Another bit of fiction. Bear in mind I wrote this back in 1994, so the writing is a bit rough. I’d completely forgotten about it, but it’s actually pretty complete. This is just the first bit, though; the rest will come another time.

Derelict: Prologue

The planet that would someday be known as Earth drifted serenely in the starlit blackness of space. On the planet, curious apelike creatures were just beginning to experiment with tools, and building, without particular success. The continents that would become familiar to schoolchildren in a later era still seemed part of a single supercontinent, although their outlines were now apparent. It was a tranquil planet, and would be so for millions of years. Someday, men and women would begin to carve their mark into the planet. But for now, that was only a foreshadowing.

Approaching the planet was an object, a smallish sphere perhaps ten centimeters in diameter. It seemed unusually dense for its size, and the external casing seemed impervious to cosmic rays, heat and the endless cold of deep space. If the orb had emotions, it would be crying. If it was a living creature, it would be exhausted. And if it had understood something of the legends yet to come of the planet that lay before it, it would be a little fearful. And so it drifted towards the Earth, slowly accelerating as it entered the gravity well of the planet. Eventually, it drifted within the outer atmosphere, and the drag of the thin gases only accelerated its descent. Soon it plunged into the atmosphere, but despite glowing white hot, it did not melt or deform. It plunged into a shallow lake area, its heat dumping into the lake causing a tremendous steam explosion that killed everything within several kilometers. There it lay for millennia. And then it was found. And then worshipped. And then lost in the sands of time once again.

Once again, it was found, in the year 1997 AD. Time was now measured, and the Earth seemed a more harried place. The orb lay in a museum in a middle eastern country for awhile, surviving a war, then getting transported from one museum to another for three centuries as humanity clawed its way into the solar system, a reluctant explorer forced outward by population and resource pressure. Mars slowly yielded to herculean terraforming efforts, and nascent colonies sprang up on the moons of Jupiter and in the asteroid belt in humanity’s endless hunger for more space and more resources.

It is the year 2315.

I.

I’ve always prided myself on being both lucky and good, and on that day I was both. I had a big advance sitting in a numbered account up at Tycho Arcopolis, and now I needed to make good on it. The job was simple: get in, grab the goods and get out.

Except that “in” was the Greater London Museum of Natural History, one of the most heavily guarded museums in the world. The Brits were extraordinarily paranoid after the Scottish rebellion of 2230 had resulted in historical landmarks being razed and priceless arcana of British heritage smashed, burned or otherwise destroyed in a frenzy that approached the Chinese cultural revolution of the twenieth century. I was at my peak, however, and no one else was even close. So it was up to me.

If you got right down to it, it wasn’t about money. The past few years had netted more cash than anyone needed, and I could easily live a life of idle pleasure. But the Natural History Museum was widely regarded as invulnerable. How could I resist?

It actually turned out to be easier than I’d imagined. Bypassing the initial alarms looked tough, but the Brits had relied on biometric signatures to allow access to the alarm system. The poor bastards didn’t realize how easy it was to synthesize a fingerprint. Several days earlier, I had interviewed the head of security, ostensibly for an American newspaper. (Actually, I did write the article and it was published – the perfect cover is one that’s real, after all.) Getting a copy of his prints was ridiculously easy.

Once I got past the external alarm system, I had to deal with both human and robotic dogs. That’s where the telltales came in. Telltales are little mechanical droids I had built to an odd set of specifications – odd to the droid maker who produced them. Only twenty centimeters high, they rolled around in a random fashion, producing noise that sounded for all the world like stealthy footsteps. I slipped on a military issue gravpack (never mind where I got that) and drifted above the floor.

And there it was: the Orb of Calienses. Thought to be a religious artifact worshipped by the ancient Zoroasterian religion, it had always proved a mystery. The markings on its exterior were unlike any Zoroasterian artifact ever found, but it had been found in the excavation of a Zoroasterian monastary. No one ever knew quite what to make of it.

My, er, client, however, loves to collect oddball and weird artifacts, particularly of religious significance. And he had been coveting this particular artifact for a long time. Now I’d be able to oblige him.

The Orb was actually on an unprotected pedestal, behind a transparent pleximetal shield. It wasn’t even protected by a local alarm, because no one ever thought that someone would try to steal it – or even get this far. Just to make matters more interesting, I replaced it with a carefully weighted plastic replica. It might be weeks before someone noticed it wasn’t real.

Then I drifted out. There as a nervous moment when one of the telltales actually passed beneath me, followed a few minutes later by one of the museum’s human guards. Good thing it was a human guard, too; a robotic one would have noticed a human-sized object floating near the ceiling, even if it was hiding in the shadows.

