A. ALIEN SHIP


1

MISSION

Martin asked,  “Bea, are you still working on reports about the Federation?”

“Yes.  Why?”

“Have you said what’s done when an alien ship is found?”

“No.  I hadn’t thought of it.”

“An agent called Tettat is asking urgently for someone for a mission to salvage an alien ship.  He called it a hulk.”

“A hulk?”  I thought I knew what he meant, but I had to check.

“A hulk is a ship, usually a damaged one, with no life on board.”

“Does it have dead bodies?”

“I don’t know.  Tettat didn’t give details.  But, even if it has dead bodies,  you needn’t go near them.  Do you want to go?”

“Y…yes.  I think so.”

“It’s up to you.  When I contacted Tettat, he said he’d keep a place for you, but they’re almost ready to leave, from a planet called Adjan 14.  You’ll have to go immediately.”

“I… I’ll go.  I’m not sure I’ll enjoy it all, but I ought to report it.  Should I take anything?”

“No.  They’ll supply everything you need.”

2

TAKE-OFF

Tettat was waiting for me in the Adjan 14 communication centre.  He said,  “Come quickly.  The salvage ship is ready to take off.  I’ll leave the team members to brief you during the flight.”

He took me out to the spaceport, to the control room of an ordinary-looking planet-hopper, where the team were waiting.  I’ll list them now, and describe them later.
Elizana, the Pilot, rank 465.
Larry-W, a Negotiator, rank 278.
Posson, a Scientist, rank 447.
Svet-Jingo, another Scientist, rank 299.

My rank was 617.  That meant I was in command of the team – without knowing anything about the job.  Tettat rubbed it in.  “Here’s your commander, folks.”  Larry-W was amused, Svet-Jingo was annoyed, and I sensed nothing from Elizana and Posson.

I said,  “Wait!  I’ve never been on a mission like this.  I….”

“Don’t worry,”  said Tettat.  “The others know what to do.  They’ll keep you right.”  Before I could say any more, he was outside, with the door shut.

“Ready to go?” asked Elizana, the Pilot.

I said,  “I’d better explain.  I’m working on reports about the Federation.  When I was offered the chance of seeing what happens when an alien ship is found, I took it.  I had no idea I would be mission commander.  What do you expect me to do?”

Elizana smiled.  “Nothing.  Watch if you want.  Federation rules state that a salvage team must have five members, but you won’t have anything to do on this trip.  Think of it as a holiday.  Now may we leave?

“Is there any reason why we shouldn’t?”

“No.  We’ve been ready for 5%, waiting for you.”

“I’m sorry.  I came straight here as soon as I heard of the trip.  If you’re ready, we can go.”

Elizana gave orders to the ship’s terminal of Victor, the Federation computer, and I felt the twist inside, showing we’d taken off.  Posson and Svet-Jingo had already disappeared, and Larry-W was lounging on a settee, watching me with a half-smile on his face.

3

AN ARK

I asked Elizana,  “Do you have a picture of the alien ship?”

“Yes.  Victor, let’s see the picture of the hulk.”  She commented,  “It looks an old one.”

I knew what she meant.  The ship was a dark grey block with rounded corners, a point at one end, and lots of holes – jets – at the other.  I could see why they called it a hulk.  The surface was dotted with black spots – holes made by meteorites.

I asked,  “How big is it?”

“The length is about 850 metres, and the body is about 300 metres square.”

“850 metres!  I didn’t realise it would be so big.”

“It’s about average, as hulks go.”

“Do you know where it came from?”

“No.  When we reach it, Victor may be able to tell us.  He can calculate its line of flight.”

“Where was it going?”

“We may learn that when we go inside.  It’s big enough to be an ark.”

“An ark?  Does that mean it has people in it?”

“Deaders, maybe.”

“Deaders?”

She laughed.  “I should explain.  An ark may be in space for a long time – much longer than the lifetimes of the people in it.”

I nodded.  I knew that.

“They have two ways of overcoming that problem.  They can make the ark like a little world, with living people, producing new generations.”

