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Solar Express
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Solar Express

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Author: L. E. Modesitt, Jr.
Publisher: Tor, 2015

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Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
Sub-Genre Tags: First Contact
Space Exploration
Hard SF
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You can't militarize space. This one rule has led to decades of peaceful development of space programs worldwide. However, increasing resource scarcity and a changing climate on Earth's surface is causing some interested parties to militarize, namely India, the North American Union, and the Sinese Federation.

The discovery of a strange artifact by Dr. Alayna Wong precipitates a crisis. What appears to be a hitherto undiscovered comet is soon revealed to be an alien structure on a cometary trajectory toward the sun. Now there is a race between countries to see who can study and control the artifact dubbed the "Solar Express" before it perhaps destroys itself.

Leading the way for the North American Union is Alayna's friend, Captain Christopher Tavoian, one of the first shuttle pilots to be trained for combat in space. But, as the alien craft gets closer to its destination, it begins to alter the surface of the sun in strange new ways, ways that could lead Alayna to revolutionary discoveries-provided Chris can prevent war from breaking out as he navigates among the escalating tensions between nations.

Solar Express is a thrilling, new, hard science fiction novel from New York Times bestselling author L. E. Modesitt, Jr.


Chapter One


23 MARCH 2114

Alayna Wong-Grant turned her head from the screen wall that could hold more than a dozen displays at once and glanced down at the antique console before her that contained the controls for COFAR--the Combined Farside Array, both the sprawling radio telescope whose rows of polyimide film and its embedded dipole antennae stretched over most of the comparatively flat surfaces of Daedalus Crater and the fifteen-meter optical mirror, if a dish created from powdered lunar regolith, nanitic epoxy, and sprayed aluminum with a limited range of movement could accurately be called a mirror, unlike the ten-meter liquid mercury mirror that it had replaced some twenty years earlier and that had never worked as designed. While those were the main components, COFAR also had a separate dedicated full-spectrum solar optical array as well as the requisite spectrographic and interferometry capabilities.

"Dr. Wong-Grant, image processing is completed for sectors four through seven, with complete comparison to February nineteenth." The AI's voice was a pleasant baritone, one of the first changes Alayna had made after arriving at Daedalus. Luis had programmed the AI with what he must have thought was a sexy and husky alto that had grated on Alayna's nerves with every word uttered. He'd also called the AI "Marcelina." She'd shortened it to Marcel.

"Thank you, Marcel." Her words were not quite perfunctory as she scanned the messages that had piled up while she'd slept, not that she slept all that much during the two-week-long Farside night, since that was the most valuable observational time, and there were seemingly always schedule changes, particularly for the optical telescope. With the heavier usage then, there were also always minor maintenance problems, and given the charges users incurred for every minute of observational time, and the precarious financial position of the Farside Foundation, sleep came second to accommodating schedule changes and getting the comparatively few repairs made. Her eyes continued to travel down the message queue, although she knew that Marcel would have awakened her earlier had there been anything truly urgent.

The heading on the next message stopped her--"BSF"--Basic Science Foundation. Should you open it? With a wry smile she touched the console screen, another antique, dating from before neural headsets or implants for those who could afford them.

Dr. Wong-Grant--

BSF has not received your latest semimonthly report. Missent? Or are you behind on maintenance?

The authentication was that of someone she'd never heard of, doubtless another underpaid postdoc working for anything that had a vaguely scientific aura to its name or operations.

She checked the calendar. "Shit!"

Marcel, clearly deciding that comment was not required, remained silent.

The last thing Alayna needed was to antagonize BSF, since they were the ones paying half her stipend. The Farside Foundation paid for the other half, as well as her transport and support costs at Daedalus Base, and granted her full access on a limited basis to observational array--when the array was free or when the array's user permitted use of the observations.

Alayna immediately created an open file with the proper headings, and copied her previous report into the file so that she could edit and add whatever was necessary once she ran through the rest of the messages. She still wasn't used to the fact that standard off-Earth messages contained no graphics or images, just text and standard symbols--a result of both economics and security. Sending graphics and images cost more, a lot more, and the various global media consortiums had little interest in "overserving" on a money-losing basis the comparative handfuls of off-Earth space-types, that is, those not on Earth or in Earth orbit.

The next five messages were routine confirmations of future time slots from various Earth-based organizations. The one after that was not addressed to her, but to COFAR. She thought about discarding it unread, since most messages addressed to the array were either pleas for "free" observational time, requests for access to data or archives, again requesting the information without payment, or high-level crackpots.

Dear underpaid postdoctoral professional--or the equivalent:

Would you like to work on the cutting edge of solar astrophysics, doing something beyond trying to explain the alpha effect? Even proving that laminar electric current flows do in fact exist along the borders of solar granules? If so ...

Alayna shook her head and checked the sender--Solar Electric Research. With that, she deleted the message. She couldn't blame the electric sun crowd for trying, but denying that thermonuclear reactions occurred in the solar core wasn't something that she wanted any part of... even if the pay was reputed to be outstanding.

From what Alayna had seen in her first three months, COFAR wasn't quite the white elephant the resurgent Noram Conservative Party politicians claimed. Nor was it still the vanguard of astronomical observation proclaimed in the last gasp of American Democrats before the Continental Consolidation of 2089, a date that the vanquished American Republican Party had declared would live in infamy. The problem was that almost thirty percent of COFAR's funding came from the Noram government, and only half from its operations, which left twenty percent coming from the dwindling coffers of the Farside Foundation.

