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Magazine Extract #4

Terminus

“Lecturers!” grumbled John Anders crossly. “I hate lecturers!”. His two companions, Bob Reynolds and Peter Lockhart agreed heartily. “And another thing”, Anders continued, staring pointedly at the console before him, “I hate computers too. Especially ones that tell tales!”
Lockhart intervened. “Smartie can’t help that, it’s built into his programme. What he sees he has to report to Earth. There’s nothing you can do about it”.
“I couldn’t care less. I hate computers”.
The bitter resentment had begun when trainee space pilots Anders, Reynolds and Lockhart were assigned by the All Powerful Ones at Space Technics University Three to the space cruiser “Athena”, a ship capable of travelling of speeds up to the speed of light. The on-board computer, a thinking, seeing, hearing, speaking machine nicknamed Smartie, for obvious reasons, had been programmed to send the University detailed reports on the men’s behaviour. Their test period was three months, designed to see how well they could cope with short flights to the inner planets. If their progress was satisfactory, they would be entered into a Grade One class and taught the finer points of space flight and space ships. Ransome, their lecturer had just given them a “Lecture” in no uncertain terms, for omitting to close the airlock outer doors after an EVA. Ransome had never been popular with the men, but was to become a distinct “inconvenience” over the next week.
The message came while “Athena” was on a parking orbit around Mars. Lockhart had been fiddling around with the visual communications system when he had chanced upon the signal. He was surprised; that particular video band had been obsolete for some time, and to receive a broadcast over it was unusual.
“Smartie, he said, get a fix on that signal. The computer obeyed instantly. And immediately Lockhart knew that he had stumbled upon something a little more than unusual. He thumped the ships intercom button with his fist.

“Bob, John, come to control deck – and quickly!”

Minutes later the named arrived to find Lockhart staring at the screen.
“What’s the fuss?” enquired Anders, slightly out of breath. “Look at that”. They needed no further explanation of the panic. “It’s beautiful”, gasped Reynolds. “What on Earth is it?” Lockhart laughed sarcastically. “It’s nothing on Earth….” Suddenly some shaped flashed onto the screen. “What does it mean Smartie?”
The computer used up ages of computer time – it was at least two minutes before he replied. “There is nothing in my memory banks like it John. The signal comes from Sirius IV, the forth planet orbiting Sirius”.
The picture suddenly changed. The wonderful city they had seen became a ruined waste of strewn buildings.
“I think they need help,” observed Reynolds.
The picture flickered and died. Reynolds rushed over to the main console and began stabbing viciously at various buttons.
“Smartie, you infernal machine, get it back! Don’t just sit there looking beautiful!”
“I’m sorry, Bob, but I have lost the track. Now I must report it to Earth. My next report is due in two days time, so I must prepare it”.
“No”, yelled Anders.
His comrades stared “No?”
No! Lockhart, you’re the computer man, I want his programme altered”.
“John that’s a big order….”
“I said I wanted it altered, so that he forgets to report our actions to Earth. It’s the only way. Ransome would skin us if he knew what we were up to. You had better start straight away.”
“But John…..”
“Don’t ‘But John’ me, you’ve got a first class Honour Degree in Computer Electronics – use it!”
Twelve hours later Lockhart swaggered nonchalantly into the observation room, eying up a cheese sandwich suspiciously. Anders and Reynolds looked up.
“Have you…?”
“Sure I have. Say have you had any of these? I haven’t worked out what sort of cheese it’s supposed to be yet.”
“Yes, but did it work? Will he still make that report?”
Lockhart took a substantial bite of sandwich and chewed thoughtfully. “Oh it worked all right”. Gesturing with his sandwich to emphasise his word she added, “And what’s more he’s with us all the way. I programmed him to let no argument against the idea come into crazy electronic brain of his, and he took it without so much as a question. By the way talking of questions, what will Ransome say when we suddenly make off into space without so much as a fond farewell?”
“Ransome will just have to lump it. We’ll leave tomorrow. Get Smartie to plot a course for Sirius IV. It’s nine light years away, so I’m afraid we’ll have to use the SA”.
“On no, not that”, groaned Reynolds, “I had nightmares about it for weeks the last time I tried”.
“Well it’s necessary. Don’t worry, Smartie will look after us, it’s quit foolproof”.
After brief consideration, Reynolds muttered, “O.K. You win”.
Lockhart grinned encouragement at him, finished his sandwich and left for control deck.
The technique of suspended animation had been used in space flights of long duration for some time. Nevertheless, Reynolds still felt a little apprehensive as he climbed into the SA cubicle.
“Athena” was well out beyond Saturn on a predetermined course plotted by Smartie, and was travelling at the speed of light. Smartie had already been instructed to take over the ship, and Lockhart was running over the programme with him. Anders watched as the drugs were administered to Reynolds, and the electrodes fitted at the strategic points of the body began to register on the small screen above the cubicle. As the body temperature came down and down, metabolism was slowed to a fraction of the norm, and the EEG and ECG showed by their steady, marching rhythms that Reynolds had joined the land of the dreamless sleepers. When “Athena” reached Sirius IV, Smartie would start the revival sequence and the sleeping would awake. However what they would awake to Anders did not try to guess.
Two hours later Lockhart and Anders were asleep, like Reynolds. Smartie was now the sole operator of the ship. For his human companions it would n=be a long sleep, but for him there was much to do. As he checked and re-checked the ships system, one thought was uppermost in his unfathomable electronic mind – he was going to Sirius even though he couldn’t say why.
They awoke to find themselves in orbit around Sirius IV. It was a few hours before they could get up and walk around. Reynolds was the first to swagger onto Control Deck. Smartie gave his report, and ending any doubts Reynolds had about sites, zeroed into the projected landing spot on one of his console display screens. Reynolds studied the area, and was considering various entry paths when Anders and Lockhart arrived, stretching unwilling muscles.
“Hello Bob, how’s things?” Lockhart enquired.

