Derelict, Part III

The next installment of my novella (novelette?) written in 1994. Curiously, 1994 is the same year I began writing for Computer Gaming World. Who knows what might have happened had I never become involved in technology writing.

The sensation of sinking – quite vivid, although the feeling of gravity was very low – lasted maybe a minute. Then I found myself in an airlock.

After all that, it seemed rather anticlimactic. If you’ve seen the interior of one airlock, you’ve seen them all. The proportions were skewed; clearly, whoever used this airlock wasn’t human, but it was an airlock nonetheless. Only the entry into the airlock was, well, unique. I tongued the mike. “Scan check.”

A moment later, Galen’s face appeared. “No atmosphere currently. I’m running a spectrographic survey now to see if I can ID any of the material around us. It’ll take a few minutes.”

“No hurry,” I said drily. “I’ve got the rest of my life to wait.”

While Galen was running the survey, I visually examined the interior of the airlock. The “ceiling” appeared to be the same black, self-luminescent material on this side as it was on the other. The feeling of gravity had disappeared. I had no idea how to get back out. The other thing that had disappeared was the eyeball; the sphere was once again featureless. I thought about the appearance of the eyeball for several minutes. The eyeball didn’t really look like a human eye on close examination, but rather more like a metallic iris. That was a clue that the sphere wasn’t really something living, but some kind of construct. The mystery was how it came to be on Earth. Clearly, it was somehow part of this ship, but I was clueless as to how it got from here to Earth. Also, if it had been on Earth for centuries – perhaps millenia – why hadn’t it communicated with us? Another mystery was how it managed to communicate with me that first time. I could understand how it might insert a data file in the cyberdeck more easily, but the thought of a telepathic, telekinetic object that seemed to behave in an arbitrary manner left me edgy.

Arbitrary wasn’t quite the right word. Every indication since we fired up the Glory Road was that the artifact somehow manipulated events to bring me here. The thought flitted through my head: Why me? Why now?

The only answer seemed to be: you were in the wrong place at the wrong time, asshole.

I sighed. These speculations were getting nowhere. Just then, Galen popped up again. “I completed the spectrographic scans. Most of the airlock consists of somewhat exotic alloys and plastics, though nothing impossible. However, there are two areas that are very odd.”

“Let me guess. One of them is the airlock ‘door’.”

“Right, boss. Material-wise, it’s not too unusual, but the scans pick up lots of… well, movement. And empty space.”

“I thought most matter outside of neutron stars was mostly empty space.”

“True. However, there are usually subatomic attractions that go on to hold everything in place. I don’t get any indication that the ‘door’ is solid. In fact, it seems to have the consistency of a pile of sand.”

I thought for a moment. “A very orderly pile of sand, indeed, Galen.”

“Yes, I know. I don’t understand it, either.”

I went back over his report. “You said there was two areas that were similar.”

“Yes, boss. On the, uh, ‘floor’, dead center of the wall to your left.”

I looked over there, but the floor in that area looked like any other floor. “Galen, we need a coordinate system. Figure out a system where the Glory Road is ‘North’ and ‘Up’ is towards the ecliptic. We’ll use that from now on, or I’ll go crazy trying to figure out where we are.”

“Roger, boss. Galen out.”

I walked cautiously over to the spot that Galen indicated. It was pretty easy figuring out the area he referred to. Although the material looked just like the floor, the magsoles on my EVA suit would cling to the real floor, but not the mysterious material. It had a extremely low coefficient of friction, like the initial airlock door. I figured it had to be an entryway of some kind to the ship below us. Standing on it didn’t activate it, so I fell back on the only thing I knew worked. I returned to the center of the airlock, picked up the artifact gingerly, and walked back to the non-magnetic area, which I was already beginning to think of as a door. I set the sphere down.

Nothing happened. I swore at the artifact in several languages to no effect. “Galen!”

“Yes, boss?”

“Any odd messages in the deck?”

“Not since the original.”

This thing would drive me bonkers long before my air ran out. I began studying the wall near the door. Close examination revealed a number of interesting features. First, there appeared to be writing of some kind. It didn’t look like anything I’d ever seen, but my memory of archaeology told me that this was calligraphic, not literal symbology. In other words, they weren’t hieroglyphics, but abstract symbols like the writing we’re accustomed to.

Secondly, the writing seemed to be labels. After staring for several seconds, I realized that there were short, discretely spaced sections of writing within rectangular areas that were colored slightly differently from the surrounding walls, three altogether, in a horizontal row.. The differences in color were subtle, but noticeable. It was several more minutes before an idea began to slowly gel in my befuddled synapses. These weren’t labels. They were buttons. But the question was: which buttons were which? I’d hate to push a button only to discover that I was in the center of a giant trash compactor. Of course, there was always the possibility that the possibility that power in the ship had long since died, and pushing the buttons would do nothing at all.

