Copyright © 1978-2005 by Greg Slade
Roth Hansat was, frankly, bored with his circumstances. Despite the fact that he was a xenologist, or studying to be one anyway, he was stuck here, as assistant engineer, on the Rogue Chaser, a scout ship investigating rogue asteroids. He had no interest in correcting orbits or vaporising the occasional hunk of rock that started to menace interplanetary shipping. He wished instead that he was back at the University of Detheran, studying reports from interstellar expeditions. But tuition, like everything else, costs money, so he had to work two semesters out of four in order to earn enough to continue. Well, at least the time wasn't a complete loss, the chief engineer, who was missing an arm, had spent five years on an interstellar expedition to open new trade contacts, and could be relied upon for some interesting, if slightly exaggerated, tales.
It was about halfway through Roth's four dodek shift on scanner duty when the extremely high velocity asteroid they had been chasing for three weeks came into optical viewing range. Roth centered the asteroid in his screen and turned up the magnification as high as it would go. The grainy image he received was hardly enough to excite anyone's interest, just a sphere with a band around it. Disgustedly, Roth turned his attention back to the reading he'd been trying to catch up on.
It was three days later, when Roth was again on shift, that he next inspected the asteroid. This time he was a little more interested, for as far as he could tell, it was perfectly spherical, except for the flange around it. The flange itself was amazingly uniform, with six black sections equally spaced around it. The sphere was about a hundred and twenty metres in diameter, not counting the flange, which stuck out another metre, being two metres wide.
The next day, Roth called on the captain after his shift. They were now close enough to make out the scarred and pitted surface left by untold years of meteoroids, and even one place where part of the band had been torn away by a brush with something more substantial. But despite all these irregularities, he was sure that it was not an asteroid at all, but something artificial.
The captain was sceptical. "A space ship? You must be kidding. There's no thrusters or hatches, not even sensor arrays! No, it's just your imagination, Hansat."
"But it might be an old satellite or a probe, or maybe a fuel tank from a ship destroyed by some explosion, and if somebody did build it, it could be of historical importance!"
"An explosion? So you want to solve the Aranthor mystery once and for all, and get your precious degree with honours? Look son. I'm all in favour of youthful ambition, but this is an Interplanetary Transport Authority ship, not a space yacht. We've got a schedule to keep to!"
Roth shifted his feet and tried another, more tactful approach. "But ma'am, wouldn't it be true that you would get the credit for whatever we found? Especially since a captain of lesser ability than yours would have blasted it to ions without looking twice, I mean."
The captain obviously hadn't thought of this, and began to stroke the line of her jaw speculatively, while visions of promotions and publishing deals danced in her head. Then she cleared her throat. "Well, we're a little ahead of schedule. I guess you can look it over."
As it turned out, Roth need not have argued so persuasively. By the time they within laser range of the object, its artificial origin was apparent to even the most sceptical crew members. A message was sent off to the Insystem Transport Authority, informing them of the find, and asking for instructions. Before the wheels of the ITA bureaucracy could grind their ponderous way to responding, Near Space Command got wind of the find. Their response was quick and to the point: since the object bore no resemblance to any known spacecraft, it must be of alien origin. And, being within the bounds of the home system, it posed a possible security risk of unknown magnitude. Therefore, the Rogue Chaser was ordered to suspend its normal activities and investigate the object, pending the arrival of an NSC cruiser.
Torn between the excitement of such an unprecedented break with routine, and annoyance at having her schedule upset, the captain decided to play the discovery for all it was worth, but to make Roth do all the dirty work of actual exploration. What she failed to see was that this suited the latter's desires perfectly.
Roth opened the outer door of the airlock and let the last wisps of air push him out into the void. The sun was hidden from him by the hull of the Rogue Chaser, but it picked out the slowly spinning sphere in brilliant contrast to the blackness beyond. Firing the reaction unit strapped to his back, Roth sped toward the sphere, turning in mid-flight to contact it feetfirst. He felt, rather than heard, the reverberations as he landed. Startled, he reported back, "It rings like a gong! It's hollow. I can see finished edges on the flange, too. There's no question this is artificial now."
"Okay Roth, carry on." The captain radioed back. Roth could tell by the murmur in the background that he was stirring up the crew's interest. The captain continued, "If it's hollow, you should be able to stop its spin with the fuel you have in your reaction unit. Then we can examine it more easily." Roth's eyes twitched with irony at the captain's appropriation of his labours, but he agreed, and manoeuvred around to the flange, which happened to be the "equator" of the object's rotation. Carefully, he clipped his safety harness to wedges he jammed into irregularities in the sphere's blasted surface, and fired his jets to counter the sphere's spin until the stars stopped sliding past his faceplate and settled into their places.
"That's better," he said with relief. "There's a seam running through the centre of the flange and those six black sections are some kind of joints holding it together." Roth explained every move as he took out an extendible leverbar, inserted it under the edge of the nearest black section, and pried. The section lifted up with a smooth resistance, revealing the flange underneath. "It's only a clamp, holding the two halves together!"
The captain's eyes bulged with incredulity. She had to stop and take a breath before she could snort, "What kind of nut would build a ship like that? It would never retain any pressure! Didn't they know there's vacuum in space?" None of the crew had ever heard of Jules Verne, but they did know that in the days before space flight, people had thought of going into space by firing themselves out of giant cannon. It was ridiculous to think anyone had succeeded. But still, they shuddered to think of what, or who, might be inside.
