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Captain Chen, January 15th, 2201, 1422 hours.
Weíve decided to go inside the nebula and see whatís there. We think we may be the first Earth ship to try such a thing. Only a few of the command crew Ė Marcus, of course, and his little clique of latter day luddites Ė dissented. The rest agreed that the scientific knowledge we could send back home is as important as getting our colonists to where they want to go. Besides, our happy bunch of popsicles wonít even know we took a detour The urge to find out whatís in there is just too much to resist.
I know I havenít been out of cold sleep for the entire eight years the ship has been outbound, and I know that previous watches have found some interesting things to explore, but the twenty months that Iíve been on watch have been utterly, deadly, damned dull. This is the first sizeable astronomical object thatís been close enough along our planned course to detour and check out, and still have sufficient supplies to get to the new world.
Shigeo suggested we could have been doing science right along, using less of the perishable supplies if more of the duty crew would go into the sleep chambers. Marcus almost ripped his head off for even suggesting it. How we got stuck with someone whoís so afraid of technology on a spaceflight is beyond me. Why I had to get him as supply chief on my watch is just my typical bad luck. Iíll have to ask my ancestors, when I finally meet them, what I did in life to deserve such treatment from the cosmos. In any event, the last watch has all the crew hibernation units occupied. There are no spares. I guess he was complaining that the designers didnít include enough for the whole shipís compliment. Maybe he just wanted an excuse to go back under and get away from Marcus. Heh. But I doubt weíd be able to run a ship this complex properly with less than twenty-five crew.
Our scanners canít penetrate the energized hydrogen clouds, but itís thin enough that we can see stars within. We may have a chance to observe a protoplanetary system up close. That would certainly be a first for Earth science. That would make it all worth it; give this starflight an accomplishment for the colonists to be proud of, some reason to be remembered back home.
Lanei came up behind the captain's chair. He hadn't turned around when the door to the bridge slid open. People were coming in and out on errands all the time. Captain Chen was watching readout screens around the bridge, pulling them up one-by-one on his own small repeater screen on the console beside his chair. Quietly, Lanei snaked her arms around from behind, trying not to move the chair to give him warning she was there. She had her hands under his armpits before he knew she was there. Abruptly, she grabbed his ribcage from either side and said "Kootch!"
Chen jumped and shouted. The whole bridge crew turned to look, and once they saw what was going on, they turned back to their work with wicked smiles, carefully minding their own business. Chen sighed and smiled, and shook his head at his woman. Eight years away from Earth, crew discipline wasn't even given a cursory thought any more. Especially since half the crew was sleeping with the other half. Lanei leaned her chin on the back of the chair and hugged Chen. It wasn't easy with the chair in the way, but she managed. She rocked it absently side to side a little as she looked at the bright rose nebula through the front windows. Sparks danced across the ship's force field as it bulldozed its way through the gas cloud at a quarter the speed of light.
She whispered to her lover, "So, what do you think people were doing at the turn of the last century?"
Chen shrugged. "Living in mud huts? Burning witches?"
She rolled her eyes and came around the side of the chair to stand beside him. "That would probably be the last millennium, not the last century."
"All the same to me," he said. "I just drive a starship, I'm not a history buff."
Lanei was a short, pretty Hawaiian girl, twenty-two years old when the Harrington's Home left Earth. Alternating shifts in cold sleep, and eight years later she was still technically only twenty five. Chen Zhu decided he may as well count the years as they happen to the rest of the universe, so he was hitting forty this year. At least by the ship's clock Ė he still wasn't entirely sure what year it was back home. Space warps not withstanding, he wasn't completely convinced that they could travel this fast free of the effects of relativity. Especially now that they were barreling along at a quarter light speed.
The helmsman said, to no one in particular but in answer to Lanei's question. "One hundred years ago we'd already been sending deep space missions out for a couple of decades. It was only a few decades since space warp drive was developed.
"Two hundred years ago, on the other hand, we were only just getting started building space stations and nobody was even exploring the Solar System. It was only about thirty years or so since the first moon landing. Instead of getting excited and exploring the universe, most people thought it was a waste of money. It was decades before anybody got it together and went to Mars."
Lanei crossed her arms and huffed. "People were idiots back then."
"Sounds like Marcus would have loved it," Chen chuckled.
"Marcus is an idiot," Lanei said.
"That was my point, honey."
"I know, I just enjoy saying that."
