Saturday, October 24, 2009

Common Words #8: Corona

If you're looking for horrid writing today, than have I got writing for you - my first real story, "Corona," completed on Thursday, June 5, 1997.

As it turns out, I've been writing for longer than I can remember. "Corona" was not, by any stretch of reckoning, the first story I ever wrote - but it's the first that seemed particularly significant at the time I wrote it, and as such it's as good a starting line for my career as a wordguy as anything I can think of. It's my own personal reflection of the Golden Age of Science Fiction, which in this case was 14.

"Corona" was written as a Grade 9 English assignment, and came back with a mark of 10/10 with comments from the teacher of "interesting characters," "technically superb," and "imaginative." In the context of a classroom full of fourteen-year-olds, I'm sure it probably was. Back in 1997, though, I had only a vague comprehension of what I was doing. (Paragraph breaks? What are those?) The dialogue - both the characters' and the narrator's - is laden with infodumps, the conflict is almost entirely absent, and there's no resolution at all. At the time I was probably imagining it as the first part of something larger which never got off the ground.

Nevertheless, despite how horrid I find it now, it was a beginning. The 10/10, I imagine, greatly buoyed my fragile, barely-teenage self-confidence at the time. Otherwise, I might never have gone anywhere.

by Andrew Barton

In the outer perimeter of the Beta Ancaster system, there was sheer emptiness. Here, between the orbit of the outermost gas giant and the system's Oort Cloud, there were barely one hundred atoms per cubic meter, as opposed to billions, perhaps trillions, of atoms in a comparable space at sea level on Earth. In this void, the only objects of appreciable size were rare vagabond asteroids or comets on their way in-system. This area had changed little since the birth of its sun billions of years ago. Then, there was a flash of light followed by a blue vorted; the traditional signature of something dropping out of hyperspace. Seconds after the vortex disappeared, two objects were faintly visible. They approached with amazing speed, and within five seconds their identification plaques were visible. Located on the dorsal hull, where the light from the star reflected off them, two names were visible; FSS ARCTURUS and FCC CORONA. Seconds later, they had become small dots again, heading toward the sun.


On board the Corona, Captain Tyrone Richards was awakened from his sleep by the sound of his door chime. Grumbling about being woken up at 2 a.m. ship's time, he hurried over to the closet to put his robe on, pausing only to place an ancient paperback copy of "The Hitch HIker's Guide to the Galaxy" back on the shelf. Since he was still half-asleep, he stumbled over a small step-stool on the way to the door. Conducting a near-flawless faceplant, he picked himself up and strode over to the door. He punched in a code on his wall pad, disabling the locking mechanism, and was greeted by Commander Michelle Hall, the Corona's executive officer. Standing 1.7 meters tall, with short space-black hair, she was one of Corona's most valuable officers. Born on the planet of Ithaca, the fourth planet of the Arcturus system, she was slightly stronger than most members of the crew, as Ithaca had a gravitational pull of 1.4 gees. After graduating from the University of Altair with honors, she enrolled with the Terran Federation Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland. She rose through the ranks quickly, and at thirty-one Terran years old, was one of the youngest XO's in the navy.

"Good morning, sir," she said. "I'm sorry that I had to wake up you up like that, but you turned off your comlink."

"Yes, I did," Richards replied. "I haven't had very much sleep since we left Alnilam, so I thought that I would take advantage of this opportunity."

"I understand, sir, but the captain of the Arcturus is on Commchannel Four and wishes to speak with you. He said something about 'unusual electromagnetic fluctuations' in the vicinity of the fourth planet."

"All right," Richards said as he attempted to brush his hear out of his eyes with his right hand. "I'll meet you on the bridge in five minutes. Thank you for bringing this to my attention." As Commander Hall walked down the corridor toward the bridge, she began to get a bad feeling about the energy readings, much like a certain other Federation officer had received immediately prior to the Battle of New Jupiter. Figuring that it was nothing, she shook her head and walked to the turbolift.


