The hold was discouragingly bare as Jack Stevens looked it over. It was looking more and more like this would be his last run. The hold doors shuddered and slid shut with labored jerks, entombing their latest captive. Their silent cry for an overhaul went unnoticed as his first mate, Bruce Kawajima, carefully eased a huge piece of space junk to the tempered steel hold deck of the salvage ship MaryAnn. Jack glanced over at Bruce hopefully and then to the battered object. “What do you think it is?”
“Good question,” Bruce said as he hooked a cargo strap into a deck ring and pulled it over the object. He clomped around to the other side, hooked the other end, and began to carefully take up the slack using a manual strap-tensioning ratchet. If the object was worth something, he did not want to use the automatic straps for fear of crushing it. “I wish we didn’t have to sell the hold’s grav unit,” he complained as he worked. “I hate these lousy mag-boots, and I hate these lousy straps.”
“Yeah,” Jack muttered. “Me, too.”
“Anyway, to answer your question, it kind of looks like a power unit from one of those old robot asteroid miners.”
Jack stepped back a couple of meters and looked the object over again. “Maybe,” he replied as he took a closer look. “I don’t know, though. I saw one of them once and this doesn’t look like what I saw.” He smiled that same tentative smile Bruce had seen too many times before and uttered the same words he always said at times like this. “Who knows? We might get lucky this time.”
Bruce smiled wanly, gave a final tug on the ratchet, and shook his head slightly as he hooked and secured another strap. That completed, he sighed and stood at one end of the object with lackluster emotion. Jack couldn’t blame him for his reluctance to get excited. They had both gotten their hopes up too many times before, only to be disappointed time and again.
“Well,” Jack said without excitement, “what is it made out of?”
Bruce grunted as he forced himself erect and turned his full attention to the object. Running a gloved hand over the pitted, scarred surface, he waved a beat-up sensor wand over it, searching for energy readings. “Sure has been through some hard times.” He looked at the wand. “Kind of like this wand. Anyway, let’s see what we have here.” The wand’s readouts scrolled across a tiny screen imbedded in its handle. He read them and relaxed a little. “At least it’s dead.”
With his boots adhering to and then releasing themselves from the deck with maddening slowness, Jack labored around to the object’s opposite end to further check things out, still hoping in a small way that he had finally found a piece of alien hardware. “Aww,” he groaned, drawing out the words, “Well, I think I found out why it’s dead.” He shook his head slowly and stared down through his scratched faceplate at his discovery while clicking his tongue in disappointment. A forty-centimeter wide, ragged, crescent-shaped hole leered back at him exposing a mangled mass of circuitry that looked in worse shape than the exterior.
“What did you find?” Bruce asked as he lumbered back to see also. “Aww, crap,” he muttered as he stared gloomily into the hole, too. “That’s just beautiful. Probably totally thrashed the insides.” He pulled himself erect and sighed. “Oh well. Let’s see what it’s made of.” He carefully scraped the exposed metal at the hole’s edge with a narrow tool that looked like a tiny version of an old-fashioned wood plane until a thin filament of metal began to sheer off. Removing the curled metal sample from the tool, he inserted it into a metallurgy analyzer and studied the readouts. His eyebrows went up and he tested another spot with the same results. “Hmmm. Interesting.”
“All the usual elements are there, but alloyed in a way that doesn’t correspond with anything in the database.”
“That’s affirmative.” Bruce scraped and tested more places with the same results.
Jack began to feel his excitement building, but suppressed it. It could still be just another piece of junk because the analyzer had not been very reliable lately. Pulling out a short pry-bar from his hip pocket, he tried to force open a small door next to the hole to no avail. “This thing is beat to death. This access panel’s pounded shut.” He poked the bar down into the hole.
“I wouldn’t do that,” Bruce quickly cautioned. “We don’t know what this is. You might run into more than you want. Heck of a birthday present.”
Jack quickly withdrew the bar. “Yeah, you’re right. I don’t want to be one of my own candles.” He sighed, straightened up and surveyed the rest of the hold. It was discouragingly bare. “Stinking Robos,” he muttered. “They’re sucking up everything out here. We’re going to be salvage shortly ourselves.”
“Nah,” Bruce countered. “Those robot hunks of slag will screw up big time someday, Cap’. Somebody important will get killed and then the Robos will be history. You watch.”
Jack looked at him. The prediction wasn’t very convincing. “Whatever,” he muttered. “Let’s go back inside.” Placing one foot on a piece of junk next to the object, he shut off his mag-boots and shoved himself toward the air chamber.
“How big do you make it?” Jack asked as they waited for the chamber to fill with air. He stretched and scratched. The artificial gravity felt good.
Bruce studied the object again. “Oh, two and a half, maybe three meters long by a meter and a half on the sides. Roughly rectangular.”
“And no idea what it is,” Jack noted.
“Nope. And with the hold’s grav unit gone, we don’t know how heavy it is.”
Jack clucked his tongue at the memory of having to sell off part of his needed equipment just to keep operating. “Maybe next trip we can get another one if that thing is worth anything.”
Bruce pursed his lips and allowed himself a little hope. “Who knows, Cap? Like you always say, it might just be alien.”