Meanwhile, Roth was having trouble levering off the last clamp. Most of them had come off relatively easily, with a little effort, but the last one was right next to the gap where part of the flange had been torn away, and it was jammed in tight. Roth heaved and pried, to no avail, until the warning lights on his suit's air conditioning unit told him he was generating heat faster than it could be dissipated. He stopped then and rested while it caught up. "I can't give up now," he puffed, "why don't we burn it off?" The captain agreed, so Roth moved out of the way. The engineer carefully aimed the secondary laser, usually used on smaller asteroids, to blast the clamp and the portion of the flange that it covered off the sphere, carefully boiling it away a beam width at a time, so that nothing large enough to penetrate a hull remained.
Roth moved in again and inserted the leverbar into the seam running through the flange. The two halves floated apart, to the limits of a network of tethers. Inside Roth saw a cluster of bladders, some deflated, others still plump and bulging. In their midst was a second, white sphere. Roth sighed, "Here we go again."
But there was no seam on the inner sphere, not an open seam, anyway. It was smooth all over, except for a circle, just over two metres in diameter, with a line through its centre. In the middle of the line was a second, smaller circle, about twenty centimetres in diameter. In the middle was a sort of knob or button. Under the knob was the device:
____________________ | | \ \ \ / | | \ \ \ / | | / / \ / |__|__/___(____\/
Roth tried turning the knob, but it wouldn't budge. He pushed it, but again it wouldn't give. Finally he pulled it. It slid out easily for five centimetres and stopped with a snap. Then the large circle drew back into the sphere, split along the line, and slid back, revealing a short corridor. Roth entered, and saw that the corridor ended at a transparent plate. Beyond it, white rounded pillars hung from the ceiling, their tips almost brushing the floor. Near the bottom of each was a transparent square through which he could make out ghostly pale shapes. Between the two pillars hung a third, rectangular one, the front face of which was divided into four squares, one below the next. The bottom square was softly glowing blue.
Roth walked up and put his hands on the transparent plate. Suddenly the blue square blinked out and the one above it glowed yellow. At the same time, little indicators deep in the craft began to wink on and off. He jumped, then realised that, whoever had built this craft, and for whatever reason, it had been waiting for somebody to come and put it into action. And he had been the somebody.
Slowly, the computer replaced the gas in the somno-chambers with air, and replaced the saline in their slowly warming bodies with blood, adding nutrients and drugs in critical ratios to bring them safely out of their long sleep. Sarah was the first to regain consciousness. She croaked feebly and the computer poured some broth down her parched throat. Finally, she managed to croak out, "Lisa?"
A somewhat prim voice answered back, "I am operational, Sarah." LISA, short for LIfe Systems Administration, was actually a "committee" of seven computers, working together to keep the life support, navigation, and data gathering systems working smoothly while the crew were in suspended animation.
"What is our position?"
"We are 27.1 Astronomical Units from the system's primary."
"That's farther out than we planned. What happened?"
"I was going to open up ahead of schedule anyway, since we have wandered from course by one degree, 15 minutes, and 37 seconds since the last of the thrusters were rendered inoperative. However, our spin was arrested, the dust shield was opened, and the outer lock was entered 11 days, 16 hours, and 23 minutes ago."
Sarah grunted at its electronic passion for detail. Then she said, "This broth tastes terrible, it must be stale. Remind me to change it the first chance I get," without quite knowing why she was cracking jokes at a machine. "Hey, wait a minute, did you say that somebody stopped us and knocked on the door? We were right! There is space faring life in this system! Joshua, did you hear that? Joshua? Are you awake yet?"
His answer came back weakly, "I'm here, Sarah. Happy Birthday, you old coot." She smiled to realise that, although her aging had been arrested during the trip, she was now over a thousand years old. "Oh, and another thing."
"What's that?" She asked.
"I win the bet. There is intelligent life in this solar system. Now you have to pay up."
"You'll have to come and get it, buster!" Sarah's green eyes flashed with excitement. The she whispered in an awed voice. "We were right all along. They really are here. We didn't need to pack all that extra stuff for boost home after all."
"So? I was in Boy Scouts! Be prepared! I'd rather have it and not need it than..." Joshua grinned at Sarah's sudden look of horror. "Come on. They never would have let us come on a one way trip. Not even Belters are that crazy! Now, are you ready?" When she told him so, he said, "Okay, Lisa, turn it on." On his command, the computer withdrew their support straps and life support tubes, then sprayed them down with hot, soapy water to remove the dead skin layer, rinsed them down, and finally dried them with jets of hot air, vacuuming away the water. When they were dry, the computer dispensed ship suits. While they were dressing, Joshua asked LISA for a status report.
"No damage to inner hull, no damage to circuitry, power: 72 percent, atmosphere loss: 16 percent..."
Joshua interrupted, "Whoa, hold on there! We shouldn't lose that much."
"There is a hole in the dust shield from a micro-asteroid. It pierced five bladders and increased seepage on the rest. We have had it for 62 years, 10 months..."
"All right, go on." Joshua wished sometimes that LISA would satisfy itself with a generality just once.
