Dog Star

Readers: I wrote a post recently that referenced my first story ever written for a competition.  I called it “Dog Star,” and I wrote it for LitReactor’s contest for subscribers.  I didn’t win anything, but I did receive a lot of encouraging feedback.  I’m comfortable putting this up now, because this story, highly modified, grew into what I hope will become a full-on trilogy based loosely on the central ideas here.  Enjoy.

– – – – –

Lunar North Polar Region, Deep Space Research Facility – 2141

Mika Janssen kept staring at the data. Nothing changed no matter what filters or check heuristics she put into the system. She recalled some old quote by Einstein, and then the old saw by Arthur Conan Doyle as expressed by Sherlock Holmes himself. She sighed and gathered her black hair into a conservative ponytail and then twisted it into a more conservative knot above the nape of her neck. The Director didn’t care much for any display of self-expression. She paused to think before calling, then punched the icon on her display.

“Director, Janssen here,” she said, “I have an anomaly.”

A full ten seconds passed before he answered, “Class?”

“Class Two, Sir,” Janssen replied.

“See me,” the Director said, “Now, please.”

Thirty minutes later, Mika walked in Director Vance’s spare office with his secretary’s permission. This office, as well as the Director, gave Mika the creeps. The gray walls were unadorned and not even a single photo or item of personal importance graced any surface of any object inside. Director Vance sat with laced fingers on his impossibly neat desk.

“Show me the data runs,” he said, extending a pale, long hand.

Without a word, she handed a data pad to Vance, who spent the next half-hour digesting every decimal and every summary analysis. Mika stood there, shifting her weight from leg to leg.

Vance placed the pad on his desk, adjusting it so that its edges were aligned with those of the desk itself. He fiddled with his display screen’s data and then jabbed an icon on his desk’s comms display.

“Sir, Vance here. I have a possible addition to your mission profile, if you are still looking for study protocols. I am sending now,” he said.

Vance glanced once at Mika and returned to his own work. She wondered briefly if she should stay or go. Then the desk chimed, and Vance touched the comms icon again.

“Vance, that is a definite add. Where did you dig this up?”

“My researcher for that sector brought it to me. I upgraded this to a Class One anomaly on my authority,” Vance said without emotion.

“They should have a Class Zero for this. It’s perfect. There’s just one problem,” the disconnected voice said. “With the whole… ah, situation, I don’t have a mission specialist to cover this. Who do you have there?”

“I have limited personnel resources as well,” Vance explained, “The two trained specialists that I have are both native to Luna, and are only cleared for low-A mission profiles.”

“Crap,” the voice swore. “Do you have anyone that can handle a full-burn mission?”

Vance’s eyes unfocused as he thought. Mika watched all of this, and realized they were speaking about the upcoming torch ship mission to Sirius, the star she’d just run the routine analysis on. This moment had every indicator of opportunity Mika could think of. Her split-second analysis told her this might be worth risking disciplinary action over.

“Director, I can go,” she spoke up, and Vance’s eyes snapped to her, dissecting her with the precision of a scalpel.

“You were not consulted in this conversa…” Vance said in his mechanical tone.

“Hey, who’s that? You said you had nobody,” the voice insisted.

“My apologies, Sir,” Vance tried to sound contrite and failed. “Janssen is a new, untested, and clearly insubordinate new addition to the research team here. She has very little experience, even less mission training, and some maturity issues as well.”

Mika almost felt angry tears form, but the distant man on the comms then said, “She can obviously speak, Vance, let her talk… hello there, do I understand your name is Janssen?”

“Y…yes, Mika Janssen,” she said, trying to sound confident.

“This is Chancellor DuPont,” the voice identified, making him the leader of the Moon itself and causing Mika’s guts to turn to water.

“Yes, Sir, I’m sorry. I didn’t know…” she stammered.

“Okay, okay,” DuPont said, “Look, we’re struggling to put together a solid interstellar mission to Sirius. I’m pulling your record now, and it says you’re from Earthside, correct?”

“Yessir,” Mika answered, “Vancouver.”

“Lovely area, or was… sorry,” the Chancellor replied. “I don’t mean to be indelicate, but this other note here, regarding your status.”

“I’m a voluntary refugee, Sir. It cost me everything I had to get up here. I’m not going back. My loyalty’s not in question here,” Mika stated, her sentences spoken staccato and more forceful with each word.

