Any Alien Archeologists in the House?
Jamie clamped onto the beacon carefully. With eight ships hovering around he'd decided against a tether, but that didn't mean he wanted to get renamed 'Dutch', as in Flying Dutchman. He could hear the others, back from the main mike in Jerri's ship, Robin Hood, making bets on how many times they'd have to fetch him back. The surface was sturdy, metallic and weakly attracted his magnetic boots.
His helmet light illuminated the shadows cast by the ships' searchlights, but neither helped much. The beacon – or whatever it was – had been here a long time. It was without power, had numerous dents from impacts, three definite holes. A lumpy near-sphere of flat hexagonal sections it correlated with no known human designs. A few things that looked like antennae, what might be a hatch. And in microgravity, it had collected a shroud of dust.
He smeared the dust away to clear a view of a lumpy bit they had tagged as a possible hatch. The dust tended to cling, but there was a hatch, a small one. With a rather small wheel in the center. It refused to budge.
"Vacuum welding, like as not." Jerri's voice over rode the background chatter.
"Hit it with the hammer." Luke suggested.
"I think you're just trying to win a bet." Jamie muttered, bracing himself between a grip on the wheel, and two magnetic boots, to take a swing at the base of the wheel where it disappeared into the hatch. Other than disturbing dust, losing his footing and bashing his faceplate on the wheel, it had no effect. After a few more taps he moved on. The holes were a bit small, and lined with jagged points just waiting for some fool in a space suit to try to wiggle past. He abandoned thoughts of entry and looked over the rest of the surface. He located several stubby antennae, some round patches, presumably covering something, finally circling back to the hatch.
"I'm going to clear some more dust, see if there's any writing." He told his listeners, grabbing the wheel and swiping away at clinging dust. Nothing on the hatch. He started swiping away at the dust around it. There was _something_, a twelve by twelve grid of variously colored squares. He recorded it, then abandoned the beacon. "We can always come back." He jumped carefully across to the Bellefleur. He heard one of the scientists' gasp, and grinned. They may have been living in a space station for the better part of two years, but they really weren't spacers.
"Now, how about we split up and check out the planets?" Roslyn dumped courses to their comps. "Two ships to each planet for now, no doubt we'll spot other things of interest as we get closer."
Jamie wiped down his suit and bagged the sheets full of dust before he peeled out of it and racked it carefully. "So, Doc, which planet are we headed for?" He fed a dust sample into the spectrometer. Miners never quit.
"Call me Clint, please! The inner-most one, on the far side." The older man looked over his shoulder at the read out. "Looks pretty average."
"Ya, nothing interesting, but it's always nice to know if there are going to be any surprises." Jamie slipped into the pilot's set. The other ships were already maneuvering away and Luke opened up his main engines as he watched. "Water content is fairly high, so there won't be a problem picking up reaction mass." He entered in the course and plotted it. "Ah, the scenic route. Roslyn must want to know if the system has an icy belt." He looked over his status lights. "We were a bit profligate there at the end. Luke must be nearly out."
He burned through half his reserves to reach a distant orbit and then maneuvered to match velocities with a radar return. "Ice, just like G'ma ordered."
"I heard that, Punk!"
Jamie grinned back at Clint. "See? she even sounds beautiful when she's peeved." He hit the bulk with a laser and sent the reflected light to the spectrograph. "Five percent carbon, looks like. Luke, you need a special delivery?"
"Nope. Got one of my own. Race you guys to the nearest habitable planet."
"You are checking out the gas giant." The beautiful voice was firm.
"Could have a habitable moon."
Jamie broke off pieces with the laser, catching them with a grappling arm and feeding them into the right bays. Several of the Bellefleur's fuel bunkers could double as cargo bays, all depending on how much reaction mass he needed for any given trip. He loaded all the bunkers and all the multi-use holds as well.
"I'd rather let someone beat me there than not be able to leave afterwards."
Clint nodded agreement, and strapped in for what was, for Bellefleur, heavy acceleration. One and a half gees. Enough to get off an Earth-type planet fully loaded, and not much more.
He brought it back to one G after five hours, for a stretch and meal break, then brought it back up while they dozed.
Roslyn called them macho when they passed her on the third day, but they didn't accelerate much longer. This close, they kept the radio link open all the time and chatted casually.
"This will sling us around the Sun in another twenty-two days, and then we'll decelerate and match orbits with the planet on the far side."
"As competitive as you lot are," Clint stretched the kinks out of his back, "I'm surprised Roslyn didn't give herself the closest planet, rather than the furthest."
"Ha! She gave herself the one with the highest chance of habitability, plus a head start on any others hiding over here."
"I heard that too, Punk!"
"You know, she only insults me, not you. I think she has a crush on you."