Chen Zhu considered himself pretty lucky that Lanei had picked him. There were at least three other men aboard who'd tried for her attentions, Marcus Bedford included. And she picked a worn out old freighter pilot with love handles and a cybernetic leg. Chen thought his parents would have loved Lanei as much as he did. She was full of the spirit that had inspired James Harrington to start this expedition. Lanei was their nutritionist, so it was her job aboard ship to watch everyone's diet, plan meals, and make sure the food recycling system was in working order. Once at their new home, she would be part of the food team, investigating any native flora to see if it was edible, while simultaneously trying to get a viable farm started with the grains and crops they brought with them. Chen had happily-ever-after visions of he and Lanei and a houseful of kids growing up on an exotic new world.
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Shigeo Honda, Astrophysicist, January 20, 2201, 0923 hours
I am having the time of my life! I had hoped there would be some interesting things to examine during my time on this starflight, but this open bubble of space inside the nebula is most remarkable. We had seen such things from space-based telescopes back on Earth Ė new star systems blowing cavities in gas clouds Ė but this is most unexpected in the middle of such a cloud. I am most happy. We are able to engage the space warp drive for short periods out at the edges of the star systems without being in danger, so we have been able to, as Mister Carl says, "scoot around" at warp factor one and investigate all three stars and their systems.
It is at the single star that we have found spectrographic evidence of a habitable planet. This has caused a stir among some of the crew. Some say if it is so, we should stay here. They are tired of the trip. It is silly to choose to spend our lives closed inside a gas cloud. How in the world would I be able to study the stars when I can see only three? Most of the waking crew realize that we must continue on to the star system we had planned to colonize. We are sure of a livable planet there. Mister Bedford wants to wake the other two crew watches from hibernation and take a vote. As master of supplies, he should know better than to have seventy-five people awake, breathing and hungry all at once.
But the captain has that well in hand. Meanwhile, we are heading toward the location where we have detected the habitable planet. It may be that we will meet some new friends! Whether it is inhabited or not, we will at least have some interesting news to send back to Earth once we get back outside the nebula.
Bob Carl was the planetologist. While the ship was in transit he, like all the more specialized specialists, had more mundane assignments related to keeping the ship and crew running. But he was to get his chance to contribute in his chosen field once the ship had gotten to the New World. There, he would spend a great deal of time in orbit, even after the colonists had gone down to their new home, mapping the planet, doing remote geological surveys, in effect building a complete computer model of the planet so they could know their new home, inside and out, and all its foibles and virtues.
So he was surprised to suddenly have a subject to practice on.
Heíd warmed up the scanner palettes on final approach, and his databanks were filling.
"Bob-san!" Honda smiled, entering the shipís science lab. "Are you having fun?"
The science lab aboard the Harringtonís Home was a multi-purpose affair. Space on the ship was at a premium, and the shipís main purpose was, after all, transporting colonists in suspended animation, not exploration. But a certain amount of science was essential to get the people where they were going, and to support them at their destination. So the lab could be reconfigured to serve a number of purposes. Honda had used its instruments for astronomical studies, and for his festival of research while they investigated the nebula. After their arrival, the shipís biologists and botanists would use it to examine flora and fauna at the new world. Now Carl had reconfigured the shipís palettes to scan the planet beneath them. Heíd decided to examine this world as thoroughly as he would their new home. It would give him the opportunity to see if the scanners had any eccentricities or faults. The first order of business was to build a complete computer model of the physical terrain. Heíd requested a specific orbit track that would take them over the entire surface, and they had just one more orbit to go before he could let the computer build its virtual globe.
"Well, after all these months of doing exciting things like, oh, monitoring the nutrients in hydroponics, yeah, itís nice to do what I was trained for."
Honda watched the large viewscreen inset in the main console. A river valley rolled through the picture, apparently in flood stage, filling rain forest to either side with standing water that glinted sunlight up at them. "Are there any signs of life?"
"Weíll have to wait for spectroscopy to determine that, but with all that jungle growth, there simply has to be insects to support it and animals to live in it."
"I mean are there people?"
"Hm? Oh, no, none that I can see. There may be aboriginals, but thereís no sign at all of a civilization."
"You sound disappointed, Shigeo."
"I am. I wanted to meet new beings. I have not even had the opportunity to meet a Vulcan."
"Well, I for one worry about meeting new people. Look at history. Every time a more advanced civilization meets a lesser one, they tend to express their superiority by wiping out the lesser one."
Honda was shocked. "We would never do such a thing! The ship is not even armed, and we have only hand lasersÖ"
"Shigeo-san," Carl interrupted, "I didnít say we would be the more advanced people."
Honda grew silent. He hadnít thought of that.
"Hang on," Carl said, suddenly seeing something," What the hell is that?"
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Mili Bidura, science specialist, January 23, 2201, 0630 hours.