"Temperature, 12 degrees..." it continued.
"Isn't that a little low?" Sarah was glad for her warm somno-chamber.
"That's okay, it'll warm up." Answered Joshua, "Well, Lisa. Who opened it up?"
"A single biped, no ship or planet visible through the door. It has returned at regular intervals averaging 22 hours, 21 minutes..."
"Hmmm, they have a shorter day. Any acceleration yet?" Joshua anticipated that the aliens, whoever they were, would pull the ark to some facility in order to examine it.
"Yes. After the third visit, we underwent 79 degrees, 8 minutes, 47 seconds of roll, precisely 9 degrees of pitch, and have been accelerating at 1.2 metres per second per second since. The direction of the acceleration is directly downward by ship's orientation."
"Great, I'll just walk on the ceiling. Okay, open up." The computer unlatched the cover of the somno-chambers and they reached up to flip onto the ceiling. Joshua walked over and pulled himself up into his observer's couch. "Let's take a look," he said. The panel covering the void slid back and he saw their new solar system for the first time. Or rather, he saw the stars from the viewpoint of their new solar system. By craning his neck, he could see the ship that was pushing them.
"Come on and look at this!" he said as Sarah extricated herself from her somno-chamber.
"I'm coming," she replied.
"No, really. It's incredible! If you sort of hold your head just like this, and look that way..." Joshua demonstrated by swinging his head around just next to Sarah's.
"Yeah?" she asked. "What am I supposed to see?"
"Me," he grinned. "Collecting on my bet!" And he wrapped his arm around her neck and collected a long-delayed kiss.
Suddenly the lights came on. "The visitor is back," LISA informed him as he eased out of the observer's couch and went across to the airlock. Inside was a space-suited figure peering into the ark. Joshua mimed walking upside down and pointed to the floor over his head, trying to get the message across that they were upside-down. The figure's helmet bowed for a moment, and then they became weightless. Thankfully, Joshua resumed his normal position.
"Either there is more than one of them, and they use suit intercoms, or they have voice activated computers, too." he said as he closed the outer door and pressurised the airlock. Then he opened the inner door and the figure floated in. It was looking intently at a box it held in its hands, apparently testing the atmosphere. When it was satisfied it took off its helmet, and that was when Joshua got the shock of his life.
When the lights started going, Roth realised that this was no relic for a museum, but an active spacecraft coming to the end of its voyage. He knew better than to try to break through the transparent plate, especially when the door behind him was open to the vacuum, so after watching and recording for a while, he left and went back to the ship. The circle closed again behind him.
They sent a report on the craft back to Near Space Command. The orders came back to keep samples of everything and begin bringing the object into a closer orbit where they could then pass it over to the NSC cruiser which was on its way out to rendezvous with them. Somehow, Roth had the feeling that NSC would be happiest if they handed over the object in one centimetre cubes, all neatly labelled. But at least he had an excuse to be in and around the object almost constantly during his off-duty time, as he cut samples from the clamps and outer shield before the remainders were vaporised by the ship's lasers. Then, he cut free some of the deflated bladders to have them tested. The rest he wrapped in netting to keep them from coming loose. Then he carefully strapped some padding to the inner sphere while the rest of the crew connected support arms from there to the front of the Rogue Chaser. That done, the captain turned the ship around to bring the engines in line to decelerate the object and bring it into a closer orbit to the sun.
It took a dozen days for the aliens to become active after Roth had first entered their ship. One day, right after the end of his shift, he went "up" to it as usual, only this time things were different. The first thing he noticed was that the second indicator light had stopped glowing yellow. Instead, the third square shone green. He could also see that the fronts of the two white pillars had swung out like clamshell doors. When he touched the transparent plate, the whole floor suddenly lit up with a shadowless radiance.
Inside, he saw a tall, thin creature detach itself from some apparatus on the ceiling and make its way across to him. It made some gestures, and Roth's eyes twitched as he realised that he had entered the ship upside down in the first place. He radioed back to the captain to stop the engines so they could rotate the sphere and push it right side up. The captain grumbled about having to recalculate the course to the rendezvous, but complied, and soon they were in free-fall again. As soon as the pressure lifted, the alien turned around to line up with the floor, and Roth did the same. The alien worked some controls, and the outer circle began to close up with Roth inside. Roth tensed up, but was reassured by the rush of air coming into the corridor. He realised that this was an airlock to get into the sphere. Finally, the transparent plate slid aside Roth stepped inside.
Before he did anything else, Roth checked his micro-spectrometer for atmosphere content. An eight dozen per gross nitrogen-oxygen mixture, with traces of carbon dioxide, helium, and a few other elements. There was more nitrogen than Lanara, but it was safe to breathe. He unsnapped the seals on his helmet and lifted it off. There was a curious taint to the air, a mixture of animal and chemical smells which was a little disagreeable at first, but also exciting.
Looking at the alien close up, Roth noticed the differences between the two races. The alien was taller than all but the very tallest of Lanarans, and its chest and arms were much more developed than any Lanaran. Its legs were also much shorter in comparison to its height.
