Derelict, Part II

Here’s the second excerpt from my bit of fiction from 1994. You can read the first part here, if you want to catch up.

II

When I came to, nothing had changed.  The Glory Road was still drifting within a stone’s throw of the derelict alien ship.  The artifact still lay – or rather, floated – in its locker.  Only the giant eyeball was gone.  I tapped the artifact, then grabbed it and shook it.  Nothing.  I talked to it, cajoled it, and swore at it.  Still nothing.  I slumped down, although the only effect that had was my body going limp in zero G.

I wasn’t absolutely sure I hadn’t dreamed the whole thing about the eyeball.  After all, to put it mildly, I’d been under a lot of stress lately.  And things were not exactly looking up.  It was time to take some positive steps.  I pulled myself to the forward cabin and initiated a sensor scan of the derelict.  It was incredibly large.  The scanners told me it was fully thirty thousand meters long and about six thousand meters wide.  It’s apparent mass was on the order of billions of metric tons.  It was oddly shaped, clearly set up for travel in space.  There was a long central core that ran the length of the ship, and was about twelve hundred meters in diameter, although it wasn’t exactly cylindrical in cross section.  About every two thousand meters was a trio of arms, spaced around the ship equilaterally.  On each arm was a stepped pyramid shaped object.  Each set of arms was rotated somewhat compared to the previous set, so they weren’t parallel.  Each pyramid was maybe two hundred meters across at the base.  It was impressive, to say the least.

There was something else that the con told me that was less impressive, but increased my sense of urgency.  Life support was failing, not rapidly, but within eight hours, it would be out of commission.  No life support, no air.  I thought I’d have at least several more weeks, but the situation looked a lot grimmer.  I thought about it for a moment, then initiated the sequence that would fill all the emergency O2 tanks and the EVA tanks.  That would give me an additional 72 hours or so.  Maybe I was just prolonging the misery.  But then, I didn’t get as far as I had in life by giving up.

The scanners picked up something else, too, and when I magnified and enhanced the image, I began to hope again.  There was something else close to the derelict, something much smaller, but much more familiar:  a Beacon Mark III class asteroid miner.  Maybe there was a chance for life after all.

Beacon Mk III’s could carry a maximum of two people, but often miners drove the ship alone.  Asteroid miners are an odd lot, much like the desert prospectors of old Earth.  Typically, they’d load their ships up (which they called mules) and head out alone, usually for months at a time.  If they struck paydirt – which usually meant light radioactives, rare earths and ores rich in metals like platinum – they’d dump most of their supplies, carve out chunks of the lode, fill up the cargo hold and return to a processing station, usually Ceres Main.  The Beacon might have a working life support system, or at least additional O2.  The question popped into my head:  Where was the owner?

I made sure I finished the scan before I began prepping for EVA.  The Glory Road, being an old mining ship herself, had some useful accessories, including a one-man Jimmy shuttle.  The Jimmy had an operating radius of 200 kilometers, and could realistically carry and stow up to 3 metric tons of cargo.  I then tapped into the computer system and fired up Galen.  “Rise and shine, Galen.”

Galen’s almost-human face appeared on the main console.  He stretched, yawned.  Of course, it was all an illusion that allowed Galen, who was really an artificial personality, to initialize himself.  Finally, he looked out at me sleepy-eyed.  “What’s up?”

“Stand by to download to the portable deck.”

He groaned.  “That’s like being in a sardine can.  I – “

“Stow it!  Scan the logs for the last three weeks.”

Galen’s image froze for nearly a full second, then he came back.  “I got the problem boss.  Initiating download now.  See you later.”

I worked feverishly over the next several hours, getting everything together I thought I might need onto the Jimmy.  I wasn’t sure why, but I brought the artifact along as well.  Finally, it was time to go.

