Cast Under an Alien Sun
All rights reserved
The is an original work of fiction. Any resemblance to people and places is coincidental.
For maps to help orient the reader to the planet Anyar, a web site is under construction at www.olanthorensen.com. Additional maps, background, side stories, and information on the series will be added as the story evolves.
A list of major characters is given in the back of the book.
Chapter 1: A Change in Destination
The plane lurched, hitting the first pocket of air shear. He cinched his seatbelt tighter, and his grip on the armrests ratcheted up two notches. He wanted to close his eyes but instead looked out the window at the last of the mountains. A dot in the sky appeared above the distant horizon, then zoomed larger, expanding as if to engulf the plane!
Before his brain reacted, he catapulted forward. The seatbelt cut into his abdomen, his view whirled, and he slammed back in the seat as the Boeing 737 disintegrated.
The belt held him to the seat as his torso, arms, and legs gyrated. Something hammered against his legs, turning him toward the girl in the seat beside him. Her eyes wide, she opened her mouth, but her scream was lost among other noises assaulting his ears. The man on the aisle was—gone. The spot where he’d been sitting had turned into blue sky, brown and green earth, and . . . pieces.
He tumbled, wind tearing at his face. He had glimpses of open sky, felt freezing cold, and gasped for breath. Intense pain accompanied impressions of people, baggage, seats, metal sections, and the shock of contact with something, and then . . .
“We continue with boarding of United Flight 4382, direct from San Francisco to Chicago. Group 3 may now board.”
What Joe Colsco heard was something closer to, “Wek you board tid ight flity-ate-and-tuh, wrecked farm saloforsco shillack. Grope eemaywo ord.”
He wondered if they deliberately trained the announcers to sound like they had a mouth full of mush. It took inquiries to a nearby elderly woman with gray hair and a man in a cowboy hat and boots for the three of them to come up with a plausible translation. Reasonably confident their group was called to board, all three joined the queue. They shuffled forward, presented their boarding passes, and snaked down the gangway.
As the line of passengers reached the aircraft door, Joe looked up at blue sky and fluffy clouds, then back at the aluminum cylinder where he would spend the next four hours. The plane looked so small against the vast sky. Sweat beaded his forehead and plastered the shirt to his skin.
It certainly wasn’t because of the conference in Chicago. While it was his first presentation at a major scientific meeting, he knew his results were impressive, and once he started the talk, he could ignore an audience of any size.
Inside the plane, passengers jostled for space. Joe’s apprehension persisted. The elderly woman took her seat, then Joe went to his row. He had a window seat. He shoved his bag into the overhead bin and sat his 5 foot, 10 inch, 175 pounds into 28A, slid his laptop and a folder into the seat pocket in front of him, and crammed against the back of the seat.
His attention drifted to Chicago and the huge annual weeklong American Society of Chemists (ASC) gathering. Scores of simultaneous presentations would be held in rooms that varied in size from hardly more than a large bedroom to an auditorium holding several thousand.
He’d based his presentation on a paper that one of the better chemistry journals had accepted for publication, contingent on what the editor considered minor revisions. He had resubmitted those revisions to the journal two days ago. The title of his talk, “A New Approach to Synthesizing Derivatives of the Thiopyran Class of Heterocyclic Rings,” might be nap-inducing, according to his girlfriend Julie, but Dr. Ellsworth, his graduate school advisor, thought the title and focus appropriate for the setting. Joe had developed a novel method of synthesizing cyclic bases, a class of compounds that included both the information-carrying parts of DNA and RNA and other compounds with important industrial and medical applications. Joe and Ellsworth had submitted a patent application and expected significant interest from chemical companies.
In two months, Joe would give another talk, this one at the Western Chapter of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) conference in Sacramento. At this catch-all meeting for every branch of science and for any social and political issues impinged on by science, many presentations would be less about hard science results and more about implications and speculations.
Ellsworth referred to them as “pseudoscience,” but Joseph didn’t care. The meeting gave him a chance to relate his research to a topic he found more interesting than his ACS talk. His AAAS talk, “Alternatives to Standard Heterocyclic Bases in DNA of Exobiosystems,” would address one of the basic questions in biochemistry and exobiology: whether the four bases of Earth DNA (adenine [A], thymine [T], guanosine [G], and cytosine [C]) were required or the result of randomness in the first organisms that evolved on Earth. Could life have settled on other heterocyclic bases? A, T, G, and X? Or even X, X, X, and X, where each X was a different base from Earth’s ATGC?
Joe’s novel path to base synthesis used conditions both relevant to efficient commercial production and similar to the environment theorized to have existed on Earth as life developed. He had already prepared presentations for both meetings, but his focus this day was the ACS gathering in Chicago.
Getting his advisor’s agreement to reveal their latest data at the Chicago meeting hadn’t been automatic.
“Joe, you know what can happen if you reveal results before publication. I know the good reviews are encouraging and the requested changes minor, but you can never tell for sure. It’s always best to wait for formal acceptance before talking at a meeting.”
While Joe had pretended to take everything Ellsworth said seriously, he knew Ellsworth always drummed into everyone in his lab horror stories of people being scooped by trolls at meetings who hurried home and published preliminary results to claim priority of publication. Joe understood the concern. Revealing approaches, much less results, before publication had a checkered history in science.
Joe’s reasoning and his insistence the conference was a chance for him to impress the academic community assuaged Ellsworth, and the title and summary were submitted to the meeting’s organizers. Joe only felt minor guilt at his lapse in honesty. It was not the attendees from academia he was interested in impressing, but those from industry—particularly, chemical companies. Joe’s ambitions were limited to an interesting job that paid well, a secure future, and marriage in suburbia with two kids. He had seen enough of the rat race of grant applications and the politics of academia and was even less interested in teaching the same classes to cookie-cutter students, year after year. Neither Ellsworth, whose lab he worked in, nor the Berkeley Chemistry Department would be pleased if he left early. Their goal consisted of churning out PhDs after years of benefiting from cheap graduate student labor.
In theory, only the journal editor and the three reviewers knew details of the paper. In practice, word of the paper was already circulating. Joe had been contacted by two chemical company recruiters with job offers, each at a salary comparable to that of a full professor with twenty years’ experience, plus generous benefits—information he had not shared with Ellsworth. He and Julie anticipated a further increase in interest once he publicly revealed the latest res ...