“I like your spirit, Miss Janssen, but that wasn’t my concern,” DuPont said. “I want to know if you have any entangling family matters here. I’m considering adding you to the mission right here, right now.” That the Lunar Chancellor helped profile and build missions to the stars underscored the chaos the collapse on Earth caused.

“Hum,” Mika managed to force out.

“Well?” DuPont asked.

“Yes,” Mika said. “I mean, yes Sir… or no, I have no family.”

DuPont laughed over the comms channel and then said, “Okay, okay. Vance, on my verbal order, the young lady is on the Sirius torch. Have her report to the Mission Training Center.”

“Yes, Sir. Vance out,” he said, cutting the channel and turning a sour eye up at Janssen. He eyed the young woman, only in her early twenties.

“Ensure that you administratively clear this facility before you leave, Miss Janssen,” he added.

“Yes, Sir. I will,” Mika said, and turned toward the door.

“Miss Janssen,” Vance said evenly as her hand took the lever.

“Sir?” Mika looked over her shoulder.

“Good luck, Miss Janssen,” Vance intoned, not without a slight trace of warmth.

Lunar Spaceport Facility, Lunar Lagrange Point 2 – 2142

Mika Janssen spent the next months training, and training hard. She thought the low Lunar gravity had been difficult for her stomach to deal with when she arrived there, but when she transitioned from the Mission Training Facility to the huge dry dock at the second Lunar Lagrangian point, Mika lost some weight. Zero gravity eventually settled uneasily with her, but the entire environment remained a challenge. The permanent staff called the place simply ‘L2,’ but she had a growing list of special and personal names for the dock.

At the moment, her rebellious stomach didn’t occupy her thoughts. Mika floated in a window section, staring out of the thick poly window at the sight of the Moon. The rim of the Earth peeked from behind the dominant presence of the Moon. Mika could not make out what part of the planet she could see because of the dense clouds. She wondered if Vancouver happened to be the area she stared at.

Janssen held some regrets at volunteering to go. Somewhere down there on Earth, her family remained trapped in a collapsed society. The conflict over the Moon kicked out some legs from under the Earthside power bases. The war with Mars destroyed anything remaining that kept the authorities in a position to exercise power. Being from Vancouver didn’t help at all, for the chaos inside of America spread like ripples across a pond after a boulder dropped into the middle.

Occasionally, some of the tall, thin native Lunar residents would float by. Mika noticed they seemed to take the view for granted. She thought it humorous that her short, muscular, Earth-bred frame would make her a better candidate for high-burn space travel, but she grew up in a one-gravity field, and the new torch ships would generate between 1.1 and 1.3 gravities of acceleration.

She pulled out a small pad and activated the communications system. Selecting the messaging, she tapped out a message to someone related to her. The address list filled with names she had not heard from in close to three years.

“Dear Anyone,” she wrote, “I’ll keep this brief. Maybe you get my notes and can’t reply, or you have decided that my decisions are beyond forgiveness. Either way, I’m left with nothing to go on, and as you should know have signed up for a mission to Sirius. It’s important work. I plan on coming back. Please don’t forget me. I hope I make you proud.”

She added her name and touched ‘send.’ The message raced through the L2 comms grid, out to the L4 relay, and down to Earth, hopefully to someone eventually who would read, understand, and forgive.

Only hours later, Mika stood shivering, half-naked and apprehensive next to her stasis bed. She’d endured the classes on these devices. They appeared to her too much like a coffin for her comfort. She had little real understanding of how they worked, other than the technician’s assurance that usage records indicated a 93.2% reliability overall for such systems. Mika took that to mean she had almost a one out of ten chance of arriving at Sirius dead.

Lying on the cold, padded inside surface, the gloved woman hovering over her tried to calm her.

“I’m just cold, dammit!” Mika protested.

“Your heart rate is elevated,” the woman, a redhead, said in a soothing voice. “But this is your first time. We can administer a relaxant.”

Mika considered what she would have to attempt to remain calm through. Some business about a throat plug, nutrient and respiration access. The electrodes glued to her head and body put her on edge enough with no further procedures considered. The redhead with the kind voice returned and pressed a device against Mika’s arm.

“Here, this should help. I won’t start until I’m sure this has taken. You may even sleep,” the woman said.

“Thanks,” Mika whispered, already feeling a bit dissociated.

Mika did in fact sleep, and did not awaken for years.