Somehow we didnít expect this. Weíd expected either an uninhabited planet, or one with a civilization. We donít know quite what to make of this. At roughly the same time Robert Carl found the deserted shacks on the ground Ė five buildings alone on an entire world Ė our scanners picked up something in orbit above us.
There is a large satellite in synchronous orbit above the buildings. It answers no hails, and shows no sign of power. Itís very oddly shaped. In this setting, it is most disturbing. The only sign of life on a totally primordial world being a satellite in orbit over some wrecked buildings. We asked Captain Chen to boost the ship into a matching orbit so we may get a closer look at it. We are now alongside a very unusual artifact!
[photographs and physical description appended to daily report]
Scanners can only tell us so much from a distance. This satellite appears to be many years dead, as do the buildings below. Our archeologist and some others wish to take a shuttle down to inspect the ruins for clues as to who was there. Meanwhile, I am petitioning the captain to allow me to spacewalk to the satellite and inspect it up close. I have no shortage of volunteers to help, but there are a few who think we should mind our own business. Guess who.
Marcus Bedford hurled an empty plastic carton against the bulkhead. It made a satisfying whack against the steel, but only bounced weakly to the floor rather than breaking. He didnít seem satisfied. "These idiots are going to get us all killed," he ranted in his thick Manchester accent. "Playing with strange alien machinery!"
Mandy Argush cringed at yet another outburst from her intemperate colleague. She picked up the box heíd thrown, folded it flat, and flung it back at him in a flat spin. As it struck him in the midsection she yelled, "Put it where it belongs! And what the hell is your problem this time?"
He stomped on the box and glowered at her. "I am sick of being confined in this tin can! Weíre only a few months from the end of this trip, and these space cowboys are stopping to poke around at things they donít understand! How long are they going to delay us? We only have so many supplies you know."
She shook her head at him, tisked and turned back to her work. "Marcus youíre an idiot."
"What did you say to me?" He stormed up behind her.
She turned to face him, not intimidated at all. He stopped a few paces away, taken aback by her own aggressiveness. "What, are you deaf as well as an idiot?" she asked him.
His eyes bulged and his face reddened. "You insubordinate little trollop! Iíve had all Iím going to take..."
"What are you going to do, fire me? "
"No, but Iíll bloody well slam you back in cold sleep!"
"Marcus," she smiled, "First off, I canít be insubordinate. We arenít in the military. We work with each other. Secondly, you canít put me in cold sleep because all the pods are occupied and anybody you wake up will be more pissed at you than I am. And so far only the people who are awake hate you Ė do you really want to add one more?" He opened his mouth to speak but she continued, "And thirdÖ youíre an idiot!"
He shouted, "Oh you bitch!" as he drew his arm back to hit her.
Faster than Mandyís soft physique suggested, she lunged for his cocked arm, swung around behind him and pinned it painfully against his back. He howled briefly with pain, then twisted himself and managed to break free. When he spun on her sheíd already picked up the two-meter steel pole they used to get to things off of the higher shelves. It had a wicked looking hook on one end.
She hissed, low and without punctuation, "So help me God you bastard if you ever hit me Iíll rip your throat open."
He saw her stance. Many of the crew trained in martial arts to pass the long hours and keep their minds sharp. Marcus himself didnít care to do that kind of thing. "What," he said, "you think you can hurt me?"
It was pure bluster and they both knew it. He was afraid of the hook, and she knew she could take him down like a sack of leaves.
The door to the cargo hold opened. Marcus flinched. Mandy held her ground.
The Harringtonís Home, not being a military vessel, didnít have a security force per se. But each watch had a person who was designated "security chief," and who could call on anyone among the waking crew for help in a situation. Will Schlereth walked into the room at a fast trot and yelled, "Hey! Cut it out you two!"
Marcus looked at the tall redheaded man with a momentís confusion before he remembered there were cameras monitoring every compartment. Someone would have heard them fighting of course. Schlereth was the person who was giving everyone martial arts lessons. Marcus didnít the man seriously for his self importance. But he knew Schlereth could beat the hell out of him. Marcus sat down on the stool at his work table. Mandy laughed, twirled the stick with a showy flourish, and ended standing at attention with the stick vertically at her side. She bowed to Schlereth and said, "Sensei."
"Mandy, what the hell." He exclaimed. "What did I teach you about self control?"
She looked stricken. "He was going to hit me!"
"Marcus, what the hell!"
"Oh, shut up," Marcus said. "Youíre all idiots."
Before Schlereth could retort, Captain Chen stormed into the hold. "Marcus, what the hell!" he thundered.
