Monday, September 22, 2008

The Resurrected Man: "A View Before Dying" by Sean Williams

D-mat—the electronic transmission of matter—has obsessed Sean Williams for most of his life. From his first short story ever to The Resurrected Man, he has been constantly looking for new ways to treat this very old idea. “A View Before Dying” was first written in 1993, then, with input from friend and editor Bill Congreve, considerably expanded in 1994. First published in respected Australian semiprozine Eidolon in 1996, it was later reprinted and reviewed by Lisa DuMond on the SF Site in 1998: “Sean Williams at his finest and, perhaps, his most menacing, but definitely at his peak. "A View Before Dying" is spell-binding, horrifying, and dazzling.


"A View Before Dying"

Sean Williams


The moment Rod Hallows opened his eyes, he knew something had gone wrong. He could feel it—even if, for the moment, he could see nothing. His first instinct was to call for help, but the feed from Control had ceased, the inside of his helmet was utterly silent, and only the virtual light cast by his implants broke the darkness surrounding him.

The truth of where he was sank in only gradually. He had closed his eyes as the d-mat process had begun, just seconds ago, but that brief blink had lasted twenty-two point four light years and almost a quarter of a century. He found it hard to imagine—and wondered whether this might itself be the cause of the problem he sensed. From rest to ninety percent of the speed of light in one timeless instant; who knew what effects that would have, until he tried it?

Well, he had tried it—and now he was on Saul–1, mid-way through its long journey to another star. If he was conscious, he told himself, then it must be so.

Having come that far along his journey to realization, he moved his arms and legs. Everything there seemed in order, at least; he had arrived intact. But still the gut-feeling nagged, that something had gone terribly, terribly wrong

The feeling was confirmed when the airlock door slid open and his suit’s radiation alarm began to sound.

For a brief instant he froze, transfixed by the view. His last sight had been of the disembarkation facility in near-Earth orbit. Now Earth had disappeared, leaving nothing but subtly distorted stars in its wake. Except—and he forced himself to remember this, to keep his sense of perspective—it was he who had moved, not the universe around him.

When the alarm finally registered, he realized that it was a cautionary alert; had the radiation levels been too severe, the doors wouldn’t have opened at all. But when he tried to access the probe’s mainframe via his implants to find out what was going on, he was greeted with stony silence.

He cursed to himself. Whatever had happened had been severe.

Tugging gently on the frame of the airlock, he drifted out of the tiny d‑mat enclosure and onto the surface of the probe. Before he took any drastic steps, he needed to look around.

Behind him, the airlock slid shut automatically. As he attached a line to the hook beside the airlock door, a faint vibration registered through his fingertips. The d‑mat capsule was already powering-up for the next arrival: Roald Gehrke, the team’s computer systems analyst. Apart from the vibration, the probe was still.

After checking the suit’s systems to ensure his life-support and EMU were operating correctly, Hallows left his perch with a gentle kick and headed for an access-ladder. From there he pulled himself through perfect weightlessness down the long axis of the probe. As he passed from handhold to handhold, the remains of nanomachines left behind by previous refit crews scattered beneath his fingertips like small puffs of dust and dissipated slowly through the vacuum. How many remained active but quiescent, awaiting his refit crews’ commands, he had no easy way of telling. Without the mainframe to assist him, he was restricted solely to visual clues.

As he crawled towards the rear of the probe, the implants automatically scanned his vision for anomalies. Apart from the light from the stars around him he was in complete darkness, with nothing but vacuum for light years in every direction. Bright though the stars were, they did little to dispel the shadows shrouding his immediate environment. Only with the gain on his implants turned to maximum could he make out any details at all.

Perversely, everything on this side of the probe seemed normal: no damage, no evidence of a major catastrophe; nothing to explain what had happened to cause the rise in incident radiation.

Saul–1 was seventy metres long and approximately eleven wide, with gap-toothed holes in its matte-grey skin exposing a solid mess of girders, struts and lattice-work beneath. The probe had an unfinished look—and, in a very real sense, wasn’t finished. The skin in particular was irrelevant to its overall structure, serving not as an external boundary but as a shield to deflect micrometeorites and hard radiation from fragile components. When the probe and its two sisters—Saul–2 and Saul–3, years behind—finally arrived at their destination, the skin would be discarded entirely.

If it arrived, Hallows thought grimly to himself. He glanced over his shoulder, forward along the probe, and was gratified to see Eta Boötis immediately ahead. To his naked eye, the slightly blue-shifted star appeared to be in the correct place, but there was no way he could be sure until he logged into the probe’s mainframe and analyzed the astronomical data. And to do that, he needed Gehrke’s help.

The feeling of utter isolation mounted, although he knew it to be irrational. The others would arrive soon enough, and then he would have someone to share his problems with. All he had to do was last that long. By then, he hoped, he would know what the problem was. Maybe, just maybe, he might even have fixed it.

When he came to the end of the access ladder he mounted the aft end of the probe and swung down beside the drive shaft—the most obvious source of a radiation leak, apart from the reactor core itself. He half-expected his suit’s alarm to intensify as he did so, and was mildly surprised when it remained unchanged. Puzzled, and temporarily lacking direction, he turned to look around.

Inactive for the past twenty-four years, the shaft now served as a home for various dishes and antennae, all pointing back towards Earth, locked onto the dim speck of light that was Sol.

All, that is, except one.

Hallows’ implants flashed a red halo around this solitary dish while a database scrolled schematics down the corner of his visual field. His stomach fell even before he glanced at the text. He didn’t need to be told what purpose the dish served, or what the malfunction represented to him personally. The transmit dish was potentially the most important on the probe; its failure spelled a death-sentence. Without it, they would never return to Earth.

Unable even to contemplate that possibility just yet, he turned away from the sight of the misaligned antenna. As he did so, something caught his eye further up the drive shaft. Again the implants threw a halo over the foreign object, but this time failed to identify it. The faint starlight was insufficient to illuminate so deep into the interior of the shaft.

He leaned further into the circular tube. The red-limned shadow might have been anything, but to Hallows it looked like a man: a man curled around himself with one hand reaching up to touch his face.

Somebody on the probe…? That was impossible. The previous refit crew had left years ago; the nearest people were back on Earth, light years away. The only way anyone could be aboard was if they were dead.

Swallowing a ball of apprehension, Hallows crawled into the shaft. The shadow didn’t move as he approached, but still he remained cautious. As the distance narrowed, he slowed himself unconsciously; by the time he was within a metre of the object, he had drifted to a halt.

It was a man, that much was obvious close up. His suit was identical to the one Hallows himself wore—except for the visor, which dangled open.

Hallows forced himself to lean closer. The name-tag on the suit said:

prosilis 1422k7a31

The name evoked memories of a small, fair-haired man with a lively sense of humour and relaxed demeanour. Hallows had trained with Antonio Prosilis for a month, before the latter had left on the refit mission previous to his. Had he been asked to, he would gladly have wagered that Prosilis was the least likely of all the refitters to commit suicide.