Jack looked back through the large window in the chamber door into the hold and at the object. The more he looked at it, the more it looked like an old power unit after all. Feeling the last of his enthusiasm leave, he turned away and faced Bruce. “I don’t know, Bruce. I’m starting to run out of steam. Know what I mean?”
Bruce nodded knowingly.
Jack glanced one last time at the object. “I think you’re right,” he sighed in defeat. “I think it is an old mining power unit.” His forehead furrowed slightly as the metallurgy results popped back into the conscious part of his gloom. “The only thing that doesn’t make sense is why its metallurgy doesn’t register. Did you ever hear what the alloys were on that piece the Bloomington captured ten months ago?”
Bruce shook his head. “Nope, not a word.” He pulled the metallurgy analyzer from its pouch in his pressure suit, smacked it with the palm of his hand, and looked at it dubiously. “For all we know, this hunk o’ junk might be screwing up again.”
“Maybe if you would stop hitting it all the time it wouldn’t.”
“Aww, what does it matter? It’s about as finished as we are,” Bruce said dejectedly as he stuffed the instrument back into its pouch and pulled off his pressure suit. “We’re never going to be as lucky as those clowns on the Bloomington.”
Jack looked at Bruce wistfully as he remembered how the crew of the Bloomington, another salvager ship, had been set up financially for life when they stumbled upon a sizable piece of alien technology that had found its way into the Solar System. He studied Bruce’s crisp Japanese features and thought of his own small crew- himself, Bruce, Kristen Kjellstrom the new NavCom, Laura Smith the most creative cook in space and general fixer of things, and his engineer Paul Masterson, also known as Shorty. All of them, save Kristen, were fiercely loyal to him and it weighed on him more and more as the money trickled out usually faster than it trickled in.
His heart ached at the prospects of having to break up. Unlike normal boring crews whose captains seemed to go to great lengths to make sure everyone was compatible, his was a lively mix of distinct personalities. Shorty was an excellent engineer and huge, topping out at just under two meters. Why he was nicknamed Shorty was always a topic of conversation. Unfortunately, he also had a permanently foul personality, which made talking him no fun at all, so he was basically left to himself back in the engine control center to bluster and cuss his way about the stars. Bruce was just Bruce, efficient and stable, but with a sometimes overzealous need for pranks. Laura was even and dependable and could fix anything that Shorty couldn’t. She had reluctantly agreed to take over cooking midway through the last trip when one of Bruce’s jokes had backfired and the normal cook stomped off as soon as they got to a spaceport. She found that she liked it. Most of what she fixed up was good, but she loved to experiment and used Bruce as the experimentee. He didn’t mind because any failures usually added to his prank possibilities. Tight, feisty Kristen was Laura’s niece and came aboard because she needed the space hours in order to get a better job. It was presently difficult to get into space and when the position opened up she jumped at it, even though it would not have been one of her top five choices in better times.
Jack sighed and slumped slightly under the weight of responsibility for four good people who looked to him for their very lives. If ever he needed an alien piece it was now. He continued to stare at the object with longing eyes. “Please be alien tech,” he whispered in a half prayer. Ever since the Bloomington find, he had hoped for the same luck and spent way too much time and money on wild-goose chases, only to come up empty-handed, and he was not going to set himself for another fall today. Today was his birthday and he was not going to let another disappointing capture ruin it. He pulled off his suit, hung it next to Bruce’s, opened the chamber door into the corridor, stepped through and stopped and stretched again. Bruce gave him a gentle nudge to keep moving. He grunted and began to plod forward to the bridge. Bruce slogged along behind until they came to the Galley. Good smells wafted out in to the corridor. Laura was busy with something good and drew Bruce to sample. Jack glanced over his shoulder and smiled wearily. “Probably should take the analyzer back to Shorty and have him take a look at it.”
“Later,” Bruce replied. “The old geezer is in a particularly rotten mood today.”
“When isn’t he?”
“Good point,” Bruce said. “I think I’ll let Laura take look at it.” He disappeared into the galley leaving Jack alone with his hopes and fears. Jack sighed again and continued forward.
This was the longest and deepest run they had ever made due to the efficiency of the new robot salvagers, the Robos. Running one of the last manned deep-space salvagers, along with the recent disappointments they had suffered, had become about as exciting as tuna-noodle casserole. All but Kristen had succumbed to the endless boredom, interrupted by occasional pranks, and even those were starting to backfire.
“Lordy, lordy, lordy! The life of the Captain at forty,” Jack sang listlessly and off-key as he wandered onto the bridge. A small alarm went off. He sighed, reached over and slapped the top of his console with an unconcerned whack. The alarm abruptly stopped.
“That could have been serious,” Kristen said sharply.
He shrugged and didn’t answer. If it was, the resulting excitement would have been welcome. Jack dropped into his seat to vegetate.
Bruce ambled onto the bridge a couple of minutes later chewing on a piece of what looked like bread, only blue, and plodded over to a view port. “Anything happening?” He mumbled through a mouthful, gazing off into the blackness.
“An alarm just went off,” Kristen said, concern edging her words.
“Oh? Did it go ‘beep- beep- whack’ or ‘chirp- chirp- whack’?”