Marcus rolled his eyes, "Oh God save me from self-important control fetishists."
"What the hell are you on about now, Mister Bedford?" the captain asked with a frustrated sigh.
Marcus hung his head and shook it side to side. "Donít you people realize we have a very specific allotment of supplies here? There are enough to get us to the New World, and enough to live on until we become self sufficient. But you keep making us stop and look at pretty gas clouds and dead stars. How many weeks behind are we? What if we canít get food to grow right away when we land?"
"You jerk," Mandy said. Chen shot her a warning glance and she nodded. "We have a 25 percent overstock in case of things like that. Plus the recyclers give us back more than half of what we eat."
"Oh yes, in protein pill form. Half of what we eat is already in supplements. Maybe you people donít mind popping your meals with a swallow of recycled urine, but I like real food."
Chen sat down on the stool next to Marcus. Schlereth caught Mandyís eye and nodded to the staff she was still holding. She put it back in its cradle on the supply racks. "Marcus," Chen said, trying to keep a reasonable tone. "Weíll get there. We have only fifteen months left to travel. In fact, you and I have only four months left on watch and we go back into hibernation. Just hold yourself together for four months, and the next thing you know, youíll be there."
"Fine, fine," Marcus tried to wave him away. But Chen wouldnít go.
"Just what did you sign on this trip for, anyway? You donít like technology, you donít like space travel, and you donít like being stuck inside this ship for all these years."
"Oh what would you know, Chen?" Marcus snapped.
"He just told you three things he knows, you moron," Argush laughed.
"Mandy," Chen said, "Come on, huh?"
She said "At least I only have to put up with him for four more months." She turned and stomped out of the room, saying, "After that Iíll have a whole planet to get away from him on."
"Look, Marcus," Chen said sympathetically, "If this supply duty is too much drudgery for you, why not come up and take some shifts at the helm? You're cross trained for it, everyone is."
"Good God, no!" Marcus spat.
Marcus stewed for a few more moments. Then he finally met Chenís eyes. "Canít we just get on with it? Just take us to the New World. Stop stopping, thinking your adding to mankind. Why do you think they care back on Earth?"
Chen looked surprised by the question. "Because we care. A lot of people think knowledge is the most important thing in the universe."
Marcus laughed. "Depends on how you use it, doesnít it? Do we learn from our mistakes?"
"I like to think so," Schlereth said.
"Then what are we doing out there? Donít you know how many people died doing exactly what weíre doing, hundreds of years ago? How many ships were lost in the crossing from England to America, trying to find a better world?"
Chen looked confused. "But in the end, they succeeded."
"Cold comfort to the drowned."
Schlereth asked, "Then why did you come along?"
Marcus looked at them, apparently wondering if they were smart enough to understand.
"I just Ö I just had to get away. From Earth. It is a bloody mess, you know. I wanted to see we could start over. Not bollix up a pristine world. Live without paving over the whole planet or covering it with steel towers."
Schlereth chuckled. "Not only a Luddite, but a primitive wannabe."
Marcus huffed, "I didn't expect the Philistine to understand." He got up and headed for the door.
"I understand, Marcus," Chen said, "Why the hell do you think I'm along for the ride?"
Marcus stopped and looked over his shoulder. Schlereth was staring confused at Chen. "Are you serious," Marcus asked.
"I'm not nearly as ... passionate about it as you are, but I'm here to get away too. I figure a few waking years in a soda-pop can is worth a lifetime in a better world. But I see technology as the way to these goals, not a devil to be run away from."
"Hmph." Marcus grunted. He shook his head at them and left them there.
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Bernard Wanderer, Engineering specialist, January 23, 2201, 1405 hours.
I've drawn three spacesuits from stores, and related EVA equipment. I'm very excited about this one. I've gone out on the hull a few times for service tasks, but this is something entirely different. Myself, Miss Bidura from the science section, and our xenologist Ken Tice, have volunteered to spacewalk across to the alien satellite! This is something entirely new. I mean, we've known we're not alone in the universe since we met the Vulcans, but none of us on board the Harrington's Home have actually ever met an alien. I kind of hope not to now, in fact, but Iím kvelling over the chance to be the first to examine a totally new alien race's artifact! They even woke Professor Harrington from cold sleep for this one!
Professor Ernst Harrington, late of the University of Cambridge, had a vision of living in a better world. Before interstellar travel, people with such a vision generally decided upon one specific area that they felt they had a chance of affecting, and then devoted their lives to improving it. Thus cleaner fuel sources, or methods to help handicapped people, or new irrigation systems appeared, developed by well-meaning entrepreneurs.