The recollection jarred with the black-faced corpse floating in the drive shaft before him. That Prosilis had deliberately unsealed his suit was unarguable: one hand remained tightly clenched around the plastic visor, and there were no signs of a struggle; just solitary agony followed shortly by death. Prosilis’ contorted features were mottled by vacuum-bruises around eyes squeezed tightly shut.

Trying hard to quash the tide of speculation rising in him, Hallows crawled out of the shaft. A radiation alarm, an inactive mainframe, a misaligned transmit dish and a dead body…The list of misfortunes seemed endless. Until Gehrke arrived and examined the mainframe, the best he could do was explore the probe as well as he could, hoping he would stumble by chance upon a possible cause of the tragedy.

A cause, and a cure. Without the latter, they would be stranded aboard the probe until their air-supply ran out. There were no other options. By stepping into the disembarkation booth on Earth, they had deliberately cut themselves off from the rest of humanity. Nothing but empty space lay between the probe and home: trillions of kilometres of void, forever…

He shook his head, trying to banish the image, to erase the reference point of Sol. He could only think about here and now—the probe and him—or he’d go crazy.

Like Prosilis…?

Then, as he swung himself carefully around the lip of the aft end, intending to head back to the d-mat airlock via the other side of the probe, a black patch appeared in the shimmer of stars to his left. Thinking a ball of dust had smudged his visor, he automatically raised a hand to brush it away. Only when he lowered his hand and the circular patch remained did he actually turn to study it. Another second passed before he truly understood what he was seeing.

Floating in space not two hundred metres from the probe, and stationary with respect to it, was another ship.

Jimmy Tarasento took the news badly—as Hallows had expected—although he hid it well. Of the three of them, he had the most to lose.

The refit crew huddled on the spine of the probe not far from the d‑mat airlock. Hallows had been on Saul–1 for six hours, Gehrke half that long. The three-hour lag between revelations—the time the d-mat receiver took to process the data comprising each refitter beamed from Earth—had worn Hallows’ nerves ragged. He was heartily glad that he only had to break the news twice.

Gehrke barely contained his frustration. His face burned red in the starlight as he waited for Tarasento to absorb the situation. The big systems analyst had never been renowned for his patience. Ever since his arrival he had been a furious knot of energy, twisting and writhing in an attempt to untangle itself.

Tarasento was more composed. A full minute passed before he finally opened his mouth and said “Fuck.” He raised a hand to his visor, as though to wipe his forehead, then let it drift limply to his chest. His brown eyes rolled upwards to a sky that wasn’t there. “I guess that’s it. We’re stuck here forever.”

“Not forever,” corrected Gehrke. “Twenty-six days. That’s how much air we have.”

“Until we die, then.” Tarasento sounded like he was about to cry. “That’s the same as forever, isn’t it?”

“Easy.” Hallows reached out to grip the younger man’s shoulder. “We don’t know for sure yet.”

“Like hell we don’t,” growled Gehrke. “The transmission dish is off-target. God only knows what it’s pointing at, but it isn’t Earth. If we try to leave, we’ll be sprayed across the universe like water from a fucking hose. They’ll never track the signal.”

“Maybe we can realign the dish,” Hallows said, refusing to admit defeat in front of the others, and still trying his best to keep the conversation focused on the now.

“Yeah, maybe. And maybe we’ll build a warp drive and fly back home instead.”

“What happened?” Tarasento said softly, almost afraid to ask the question. “What went wrong?”

Gehrke deflated instantly. “We don’t know. I’ve only logged into the mainframe as far as the maintenance systems. We’re not supposed to mess with the guidance or transmission programs, so they’ll take a while to get into. I’ll do it, though, if I have to.”

“Is it something to do with that?” For the first time since his arrival, Tarasento acknowledged the dark scar in the starfield. “Whatever the hell it is.”

“It’s a ship,” said Hallows. “And it’s the source of the radiation. Beyond that, we don’t know much.”

“Could it be human?”

“I doubt it.” Hallows felt the hollow in his chest widen as it did every time he thought about the other ship.

“Surely the others left some sort of explanation?” Tarasento leaned forward to clutch Gehrke’s arm. “A log, a message—There must be—”

“None that I’ve found,” Gehrke said. “Just the usual mission reports, filed by automatics. The core programs have been tampered with though, and the mainframe’s running a little slow, which usually means there’s some heavy data stashed away on it somewhere. That might be what we’re looking for, or it might be the problem itself. We’ll only know when I find it.”

“And how long will that take?”

“As long as it takes.” Gehrke’s eyes flashed. “Which depends on how long I have to sit here wasting my time.”

Tarasento leaned back, chastened. “I’m sorry, Roald. It’s just…it’s still sinking in. You’ve had longer to think about it, to get used to the idea. Give me a day or two and I’ll catch up.”

“You can rest for a while, if you like,” Hallows interjected. “But not too long. As Roald says, we’re wasting time. We can talk just as easily programming the refit as we can sitting here.”

Gehrke laughed bitterly. “Why bother? It’s not going to do us any good, is it?”

“I didn’t mean you, Roald. I want you to keep digging into the mainframe, to see if you can find out what happened. Get us access to the observation systems at least, so we can take a better look at that…thing.” Hallows took a deep breath. The dark shadow seemed to watch him like an eye. “Jimmy and I will do the work. Whether we’ll die in four weeks or not doesn’t change what we came here to do. We’ve got mods to install, nanoware to program, repairs to make. The other refitters are still on the way, and there’s nothing we can do about that. Saul–1 is the important thing, not us.”

“Can’t let the side down,” mumbled Gehrke.

“No, it’s more than that. We don’t have a choice, dammit.”

“We either work or go crazy.” Tarasento shrugged and tried to smile. “It’ll make the time pass, anyway.”

“Right.” Hallows was grateful for the young man’s rapid comprehension of the situation. He didn’t think he could handle a volatile confrontation at that moment—doubted that any of them could. Even through the thick fabric of his companions’ suits, and the stubborn bluff that kept weakness carefully from view, he could plainly see the stress in their postures, faces and eyes.

Behind them, as thought on cue, the d‑mat airlock cycled open and automated systems began dispensing equipment and raw materials freshly-arrived from Earth. Hallows uncoiled from his squat, signalling the end of the impromptu debriefing.

“Time to work,” he said.

“Hey-bloody-ho,” muttered Gehrke, but obeyed nonetheless.

Hours passed in an unmarked blur. A green chronometer in one corner of Hallows’ field of view patiently ticked off the time, but the numbers soon became meaningless. Without a sun or a moon to make a difference, every hour was identical to the previous; the only thing that changed was the task he was performing at any given moment.

The fifth of seven refit crews, their prime objective was to prepare the probe for its period of deceleration; after twenty-two years of coasting at near-light-speed, the time was approaching for the mighty engines to fire again. The loss of Gehrke’s input made little difference. At a pinch, one person could have done the work required. Three had been sent to insure against unforeseen catastrophes, just as most of the probe’s basic systems had been designed in triplicate. Had things gone according to plan, Hallows would have been anticipating a speedy return to Earth—although the apparent swiftness of the round trip was relative only to him and his crew.

