Elaine Meyer shifted slightly in her seat, and the thin strands of the crash web tugged gently at her shoulders. A flimsy sheet of printout, disturbed by the current of air that her movement had caused, flapped silently up from its resting place on the console, coiled and drifted freely in the air and descended towards the rear bulkhead with a languid swooping motion. The only sound in the cabin was the soft sighing of the air conditioning and the scarcely louder sound of her own breathing.
Around her, the Sligo Maid was almost as dead as a starship can be. The main drives were powered down to standby, the fusion plant releasing a mere trickle of power to keep them ready for use in case of an emergency The long-range sensor board in front of her was dark, and only the Maid's passive sensors still fed her information about her surroundings. Even the navigation lights and cabin gravity had been switched off.
She shifted again, wiped the sweat from her forehead with the back of one gauntleted hand. She felt an overpowering desire to kick fuel into the fusion chamber, light up the main drive and run for the shelter of hyperspace, with a wall of shields around herself as strong as she could make them.
"This is madness, girl." she told herself. "This is how people get killed." She longed to risk a quick scan just to reassure herself that nothing was sneaking up behind her, hating the feeling of being blind and defenceless without her sensors and her shields. She cleared her throat.
"Computer. Parallax for moving objects. Passive sensors only." she instructed. The computer chirruped its assent.
"Tracking approximately three thousand objects." it told her and then, after a moment. "All objects are moving in a manner consistent with unpowered objects. Analysis indicates no significant threat to ship or crew.
"No significant threat, my ass." she muttered. She knew perfectly well that the computer would only track objects above a certain size. But an object little larger than a clenched fist could contain a sensor buoy or a nuclear mine, and a piece of rock even smaller than that could still prove deadly if it hit an unshielded ship at a high enough speed. And if a hostile starship had taken the trouble to match speed and course with her before turning in on an interception vector, it would always maintain the same position against the background and so remain invisible to her computer until it was close enough for the radiation detectors to pick up the emissions from its drive.
And by then ...
She shivered, and to give herself something to do, swung the camerascope around to focus in on the thing she was stalking. A distant galaxy, delicate as frozen lace, wheeled briefly across the forward viewfield, trailing a skein of stars, and then the 'scope centred on a bright irregular object ahead of her. She was still too far away to make out any detail, but she was certain now that it was an artefact, not just some piece of stellar debris that happened to look like a ship.
"I see you." she told it, "I know where you live and I'm coming to get you. And if you want to play games, I've got a targetseeker with your name on it." She rested her gloved hand on the arming switch for the Maid's forward missile racks. The first hostile movement on the part of the unknown would send two missiles thundering out from under the Maid's stubby nose, to give the opposition something to think about while she brought the ship up to combat readiness.
The bleep of the shipping receiver took her by surprise. In the silence of the cabin, the unexpected noise was so loud that she felt her heart practically jump out of her chest.
"Receiving transponder signal." the computer reported unnecessarily. She took a deep breath and struggled to control the urge to scream.
"Decode it." she said weakly. Her hand hovered above the switch for the fusion powerplant.
"The registry codes do not match any known vessel, series or affiliation." the computer told her. She shook her head.
"Wonderful. I've gone and found myself a xeno. I knew this was a bad idea. I just didn't know how bad until now."
"The signal conforms to standard patterns. But the registry codes included in the signal are not listed."
"Are you saying it's a human vessel?" she asked.
"Registry codes do not correspond to any known human vessel ..." began the computer.
... series or affiliation. I know." She swore softly. An unregistered vessel must surely be a pirate. But wouldn't a pirate try to appear innocent by making sure that its transponder made it look like a harmless trader or pleasure craft? She came to a decision.
"Cancel silent running. Defence condition yellow." she ordered. The cabin lights came on and gravity returned in a smooth rush that pushed her down into her acceleration seat and precipitated a rain of small objects from around the cabin. In front of her, the sensor displays lit up, and she felt rather than heard the power surge into the main drives. The yellow eye of the laser trigger glowed into life under her hand and the shields came up like shallow walls of mist in the viewscreen in front of her. If anyone was watching, the Sligo Maid must just have winked into existence like a new star on their detector screens, burning brightly at all frequencies. Even if she was no longer invisible, however, at least she was ready to fight or not as the situation demanded. Elaine eased the control stick forward, angling slightly away from the other vessel, and selected the standard ship-to-ship channel on the communications board.