Kristen’s eyes narrowed. “It went beep- beep- beep– whack!” She snapped. “And you’re a jerk, Kawajima.”
Bruce grinned and glanced at Jack, mischievousness momentarily flickering in his hazel eyes. “Three beeps, eh? Cap’, baby,” he said with forced disappointment, “forty years old today. Tch, tch. Getting old and slow.”
Jack smiled and stretched. “Yep, to be exact.” He stretched harder, glanced over at Kristen, and then winked at Bruce. “Balls! I wish we’d find something more than spent fuel canisters. This trip won’t even pay for the air, let alone food and fuel. Lousy Robos.”
“Indeed,” Bruce agreed. “We don’t have anything much in the hold.” He glanced over at Jack to see if he’d give away their feelings about the object. Jack remained poker-faced and focused his attention on the hold monitor and the object.
Kristen gave the both of them a quizzical look. “What about that last piece we picked up? That was no FC.”
“One old beat up power unit won’t pay your wages,” Jack responded over his shoulder.
“Power unit?” She challenged. “It didn’t look like any power unit I’ve ever seen.”
“Trust me, it’s nothing more than an old power unit. We’d better start finding something fast, Kris,” he said quickly in an effort to hold his poker face, “or we’ll all be back home flying shuttles in a month.”
Kristen cringed and turned to the scanners with renewed energy. Bruce glanced over at her, then at Jack and winked back. “New kids are fun,” he mouthed.
Jack flicked a quick smile that rapidly faded as he slipped into a melancholy mood, half-heartedly pondering his remark about the mindless work of piloting Moon shuttles while fondling a worn, red control handle on the right arm of his seat. He found himself again wondering, as he had more and more over the last few trips, just how long they all had.
With the advent of the Robo-salvagers, manned ships were being phased out one-by-one. In the vastness of space it seemed almost comical to think that debris would actually pose a problem, but mankind, even in the twenty-third century, still figuratively threw things out the window along the established and heavily traveled routes between the handful of habited planets, asteroids and moons in the Solar System. An errant piece of debris could kill instantly and had with increasing frequency. The final blow came when a large combo freighter full of raw iron from the asteroids and two hundred and twenty passengers was destroyed when a piece of debris punched a hole in the pressure hull. The military tried to police the travel routes but eventually gave up. Hence, the need for someone to go out and clean up the routes was born and, up until the Robos showed up, the work paid very well. Robos were cheaper and more thorough in cleaning up the space lanes and, as a result, had effectively eliminated foreign object damage, or FOD as it was called, where they were deployed- a hard record to beat.
Jack wished that he had the same confidence in the possibility of Robo failure that Bruce did. Bruce was partially right, though. Robos did have their weak points. They had mindlessly ‘salvaged’ more than one small low-emission pleasure craft, mistaking it for a derelict or a piece of one. No one had died yet in the mishaps but such things would not happen with human control. Still, money talks and the big shippers liked the better record of the Robos. The Bloomington find had sent a wave of hope through the manned salvagers. They all, including Jack and his crew, set out to be the next to find something. Finding alien technology had been going on ever since man had taken to the stars and a significant portion of the technology that kept everyone in space had come from the discoveries, but finding alien debris was very sporadic at best and usually didn’t amount to much more than a piece of a hull or something similar. Most of the other crews eventually gave up and closed up shop. Jack had not and, as a result, had a bit of a monopoly on what was left of the space junk, but even that was running out. He had a very bad feeling that his future might, indeed, be babysitting tourists on a Moon excursion if the object in the hold turned out to be just a power unit from an old robot asteroid miner like Bruce said.
Shuttle routes were totally automatic and crews were kept for only one reason, to provide that personal touch the rich passengers expected. Some still liked having real people at the helm even though no one really ever was. Hence, Moon shuttles were at the bottom of the barrel for space workers and he had four friends who depended on him to keep them away from it. Even Kristen said she would hustle tables in a restaurant before she would work shuttles. But shuttle positions were always available and things were tighter now than they had ever been and everyone knew it. Please be alien, he mentally pleaded, then shook his head slowly at the thought. Luck was not on his side any more.
“Target!” Kristen suddenly announced. “3220 klicks out. It looks big.” She deftly maneuvered her way over her keyboard. “Nav’s locked in.”
“Good work. Let’s go.” Jack hit one of his own keys releasing control to Kristen’s console and the Nav herded the MaryAnn over and toward the target. Two hours later he rocked back in his seat away and from the hold monitor. “Congrat’s, Kris, we have another fine fuel canister.”
Kristen bristled and slammed her headset down on her console. “I’ve had just about enough of this B.S. First it’s nothing but some junky old power unit, now it’s just another FC. If you would look at the readouts on that last piece, alone, you would see that it is way bigger than a lousy FC.”
Jack pointed to the monitor. “ It sure looks like one to me.”
She scanned the room with a searing glare. “Fine. I’m going down to the hold to see for myself, and get some fresh air!” She whipped around and headed for the aft doorway.
“Fresh air? Where?” Jack called after her. “It all comes from the same cylinders.”
Balling her fists, she let out a squawk of exasperation and stormed out.