It still seemed strange to him that, although he had left Earth less than four years behind Saul–1, he wouldn’t return—if he could return—until eleven years after it had arrived at Eta Boötis. He could tackle the paradox intellectually—by calculating the changing velocity of the probe and its position in space at various stages of its thirty-seven year journey, then superimposing the vector of his own body as it travelled from and to Earth as what amounted to a beam of high-energy coherent light—but it still didn’t make sense.

He had expected to lose forty-five years of history and gain up to four weeks of experience in deep-space. The trade-off had seemed acceptable when he had applied for a position in the Program. Since the moment he’d stepped from the d‑mat however, he had hardly stopped to look at the sky around him. He’d been unconsciously avoiding the alien ship, and the probable fate awaiting him.

He’d known the risks, of course. They had been drummed into him from day one. There was no way to turn back. The constraints of light-speed were unbreakable. If the probe had blown up an hour or a decade before they arrived, the loss of signal wouldn’t have been noticed on Earth until years after they had left. And the same constraints applied now to a cry for help: twenty-two years would pass before Earth even heard it.

Perhaps, he mused, it would have been better if the probe had blown up before they arrived. At least that way they would have been unaware that the three of them were, to all intents and purposes, dead. Unless, since their departure, someone had invented an ftl drive and arrived in the nick of time to save the three stranded refitters…

Hallows tasted bitterness on his tongue. Not three refitters, but six. Lockley, Pearce and Prosilis had been in exactly the same predicament as he, Gehrke and Tarasento. Prosilis had killed himself, and no trace had been found of the other two. Hallows couldn’t stop himself from wondering what they would choose when their time came.

He shook sweat from his eyes, wishing he could take off the suit just once to wipe his face. The breathing of his companions rasped loudly in his ears. The paste from his mouth-tube tasted like plastic. Avoidance of the problem didn’t seem to be proving a viable alternative to dealing with it—at least for him.

“Christ,” he said. “I need a drink. A real drink.”

“Hear, hear.” Tarasento’s voice, from the far side of the probe, came clear and brittle through the suit’s earphones. “I’ll hop into the ’mat and get one, shall I?”

“Great.” And that was the problem. From anywhere to anywhere in Sol System took little more than a step by d‑mat. It was hard to believe that Earth was really over two decades away.

“I’ve been studying the other ship,” Tarasento said. “The magnification on my visor isn’t great, but it’s better than nothing.”

“And?” Hallows allowed curiosity free reign for a moment; anything was better than the gloom that threatened to envelop him again. “Has it moved?”

“No.”

“Good.” Unless it did, he could continue to ignore it.

“It’s strange, though,” Tarasento went on. “The angles are all wrong. I don’t know how to describe it exactly, and it’s hard to tell through the shadows, but it looks like it might be damaged.”

Hallows nodded to himself; he had noticed that as well. The ship seemed oddly proportioned, almost contorted, as though someone had crumpled it into a ball and flung it into space. What he said was: “How can there be shadows, Jimmy, when there’s no primary source of light?”

Tarasento hesitated. “I don’t know. But that’s what they look like…”

“Maybe it’s paint, or the natural colour of the hull.” If it is a hull, he added to himself. Sometimes it looked like folded sheets of paper, sometimes like the twisted planes of a mangled, multi-dimensional windmill. For all he knew, the design constituted the very apex of architectural perfection from an alien’s point of view.

“Yeah, maybe. If we could get closer, we’d know for sure.” The sudden eagerness in Tarasento’s voice was thinly-disguised. “It’d only take fifteen minutes there by EMU; less if I burned a little longer—”

“No, Jimmy. It’s too radioactive. You’d be dead in under ten minutes.”

“So? We’re picking up plenty of rads now, aren’t we? What difference is a few weeks going to make?”

“Forget the other ship.” Gehrke’s voice cut in abruptly on the open line. “I’ve found something.”

“What?”

“Slave your ’plants to the mainframe, and I’ll show you.”

Hallows obeyed, grateful for the interruption. The starfield through his visor immediately gave way to a symbolic representation of the probe’s reactivated computer network. The view resembled a scene from an Escher painting, with impossible angles and planes jutting out of a mottled grey valley. A Teutonian spear floated over the surreal landscape: Gehrke’s idiosyncratic icon.

“I was browsing through the d‑mat systems when I found it,” said the systems analyst. The spear guided Hallows down into the mainframe. “Here, here and here.” The spear stabbed at structures in the datafield. “This is what’s slowing up the ’frame.”

“What is it?” Tarasento’s question preempted Hallows’ own.

“One massive file, so large it’s swallowed all the available free memory, and then some. Parts of the core programming have been over-written. It’s not a virus, though. Someone deliberately put it there.”

“Does it have a name?”

“That’s the best bit. Look at this.” The spear dipped lower, into a rift in the massive structure, and came to rest pointing at a slab stamped with the brief message:

pearce 0114b4m11

“Pearce? He was one of Prosilis’ team, wasn’t he?”

“Spot on, Jimmy: he was. This file is all that’s left of him now.”

“It’s a message from him? Does he say what happened?”

“No, it’s not a message. It’s him.”

Tarasento’s sharp intake of breath was clearly audible over the radio. “Jesus.”

“The file is in standard holographic crypt,” Gehrke explained, “straight out of the d‑mat systems. He must have loaded himself into the capsule and sent the data into Saul–1’s mainframe rather than out into space. And here it is, jamming everything around it.”

“Can we download him?” asked Hallows. “Feed the file into the d‑mat systems and bring him back?”

“Maybe he can tell us what happened,” Tarasento added.

“We could try, when the shipments from Earth stop.” Gehrke didn’t sound too confident. “But I don’t think he’d thank us.”

Hallows silently agreed; tempting though it was, it would be cruel to resurrect the refitter before they had worked out a way to rescue him.

“Maybe later,” he said. “Keep digging, Roald. See what else you find. Let me know when you break into the comm system.”

“Will do.” Gehrke sounded tired. “I just thought you’d like to know what happened to another of our predecessors.”

“Yeah, thanks.”

“But if you come across any other corpses,” Tarasento added, “for God’s sake don’t tell me. I don’t want to know…”

Hallows found the graffiti on the third day. The probe, for all its sophistication and redundancies, lacked even something as simple as chalk or an ink pen. The message had been physically etched into an interior bulkhead twenty-three years earlier by one of the members of the first refit crew, and signed by them all:

Hi, guys and gals.

Leave the key under the mat when you leave!

—Chambers, Maxwell and Hartog.

An unknown time later, someone else had scribbled cryptically underneath:

The key is here, and the choice is yours.

Use it if you want to.

3:50.

The final ratio might have been a signature—although it was too short for an ident-code—or it might have been a time. Ten minutes to four? March, 2050? There was no way of knowing, without further clues.

Hallows stared at the words for at least five minutes before deciding not to tell the others. The first message was too depressing; the last meaningless. Either could be enough to drive a stake through what little remained of his crew’s morale.

