabited by any intelligent beings. I was especially watchful for alien artifacts. At first there seemed to be none. But Sharon Miller pointed out that what I first thought were jumbles of stone were ruins. The planet has many acres of them. Sharon concluded that we had stumbled on a destroyed civilization.

I relayed this information to Dawson and asked Roget and Miller where I should land. They chose a large ruined coastal city.

Following protocol, after I landed I sent Adambot out to scout around in case something in the area was dangerous. I passed out blasters to my companions.

At first Jacque tried to refuse to take one. "Typical militaristic thinking," he said. "I suppose that if we spot an alien we should blow it up."

"Only if it shoots first. Hey, besides hostile intelligent aliens, there could be dangerous wild animals out there. Without a weapon, what would you do if a sabertooth tiger attacks you?"

He kept the weapon. I showed the civilians the settings. Jacque kept his on Stun. Probably it was best that way since he was not adept at handling firearms. At least if he accidentally let it go off in my direction or Miller's the effect would not be fatal. On the other hand, Miller informed me that she often carried firearms and sometimes hunted.

Hours later, Adambot returned. The robot said that he had encountered wild animals, but none that posed a threat. I asked him whether he had seen any humanoids, alive or dead.

"No commander. But I did not enter any buildings."

We were two kilometers from the nearest ruin. I left Adambot to guard the shuttle, and the three of us hiked up there. The ambient temperature was in the seventies, the air was pure and sweet, and the sun was high in the sky. All in all, it was a beautiful spring day in the temperate zone of N2. I enjoyed the walk immensely. We stopped often to take samples of the plant life. We even saw a few small animals and insect-like creatures. The animals were similar to rabbits, only with long tales and six legs.

The first set of ruins was a disappointment. Barely one stone was piled on another. Whatever had damaged the city, had turned the buildings into charcoal and crushed rock. Most of it was practically gravel. We poked around in the debris for several hours without finding anything of significance. Once or twice, a block had what could've been a date or a name engraved on it. We took pictures of those. One stone was etched with a relief of something that could have been an animal, a god or a demon. Something about the carving gave me the willies.

Miller remarked, "The aliens must've had a terrible war. It's likely that they destroyed themselves completely."

Jacque, who never agreed with any conclusion of Miller's, said, "Or a few survived and retrogressed." He pointed at ruins ten miles away. "Those look like they haven't suffered as much damage as these."

Since by then the star Nihal was low in the sky, I said, "We'll go there at first light. I don't believe it would be prudent to travel at night." I herded them back into the shuttle and radioed our plans to Dawson.

Excerpt from First Officer Lieutenant Shirley Thompson's Report of the Mission to the Alien Planet (Day Two)

We started out at sunrise in the all-terrain exploration vehicle or ATEV, which runs on tracks and cruises at thirty-five kilometers per hour. Because of the rough terrain, it took two hours of jolting, zigzagging and breathing dust to reach the second site. Again, not one building was whole. Nonetheless, we found one that looked like it once was a skyscraper but was reduced to its first six stories. The ground floor seemed to be a lobby of a commercial building. A large heap of debris made a mound in the center where an upper floor had collapsed. The two scientists spent a long time minutely searching through it for anything that would give a clue as to the nature of the alien civilization and what happened to cause such devastation. They found nothing of significance.

We started up a partially blocked stairway. I wished that I had brought Adambot, as we spent an hour of hard labor clearing it away. Two flights up, we found something noteworthy, a large room filled with what seemed to be video broadcast equipment. Although it was rusty and broken, Miller found storage media that she hoped contained the station's programs. Jacque could hardly wait to get back to the Centuri Dream, where he could work on decoding the media so that the broadcasts could be viewed. Bowing to his wishes, we returned to the shuttle and subsequently to the starship.

The Return

Although a week went by since the expedition to the planet returned to the Centuri Dream, Roget and Miller were not able to decode the recordings they found in the alien ruins. They became so involved in this project, neither one had spoken hardly a word to anyone on the crew during that time.

Captain Amlada burst in on them one day. "Hi folks. I haven't received a report about your progress. How are things going?"

Roget glanced up from a printout he was studying. "We're near a solution, but not quite there yet. Don't worry, Captain. When we find the answer, you'll be the first to know."

Miller growled, "These constant interruptions aren't helping. Just leave us alone. And tell the crew the same thing."

"What about Chief Schmidt? He's been asking about you."

"Tell him to go to hell. I'm no longer interested in his kinky sex." She turned away and looking over Roget's shoulder, pointed at something on the printout and mumbled in his ear. They immediately began to argue. They ignored Amlada as though he was not present.

The captain tiptoed out of the room. Chief Schmidt was waiting just outside the laboratory hatch for him. "Did you tell Sharon that I missed her?"

"Yes." Amlada repeated what she had said.

Schmidt walked away with a hangdog look. Amlada felt sorry for him. He was reduced from having two women in his bed to none. On a happier note, since Roget had his head stuck in a computer all the time, Shirley had started to flirt with the men aboard including Amlada..

Gigilioni was waiting for him in his cabin. She kissed him and said, "Steve darling, I've finished the autopsies on the alien corpses. I sent you a full report."