I tried to think about it logically, but the presence of three buttons threw me. The would be “OPEN”, “CLOSE” and… and what? And would the order be left to right or right to left? It was like one of those logic puzzles that you found in some magazines whose sole purpose seemed to be to drive the reader buggy.

Then I thought of something. “Galen.”

“Yes?”

“Scan the wall in front of me. See those three rectangular areas?”

Galen’s voice filled my ear. “I got ‘em. It looks like hieroglyphics to me.”

“No, Galen, these are not pictographs. More importantly, can you discern any differences between them, other than the fact that the writing – if it is writing – is different inside of each rectangle?”

“Let me work on it, boss.”

A few seconds later, Galen came back. “The rectangles are different colors – at least, they’re different colors if you can see into the ultraviolet. Two of them are nearly the same shade, but one of the, ah, buttons seems quite different – the one on the extreme right.”

“Really? How different?”

“Not only a lot higher frequency on the spectrum, but more intense – lots more intense. If you could see it, you’d think it was a lot brighter.

“Thanks, Galen.”

One of them was “quite a bit different.” I mused on that for a couple of minutes. It was a much brighter shade, but up the UV. If the switch – for that’s what I believed the three rectangular areas were – was much brighter, it would likely be a warning. So maybe we won’t press that one.

I reached out and touched the middle pad.

Nothing happened.

I touched the pad to the left. Still nothing. This was going nowhere fast. Finally, I picked up the artifact and touched it to the pad on the left.

Bingo. The sphere actually glowed for a moment, as did the button. However, instead of “sinking” into the floor, as I did through the airlock entrance, the rectangular area on the floor dilated. “Did you scan that, Galen.”

“Yes, boss. Interesting. Not enough data to give you anything solid, yet, though.”

“Interesting,” my artificial construct had said. Indeed, it was. When the “door” had dilated, it had done so in a most unusual manner. It had flowed, as if it was a liquid, in an almost whirlpool-like effect. Yet the edges of the door seemed solid. When I passed through, the door contracted, and it still looked like liquid flowing.

I was now in the “bottom” of the pyramid. I quickly got the hang of passing through the various doors. All the doors had a similar set of buttons. The left button would open a door; the right button would close an opened door. I never tried the third button, but I suspected it was an emergency panic button that would close all the doors – just the kind of thing you might press in the event of a catastrophic atmosphere leak.

Not that there was much atmosphere; in fact, there seemed to be none.

It took me awhile, but I found the equivalent of an elevator at one corner of the pyramid. Later, I discovered there were similar shafts at each vertex. The shafts seemed to be artificial gravity wells. When you stepped into one, you would begin descending slowly. Objects closer to the middle would descend more rapidly, even accelerate a bit. When you crossed to the opposite side – there were railings that ran the length of the shaft, and about eighteen inches apart so you could pull yourself around the perimeter of the shaft – you would slow down and begin moving in the opposite direction. It seemed weird, but also efficient. Once I got caught in the middle, and began actually accelerating quite rapidly. I floundered around like a fish out of water, envisioning myself smashed against a bulkhead at the “bottom”, but as I neared the end of the shaft, the acceleration reversed and by the time I had reached the bottom, my velocity was almost nil. Two sets of shafts had the center of the well accelerate in one direction; the other pair accelerated the other direction. “Real handy for moving cargo,” I mused out loud.

I explored enough of the pyramid to realize that it was in effect an arcology. Only, there were no tenants. What was weird was that it didn’t even look lived in yet. There was no evidence that anyone ever lived there. I came across something that looked like a library. There were stacks of cubes on shelves and in drawers in orderly rows, but nowhere was there anything that looked like a cyberdeck that could read the data in the cubes – if that’s what they were.

Galen suddenly popped up on my visor. “Boss, I need to warn you, we’re down 25% of the O2 we brought with us. That leaves us about five hours of range before we need to head back.”

“Right.”

I checked the status of the EVA suit’s life support, but it was still in good shape. I sucked down some electrolyte and munched on a couple of tasteless food pellets. I’m sure they were well balanced.

I made my way to the pointy end of the pyramid and opened the doorway to the long tube. The tube turned out to be a two-way gravity well gizmo, only the turbo version, so within ten minutes I was standing in front of a door that led into the ship proper. “For what we are about to receive,” I muttered and opened the door.

The interior of the ship was much more brightly lit, with some kind of indirect lighting. I was in a corridor, maybe ten meters across, perpendicular to the tube entrance. There was an object directly in front of me, and it scared the bejesus out of me before I realized what it was. It was an EVA suit, hanging gently, dead center of the hallway. I knew it had to be the miner from the O’Bannon. And he was quite dead.

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