After the discovery of the pearce file, he and Tarasento had argued over what to do with Prosilis’ body. Hallows had wanted to leave it where it was, but the younger man had expressed extreme discomfort at the thought of a corpse aboard the probe. What the three of them didn’t need was more stress, so Hallows had let Tarasento flush the body out of the drive shaft and into space, where it had vanished almost instantly into the distance.

No one had said anything, not even Gehrke. But the big systems analyst hadn’t needed to; Hallows could read his thoughts like a book: Go quick, go clean, and don’t leave a mess. In Gehrke’s personal opinion, Prosilis had been a sloppy bastard for leaving his body behind to torment later arrivals.

Hallows knew what Gehrke would do, perhaps sooner than later. The moment he convinced himself that there was no hope of rescue or escape: that would be the time he acted.

Part of him envied the systems analyst’s stubborn surety of mind. Hallows doubted he’d know what to do until the penultimate minute, when the air-processor in his suit winked red for the first and last time.

On the seventh day, Gehrke worked his way into the communication and navigation systems. Instantly he slaved the others to the mainframe and showed them what he had found.

“First things first,” he began. A week of non-stop work leant a thick edge to the systems analyst’s voice. “We’re a little light on the nanos; down by about ten percent optimum, although that’s correcting itself now we’ve set them replicating again. I don’t know why for certain—it might be something to do with the radiation—but there you have it.

“Secondly, there was an impact about a year before Lockley’s team arrived. Not large, but enough to shift course a fraction. It could have been a particle, although that seems unlikely; anything big enough to get through the vanes would probably have destroyed the probe entirely. Whatever it was, attitudes corrected the orientation of the probe and the reception dishes realigned themselves onto the incoming data from Earth. The transmit systems employed their tracking algorithms to relocate Sol. Within twelve hours all systems were back to normal.

“Thirdly…” Gehrke hesitated. “One year later, seventy-two hours after the arrival of Lockley and Co., the transmit dishes were deliberately sabotaged. Someone over-rode the automatics to point them off target, then erased the tracking algorithms. Why? Again, I don’t know, but whoever did it knew what they were doing. The algorithms are gone, and there’s no way of realigning the dishes correctly without them. We could point them in roughly the right direction, but Saul–1 can’t give us enough sustained power for a wide-beam transmission and a narrow beam could miss the receiving stations around Sol by millions of kilometres. So we really are stuck here.”

“But—”

“Let me finish, Jimmy.” Gehrke changed the view of the mainframe. “There are two more things. Pearce encrypted himself on the nineteenth day. Six days after that, someone fiddled with the research systems and commandeered LSM 14—one of the laser spectrometers.”

“Why?” asked Hallows.

“Your guess is good as mine, I’m afraid,” Gehrke sighed. “The obvious scenario, if you ignore the LSM, is that Lockley fucked up the dishes. Maybe he was a saboteur, or just plain crazy. Whatever. When the others realized what had happened, they did exactly what I’ve done. They broke into the comm and navigation systems to see what they could do, but failed to find a solution. So they gave up. They did the work they had come here for, then Prosilis killed himself and Pearce loaded himself into the ’frame to wait for someone to rescue him.”

“Where do the aliens fit in?” asked Tarasento.

“I don’t know. I can’t account for them at all.”

“And what happened to Lockley?” added Hallows.

“That’s where it really gets weird.” Gehrke’s spear-icon dipped into the mass of communications programs, selecting options too quickly for Hallows to follow. A virtual workbench appeared. “My first thought was that they threw him overboard, but that doesn’t make sense when you dig deeper into the core. For instance, this is the LSM’s control-window. Watch what happens when I enter a command.”

Words flashed across the window, but instantly disappeared. A brief message appeared in their place:

command over-ridden.

ready for transmission.

“‘Transmission’?” echoed Hallows. “Of what?”

“And over-ridden by whom?” Tarasento asked.

“By Lockley,” replied Gehrke. “He did this. He locked the LSM in place. Even if we wanted to, we couldn’t shift it.”

“What about manually?” Hallows asked.

“It’d only move back. And why would we want to anyway?”

“That depends on what it’s pointing at.”

Hallows could hear the shrug in Gehrke’s weary reply. “Nothing, as far as I can tell. Lockley, damn him, didn’t say.”

“How do you know it was Lockley?” Tarasento asked.

“He was the systems officer of the last crew, that’s how.”

“Then he must have known what he was doing.”

“Maybe, and maybe not—but he sure as hell wanted the laser to stay where it is. Just like he wanted to make sure we stayed here by erasing the tracking algorithms.”

“He did that, too?”

“Of course.”

“Why him?”

“What do you mean, ‘Why him?’ Who else could have done it? The goddamn aliens?”

“Why the fuck not? They must have been doing something before the others arrived—”

“Easy, you two.” Hallows leaned forward to study the words in the window, but the virtual image remained a constant distance from him. “Roald, can you give us a view of where the LSM is pointing?”

“I tried that, but—”

“Just do it.”

The window vanished. A red-shifted starscape took its place.

“Can you magnify that?”

“It’s already on full. To get a better look, we’d have to reorient the probe and use the forward sensors. And I don’t think Lockley would let us do that either, somehow.”

Hallows studied the stars for a long moment, searching for anything out of place. “I can’t see anything,” he finally said.

“That’s what I told you,” snapped Gehrke. “There’s nothing there. Nothing for hundreds of light years.”

“What about the wreck itself? Have we checked to see if it’s drifting? Maybe when Lockley aimed the laser, that’s what it was pointing at.”

“Maybe…” Gehrke grudgingly acknowledged the point. “I can find out.”

“Do that, Roald. And while you’re at it, check the status of the d‑mat systems. I want to make sure that, assuming we find a way to realign the dishes, we can leave. So much has been screwed up here I’m not willing to assume anything any more—except that we can’t give up yet.”

“Like Lockley did?” Tarasento broke in, his voice thin with strain. “He killed himself, just like the others.”

“Jimmy—”

“It’s obvious, isn’t it, Rod? The aliens fucked up the transmit dishes, and Lockley saved us the trouble of trying to save ourselves. Then he beamed himself nowhere, took the easy way out—”

“Not necessarily. I met Bill a couple of times back in the training centre. He didn’t seem the sort to give up and force us to do the same.”

“You don’t know that.”

“No, I don’t. But that’s what I believe.” Because I have to believe in something, he added to himself.

There was an empty pause, then:

“This is bullshit,” Tarasento said. “Count me out until you find some good news.”

There was no click as he disconnected, just deeper silence.

“He’s right, you know,” said Gehrke into the void. “We’re fucked.”

“Not yet.” Hallows disentangled himself from the mainframe. Gehrke sounded dangerously close to making his decision. “We’ll see what happens.”

“You really think Lockley had something up his sleeve?”

“Yes.”

“Then you’re as crazy as he was.”

Again, there was no indication that Gehrke had signed off, but Hallows could tell from the silence that he was on his own.

When he had finished the work that Gehrke’s announcement had interrupted, he wandered forward to the nose of the probe, where high-resolution dishes and scanners pointed with unceasing vigilance towards Eta Boötis.

