Extract from L. E. Modesitt, jr.'s SOLAR EXPRESS

Here's an extract from L. E. Modesitt, jr.'s soon-to-be-released Solar Express, courtesy of the author himself! For more info about this title: Canada, USA, Europe.

Here's the blurb:

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.


Daedalus Base

26 March 2114

Alayna woke to flashing lights in her sleeping cubicle. There was no alarm. That meant a problem, but not an emergency.

“Marcel? What’s wrong?” Her voice sounded rough and hoarse, but then it always did when she first woke up, more so at Daedalus Base, with an atmospheric pressure closer to that of Denver than that of New Hampshire.

“A thirty-five kilometer section of the radio telescope is inoperative. It appears that one hundred meter section will have to be replaced.”

“Where?” She sat up slowly. It hadn’t taken her long at Daedalus base to realize that quick and abrupt movements when still sleep-fogged could be painful in low grav.

“Four kilometers north and fifteen point three kilometers east of the control center.”

“Why the alarm?”

“In five hours, Arecibo takes control in of the telescope for a deep search. The inoperative section has reduced effectiveness by five percent.”

“Frig!” Alayna understood. Unless she could complete the repairs by then, SRI(N) would complain that COFAR’s reduced sensitivity had compromised whatever the combined search was investigating. At the least, it wouldn’t look good for Alayna. At the worst, SRI headquarters might reduce the payments to the Farside Foundation. She stood and took two steps to the narrow wardrobe, which she opened to locate and extract the one-piece undersuit required for compatibility with the exosuit used for outside Lunar surface maintenance.

No matter how sophisticated the system, things happened that needed to be fixed, and decades of experience had shown that a reasonably intelligent and well-trained human being on the spot was far more cost-effective than either excessive redundancy or repeated repair missions, or even AI-controlled robotics. Add to that the fact that sophisticated equipment was more expensive than a nearly endless supply of over-educated young post-doctoral professionals eager to obtain both jobs and experience. During her first week at COFAR, when Luis had walked her through everything, she’d half-wondered if she’d ever remember it all, even with Marcel as back-up The most frustrating part was being so close to such an array of equipment, and being able to use it so little, at least so far. That thought didn’t help Alayna’s frame of mind as she prepared for the repair mission. Almost half an hour later, she finished suiting up while breathing a high-oxygen mixture in order to accommodate the lower pressure and higher oxygen levels she’d be breathing for the next several hours – if not longer. When she finished the suit pressurization level tests, she opened the suit comm link. “Marcel, comm check.”

“All your frequencies are clear. Ten percent loss on lowband.”

“I’m not going far enough for that to matter.”

Next came the inspection of the roller. Alayna made certain that the batteries were fully charged, then put a spare in the equipment bin. She couldn’t have done that if the break in the antenna had been another ten kilometers farther out. After that came the two prepackaged sections of polyimide film – and its embedded dipole antennas – that barely fit in the open cargo bin at the back of the roller. She couldn’t help but notice that there were only ten sections left. Still… according to the logs, sometimes years had gone by without the need for replacing antenna sections. As almost an afterthought, she added another package of antistatic wipes to the package already in the equipment bin.

Another fifteen minutes passed by the time she had the roller moving out of the lock. Then she had to guide it through the maze of paths and tunnels, designed so that the rollers could reach every part of the radio-telescope antenna without rolling across any of the meter-wide polyimide swathes. Physically replacing the polyimide film would always require some travel since the rows stretched fifty kilometers in each direction, but going just fifteen wasn’t as bad as it could have been. Then, if the damage had been at forty-nine kilometers, the reduction in antenna effectiveness would have been minuscule, unlike the five percent reduction that Marcel had reported. The big problem was that replacing a hundred meters of damaged film was going to be a chore, especially since Alayna had only done one replacement of fifty meters, and that had been of aging polyimide close to the COFAR control center, and had been almost a practice repair, close as it had been to the base center.

