Suspended from the airlock by his thick umbilical, Astronaut Jonathan Weaver watched the ring of illumination inside the enormous hollow tube code-named “Oumuamua” move away from him toward the other end of the spinning alien habitat, creating the illusion that he was now in early evening. The forty-two year old Air Force Captain, weightless because he was positioned near the center of the tube, marveled at the view. Essentially, the interior of a massive cylinder was filled with atmosphere that included clouds, with the entire rim covered with soil and water that supported farms, forests, lakes, rivers, small mountains, and even buildings and highways. And yet in the fifteen minutes since he had gone EVA inside the object, he had detected no sign of life.
“Weaver, this is Nguyen. Any change in your readings?” Danielle Nguyen was a civilian pilot and exobiologist who had been put in command, and at thirty, was the youngest member of the hastily assembled mission. After the Mauna Kea Observatory in Hawaii had located Oumuamua eight months ago and determined it was approaching the sun from outside the solar system, NASA, in cooperation with two private space exploration companies, had quickly adapted the Argonaut spacecraft, originally designed for a manned Mars mission, to intercept human history’s first visitor from interstellar space.
“Negative Nguyen. Everything’s here to support life, and in fact, I could probably take my helmet off right now and breathe the atmosphere, but no radio, infrared or other EM signals indicating active technology, and nothing that looks like an animal bio reading.”
“But you’re saying there are what looks like manufactured highways, buildings, communities that are constructed for life forms about our proportions.”
“Roger that, though I’d have to get closer to make sure.”
“Negative. Hold your position, Weaver. I sent you in to get eyes on and to pick up any life signs we might have missed with external sensors and the drone we deployed two days ago after we arrived.”
“Doctor, I think it’s worth the risk.”
“Your suit’s EVA jets are made for low gee maneuvering. If you got closer to the interior surface, the gravity simulated by Oumuamua’s spin would cause you crash, and even if you survived, you’d never get off again without assistance.”
“Then I request permission to return to the Argonaut, re-enter the cylinder with Cortez, and use the two-person skimmer to reach the surface. After all, I’m the environmental specialist, and with Cortez being a twenty-year Marine, he’d be plenty of protection in case we’re ambushed by a bunch of BEMs.”
“Are you kidding?” Luis Cortez’s voice broke into the channel. “I was counting on a big time fighter pilot like you to cover my six.”
“Knock it off, both of you.” Nguyen was selected for the mission both for her biological expertise and because she was VP of R&D at Skyline Aeronautics, one of the companies that had contributed to Argonaut’s refit, but if she had a sense of humor, no one else had managed to detect it. “Weaver. Return to the Argonaut. That’s an order.”
The abrupt high-pitched squeal came over both Weaver’s helmet speakers and through the spacecraft’s comm system, startling the five crew aboard ship and nearly deafening Weaver. After five seconds, Weaver heard what sounded like a low, continual hiss, but the real action was taking place on the Argonaut.
“Weaver, return to Argonaut immediately.” Nguyen’s voice easily cut through what he thought of as static. “We’re getting a big data dump here. Tons of information…oh my god.”
The Air Force officer used his EVA jets to turn around and guided himself back toward the airlock. “What is it? Nguyen. Nguyen, do you copy?”
“We don’t have much time. Eight months from now, Oumuamua will have orbited the Sun and be on its closest approach to Earth. We’ll have to get more people up here by then.” Normally, the exobiologist exuded either calm or irritation, but now she sounded close to panic.
“What are you talking about?” He had reached the airlock chamber and closed the interior door. His umbilical was attached to a communications booster which, magnetized to the metallic floor of the bathroom-sized chamber, also served as an anchor.
“By this time next year, another object, much bigger than Oumuamua will strike the Earth, triggering a global extinction event. We’ve got eight months to get as many people to this ark as possible and save the human race.”
I wrote this for Tale Weaver #202 which has the theme of “Evening.” Earlier today, I’d written another night-oriented story for a different writing challenge, but it’s over 2,000 words, and the recommended word count for this week’s “Tale Weaver” is 500-600. I still managed to exceeded that by 150 words or so, but I think it’s still sufficiently “bite-sized.”
Oumuamua really is an interstellar object (not nearly as big as I’ve indicated above) that visited our solar system fairly recently, but although some have suggested it might have been an alien spacecraft, in all likelihood it was a comet that had been traveling hundreds of thousands of years before it swiftly zipped around our sun.
It actually takes a minimum of 160 people (assuming 80 men and 80 women) to repopulate the human race according to New Scientist, but it would be a heck of a challenge getting even that few humans (plus animals) into interplanetary space to rendezvous with a “space ark,” though maybe not so much since I set this tale in the future when manned space flights to Mars would be possible.
I very, very loosely based my story, both on Arthur C. Clarke’s famous 1973 Hugo and Nebula award winning novel Rendezvous with Rama and an unpublished story I wrote for an anthology (as far as I know, it’s still under consideration).
BEM stands for “Bug-Eyed Monster.”