Ernst Harrington decided to do them one better and, rather than try to improve the world he was born into, go out and find a better world. Out there, in deep space.
For much of his youth, he wondered how he was going to go about that. Stow away on a starship? Join the fleet? He learned all he could about starships. As a young boy he'd thrilled to adventure stories about the Earth/Romulan war, and drew pictures of space battles he'd only seen in his imagination. After the war, Earth started sending starships out to explore the galaxy. Harrington ached to go with them and dreamed about what wonders he might find out beyond where mankind has explored. Unfortunately the only way into space then was to join the Space Probe Agency. As a young man, he found himself possessed of the wrong mindset for military service. But his hunger for knowledge propelled him through an education split between astronomy and business Ė the former as an obsession, and the latter as a means to an end.
Overflowing with energy and aching to share his lust for the cosmos with others, he eventually came to teach the subject at Cambridge, inspiring like minds to action. Simultaneously, he started a number of successful enterprises, made careful investments, and he worked toward building a financial base from which someday, he imagined, he'd be able to build his own interstellar warp ship.
Then in the year 2188 his stars must have aligned properly.
The Federation had begun decommissioning the Daedalus class ships that he'd romanced about in his childhood. By this time, his investments and companies had amassed him quite a respectable net worth, even in a world already on the obvious path to a global credit system. He approached the Federation Council, and the UESPA quartermasters, and anyone else who had anything to do with the disposition of decommissioned starships.
In the end, he had liquidated three quarters of his personal worth, and walked away with the almost-intact exploration cruiser U.S.S. Sheffield, whose pitted and worn hull hovered in synchronous orbit over San Francisco, waiting to be dismantled and recycled.
The Sheffield was a bit less than twenty years old. Her builders had planned for her to last at least another twenty before she fell to the breaker's torch, but her systems and design were already hopelessly obsolete compared to new starships on the horizon. A ball stuck on a tube with two warp field nacelles sticking out of the sides, the Daedaluses were like old 1930s biplanes sitting next to the first jet fighters of the 40s Ė another period of time when technology leapt ahead by orders of magnitude in a few short years. The understanding of warp field dynamics and how to sculpt a ship to fit the field better had blossomed in the previous decade. And Harrington found himself the beneficiary of that growing obsolescence.
He didn't care how fast the ship went, or how efficiently it plied the subspace corridors. He remembered how star flight had started back at the turn of the century, long before the space warp had been discovered.
So he searched the astronomical records for a place to live. He looked for space telescope readings that guaranteed a habitable planet, off the beaten path. Most colonies formed so far were sticking to the stars near home, with only a few daring to step out of the neighborhood. But wanted to be one of the first to spread mankind's existence far from its birthplace. And it didn't matter how far away, nor how long it took to get there, because everyone aboard would be asleep for the journey.
He found a star six hundred light years away. According to sightings taken from the deep space interferometer orbiting Luna, the star had at least five planets, and at least one had a spectrum that showed a clear oxygen atmosphere. At a conservative cruise of time warp factor four, the trip would take about nine years and four months.
He sought volunteers from among his students, and from the people who worked for him in three major corporations. He got far too many. Delighted to find so many like-minded souls, he held a lottery to narrow the choices down to two hundred. Couples were encouraged Ė they had a planet to populate, after all. But no one would be refused as long as they showed the hunger for knowledge, and the spirit of adventure, that Harrington himself harbored.
He developed a new corporation around his expedition and put his engineers and mechanics to a new task: Fit out the starship Sheffield with one hundred seventy-five cryonic freezer units, quarters for a waking crew of twenty-five, and enough supplies and recycling systems to last them for a ten year star flight. He didn't want the whole crew asleep for the whole flight. Lord knew what wonders they'd miss on the way. This was to be more than a conestoga wagon heading for California, this was to have a touch of Louis and Clarke as well.
Ernst Harrington had big dreams.
And here he was, 440 light years from home, surrounded by the cosmic beauty inside a nebula, orbiting a green jewel of a planet, staring at a long-dead alien-built satellite.
It doesn't get any better than this, he thought to himself.
"Did I do right waking you up, sir?" Chen asked, as they looked out of the bridge windows at the star-shaped artifact.
"Absolutely, Zhu," Harrington said. "I wouldn't have missed this for anything. "You say no life in the buildings below?"
"No sir. Everything has the look of abandonment long ago. The jungle has overgrown the buildings like some old Mayan city. I figured we'd check things out in the easiest order Ė the satellite first, then, with your approval, take a boat down to the buildings."