Bruce winced at the banshee sound. “Maybe we’d better lighten up a little, Cap’. That’s about as mad as I’ve seen her get.”
Jack felt a little remorse. “Yeah, I suppose so. That didn’t work out too well.”
“Aww, I wouldn’t worry about it, Cap’,” Bruce said. “I’ll go back to the hold and lash down that FC, and see if I can calm her down, too.”
“No, it was my error. I’ll go,” Jack said as he hoisted himself out of his seat. “I don’t need a war with my Nav-Com, green or not. Take over the helm.”
As expected, he found her suited up and in the hold, running her hands over a larger-than-usual cylindrical fuel canister as it floated above the deck. “Sorry, kiddo,” he said as he moved along side with a couple of straps in hand. “I was out of line. I was just messing with you.” He put his free hand on the canister and slowed its forward momentum to a subtle drift and then bent over and hooked the first strap to the deck. That done, he straightened up to face her directly.
She shrugged. “You were right. It is an FC. Biggest I’ve ever seen, though. Odd design, too.”
Jack gave the canister a good looking over as he worked his way around it to hook the other end of the strap. “I’ve never seen an FC this big before. Hmmm.” He looked away and searched his mind. “I heard that Steinhauer Commerce had put some new mega-freighters into service recently- big suckers. Might be from one of them.” He snorted in disgust. “Typical of those rich S.O.B.’s to jettison their spent fuel canisters right in the middle of the traffic patterns and they are the ones who wanted us out here in the first place. They don’t care.”
“Yeah,” Kristen agreed dejectedly as she moved next to him. “Just the same, I’d hoped it would have been something else so that I could ram it down your throat.”
“Oh?” Jack retorted. “I see.”
Kristen was surprised at how fast he actually was. Before she could react, he let go of the strap, reached out quickly, slapped her left forearm where the off-switch for her mag-boots was, and pushed her just enough to send her floating slowly backwards yelling.
“You creep!” She squealed as she floated across the hold and struggled to regain control. As soon she did, she grabbed the first thing handy, jerked herself back to the deck, and planted her boots firmly on the steel. “You…you…,” she stammered through clinched teeth. She glared at his cheesy grin and couldn’t help giggling in spite of her still simmering anger. “That’s twice today, Captain. You’ll get yours soon,” she announced as she shook her finger at him.
During their horseplay the canister had continued to lazily float ahead until it bumped up against the object. Jack felt the collision vibration in his boots and groaned at the discovery. “Man. It just rammed that other thing we picked up earlier.” He clomped over to the two items and shook his head. “I don’t care about the FC, but I wanted to try to keep the other thing in good condition. Let’s see if we can separate them.” Positioning themselves between the two pieces, they exerted all their strength to no avail.
“No good,” Kristen panted. “They’re stuck tight.” She studied the point where the pieces touched. “Weird. If I didn’t know any better, I swear the mag ring was activated on the FC.”
“Couldn’t be,” countered Jack. “Mags only operate off of ship’s power.”
“True. Just the same, this one looks like it’s active. Let’s have a look-see.” She pulled out a wand from her sleeve pouch, waved it over the ring and grimaced. “It’s hot, Cap’.”
Jack slapped the top of the canister in exasperation. “Well, that’s just super. Now I’ve got a live FC in the hold. What triggered it?”
“Residual energy from the other piece?”
Jack shuddered. “I hope not!” His mind raced with all the distasteful possibilities her comment hinted at. Space junk was supposed to be just that- dead, lifeless debris- stuff that nobody wanted. Jack nervously scanned the two objects that had just brought the longed for excitement back into his life and, now, appeared to be getting ready to end it. A strange mix of fear and anticipation started to brew in his chest. There was no chance that an obsolete power unit could have residual energy. But an alien piece? Whatever they were, however, the units definitely still had some sort of power remaining in them. Worse yet, since he didn’t know what the object was, the chances of accidentally swallowing a malfunctioning navigational beacon loomed in his face with cold meanness. Disrupting a nav-beacon was guaranteed license- revoking. Being a shuttle jockey would be the least of his worries if that happened. But it didn’t look like a beacon either. Confusion and dread replaced his anticipation.
“We’ve got to find a way to deactivate them,” he said hastily.
“Exactly. We already captured them and probably damaged them. We certainly don’t want either of them traced to our hold now, do we?”
Kristen grimaced again. “Well, we can’t open the FC. I hope there’s some way to get the other thing open.” She began to rapidly search the object for an access panel and found the same one Jack had tried earlier. Pulling a screwdriver out of a thigh pocket, she bent to the task.
Jack watched in silence, hoping that she would have better luck then he had earlier.
After the fifth frustrating slip, her thick gloved hand banged hard against the panel and wrenched her wrist. “Darn!” She struggled to regain her equilibrium in the zero-gravity of the hold while shaking her hand. “It’s no good, Cap’. I can’t budge it.”
“Well, don’t overdo,” he sighed. “I don’t need you popping a hole in your glove and fizzing all over the hold like a balloon.”
“Not to mention dying!” she snapped.
“Oh, thanks for the concern.” Kristen shook her hand a couple of more times while continuing to glare at him. “That’s three,” she said.
