The following is a "discovery draft" of a story about The Mimas Object. I can't tell you what that object is yet, but its discovery kick-starts the Alliance for Sentient Lifeforms universe. Since this is a discovery draft, a kind of "first draft to help find the real story," please read it with that thought it mind. I hope it doesn't meander or get too dull, but it may require some serious rewriting before it's finished. I thought it might be interesting to share a "story in progress" in this universe.
Commander Julia Winters put on her flight suit and got into the transport. She sat there in silence as the vehicle carried her to the launch platform. This was a historic mission, just not the one she'd been planning and dreaming. Instead of being the first human to set foot on Mars, she was about to become the first human to set foot on some moon no one had ever heard of. The director promised her this would be a bigger mission than she could imagine, but Julia couldn't see how. What made it even more infuriating to her was that they'd chosen Carl Douglas to replace her, of all people.
The tower called for pre-launch checks, and Julia went through the checklist almost robotically. It was a short trip up to the orbital launch platform, and she'd made it several times before. The countdown completed. She heard the rumble of the rockets and felt herself being pushed into the chair. A short time later, she was weightless.
The module docked with the platform and the airlock was opened from inside. An engineer she barely remembered, his name started with a J, smiled at her.
"Miss Winters, happy to have you aboard. I'm a big fan."
"Thanks. Any idea what this mission's about? They wouldn't tell me." She unstrapped from her seat and floated through the airlock.
"No, ma'am. All I know is that they had us strip that vehicle down to the bare minimum weight and equipment. They also had us put in some special heating and digging equipment, and a lead-lined box. Wouldn't tell us what any of it was for."
"Stripped down? What did you strip down?"
His eyebrows popped. "You don't know?"
"The Mars vehicle. They had us strip it down and refit it. It was the only close to launch-ready."
This sent a chill down Julia's spine. They'd been trumpeting the Mars mission in the media for months now. Julia had visited dozens of schools, state fairs, local television and radio stations, and had a million photos snapped of her. People were already calling her "The First Woman on Mars" even though she hadn't left yet. What would make them gut their pride and joy in such a hurry? She couldn't imagine.
"Can you tell me anything else, uh..J-"
"Steven Jerrold, ma'am. No, that's all I know. They told us what to strip out, what to put in, and set us a ton of fuel. If I had to guess, wherever you're going's a lot farther out than Mars."
"OK, thanks. Lead the way."
Jerrold let her through the maze of pods and modules that made up the orbital launch platform. She'd ferried a number of these up herself on previous missions, but hadn't been inside them before now. It felt somewhat haphazrd, but still somehow planned.
"I'm supposed to signal them when you're sealed inside."
Julia climbed into the module and sealed the hatch behind her, giving Jerrold a thumbs up when she was strapped into her chair. She looked around the module. Jerrold wasn't kidding. At least two-thirds of the equipment they'd installed in it for the Mars mission was gone. It reminded her of the time someone stole her car and left it across town. When she went to look at it, the thieves had nearly completely stripped it.
"Commander Winters, this is Mission Control. Do you copy?"
"Mission Control, Winters here. What the hell's going on?"
"Please switch to channel 5."
Channel 5 was reserved for encrypted communications. They'd given her a code to use before she left Earth. She switched the transceiver to the channel and punched in the encryption code.
"Are you receiving, Winters?"
"Director Chalmers, is that you?"
"One and the same. Are you alone now?"
"Yes. Mind telling me what the hell's going on? What's going on? First you tell me I'm off the Mars mission, now I find out you've gutted the ship and filled it with rocket fuel."
"If you'll cast off from the station, I'll explain."
Julia signaled to Jerrold that she was ready to depart. He got on his radio, probably confirming with Mission Control. She heard a buzz and click. The vehicle drifted away from the platform.
"Commander, Mission Control is going to get you on your way. Please sit back and relax a moment, then I'll answer all your questions."
The module lurched forward as the main thrusters fired. She watched as the launch platform disappeared in the distance.
"Now can you tell me what I'm doing out here? I'm supposed to be the First Woman on Mars, not the first woman to -- whatever it is you're sending me to."
"You're going further out into the solar system than any human's ever gone. We're sending you to Saturn's moon, Mimas."
"Why? From what I understand, that thing's kind of big ball of ice. What would make it more important than Mars?"
"Watch your display, Commander. I'm sending you an image."
Julia watched as the screen began filling in an image of a high-detail radar scan, presumably from the space probe that passed Mimas a couple of months ago. In the middle of the scan was a metallic object.
"So there's an asteroid embedded in the surface, so what?"
"Watch this," Chalmers told her. The image on the screen enlarged in size, centering on the object. As it did, she shuddered. The dimensions and shape of the thing were too perfect, too precise. It couldn't be naturally occurring. It had to be man-made... or "something" made.
"Oh my God," Julia said, putting a hand over her mouth.
"Quite right, Commander. We told the public that we lost control of the probe, but in reality we sent it there to crash on the surface, scanning all the way down. Before it smashed itself to bits, we got this image from the high-res cameras." The display gradually revealed a detailed photo of the object, with unusual writing on the surface. "You know what this means?"
"We're not alone."
"Indeed. You wanted to know what could be more important than Mars? You're looking at it. We think this is either an incredible hoax to keep us from going to Mars, or possibly the first evidence of an extraterrestrial intelligence. We won't know until you get there and bring it back to us."
Julia sat there in silence, staring at the image on the screen.
"Are you OK?"
"Yeah. I was just wondering, what is that thing? Who put it there?"
"We have no idea. Exciting, eh?"
"Terrifying. Is that why you made me cast off before telling me?"
"No. That was about security. We're worried that the Russians and Chinese might have picked up some of the probe's transmissions, since the encryption was pretty weak to preserve computing power. We don't want them to know we're going after it."