Issue In Doubt - By David Sherman


McKinzie Elevator Base, Outside Millerton,

Semi-Autonomous World Troy

Samuel Rogers jerked when he heard the beeping of the proximity alert. He spun in his chair to look at the approach displays and his jaw dropped. With one hand he toggled the space-comm to hail the incoming ship, with the other he reached for the local comm to call Frederick Franklin, his boss.

Franklin sounded groggy when he answered. “This better be good, Rogers. I just got to sleep.”

“Sorry, Chief, but are we expecting any starships? One just popped up half an AU north. Uh oh.”

“No, we aren’t expecting anyone. And what do you mean, ‘uh oh’?”

“Chief—” Rodgers’ voice broke and he had to start again. “Chief, data coming in says the incoming starship is three klicks wide.”

“Bullshit,” Franklin snapped. “There aren’t any starships that big!”

“I know. It’s got to be an asteroid. And it’s on an intercept vector.”

“There aren’t any asteroids north.” Franklin’s voice dropped to a barely intelligible mumble. “North, that would explain how it ‘just popped up.’” Indistinct noises sounded to Rogers like his boss was getting dressed. “Have you tried to hail her?”

“The same time I called you. But half an AU. . .”

“Yeah, yeah, I know. Stand by, I’m on my way.”

“Standing by.” Rogers sounded relieved.

Franklin burst into the spaceport’s operations room and headed straight for the approach displays. In seconds he absorbed the data, and let out a grunt.

“Any reply yet?” he asked.

Rogers shook his head. “Too soon, Chief.”

Franklin grimaced; he should have realized that and not have asked such a dumb question. The starship—asteroid, whatever—was half an Astronomical Unit out, half the distance from old Earth to Sol. It would take about four minutes for the hail to reach the incoming object, and another four minutes for a reply to come back. Plus however much time it would take for whoever it was to decide to answer the hail. The two men watched the data display as time ticked by.

After watching for another fifteen minutes, with no reply, and nothing but confirmation as to its velocity, vector, and probable impact time, Franklin decided to kick the problem upstairs.

“Office of the President.” James Merton’s voice was thick when he answered the president’s comm; the night duty officer must have been dozing.

“Jim, Fred here. We’ve got a situation that requires some attention from the boss.”

“Can it wait until morning? Bill’s had a long day, and he’s dead to the world.”

“Come morning, it might be too late to do anything.”

“Come on, Fred,” Merton said. “No offense intended, but you’re an elevator operator. What kind of earth-shattering problem can you possibly have?”

“Exactly that: a literally earth-shattering problem. There’s a large object on an intercept course. That’s large, as in planet-buster. It’ll be here in less than a standard day.”

There was a momentary silence before Merton asked, “You aren’t kidding, are you?”

“I wish. Stand by for the data.” Franklin nodded to Rogers, who transmitted a data set to the president’s office. A minute later, Franklin and Rogers heard Merton swear under his breath.

“You called it, something that big really is a planet buster, isn’t it?” the duty officer asked.

“Unfortunately,” Franklin answered.

“Now, according to the data you sent me, the object is metallic, and it seems to have the density of a starship rather than the density of an asteroid. Am I reading those figures right?”

“You’re reading right ,” Franklin said. “But nobody makes starships that big.”

“At least nobody we know of,” Rogers murmured. “Have you tried to contact it, I mean, in case it is a starship?”

“Yes, we did.” Franklin looked at Rogers, who held up four fingers. “Four times. No response.”

“And you’re sure it’s on a collision course?”

Franklin shivered. “Absolutely.”

“Keep trying to make contact. I’ll wake the president.”

An hour and a half later, a three-man Navy rescue team under the command of Lieutenant (j.g.) Cyrus Hayden, rode the elevator up to Base 1, in geosynchronous orbit, where they boarded the tender John Andrews totake a closer look at the rapidly approaching object. If it was a starship their orders were to again attempt radio contact. If she did not reply, to attempt to board her. If the object was an unusual asteroid, Hayden and his men were to plant a nuclear device on its side, then back off to a safe distance before detonating the bomb. It was hoped that the explosion would deflect the object’s course enough to avoid the collision that was looking more certain with each passing minute.

The North American Union Navy tender John Andrews was still