"This is Sligo Maid to unknown vessel, identify yourself please." she said into her headset mike. The slow whimper of the other's transponder bleep continued to fill the cabin.
"I repeat, this is Sligo Maid to unknown vessel, identify yourself." Again, the unknown declined to answer.
"Are they dead, deaf or stupid?" she wondered out loud as she pre-flighted the main drive.
"Sligo Maid to unknown, identify yourself or be destroyed."
The threat produced no more response than her previous messages, and she smiled wryly.
"I was only kidding anyway," she said to herself. She repeated her original message on two or three other plausible channels, but the unknown remained silent except for the transponder bleep, repeating itself mechanically and unintelligibly every few seconds.
Gingerly, she cut in the main drive and the Sligo Maid began to accelerate towards the other vessel.
"I need therapy." she concluded. "I can't believe I'm doing this. They probably can't either. They're probably laughing so hard they can't even find the trigger button."
"The transponder signal is interleaved with a distress signal." the computer reported after a moment.
"Really? You took your fine time telling me about that. What does it say?'
"The distress signal consists only of the distress code SOS, continuously repeated."
"Is SOS a distress code?" she asked, still keeping her eyes on the other vessel.
"The distress code SOS was widely used in pre-spaceflight times." the computer informed her. "Traditionally, the letters are interpreted as meaning, 'Save Our Souls'. In reality, they were chosen because they were simple to transmit using an encoding scheme then in use."
"Save Our Souls, eh? They should have sent out for a priest."
"I do not understand."
"You don't need to. just watch that ship with everything we have, and warn me if it starts acting hostile." She tilted the Sligo Maid gently to allow the belly laser to cover the unknown. "Any acceleration, any signs that it's powering-up for a fight, we burn it and run."
The other ship, however, betrayed no sign of any hostile intentions. It remained centred in her viewfield, and, for all her sensors could tell her, inert and lifeless aside from the transponder bleep. She approached cautiously, front shields at maximum, her detectors probing the surrounding space suspiciously for any pirates that might be waiting to fall on her. Everything about the situation felt like a trap, and the urge to drop everything and run was stronger than ever.
"Is it my imagination, or is that ship getting brighter? And not just because we're closer?"
"The visual intensity of the light emitted by the vessel has increased." the computer confirmed pedantically. "An analysis of the variation in brightness indicates a regular variation consistent with slow motion about an axis not aligned with the major axis of the vessel."
"I wish you'd tell me these things. So, it's tumbling, right?"
"Slowly. The motion may also be analysed as a spin about an axis...
"That's a starship." Elaine interrupted. "If it turns on anything but its own main axis, then it's not a spin, it's a tumble. And that's a sign that it's in trouble."
"Or that it wants you to think it is." added a small voice in the back of her mind. The computer remained silent, as if offended by her interruption.
As she watched, the bright spot in the centre of her viewscreen seemed to dim again. The other vessel shone only by reflected light from the system's star, a rather ancient white dwarf, and as it rolled slowly, the surface area it presented to the star changed gradually, making it brighten for a few moments and then grow perceptibly dimmer. To her eye, the variations appeared random, but the computer had evidently been able to interpret them as part of a consistent pattern.
'Can you get any idea of shape from the way the light's changing?" she asked. A secondary screen lit up with the image of a long, finned dart, slowly turning about an axis that passed diagonally through the centre of the vessel.
"Not a type I recognise. Looks old-fashioned. I just hope it's not an alien after all. I never could remember my 'First Contact' drill. Except for the bit about not saying 'Take me to your leader'.
The abstract image on the secondary screen suddenly sharpened and was filled in with details and markings. She glanced briefly down at it, noted with relief the absence of visible external weapons.
"You've identified it, huh? what is it?"
"The proportions of the vessel match those of the Weyprecht class of long-range scout ships. Eighty-four vehicles of this class were constructed by the Empire between 2918 and 2993. Four vessels of the class are still in service within the Empire, eleven are unaccounted for. No vessels of this class have been reported lost in this sector."
"So I must be hallucinating again. I should really cut down on the dosage, you know." A thought struck her. "Wait, what if it's not a derelict, what are the chances that it's an Imperial survey ship out here? If I've just spent six hours playing cat and mouse just to bail out some bunch of monarchist domeheads who can't remember how to work the autocook, I am going to be very much less than happy.
