For any reader who claims space-travel SF doesn’t come close enough to the known realities of physics to be believable, I hold up Eric Choi’s “From a Stone,” a hard science story steeped in scientific realism. In a way that puts the reader in mind of Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama, Choi explores the nature of intelligence and how one determines if an artifact is a product of an intelligent alien race. There are no star drives, blasters, or gee-whiz technologies. Everything is an extension of our current technology base. Rather than featuring the daring-do of fictional explorers, it shows the current realities of government- and committee-based space exploration. This story first appeared in the September 1996 issue of Science Fiction Age magazine.
Eric Choi is a writer, editor and aerospace engineer based in Toronto, Canada. His work has appeared in Rocket Science, The Astronaut from Wyoming and Other Stories, Footprints,Northwest Passages, Space Inc., Tales from the Wonder Zone, Northern Suns, Tesseracts6, Arrowdreams, Science Fiction Age, and Asimov’s. With Derwin Mak, he co-edited the Aurora Award winning anthology The Dragon and the Stars. He is currently co-editing with Ben Bova the forthcoming hard SF anthology Carbide Tipped Pens.
by Eric Choi
Cold, hard, unimaginably ancient stone. A rough, irregular aggregate of it, angular, cratered, pockmarked and pitted. The stone was dark, with an albedo of less than five percent. It tumbled lazily about its major axis with a rotation period of 19 hours, 53 minutes. A third of it was frozen in shadow, while the rest roasted in the incessant light of the Sun. It was only ten by five by four kilometers in major dimension—on the scale of the Solar System, practically microscopic.
But the stone was not too small to escape human curiosity.
“Hold at three hundred meters for IPS parameter update.” The voice of pilot Ben Dixon came over Pierre Caillou’s spacesuit radio. Dixon and the mission commander, Poornima Bhupal, were monitoring the EVA from the bridge of the UNSDA spacecraft Harrison Schmitt.
The asteroid’s bulk loomed ever larger as the astronauts approached. Pierre kept an eye on his lidar rangefinder. At the precise moment a nitrogen jet fired, putting his MMU in an attitude-hold mode three hundred meters from the surface.
“I am holding at three hundred meters,” Pierre said. His colleagues reported the same.
“Copy,” Ben replied. “Transmission of IPS updates will commence in five seconds… Mark! Note the new basis vectors are for an asteroid-based frame of reference, with the origin located at the geographic center of 2021-PK.”
“Understood.” A green light on Pierre’s inertial positioning system blinked. “My IPS reports updated state vectors received and installed.” Diane and Marvin reported their navigation units also were ready.
Ben enunciated his next words formally. “To EVA crew, I have the following messages from the CAPCOM and Commander Bhupal: Mission Control Darmstadt is ‘go,’ Schmitt is ‘go.’ You are cleared for final approach to 2021-PK. This is the last hurrah, people. Make it good.”
“Understood.” Pierre’s aft thrusters fired a short burst, putting him in motion once more. The dark surface of the asteroid rushed up to him. Pierre executed a pitch-back maneuver to put his feet “down” before the negative y-axis thrusters came on to slow his touchdown. “…20 meters… 10… 5… 1… Contact!”
“I have contact also,” said Diane.
“I’m down!” followed Marvin.
Pierre surveyed the magnificently desolate scene about him. “They say you can’t draw blood from a stone—”
“But you can always get knowledge!” Diane’s exuberant voice cut in. They would later swear it was not rehearsed.
The astronauts went about gathering samples, hopping across the asteroid like grasshoppers. Pierre presently found himself near one of 2021-PKs larger craters. He decided to sample the rim material, and his MMU dutifully delivered him to the edge. As he readied his tools and glanced at the bottom of the crater, he noticed something unusual.
The Sun was shining at an angle across the impact, producing a semicircular shadow that bisected the bottom of the bowl. At the top of the arc, a second, smaller semicircle jutted out from the shadow. There appeared to be another crater at the bottom of the larger, but somehow it didn’t look right.
“Pierre for Diane.”
“Have a look at this.” He transmitted his camera video.
“That’s interesting,” Diane replied after watching Pierre’s feed on her multifunction visor. “I’m coming to have a look.”
Moments later, she landed beside him.
“So, what do you think?” Pierre asked.
“Looks like another crater.”
“That’s what I thought. But look at the edge. It’s not very circular. In fact, it’s pretty ragged.”
“Must be really old,” Diane concluded. “A few billion years of dust and micrometeoroid impact will do that.”
“Of course. But look at the larger crater.” Pierre’s hand swept out a curve. “The rim is smooth. That smaller crater is on top of this larger one, so the smaller one must be more recent. So, how could it have experienced more degradation than the older, larger impact?”
...Read the full story in Far Orbit: Speculative Space Adventures