When Captain Richards arrived on Corona's small, circular bridge, the image of the Arcturus was visible on the viewscreen. The viewscreen's field of vision was centered on the Beta Ancaster star, with the ventral hull of Arcturus's forward hull appearing in the upper middle section of the streen. Its nose was pointed almost straight ahead, likely scanning the fourth planet. Sunlight reflected off the destroyer's xeranium armor plating, revealing a multitude of laser turrets and missile launchers, ready to defend the small convoy if necessary. Even though Federation HIgh Command had thought it prudent to bring a destroyer along, just in case a Fhyoni battlecruiser decided to drop by, Richards seriously doubted the logic of it. Just before he turned away from the viewscreen to open a commchannel with Arcturus, he noticed a small flag which looked exactly like the one on his shoulder; a blue rectangle with two olive branches. It was similar to the flag of Earth's United Nations, but was different in one respect. Huddled between the branches, where the UN flag showed a polar view of the Earth, lay an above view of the Milky Way galaxy. Even though the two organizations had different flags, they both had similar goals: the United Nations strived for world peace from 1945 to 2056, when the first planetary government was formed, and the Terran Federation had been trying to establish galactic peace since its founding in 2112. However, the campaign had not gone smoothly in recent years, ever since the Fhyoni War broke out in 2445. How ironic, Richards thought, that the worst war the galaxy has ever known began exactly five hundred years after the worst war that Earth has ever known ended.

Glancing at the flashing "incoming communications" indicator mounted beneath the main viewscreen, he knew that trouble was brewing, as Arcturus's Captain Hansen rarely opened a commchannel unless there was a problem. Taking his seat in the command chair, he turned to the comm station. "Lieutenant Kiritis," he said to the cat-like Sirian at communications, "open a commchannel to the Arcturus." The Sirian replied in the affirmative and quickly set up the link. Within seconds, the image of the Arcturus had been replaced by the visage of Arcturus's CO, Captain Telerius Hansen. Originally from Bellatria, he left his homeworld at the age of seventeen Terran years to study at the prestigious University of Altair. After his six-year tenure at the school, he signed on to become a fighter pilot at the Federation Pilot Academy on Demeter. After becoming one of the most talented pilots to ever attend the FPA, he piloted a Banshee in such conflicts as the Perseus War (2449-2450) and the War of 2452. After being promoted to his current rank in 2456, he had served in several major convoy battles, commanding the Arcturus in all but one. The Arcturus itself had been in drydock when, due to the insistence of Federation High Command, its repairs were cut short in order to escort a freighter from Alnilam to Beta Ancaster, a small orange dwarf in the deep boondocks of the Perseus spiral arm. While it was not exactly an optimal use for a Proxima-class destroyer, Hansen preferred that Arcturus was out in space, under its own power, rather than having technicians swarming around the vessel back at Starbase Omicron 7. After he had finished confirming that the channel was secure, he turned his head up to a level where the viewscreen could see it clearly. Behind him, members of Arcturus's crew were visible walking around the bridge.

"Captain Hansen," Richards said, "to what do I owe the honor of communications opened by you?"

Laughing, Hansen replied, "That's the Tyrone Richards I remember. Back on the Saratoga, you had a comedic quote ready for every day of the week."

"Yeah, that's right," Richards said. "So, Telly, what can I do for you?" He intentionally mentioned Hansen's old nickname to see what kind of response he would receive.

"It's not 'Telly' anymore, it's 'Tellus'. A man like you should know that."

"Okay, 'Tellus', I'll remember that. Now, what's the problem at hand? Gravity flux? Ion storm? What?"

Responding quickly, Hansen said, "No, it's neither of those, but they are good guesses. In fact, it's quite similar to our primary problem, the EM flux near the fourth planet. One of the moons of the outermost gas giant is displaying strange energy readings. When we analyzed them, they almost seemed like a Fhyoni signature."

Looking concerned, Richards sat up in his chair. "Judging by the power of these energy signatures, what would be capable of producing htem?"

"Just a second," Hansen said as he worked a computer. "According to this, it looks like a simple hyperfusion power plant that's been abandoned for a year."

"All right," Richards said as he stood up, "but do you think that this discovery should take precedence over the electromagnetic flux over Ancaster IV?"

"Hmm..." Hansen put his hand on his forehead, apparently in deep thought. "No, I don't believe so. However, we can't just thunder away before we investigate this phenomenon."

