London 2055, and the rain-lashed streets rippled and reflected the neon nightlife of this diverse city. All along the glimmering walkways of Theatreland people huddled in shop doorways escaping the dirty backwash from cars and the downpour from the grey oppressive sky.
Hunched against the rain, Archer blended into the crowd perfectly. He wore a black leather jacket and blue jeans. On the back of his jacket was the stark functional emblem of his small team of freelance techno-graduates, the Axiom Few. Below the logo was his name.
Not many people knew how important Archer was. Not many people knew that he might be the only man who could save them. Even fewer knew what he was going to save them from, and it was probably better that it stayed that way. In fact, right up until he walked into the huge reception area of the Iceberg Building, even he didn’t know why he had been summoned here.
In the building, Goddard was waiting for him. This older man had lost most of his hair, and his angular nose and thin mouth gave him a stern quality that Archer had always disliked. But Goddard’s eyes tried to be friendly, his handshake was bold and his voice sincere. He hobbled on a gnarled wooden cane.
‘Thank you for agreeing to see me at such short notice, Archer. I realise this must be difficult for you.’
The two men entered a nearby lift and ascended to the twentieth floor, a mere quarter of the way up the towering skyscraper. They went into Goddard’s office. Outside the huge window behind the old man’s desk, the colourful cityscape buzzed and shimmered in the rain-mist that rose from the streets. It was a Saturday night, and Archer could think of a hundred places he would rather be.
‘Please sit Archer. Now tell me, how was your trip back from La Luna?’
‘It was tiring. I can never sleep on those shuttles. I could really do with some rest, and your unnecessary small-talk is keeping me from it.’
Goddard smiled and lowered himself awkwardly into his chair. He leaned his cane against the desk and crossed his palms in front of him, ‘Then I’ll cut straight to the chase, shall I?’
Archer nodded, and Goddard seemed to momentarily hunt for a place to begin, ‘Do you know what the Ceres Belt is?’
Archer leaned back in his chair and clasped his hands behind his head, ‘Yes, it’s the asteroid belt that orbits the sun between Mars and Jupiter.’
‘Correct. And did you know that the Space Foundation has commissioned a project to catalogue all forty thousand asteroids in the belt?’
Archer was surprised, ‘Didn’t they do that fifty years ago, to see if any asteroids might hit Earth?’
Goddard raised a finger, ‘Ah yes, but this project serves a different purpose. You see, those asteroids were once part of a planet that exploded. This mapping project will enable us to build a computer-generated image of what the planet once looked like. The benefits to the scientific community will be far-reaching.’
Archer felt his interest growing, ‘A cosmic jigsaw puzzle.’
We’ve got fifty ships on the project. Admittedly it’s taking a lot longer than we thought. But the team are getting paid per asteroid, so we’re well within budget.’
‘I’m glad to hear it.’ Archer didn’t give a damn about the budget, ‘When will the project be finished?’
Goddard tilted his head forward and looked down at his fidgeting hands, ‘It’s hard to say. You see, there’s been a complication.’
The mining ship Khartoum established a geo-synchronous orbit over the asteroid. The spotlight’s beam, which shone down from the underside of the ship’s hull, illuminated the location where touchdown would take place.
A web of reinforced nylon tethers shot away from the ship, twisting and spiralling downwards under the force of their ejection. Within moments they impacted with the rock, clamping onto the dusty surface, getting a purchase as soon as they could, and kicking up plumes of age-old silicate dust as they did so.
The Khartoum swung about the stone like a child that had jumped onto a playground roundabout. The asteroid’s momentum pulled the tethers tight, dragging the Khartoum along as it continued its perpetual rotation.
Once the mining ship’s direction had been forcefully changed, it began to reel in the tethers on its powerful winch, bringing it closer to the surface of the asteroid. Within an hour, it had landed, and it began to drill.
Goddard picked up a remote control off his desk, ‘Two months ago our seismic mapping team found an object buried three hundred metres into asteroid Euclides.