I climbed into my EVA suit, double-checked the seals and the O2, then placed the Glory on standby.  None of the air would be reprocessed, but it would be okay until I got back, if I needed it.  The thought occured to me that if I did need that air, I would likely be returning to my coffin.  It was a sobering thought.

I popped out the portable cyberdeck and headed for the Jimmy.

***

My first stop was the asteroid miner.  Most ships that aren’t meant to land on a planet don’t have security locks, and the Beacon was no exception.  Centered on the airlock door was the word O’Bannon, which I assumed to be the ship’s name.  I hauled out the cyberdeck and strapped it to my EVA suit.  The cablegun on the Jimmy was mounted on a motorized pindle mount just behind the cockpit.  I switched the gun on.  The central MPD on the console came to life, displaying the targeting minicam mounted on the cablegun.  I didn’t have to be too precise; once the airlock was in the minicam view, I fired the gun.

The cablegun was essentially a miniature, very low power rail gun.  It took a half-second for the capacitors to charge, then the gun fired.  The “bullet”, which only travelled at a couple of meters per second, was a blob of sticky resin with a cable attached.  The blob adhered to the O’Bannon just to one side of the airlock.  The resin blob was actually a conductive polymer with special properties.  A low power, AC current travelled along the cable.  While the current was alive, the blob remained, well, blobby and adhered to the target quite weakly.  When I cut the current on the cable, the gooey blob adhered even more strongly to the surface of the ship and became rock-hard.

I pulled myself hand-over-hand along the cable, opened the airlock door, and went in.

The first thing I noticed in the light of the helmet torch was that the inner airlock door was already open – not a good sign.  Usually interlocks prevented opening the outer door if the inner door is open – except when there was no atmosphere.  The lack of atmostphere had a number of uncomfortable implications.  First, there was likely no one on board.  Second, it was likely the life support systems on this ship were down as well.  It didn’t bode well.

I made my way to the miniscule control room.  The O’Bannon’s control space made the control area of the Glory Road seem downright luxurious.  I could see why most miners would travel alone on a Beacon; two people would probably try to kill each other after a few weeks.

I checked out the systems and was pleasantly surprised when the power systems came online.  Like most interplanetary ships, the O’Bannon had a miniature fusion reactor and some type of high density reaction mass that could easily be converted to plasma and fired out the rocket motors.  However, just as I feared, the life support systems failed to respond.  I tried to check out the log, but it was locked out and encrypted.

I puttered around the control systems for another few minutes, and was pleasantly surprised to find additional EVA O2 cylinders, quite a few of them, as a matter of fact.  I checked the capacities, and according to the instruments, there was maybe another two hundred hours there.  Well, it gave me some breathing space (literally!) but the thought also occured to me that I may just be prolonging the agony.

Since the O’Bannon was too small to have a robotic tender, it took me about two hours to move the O2, additional water and some food to the Jimmy.  Then I set out for the derelict.

I took the time to slowly explore the outer surface of the alien ship, beginning with the main cylindrical surface.  Most of one end of the cylinder was a large opening, that seemed parabolic in shape, and narrowed down.  I explored well into the opening, but came up against what looked to be huge shutters at the back of the opening.  At the opposite end of the ship was a similar opening, but more conical in shape.  It occured to me that this ship might be a variant of a Bussard ramjet.

The cylindrical surface of the ship seemed absolutely smooth, so I began exploring the arms that extended outward.  At the end of each arm, lay a stepped pyramid shape.  The “pointed” end of the pyramid was actually the end that was connected to the tube.  The base of the pyramid was parallel to a tangent surface of the cylinder.  The part of the arm connected to the ship started as a cylinder, maybe four hundred meters across.  Each arm stretched out symmetrically about five hundred meters, tapering to a roughly square tube about two hundred meters across.  The stepped pyramid was perhaps two hundred meters square at the connecting end, and two hundred  meters “tall” and nearly a kilometer wide at the base.  There were six sets of these spoked arms, so that made for eighteen of the inverted pyramids.