“Let me try it,” he said as he reached out and retrieved the slowly rotating screwdriver as it floated by. He didn’t have any better success and wearily handed back the tool. “Did your wand show anything else?”
She waved her wand over the object again and slowly shook her head. “Not really, but there seems to be some other small energy pulses coming from here. Nothing of any significance.”
“Yeah, that’s what Bruce found… Oh, no.” Jack’s breath caught in his throat as an awful possibility crossed his mind. “Oh lordy, lordy. I’ll bet we just swallowed a military probe.”
Kristen gave him a skeptical look. “I hardly think so, Cap’. It certainly is not military and it’s beat to death.”
“Just the same, we’d better make sure.” He looked down at the object and back up to see that Kristen had shut off her boots and was floating quickly to the chamber hatch. He shut off his own boots, pushed off hard and sailed by her.
They crunched into the hatch together with a unison grunt. It obediently slid open and they tumbled in. For a moment they floated tangled together. Jack found himself looking into her deep blue Scandinavian eyes. Something stirred in his gut. Kristen was cute and her twenty-eight year-old spirit brought a welcome measure of vitality back into his stale life. She flushed slightly and, for a mistimed moment, they both forgot where they were. The grav-field activated and Jack plummeted to the floor with Kristen landing on top of him. Their faceplates clacked together in a harsh, crystalline kiss. He exhaled sharply and went limp. She didn’t immediately move, but lay on top him savoring the pain dancing on his face. After a calculated pause she rolled off and flopped onto the floor.
“Serves you right for knocking me off the deck.” She stood, popped the clamps on her helmet and pulled it off with a grateful sigh. “Ahh. This helmet gives me headaches every time.” She shook her head loosening her long blonde hair from its normally neat bun.
Jack’s stirring increased until he had to mentally slap himself and attend to the pressing business at hand. “Come on. We need to get to the bridge.”
* * *
“Well, no missing beacons so far as I could tell. We won’t know if it’s a military probe for a while,” Kristen said as she rocked back in her seat. “It usually takes soldier types a while to react and then they come out shooting.”
“OK, then. So far, so good,” Jack said as Bruce allowed himself to resume breathing. “Now, for the time being let’s sit tight and try to find out what that thing was down there.” He slowed the MaryAnn to a dead stop and eyed the hold monitor anxiously. Leaning forward in his chair, he placed his elbows on his console with his nose twenty centimeters from the monitor, and rested his chin on his fists. “Why did that FC go active again?” He asked no one in particular.
“Maybe it has its own power pack,” Bruce offered.
“Why?” Questioned Jack.
“I dunno. It was just a thought.” Bruce moved up behind and leaned over Jack’s shoulder for a better look at the monitor. “That’s really got you bugged, doesn’t it?”
“Yes, it does. I don’t like things that are supposed to be dead suddenly coming back to life in the hold, especially when I’m not exactly sure what they are in the first place.”
“I haven’t detected any intense emissions or wave patterns,” Kristen said, “just those little flickers I detected in the hold. So, I don’t think the rectangular thing is really dangerous.”
“Just the same.”
“Yeah,” agreed Bruce. “I’ll put all of the hold cameras on both of them and keep an eye out myself.”
“Good idea.” Jack felt better knowing that all of them would keep watch over their lively cargo. He allowed himself to relax and became aware that he hadn’t eaten for a while. “I’m hungry,” he moaned rubbing his stomach.
“Me, too,” Kristen said.
“Let’s go down to the galley and see what Laura was cooking. Take the helm, Bruce.”
“Ay, Ay, Captain sir, most honorable,” Bruce quipped as he slid into the warm seat.
The slight charge of static electricity the object picked up on its outer skin after suffering a crippling blow from a meteor along with what was left in its almost depleted backup batteries was just enough to activate the mag ring on the canister. As soon as the canister verified solid contact, it obediently opened its shield door and residual energy poured into the object’s systems. Its brain stirred back to life and it began to check itself over. Except for the unfortunate impact that cut off its own power supply, everything was intact. No way to repair the damage so, although ponderous, the fuel canister was accepted as a necessary inconvenience for the time being. Turning its attention to the MaryAnn, the object tentatively scanned its captor. It ran its ethereal fingers along the restraining straps over itself and the canister. Deftly manipulating the ratchets, it released them, slithered out from under them and floated up until it was centered in the hold. It expanded its sensor net until it had enveloped the entire ship.
“Gaaa!” Bruce yelped. He slammed down the intercom button. “Cap’, get up here quick! That thing in the hold is active and moving!”
“I thought you said that it was safe!” Jack exclaimed as he and Kristen sprinted up the corridor.
“I did! I mean, it was,” Kristen yelled. “I mean, I don’t know what’s going on either.” She burst onto the bridge first, glanced quickly at the monitor to see the object slowly rotating in the hold and dove into her seat. A quick scan of her readouts caused her to suck in a shocked breath and yelp also.
“What’s wrong?” Bruce blurted.
“The sensor readouts. They’re all blank.”
“What?” Jack bolted over to her station to see for himself. “How?”
“Something is preventing our scanners from getting any further than one kilometer from the ship.” She yelped again and jabbed a finger at the hold monitor. “Look!”