Almost forty minutes later, she slowed the roller to a stop. From where she sat on the open vehicle, she couldn’t see any damage. “There’s no obvious impact, Marcel. Where does the damaged section start?

“Section 15.3. There should be a yellow stripe indicating where the sections join.”

Alayna forced herself to scan the edge of the film slowly, finally catching sight of a yellow tab, rather than a stripe. Then she checked to make certain she had the antistatic wipes in the suit’s belt patch. As soon as she stepped off the roller, her boots sank into the regolith – not that much, perhaps a few centimeters – but a haze of dust rose, almost climbing up her boots and legs.

Walking slowly and carefully, she made her way to the edge of the antenna film, where she inspected the yellow tab, which had the numbers 15.2, indicating that she’d stopped a good hundred meters short. Which might be why you don’t see any damage. “Marcel… the tab indicates fifteen two.”

“The roller’s calibration must be off.”

Alayna didn’t voice, not even subvocally, what she felt about that as she turned back toward the roller. When she got back into the driver’s seat to move forward another hundred meters, she had to keep wiping her faceplate with an antistatic wipe in order to see where she was directing the roller. By the time she stopped at the connection/disconnection point another hundred meters farther east, she’d had to discard the first wipe, stuffing it into the waste bag beside the driver’s seat, and was using a second.

This time she could see the damage to the antenna, not all that obvious – just a series of punctures in the film. After she took the separator – a short rod that looked like an oversized flat screwdriver – from the tool box, she got off the roller carefully. Her boots went into the dust almost ankle deep. She glanced around. The damaged section of the antenna film had been laid over the dust as well.

“Marcel, there’s a lot of dust here.”

“Where you are doesn’t have any observations on that.”

She didn’t feel like commenting. Instead, she moved toward the yellow tab, leaning down and verifying the section number before easing the separator into the groove at the end, and moving it slightly. Nothing happened. She applied more force, cautiously, slowly wedging the two sections apart. By the time she’d separated the connections between the two sections, she was sweating, not heavily, but more than she would have liked, despite the fact that the only humidity in the suit came from her.

Then she had to roll up the damaged section. The film was light enough, especially in lunar gravity, but she was very careful, and moved slowly, until the first damaged section, except for the last few meters, was in a rough cylinder. By then, she was wiping her suit faceplate every few steps. After separating the first damaged section from the next one, she began rolling up the second section.

“Your internal suit temperature is getting too high,” observed Marcel.

“That’s all I need,” snapped Alayna. Nonetheless, she straightened up and just stood quietly, trying to breathe easily. She looked eastward, but could see nothing, given the dust on her faceplate. She slowly and gently wiped the faceplate clear, knowing that even fine class II dust was highly abrasive.

From what she could finally see, she had only another five or six meters left to roll before she could separate the second section. Then would come the even harder work.

After what seemed forever, she cleared her throat. “Marcel?”

“Your temperature’s down. Not as much as would be optimal.“

“I’ll move more carefully.” In fact, out of necessity, Alayna made certain her movements were more deliberate as she finished rolling up the last few meters of the second section. Separating it from the remainder of the antenna row was easier than the first and second separations had been. After finishing rolling it up she had to walk back to the roller. There she unloaded the first section of new antenna film, unsealed it and was about to begin fitting the old and new sections together when she realized that the area around each receiving clip socket was covered with dust… and if she pressed the two sections together without cleaning each and every socket first… then the dust would work into the socket and before long, perhaps immediately, given the electrostatic properties of the dust, the connections wouldn’t be tight, and likely the antenna still wouldn’t work.

Cleaning and sealing was tedious… and every other receptacle required a new antistatic wipe. Just cleaning and sealing the hundred twenty centimeter-wide section took more than twenty minutes. When she finished, she almost didn’t want to link to the AI again.

She did. “Marcel, linkage test, please.”

“The links are secure. A reception test is not possible until you unroll the rest of the antenna.”

Alayna moved and did that, but because she was moving backward in order to avoid stepping on the film, it took longer to unroll than it had to roll up the damaged section, especially since the dust was clinging to everything.

