As promised! In the spirit of the Holiday Season, whichever present-giving holiday you prefer. A selection from the beginning of my new book Scent of Metal –now undergoing final rewrite. A tale of science, courage, and Pluto…
The emergency survey team moved down the rough-surfaced corridors at a jog-trot, looking for changes. The air was dry and cold, with no scent. Lea Santorin did her best to keep up, holding panic at bay by trying to figure out when things had gone wrong. It couldn’t have been their ship; after all there had been at least three ships from Earth before Kepler and nothing happened. Removing the alien…device hadn’t done it. But she had, just briefly, put the thing back in the niche where it had been found. The surface ablation of the ice layer had started shortly after.
“It’s my fault,” she mumbled, sure of it.
Ivars continued his careful, quick sweep of the corridor like he hadn’t heard her, weapon always pointed where he looked. “If you know that, then you know how to fix it.” The other soldiers behind her didn’t even pretend to pay attention to the conversation, and Dr. Adi was still slack-jawed with horror and shock.
“I mean, it was something I did that started it. I don’t know how it did it.”
“Better figure it out fast then.” He gestured, and one of the soldiers moved forward, silent and graceful, past an opening in the wall. The man glanced inside, then shook his head. Just another niche. “Our supplies are not infinite.”
No, they wouldn’t be. Kepler had brought a year’s supply for the research station, but didn’t have a year’s supply for their crew on board—just enough for the return trip to Earth.
“They’ll know something’s wrong, won’t they? Back home?”
He looked at her finally, face hard and pale eyes registering a trace of impatience. “And what can they do about it? Tell the Voyager probe to intercept us? We probably passed it seconds after this thing woke up. The only way we’re getting home again is by doing a U-turn.”
“Faster than light,” Dr. Adi whispered. It was the first time he’d spoken since it happened. “I always wondered if I’d live to see it.” He laughed, a brief, hysterical burst. “So, maybe I not live.”
Lea fell back a little to walk beside him. “We should at least wait a bit to go back, don’t you think, Dr. Dee? Give ’em time to calm down? They are probably pretty mad at us now for stealing an entire planet. Planetoid. Whatever.”
He shook his head, trying to smile and failing. “Every time we try to tell it what it is it changes. What will it become next?”
The expedition leaders had waited until Kepler was nearly halfway out to tell them what they were really going to investigate. All Lea had been told on Earth, under strict security restrictions, was that they had found alien wreckage on Pluto. Which was not exactly true, but not completely false either. What the probe had found was that Pluto, under a coating of ice and rock, was an alien construction. Nobody was sure if it was wrecked or abandoned or what. No alien skeletons or equivalent had been found. At least that’s what they’d said.
At first Lea was oblivious to everything except the Gadget, what she’d named the device, and studying it. Then she’d noticed, in addition to the scientists and other technical people, the significant military presence on Kepler—and that they all had an air of quiet, watchful competence that didn’t match the cheerful bravado of her Army cousins. They didn’t seem like rent-a-cops either, which was all she could think the expedition would possibly need. If the alien base/ship really was empty.
Lea quickened her pace to stay closer to Ivers. “Anything?” he asked abruptly.
“No,” she whispered, feeling her face heat. She hadn’t even been paying attention to the handheld displaying the mapped part of the alien ship. She quickly reviewed, and heaved a quiet sigh of relief. The map and her memory matched, so far. She hadn’t screwed up. Yet. The pounding headache she’d developed wasn’t helping her focus.
The corridor—walls, floor, and ceiling—was made of the same not-quite metal, not-quite ceramic the rest of the ship was made of. It had a slightly rough surface, like unglazed brick. That material, they now knew, didn’t change. The kind that did—well, now that the ship was underway, it had reconfigured itself. Which was why everybody not manning the scanners on Kepler was running around in teams, trying to map out what the ship looked like now. And, hopefully, find the bridge or control section or whatever the aliens had used for steering.
Lea slowed, frowning. The wall on her left showed as a wall on the handheld, but it wasn’t made of the static material. “This is morph,” she said, using the term they’d come up with. “But it hasn’t changed. The map shows it right here.”
Ivars dropped one hand from his weapon, letting it dangle from the harness, and examined the wall more closely. “And we don’t know if it was morph before, right?”
She shook her head, and stepped away as if to look at a different section of wall but really to get away from Ivars. There was nothing she could point to that made her uncomfortable; he’d always been curtly polite to her and the other technical people. She’d never even heard him swear. It was just that close up, the part of her brain that had warned her ancestors about saber-toothed tigers woke up and started yammering.
He’s just a soldier. You idiot. Lea took off her glove and touched part of the morph that looked different, even more blocky than the rest. It felt tingly, like it had a slight electric charge. More interestingly, it wasn’t cold like the rest of the ship. “Hey, Dr. Dee. Does this feel different to you?”