"We've never met," Clint pointed out.
"Yeah, but you're only about twenty years younger than she is. The rest of us are too immature."
Roslyn's passenger giggled. Odessa something. "I highly recommend her, Clint."
"I refuse to be categorized by age." Clint attempted dignity. "And where might you be from, Miz Roslyn? If you ever had an accent, it has worn away."
"Of course I have an accent. You just think I don't because it's the same as yours. I was born in London, but grew up in Sydney, and have lived most of my adult life among Americans. Or people who abuse the language in a similar fashion."
"I did it the other way around," Clint admitted. "I'm American, but spent years in Australia. Still the best ground-based viewing down under."
"Jamie was space born, so he's badly handicapped, language-wise."
"Hey, my uncles were all American."
"As I said . . . Odessa, dear, are you named after the Russian Odessa or the Texas one? You sound American."
"Ukraine, please, not Russia. My mother was born there, and named me after it. I was born on Mars. Dad's American." Her breath caught a bit. "They're going to be horribly worried, when news of this gets out."
"Umm, the jumpship is due back in three months?" Jamie asked.
"Yes, and they're going to get a nasty surprise when they pop in." Clint's teeth worried his lower lip. "The outer stations may have picked up our travels. If not, they'll think we're all dead. And that depends on whether the jump ship stays around long enough for a down load. We were set up to send a tight beam to the nearest system with a wormhole, but that'll take seven years."
"We uploaded some last messages to the beacon, including picking you lot up." Roslyn sighed. "I don't suppose the beacon survived, though."
"It was hardened, to take the X and Gamma rays." Clint admitted. "Alpha sing was pretty far out, but I expect the shockwave will kill it before anyone collects the messages."
Odessa winced, thinking of her parents. "There's no way to find another wormhole anytime soon, is there?" She fiddled with the grain bar she was gnawing on, chipping off a piece and feeding it to Roslyn's rat. The miners kept a wide variety of pets, claiming they were a backup air quality indicator. Which failed to explain a rat that came when called and did tricks on command.
"Not soon, honey." Roslyn patted her shoulder, then stroked the rat sitting there. "We can build darn near anything, but even once we have the detectors it takes a long time, sweeping through the whole of the system, to locate singularities."
"And without a pilot, we may not be able to use it anyway." Odessa shook her head. "Never mind. Let's find a nice planet and see about growing some food as a first priority."
The old woman nodded. Age extension therapies had made eighty more middle-aged than old, but Roslyn's mannerism and posture made Odessa wonder by how much Roslyn was understating her age. Or maybe she enjoyed the game. Playing the elderly aunt or grandmother was probably a useful way to avoid trouble with men, out here on the frontier.
She'd seen Clint go into his fatherly act a few times when female students started flirting with him. But only when they were his own students. Clint was very old fashioned, that way, but still male.
"How on Earth, well, not on Earth, obviously, do you get born in space?" She asked the invisible Jamie. "I thought that was a really bad idea, and avoided at all costs, after the Vancouver mutations."
"Yeah, well, no one ever accused my mother of being bright, nor of planning ahead." His tone sounded a bit forced. "Anyway, she figured she didn't have much time and wanted a baby, died when I was still little, I barely remember her. My uncles raised me. One biological uncle and his three fellow crewmen on a big jump freighter."
"So you don't spend much time on planets?" she asked.
"Let's see. I attended college on Lincoln. That was eight years ago. Two years ago I spent a couple of weeks on Bypass, if you want to call that a planet." She could nearly hear the shrug. "Haven't gone dirtside since."
"Bypass, that's the system with eight wormholes, isn't it?"
"Yep. Closest thing to habitable is an iceberg with about a third g, way out in the outer system. Couple of domes, lots of services floating about. Handy for ships going through."
Roslyn leaned over and whispered, "Wall-to-wall brothels."
"Oh!" Soundlessly. Men. Well, at least he was healthy . . . well, she'd never seen him, so maybe she should be ready for something bad. Nothing as bad as a snatch pilot, she hoped, but born in space . . .
The scan she was running signaled its completion, and she turned to the computer to study it. At the speed they were moving, nearby objects had a large apparent change of position between scans. They'd already tentatively identified an asteroid belt, and some long period comets that were approaching perihelion and would be available for mining should water prove scarce, or the planets all uninhabitable.
The planet they were approaching was looking better all the time. It was the right size, the right distance, had a large moon. If the atmosphere wasn't too thick, if there was water, but not too much water – water covered worlds were a common disappointment in space – if the chemistry was right, if there was life to produce and maintain oxygen in the atmosphere they had it made. Otherwise, they'd be making large asteroids into larger greenhouses.
She calculated orbits for fifteen moving objects in the scan, and hoped for a livable world.