“Marcel, reception test?”

“Signals being received from the new section.”

At least that works. Then she had to walk back to the roller and move it forward to unload the second section, open it, and unroll it enough to be able to connect the two new sections. While she had to wipe down the contact points and the area around the receiving sockets, the connection was easier because there wasn’t nearly the dust gathered on the replacement antenna sections.

Her back didn’t ache; it twinged painfully by the time she had unrolled the second section. Worrying about that would have to wait.

She was about halfway through connecting the second section to the rest of the antenna row, when Marcel pulsed. “You have thirty minutes before Arecibo takes control.”

Had she been out almost three hours? Frig! “I’ll be done with the repairs before that.” But there was no way she and the roller would make it back to COFAR center by then.

Twenty-one minutes later, Alayna and the roller, as well as two rolls of inoperative antenna polyimide film, an enormous number of used anti-static wipes, and a coating of dust, headed back toward the COFAR maintenance lock.

Although Marcel had verified the repair had been successful, just before the roller reached the open lock door, she linked to the AI. “Is the antenna still fully operative?”

“It is fully operative, Dr. Wong-Grant. The roller caused a slight interference field on your return, but that was minimal.”

And frigging unavoidable.

When the lock closed, Alayna just looked at the dust-coated roller. Her back ached, as did her head, and her eyes were burning… and sooner or later she’d have to clean the roller. Otherwise the dust would migrate into places where it could do real damage.

You don’t have to clean it this moment.

She did have to get through shutting down the roller, as well as connecting it to the charging system. She unloaded the rolls of damaged antenna film and stacked them in the waste room. She couldn’t put them through the reprocessor and for another week, not until “day” arrived, and she had full solar power. Next she had to clean the exosuit. By the time she was back inside the installation, she was shivering because her undersuit was soaked.

She did take a warm, if short shower, before pulling on a dry station-suit, and then heading to the control center. The console alert light was flashing.

When she saw the first message, the priority one that had triggered the alert, she relaxed.

Your system reports EFA exceeding three hours. Please report re-entry.

That was an inquiry request from the Lunara Mining installation south of Daedalus Crater, most likely automatic, although it bore Harris’s name as sender. Her response was swift and short.

Re-entry at 1143 UTC. Extended exterior repairs, successfully accomplished. Appreciate your watchfulness. Thank you.

Her next step was to monitor the performance of all systems, but as Marcel had already informed her, all optical and radio systems were operating at close to optimal levels. She nodded, more in relief than approval. Before she started in on checking the rest of the message queue, she went to the galley and fixed some tea. She also ate several biscuits. Then she carried the sealed mug back to the control center where she settled before the console.

Despite all the early space-age hype about living longer in low-grav, what experience had shown, both on the space elevator and on Luna, was that prolonged low-grav wasn’t any form of anagathic, but just created the early onset of muscular degeneration and osteoporosis, not to mention various other conditions that were anything but life-extending. That was why Alayna’s first post-doc employment was at COFAR, a job that was anything but glamorous, and a combination of basic maintenance technician, janitor, and second level astronomer. Being in good physical condition, having an outstanding academic record, and enough publications that had gotten some attention meant that, unlike many other young and largely inexperienced post-docs, she had real and gainful employment… if under less than optimal conditions and pay… and if only for two years.

Alayna had been sipping the tea for less than a minute when the console flashed again.

The second alert message was from Dorthae Wrae, the Foundation’s chief of operations.

Dr. Wong-Grant:

SRI(N) has informed us that for the first ten minutes of the joint Deep

Listen operation there was low level interference at COFAR, the frequency of which was consistent with operation of a roller.

How did this occur?

Was it absolutely necessary?

Please report immediately.

“Shit!” Ten lousy minutes because there was so much dust that everything needed anti-triboelectric wipedown?

At least, Wrae wasn’t demanding a full-comm real-time link, but that was understandable. Given both the cost of full-band face-to-face communications and the annoying two to three second delay, the Foundation seldom initiated or authorized direct real-time links. Costs drove everything, and that was another reason why Alayna had a station designed and built to hold ten people all to herself – except on rare occasions.