"Dr. Wong-Grant," Marcel said, "there is an anomaly in sector five optical data to be addressed."

"Is the data from client observations or from Foundation reserve observations?"

"It's from shared observations with the Williams Observatory consortium."

"I'll get to it in a moment."

"Anomalous observational data cannot be transmitted until it is reviewed, Dr. Wong-Grant." The AI's voice was apologetic, as if he hated to remind Alayna. She couldn't help but think of the AI as "he," although Luis had always considered it female.

Alayna did not reply, instead quickly scanned the rest of the messages, stopping at the one from Alfen Braun, the Director-Generale of the Farside Foundation.

Dr. Wong-Grant:

This is to inform you that on March twenty-eighth or twenty-ninth, possibly the thirtieth depending on shuttle transport from the WestHem Earth elevator, an inspection team from the Office of the Noram Inspector-General will be visiting lunar facilities supported in whole or in part by Noram government funds. Due to funding constraints, the Foundation is unable to dispatch an escort ...

Alayna stopped reading. You've only been here a little over a month, and you're going to have to host a government inspection team? She forced herself to keep reading.

... trust that you will assure that everything is operating at full efficiency and that the installation is in compliance with the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the Foundation and the Noram Department of Off-Earth Activities [DOEA]. Please find attached briefing information for your use ...

Meaning that you'd better memorize and know it cold before the inspectors arrive.

There was more, much more, including a summary of the MOU, which included the requirement that, as necessary and physically possible, the Foundation was to make available quarters and food for DOEA and other governmental personnel engaged in official duties, such availability not to exceed ten individuals for more than one month total in any calendar Earth year. There were also several lengthy enclosures with background facts and figures on COFAR, and an imperative to acknowledge receipt of the message. It was almost a quarter of a standard hour before Alayna straightened and stretched, realizing that, despite the low lunar gravity, her shoulders were tight and cramped. After several moments, she hurried through the rest of the messages.

Nothing else urgent and nothing from Chris. Then she straightened and took a swallow from the bottle that held lukewarm tea before saying, "Display the anomaly and explain."

Alayna was not supposed to make judgments on what was observed, but on how the data/images were observed, and to review anything that appeared strange to make as certain as possible that such an anomaly had in fact been observed and that it was not an artifact of the system or the result of some form of outside interference with the observation--such as an unauthorized crossing of the Farside observation zone.

An image appeared on the larger screen to Alayna's left. After a moment, a red arrow appeared, its tip almost touching a point of light.

"That is the anomaly," said Marcel.

The screen split, displaying two almost identical images, if each half the size of the first. The image with the arrow was on the left. The one without was on the right.

"The right-hand image shows the same part of sector five on February nineteenth."

"What's the apparent magnitude?"

"Apparent magnitude is sixteen."

"Sixteen? Did you do a spectrographic analysis?" Alayna had to wonder if the anomaly was a distant nova. In-system bodies were usually detected earlier and at fainter magnitudes.

"The available analysis shows no extrasolar stellar origin. Reflected solar radiation with an indication of silver..." There was a pause. "And silicates."

Silver and silicates? "Are there any previous records... anything that possibly matches?"

"No, there are not, Dr. Wong-Grant."

"How far away is it?" That was Alayna's immediate question, and she regretted the careless wording as soon as her words were out. She immediately added, "Assuming a cometary albedo and a solid diameter of fifteen kilometers."

"Assuming your parameters, the object would be five point five three AU from Sol. From the spectrographic results, the albedo is likely closer to point five with the body having a small diameter, at close to six AU."

"Could it be on such a high inclination orbit that..." She broke off the question. "Cancel that." Even at a ninety-degree inclination, something that faint at that distance would still have been in the same observational frame two weeks earlier. Alayna had more questions, but none of them could be answered, not with any degree of accuracy, from the two observations.

That was the thing about observational astronomy. The distances were so vast that even objects moving at comparatively high speeds didn't show much positional change in short time periods, not when viewed from six AU away.

"Do you have any other requirements, Dr. Grant-Wong?"

Alayna would have loved to track the object, whatever it was, but she didn't determine the COFAR viewing priorities. Still ...

"Send a complete report on the anomaly to Foundation headquarters and note the spectrographic analysis, especially the silver and silicates."

"The report has been transmitted."

"Also, take an observation in twenty-four hours." If, on the off chance the object showed discernible motion, Marcel might be able to determine if it might be an outer system body or a comet.

"If it meets the parameters for a discovery, do you want me to submit a report to the International Astronomical Union?"

"When you have another solid observation, prepare the report. Then let me know."

"I will do that."

"Thank you." Even though Marcel was an AI, he deserved professional courtesy... or rather, she needed to observe professional courtesy.

"You're welcome."

Alayna returned to the message screen, and her reply to Director-Generale Braun. That was an immediate personal and professional priority. After that, she could complete the report and reply to Basic Science, a definite personal priority. She tried not to think about all the reasons why the Noram Inspector-General might be interested in COFAR.

And, at some time, she needed to send a message to her father, especially before he got worried. If she didn't message at least once every week, preferably more often, he'd message her, wanting to know if she happened to be all right. After all that had happened, she couldn't exactly blame him, but she'd rather do the messaging on her timetable.

Copyright © 2015 by L. E. Modesitt, Jr.


Solar Express

- gallyangel


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