They both knew that it would be useless to try to talk to each other, so the alien motioned for him to follow and made its way across to where it had been sitting when he arrived. It pointed to a black hemisphere on the console in front of them and worked some controls. The black ball lit up with stars, like a three dimensional map. One star in the centre was picked out in yellow, while the rest were mostly white. The alien moved another control, and a thin green line extended from the yellow star to another star nearby. Roth recorded it with his mini-scanner, hoping the ship's astrogator would be able to tell what the two stars were from the orientation of the other eighty or so stars in the map. He guessed that the yellow star was the alien's home sun and the other star was his own.
He saw many things during the time he was on the ship, some he could guess the use of, like the spacesuits and food. Other things he figured out later, like the somno-chambers. Finally he left and went back to the ship, to digest and report on what he had seen.
Joshua recovered quickly. He had known that whatever civilisation lived on Zeta Reticuli's planet would be different from Earth's, but he had not really been prepared for what he saw now. The similarity was just too great. All of his imaginings on what alien intelligent life forms would be like hadn't counted on this. The alien could only be described as a giant frog. It had pale green skin, a wide mouth, and a very thick neck. There was no sign of hair on its head or neck, although Joshua reflected that both he and Sarah were temporarily bald, having lost all their hair during suspended animation.
Joshua led the alien to the navigation console near the observer's couch and flicked on the star chart. While the alien pointed one of its black boxes at the chart, he projected the ark's course from Sol to Zeta Reticuli, guessing that it was recording the view. They gave the alien the guided tour, showing and naming the somno-chambers, exertia machine, vacuum suit lockers, tape library, food service, and control consoles. Finally, the alien walked into the airlock and put on his helmet. Joshua let him out and turned to Sarah, sitting at her console.
"Whew!" she grinned. "It's a good thing it left. I wouldn't know what to offer it for tea!"
Joshua grinned back. "Did you get it on tape?"
"Every second, but I'm afraid it's not very photogenic."
"Well, maybe it will dress up for next time. Right now it's time we started to get things shipshape. I'm going to check out our vacuum suits." Joshua knew they had to start getting ready to visit the alien's planet.
"Well I'm going to work out on the exertia. After all, I've done nothing but lie around for the last thousand years." Beneath the joking, they both knew, was a serious reality. After all their time in suspended animation, both of them were critically out of shape. Sarah worked up a sweat on the exertia, being careful not to over strain her atrophied muscles. They could not afford to lose any time by getting sore. They had to be in good physical condition by the time they reached the planet in order to withstand its gravity.
Meanwhile, Joshua pumped up pressure in the hard suits to test for leaks. Although they looked big and bulky, they were lighter and more flexible in the limbs than old-style soft suits. They also provided better protection from punctures and bone fractures. One of the suits lost pressure too quickly. Carefully, he ran over every fitting and finally traced down a cracked gasket in an elbow joint. When he tested again, it was airtight. He was just putting the suits back in their locker when Sarah finished working out. He went into the gym and started working out himself, adding to the fog of sweat in the air. Then he had a hot shower to relax his tired muscles and joined Sarah for lunch.
Lunch consisted mainly of reconstituted freeze-dried food and juice, but to celebrate their successful arrival they opened a bottle of wine that had been bottled on their departure. "Ah, Whitehorse Hydroponics, 2043, a very good year." Joshua grinned at that. Normally a wine this old would have been bottled by his distant ancestors, but he had placed the cork himself. After lunch they resumed getting ready for their arrival. Sarah set to work calibrating the instruments in the astrogation dome at the top of the ark. Meanwhile, at the bottom of the ark, Joshua set about preparing the landing craft. Getting the delicate equipment out of helium-filled cases, and set into place, and tested, took up most of their time for two shifts, with a stop for dinner. When they finally went to bed, they were exhausted from the tension of concentrating all day.
Their "days" were merely 24 hour periods that they arbitrarily started from the time they came out of suspended animation. They were as yet too far from the star to receive much light from it, and they no longer had a rotational period in any case, so they used the period of Earth days for their ark trip.
The next day, they worked out again in the morning, then they spent the afternoon and evening starting up the hydroponic garden. This would supply them with oxygen and fresh food when supplied with light and recycled water. Four days later, Joshua was stripping down the somno-chambers in the control cabin. They had been built for suspended animation during free-fall and would no longer be needed. He was just screwing down the replacement floor plates when LISA interrupted him. "Our visitor is back."
Joshua got to his feet, stretched, and cycled the airlock. It was the first time they had seen the alien in five days. It walked in, removed its helmet, stuck out its hand and said, "Hello, I'm Roth Hansat. Welcome to Lanara."
When Roth got back to the Rogue Chaser, he made a full report on the ark and his first contact with its crew. He took it to the communications cabin and had it sent to Lanara. Then he took his mini-scanner record to the astrogator and asked her to run the star chart image through the computer to find out the aliens' home star.
When he checked back the next day, the astrogator scratched the line of her jaw in helpless confusion. "I'm sorry, Roth, but I've run it through hundreds of times and it comes up blank every time." The astrogator was puzzled. "I've tried to allow for stellar drift, and I varied the scale to allow for the possibility that they selected only some stars as important within the volume of the chart, but wherever I place the alien star within two gross light years, the rest of the stars just won't match up with our charts!"
"Do you mean to tell me that the first time we come into contact with aliens who have interstellar travel, we can't even find out where they come from?" Roth stormed out of the astrogator's cabin and went down to the spectroscopy lab to get the results of their observations from when the clamps and shields were being vaporised during his first exploration.