Saul–1 was still on-course; Gehrke had ascertained as much on the first day. It was hard to believe that in a little less than eleven years the probe would become the first human-made artefact to circle the alien sun. Hallows couldn’t help but envy the seventh crew of refitters, who would at least have an historic view before dying. All he had seen was one unexplained alien hulk, tantalizingly out of reach. In its own way, that was worse than nothing; given time and the right equipment…

From where he sat, surrounded by the forward sensors, the craft wasn’t even visible, hidden as it was behind the bulk of the probe. He could understand Tarasento’s reluctance to accept the possibility that the aliens had little or nothing to do with their predicament. If they had to die, then it would be better to do so knowing they had played even a minor role in something as important as humanity’s first contact with an alien race.

Suddenly tired, he tethered himself to a nearby stanchion and let his arms and legs hang limp. Residual angular momentum rotated him slowly in the zero gravity until he was facing the carbon alloy of the probe’s skin. Steadying himself with one hand, he used his visor to magnify the scene in front of him. A swarm of barely visible silver dots crawled across a field of matte-black like time-lapse film of an insane night sky. Although the visor was not powerful enough to allow Hallows a detailed view of the individual motes’ activities, he could follow them well enough with his mind’s eye.

The reactivated nanomachines were scuttling through every crevice of the probe, repairing or building from scratch the equipment it needed to survive the six years until the next refit crew arrived. Most of their work was on the microscopic level: welding invisible fractures, realigning stanchions with inhuman accuracy, tracing every cable to ensure that the passage of data proceeded with perfect reliability. Gradually, however, a silver bubble would take shape at the probe’s mid-section: a variable fuel-tank designed to contain water beamed by d-mat from Earth years ago and due to arrive in the not-too-distant future. This would be the only obvious change the nanomachines left in their wake.

That point, however, was still some time away. First, they had to gather enough scrap material from which to weave the fabric required for the bubble. In an elaborate process, the nanomachines would ‘taste’ every item on the probe for macromolecular blocks mounted during manufacture. Everything identified as being necessary to the probe’s continued operation was ignored; that which had outlived its usefulness, on the other hand—or which didn’t possess the correct blocks, like space-dust—was disassembled, processed and recycled. In that way, the nanomachines could be entrusted to ensure that the probe would have the correct facilities when it needed them but not to devour it in the process.

Hallows had always found the nanomachines fascinating and not a little hypnotic to watch. Within minutes, his eyes were drifting closed. Before he even became aware of what was happening to him, he was asleep.

He dreamed—

—of himself, standing at one end of an Olympic swimming-pool. His task was to throw a dart at either of two targets; the choice of which was his to make. As he stood on the concrete lip of the pool, weighing up the decision, he suddenly realized that the choice was obvious: not the target at the far end of the pool, but the one floating in the water less than a car’s-length away…

An unknown time later, the ambient noise in his ears rose slightly and triggered his space-worker’s reflexes. Someone had joined him on the open line. He awoke instantly.

“Who’s there?”

“It’s me, Rod. Did I disturb you?”

“That’s okay, Jimmy.” He blinked, and pressed his gloved hands to the visor—a poor substitute for actually rubbing his eyes. Something about the dream nagged at the back of his mind, but eluded him when he tried to recall it. With an effort, he forced himself to concentrate on what Tarasento was saying.

“I just wanted to tell you that I’m sorry about before,” Tarasento continued. “I lost my head for a moment.”

Hallows sighed. “To be honest, I sympathize with what you’re feeling.”

“But that doesn’t excuse it. There’s no need to go off half-cocked. We’ve still got work to do.”

“I know.” The dedication to duty, which had been drummed into them during training, remained surprisingly strong even in the face of their situation. “That’s why I think Lockley knew what he was doing. He was trying to help us as well as himself.”

“So why didn’t he leave a note?”

“Well, for a start, there’s nothing to write with—and I guess he didn’t want to take up space on the mainframe. With Pearce already on every spare terabyte, to leave any sort of message would require removing bits of his friend.” Hallows swallowed, dismayed by the mental image his words evoked. “Or maybe he was just running low on air.”

Tarasento mulled this over. “I guess it doesn’t matter why. He must have done what he did for a reason—the transmit dishes, the LSM, everything. He didn’t want us fucking it up.”

“So the LSM must be pointing at something.”

“I agree. But what?”

“That’s the problem. There’s nothing out here but us.”

“And the aliens.” Tarasento clicked his tongue. “I decided to do a little research myself. The telemetry data isn’t restricted any more, and it wasn’t hard to get at. Has Roald told you yet that the ship is drifting?”

Hallows didn’t reply immediately. “No, he hasn’t.”

“Well, it is. Not much, but enough. Six years ago, when Lockley and the others arrived, it was less than fifty metres away.”

“Really?”

“No doubt about it. And there’s more. Do you want to know where it came from?”

“Tell me.”

“From nowhere, that’s where. It appeared out of the blue. No acceleration, no matching vectors, no jockeying for position—just hey presto, here we are.” Tarasento took a deep breath. “I don’t know about you, but I find that more than a little scary.”

Hallows nodded to himself. It was scary, implying a level of technology far above that of Earth. He knew of no physical process that allowed an independent object as large as the ship hanging off Saul–1’s bow to appear and disappear at will; d‑mat, magical though it sometimes seemed, was confined to small volumes and required a receiving station. Even supposing that the ship’s sudden appearance had been a trick of camouflage and not a genuine matter-transportation, it was still incredible.

Yet somehow the aliens had managed it. And maybe that explained what had nudged Saul–1 off-course before the arrival of Lockley and the others. An aftershock perhaps, a ripple through tortured space-time…

“Jesus, Roald!” Tarasento’s startled cry cut across Hallows’ thoughts like a red-hot knife. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”

“Jimmy?” Hallows tensed automatically. “What’s going on?”

“Get over here, Rod! It’s Roald—I think he’s going to jump!”

Hallows was instantly moving, up and out of the forward bay and onto the spine of the probe, with Tarasento’s laboured breath pulling him onward. Gehrke, if he heard, said nothing.

“Where are you, Jimmy?”

“Sector C13. Hurry!”

Hallows cursed and tried to make his hands move faster. C13 was on the far side of the probe, towards the rear. Swinging from handhold to handhold, he tugged himself around the body of the probe. When he reached the far side, he caught his first glimpse of what was going on.

Gehrke was ‘running’ along the probe—kicking himself off every available surface—heading rapidly towards the end. Silhouetted against the stars ahead of him, with his arms outstretched, stood Tarasento.

“Jimmy!” Hallows shouted, unnecessarily loud, into the radio. “Get out of the way! Let him go if he wants to!”

“No! He can’t!”

Gehrke still said nothing, and Hallows guessed that his radio was off. With one mighty kick off an outflung girder, the systems analyst reached half-way. The gap between him and the younger man narrowed rapidly.

Hallows was too far behind to catch up. All he could do was watch as Tarasento attached a line to the probe and launched himself to meet Gehrke head-on.

The two men collided messily, then rebounded along a new course away from the probe’s outer skin. Tarasento wrapped his limbs around Gehrke in a clumsy but effective zero-g tackle. The systems analyst fought back, striking Tarasento once in the stomach and making him grunt. The younger man hung on, refusing to let his crew-mate go so easily.