"The vessel has been abandoned." the computer stated flatly.
"Abandoned? How do you know?"
"Radio-emissions analysis indicates that the vessel's powerplant is no longer present or has been inactive for approximately two hundred years, plus or minus two decades. The lifesystem fitted to vehicles of this class is incapable of sustaining the crew for periods in excess of fifty years."
"You never cease to amaze me. Damn, we must be practically on top of him if you can tell all that from a radioscan. Time to stop chattering and roll out the welcome mat."
The final approach was as nerve-racking as the long hours of silent stalking that had preceded it. To her nervous eyes, the other ship had a predatory air, like the bait in a trap that was about to close around her and her vessel. She tried the radio again, but it produced no more response than her previous attempt, and after a minute or two she gave up. It began to look increasingly as if the computer was right, and there was no one left to answer her.
Her course took her to within a few kilometres of the other ship, close enough that it could be seen clearly with the naked eye. Using the Maid's cameras on full magnification she could pick out individual rivets on the hull.
"Doesn't look badly damaged." she commented aloud. "Matter density out here must be pretty low." She caught her breath as the ship turned slowly in her view, and she saw the long parallel burn scars on the under surface.
"Oh baby." she said. "Do you see that?"
"It appears to have undergone structural modifications." the computer commented. Despite her tension, Elaine laughed.
"That's battle damage, you tin simpleton. It's been in a laser duel. And lost, by the look of it." The damage exposed the secret insides of the ship, pipes and cables trailing into vacuum, the honeycomb structure of the fuel tanks riven and torn. The ship turned its shattered underside slowly away from her, like an old warrior hiding his wounds.
"OK, it has to be derelict." Elaine concluded. "I'm going aboard to see what I can find out. Maybe there's a reward out for her or something.
Like most starship captains, she disliked leaving the security of her ship. Under the circumstances, it might have been more advisable to keep the Maid at a safe distance from the unknown, and make the crossing between ships in a spacesuit. But a spacesuit feels very fragile in the empty spaces between the stars, and the knowledge that the nearest human help is many light- years distant does little to boost one's confidence. Whatever the perils involved in docking with a spinning derelict, keeping the steel shell of her hull around her and trusting to her own skill and quickness to bring off the manoeuvre in safety felt like a significantly better option.
She fluffed the first approach through nervousness, and overshot the other vessel, but at the second attempt her timing was perfect. With the larger craft looming ominously above her like a hammer about to fall, she inched the Maid up towards the dorsal surface of the unknown, her own docking tube already extended and feeling for the other's hatch. A slight tremor passed through the hull as the docking clamps engaged, and she nudged the stick to kill the Maid's motion towards the other vessel. The two ships, linked by the fragile umbilicus of the docking tube, drifted on together.
She released the straps that held her into the acceleration couch, and rose unsteadily to her feet, suddenly conscious of the myriad aches and itches that her cramped position of the last few hours had procured her. In the forward viewscreen, the stars turned slowly and disconcertingly.
The docking tube was unpressurised, a thin tunnel of carbon fibre stretched between the two ships. She gripped the guiderail and pulled herself down it hand over hand, trying not to think of what might happen if the computer relaxed the holding pattern that kept the ships apart and the tube taut. Each time the tube flexed slightly, it seemed to Elaine as if it were about to fold up like a concertina, trapping her in its folds as the two starships came together and crushed her like a bug. In theory, the memory-plastic runners which strengthened the tube would stiffen automatically to prevent such an accident if the tube contracted by as little as five per cent of its length, but she doubted that anyone affected by a tube failure had ever filed claims for compensation in person. In space, the word 'fatal' in the phrase 'fatal accident' is all but redundant.
It was with considerable relief that she reached the airlock of the other ship. The hull surface was covered with a fine patina of dust and tiny glittering particles which might have been ice crystals or fragments of debris. She brushed the dust away with her gauntleted hand to expose the opening mechanism. As she expected, the 'Open' button was dark. She extracted a boarding tool from her backpack and inserted the tip into the appropriate socket next to the airlock door, braced her legs against the tube's stabilisers and began the strenuous task of opening the door manually.
