A billion-year-old alien ship. A great treasure. A great danger.
With a last surge of the main drive, Barnet matched our bearing and speed with the alien derelict.
Twisted lines of tubing and conduit curled around the hull. After a billion years, micrometeor collisions had sandblasted the ship to a dull finish.
But behind that battered surface might lurk exotic materials beyond the manufacturing capability of any human world. Magnetic monopoles, dyons, condensed matter. Even a tiny amount of alien treasure delivered to Earth or a major world could set up a crew for life.
Risks? Yes. I’d seen men die horrible deaths from alien nano. But the rewards could be worth it.
And I had nothing to worry about.
I knew Barnet had my back.
Sample of “A Fistful of Monopoles”
With a last surge of Winona from Pomona’s main drive, Barnet matched our bearing and speed with the alien derelict.
He shut down the engine and the dregs of thrust-gravity ebbed away. My feet drifted off the floor of our cramped command station. I grabbed a strap. Two meters away, Barnet did the same, showing off the sweat stain in his armpits.
I sniffed, though I didn’t smell much better. For a two-man crew in deep space, it’s easier to noseblind yourself through your neuronal interface than to bathe regularly. Then I forgot about our lack of hygiene as my neuronal interface projected a 3d image of the derelict onto my optic nerves.
Constructed by our ship’s computers from reflections in the EM spectrum and active detection using the neutrino radar, the alien vessel seemed to float in the air between Barnet and me. 1:200 scale. Despite the dim light here, 4000 AU from Margolin’s Star, there could be no doubt of what we saw. No human ship had lines that looked once alive.
Twisted lines of tubing and conduit curled around the hull like a nest of flash-frozen snakes. Most of the outer skin had flaked off, leaving great scabrous patches dangling in vacuum. After a billion years of ultraviolet light, the remaining skin bore a yellow-brown tinge. Micrometeor collisions had sandblasted the exposed inner hull to a dull, matte finish.
But behind that battered surface might lurk exotic materials beyond the manufacturing capability of any human world. Magnetic monopoles, dyons, condensed matter. Even a tiny amount delivered to Earth or a major world could set up a crew for life.
A smudge on the hull caught my eye, near twisting conduit just forward of the drive dish. The outer skin looked peeled away from the smudge.
My heart quickened. I confirmed my hunch with a glance at the radar signal. A hole in the hull, left by some chunk of space debris.
I checked the size against the scale. About three meters high by two wide.
Our way in.
Barnet’s right hand worked the buttons and switches of a fidget cube. He spoke slowly, as if he’d fallen out of practice. We hadn’t talked much during the six-month journey here from the station near the jump point. “Mac, how about I turn on the external spots to give us a better look.”
“No!” From similar disuse, my voice came out somewhere between a growl and a croak. I cleared my throat. “The neutrino radar is the only safe active sensor. The most innocuous things, like visible light, can trigger their defenses.”
He squinted his gray eyes at the bulkhead behind me. Probably pinging his neury for what innocuous meant. Then he swept a callused hand across his shaved scalp and gave a wry grin. “You know more about them than me, old man.”
By a decade, sure, but I’d been able to afford a rejuve treatment. The age difference didn’t matter. My five prior prospecting missions to his two mattered a lot more.
Maybe I had an old soul. But if it kept me alive, I’d take it.
“And don’t you forget it, whippersnapper,” I said, grinning back. We’d met on my previous mission and hit it off in the low-key that’s-cool manner of men since the first mammoth-hunting party left camp.
Through my neury, I checked the incoming data feed. Numbers and text scrolled down a translucent pane overlaid in my vision between me and the derelict’s image. Too much to process right then, which was a good sign in itself. “Data collection looks good.”
“Then let’s get going.”
“Hold your horses,” I said. “We’ll follow the standard checklist. The expert systems will pore over the data from the derelict, then I’ll double-check what they tell us. By then, the drive will be cool enough for me to go outside for maintenance. Always be ready to run before you explore a derelict.”
Barnet nodded without seeming to hear me. He smoothed his ragged brown beard with one hand and clicked and clacked the fidget cube with the other. His gaze lingered over the derelict’s image.
I gave a chin-nod. “What?”
“I got a good feeling about this mission.”
I peered at him. Overconfident men got sloppy, and sloppy men got dead. But I knew him well enough to tell he wasn’t overconfident. He had hunches, and more often than not, they panned out.
“Yeah. Whatever we find, we only have to split the profit two ways, not twenty.”
He grinned at that. My neury simulated reflections of the derelict dancing in his eyes.
I knew him well enough, or so I thought.
A day poring over the inside of the drive parabola checking for defects in the gamma ray reflector surface. Another day lugging a tank of reflector gunk from defect to defect, dispensing squirts, and curing the gunk with a handheld UV flashlight. The monopole had been retracted into its immaterial storage cage of electromagnetic force, but still I moved cautiously. Three tethers spaced evenly around the rim of the drive dish were all that kept me from drifting away to a lonely death.
Back inside Winona, I found Barnet had loaded the sled. Everyone called it that, though it looked nothing like the flat slabs of plastic I’d ridden down snowy hills on Planter’s Punch. The intership sled looked like a canister of compressed gas because that’s what it was. A valve at one end, a control panel sensitive to the touch of vacuum-gloved fingers at the other. It would respond to our neuries, too, but I’d trained in virtual to use the control panel or even to manually override the valve, and ridden Barnet enough on the way out here from the jump point for him to do the same.
He shoved his fidget cube into his pocket. “How’d I do, Mac?”
Tools and equipment dangled from rubbery black webbing hooked onto the sides of the canister. Detectors for electric and magnetic fields. Cutters and welders. Aid kits for suit punctures and routine medical emergencies.
Two handguns, each with a fifteen-round magazine, in case we found something not routine.
Or it found us.
I checked the packing list and the readiness of each item through my neury, then spot-checked it with my own eyes and hands. “Looks good.”
“Ready to go?”
“Patience. The derelict’s floated for a billion years, it can wait till the morning.” I flexed aching shoulders and winced. “No one’s going to get there ahead of us.” We were the only ship within a thousand AU. We were the first to piece together the data from deep space neutrino scans