Hallows came to a halt by the anchor of Tarasento’s lifeline. For a moment he considered going out to help the younger man subdue the older, but decided against it. There was no point risking the three of them if something went wrong—and possibly no point at all in the long-run.

The struggle was one-sided. Gehrke, with superior size and strength in his favour, eventually freed himself from Tarasento’s embrace. He didn’t just push his assailant aside, however; he placed his feet squarely on the younger man’s chest, and kicked.

The sudden delta-v sent the two men flying apart. Gehrke arrowed up and past Saul–1, heading rapidly for the stars. Tarasento angled down and away, in the rough direction of the alien ship. As Gehrke passed behind the probe’s body, Hallows saw the systems analyst’s EMU flare, adding to his already considerable velocity.

“Jimmy?” Hallows tried to keep his voice level as Gehrke vanished into the distance. “Are you okay?”

“Fine, but—Jesus, I almost had him.”

“That’s okay. You did your best.”

“No. I should’ve—”

Tarasento jerked abruptly to halt as he reached the limit of his lifeline. The tether snapped taut, then just as suddenly went limp again. A scream of escaping air in Hallows’ ears deafened him. The grey-suited figure at the end of the line seemed to dance, clutching at the place where the tether had ripped free. Hallows tugged at the cable with both hands, but there was no resistance.

“Jimmy!” he shouted. “Jimmy, answer me!”

There was no reply. The explosive scream gradually faded to a whistle, then died altogether. A moment later, Tarasento’s dance slowed to a halt.

“Jimmy?”

Only silence answered.

Hallows watched, impotent, as the grey-suited figure tumbled end-over-end into the void. After several long minutes, it became apparent that it would miss the dark shadow of the alien hulk, although not by much. Hallows didn’t move until it had done so. And when it had finally vanished, he did the only thing he could do: he turned his back on the stars and went back to work.

“I’m sorry,” said Gehrke, some time later. “That wasn’t supposed to happen.”

Hallows jumped at the unexpected voice in his ears, but recovered quickly. “You stupid son of a bitch.”

“Not stupid.” The systems analyst sounded calm, resigned; the reception from his suit crackled with static but was clear enough. “Just tired of waiting.”

Hallows shook his head, rage and grief still burning in his gut. “You could have waited a little longer, couldn’t you? Until he was asleep, at least. I would have let you go; you know that.”

“I know. But I thought he was on the far side. He was meant to be installing some nanos in the drive shaft. He should never have seen me like that. He wasn’t supposed to be there, staring up at that damned ship like…” Gehrke stopped, swallowed audibly. “I guess it doesn’t matter now, anyway.”

“You killed him,” said Hallows. “That matters to me.”

“We’re all dead, Rod. I did him a favour.”

Hallows shook his head in frustration.

“You still believe you’re going to make it?” Gehrke asked.

“Yes.”

“Then you’re as crazy as I am.” Gehrke’s laugh was bitter. “As crazy as Lockley.”

“Lockley wasn’t crazy—but if it makes you feel better believing that, go right ahead.” Hallows waited for more mocking laughter, but it didn’t come. “Just tell me one thing, Roald: what made you do it?”

For a moment, it seemed as though Gehrke wouldn’t reply. When he eventually spoke, his voice was tired and empty. “After I discovered what Lockley had done, I took a closer look at the pearce file.”

“And?”

Saul–1’s mainframe isn’t anywhere near large enough to store an entire human being in crypt, and Lockley knew it. So he didn’t try to save the lot, only the bits that mattered.”

Hallows swallowed. “How much is there?”

“A couple of kilos.” Gehrke paused for effect. “His head.

“And there’s one other thing you should know,” Gehrke said when Hallows had absorbed the gruesome truth. “Lockley didn’t just screw up the tracking algorithms on the transmit dishes. He fiddled with the core programming. Everything installed to deal solely with human survival went first, mainly to make room for his buddy. The only things he left untouched were the guidance and maintenance systems. He obviously wanted to make damned sure Saul–1 arrived safely, whether it was occupied or not.

“One of the files he tampered with but didn’t erase is the self-destruct program.”

Hallows could understand that. “I guess he thought one of us might blow the probe out of spite, to take it with us.”

“You’re missing the point, Rod. The program’s still there. It’s just different.”

“How?”

Again Gehrke hesitated. “Maybe you should try it for yourself, Rod. See what happens.”

Hallows didn’t respond, reluctant to take the suggestion seriously. Hitting the self-destruct went against everything he stood for, and for all he knew Gehrke had only brought it up to torture him. But if Lockley had changed the program somehow, then once again it must have been for a reason. Everything—the transmit dishes, the graffiti, the LSM, the self-destruct program, even the alien ship itself—all had to fit together somehow.

“Roald—”

“No, Rod, you’re right,” said the systems analyst. “It does matter. But I’ve found my leap of faith, and you’ll find yours eventually. Maybe we’ll both get what we want, or what we deserve, in the end.”

The line went dead, and Hallows was alone.

Alone on a human-made probe, twenty-two light years from home, with nothing but ghosts for company.

As time passed, Hallows focused less and less on the four dead men—Prosilis, Pearce, Tarasento and Gehrke—and devoted himself entirely to his work. If he thought about any of the other refitters, it was Lockley who came to mind, or the men and women in the refit crews following his: Ngo, Maschmedt and Lontis; Schumacher, Valente and Gill. The dead were dead; only the living mattered.

Hours blurred into days with as few breaks for rest as he could stand. Through the fog of exhaustion, his personal problems faded into insignificance, allowing him a fragile clarity of thought focused on the refit systems under his care. Only during his infrequent rest breaks did he spend time tracing Gehrke’s steps through the mainframe.

The first thing he did was study the communications and d‑mat systems—trying not to think about Pearce’s remains as he did so. Yes, the transmit dishes had drifted from their proper target; no, they couldn’t be realigned without the proper algorithms. The transmission beam was a maser signal with an infinitesimally small rate of dispersal; even so, by the time the beam reached Earth it would have expanded in width from a pencil-thin beam to a cone large enough to cover the entire Lunar disc. Even then the dispersal rate was too low to give him much chance of striking the target. If he spread the beam wider, at the expense of signal-strength, then his chances of hitting the receivers improved. But with a wide enough dispersal to give him good odds of hitting Sol System and only the probe’s tiny reactor behind it, the signal reaching Earth would be undetectable above the Universe’s background radiation.

Twenty-two light years amounted to over two hundred trillion kilometres. It was too far, too great a distance to gamble his life across. No mere human could relocate Earth with the required precision once the transmit dishes had been shifted from their proper orientation.

Five days passed before he abandoned that line of pursuit. It hadn’t told him anything he didn’t already know. And what did it matter, anyway? The survival of the refitters made little difference to the probe’s mission. Unless the other Saul probes had suffered similar catastrophes, the target star would one day soon be surveyed by humans, and that was the main thing.