It took her the better part of ten minutes to open the door wide enough for her to squeeze through. Once inside, she was obliged to work it slowly closed again, because the mechanical fail safes built into the lock would not permit the inner door to be opened unless the outer was safely closed. Never mind that the air inside the ship must be either liquid or non-existent, the niceties of survival had to be observed. She took a last look through the narrowing crack at the friendly stars outside as she closed the door, with the awkward feeling of someone nailing down the lid of their own coffin.
The inner door opened more easily, and at last she was inside the unknown vessel. The interior was dark, not even emergency lighting showing. She turned around slowly, her helmet light picking out doors and walls, signs written in the flowing Imperial script, the obligatory picture of the Emperor fixed to the bulkhead. It wasn't even the face she knew from newscasts, and she realised as if for the first time how old the ship was, how long it must have been waiting out here, drifting slowly between stars.
"Yeah, well. You're still a schmuck." she told the portrait. "And that goes double for your son or grandson or whatever he is."
She started to make her way slowly forward, sliding her gloved hands along the bulkheads to stop herself moving too fast. A damaged starship is full of sharp edges and other potential dangers, and a moment's inattention in the weightlessness of the derelict could be enough to tear open her spacesuit or carry her into a nest of uninsulated cables.
"And Mr Murphy, he say, if there is anything in this scrapheap still drawing power, you'll find it by putting your foot in it." she muttered to herself.
Her progress was slow. In a ship without power, each door must be opened manually, and even modem spacesuits do not ]end themselves to physical exertion. By the time she had forced her way through the three doors that lay between the airlock and the bridge, she was sweating freely and her suit's homeostasis units were working overtime to compensate. She shook her head to try to keep the sweat out of her eyes, succeeded only in coating the inside of her visor with a thin film of moisture. She anchored herself in the doorway and waited patiently for the filtration systems to deal with it.
The forward section of the bridge was covered by a transparent canopy through which the slowly-wheeling stars could be seen. As the ship rolled, the pale dwarflight filtering through the glass illuminated the bridge lust enough for her to pick out the shapes of control panels and viewscreens, the three control chairs arranged in troika configuration beneath the canopy With a sudden shock, she realised that the crew were still in their seats.
"Oh, charming." she thought. "This is turning out to be a real pleasure trip." She steeled herself, and moved slowly forward to inspect the gruesome remains.
The man nearest to her sat upright in the control seat, his emaciated face tilted upwards, unseeing eyes staring out at the stars overhead. The corpse was almost perfectly preserved, freeze- dried before the ever-present bacteria could begin their work. He wore the remains of some kind of dress uniform, coloured rows of medal ribbons marching across his breast pocket, a heavy sunburst on a gold chain decorating his throat. To her eyes, it looked more like the kind of thing that a diplomat or a minor grandee might wear than the trappings of a spacefarer or a scientist.
The pilot, in the fonuard couch, was dressed in ship clothes, grey coveralls and half-jacket, his name printed on his chest and visor. His head lolled forward, still encased in its flight helmet, a tangle of wires trailing down to the console, the headset microphone hovering above the dry lips as if the dead man might still have something to say. His hands were locked about the control column, booted feet resting lightly on the pedals.
The third man had the air of a sleeper, smooth features unscarred by vacuum, head tilted peacefully back against the headrest, eyes closed. Like the pilot, he wore a naval uniform, but without any visible insignia or rank badges. His hands were folded in his lap, his helmet set neatly to one side. He looked almost as if he were waiting for something.
She moved closer to get a better look at him, and as her helmet light passed across his face, his eyes flicked open. Involuntarily, she jumped backwards, and her helmeted head struck the overhead canopy with a dull clunk. She wanted to scream, but the shock seemed to have paralysed her vocal cords. Her heart hammered, and she felt waves of hot and cold pass over her. The dead man looked calmly at her, and she stared back at him in horror, clutching the boarding tool in front of her like a weapon.
After a short while that seemed like an eternity, her suit radio gave a faint, premonitory crackle.
"Please do not be alarmed." The voice in her ears was even, well-modulated, reassuring. She felt her heartbeat begin slowly to return to something closer to normal. She let herself go limp, drifting in the weightlessness of the cabin, resisting the urge to curl up in a ball and simply scream until she was exhausted.
"Please excuse me. I did not intend to distress you."