Alayna re-read Wrae’s message, then concentrated on framing a reply, forcing herself to respond methodically. Even so, it was almost a half hour later before she was ready to send her reply.

Director Wrae:

A micrometeor spray impacted the antenna at 0313 UTC. I was sleeping at that

time, and the damage did not trigger a full alarm. When I

woke at 0600 UTC, I determined that more than half of antenna row 6NE was inoperative as a result of

the damage. I immediately began preparations for an EFA with the roller, since I

knew the importance of the SRI(N) Deep Listening event scheduled for 1100

UTC. Those preparations, done as quickly as possible but according to the

approved procedures, took 93 standard minutes. The roller left the maintenance

bay at 0746. Travel time to the point of the damage was 41 minutes. Higher

speed was not possible because of Lunar night power limits. Repairs began at 0834.

The damage necessitated…

Alayna went on to detail the repairs step by step, checking the roller log to enter the exact times.

… because the impact occurred at a point along the antenna where the local

regolith is predominantly Class II dust, both the contacts and connections on both

the existing antenna film and the replacement antenna film required careful and time-consuming cleaning.

Repairs were completed before the beginning of the Deep Listen event, but for slightly more than the first ten minutes of the event, the roller was still returning to COFAR maintenance. While I regret the time it took to complete the repairs, it would seem that some slight interference for ten minutes was preferable to degraded antenna performance for the entire event.

While the last sentence wouldn’t make the director happy, Alayna wanted to convey the idea, if less than absolutely directly, that she hadn’t been responsible for the impact and that she’d done the most that she could.

She sent the reply, then went back to the message queue. There was a message from Chris, but it wasn’t flagged, and she kept it as new until she could make sure that there wasn’t something else urgent. She’d no sooner finished running through the queue than there was a reply from Foundation ops – again from Dorthae Wrae again. The gist of the reply was simple enough.

Was this repair necessary at this time? Would the client have even noticed the difference in signal strength?

Alayna did the math, then checked it. The disabled section of the antenna should only have resulted in a deterioration of less than half of one per cent. For some observations, that would make a difference. She frowned. Except Marcel reported it as five percent.

“Marcel? The amount of usable antenna lost to impact damage was less than one percent. Why did you report it as five percent?”

“The lost segment was eight tenths of one percent, but the signal loss was five point seven percent.”

“Why the difference?”

“Without an analysis of the damaged section, that is impossible to say.”

“Would the infiltration of Class II Lunar dust have affected the signal transmission?”

“That is impossible to determine at this time.”

“I don’t believe that. Isn’t there any research on that?” Alayna recalled reading something, but not where.

“The electrostatic properties of regolith dust have been studied – ”

“Cancel that. What I want to know is whether the triboelectric charging effect could create a field that would affect more than one antenna row.”

“There’s no research on that, Dr. Wong-Grant.”

“Great. A wonderful topic for a scholarly paper… as if it would do me any good.” Alayna took a deep breath and began to compose a reply.

Dr. Wrae:

In regard to your inquiry about the impact on the client’s data, according to

system measurements taken by the AI, approximately one percent of the antenna

array was non-functional, but the system status was only ninety-three percent after

the impact. Once the repairs were accomplished, system status returned to ninety-nine

percent. This suggests that electrostatic loading by the Class II regolith dust in

the vicinity of the impact damage had an effect, although I could find no research

either supporting or refuting that possibility. Because the measured loss was more

than five percent, and because it appeared likely that I could complete the repairs

before the beginning of Deep Listen, I went ahead with the repair procedures.

Because of the unforeseen high concentration of Class II dust in the vicinity of the

damaged section of the antenna, more extensive antistatic cleaning measures were necessary,

which extended the repair time. For the record, the system records did not note that that

section contained excessive fine dust levels. Under these circumstances, I made the judgment

that immediate repairs were in the client’s best interests.