‘What kind of object?’
Goddard pointed the remote control at a screen located on the wall behind Archer. Archer craned his neck around, realised he was uncomfortable, and then turned his chair to face the screen.
A picture appeared, a close up of a green circular disk mottled with tiny pinpoints that were etched into the surface. In the centre of the disk was what looked like a tiny circuit board. Alongside the object was a ruler, indicating that the whole thing was a little less than seven centimetres in diameter.
Archer felt his heart rate quicken. He turned his gaze back to Goddard, ‘Does anyone know what it is?’
‘We’ve had a lot of people working on the problem, and we have a few answers. See those markings on the surface?’
‘Yes. Well, we counted them. There are over forty thousand of the blighters.’ Goddard pointed at the screen, ‘The quality of this picture doesn’t do it justice. But if you look closely at the actual artifact, the level of detail and craftsmanship is quite amazing.’
‘Forty thousand,’ said Archer in a soft voice, ‘One for every…’
‘…asteroid in the belt.’ Goddard finished. ‘We’ve been able to work out that much. And we’ve had some clever people doing some serious number-crunching, trying to work out exactly what it all means.’
‘Have you drawn any conclusions?’
‘Yes, but we may be too late. You see; the pinpoints on the artifact are a depiction of the layout of the asteroids at a particular point in time; a configuration that has not yet been reached.’
‘How long until it is reached?’
‘A few hours. We can’t be absolutely sure however. Calculating the trajectories of forty thousand asteroids isn’t easy, as you may well imagine. Especially when you need to add in the gravitational perturbations that they inflict on each other. The necessary calculations are astronomical, in every sense of the word.’
Archer stood and walked over to the window. Suddenly the city looked like a different place; an alien place. How did an object like that find its way into an asteroid? Was this the final incontrovertible evidence of the existence of alien intelligence? And more importantly…
‘What will happen when the configuration is reached?’ he asked Goddard.
Goddard sighed, took his cane and struggled to his feet before moving towards the door. ‘We don’t know for certain. But we think we have a pretty good idea. Now, will you follow me? There’s something I want to show you.’
The swishing sound of the rain and the rushing sound of the cars merged into one under the motorway bridge where the Axiom Few test shack had been erected.
A tall man carrying a leather jacket which he used as a hood against the downpour, made his way towards the shack. Anyone standing behind him would have seen the Axiom Few emblem and the word “Davey” written across the back of his jacket. But, save for the cars, there was no one for miles, and that was exactly why they had put the shack here, hidden away from prying eyes.
Davey opened the corrugated metal door of the shack and entered. Negotiating his way around a mess of wires, tools, computers and disks, shivering and shaking rain from his hair, he made his way over to his colleague, who did not wear a leather jacket, but instead wore an Axiom Few t-shirt with the name “Geek” written below the ubiquitous logo.
Hanging on a clotheshorse in the middle of the shack, Davey noticed the shiny suit they had been working on, which looked like it was made of thousands of lenses. Leading away from the back of the helmet was a fat bunch of coloured wires which trailed across the floor and up onto the desk where Geek was sitting. He was connecting them to a computer terminal.
‘Damn it’s wet out there,’ said Davey.
‘Did anyone see you?’
‘Of course not. How’s the prototype coming along?’
Geek smiled. ‘You’re just in time for a test run. Wanna put it on?’
Archer and Goddard stepped out of the office and approached the lifts. Archer’s head was buzzing, and he was full of questions about the alien artifact, but he tried to maintain an inner resolve.
‘Did they find anything else during the mission?’
‘No. The Foundation has mapped seventy-three per-cent of the belt now, but they’ve found nothing else unusual.’
Goddard pressed the button on the lift.
‘Where are we going?’ said Archer.
The lift arrived. The doors opened.
‘Archer, do you know why we call this the Iceberg Building?’ They stepped into the lift.
‘Because it’s always so damn cold?’