"Distress me?" she said incredulously. "You nearly gave me a heart attack. You would have killed us both if you had. My biomonitor's wired to the fusion plant on my ship.
"You must forgive me." continued the imperturbable voice. "I have been operating on reduced power for so long that it is difficult to plan for contingencies. I see now that it would have been preferable to alert you to my presence previously."
"I always knew there was a reason why I didn't like robots." said Elaine weakly. "Do you do this kind of thing for fun, or did you have some serious scientific purpose in trying to frighten me to death?"
"It was not my intention to frighten you. I apologise for the alarm that I have caused you."
Elaine grasped an overhead strut and pushed herself gently down to a sitting position, coming to rest perched on the forward console. Even in microgravity, there's something reassuring about sitting down.
"I don't think I've ever seen a perfectly humaniform robot before." she said. "Androids, yes. But you're pure synthetic aren't you? You wouldn't have survived otherwise."
"Durability was a key objective in my design." said the robot. To Elaine's ears it sounded as if there was a touch of pride in the synthesized voice.
"I'm happy for you. lust remember to make allowances for us fragile mortals, would you? Some of us don't hold up so well when we're exposed to heat and cold or sudden shocks."
A thought struck her.
"Are you the only survivor? Or are some of your friends waiting their turn to pop out and go 'boo'?"
"I am the only artificial crew member, with the exception of the ship's computer, which is no longer operational. The human crew of this ship are all dead."
She looked at the two human bodies slumped in their control couches, then back at the inhuman survivor who continued to watch her, a half-smile perpetually framed on the sculpted lips.
"You've been here a long time, haven't you? And if I hadn't happened by,you might have drifted forever. We're a long way from anywhere. How long have you been waiting, anyway?'
"The present mission of this ship was initiated in the year six hundred and sixty-eight after the Imperial accession. Battle damage rendering the ship non-functional was sustained in the same year.
"Wait... The first emperor took the throne in, what, the twenty-three thirties? So six sixty- eight would be around three thousand. You're telling me you've been out here more than two hundred years?" She shook her head. "Wait a minute. Imperial robotics technology wasn't that good then. You're a fraud."
"I am not deceiving you." the robot said mildly. "The Empire prefers biotechnology to robotics for ideological reasons but I assure you that Imperial technologists are fully capable of constructing robots of my capacities. The limiting factor is expense. We have not yet mastered the techniques of mass-production common in the Federation and so humaniform robots are used only where the special requirements of the mission justify the increased cost."
"I stand corrected. So what was your mission and what was so special about it that they needed a tin man along?"
"The mission of this vessel and its crew was to carry an embassy on behalf of the Emperor to the Thargoid race."
Daine's jaw dropped.
"Would you mind saying that again?" The robot repeated what it had just said.
"You ... were negotiating... with the Thargoids? You saw them? Communicated with them?
"Communication was established with Thargoid vessels." confirmed the robot smoothly.
"And then what happened?"
"They attacked us."
"Doesn't surprise me." she said "r would have thought the Alliance would have known that Thargoids would rather fight than talk."
"Our mission was not on behalf of the Alliance. Our mission was sponsored by the Empire alone."
For the second time Elaine stared at the robot, a tenable suspicion growing in her mind.
"And what, exactly, were you authorised to say to the Thargoids, if you'd managed to talk to them?" she asked slowly.
"The Emperor proposed an alliance with the Thargoids with a view to defeating the Federation. Captured Federation and independent star systems would be divided equally between the Empire and the Thargoids."
"You ... were proposing ... to make an alliance ... with the Enemy? To give half the human race into slavery under alien rulers? How could you even think of doing such a thing? How could you participate in such an act?"
"Not my race." said the robot simply. "The affairs of organic life-forms are not my concern."
"Oh, wonderful. That's a very responsible attitude. Do you have any sense of loyalty?"
"I have been designed to obey explicitly the directives that I am issued." said the robot.
"That's not what I asked." She shook her head. "r might have known. It shouldn't surprise me to learn that the Empire was willing to sell half of humanity down the river."
"Not the Empire alone."
"Similar missions were also dispatched by the Federation. And by several independent corporations. All had similar objectives. The formation of an alliance with the aliens, with a view to attaining a decisive superiority in their conflicts with pre-existing human enemies."