I took the hypershuttle out of Heathrow to Pitcairn Island, e caught the shuttle to Aldrin Central at the L4 point. Glory Road was docked there, the sweetest little deep space cruiser you’ll find anywhere. It was ugly as hell, but interplanetary travel demanded function, not form. Fourteen hours after the snatch, I’d powered up old Glory and we cranked up the delta vee and were on the fast track to Mars. We’d be there in seven weeks.

Only that’s not what happened. Instead, the fun was only beginning.

Everything seemed normal. The Glory Road was a converted Buster class asteroid miner, so it was set up nicely for one or two people, and most of the controls, including astrogation, are heavily automated. You set up the navigation paramaters, and the computers handle everything: delta vee adjustments, course corrections, fuel management, the works. You sleep, read, entertain yourself using VR gear or whatever. The only thing that I’ve ever found limiting was trying to enter cyberspace; the delays for transmission are just too great beyond the cislunar orbit, so I stick to old fashion voice or even typing for datacomm.

So I followed the drill, or at least, I thought I did. I set up the parameters for the quickest cheap route to Mars, felt the thrusters kick in gently (you never generate more than about a tenth gee) and immediately took a nap. Over the next several weeks, I basically paid no attention to the astrogation system.

About the third week, I began to feel like something was wrong, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. The feeling worried at the back of my consciousness for several days, before it hit me like the meteor that dug the Arizona crater.

We weren’t headed for Mars.

I frantically logged on to the computer and checked and rechecked everything. According to the navigation systems, we were going to Mars. I performed some visual scans using the electronically enhanced imaging equipment, and correlated them against some VR scans that were generated using the Mars route parameters. They didn’t match. I saved the state of the system and shut down the navcomps, then restarted them, entering the Mars data. Big red error signs flashed at me.

I was staring at my own mortality.

According to the information, I hadn’t caught the discrepancy in time. The delta vee and fuel supply was all wrong to make it to Mars. My supply of reaction mass was inadequate to make a direct course correction to Mars. I could choose to burn up my fuel in a vain attempt to make the correction. In a few days, I would run out of fuel. Several weeks later, the food supply would be gone. The water and air recyclers were remarkably efficient, so if I chose to, I could happily die of starvation. It was a grim prospect at best. Sending out a message wouldn’t help, either. If I managed to actually contact someone, they’d likely offer a sympathetic eulogy, if they cared at all. The odds of a ship being near enough to match my delta vee was next to impossible, and the odds they’d have enough spare reaction mass to actually help me was astronomical.

I spent the next couple of hours in a very morose and depressed state, even contemplating taking a hike out the airlock without a pressure suit. Then the ghost of an idea skated around the edge of my brain, then took hold. I pulled myself back to the console and restored the initial data that had been in the navcomps before I rebooted. If the data was meaningless, I’d die anyway, but there was an off chance that something useful had been programmed – if indeed some other force was at work, and I hadn’t merely screwed up royally.

Waiting was the killer. I had no idea how long it would take to get wherever it was the ship was going, if indeed it was going anywhere. I ate carefully and tried to distract myself with the VR gear, but I was too nervous. Then I got the brilliant idea to program the course into the VR system, then accelerated virtual time. That’s how I discovered I was headed for the inner periphery of the asteroid belt, about 15 degrees below the ecliptic. It was an area that had been largely unexplored; most of the useful resource-rich asteroids orbited in the ecliptic.

Somehow I managed to get through the next fifteen days, then noticed that some gentle negative G was being applied. Clearly I was approaching a destination of some kind. The next few hours were interminable. Then the MAD detectors went nuts. I was clearly approaching a large mass of some kind, no doubt an asteroid.

When I finally managed to get a visual on the imaging gear, I could only gape. Whatever it was that was out there, it was BIG. And it was no asteroid. It was a ship or space station of some kind. And it wasn’t human.

Some people have the presence of mind to record something profound when presented with historic opportunities. I was completely speechless, and worse, I was scared witless. Something had brought me here, clearly, but what could it be?

I”

I very nearly jumped out of my skin at the word. Then I realized that no one had spoken, but the thought had appeared in my head as if someone had actually said the word. Then I realized what it must be, because there was only one object on board Glory that didn’t really belong there. I carefully pulled myself to the locker that I’d used to stash the artifact I’d – uh – acquired from the museum. I opened the locker and stared inside.

The artifact was still there where I’d left it, nestled in an antishock package. Then the surface of the artifact moved or maybe, morphed is the better word. An eye opened on the sphere, an eye fully twenty centimeters across. And it looked right at me.

It was then I fainted dead away.

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