"Okay, what are the clamps made of?"
The technician looked up from his screen with a puzzled frown. "It's an iron-carbon-molybdenum alloy. Nothing like anything we've ever used."
"What about the shield?"
"That's even stranger. It's almost pure lead. These people are certainly extravagant. Who can afford to use heavy metals like these in construction?" The technician scratched his head in bewilderment. "Now, those bladders I can understand. Good old fashioned carbon fibre and teflon. Nothing fancy there."
Roth thanked him and returned to his cabin to pull all the files he could find in the ship's library on recent xenological findings. He scanned journals and reports for hours, but could find no mention of any race that used ferrous metals in construction. On most planets with sentient life, iron was too difficult and expensive to mine in quantity. He guessed that the aliens came from a planet with a very active geological history, but which one?
The next day after shift, he took the lift up one of the support arms they'd rigged to the ark. He opened the outer door and went into the airlock. Inside the ark, all the lights were out, the aliens were asleep. Roth pounded on the transparent plate with his fist. In spite of himself he shouted, "Where are you from?" He knew they would never hear or understand him. As he turned away, he felt a deep depression; it took decades to translate even the beginnings of a new alien language.
The astrogator was waiting outside Roth's cabin when he got back to the ship. "Roth, I think I've found something." In the astrogator's own cabin, he showed Roth a star chart. It was a familiar view. In the centre was Lanara's own sun, and off to one side was the cannon nebula, all that was left of a nearby star which had gone nova not quite a gross years before. "I finally got all the stars lined up. I'd forgotten to consider that nebula. As a matter of fact, the alien's home planet was on the exploration files, although we never made contact. You could get the files from home and get started on the language inside a week."
"Hey, what do you mean, "Was on the files"? Why isn't it on the files now?" Roth demanded.
For an answer, the astrogator superimposed a second chart on the first. All the stars matched exactly... except one. There, in the middle of the cannon nebula, shone the little yellow light, joined to Lanara by a thin green line.
Joshua was staggered, "How did you learn English?"
"Please, I only know the beginnings. You will confuse me if you speak too quickly," Roth cautioned him. "We have explored your world and learned your language. You probably already know that we have been in space for hundreds of your years."
"We had hoped to find a star faring race. How is Earth doing? Have we got interstellar ships yet?" Joshua asked eagerly for news of the home he had left a thousand years before.
"Your people had not developed interstellar travel," Roth told him sadly.
"Don't you mean, 'have not developed it'?" Joshua corrected him.
"I am sorry. Your sun exploded 140 of your years ago."
For a long moment, Joshua did not react. The sun going nova? Impossible! He thought of the British Columbia coast where he had grown up. It couldn't be gone. Not those mountains. They had always been eternal and unaffected even by man's most ambitious schemes. Now the whole world he knew was just cold ash in the vacuum of space. He heard a quiet sob, and turned to Sarah. The pale mask of her face shocked him, until he realised that he probably looked the same way. He stumbled over to her in a daze and held her tightly. His wife, himself, and the contents of the ark were all that was left of the Earth.
Afterward, he wondered why, but suddenly the same incongruous thought struck both of them. She turned her mouth to his ear and whispered, "Do you know what we forgot to bring?" He hesitated, wondering if what he thought of would strike her as absurd in the face of what they had just been told. When he made an inquiring mumble, she finished the thought: "Clams. We'll never have clams again." And then, not for the clams, but for all that they represented, he cried.
Finally he straightened up, wiped his face, and turned to face the alien. "I'm sorry."
"Your grief is mine. I cannot take it away, but I share it." Roth's eyes were recessed into their sockets, and Joshua found himself wondering if that was a sign of embarrassment. "I will go now. You must want some time to adjust. If you wish, tomorrow you can come and visit my ship. By then, we will be close to a rendezvous with a larger ship that can take us to Lanara."
Joshua never noticed. He did not remember letting the alien out the airlock, but the next time he looked up from Sarah's head buried in his chest, the alien was gone.
LISA's crew psychological profile maintenance routines were completely baffled. They had been programmed to deal with depression and most forms of trauma, but nobody knows how to help anyone else grieve for a planet, and the carefully programmed expert systems watched and listened in fascination as their charges quietly cried while listening to nearly every musical recording in the data banks. How do you deal with a patient who hums softly along with "Mon Pays", and yet cries during "Goo Tube Blues"? Modules 1, 2, and 6 were convinced that the crew should be sedated for a few weeks. There was anaesthetic gas in the air conditioning system for just such a need. Modules 3 to 5 held for continued observation unless the crew proved a hazard to themselves or the ship. Module 7, as usual, broke the tie. It had more experience dealing with humans, as it was the interface to the network, as well as the referee between the cautious Crays and the curious Amdahls. «Humans are more flexible than computers,» it informed its colleagues. «Their emotions may cause them to act irrationally, but they seem to be useful in dealing with data overflows. We will allow them to work this through, and take notes on dealing with undesirable events. They must be allowed to act as they normally would.» The gas stayed in its reservoir. The crew, oblivious to the electronic debate, cried on.