“That’s what they did in the Wanderer,”  I said.  “We were sent to check it out.”

“Then you’ll know about that.  We call them breathers.  In other arks, the people are in suspended animation.  Do you know what that means?”

“I think so.  Their life is stopped, but it can be started again.”

“That’s what they hope, anyway.  It’s easy to stop someone’s life; it’s not so easy to restart it, although it has been done.  We call them sleepers.”

“Sleepers,”  I repeated.  “They must be brave.  I wouldn’t like to be put to sleep like that, knowing I might not ever waken.”

“Yes.  In most arks, the people don’t survive.  The breathers catch a fatal disease, or quarrel among themselves and kill each other off.  Sleepers are left for so long that they never revive.  We call them deaders.”

“Could there be breathers or sleepers in that ship?”

“Breathers – no chance.  Sleepers – one in a thousand.  Look at it.  If only one of those meteorite holes goes through the hull, the air will have escaped from at least part of the ship.  Even if it hasn’t, the thing must be too old to have survivors.  Victor, estimate the age of that hulk.”

“That is impossible without further data.”

“Make a guess.”

“Judging by the number of meteorite holes, it cannot be less than 50 000 years old.  That depends on the number of meteorites in the space it has travelled.”

“50 000 years, Bea,”  said Elizana.  “Do you think sleepers could survive that long?”

“I don’t know.  I suppose it’s not likely.”

“Believe me, it’s not.  It may not be an ark at all.  It may be a cargo ship that’s gone astray.”

“How was it discovered?”

“The robot observatory on Adjan 35 spotted it, shooting past.”

“Shooting past?  I’d forgotten it’s moving.  How fast?”

“About two thousand kilometres per hour.  That’s not fast, when you have space to cross.”

“How will you catch it?”

“We’ll hop as near as possible in 4D, then use the grav drive.”

“How long will it take?”

“Not long.  You’ll be back in Adjan 14 by the evening.”

4

THE SHIP

I said,  “You’ve done this before, Elizana.”

“Yes.”  She smiled.  “Several times.”

“Fourteen, to be exact,”  commented Larry-W.  “But that’s nothing to old Posson.  This is his thirty-first trip.  I’m a new boy.  This is only my fourth.”

“I hope I can speak to you all during the trip,”  I said.  “I’d be grateful if you could tell me what you do in the team.”

“As little as possible, miss,”  said Larry-W.

Elizana said,  “You shouldn’t admit that to the commander, Larry.”

“She doesn’t mind,”  he said.  “Do you, miss?”  Was he testing me, wondering if I was going to give him a lot of orders?

I said,  “As long as you do your work.”

“What work?”  He stood.  He was tall, and rather fat.  His head seemed small for his body.  He said,  “I’ll drift now.  Be seeing you, miss.”

Elizana said,  “Before you go, Larry, would you show Bea round the ship?  Tell her which cabin she can use.”

“Sure.  Come along, miss.”  He kept calling me ‘miss’, but he was just making fun, so I ignored it.

As we went down the passage at the right of the ship, Larry touched the doors.  “Elizana’s cabin.  Old Posson’s cabin.  My cabin.  Svet-Jingo’s cabin.”

Then we were in the entrance hall, which was full of boxes and drums, except for a gap along the front.  Larry said,  “That’s Posson’s robots and stuff.”

I asked,  “Have you ever seen a ship, an alien ship, that had live people?”

Larry shook his head.  “It’s mostly junk we collect.  I’ve seen two unmanned probes, and a cargo ship that was hit by a meteorite.  My last job was a small ship, with four deaders.  I reckon this one’s an ark, but all that’s in it’s deaders.  You’ve seen it.”

We went into the passage at the other side of the entrance hall.  At the first bay, he said,  “Old Posson’s store.”  The shelves were crammed with tools and boxes.

I asked,  “What’s his job?”

“He’s the engineer, miss.  The next bay has Svet-Jingo’s stuff.  She’s our medic.”  Its shelves were also packed with boxes and gadgets.