L.S.S. JAMES MADISON, Sirius Transit – 2146 (Ship), 2152 (Luna)

Mika lay curled in the fetal position, her arms around her stomach. She decided that if her stomach tried to throw up one more time, she would die. Days passed after her awakening from the stasis bed. The disgusting smell of the suspension fluid still clung to her sinuses. Her skin peeled in sheets, and she coughed violently when she tried moving too much. She felt too heavy.

Overall, though, she admitted to herself that she made progress. She could see now. More to the point, she could focus her eyes. She occupied a narrow pallet somewhere in the ship. Two days before, some crewmen brought another awakened person in and placed her out of sight. The new addition seemed to be having much the same troubles as Mika. Her hatch slid aside, letting in bright light. The room’s lighting ramped up slowly, and after a moment Mika dared to slit her eyelids and peer out.

Two people bent over the opposite pallet. Mika heard retching sounds, and more odors of the stasis tank assaulted her nose. After some time, gentle hands eased her onto her back. She knew better than to try speaking, but she groaned in pain. The hands moved her limbs, exercising her. The sharp pain brought tears to her eyes, and she grit her teeth through it all.

“Crewman Janssen, make a sign if you hear and understand me,” a familiar voice said.

Mika nodded, and slit her eyes open again. The redheaded woman from L2 bent over her, but now with slightly deeper lines etched into her plain but attractive face.

“All right, good,” the woman said, “You appear to recognize me. I’m Lieutenant Simmons, the ship’s doctor. The last time you saw me, I sedated you.”

Mika blinked rapidly. That, mercifully, did not hurt.

“Good,” Simmons said in her soothing voice. “We’re moving you to regular crew quarters. You youngsters always bounce back so quickly from the stasis.”

She endured the moving, the carrying, and the touching. The pain seemed to recede a bit, and then they left her in the dim light of a cabin. Two other shapes under blankets occupied the other bunks, and she assumed the bunk above her held an occupant as well. She drifted, slipping into sleep.

L.S.S. JAMES MADISON, Sirius Transit – 2146 (Ship), 2153 (Luna)

Joe Ferraza, Mika’s crewmate, plunked into the fold-down seat next to her. He stared into his bowl with unalloyed hostility. He shook his head, and started shoveling the oatmeal-colored goo into his mouth.

“You are not liking the meal,” Mika’s other companion said. Mfume Onoka grinned, his impossibly large and white teeth shining from his ebony face.

“Don’t rub it in, Moof,” Mika said.

“I would not be rubbing this substance upon anyone, certainly not upon Joe,” Mfume replied with a straight face, his singsong accent pleasant in his deep voice.

“You crack me up, Moof,” Joe said, and then proceeded to lick his bowl clean in a show of false enthusiasm. “What I wouldn’t give for some of Mamma’s carbonara.”

Mika found that the daily routines of the ship pleased her, giving her a fixed place to operate from mentally. As a crewman, she had fixed duties, and then those assigned and rotated by the officers. On board as a researcher, she had little value until they reached Sirius in a few weeks. After awakening from stasis, she found herself assigned to the Medical Section, mainly due to Simmons’ kindness and sympathy.

The three companions split up outside the mess cabin, and Mika reported for duty in the Medical bay.

“Good morning, Crewman,” Simmons said from her tiny, pull-out desk. Space on a torch ship came at a premium. “We have a clumsy engineer from Charlie Shift waiting to have his hand sewn closed, if you don’t mind.”

Simmons had a way of giving orders that everyone in Medical appreciated. Mika had not worked under many of the other officers, but some of them could be harsh, like the Chief Engineer. Joe worked in Engineering and told tales of strict adherence to rules and swift and sure punishments.

“I’ll get on it now, Ma’m,” Mika said, and found the junior officer, an Ensign, holding his lacerated hand in a pan of healing liquid. Mika got on her task, briefly warning the young officer that the procedure would be uncomfortable but necessary. She took his hand and quickly sutured the wound.

“All right, Ensign, just take this pad next door and the pharmacy tech will probably give you some antibiotics and analgesics,” Mika explained slowly. “If the stitches…”

All the lights went red, and a ship-wide alarm sounded. It continued for a full minute, and then the bridge officer cut in with instructions.

“All hands, this is not a drill. Proximity alert. Prepare for maneuvers and secure all stations. Section Chiefs report ready,” the voice thundered through the ship.

Mika pushed the ensign out of Medical and strapped herself into a fold-down seat next to Simmons, who monitored her pad and sent a ready report once all the Medical cabins reported secure.

“Ma’m, I thought we were weeks away from Sirius,” Mika said.