On the bridge of the Eyes of Vodor, Captain Beruth Gothan scratched the line of her jaw in slow frustration. If they had come straight in to blast this alien vessel, they would have been here days before. But the asteroid scout had docked with it, and was slowing it down to allow it to move into orbit around Lanara, rather than swinging around the sun and back the way it came, as was its original course. Now, days had been spent in coming up on the pair going in the same direction at the same velocity.
Lanara had not seen war in thousands of years. Those few hostile species that Lanarans had encountered so far were at safe, interstellar distances. No planet could possibly build enough spacecraft to threaten another system, across a dozen light years, and even if they could, a fleet of that size was impossible to hide in a galaxy mostly filled with cubic light years of nothing. Gothan considered herself a creature of duty and reason, rather than imagination. She had always dismissed horror stories about great hairy monsters from Outer Space attacking innocent men and children. Yet the thought of an alien ship sneaking undetected to within the bounds of the Lanaran system made her toes spread with nameless dread.
Now they were finally within range of the scout and its alien find. Gothan aimed the scanner at the pair, and saw the familiar shape of a scout ship with a large globe shape perched over its dust shield by six legs. Strapped to the globe were many smaller globules. An image sprang unbidden to her mind. Suddenly, she thought of a gigantic web spinner carrying its egg clusters, not dressed and served up in a fine restaurant, but in the wild, about to prey upon some hapless creature that had stumbled into its web. She had never thought of a web spinner as anything but food before. Now, she could see it as a predator, and she didn't like the thought.
In the morning, Roth appeared in the airlock, then asked the humans if they would like to visit his ship. "The other ship will be docking with us soon. You can watch the rendezvous from our lounge."
Joshua hesitated, then chose to go. This was the purpose of their whole voyage. He would not delay the first real contact between species because of his own grief. He and Sarah donned their vacuum suits and went into the airlock with Roth. As they left the ark, Roth pointed to the lift which would lower them to the ship. But as Roth stepped across to the lift, he turned to make sure they were following. He stumbled on the edge of the lift cage, and when he tried to regain his balance, the cage swung out, and he fell through the gap.
Joshua lunged to try to catch him, and nearly fell through the gap himself. He watched helplessly as the alien fell in slow motion nearly 120 metres to the windowless "top" of its ship. "Oh my God, No!" Joshua peered down to where Roth lay. Even at one-eighth gravity, a 120 metre fall was sufficient to cause serious injury. "They can't see him from inside." He knew it would be almost impossible to get the Lanaran crew to understand the problem. "Sarah, get the ropes and karabiners from the emergency locker!"
As she secured the rope to belay him down, he looped it through snap rings in his suit, and rappelled down the support arm to where Roth lay. Roth pointed to his leg, and Joshua guessed that it was broken. Trying desperately not to think of what would have happened if he had fallen this far an a hard suit, instead of the alien's soft suit. A broken leg was a minor inconvenience compared to the results of a cracked shell. Gently, he applied an air splint to prevent aggravating the injury, and picked up the helpless Lanaran to carry him on his back. As their face plates came near, he could see that Roth's mouth was moving, though his eyes were shut. Although he knew that their suit intercoms would not work on the same frequencies, he wondered what Roth was saying, and to whom.
Suddenly, Gothan noticed an alien creature lowering itself down what looked like a web to the dust shield of the scout. Her fingers twitched on the controls as she spotted a Lanaran sprawled helpless on the dust shield. "Laser control!" she barked.
"Lasers aye, Captain." The answer came back through her headset.
"Bring the Lancet to full charge." She tried to keep the tremble out of her voice. Switching to intership, she tried to reach the Lanaran crew. "Eyes of Vodor calling Rogue Chaser. Come in."
"Two dogrods to full charge, ma'am," her headset whispered. Then, a few grogrods later, "Rogue Chaser here. Welcome, Eyes, we've been expecting you."
"Rogue, do you have a crew member on EVA?"
"Sure thing, Eyes. Our assistant engineer is up bringing the aliens down to see the ship and watch the docking. Why, is he in your way?"
"Negative, Rogue. I believe that one of the aliens has attacked him. I am bringing up my Lancet. We will be ready to fire in..." she checked her instruments, "one dogrod, 5 five grogrods."
The comm officer's voice was incredulous. "What!? Wait. Uh, stand by, Eyes." A moment later a new voice could be heard. "Eyes? This is Captain Santret. Are you sure of what you report? These aliens are the last two examples of a species thought to be extinct. We can't afford to lose one through a misunderstanding."
"I know what I see with my own two eyes, Captain!" Gothan snapped. The alien was getting closer to the trapped Lanaran. The poor victim was moving feebly. If they waited much longer, the alien would be too close for them to shoot safely. "Try to raise your crew member on intercom."
There was a moment of hurried babble on the intership, then the captain of the scout came on again. "His radio's dead. What's happening out there?"
Gothan sagged in relief as her intercom whispered, "Lancet charged and ready, ma'am."
"Laser control," she ordered, "take aim at the alien and fire when you have a clear shot without harming the scout crew member."
"Aye-aye." came the reply. Was there a tremor in the gunner's voice? Gothan wasn't sure. Then again, she wasn't sure if she had kept the tremor out of her own. "Captain," the intercom spoke again, "The alien has picked up the crew member and is carrying him. We cannot fire without hitting him first."