"I agree," replied Richards. "What I think we should do is send Corona's Banshee to investigate the moon, while four of Arcturus's Hurricanes take up a position half a million kilometers ahead of us. Doing that will increase our scanning range and lessen the possible risks toward Arcturus and Corona." Even though neither of the ships had any evidence that the EM flux threatened the ships in any conceivable way, it was Federation policy for phenomena like this to be treated with caution. This policy had come into place back in 2314, over one hundred years before, when the starship Polaris was destroyed by a sudden solar flare erupting from the primary star of the Capella system. When Polaris's telemetry was analyzed one month later, it was determined that the solar flare had been detected approximately one minute before the vessel's destruction. As a result, the Chief of Naval Operations quickly devised a policy dealing with strange sensor readings.

"All right, I agree," Hansen said after some deliberation. "I'll scramble the Hurricanes immediately. I suggest that you do the same with your Banshee. Out." Hansen's face vanished from the screen, and was replaced with the Arcturus realigning its course and getting ready to power up its ion engines. "Well," Richards muttered to himself, "who should I send on this mission? Can't be the pilot - he transferred off at Alnilam. Wait a second - yes, that's it!" Standing up from his chair, Richards surveyed the cramped bridge, looking for his executive officer. Finding his quarry, he started to speak. "Commander Hall," Richards said, "What is your current pilot rating? Level 4?"

"Actually, sir," said the Ithacan, "it's Level 7. I did some training exercises when I was on Spica last month."

"All right then, how would you like to take a spin in the Banshee?" Richards wore a grin on his face.

"I'd like that very much, sir," said Hall.

"Then what," said the captain, "are you waiting for? I know you've been waiting a long time for this opportunity, so go! I'll download your mission parameters into the fighter's onboard computer."

"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir." Hall saluted, then turned around and entered the turbolift. Returning to the command chair, Richards pressed the intra-ship comlink button. Speaking loudly, he said, "Richards to hangar deck!" Seconds later, the words "Hangar deck here," were emanating from the speaker. "Hangar deck," he said, "get the bird ready to launch. Arm it with plasma torpedoes." The hangar deck's affirmative response filtered through Corona's circuitry within milliseconds. Upon hearing the reply, Richards terminated the comlink.


Several minutes later, after donning her flight suit, Commander Hall exited the turbolift and walked into the upper hangar deck. A short, tunnel-like passage jutted out ahead of her for approximately fifteen meters. At the end of the passageway sat the door into the flight control room, a cramped space with a small positronic computer and vessel-to-fighter uplink system. The walls of the passage were covered with transparitanium, affording Hall a spectacular view of the hangar bay directly below. The hangar bay itself was a seemingly cavernous room, kept at zero-gee at all times. Three maglocks extended down from the roof of the bay, seeming like stalactites deep inside Mammoth Cave on Earth. The locking appendages, specifically designed for Banshees, extended further down from the maglock tubes themselves. They were arranged in a layout similar to that of a triangle; the forward clamp was attached to the forward fuselage over the tachyon communications antenna between the cockpit and the hyperradar array in the nose, while the bottom two were attached to the port and starboard wings. The outer thirds of the wings themselves were currently folded upwards at a ninety-degree angle to conserve space, not unlike the wings of fighters based on aircraft carriers in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. In addition, a small, vertical tube which completely covered the cockpit extended up and into the corridor where Hall was standing. After confirming that there was an atmosphere and zero-gravity in the tube, Hall unlocked the hatch and floated down into the Banshee's cockpit.

The Banshee's cockpit was standard for most fighters and small shuttles in service of the Terran Federation, with a small, padded seat that had emergency ejection capabilities, a gravity generator, a control stick, and lots of displays. While managing such a craft would certainly seem daunting to the average skyskimmer pilot, it was no problem for experienced pilots like Hall. She sat on the pilot's seat, automatically triggering both the grav generator and the seat harnesses. Pressing a button on the main console, she closed and sealed the cockpit. Giving a verbal command to the Banshee's onboard computer, she heard the relaxing sound of the fighter's ion engines coming on-line.

"Computer," she said, "open a channel to Control."

"Control here," came the reply.

""Control, this is Banshee. Begin launch sequence."


Underneath the Banshee, the great bay doors began to swing open, creating an exit path for the fighter, seeming like a bomber about to drop its explosives. "Computer," Hall said, "fold wings to flight position." The computer complied, and several seconds later it said that it was ready to launch. "Okay then," replied Hall. "Computer, release the maglocks!" Even in zero-gravity, the force of the ejection was enough to push Hall down into her seat. When she cleared Corona's hull, she set a course for Beta Ancaster VII. Rocketing towards the planet at full velocity, Hall decided to open the mission profile.