Elaine looked at the floor of the control cabin for a long time. How do you feel when you find out that your race is rotten to the core, ready to make a pact with the devil for the sake of a fleeting advantage in its own internecine squabbles?
"I can't believe this. I just don't believe anyone could be so stupid or so ... so evil. They would have wiped us out. How could anyone try to make a deal with something that just wants you and your whole species dead? I thought that not even the Empire could be that immoral."
"Details of our mission objectives are stored in the ship's memory."
"I think I'd probably rather not know." said Elaine wearily. "I may have a low opinion of my fellow human beings but I'd prefer to keep some of my illusions." She frowned.'Why are you telling me this, anyway?"
"I am authorised to discuss the ship's mission with members of the crew." The robot looked down at the grey plastic deck and fidgeted slightly in its seat, as if somehow uncomfortable.
"I'm not a member of the ship's crew." Elaine pointed out.
"Imperial regulations state that salvage crew are to be considered to have the same status as members of the ship's permanent crew, and should be given assistance and information about the vessel where required for fulfilment of their duties," the robot told her.
"You win. I've never met a robot casuist before." It occurred to her that whatever the robot's real reasons for wanting to tell her about the ship, it was probably unwise to argue too forcefully that she wasn't a crew member. Given the sensitivity of the mission, the robot probably had quite specific instructions about how to deal with spies.
The cockpit darkened slowly as the ship turned away from the star. The robot's eyes sparkled in the beam of her light. They waited in silence, studying each other while the patient stars turned in a slow are overhead.
"OK," Elaine said at last. "Let's get out of here. Is there anything aboard the ship that you'd like to take with you?"
"I will remain here." said the robot.
"What? Are you short-circuiting or something? Or have you just developed a taste for sitting in hard vacuum staring at your own navel for a century at a time? Would you like me to come back in a few millennia to see how you're getting along?"
"I have been thinking." the robot answered, avoiding her eyes.
"Well, i should give it up if I were you. It's clearly an unhealthy practice.
"I have been taught to obey the directives issued to me. But it has occurred to me that any thinking entity must also be bound by moral directives. To aid a sentient species in achieving the destruction of a large number of its own members is an immoral action."
"Now there's a discovery. And you worked that out all by yourself in just two hundred years? Congratulations. Besides putting your name forward for a prize in moral philosophy, is there anything else you'd like me to do for you while I'm here?"
The robot looked at her, almost pleadingly, but did not speak. She looked into the clear, human eyes of the machine and understood.
"I get it." she said slowly. "I know what you want. But you can't ask me for it, can you? It would violate another of your directives."
Slowly, as if making a great effort, the robot nodded. She was suddenly seized with a tremendous feeling of pity. Awkwardly, she approached the seated figure, and laid one gauntleted hand on its shoulder. She felt nothing through the insulated fabric. The robot looked up at her.
"OK," she said. "I'll give you what you want." The machine closed its eyes and bowed its head as if in prayer, and she turned away to begin the slow process of returning to her own vessel.
From the bridge of the Sligo Maid she watched as the damaged ship began on its long journey towards the white dwarf sun. Using her own engines, she had corrected the derelict's spin, nudged it towards the star and set it off on its course. It had years yet to fall but eventually the gravity of the star would draw it in, still carrying its cargo of secrets and its one sleepless, inhuman passenger.
"Computer." she said suddenly The computer chirped attentively.
"Were you monitoring transmissions while I was aboard the derelict?"
"All transmissions have been recorded. Would you like me to play them back to you?"
"No. In fact, I think it would be better if you erased the recording. Delete everything you recorded from the time we first spotted the derelict. Sensor logs, ship status, radio transmissions, everything. Got that?"
"Are you sure you wish to do this?" asked the computer doubtfully.
"Yes, of course I'm sure. Don't give me a hard time, just do it."
"Requested records have been deleted." the computer said. Elaine was sure that she could hear overtones of disapproval in its voice. Abruptly, it chirruped again.
"What is it now?" asked Elaine wearily.
"Our current course will take us close to a planetary body in orbit around this system's sun. The body in question has two satellites and is of sufficient size and density to sustain exploitable mineral resources. Do you wish to survey this body?"
"Yes, I think that would be a good idea. At least I stand to get something out of this little detour. Besides which, I've always wanted to name a planet. We'll call these three ... Sin, Contrition ... and Atonement."