The next room had a door.  Larry cleared his throat, and announced,  “The commander’s cabin.”

I couldn’t help smiling.  “Thank you.  Do you have a regular commander?”

“Not really.  It’s supposed to be Tettat’s job, but he slimes out when he can find some other mug to do it.  Usually it’s some poor, stupid junior Administrator.  After one mission, they go straight back to their comfortable offices, and we never see them again.  This is the dining room.”  It was at the end of the passage, opposite the control room door.  We’d reached the end of the tour.

I said,  “Thanks, Larry.”  I wished I could think of a clever way of hinting I wasn’t a junior Administrator.

He said,  “Not at all, miss.  Glad to oblige my new commander.  Now, if you don’t need me any more, I’ll drift.”

“Go ahead.  If you don’t mind, I’ll speak to you later.”

“Yeah, sure.”  He slouched off, into the control room.

I called after him,  “You forgot something.”

He turned with a frown.  “What’s that?”

I said,  “Miss.”

He grinned.  “Sorry, miss.”

I went into my cabin, shut the door, and sat on the bunk.  Like the rest of the ship, the room looked worn, but clean and tidy.

What had I done?  I’d accidentally become commander of this mixed team, sent to investigate an unknown ship.  Since I knew nothing of the job, perhaps I ought to pass command to Elizana.  But I don’t like taking orders from someone else, especially a stranger.  So I decided I would simply let Elizana get on with the job.

I sighed.  When I agreed to this trip, I hoped to gain experience.  I was certainly doing that.

5

ELIZANA

I took a moment to relax in the cabin, then returned to the control room, where Elizana was alone, leaning back in the command chair, watching Victor’s screen.  When I appeared, she immediately said,  “Victor, sleep.”

“I’m sorry,”  I said.  “I didn’t mean to disturb you.”

She smiled.  “Forget it.  I was watching that movie for the fourth time.  I’d much rather have a live conversation.”

“Larry said your fifth team member is usually a junior Administrator.  Does that mean you command these missions?”

“Yeah.  It’s Tettat’s job to organise the team.  We have four regular members, but he’s never managed to find a fifth.  He doesn’t care who does it, as long as it’s not Tettat.  I’m sorry; I’m not crediting you with much intelligence.”

“It’s all right,”  I said.  “As I told you, I thought I was coming to watch you at work.  I hope you’ll go on with the job as if I’m not here.”

“Thanks for making it clear.  If we hit any problems I’ll be glad of your advice.  But that won’t happen.”

“Do you enjoy the job?”

“Well, it’s a change.”

“A change?  Don’t you do it all the time?”

“No.  This kind of salvage is not a full-time job.  They don’t find stray hulks every day.  I used to be a long-haul pilot.  It’s a hard and boring job, but the money’s good.  I’ve saved enough.  With what I make from these salvage jobs, I can live comfortably.”

“Er… Elizana, could you tell me what a long-haul pilot does?  I’d like to include that in my report.”

She did that, but I’ll make it a separate report.

6

POSSON

While Elizana was talking, Posson ambled across the room, giving us a grin.  When she finished, she asked,  “Do you want to ask Posson about his job?”

“Yes.  If I have a chance.”

“You can catch him now.  He’s gone for something to eat before he starts work.”

“I don’t want to annoy him.”

“If you annoy him, he’ll soon tell you.  He should be done by now.”

Doubtfully, I went through to the dining room, where Posson was lounging at the table behind a lot of dirty plates, with a mug in his hand.  He was a small man, who looked as if he hadn’t shaved, or combed his hair, for several days.  His Scientist’s uniform had streaks of dirt all over, and food stains down the front.

I said,  “Good morning, Posson.”

“G’morning.”  He took a noisy slurp from his mug.

“You’re the engineer of the team.”

“Yup.”

“What do you do?”

“During the trip, my main job’s fixing this ship to the hulk.”

“How do you do that?”

“The robots do it.  I control ’em.  Elizana puts this ship on top of the hulk.  That’s the tough job.”