After a relative lull in the mission lasting for about an hour, the flight time from the take-off point to Beta Anc VII, a relatively quiet klaxon sounded in the cockpit. Upon hearing the klaxon, Hall ordered the fighter's computer to end reciting the most recent copy of the Arcturus Picayune, Hall's homeworld newspaper. While the newspaper itself had its head office on Ithaca, it serviced the planet of Ithaca, its two moons, the six inhabited asteroids, and the ten moons of Arcturus IX. Before the computer had stopped reading the publication, it had been talking about a large earthquake near New Corinth. Hall then adjusted her helmet-mounted HUD (Heads Up Display) and said, "Computer, overlay the location of the energy signature on the HUD visor." On the green, transparent sheet of duraglass, a red dot pulsed in the moon's southern hemisphere. Steering the Banshee towards the location, Hall switched the active weapon from the particle cannon to the plasma missiles, which formed the image of wandering crosshairs in the HUD. The missile had almost locked onto the energy signature when laser fire began erupting from the surface of the moon. Reacting almost instinctively, Hall jerked the control stick away from the moon. After exiting the range of the lasers, Hall had a decision to make. Should I fire a plasma torpedo and risk destroying half the moon, or should I execute a strafing run? she thought. After agonizing over the decision for several minutes, she decided on the strafing run. Just before she was going to tell the computer to set up a course for the run, the "Incoming Communications" light winked on.

"Computer," she said, "what type of commchannel are we currently receiving?" After analyzing the transmission for a second or two, the computer responded by saying, "It is a standard Terran Federation broad-band distress signal." Distress signal? she thought, then she remembered the EM flux at Beta Anc IV. "Computer," she said, "let me hear it." The resulting noise was a combination of static, multiple explosions, and people trying ot be heard over the din. "To any and all Federation vessels near the Beta Ancaster system, this is Captain Hansen of the Federation vessel Arcturus." Hall felt a chill with the mention of the destroyer's name. "We are under attack by multiple enemy vessels. We've lost engines, and the shields are buckling. They have already crippled the freighter we were escorting and forced it to crash-land on the third moon." An explosion, louder than all the others, filtered through into the Banshee's cockpit. Accompanying it were the unmistakeable sounds of a hull breach siren and a damage control team boarding a turbolift. "Please," Hansen repeated, "if you can hear this message, please assist us! I repeat, we are under attack in the Beta Ancas-." The last three letters of "Ancaster" were drowned out by the sound of a monumental explosion, which was replaced by static several seconds later. Hoping that the static was just a result of the primary tachyon transmitter being damaged or destroyed, Hall realized that she had to assist. "Computer, close the commchannel, engage the stealth field, and plot a hyperspace microjump as far in-system as possible without putting the ship at risk." When the computer reported that it was ready to execute the microjump, Hall simply said, "Engage." In a flash of light, the Banshee promptly disappeared into the swirling blue hyperspace vortex.


Arriving at Beta Anc IV twenty minutes later, Hall's eyes were met with devastationi. Debris - tools, frozen bodies, hull fragments littered the scene. While the majority of the fragments were the size of Hall's fighter or smaller, the hypperradar quickly detected a fragment fifteen meters long. As it drifted into view, Hall was able to make out the letters "FSS ARCTURUS DD 475." "That explosion I heard must have been the antimatter reactor losing containment," Hall said, thinking aloud. After the fighter's radar had finished scanning the wreckage, discovering no life-signs in the debris, Hall swung the fighter towards the third moon. Upon achieving orbit, Hall said, "Computer, scan the moon for life-signs." "Scanning," the computer said. Finally, it said, "One hundred and four life-signs detected." "Computer," Hall said, "can you specify the life-forms on the moon's surface?" Within seconds, the computer responded, "Detecting eighty-seven humans, nine Sirians, three Trannians, and five Bellatrians." Realizing that, since Corona's crew complement was only fifty-six beings, part of Arcturus's crew had survived. Those crew members might be able to give descriptions of what Hall had dubbed the "Battle of Beta Ancaster." Sending a coded tachyon burst transmission to Starbase Kappa 16, informing them of the situaiton, Hall piloted the Banshee through the atmosphere to an effortless landing among the wreckage of the Corona.


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