"Thank you, dear. In general though, what did you find?"

"Although their DNA is different from ours, in many ways they are quite similar. They were mammalian in structure, although their internal organs were somewhat different. There were a few organs whose function I could not determine. Perhaps, if the landing party had brought back a few living animals for me to experiment with, I could figure it out. Allow me to make planet fall and trap some."

"I'm sorry Celia, but there will be no more exploring parties. We must return to the solar system. Future expeditions can explore this system in depth. Right now, our duty is to report what we've found as quickly as possible." What Amlada did not say, but was thinking, was, And bask in the glory of being the first to visit an alien world.

She pouted and refused to sleep with him that night.

The next day Amlada informed the crew that they would be returning home. The two scientists did not attend the meeting. The crew, except for Gigilioni were delighted. She protested, "You should allow me to visit the planet at least once. I really need to observe the animal and plant life there."

"I'm sorry Celia, but we need to leave this system as soon as possible." He never explained his reasons despite several questions regarding them.

* * *

Fifteen days after their first jump of the return trip, Roget and Miller found a method for viewing the alien broadcasts. The entire crew crowded into the laboratory to look at them. Although it was obvious that they showed events during a war, they were confusing. One thing was apparent; their enemy was a race quite different from the alien corpses. The enemy aliens were horrible looking creatures who had apparently had extremely powerful weapons of mass destruction. It seemed as though the natives of N2 were attacked and obliterated by a species from another star system.

After seeing the video, Dawson said, "Too bad we cannot understand the narration. It might clear up what exactly transpired."

Roget said, "Sharon and I are working on that. We should have the translation done by the time we get back to the solar system."

Gigilioni no longer went to the captain's cabin. She was incensed because he did not allow one additional exploration of the planet in which she would participate. Actually Amlada was relieved that she had broken up with him. He turned to Thompson for solace, and she again became his lover. He enjoyed sex with his second in command much more than with Celia. Celia was too compliant, always waiting for him initiate everything. Thompson, on the other hand, was inventive and sometimes treated him as her sex slave.

* * *

Commander's Log Ship 09.01.2182 0800 hours We're on the final leg of our journey. On the next jump, we'll be home. All of us will be glad to be back. Even me. It's been a wearing voyage. We've been cooped up in the Centuri Dream for many months. I talked to Captain Amlada the other day, and he counted the mission a great success. During our last idle period, Roget and Miller finally had a breakthrough in translating the aliens’ language. From the recordings, they learned that the other aliens, the invaders, were beings who controlled many star systems in the galaxy. The natives of Nihal Two were given one chance to capitulate and become slaves. When they refused, they were set upon by the conquering race and obliterated. It was a sad fate for them.

* * *

Commander's Log Ship 03.15.2183 0100 hours What horror! It's unbelievable what happened. It's inconceivable. The people aboard the Centuri Dream may be the last humans alive. During our absence the evil aliens who destroyed the planet we had visited had come to our solar system and destroyed humanity. We took the shuttle down and found only blasted ruins as we had on the alien world. We visited all the colonies and science stations on Mars, Earth's moon, and other moons. We found not one person alive. Everywhere in the solar system there was nothing but death and destruction. As the truth became known, many of the crew wept like babies. One space station was semi operational. It was broadcasting a distress signal. Roget thought that it was deliberately left on to lure other beings to the solar system. It was his theory that the evil aliens had left a detection device so that any starship coming to the satellite could be traced back to its origin. In that way, the aliens would know which systems to attack next. We destroyed the equipment.

We did not know whether the evil aliens would return. To be on the safe side, we returned to Castor and settled on the earthlike planet there, which turned out to be quite a pleasant place, with many species of plants and animal, none of which were anywhere near as intelligent a humans. If the humans aboard can survive, the six of them will become new Adams and Eves of Paradise and populate it with the human race. By the way, it was Lieutenant Celia Gigilioni who named our new home Paradise. As far as me, I will probably survive until my parts wear out thousands of years from now. Evbot and I live together now. I have examined Adambot's member and believe I can build a similar one and attach it to my robotic body. Evbot encouraged me in this endeavor. She said it would be good for my morale to simulate the sex act even though I did not really feel anything. She's so good to me.

The End

© 2007 Joe Vadalma

Joe Vadalma has loved science fiction and fantasy from the time he learned to read. His hobbies, besides writing, are adventure game playing and do-it-yourself projects. Before he retired, he was a technical writer at a major computer manufacturer. Several of his short stories have been published in E-zines, (a few in Aphelion, the latest in July's issue called Insurgents),and I've sold a series of dark fantasy novels called The Morgaine Chronicles to Renaissance E Books,. Renaissance has also published two collections of my short stories, The Sands of Time and Mordrake's Apprentice, two SF novels, Star Tower and The Bagod, and a dark fantasy called The Laws of Magic. These books are also available at Fictionwise. The Book of Retslu, a humorous fantasy, has been published by Mundania Press. My web site, The Fantastic World of Papa Joe contains SF, fantasy and horror stories, serials, my blog and fantasy art. My E-mail address is papavad@juno.com.

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