All heads turned to the monitor. The object was directly in front of one of the hold cameras and looking back at them through a small gold-tinted lens.
“Down to the hold! Quick!”
“Cap’!” Bruce said hastily. “That thing is alive. You sure you want to go in there?”
“Got any better ideas?”
Bruce made a glum face and remained silent.
Jack nodded. “OK, then. Kris’, bring all your gear. We’ve got to try to communicate with it or something.”
On the way back to the hold Jack stopped by the armament case and picked up a blister pistol.
Kristen looked at it nervously. “You think that’s necessary?”
He glanced at her with cold eyes, pocketed the weapon, and headed on down the corridor. Moments later the two parties floated five meters apart examining each other.
Still on the hunt for a more efficient power source, the object scanned Jack and discovered the pistol.
“Hey,” Jack cried as the pistol suddenly flew from his hip pouch and into a small opening behind the stubborn access door he had tried to open earlier.
The object quickly dissolved the outer casing of the pistol and absorbed the generator into its system. With a jerk, it released the canister and ejected its nonfunctional power unit, a small gray-black box of about forty centimeters on a side, out another panel on a side opposite Jack and Kristen. The exchange happened so fast that neither of them consciously realized that the small box now hugging the side of the canister had come from the object.
“They’ve separated,” gasped Kristen as she stared at the FC floating to the far side of the hold with the object’s discarded power unit spiraling away alongside. She nervously held up a remote transmitter and sent a test broadcast toward the object. The object fired back a counter response, the power being so great that it fried the unit and stunned the rest of the MaryAnn’s Com systems as well.
Suddenly every alarm went off in the ship as the entire communications system went dead. “Cap’!” Bruce bellowed at the intercom. Silence. He swore and sprinted down to the hold. Jumping up and down in the chamber and waving his arms furiously, he finally got their attention. “The whole system’s out. No sensors, no communications, no nothing.” He blurted as soon as they were reunited.
“My remote is history, too,” Kristen added.
Jack only half heard. He was staring at the object. Kristen and Bruce followed his lead and watched in amazement as the object worked its way through the space junk, releasing the restraining straps on one at a time, levitating each piece, examining it, releasing it and picking up another.
“How can it do that?” Bruce whispered.
Jack shook his head and didn’t answer. Tractor control of that precision was beyond anything any of them had ever seen and it left them speechless.
As they watched in awe, Shorty suddenly jambed his bulk into the Chamber followed by Laura. “Cap’, what the crap is goin’…” He stopped in mid sentence, bent over and gawked at the object. “What the crap is that?”
“Something we picked up a couple of hours ago,” Jack answered reluctantly.
“What’s it doing?”
“Checking us over, it looks like,” Jack answered.
“I don’t know.”
Shorty watched the object’s activities for a moment and then, stating the obvious, said flatly, “Well, it looks like we finally found ourselves a piece of alien tech. Hope it doesn’t kill us before we can sell it.”
Jack glanced up at the towering man without comment.
For the better part of an hour they watched nervously as the object carefully released every piece of junk in the hold, inspected it and then released it to drift un-tethered. The hold soon became an erratic mess of scrap metal slowly banging into each other. When the last piece of junk was inspected, the object turned to the MaryAnn, itsel, and methodically inspected every square meter of the hold. It continued its appraisal until it found the main power conduits. In a quick series of movements, it tapped into them and became fully operational, recharging its backup batteries and boosting its own sensors to sweep a 100,000-kilometer area around the ship.
“Hey!” Shorty bellowed. “What the crap is that thing doing to my ship?”
His question went unanswered as the ship’s sensors suddenly came back alive and were allowed the same scanning distance, and announced immanent danger from outside with another cacophony of alarms. Leaving Shorty and Laura to watch at the object, the others sprinted forward to investigate.
Kristen jumped into her seat and pounded at the keyboard only to gasp in horror as her view screen finally cleared revealing the outside. “Cap!” She yelled. “A Robo is headed for us!”
“What?” Jack yelled over the din of alarms.
“A-Ro-bo-is-head-ed-for-us!” She yelled back in hard, punched syllables.
“That’s impossible!” He fired back sarcastically. “There aren’t supposed to be any Robos in our work area. Where did it come from?”
“I don’t know,” she yelled back. “But it’s coming right at us.” She performed a quick analysis and came up with the answer. “I think that thing in the hold has covered us with some sort of damping field that is shielding our life signs. The Robo must think we are a huge piece of debris.”
Jack groaned. “Well, that’s just great. Bruce, get us out of here.”
“Ay, sir.” Bruce hit the engine firing sequencers. Nothing happened. He rapidly reset the system and tried again. Nothing. “What’s going on now?” He tried several more times to no avail.
“What’s the matter?” Jack yelled. “Why aren’t we moving?” By this time he was standing by Kristen, looking at the approaching demon. It was still too far away to determine if it was, indeed, after them, but it was definitely headed their way.
“I don’t know, Cap’. The engines won’t engage.”
“Go to manual.”
“Right. Bridge to engineering.” Bruce crossed his fingers.
Good. Shorty had gone back to the engine room. “Shorty, we can’t fire the engines from the bridge.”