"Yes! Yes!" Harrington beamed. "It would be unbearable to leave without examining the buildings. Do we have anyone awake with any archeology training?"
"Not on this shift sir, I checked. Should we wake someone?"
Harrington thought. "No, no. Let's wait and see. We'll just look the ruins over for now."
Marcus Bedford stormed into the bridge. From his expression, Chen wondered if he pushed the button to open the door, or if his attitude forced it open.
"Professor Harrington," Marcus fumed, "Maybe you can straighten these idiots out!" the sweep of his arm took in the bridge crew. "A lot of the crew want to protest this damned delay and get on with the mission!"
Harrington stared blankly at the man for some moments. Marcus certainly had more to say, but the professor's blank stare must have brought him up short. "Ah," Harrington remembered, "Bedford, isn't it? Quartermaster from the Manchester plant. What delay?"
"Yes, well... some of us just want to get to our destination. These continual stops to look at pretty sights are just making this long, long flight stretch out interminably. It's intolerable!"
"Interminable and intolerable, yes, I see," Harrington laughed.
"Damn it, professor..."
"Clearly you've missed the point of this adventure, my friend," Harrington smiled. "When you take a Sunday drive, you do it to enjoy the trip. What was the old homily? It's not the destination, it's the journey?"
"Oh, God spare us from quaint homilies!"
Chen finally had enough. "Marcus, just shut up for once in your life."
Marcus' eyes bulged with anger until Chen thought they'd pop from his head. It was almost a cartoon expression, and Chen couldn't help but laugh at him.
"Ah," Harrington said looking out the windows, "There they are."
Marcus' expression went to puzzlement, and he looked out the windows just as Chen turned to do so also. He saw three spacesuited figures wearing thruster packs heading for the alien satellite.
"Oh no," Marcus groaned. "Please no. Please tell me you're not going to mess with it. Just how stupid are you people?"
"Okay, Marcus," Chen said sternly, "That's it. Either sit down and shut up, or get the hell off my bridge." Marcus stared at him angrily. "Damn," Chen went on, "If the old explorers had had people like you aboard..."
"What? They never would have killed all those Red Indians?"
"Just... sit down, will you?"
"Yes, please, Bedford," Harrington said mildy. "I'll listen to what you have to say afterward. Right now, there are discoveries to be made."
Marcus grudgingly sat at the environmental monitor station, which no one was manning at the moment. He watched the three tiny figures float toward the great unknown monstrosity with growing unease. Didn't these people know that most of those old explorers died at foreign hands, far from home?
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Ken Tice, Xenologist, January 23, 2201, 1545 hours.
Well, I don't know what they expect me to be able to do, but the chance to be one of the first inside the alien satellite is too good to pass up. If they expect me to be able to spontaneously read a totally unknown language on a service panel, they're all in for a reality check. A degree in alien civilizations is one thing. Actually encountering a whole new one is, well, it's something else, all right! But maybe I do bring something to the table here Ė as the professor pointed out when I joined the expedition, my studies of off-world cultures has opened my mind to different ways of thinking. Most people, they think the way they think, and they don't realize that other people may think differently. And not just a little differently Ė it's not unusual to find concepts of behavior 180 degrees out between two civilizations.
You don't even have to leave Earth to find disparity like that. Just look at the way people say their names. Some cultures put the given name before the family name, and some give the family name first. Most people in a given culture don't even realize there's a different way elsewhere.
Well, I'm not really sure that I can use my education in this situation, but I don't really care. I'm just dying to see this thing close up.
"Suit cameras on, everyone?" Bidura called on the intercom. The other two answered yes together. They each had a tiny video pickup on the forehead of their helmets, and a floodlight on each temple.
Wanderer said, "Let's hold here a minute," and puffed gas from his retro thrusters. They were each wearing a maneuvering backpack studded with tiny thrusters. It was controlled by hand grips on armrests that projected forward like the arms of a chair. "I want to get some hi-res pictures." He took out a still camera and started recording images of the object.
From their perspective it loomed hugely over them. Wanderer guessed it was fifty or sixty meters across its five booms, which radiated out from a central pod that was the size of one of their shipís shuttles. At the front of the central pod was a dish-shaped recess that Wanderer took to be a sensor antenna of some kind. That was probably what the pods at the end of each arm were also, although they had needle-like projections rather than dishes. "Communications satellite?" he wondered aloud.
Bidura studied it. "The dish antenna doesnít look big enough. Weather radar, perhaps?"
Wanderer had recorded several shots. "Mili, would you drift over and give me some scale for the pictures?"