“We are, but they warned us at the Staff Call that we’d soon be within range of our sensor suite. We must have found something,” Simmons stated.

When the vibration in the floor plate changed and both women got heavier, they knew for certain that something critical happened. The crew of the James Madison did indeed find something.

L.S.S. JAMES MADISON, Sirius System – 2153, -7 offset (Ship)

Mika stared out of the small, face-sized port. Behind her, other crewmembers waited for a few seconds of viewing time. Before her, through the view port, a massive structure hung in the ink black of space. Sirius A and B both illuminated the artifact in the bluish-white light they produced.

The structure appeared to be some kind of scaffold, and it reminded Mika and everyone else vaguely of L2 back home. Other nodes and structures suggested some kind of living or working space. No lights or beacons showed. Whatever the thing did, it remained a mystery. Mika backed away carefully, receiving the thanks of the crewmember behind her. Joe peered over the shoulder of the current port gawker.

“Holy cow,” he exclaimed, running a thick hand through his curly, dense hair.

“Joe, you work in Engineering,” Mika asked, “What happened?”

“Moof told me that our course would have smacked us into that thing as we did our velocity dumping orbit of Sirius A. Get this, Mika,” Joe said, looking scared and lowering his voice, “It’s parked at the L4 point of Sirius B.”

Mika drew a simple diagram in her head of the larger Sirius and it’s smaller dwarf star, placing this thing they found at the Lagrangian point sixty degrees off of the Sirius A and B perpendicular. That would stabilize this object for millennia.

“What are we going to do?” she asked, equally quiet.

“I guess the officers are figuring it out now. Rumor has it, they’ll take the lander shuttle and check it out up close,” Joe said.

Her pad chirped, and she saw that Lieutenant Simmons needed her in Medical. “I gotta go,” Mika said and waved as she eased through the crowd at the hatch.

In Medical, she found Simmons in an undersuit packing a medical kit. Another Medical Section crewman packed a second one.

“Get ready, you’re coming with us,” the Medical Officer said, more direct than usual. Mika stared. “Don’t stand there, Crewman Janssen, get your undersuit on and help get your kit ready. The Captain himself told me to include you on this.”

Rather than argue, Mika functioned. It took only moments to strip out of her coveralls and into the undersuit. It would connect to the environmental suit and help regulate and monitor her body functions.

She wondered what this could be about. Mere crewmen didn’t get named by the Captain to be on missions, so this had to do with her reason for being on the mission. It had to do with the orbital irregularity of Sirius B she measured back on Luna. And, she feared, it also had to do with the floating artifact she just looked at.

On the shuttle, Mika stood in back gripping what few available hand-holds she could to fight the shifting inertia. In the tiny cabin with her, the Captain sat next to the Chief Engineer’s Deputy. Lieutenant Simmons stood as well, and some other junior officers from Engineering and Science jostled around them as well. Two bridge crew piloted the shuttle. Mika peered over and between the passengers and through the forward windows where the pilots sat. The artifact had grown larger and larger and now took up the entire view.

When the cabin lights shifted to red, Mika jumped but everyone else merely started sealing their helmets. Embarrassed, she did the same, an ensign helping her seal the connector ring. Cool, processed air bathed her face and helped her feel better in the fight against the zero-gravity nausea.

“All right everyone, listen up,” the Captain’s voice sounded in her ear. “We’re attempting a landing in what we believe is an open bay. Our initial readings show minimal power in this… thing. We’ll be suited up the whole time, no exceptions, no matter what.” His authoritative voice carried a twang that put Mika to mind of someone from Texas. You never knew.

Half an hour later, everyone stood around what had to be a hatch. No controls were visible, and the Captain vented an un-muted stream of epithets about flying more than eight light years and forgetting one’s house key. Standing to the side, Mika could see the outline of the door, low and wide. Even she would have to duck a bit to clear the top edge. On the surface next to the door, she could see variations in the texture of the metal, and she pointed it out. The ensign related this to the Captain, who directed the Deputy Engineer to “Fiddle with it,” in his words.

Seconds later, the door slid aside. Escaping trapped atmosphere condensed in a fog that vanished instantly.

“No oxygen traces,” someone transmitted.

Pitch black, it took the team hours to navigate the low tunnels and locate the source of the trace power readings detected aboard the James Madison. Everyone noted the increasing gravity as they approached their goal, a phenomenon that remained unexplained.

“It’s got to be behind here, Captain,” the Deputy Engineer said, crouched over, his suited hand hovering over the textured control to the door.