Perhaps, he wondered, it would be better to follow Gehrke’s last words of advice and try the self-destruct program. If the systems analyst had been lying, and the program functioned as normal, it offered a swift alternative to a lingering death—not only for him, but for the refitters still on their way. And if it didn’t, then he might learn something more about Lockley’s intentions.

But he wasn’t quite ready to take that final step; not until he had exhausted every possible avenue of thought. If the Earth was too distant, then a closer target had to be found… And if he solved this one small mystery, then and only then would he assume that Lockley knew what he was doing and had changed the self-destruct program for the better.

On the twenty-second day, Hallows cued his priority planner for the next task and was told: “All Tasks Complete”. He stared blankly at the three words for a long while before truly comprehending what they meant. Then he crawled behind a blanket of matte-grey polymer and slept for eighteen hours.

When he awoke, his mind was clear and fixed on the sole remaining task. He had two days left in which to leave the probe; or, failing that, to die. The only oxygen reserve on the probe was that contained within his suit, and he lacked the resources to reprogram the nanomachines to provide another.

Abandoning his earlier explorations, he turned to the commandeered LSM. When operating normally, the high-energy laser fired a short burst of coherent light in a tightly-focused beam once every hundredth of a microsecond. Its programming had been altered, however, to allow it to pulse less frequently—ten times per microsecond—and at roughly double the output. While it would ordinarily have been aimed at a planet or an asteroid, or some other item of space debris to be analyzed, it now pointed into deep space almost directly behind the probe. And Lockley—if it had indeed been him—had made sure that it would stay put.

But why? Hallows grappled with this question for several hours. The transmit and d‑mat systems could be re-routed to the LSM, but its output was far too weak to reach Earth with any useful power-level. At the LSM’s low frequency, it would take years for a full human to be transmitted. Why would Lockley go to so much trouble to sabotage the transmit dishes only to replace them later with a poor second best?

After studying the LSM’s target for what felt like an eternity, he was forced to admit that his first impression had been correct. It wasn’t pointing at anything, as far as he could tell. There was nothing within range of the LSM, not even the aliens.

Nothing visible anyway…

As he lay back in the relative shelter offered by one of the interior bulkheads, his eye was caught again by the graffiti etched into the metal.

“The key is here,” someone had written. Lockley himself? If so, why so cryptic? “Use it if you want to.”

Hallows stiffened unconsciously in his suit. There was something behind the probe. Something that had been designed to detect emissions from the laser spectrometers aboard Saul–1. Something which, while not able to actually decode the d-transmissions broadcast by the LSM, was perfectly placed to act as a relay…

Saul–2 had been launched one year behind its sister-craft. That put it roughly one and a quarter light years away. And 1.25 light years was only twelve trillion kilometres.

The distance was still too big, too daunting, but when expressed as a ratio against the only alternative, it suddenly seemed a whole lot better, solving the mystery not only of Hallows’ dream but of the numbers ending the brief note:

3:50.

To make Saul–2 even more attractive, at this stage in its journey it maintained a fixed distance from Saul–1 and was oriented in a direction that had been preordained by Control decades ago. All he had to do was calculate the position of Saul–2 using the navigation systems, point the LSM, and…

Leap.

Gehrke’s choice of phrase couldn’t have been more apt. There was no way to know if Saul–2 was in its proper position. Likewise, he could only hope that its forward detectors were fully functioning and able to detect the laser pulses from its sibling. If it too had lost contact with Earth, then the telemetry data containing those pulses would be as lost as a d-mat transmission from Saul–1. Or if it did arrive and Program Control failed to realize that the pulses encoded a d-mat transmission, or ignored them as a glitch in the data…

There was only one way to find out.

Crawling from the innards of the probe, he tugged his way forward to the manual over-rides and called up the self-destruct program.

“Surprise,” said Lockley. “If you were expecting a quick, clean death, whoever you are, then you’re going to be disappointed.”

The image appeared, via his implants, in Hallows’ left eye—presumably recorded by one of the probe’s visible light scanners. Lockley’s face looked shrunken behind his visor, his eye-sockets hollow and lips white. Two of his upper teeth had fallen out. Tufts of hair stuck in places to the visor itself, resembling hairline fractures in the transparent plastic. All in all, Hallows thought, Lockley appeared to have aged a hundred years since they had last met—which, relative to him, had been only a few weeks ago.

“You’ll have to excuse me if I ramble a little,” Hallows’ predecessor continued. “I’m dying, you see. The rad counters went berserk a week ago, and the aliens haven’t been back since. I guess that means the nanos did their job, although they’ve almost killed me in the process too…” Lockley stopped, shook his head to clear it. “But I’m getting ahead of myself. Forgive me, please. There’s so much I have to say, and I keep forgetting what should come first.

“If you haven’t worked it out by now, I’ve rigged LSM 14 to transmit the d‑mat signal normally broadcast through the transmit dish. As soon as I finish this message, I’ll enter the d‑mat cage and begin the process. I guess you might have noticed that the d‑mat buffer is off-limits too, along with the targeting program of the LSM.” Hallows automatically shook his head; Gehrke hadn’t picked that up. “Well, that’s why. There’s only just enough buffer memory in the d‑mat to hold me until the LSM has finished transmitting to Saul–2, and I don’t want you taking Steve Pearce’s way out and robbing someone else of the chance to escape.

“My best guess says it’ll take about eighteen and a half months to down-load me—and the same applies to you, of course. That means that if there are two of you left, only one can live. You can rig the other LSMs if you like, or try something else, but there’s no way to transmit one full human back to Earth in less than four weeks, which is the most time you have.

“I’m sorry, but that’s the best I can do.”

Lockley paused to swallow. One hand rubbed at the neck of his suit as though he desperately wanted to scratch himself.

“As for the rest… I don’t really know where to start. They were here, on the probe, when I arrived. The aliens, I mean. Five of them, and big sons of bitches too; like machines with dozens of limbs growing out of a central structure that looked like a cross between a tractor and a…I don’t know what. Folded up they were about two metres round; at full-stretch they could reach ten metres. How they communicated among themselves, I don’t know. When we tried to talk to them, they just ignored us. We weren’t even worth killing for all the times we got in their way. They just let us roam freely, watching everything they did. I don’t think that means they were stupid, though. We were simply beyond their experience, as alien to them as they were to us.

“They must have been studying the probe for about a year before we arrived, if the telemetry data is right. Their ship was right on top of us—and it was huge. Bigger than a small moon. But they still hadn’t cracked the mainframe. That bothers me, even now. How they could build a ship like theirs without technology advanced enough to make ours look like child’s-play is beyond me. But somehow they did. It wasn’t until shortly after we stepped out of the airlock that they guessed what the d‑mat cage was for.

“We took them by surprise; that I do know. We mightn’t have been interesting enough on our own, but our arrival caused quite a stir. Another three joined them poking around the d‑mat bay. Eventually they worked out how to activate it. And it was only then I decided we had to do something.

“The aliens started sending things—weird little bundles of machines in nets, wrapped tight to keep them from drifting—back to Program Control. Whatever they were, they made my skin crawl. The aliens had their hands on a direct route to Earth, and anything they sent along it would arrive unchallenged. Maybe the bundles contained bombs, self-replicating AIs, or God only knows what. I couldn’t take the risk that by standing aside and letting them do it I’d be putting my friends back home in danger.