"Certainly." She tapped her thrusters and jetted toward the central dish. With her figure next to the recess it was easy to guess that it was about three meters across. She examined the dish, rather than pose for the camera. "Hm. It appears porous," she said.
"Like a mesh?"
"Could still be an antenna."
Tice asked, "Can you see anything inside the mesh?"
She shined a hand light in. "Yes, shutters. Like an iris. Not what I would expect."
Wanderer guessed, "The shutter might cover sensitive detectors. It would open when itís in use."
Bidura made a noncommittal grunt.
Tice jetted over to the object and grabbed hold of one of the five arms. Despite knowing heíd never be able to decipher an alien language, he still looked for stenciling and markings. Not knowing what they might mean didnít make it any less fascinating to lay eyes on a previously unknown language.
The material of the arm was smooth and greenish white. He rapped his gloved knuckles on it. It flexed a tiny bit, more like a plastic than a metal. Pulling himself up to the module at the end of the arm, he didnít see any seams or fasteners in the surface. The pod at the end was an ovoid a couple of meters long with a solid-looking spike extending another meter forward. There was something like a grille on the outer side. The whole thing appeared to be molded as a unit.
He pushed off a drifted down to the main body. The arm seemed molded into it without break or seam. All the surfaces seemed smooth. At the back of the satellite was a bulbous module that had the appearance of a frosted glass bulb, a bit wider in diameter than the tube of the main body. "You know," he said, looking up and down the length of the object, "You really couldnít say whatís front and whatís back on this thing. Do you think that recess could be a drive system instead of an antenna?"
He saw Wandererís helmet turn to look at him, and pictured a look of surprise behind the tinted faceplate. "Yeah, it could! A metal mesh like that would feature in an ion drive or a hydrogen peroxide thruster. Whatís at the other end?"
"Glass bubble. A cockpit maybe?"
Bidura chirped "Oh, that would be wonderful! Not a satellite but a spaceship!"
"Is there a door?" Tice asked, half to himself, as he scanned his eyes across the surface. It was not entirely smooth. There were raised areas of varying shapes. There were markings! Alien symbols! Tice felt an adrenaline rush. He pulled out his still camera to take some images of the symbology, not that, even with years of study, heíd be able to decipher it from a few symbols. He focussed on the markings in the center of the largest raised panel, just behind the arms. "Oh for pityís sake." He said.
"What is it?" he heard Captain Chen ask in his headset.
"There are markings on a hatch. Theyíre not written language, theyíre pictures showing how to open it. A five-year old could read them. God! Iím so disappointed!"
"Disappointed?" Bidura asked in surprise.
"Not exactly a major linguistic challenge," he muttered.
Wanderer had floated up alongside him. The engineer looked at the symbols. A three-fingered hand. In three successive cartoon-like pictures it showed that all you had to do was squeeze a latch under the edge. Wanderer reached under the lip and squoze. The meter-square hatch popped open and hinged to the side.
"Hey!" Tice yelled in shock! "Should you have done that?"
Marcus stood suddenly and shouted at Chen. "They shouldnít be messing with it. Captain! Professor, stop them!"
Chen eyed Marcus with a warning. Then his eyes narrowed as he considered. "You may be right."
"Oh, but we must look inside, Zhu!" Harrington exalted.
Chen called "Captain to EVA team. Letís not play with this thing just yet, all right? UmÖAs long as you have it open, take some pictures inside. But close it up after. Donít open any more panels."
"Roger that," Tice said enthusiastically. Bidura said "Professor, please! How can we not?"
Harrington let a breath out slowly, clearly frustrated, weighing the risks. "What can you see inside?"
Wanderer pulled himself to the opening. He didnít push Tice aside so much as he didnít remember Tice was there in his excitement. He shined a light around. "Itís not a cockpit, itís a service panel."
"Donít touch any switches!" Marcusí voice said.
"No kidding," Wanderer replied mildly. "Itís not so unfamiliar. We could probably figure out what everything does given enough time. Thereís a tank forward made of some kind of spun fiber. Or maybe thatís insulation over a metal tank. Thereís a symbol on it. Ken?"
Tice looked. He clicked his tongue and chided, "Some engineer. You donít know what a hydrogen atom looks like?"
Wanderer laughed, embarrassed. "Okay, thereís a hydrogen tank forward. Possible fuel. Some piping. The circuit boards look very odd, clunky. The rest is a lot of electronics in racks without clear markings. I mean itís writing, not pictures."
"Let me see!" Tice pushed in. And there it was, an alien language. He had no idea in the world what he was looking at, just as he suspected would happen. Oh well. He took some pictures of the text, then backed out and let Wanderer shoot some of the equipment. He bumped his backpack against something, jogged himself sideways, felt something give, and then was out of the hatch.
