Thursday, February 14, 2013
I’m just taking my dear departed mother’s word for it, when I say that I am twenty-eight years old, or that my father was a man named Brendan Hartle, and that he was abducted by aliens a long time ago.
But if that is true, then he must have beaten them at their own game, just as my mom Layla said. Otherwise, I suppose I wouldn’t be here, and I wouldn’t have the ship, and yet I can’t verify anything. I can’t prove anything either way.
For whatever reason, I was just sitting there thinking my melancholy and philosophical thoughts, when I saw this object, cruising along all unbeknownst to itself. This was a totally unfamiliar configuration. The ship and I had been evading the Imperium’s ships forever, or so it seemed. We were familiar with most configurations, but this one was all-new.
“What the hell is that?”
“It’s a probe.”
“Yes, I see that. Where did it come from, and where is it going? Can you tell me who made it?”
“Well…it’s heading towards the Centralian Empire,” The machine didn't recognize it. “Back-tracking…it came from there, that is to say it might have originated at any point on this line…”
If it hadn’t made any turns, yeah, yeah…
The cabin lights dimmed and the appropriate vectors appeared, hovering in the air before eyes, with relevant star bodies and other objects and polities displayed for my inspection.
“What do you think is out there?” The question was a little obscure, but the machine was fairly intuitive.
“Perhaps whoever built the probe?” It replied without a trace of mockery, but I have often wondered.
“All right, smart-ass, let’s go have a look at that thing.” Without further ado, I began to strap myself in securely, and prepared for up-close and personal maneuvers with another starship.
After a half a minute of study, the ship’s computer had an incomplete verdict on the data.
“It’s surprisingly big. I have no idea what they’re using for fuel. We’ll have to get closer.” It waited for my instructions.
“Okay.” My sole surviving shipmate, the computer, began edging us into an intercept vector.
“There’s letters or a word on it. It says ‘ESA,’ unless I’m much mistaken, and ‘Artemis,’ on the side of the thing.” Our lenses were zoomed in to the max.
“That doesn’t correspond to anything in the registry. But as you know the registry hasn’t been updated in too many years for any reasonable degree of accuracy.”
That was true enough, but we would have had to interact with an Imperial data terminal somewhere to update it, and I preferred to leave absolutely no traces of our whereabouts, at any time, for any reason. Theoretically it was possible to do it wirelessly and anonymously, but then our knowledge of anti-hacking technologies and capabilities was out of date as well. Always, caution and stealth were best.
“When will it arrive in Centralian space?”
“At this speed, in about four and a half months.”
“Okay. That’s a relief. I don’t know what to do about it…”
The thing had English lettering on the side of it. I sat there in shock. It had taken too long to sink in.
“Figure out just exactly where this thing came from.” My father had a bunch of old books, old music, and they were all lettered in the same script that was on that probe.
As we pulled up alongside, at a distance of a half a kilometre, the sheer size of it became more apparent.
It was a good three kilometres long, and maybe a third of a kilometre in diameter, and there was no way the Centralians would let that thing go sailing through their jurisdiction without challenge.
From what little I knew about Earth, based upon what my mother had told me, the people of Earth didn’t know anything about the Centralian Empire, or their clients and allies and associates.
“Well, it’s definitely unmanned.” The computer indicated its agreement.
What the hell the Earthmen were trying to accomplish with that vessel was incomprehensible. But one way or another, either they, or we, or both, were about to get in a whole lot of trouble.
I was trying to figure out what to do next.
“If we can shut it off, or stop it, or even redirect it temporarily, maybe we can salvage it.” That was my first notion.
Cash rules the anonymous economy.
“We’ll have to determine how and where it is controlled." The computer had a hint of doubt in its usually emotionless voice.
This spoke volumes for its actual state of mind.
“I’ll be careful. But I was thinking of re-routing it, and that would give us more time to think it all through.” It was not to be, for just at that moment we were hailed by a squadron of roving Imperial destroyers, which was quite a shock as they really had no right or reason to be here at this moment in time.
I should have known better than to get too focused on something that wasn’t really my concern…but they almost had us with our pants down.
“Nine minutes to intercept…”
They should have just kept creeping up on us, carefully stalking us from the other side of the probe. The little wheep-wheep-wheep of the hailing alarm nattered at me from the console speaker.
“Would you like to respond?”
“Nope.” I gavethe straps a quick cinch.
“Destroy the probe.” I took manual control through the stalks and blasted us out of there at full design speed plus a little something extra just for luck.
I was pissed at them damned Imperial destroyers, but maybe we would get a crack at them guys another day.
“Target destroyed.” The computer reported. “Tracking multiple targets…out of range. Out of range.”
“Are they following?”
“No. They are investigating.”
“Damn! That’s bad news for the Earth.”
The Imperium had at least as much simple curiousity as we did, and a lot more to lose.
One thing harsh experience has taught me above all, is not to get too involved in other people’s problems.
Photo: NASA, Bimodal Nuclear Thermal Rocket. (Public Domain.)
For more on Brendan Hartle and Layla, read 'The Case of the Curious Killers.'