"Keep your eyes on those sights. If you get a clear shot, even for a fraction of a grogrod, fire!" Then, on intership, she said, "Captain, we can't get a clear shot. Detail a security team to attack from airlock three. You may be in time."
The reply came back, "Will do." She still wasn't sure if she was keeping the tremor out of her voice. But the other captain could not. She scratched the line of her jaw harder, bringing up a welt. They were armed with lasers powerful enough to blast asteroids from hundreds of kilometres, but she dared not fire at a target only metres away.
When he had Roth strapped securely to his back, Joshua signalled Sarah to drop the line to him for the next descent. He tied it to a strut and rappelled down the side of the ship to an airlock. Just as he was wondering how he would ever get it open, it opened of its own accord and four space-suited Lanarans jetted out. He released the straps holding the alien to his back, and gently passed it over to them. One of the Lanarans plugged a small cord into a jack on its suit, and the two bent there heads together momentarily. Suddenly, the whole group spun around and began waving at something over his shoulder. He turned around and saw a second ship. "Might as well make a good first impression," he thought, and waved to the ship as well.
The Lanaran connected to his injured companion by the cord handed it back to Joshua, and motioned them into the airlock, as the remaining three waited outside for it to cycle through. When they were inside, he set it down gently and took off his helmet. "Whew! It's a good thing I've been working out!"
"That was a wondrous feat, Joshua." Roth had been amazed, and more than a little frightened, during the escapade. He came from a world without mountains, almost completely covered with water. "I have never seen people walk down a vertical face!"
"On my world there are many such slopes, equipment such as this is necessary for exploration." Joshua replied.
The other Lanaran spoke to Roth, and it replied. "Can you carry me to Sick Bay?" he asked Joshua. When Joshua agreed, it spoke to the other, as Joshua picked it up again. Grunting with pain, he went on in English. "Follow the one in blue." As Joshua gently carried it through the cramped corridors, it whispered, "Actually, we had intended to bring you in with a little more ceremony... but not so much excitement."
Later, after another crew member had escorted Sarah down to the ship, they all sat in the officer's lounge. Joshua and Sarah were introduced to the captain and officers of the scout, as well as the captain of the newly arrived ship, who had a curious scar on one cheek. Both captains had their eyes retracted into their sockets, and kept glancing at one another when they thought the humans weren't looking. Roth had its (his, Joshua corrected himself) cast propped up on a stool. In the centre of the room was a computer terminal. The ship's computer had been programmed to translate for them. The captain began. "You have come a long way, Joshua Adamson. Why did you come in such a craft?"
"We hoped that there were interstellar travellers out here somewhere," Joshua began. "For many years there have been legends of space ships, but one year one of your ships landed and questioned some of our people. Later, under hypnosis, they remembered what they had seen, and drew a star chart. We used computers to match it up with known stars. Then, much later, we found a deep space probe. That proved things beyond any doubt."
"What probe?" asked the captain. Joshua pulled out a picture which he had been carrying for that very purpose. The captain examined it, then looked up in surprise. "This looks like Searcher IV!"
"You took a great risk," said Roth. "That probe was launched over three dozen gross years ago." Then he paused. "No, over 6,000 of your years!"
We felt that no risk was too great to achieve interstellar travel," Sarah replied. "We hoped to make contact with you and go with you to the stars."
"Your courage has preserved you. What do you intend to do now?" Roth asked them. The Lanarans were too polite to mention it, but they knew their genetics as well as the humans did. With so small a gene pool, the humans would not last past a dozen generations, if that. Without at least twelve individuals to begin with, inbreeding brought genetic diseases to the fore. Humans might not be extinct, as the Lanarans had thought, but it would only be a matter of time.
Sarah looked at Joshua. "I don't know," he shook his head. "I just don't know."
The humans, their ship, and Roth were transferred to the NSC cruiser Eyes of Vodor. The Rogue Chaser went back to chasing rogue asteroids, and they continued on to Lanara. When they got into parking orbit around Lanara, the cruiser released the ark and it was secured in an orbiting dockyard. Joshua and Sarah opened the top of the ark and disengaged the landing craft. Roth and some officers from the cruiser led them down to the surface in one of the cruiser's shuttles.
They penetrated the cloud layer and were immediately engulfed in a storm that whipped the ocean into colossal waves, and lashed the rain over the low shape of the University of Detheran's space port. The shuttle was equipped with automated landing systems, and was guided down to a landing on the leeward side of the port structure, where it was hurriedly pulled in and made fast. However, Joshua had to wrestle the landing craft down by the seat of his pants. There was no docking bay in the port designed to fit the craft, so it was lashed into an open berth.
When they had secured their craft, they left the port and headed into the heart of the university. Roth showed them to their quarters, which had been arranged for them in space usually reserved for visiting lecturers. Once they were settled, he invited them to come swimming at the athletic centre. Having been competitive swimmers themselves, they jumped at the chance. Sarah thought of the time when she and Joshua had first met. They had been in training for the 2032 Olympics in Vancouver. The young girl from Quebec had been enchanted by the tall, muscular British Columbian. It was only much later that she had found out that he was also involved in the interstellar probe project that she joined after getting her doctorate. Together, they had helped to put the finishing touches on LISA, the first computer system ever devised with hardware durable enough to function during an interstellar voyage. Sarah, drawing on her research into the possibilities of suspended animation, had programmed the life support functions herself.