Mika could see the Captain’s face in profile through his viewplate. He stared at the Engineer’s poised hand a moment, then glanced around.

“Everyone back,” he said, shooing the party behind him. “Do it, Riley,” he instructed, and the man toggled the burred metal.

Nothing happened as the door slid aside. Riley, the Deputy Engineer, shined his wrist lamp into the space.

“Holy shit,” he said, and dragged his equipment over.

“What is it?” the Captain demanded.

“Big, Sir,” Riley exhaled, “And it’s empty. Where’s Janssen?”

Mika jumped, realizing they spoke of her. “Here, Sir,” she said, edging past the others.

“Help me set this up,” Riley said, and directed her to the case he’d dragged cursing through the low hallways. She recognized the box, a suite of miniature tests and sensors she trained with prior to her stasis. In minutes, the system blinked lights indicating readiness. Riley nodded at the Captain, who watched the procedure.

“Okay, Janssen, this is your big moment. Crawl yourself in there with the sensor suite and tell us why there’s gravity on a station floating at Sirius B’s L4 point,” he directed.

The Captain’s words sounded lighthearted, but nothing in his bearded face or stern, green eyes spoke of a casual walk in the park. Mika swallowed hard, and nodded her acknowledgement of the order. Crouched, she duck-walked as best she could in her suit through the door, and dragged the case in behind her. She lit her own wrist light and set the collected test equipment in the box to work. Minutes passed as she stared at the tiny numbers on the displays interpolate toward results.

“Well?” the Captain’s voice sounded in her ear.

“Oh, Sir,” Mika said, startled. “Uhm, no change in atmosphere trace readings. I’m showing a spike in infrared radiation in here. The gravity… Captain, the readings out where you are point-zero-five smaller than right here. I don’t know why, Captain, but… hold on.”

Mika dragged the box deeper into the room, watching the gravimeter. It increased steadily, as did the readings for phenomena that indicated power use.

“Captain, I’m standing where the power and gravity readings are highest. I should be on a planet about half Earth’s size right now, according to this machine, and assuming Earth-equivalent composition,” Mika transmitted, lost in the flow of readings.

“Does that account for the wobble of Sirius B you found?” the Captain asked.

“Absolutely, Sir, in fact I…” Mika trailed off as she stood up fully and her wrist torch arced across the form just ahead of her.

“Janssen?” the Captain called. “We lost the end half of what you said.”

Mika did not reply. Before her, in a state of some kind of preservation, the coiled, multi-legged form rested on a sort of dais. Mummified flesh rested on something like bone, giving the creature structure. Her light traced the alien’s body, up past two, four, and then six apparent limbs.

“Janssen, respond,” the Captain demanded.

She kept looking, ignoring the Captain. A pair of what had to be arms ended in withered stumps. The thing’s head, dessicated, showed impressive, silvery eyes with faceted surfaces.

“Captain, you need to see this,” Mika said, her voice wavering.

The Captain dove into the room, thinking his crewman to be in danger. The rest followed when he shouted. They assembled, and everyone fell silent as their lights illuminated that which waited for millennia.


3 thoughts on “Dog Star

  1. Pingback: Tom Elias

  2. Pretty cool. I do think it would work better as the first chapter of a longer work (a trilogy you say?) rather than a stand-alone story, because the pay-off isn’t really in proportion to the build up. The character development (her being cut off/abandoned from everyone she knew on Earth) helps pull a reader in, but then doesn’t come into play later, and doesn’t really relate to the conclusion–unless finding the alien is someone a balance for losing everyone else…hmmm
    Giving the dates according to the ship vs. moon was a nice touch. I was going to write something about how the torch ship must be going faster than light, because even at light speed it would still take eight years, but then I started to look up stuff on time dilation at near relativistic speeds, and I found out that from their POV it actually would take less than 8 years..then my brain started hurting and I stopped thinking about it.
    I could give you more specific feedback, but since you already reworked it anyway, I guess I’ll refrain. Good luck with NANOWRIMO this year if you attempt it–I’m probably going to give it a shot. Cheers! Thanks for the story!

    • EH, thanks for the comment! I see this as the rising action of the first book, or at least that’s what the story outline for NaNo says now. I plan on Mika gaining resolution also. I do appreciate the note on the date offsets. You’d be amazed at the internet research I did just for those tags.

      If you like, specific feedback will still be appreciated. Good critique applies to all writing, not just a particular piece.

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