Reynolds explained, “We’re landing here”, he said, pointing.

“Space pads?”

“I don’t think so. We’ll take “Athena down”.

As the adjusters made minute alterations to speed and direction, “Athena” broke out of her high orbital plane and began her lazy spiral downwards. With Smartie at the controls, the three men had little to do, and presently “Athena” touched down on Sirius IV.

Reynolds gazed out of the observation port, “I don’t think much of the welcoming committee!” he grunted.

Anders laughed. “Never mind. No doubt there al hiding. We must look pretty fearsome to them”.

A thought passed through Lockhart’s mind. “John, they wont…expel us, will they? I mean we’ve stolen a ship without being fully aware of how to fly it, we’ve sabotaged the computer so that it won’t send it’s report, in fact we committed a grave sin in not reporting that message to Command in the first place.”
Anders was momentarily grim. “Maybe. But if we establish contact with alien life we’ll be heroes. To Hell with degrees!”

Resplendent in space suits they left “Athena” and stepped out onto the broad, red plain ahead. The rust coloured vegetation underfoot was brittle and crackled like ice.
“Gravity seems about one gee”, reported Lockhart. “Air pressure slightly above normal. Atmosphere a carbon monoxide content would be lethal”.
They traversed the auburn plain and came to a forest of strange coral formations some thirty feet high and vivid mauve in colour. The going was harder here, and all three were glad when they came to a clearing.
And there was the settlement. It had once been a magnificent city of tall buildings made of the coral substance. But now it lay wasted and the dwellings were scattered like Autumn leaves around the desolate clearing. The three men glanced around anxiously.
“Phew!” Reynolds said shortly, “no wonder they need help. Look at it”.
They approached the nearest building.
“Is it safe?” Reynolds asked Anders searching for an entrance.
“I don’t know, though I should think so. I’m going in anyway”
Reynolds and Lockhart waited patiently until Anders re-appeared.
“There’s no one there” he said puzzled.
“Are you sure?”
“Positive”.
Lockhart yelled out “hello, is there anybody here?” The net result of this was that his companions were deafened, as the question was faithfully relayed by their suit radios.
“Shut up”, muttered Anders, irritated.
A careful search had revealed no organism capable of intelligent thought. Smartie had been left with the instructions to pulse out the electronic formulae for carbon, hydrogen and oxygen (the basic units of life) on all radio bands to try and locate the intelligent species by radio, as they would be sure to recognise the formulae. He was still patiently doing this when they arrived back at the “Athena”. They rid themselves of their space suits and made their way to Control Deck.
“No reply?” enquired Anders.
“No, John”.
“Well I’ll be darned if I can think of the reason why! I mean, they must be here somewhere! Intelligent beings don’t just disappear into thin air. And they couldn’t al have died off in nine years. Have you tried the prime numbers?”
“No”.
“Well do. All radio bands. I could do with some sleep so wake me up if you have a reply”.
It came to him in that drowsy, semi-conscious state just before dreams take over from reality. He sat bolt upright and cursed himself. Why, oh why had he not thought of it before? It was so blindingly obvious.
His frustrated anger suddenly left him, and was replaced by a wave of sadness, remorse. He would never see the things that had created that city in the forest. They had been gone a long, long time. John Anders reflected bitterly. This was the end of all ideas of visual communications between the stars. It was the end of his dream; to establish contact with alien life. A fitting Terminus indeed to the discoveries that could have been.
It was simple enough. When the message had come through ”Athena” had been nine, light years from Sirius. So when that message had reached them it was already nine years out of date, having taken that length of time to get to them. Travelling at the speed of light it had taken “Athena” a further nine years to reach Sirius. So it was not just as he had thought – nine years since the message had been sent…………
Regret filled his heart. He would lose his chance at the University. He would probably be court martialled for the theft of a space cruiser. His future ruined, for what? The civilisation of Sirius IV was beyond all help.
For time stands still for none, and they had arrived eighteen years too late………

Anna Mace. (Lower VI)
Typed up by Mandy Thackray (nee Rance) - thankyou! : Back to the Top

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