Wanderer went in, his feet sticking comically out of the opening. "Hm. Thatís funny."
"What?" Bidura asked.
"A panel is lit up here. I donít think it was before."
Chen called, "Are you sure?"
"I bumped something on my way out," Tice said nervously.
Bidura looked in. "I canít tell what it is. It may be a power panel, like a circuit breaker box."
Marcusí voice shrieked, "You turned it on?! You idiots!"
Chen asked, "Can you turn it off again?"
"Captain," Wanderer answered, "I wouldnít dare try without being able to read this." He looked around inside and out. Looked up at the pods on the end of the arms. "Nothing seems to be happening, though."
A crewman at one of the bridge monitor stations said to Chen, "Captain, Iím reading a power buildup in that thing."
Marcus was at the manís side instantly, looking at the readings. "Bloody wonderful!" he cackled. "Bloody stupid!" There was a rising edge of panic in his voice.
Chen said, "Okay. Bernie, Ken, Mili, close it up and get back in here."
Harrington noted, "If we study the pictures they took we may be able to see what they did and set it back the way it was."
"Yes," Chen said.
Through the window, Chen could see Bidura and Tice back off with puffs of thrusters. Wanderer braced himself against the satelliteís hull and swung the hatch shut. When it contacted the hull he gave it a little push to snap it shut.
Then suddenly Wanderer was flying away from the object, down toward the planet, thirty thousand kilometers away. The moment the hatch had sealed, the alien object had apparently come fully to life. The bulbous glass aft section glowed a brilliant green. It swung itself sharply, clearly under its own power, and pointed the concave meshed end directly at the Harringtonís Home. The motion was so abrupt that Wanderer was thrown like from a catapult. Bidura and Tice shouted his name, and the bridge speakers broadcast his own shout of surprise to the crew.
Marcus shrieked like a prophet, "I told you not to mess with it youÖ"
"Idiots, yes I know," Chen said. He tapped a comm key. "This is the captain, I need a crew for a shuttle boat now! We have a man adrift. Anyone available get the hell to the boat bay! Double-time, people!"
"What?" Marcus stormed to the front of Chenís chair and grabbed the arms, locking his eyes on Chenís and thrusting his face close to the captainís. He spat, "We have to get out of here, Chen, now!"
"Iím not leaving Bernie out there you heartless ass," Chen fumed. Then he repeated, "Mili, Ken, get in here, weíre sending a boat after Bernie."
"NO!" Marcus screamed, and Ernst Harrington heard the mindless wail of a trapped animal in that word. A sound he knew always preceded a person doing something monumentally stupid. Harrington moved to grab Marcus, not sure what was going to happen next, but not willing to risk his dream on one manís foolishness.
But he was too late. Marcus was where he needed to be. He wheeled away from the captainís chair, grabbed the helmsman by the shoulders and hurled her from her seat. She tried to keep from sprawling in and undignified heap, but landed on her butt nevertheless.
The fusion impulse engines were on standby idle from their orbital maneuvering. All Marcus had to do was tap two keys to bring them to life.
The helmperson said, "Hey," and tried to get to her feet to grab at Marcus. Someone moved to help her up.
Chen leapt up and grabbed for Marcusí arm.
As the engines flared to half power, Marcus fired lateral thrusters to swing the ship away from the satellite. Marcus had a sharp memory. He hadnít drilled in use of his standby duty station in almost a year. But it wasnít that hard. Any idiot could pilot a modern ship.
Chen pulled him away from the helm controls.
Tice and Bidura could be heard to shout through the bridge speakers, wanting to know what was going on.
Tiny points of light flared like welding torches at the tips of the alien artifactís arms. They flickered a few times in the space of a second. But the ship had rotated and Harrington couldnít see the thing through the windows any more.
Bidura, still outside, could be heard to invoke the name of a deity that Harrington was unfamiliar with, just a moment before a sledgehammer hit the ship and the lights all went out.
a a a
"Mayday mayday. This is the SS Harringtonís Home. We have been attacked by an unknown alien vessel. Unknown energy weapon. Very powerful.
"Why did they attack us? We came all this way and now this! This isnít fair! The ship is totaled from one shot. One shot! Half the colonists dead!
"The ship's boats will make it to the planet. Weíre going down. Maybe we can. Make it.
"I donít know if this will even get out of the nebula, but if it doesÖ Send warships, Do NOT come without firepower. This thing is terrible.
"Repeat, this is the SS Harringtonís Home. Mayday, maydayÖ."