“So that’s why I killed the d‑mat.”

Lockley stopped, and sighed. “Maybe it was a mistake. Prosilis thought it was. When he found out what I’d done, he went crazy. Cried for about four hours straight. Then he went down to the drive shaft, where he could see Sol, and opened his suit.

“That left me and Steve. He wasn’t too happy about it either, but could see my point. We decided that the best thing to do was to attempt to communicate with the aliens again and work our way onward from there. If they turned out to be friendly, then maybe they could help us. If they didn’t, then we’d done the right thing. I for one would die gladly knowing that I’d saved everyone back home.

“It was a good plan, but the aliens didn’t want any of it. They ignored us as they had before. When they realized that something had interrupted the d‑mat program, they unloaded more equipment from the big ship and wrapped it around the probe. It looked like a finely-spun mohair rug connected to a larger version of themselves. When it touched the probe, it began to spread, sending little fibres into everything. Searching.

“It took me a while to guess what they were doing. Almost too long, in fact. They were trying to find the mainframe core. Luckily it’s deep inside the probe, and it took time before they even got close—long enough to counter-attack. There was no way I was going to sit back and let them take over Saul–1.

“The nanos were inactive when we arrived, awaiting our instructions. With the aliens aboard and everything, none of us had got around to starting them up. But that’s all it took. Once they began to work, it didn’t take long.”

Lockley paused again, allowing Hallows’ imagination to fill in the gaps. The nanomachines, hungry for raw material, would have attacked the alien metal instantly—digging in, extracting what they needed, reproducing, and then moving on. Once a handful had crossed the gap between the probe and the alien ship, they would have eaten forever, until the entire vessel was consumed.

Except that something had obviously overloaded—maybe the engines or the power generator—thereby killing the nanos in a single wave of hard radiation.

Too late for the aliens, though. And not just the ones on their crippled ship, it seemed, as Lockley continued:

“I watched one of them decay. As the nanos dug in, exposing layer after layer, its internal structure appeared. Not that I could understand much. Beneath the skin they were almost uniformly white, with tangles of fibres that might have been muscles or nerves; a cross-hatched tubular skeletal structure, not the solid supporting bones we have; no obvious brain, just as they had no obvious leader… They looked like they were made of bleached, fibrous wood, like some sort of organic robot.

“Anyway, whatever they were, they’re gone now. After they died, Pearce and I managed to complete the schedule and set the nanos to repair where the aliens had damaged Saul–1. We also rigged the LSM to transmit the d‑mat data back to Saul–2. If Control picks up the signal via the other probe’s forward sensors—which they should do—then they can decode it at their leisure. Assuming, of course, that there’s any Control left by then. God only knows what the things the aliens sent through will have done.

“I’m running out of time and air, so I’ll have to keep this brief. I loaded Pearce into the mainframe as soon as we realized there was no way both of us could go. I’d like to rig some sort of time-delay program to send him once I’ve gone, but that’ll take too long. Hopefully someone else will do that later. Whatever you do, please don’t erase him. Remember: he’s one of only two humans left in the universe to have seen an alien being. And I don’t think we’ll get another chance. Their ship will drift away eventually, or keep on going as the probe reaches Eta-B. Wherever they came from, we’ll probably never find them again. They’ll have to find us

“Lastly, there’s no room left on the mainframe for this message, so I’ve decided to put it in place of the self-destruct program. The file will be almost identical in size—and it seems appropriate, anyway. If you can’t work out for yourself what I’ve done, and you decide to kill yourself this way, then at least this gives you a chance to reconsider. But I guess the real reason why I’m not leaving an obvious message is because taking the LSM back home is risky. I’m already humanity’s first alien-killer; I don’t want human deaths to my credit as well. My only advice to you is, don’t destroy the probe. Saul–1 deserves to make it to the end of its journey, even if we don’t. The old thing has been through a lot.

“If I haven’t changed your mind, then rambling on isn’t going to help. Suffice it to say that I’m not going to let you blow all my dreams to dust with the flick of a switch. You’re going to have to work a lot harder than that…”

Lockley ground to a halt, stared at the scanner for a good minute, then nodded to himself.

“The choice is yours, whoever-you-are, and yours alone. This is Chris Lockley, supervisor of the fourth refit crew for Saul–1, ident code 7760R8T00, signing off.”

The recording finished and Lockley’s tortured image faded from Hallows’ field of vision. He sat staring into space for a long while before moving along Saul–1 to the aft end, where Prosilis’ body had once kept watch over the distant star that was Sol, and where the sabotaged dish now pointed nowhere in particular.

Tarasento had been right. The aliens had played a more pivotal role in the drama than Gehrke had surmised. Why, though, they had failed to recognize Lockley’s attempts to communicate with them remained a mystery. Hallows could think of one possible explanation: that the aliens had been a communal mind, maybe of machine origins, possessing no centralized ‘brain’. If so, they might not have realized that humans could constitute intelligent beings in their own right. Furthermore, as the nanos had eaten their way through the alien ship and its crew, the aliens’ gestalt intelligence would have decreased, until perhaps it no longer possessed the ability to think rationally. That would explain why they had not resisted the invasion. And perhaps, also, why they had failed at first to comprehend the existence of the mainframe; they themselves had no need for such a thing. If society had imitated nature in the aliens’ case, then science may well have done so too.

Why, then, no nanomachines of their own? Maybe the individual units of the alien mind had been just that, but on a larger scale. A mind large enough to comprehend a means of independent mass-transportation would have to be huge, at least in capacity, just as the alien ship had been. If it worked on a larger scale than humans, then nanoscopic technology may have seemed irrelevant to it.

Or else the concept was simply alien to them, just as their actions had seemed alien to Lockley and the others. Perhaps they had been simple explorers themselves, differing from the probe only in design and origin.

Even among such grand-scale speculations, Hallows hadn’t missed one other ramification of Lockley’s speech: Gehrke must have viewed the recording. His reason for jumping had been more than simply to kill himself. He had either been afraid of the LSM method of transmission, or trying to reduce the numbers.

“If there are two of you left,” Lockley had said, “only one can live…” And if there were three, the choice became doubly difficult.

But now Hallows was on his own. Jimmy Tarasento’s accidental death had been fortuitous in that respect. Hallows had only to decide whether or not to take Lockley’s risky route off the probe. His one alternative was to beam himself out the transmit dish—to take the easy way out, as Tarasento himself had put it. The choice truly was his, and his alone.

But there was still one thing left to do before Hallows had to decide.

Sniffing cautiously, he tested the air of his suit. Despite the stink of twenty-five days of him, it still satisfied his lungs. He had about twenty-four hours left before he was out of time—and all the resources of the probe at his disposal. Radiation shielding was precious, but he figured it wouldn’t be too difficult to rig some sort of teleoperated camera and a primitive EMU. Tarasento would have wanted him to try.

Even if he couldn’t, and he decided not to take the risk himself, he had at least a day left to ponder the view.

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