When they were stripping down to their bathing suits, Roth saw the stainless steel cross around Joshua's neck and asked what it was. "Where I come from, we believe in the God who created the whole universe and every planet. We believe that He is perfect, and to be able to live with Him, we must be perfect, or we will die. But we are not perfect, and we cannot live with God. But He loves us so much that He made a plan to make us perfect. He sent His son to tell us how to be perfect. When his son came to us, we did not accept Him, but killed Him on a device such as this. He was hung on it in such a way that He could not breathe without great effort. Even though He could have killed us all and saved Himself, He gave up His life, for this too was a part of His plan." Joshua explained carefully, "Now everyone who believes in Him and serves Him can live with God forever."
Roth smiled, "We too have been visited by the son of God. And we too killed Him. He came back to life and waits for us yet." He pointed to a brass disc he wore strapped to his wrist. "We killed Him on a device such as this." He smiled and held out his hand. "Welcome, my brother. Welcome to the stars."
Roth showed them around the University, with its lecture halls and research labs, dormitories and cafeterias. Finally they stopped at a library and went in. "This is our xenology catalogue centre," he told them. "When you first reached the moon, we had explored only 27 star systems, now we have been to over four hundred stars." He showed them a corner where two cases stood alone. "These are systems we no longer explore." He pointed to one, "This is a double star cluster which eventually collapsed into itself, and this" he pointed to the other case "is the cannon nebula; all that is left of your star system."
"Why do you call it the Cannon Nebula?" asked Sarah.
"There's a big mystery behind that," Roth replied. He took some modules out of the case and put them in a viewer. "This is your solar system just before it went nova. This next one is nine days later. Notice that the gas giant planets are just visible inside that third blast ring. This one is 40 days after that. Do you see that fleck of light in the corner? That's some kind of flare. Here it is five years later. The system is beginning to cool down, but that flare is still hot. In fact, it's accelerating. It accelerated for sixty years and then it began to slow down."
"I see," said Sarah. "That flare is kind of like a cannon ball thrown off by the explosion. What caused that?"
Roth shook his head. "We're only guessing right now. That's why we want to have a look at it. What we don't know about stellar evolution would fill several libraries, and every puzzle we solve spawns a dozen more. But, since your sun was nowhere near the end of its evolution, and the whole explosion has a directional shape to it, one theory is that a black dwarf collided with your sun and the 'cannon ball' is a piece of the dwarf, surrounded by fusing remnants. The velocity changes might be caused by some kind of 'shaped charge' effect, but we won't know for sure until we see it up close."
"Where is it going?" asked Joshua.
"If it keeps on decelerating the way it has, it should come to a stop just inside the orbit of Targo, the furthest planet from our sun. In fact, the probe that has been dispatched to investigate it is due to be within visual range with another dozen days."
The next two weeks were spent in wearying hours discussing Earth with xenologists, and learning about Lanaran society. One xenologist in particular, who was a specialist in extinct cultures, seemed almost annoyed to find live specimens walking around the lab.
One day they went to a zoological garden on another island, and were amazed to see some Earth species there, including some that had been extinct on earth since before Joshua and Sarah were born. Joshua stared in awe as a black rhinoceros contentedly chewed on a bush. It turned out that some of the seeds they had brought on their ship were missing from the Lanaran botanical collection, although many more were already thriving under the Lanaran sun.
Joshua tried not to become depressed at the thought that human beings would be outlived by so many species that they had nearly destroyed, but he found himself avoiding the zoological and botanical gardens more and more. Instead, he spent as much free time as he could studying the results of Lanaran interstellar exploration. He marvelled at pictures of Lanarans standing on planets and greeting intelligent species under stars that were only flecks of light in Earth's orbiting telescopes.
It came as a bit of a surprise to him the night Roth took them to an auditorium to watch live transmissions from the Cannon Nebula Flare Probe. He had been trying so hard to put aside the death of his world that he couldn't help a feeling of bitterness that a piece of the disaster had followed them all this way. But he went with Sarah and Roth as they crowded into the room to watch the pictures coming in from the edge of the solar system. At last the probe was within visual sight of it, a bright flash amongst the stars.
Suddenly, the flare disappeared. There was a rustle and murmur through the crowd in the auditorium. With the beginnings of Lanaran that Joshua could now pick up, he heard the commentator saying, "The flare has gone out!"
Roth was saying, "I've never seen anything like it!" Sarah was just staring at the scanner, her eyes shining with excitement. Joshua followed her gaze.
"Wow!" he gasped. For there, picked out in glittering metallic tones against the blackness beyond, was the largest object Joshua had ever seen. It was ten kilometres long. At the front was a boxy structure with seven blackened tubes protruding from it. Then, taking up two thirds of the length, were clusters of cylinders placed end to end. Beyond those were two huge barrels slowly counter-rotating, and at the far end were three large spheres placed side by side.
"Well," grunted the Roth, with a twinkle in his eye, "I guess we'll have to find you someplace to live now."
By his side, Sarah breathed, "They made it. Somebody made it!" Joshua just stared at the giant ship. He felt relieved and proud. Mankind had made it to the stars.
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