The Third Scholar
[Begin of excerpt.]
In pure silence, exploration craft Onomatopoeia traverses through interstellar space. Yataro Kobayashi—seated in Zen position—is trying to keep as much of the outside Universe out as possible, while the instruments of his space craft are trying to take as much signals from the surrounding void in as possible. Strangely, their goals are almost the same.
I am nothing, Kobayashi meditates, like all the rest. I am one with the Universe. Apart from a myriad of stars, cosmic radiation and some undetectable quantum fluctuations—the sensors report to the board computer—there is nothing. Yet, as programmed, it has awoken the solitary human from his cryo-sleep as the critical moment of a course correction is approaching.
At this point a decision must be made: follow the current trajectory towards 61 Cygni—its intended target—or change course to Ross 248. Due to a much closer proximity—Onomatopoeia is within 2 light-years of both star systems—better readings are available, and based upon those the final target has to be chosen. Kobayashi is taking his time—the window for course change is about 31 days—in his customary way: emptying his self as if to make room for divine inspiration. 61 Cygni is still the most likely candidate: its metalicity is much higher as that of Ross 248, and the solar masses of the binary system are much closer to that of Sol. Still, Kobayashi takes the junction very serious, trying hard not to overlook anything. He will not cut to the chase until the last day, probably the last possible moment. Which is not defined very hard, as there is a considerable amount of spare antimatter fuel on board. His sponsors have been very generous.
Each steeped in their own kind of serenity, man and craft speed through the void. Then the most sensitive sensor on board, the mass detector, reports a miniscule gravitational tug, a value at the limit of its measuring threshold. A real object or a fault in the equipment? As usual, Kobayashi decides to wait it out. In the meantime, he makes a little Riddle-o-Matic, a random koan generator to improve his samadhi. His koan for today: what is the signature of one particle interacting?
A month later, the mass detector measurement has increased almost twofold. Now, together with the distance the space craft has travelled, the board computer can estimate mass and position of the object. A gravity well of three solar masses at a distance of 27 light-days. This, together with the absence of any radiation strongly suggests a black hole. Also, it’s not very far from the original route. A close flyby, with a slingshot trajectory to save fuel, is well within the safety margins for his return trip. It would be the very first black hole directly discovered--if it is one--and at a relatively short distance from Earth: only 9 light-years. Such an opportunity cannot be wasted, and Kobayashi instructs the board computer to change course for the gravity well. At their current speed they will arrive there in three months. Hardly worth the trouble of returning to cryo-sleep, and Kobayashi stays awake—although at a much slower metabolic rate. Crafting paradise with a zazen aptitude, subjective time flies.
Then, almost a week before the close flyby, an unknown craft is heading for the Onomatopoeia, coming in from behind, and matches speed. It attaches itself to Kobayashi’s craft and decelerates the linked vessels, leading them to an enormous space station orbiting the black hole. Neither the capturing craft nor the space station react to Kobayashi’s frantic attempts at communication. Kobayashi had imagined First Contact in a completely different manner. In view of his limited fuel supply and the total absence of weapons on his little ship, Kobayashi can do little else than let himself be tugged along. He is led into a giant docking bay of the torus-shaped space station. Two other vessels are inside, one looking like a ramship, with the hydrogen-scooping sail retracted; the other too strange for Kobayashi to place. The moment the large hatch closes him off from outer space, radio waves enter his comlinks. His board computer hardly needs to decipher the incoming signals:
“Welcome stranger, to Space Station Inconspicious Ghost. You’ll be here for quite a while. Please supply us with your life support requirements, and we’ll prepare our guest suite for you.”
[Solitary spikes: very long, very thin needles sticking out from the intrinsic tapestry. These distortions in the timescape are a real nuisance. What’s more: there’s an important event approaching spacewise.]
[End of excerpt]
- Originally appeared in SF Waxes Philosophical (May 2008);
- Reprinted in The New Accelerator #2 (December 2014);