Adi took off his own glove reluctantly, and only rested the tips of his fingers on the surface for a brief moment. “No.”
He touched the static wall, then the morph again. “It feels the same to me. For you, otherwise?”
“Yeah. Otherwise,” Lea said slowly. Her headache twinged, and she winced.
“Mark it and move.” Ivars gestured, and the soldiers took up their positions around Lea and Dr. Adi.
They continued on for nearly an hour with nothing else differing from the map. Ivars called a halt and let them rest for far too short a time, mostly because Dr. Adi was having a hard time keeping up.
It wasn’t long after they started walking again that Lea noticed a wall coming up on the handheld, a wall that wasn’t visible ahead in the corridor. The side corridor was, but not the wall. “That section is new,” she said, pointing.
Ivars came up and glanced at the handheld for a moment, then stared down the unexplored section. He gave a small shrug. “Let’s check it out.”
As an unexplored section of an alien ship went, it was disappointing. The section of corridor stretched ahead as far as Lea could see, with the occasional empty niche, and looked exactly like all the rest. Not even dust or an alien candy wrapper to alleviate the boredom.
Somehow I thought this would be a little more interesting.
The soldier in front raised a hand. The others froze, and Lea and Dr. Adi had to stop with them. “I’m seeing darkness up ahead.”
Now that was definitely different. Lea remembered the initial this-is-what-we-know lecture, and one thing that had intrigued her was the ambient light. It had not been on when the first robot explorer was sent in, and if only a mechanical device was present it would not stay on. If a human was present, the lights were on. Depending on how fast the human was traveling—and they’d brought carts and even bicycles—the lights turned on ahead in anticipation so darkness was never seen.
“Long train,” said Ivers. “You two, stay in the back,” pointing to Lea and Dr. Adi. They proceeded cautiously, staggered down the corridor. The soldier in front flipped down his adaptive optics.
“Empty. Corridor like the rest, but it looks damaged. Wait, it’s blocked.”
When Ivars finally let them approach, Lea could see for herself. The corridor came to an abrupt and jarringly asymmetrical halt. The lighting was dead here, and the edges of the wall that blocked their path met corridor surfaces that had cracks and buckling.
“Atmosphere?” Ivars barked.
Dr. Adi started, then fumbled at one of the pockets of his vest for the sensor. “All is normal,” he said. “Pressure and atmospheric mix.”
Lea drifted forward, her curiosity overcoming her fear of getting snapped at by Ivars. The material of the ship was hard to damage, yet here it was cracked and worn. Something had blown up or smashed into the wall—but the wall had been patched up afterwards. By whom? When?
Two deep cracks darted jaggedly near the edge of the repair boundary, and met. A small chunk of the regular wall surface stood out just enough for her fingers to get a grip, and she pulled. The chunk came loose in her hand, maybe two inches long. She could hear Ivars draw in breath to yell at her, but it never happened. She was feeling rather speechless herself.
The repair material had flowed into the hole as if it had always been there.
Ivars wove his way through the supplies and sleeping bodies, hoping no further emergencies would erupt requiring clear passageways. After the change it had been agreed by the mission command that letting personnel sleep in the alien structure itself was not a good idea until they had a better understanding of what was happening and why. Plus, nobody wanted to. However, adding the 300 or so people already in place to the full ship’s complement made Kepler more cramped than before and it had never been precisely roomy.
Colonel Gonafrio was in the briefing room as expected. So was the civilian head of the project, Merrilee Macrae. Given how busy both of them were, Ivars started wondering if his exploration had been more meaningful than he realized.
“The wall sample,” he said, taking the sealed plastic bag from a vest pocket. Yeah, that was probably unusual enough for both of them to be interested. The little chunk of alien building material didn’t look that remarkable, but it was the first sample anyone had gotten.
“Thank you, Sergeant,” said Macrae, picking up the sample. It made sense, she was in charge of the scientists as well as the project as a whole. “Any speculation on how that wall got that way?”
“It looks like a pretty big hit of some kind. It would have to be to crack that stuff.” He hesitated, wondering if it was even worth mentioning. “Santorin didn’t think that bit would be very useful. Too damaged to tell us much about the rest of it in the ship. She seems to think it might all be connected and able to fix itself, and the fact that this couldn’t means it’s broken.” He shrugged. The scientists would be sending in their own reports, so it would get covered—but if Santorin had gone to the effort of talking about it it might be important.
“That goop moving in to seal the gap would support that theory, don’t you think?” Gonafrio asked dryly. “Your group managed to uncover a lot of interesting clues, and support for theories that up till now we’ve been making up out of whole cloth and guesswork. If the self repair on this tub is still working after thousands of years—and the drive—we can’t make any assumptions about systems not working. I find it hard to believe the original owners didn’t have any kind of alarm for intruders.”