Until this point, I hadn’t explored the top surface of any of the pyramids.  What I saw when I reached the tip was disturbingly familiar, but I couldn’t place my finger on why.  I had a hunch this was important, so I tethered the Jimmy with the cablegun, and headed down to the surface of the pyramid.  When I reached the surface, I noticed that the magnetic soles of my EVA suit clung to what appeared to be ceramic tile.  Each tile was about a thirty centimeters square and had a unique pattern on it.  I walked clumsily, in that odd dance you do with magsoles and approached the center of the top surface, which was square-shaped.  At the center of the square was a set of steps that were not tile, but appeared to be stone.  Nonetheless, the magsoles adhered to those as well.  There were four steps to the top; each step was a comfortable height, but I needed to take a stride to reach the next riser.

At the top was a rectangular solid shape, about ten meters long, three meters wide and consisting of the blackest material I’d ever seen.  At first, I thought there were luminscent points in the surface, but then I realized I was seeing a perfect reflection of the starry space around us.  I walked carefully around the raised surface, which seemed for all the world to be an altar.  I vaguely remembered reading about altars which were used in ancient times to sacrifice animals, and the occasional human, but I also seemed to remember that those had blood gutters, whereas this was just an smooth, oblong shape.  After walking around it several times, I tried climbing on it.  It took several tries, because the black surface was incredibly slippery, and the magsoles did not want to stick.  I finally succeeded and looked down to see my EVA-suited figure perfectly reflected.  That seemed a little odd; the light didn’t seem quite right for that level of reflectivity, as if the black surface somehow had its own ambience.

Just then I heard an insistent beeping in my right ear.  It was Galen.  I punched a key on the cyberdeck and Galen’s face was projected as a ghostly transparent image on the inside surface of my helmet faceplate.  “What’s up?”

“I don’t know how I know this, but you need to return to the Jimmy, grab a backpack, and load it with the artifact and a couple of O2 tanks.”

I regarded his semitransparent face for a moment.  Maybe he had dropped some bits during the transfer.  “What do you mean, you don’t know how you know this?”

“I didn’t say that quite right.  There’s a file on the deck, just a text file, that suggests that as an approach.”

I felt my left eyebrow crawl upwards.  “Project the text.”

Galen’s face disappeared and text began scrolling slowly up my faceplate.  It read:

            Take that what you have stolen.

            Take that what you need for life.

            Return to the place of infinite light.

            Wait.

“This was in the deck?”

Galen’s face popped back on.  “You got me boss.  I didn’t see it when I downloaded.”

I shrugged.  I didn’t exactly have a lot to lose at this point.

I hauled myself back to the Jimmy and gatherd up the artifact, some O2 bottles, a water bottle, some quick energy rations and several other items that might prove to be useful.  I attached them to the magnetic surface of the derelict with net that had weighted magnets to hold the cargo down.  I brought enough air for about 72 hours, and a like amount of food and water.  I pulled myself back to the Jimmy and made sure it was securely tethered, then switched it to standby power.  I clambered back down and was back on the alter in short order.  I pulled the artifact out.  It still looked like smooth, featureless sphere.  I set it down carefully on the surface, no mean trick in zero G on a slippery surface.

Then the sphere flickered… and the eye opened.  Once again, I was face-to-face (so to speak) with an oversized eyeball.  By this time, though, I was so overstimulated and weary, that I just stared back.  Then I noticed the eyeball close.  “That’s it?” I muttered.

Then I saw the eyeball begin to slowly sink into the blackness.  “Hey!” I shouted.

Then I realized I was sinking as well.

I understood later that the black surface was really some kind of airlock entry, and the sphere somehow activated it.  A lot of wild theories whizzed around my overwrought brain, but the one that made the most sense was that the sphere was somehow an alien artificial personality that somehow had a physical manifestation, a kind of alien cyberdeck.

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