“Roger that. Will ignite manually from here.” Even though Shorty was miserable to work with, he was about as efficient as they came and knew just what to do in almost every situation.
The seconds crawled by with gut-wrenching slowness.
“Engineering! What’s going on down there?” Jack bellowed when he could stand it no longer.
“We can’t get the engines to ignite.” It was Laura. “Shorty says it’s because of the power drain from the hold area. They prime but won’t ignite.”
Jack didn’t answer but stared at the two view screens before him- one displaying the approaching Robo, thirty times larger then the MaryAnn and now opening its gigantic maw, and the other screen showing the object securely attached to the main power conduits. There was only one thing left to do. His heart sank at the thought, but it was his only option. He launched himself out of his seat and grabbed Kristen’s arm. “Come on, Kris’. We’ve got to blow that thing out of the hold.”
Bruce sprang to the hatchway. “Cap’, she’s not checked out on jettison explosives. I need to go.”
“No,” Jack countered, pushing him aside. “I need you up here to run things if we fail.”
Bruce nodded reluctantly and moved out of the way.
They hurtled down the companionway, both with blister pistols now and jettison packs. Kristen glanced nervously at the ominous, red bundles at her feet in the chamber. “I’ve never set one of those things off before. I’ve only read the manual.”
Jack patted her on the shoulder as he helped her seal her pressure suit. “Don’t worry, Kiddo. You’ll do fine.” He looked into her terror-filled eyes and leaned over and kissed her on the forehead and handed her, her helmet. The impulsive gesture surprised the both of them, yet brought a measure of needed calm to their pounding hearts.
They entered the chamber and looked out at the malaise. It was a nightmare of loose junk, all banging together and spiraling about in deadly and erratic trajectories. Jack opened an access panel next to the chamber hatch that contained the controls to the hold doors and pressed the ‘Open’ button. The doors shuddered and jerked slightly and then began to open only to grind to a halt two meters apart. Lack of maintenance had finally caught up with them.
“No, “ Jack gasped. He closed the doors again and tried to reopen them. This time they opened only a few centimeters. He gave Kristen a very worried look. “The doors won’t open.”
“What do we do now?” she asked.
“We are going to have to blow the hold doors open, too.” He gauged the distances from them, the object and the doors and what it would take to perform each task. “You try to get to them and I’ll try to set the charges on the thing to blow it backwards out the doors when they go.”
She nodded rapidly as terror fluttered in waves across her face. “Where do I set the charges?”
“Place one about a meter up from the deck and the other about a meter down from the top. Set the timers for thirty seconds and get back to the chamber.”
“That’s not enough time,” she blurted. “You can’t get to the thing, set your own charges, and out of the way in time. It’s twice as far away from us as the doors.”
He did some quick math in his head. “OK, you go first. I’ll count to ten and then go.” He looked at her as though he might never see her again, and nodded to go. She swallowed hard and launched herself out into the hellish room.
Their erratic motions as they dodged the junk and Jack’s approaching movement caught the object’s attention. Wanting to know why, it rescanned everything and discovered the approaching Robo. The Robo’s huge mass caused it to reprioritize its activities. Even with the combined energy of the blister pistol’s generator and the power drawn from the conduits, it did not have enough power to control both the MaryAnn and the Robo as it would have before the damage. The Robo was all metal and a better capture. So, releasing its connectors from the power conduits, it blasted a neat, eight-sided hole in the hold doors and shot through, leaving the MaryAnn and its bothersome organic material behind. The organic material and its odd activities warranted further investigation, but not today; later, after needed repairs were made.
Kristen had managed to get only a few meters out into the hold when both she and Jack were thrown into instant darkness as their faceplates immediately turned black to protect them from the intense, bright flash of the object’s piercing beams. Absolute terror filled their beings as they stood in darkness with several metric tons of death-dealing metal crashing about them. Jack was suddenly driven to get to Kristen and began to grope blindly in her direction. He felt something soft collide with him and grabbed onto it. It was Kristen. She wrapped her arms about him and buried her helmet in his chest and waited for certain death. Moments later their faceplates cleared and they found themselves standing in an empty hold. Only the little box remained, spinning slowly in one end of the hold. As soon as they regained their composure, they hurried to the gaping hole in the doors and saw the object, tiny by this time, hurtling straight at the Robo with the hold’s treasure straggling along behind. The gangly parade quickly blended into the color of the immense, gray hulk.
With the object gone, the Robo finally recognized the MaryAnn and initiated a full retro burn and steadily slowed until it lumbered to a stop at an uncomfortably close distance.
Jack breathed a sigh of relief and went limp as the last several minutes of building tension were released. He looked at the Robo in disgust and relief as it closed its maw and began to back away. Suddenly, a flash similar to the one that had just brilliantly illuminated the hold momentarily flickered against the Robo’s hull. It continued to back off until it was a good eighty kilometers away when its guidance thrusters suddenly began firing in erratic disarray causing it to slowly rock and yaw like a huge whale in a gentle sea.
“What the heck is going on?” Jack said.
“I don’t know,” Kristen answered.
They watched in amazement as the great machine continued to perform its odd slow-motion gyrations. After several minutes all activity ceased and it was still except for an oblique drift away from them.