“Did your scientists say anything that would indicate they suspect the age of this ship?” interrupted Macrae.
Ivars shook his head. They had more data than they had revealed to the new scientific team, in particular images of a glaciated Earth, over 100,000 years ago. No more recent images had been stored, another mystery.
“The location of the damaged wall matches—or matched—a dark ice feature on the original surface. A fairly large, symmetrical feature but not a crater, not in the ice. It happened before the ice showed up. We suspect something damaged the alien ship right around the time the last image was stored, and it has been dormant ever since.” Gonafrio opened up his comp, held it up to retina-verify, then plugged in a holo-pad. He tapped in some commands, and a model of the alien ship shimmered into view. Ivars had seen it before, with the few decks they could access highlighted in green. The core was apparently completely inaccessible. Now however, there was a large red valley scooped out of one side. “That’s our best guess, based on your location and the size of the crater.”
“Is that why it was empty? Too damaged, and the aliens abandoned it?” Ivars asked.
“It wasn’t too damaged to take off,” Macrae pointed out. “But who knows? Maybe the aliens didn’t have dent-and-ding insurance.” She grinned at Gonafrio’s sigh. “We’re thinking we might be able to get at the core that way. See how deep that hole is?”
“Yeah, but how are we going to get to it?” asked Ivars, doubtfully considering a long march in a spacesuit on the exterior of an alien ship that, as Gonafrio had hinted, might just have working defenses.
“We might be able to put an airlock in that repair wall. If the goop moves in where the wall has a gap, maybe it will move away if that material or something like it moves in,” Macrae said, waving the plastic bag. “Until we stop messing around in hyperdrive or the 12th dimension or whatever this thing is doing we can’t go on the hull anyway, so that’s something else to try.” She glanced at Gonafrio. “We want you to keep looking for more information. I wish I could tell you what to look for, but that’s why Lea Santorin is on your team.”
Ivars frowned. “What about Dr. Adi?”
“He will be more useful analyzing the data coming in from the sensors we got rigged up at the tunnel mouth. Maybe we can understand the drive that way. His specialty is high energy physics, and reading atmosphere sensors wasn’t giving him nearly enough to do. The trouble with intelligent people is they can’t turn their brains off. If you don’t keep them fully occupied in a situation like this they will start thinking about how much trouble we’re in and panic. That’s another reason to keep him on the ship. His stress levels were making him almost catatonic.”
“Okay, but why Santorin? She seems a bit…flaky.”
Macrae grinned. “Welcome to my world, corporal. I try to think of the science types as ‘highly focused’ myself. We sent her out for a reason. When we were recruiting for this mission we had a few computer science specialists play with some of the widgets we’d already found and tested. Santorin was on the list because she’d worked on non-binary nanotube computation. She figured out more in three days than the original researchers had in the previous month. She doesn’t always think in a straight line, but she gets there, and she doesn’t let preconceived notions restrict her approach. Good attitude to have on an alien ship, wouldn’t you say? Besides, you have another mission.”
Ivars glanced at Gonafrio. He was looking serious, almost grim. “You are not to communicate this to anyone outside your team, or to Santorin—in addition to your continued search, you will protect Lea Santorin. This has equal priority with discovering anything that can help us get back home. Is that clear?”
“Yes sir. Can I ask why?”
“Judging from the way she figured out the alien tech we brought back to Earth, and by finding this,” Macrae nudged the chunk of wall, “she’s probably our best hope of making the ship work for us. But if she knows that, there’s a good chance she’ll freeze up. Just when we need her the most.”
Lea jerked awake with a gasp, disoriented and thrashing to get away from whatever had grabbed her ankle. Then she saw it was Ramirez, there to wake her up.
“Ten minutes. Same gear as last time,” he said, and trotted off without waiting for her reply. Just like last time.
She wasn’t sure how many days this had gone on. There may have been a shower at one point, but that could have been a dream. Food was eaten on the run, dry and compressed and nasty. There was never enough time to sleep, even if she’d had a real bed to sleep on. There weren’t enough bunks now and there had never been much privacy, so she had found a raised metal housing that wasn’t near anything crucial and used that, with a pad and a blanket. The housing was right next to some kind of control cabinet. What it controlled wasn’t clear but it generated enough heat to require a fan, so it was warm and had its own built-in white noise generator.
Maybe that wasn’t such a good idea. Her headache had gotten worse, feeling like her brain was in a pressure cooker. The progressively higher-octane analgesics the medic had given her hadn’t made a dent. The only thing that helped was sleep, and even then she would have strange dreams. This time she had relived replacing the alien device in its niche, and she had felt again the strange, sub-aural click, knowing something was not right. Ivars had brushed her confession aside, but even then she had known a change had occurred. It felt like the entire universe was listening…
Lea rolled up the pad and blanket, grabbed her pack, and made a quick visit to the facilities. Someday she would have time to brush her teeth, which were feeling a bit furry. Then the corridor outside the general mess for some more insta-meals, stacked in boxes for the ‘outside’ teams. She hadn’t eaten in the mess since the incident.