What else could she say? After adding a few polite phrases expressing concern and appreciation for the inquiry, Alayna sent off her reply, again glad that she didn’t have to explain verbally.

Then she went back to dealing with all the routine messages.

More than two hours after she’d re-entered the COFAR control center, she finally opened the message from Chris, half-guiltily. But you deserve a few minutes for yourself. She began to read, smiling as she did about his description of the bureaucrats.

He’s actually thinking about where you are… or wanting you to think that he is. She smiled ironically since, either way, it was thinking about her. Given how few bureaucrats traveled willingly to Luna, it was also likely that he was transporting the Noram Inspector-General team. Her eyes went back to the last lines.

…I’d like your thoughts on what he has to say, especially the second paragraph

on page 37…

She smiled at the words that followed. It’s as if he knew what kind of day I was going to have.

When Alayna finished, she glanced at the attached book file, quickly opened it and read the title – Observations on Politics. She frowned. Why would he send me this? Except for internal Foundation politics, I could care less. Still, she was intrigued enough to skip to page 37, where she read.

Good politicians understand one fundamental aspect of human nature – that the

concern of most individuals attenuates on a geometric basis with the distance in

time or space. That was the principal reason the successful development of space

facilities exclusively by governments was initially limited. The costs were high and

the benefits distant in both time and distance. Only the threat of monopolization of

the power conveyed by the commencement of the Sinese space elevator, an installation

created by a government with greater resistance to popular opinion, spurred the

development and completion of the WestHem space elevator. Without either another threat

or immense profits, further and more extensive space development, especially beyond

the Martian colonies, is unlikely.

She frowned. She’d have to think about that. Idly she skipped through the pages, when a highlighted phrase – a title, really – caught her eyes.

Those to whom politics is music are most adept with the symbols.

With a smile at the words, one that quickly faded, Alayna read a few of the lines beneath.

In a sense, the “music” of politics reflects current culture, because it embodies the

heavy use of symbols, i.e., coded language, and percussion, the continuing, not quite

simplistic, heavy and repetitive beat designed to frame apparently new issues in

terms of old memes…

If he reads this sort of thing, your burner-boy is deeper than you thought. Except… he wasn’t hers, and at three years older than she was, he was hardly a boy. She closed the message and shifted the letter and the book to her personal directory.

There’s something else you need to do. Abruptly, she remembered. “Marcel, what about that anomaly in sector five? What can we report?”

“The anomaly has moved, but not enough to calculate either speed or projected path accurately. We’re close enough to day that we won’t get another observation until April twelfth.”

“Then we file a report, and someone else gets part of the credit.” If they haven’t already. “Do the report and let me see it.”

“It’s already done. It’s in your pending file.”

Alayna called up the report, in standard format for the International Astronomical Union, and read through it. She had no corrections, not that she likely would have had, since Marcel had years of experience in drafting such reports, and all had been seen and corrected, if necessary, by others, likely with far more experience than Alayna had. Still… she wondered what the anomaly might be, although given the odds and how well the solar system had been mapped over the past century it was most likely a long-period comet. And being a discoverer of a comet wouldn’t hurt professionally… assuming no one else has reported it. Even if Marcel was really the discoverer… and she was probably the tenth astronomer to report it.

“Go ahead and send it, with copies to Farside operations.”

“Transmission is complete, Dr. Wong-Grant.”

She still had to clean the roller, and that needed to be done before the inspection team arrived. You might as well get that done now. The way things were going, who knew what might come up if she waited… and she still had to go over the briefing materials she’d barely skimmed… and get off a message to her father, something she’d put off too long, not that he sometimes wasn’t exactly regular in messaging, but he regarded her reporting in as more necessary than his.

And, as had been the case, for most of the time she’d been at COFAR, so far, at least, her duties, her familiarization with the station, and more maintenance than she’s expected had left her far too little time to pursue her own research into the mysteries of the solar photosphere. But then, she’d been told that her research came behind everything else. She just hadn’t realized how far behind that would be.

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