Bruce’s voice suddenly filled their helmets. “What’s going on, Cap’?”
“I’m not sure.” Jack paused for a moment and thought about what had just happened and then offered a possible explanation. “I think our thing just crippled the Robo.”
“I said I think our thing just crippled the Robo.”
“How does one cripple a Robo, pray tell?”
“I don’t know,” Jack said with mild impatience. He was not in the mood for a discussion. “Look at it and you tell me. All I know is it blew a hole in us, and then it blew a hole into the Robo, and suddenly the Robo started rolling around and then went dead and….”
“It blew a hole in the hull?” Bruce bellowed.
“Take it easy. It just went through the hold doors. We’re fine down he…” Jack suddenly realized just what had just happened. The object had exited the MaryAnn at the only place it could without doing life-threatening damage. It had spared them. He glanced at Kristen. She heard and was slowly shaking her head as she eyed the symmetrical hole they stood at.
“I’ll be darned,” she whispered.
Bruce ran a quick operational scan on the Robo. “Well, I’ll be darned, too.”
“What?” Jack asked.
“The Robo’s energy patterns all show flat lines. You were right, Cap’.”
Jack turned in the direction of Kristin’s pointing finger to see the Robo slowly rotate around until it pointed toward a worn spot in the carpet of endless stars and, then, in a burst of blue-green fury, streaked off.
Jack floated motionless by the hole for almost a full minute before he moved. There was something oddly familiar about the object that he couldn’t quite put his finger on just yet.
Kristen broke the silence. “I wonder what that thing wanted with the Robo?”
A slow, wry smile crawled across Jack’s face. He pulled himself to one side of the hole and leaned back against the hull and began to chuckle softly.
Kristen looked at him suspiciously. There did not seem to be anything to laugh about right then. They had almost lost their lives. “What’s so funny?”
Jack rolled around to face her. “Did you notice anything familiar about the thing?”
“No, such as?”
“Remember when we first captured it and gave it a good looking over?”
“Didn’t it do the same thing to us and then sort of threw us away when a larger fish came into view?”
She sighed with impatience, her nerves still in pieces. “Cap’, what’s your point?”
“It was a salvager.”
“It was a salvager,” he repeated.
“A salvager?” she repeated slowly, and then understood. Her eyes grew as wide as they were capable of, exposing the rest of their blue. “A salvager,” she whispered and looked back out into the blackness.
“It’s the only thing that makes sense.”
“I’ll be darned,” she muttered.
They floated at the hole a bit longer, and then Jack chuckled again. “I was just thinking. It sure would be nice if a few more of those things would show up. It did a real number on that Robo, didn’t it?”
Kristen looked at the hole and returned her gaze to the stars. As she pondered the strange twist of fate in that the robot salvager’s nagging flaw of mistaking stalled ships for space junk was what ultimately saved them, she said with a shudder, “And us, too, almost.”
“Yeah,” Jack agreed and then became quiet as the day’s events played back in his mind. A war between relief, wonderment and defeat fought for control of his face as he inspected the hole again and then looked outside.
The two of them stood in silence and studied the vastness of space. Kristen could see that his mind was a million kilometers away and she knew why. She reached out and gave his arm a squeeze, letting him know that she, like the rest of the crew, was with him no matter what happened. “Happy birthday, Cap,” she said softly as she looked deeply into his eyes and then shut off her boots and launched herself toward the chamber.
Jack turned and watched her glide off and move gracefully through the hatch. He couldn’t look away as she removed her helmet and shook her hair loose as always. Turning to face him, she lingered at the chamber window longer than expected, smiling with a different and tender air, and then disappeared into the ship. After she was gone he turned back to embrace the immense and deadly, yet unpredictably exciting realms of the universe. He loved it out here and the thought of it all ending made him ache inside to the point of tears. He loved space, he loved the MaryAnn, and he loved his crew, even Shorty. And now he knew he especially loved Kristen. But with all of his salvage gone, he was finished. The ship was in too bad a shape to continue operation. He knew he didn’t have enough money to repair the hold doors and as soon as he put into port the MaryAnn would be impounded until they were.
“Yeah, happy birthday, Cap’,” he muttered sadly as he fought back tears and turned away from the stars.
The little gray box caught his eye and he dejectedly slogged across the hold to where it was jammed in the webbing of one of the hull girders, the result of a collision during the earlier metallic chaos. After a couple of hard jerks he managed to pull it free and stood looking it over with no expression. Except for a battered and sheered off bundle of thick cabling sticking out of one side, the compact unit appeared to be completely intact and undamaged. He carefully opened a small panel on one side and looked in. His breath caught in his throat and he stood gawking in disbelief. Inside, shimmering before his eyes, was beautiful, incredible and twinkling alien technology capable of producing vast amounts of power, power enough to give the object the ability to control hundreds upon hundreds of tons of material at once. His heart jumped and he quickly glanced over expectantly at the chamber window, hoping to see Kristen standing there again, and then back to his salvation. Joy suddenly burst through his despair and replaced it permanently. “Yeah!” he exclaimed with excitement as he held the box out like a huge trophy. “Yeah, yeah, yeah…! Happy birthday, Cap.”