Saturday, August 30, 2008
In August, I conceived the idea of writing a short science-fiction story, inspired by the spaceship-like lava lamp (above), which my younger son had stored in my townhouse along with great piles of other castoff possessions. (My interest in the kitschy blue object evidently renewed his attachment to it. He rushed back to retrieve it. Perhaps if I feigned interest in the rest of his possessions, I could reclaim my closet space.)
I made some preparatory notes for the story, but I had to suspend work while I was away for six weeks in Los Angeles on business. This lapse of time was fatal to my enthusiasm for the project. (I realize that this is a whiny excuse.)
All that remains is the following husk of a synopsis.
A graduate student in astronomy, while examining the star cluster that is the basis of his thesis, notices a new smudge of light on his monitor.
He has hopes of making a lucky discovery worthy of a submission to a scientific journal. Repeated observations throughout the night show a detectable movement of the smudge against the background sky, indicating that the smudge, whatever it is, must be relatively near, clearly within our solar system. A small comet in the initial stage of tail formation, he concludes.
When he makes his final observation of the comet at the end of the night's shift, he is surprised to find that the comet's path has altered by nearly five degrees. A comet being slung around by the pull of some massive, unseen asteroid? The graduate student now sees himself presenting a paper at a major astronomy conference.
The following night he hurries to check on the comet and is astonished that it is much brighter and that its location is offset at nearly a right angle to its earlier track. He points the telescope directly at the comet and waits to record the comet's new direction. But over the course of many hours, the comet does not budge from the center of the field of view. The comet has either stopped or is heading directly along a line straight toward Earth. The brightness continues to grow, like an oncoming headlight.
A Pentagon meeting in a large conference room. An astrophysicist (the hero of the story – a dashing young scientist, not unlike a younger version of myself) is excitedly briefing a group of impatient, grim-faced officers about orbital dynamics, trajectory curves, and evidence of control. They stare up at a flat-panel display showing the planetary orbits and the red line of a simulated 3D flight track, which curves down into the plane of the ecliptic at a point near Neptune's orbit and then makes a bee line toward Earth. The estimated time of arrival is two weeks.
The two-star general in charge gives orders. He wants a better characterization of the approaching object. He wants to know what preparations can be made during the next two weeks. He wants to review plans for maintaining order by imposition of martial law.
The object increases its speed. Instead of taking two weeks, the object – a silvery egg-shaped spaceship the size of an aircraft carrier – arrives near Earth in two days and instantly whips around to park on the moon. The United States government suppresses all television and radio reporting of the spacecraft. However, the internet traffic goes crazy. Telescope pictures of the spaceship, rumors, and speculations circle the globe.
The astrophysicist is at home watching the national news that evening when the screen goes black and then an image appears of a slender elfin creature with large eyes and pointed ears. It appears to be ill at ease, perhaps suffering from stagefright. It bumps into what looks like a tool rack behind it and knocks loose a cylindrical metal tool, which floats in the air.
The creature begins speaking serviceable Chinese. After a few minutes, the news show finds a translator to provide a running translation. The creature makes a long declaration that his people come in peace and do not wish to trouble the inhabitants of this planet. However, some changes will be instituted. The creature states that flights of aircraft or rockets will no longer be permitted. Starting tomorrow, any plane attempting to take off will be destroyed. No nuclear weapons nor nuclear power plants will be tolerated. The creature, fancifully called a sprite by the translator, fades out and is replaced by the image of the Earth, centered on the Himalayas. The image magnifies to show a small red circle.
The creature reappears and orders the immediate evacuation of all living things from the area covered by the red circle. After a pause, the translator passes along the information from the news show staff that the red circle covers approximately twenty square miles of sparsely populated, high-altitude terrain in Bhutan.
Fear is heightened the next day by reports that planes are annihilated upon takeoff at airports all around the world. The National Guard is called out to put down riots and enforce a strict curfew in the major cities of the United States.
Telescope surveillance of the spaceship on the moon reveals the release of scores of small, blue vessels. They are tracked toward their destination in Bhutan.
The astrophysicist shows his credentials to the National Guard troops patrolling the streets and makes his way to the Pentagon. He watches replays of the sprite's video and is puzzled each time to see the metal tool hanging in the air. The tool should be under the influence of the moon's gravity. After careful observation, he detects that the tool falls very slowly during the course of the sprite's announcement. He replays the video again. This time he takes a marker and puts a dot on the screen next to the tool every ten seconds. The dots show a slight downward acceleration with time. He checks a reference book for the moon's gravitational force and calculates that the tool appears to be falling about fifty times slower than it should. Either the moon's gravity has been nearly nullified within the spaceship or else the video of the sprite has been slowed by about fifty times. The astrophysicist sends his findings to his Air Force manager.
The United States sends a squadron of special forces operatives overland to Bhutan. The operatives move into the forbidden circle and observe the sprites moving at super-human speed constructing a complex of honeycomb buildings. The operatives are wiped out by the sprites, who move too fast for the operatives to defend themselves.
The Pentagon orders the launch of missiles from widely scattered submarines to destroy the sprite beachhead in Bhutan. The missiles' nuclear warheads detonate immediately upon launch. The submarines are vaporized.
This is as far as I got in my notes. It seems that I have stumped myself with this story. The sprites have better technology and move and think fifty times faster than humans. Apart from using H.G. Wells's old War of Worlds germ gimmick, I don't see a way to stop the sprites from setting up their galactic truckstop in Bhutan. How can my astrophysicist hero possibly save the day? Can the sprites' own speed be used to defeat them?