Scrambling to put what she privately called “soldier-chow” in her pack on the run, she still was late. She could tell by the way they were all standing and looking at her. Nobody said anything as they moved out, or as they passed through the main airlock, or the sealed tunnel that went from Kepler to the alien ship door through the vacuum of the docking cave.
The soldiers weren’t just names to her now, not after all this time, but she still didn’t feel like she knew them. Ramirez, who usually came to wake her, was dark, stocky and the most obviously muscular of the group. Lea liked him best because he seemed to disapprove of her the least. Olsen had white-blonde hair and eyebrows so pale they were almost invisible. Even though he was rangy and thin and didn’t look that strong, he carried the largest weapon of the group. North was darker than Ramirez, had an artificial foot, and despite—or because—of that, moved with complete and graceful silence. If there were black ninjas, North was one.
Then there was Ivars. He was in command but didn’t seem to need to say much; the soldiers all understood what to do instinctively no matter what happened. Tall, lean, and wiry, Ivars had sandy hair that might have been red if he let it grow out more than buzz-cut length, and pale eyes that seemed to look through and beyond her. There were scars on one side of his face, near his temple, and one eyelid didn’t seem to want to close completely. A polite description of his looks would be “rugged,” a more truthful one would be “beat-up.”
Dr. Adi hadn’t come out with them after the first time. When she asked, Ivars just shrugged and said something about him being reassigned with even less interest than usual. Now she had no one to talk to. They only went back to Kepler to sleep, so she hadn’t talked to anyone there except to report what they’d found. Lea had never felt so alone.
Now they were in the round foyer, with three corridors radiating out. Ivars glanced at her. “Which way?”
As if she knew. The survey of changes was complete, so now they were looking for anything strange. A stabbing pain in her head made her stagger, and she put a hand against the wall for balance.
“I want to check the Tank first,” she mumbled. If she didn’t talk to an ordinary human being soon, she would die. Besides, they might have new information.
As she’d expected, Ivars and the rest of the team said nothing but headed out in the direction of the Tank, straight ahead. The corridor opened into another round space, this one three “levels” high. The corridor was on the middle level. Below was the only piece of alien technology they had gotten to work, a huge cylindrical display. Tables and equipment racks with overhead cable trays surrounded it, along with a dedicated team of researchers. From what she understood, they’d been working on the Tank since the first Earth ship arrived two years ago.
“Ten bucks says it’s just the mall directory,” joked Ramirez. North allowed himself a small grin, Olson just sighed. Ivars had no reaction, but kept scanning the area. The alien mall was a running gag among the soldiers.
The aliens must have had some way to get to the lower level, but the humans hadn’t found it. They made do by constructing metal stairs that went over the railing and then down.
Lea spotted one of the researchers she knew and felt her mood lighten. “Jenny!” Jen Chai turned and smiled. “Anything new?” Jenny was a friend she’d made on the trip out, where they had whiled away the boredom with Jenny teaching her some Chinese and Lea trying to explain American slang. Lea hadn’t seen her since the Incident.
Ni hao, Li-anh! Some indicators are changing, yes. New since the ship leaving.” She shrugged. “Still we have no understanding what they are. Also the display is changing by itself. What we set it to, it shows and then a few minutes later it goes back to this.” She waved her hand. “It changes faster now.”
The Tank display didn’t look like much. Clouds of glowing dust, threads of denser areas running through them. One cloud looked more symmetrical than the others, and it was near the center of the tank.
Interesting, but nothing she could use to dig up a control system. Lea checked in with a few other researchers, who had similar odd but unconnected findings to report. She sighed. There was no help for it, she was going to have to go back out to Corridor-Land and keep looking.
She trudged toward the stairs. The soldiers looked relieved to be moving again, or maybe they didn’t like the wide open spaces of the Tank area.
Halfway up the stairs, one of the researchers below shouted in surprise. Lea glanced over her shoulder and felt her eyes widen. The Tank display was pulsing, brightly. Oh, I hope we didn’t push the self-destruct button by mistake.
“Let’s go,” snapped Ivars.
Lea started running up the stairs, when a sudden crashing wave of pain made her cry out and stumble. Before she could fall two strong hands grabbed either arm and swung her upright, carrying her the rest of the way up and over the railing. Lea clutched her head, trying to understand what was going on. Her headache had vanished. She wasn’t in pain any more. And down below, the Tank was tranquilly displaying what looked like a long, white spiny spindle with dark hollows. It was getting larger. Or we’re getting closer.
“I think we aren’t in drive any more,” Lea whispered.