“I suppose it needs a bit of manoeuvring.”

“Yup.  It needs a lot of manoeuvring.  But you’re lucky.”  He took another slurp.  “Elizana’s good.  She’ll do it quick.”

“That’s… that’s good news.  How do you fix this ship to the other one?”

“Stick ’em together, and fill the gap between.  Then our 4D drive controls the hulk too.  You’ll see.”

“What’s your usual job?”

“Engineer.  Work on 4D drives.  When we get the hulk back to Adjan 14, I’ll take it apart, ’specially the drive.”  Slurp.  “But it looks dull.  Simple.”

“What do you expect to find?”

“Jet engines.  Chemical fuel.  Prob’ly a simple computer.”

“Do you think it’s an ark?”

“Looks like one to me.”  He ordered the hatch,  “Open,”  and pushed in the dishes, in an untidy heap.  “Got any more questions?”

He wanted me to say,  “No,”  so I did, adding,  “Thank you.”

“Then I’ll move along.  Be seeing you.”  He slouched away.

7

SVET-JINGO

I went back to the control room, where Elizana asked,  “Did you speak to Posson?  I know he looks a bit of a slob, but he’s an excellent engineer.  He knows all about ships, and, more important to me, he’s a master at controlling the robots that do the hitching.  Did he tell you we’ll be manoeuvring in 4D?”

“Yes.  He said you were very good at it.”

She smiled.  “Perhaps.  Have you done much of that?”

“A bit.  Why?”

“In about 2%, we’ll come out of 4D.  If I’ve calculated right, we should be near the hulk.  We’ll use the 4D drive to hop nearer, and the grav drive for the final manoeuvring.  The 4D drive is faster, but it’s rougher on your guts.  Can you stand ten 4D jumps, close together?”

“I don’t know.  I’ve never tried it, but I don’t like the sound of it.”

“You’d better ask Svet-Jingo for a sickness pill.  If we’re lucky, we can get near enough in three hops to use the grav drive.  That’s three times into 4D and three times out.  But it may take four or five.”

“Where will I find Svet-Jingo?”

“You won’t find her.  Victor, ask Svet-Jingo if she would come to the control room.”

Svet-Jingo appeared promptly, but not cheerfully.  She was a small woman, human-like, with skin like white plastic, contrasting with dark eyes, and thin red lips.  She glared at me with dislike, almost contempt.  But that wasn’t only for me; that’s how she felt about everyone.

Elizana said,  “Svet-Jingo, would you give Bea a sickness pill?  She wants to be comfortable for our 4D jumps.”

Without replying, Svet-Jingo left the control room.  Elizana told me,  “Go with her.”

I hurried after Svet-Jingo, and caught up with her at her store, where she gave me an orange pill from a white box.  “Take 1% before required.”  Without another word, she started back towards the control room.

I called after her,  “Wait, Svet-Jingo.”

She stopped, glowering at me.

I asked,  “What’s your job in the team?”

“Medical officer.”

“What’s your usual job?”

“Assistant medical officer.”

“Where?”

“At the Federation hospital on Folson 7.”

“That sounds interesting.  Would you tell me about it?”

“Is that an order?”

“No.  I’m doing a report about the Federation, and I want to include as many jobs as I can.”

“I do not wish to answer your questions.”

“That’s all right.  Thank you for the pill.”

Taking that as permission to go, she did.  I went into my cabin, to the wash-basin for water to take the pill, then to the control room.  Elizana commented,  “Svet-Jingo’s not a friendly person, but she’s an excellent doctor, or so I’ve heard.  I’ve never seen her at work.”

“Never?”

“No.  Federation rules say the team must have a Pilot, an Administrator, an engineer, a Negotiator, and a doctor.”

“An Administrator?  I’m not an Administrator.  I’m a Troubleshooter.”

“That’s near enough for Tettat.  We must be prepared to meet live aliens.  If they’re fit and well, you and Larry will talk nicely to them.  If they’re ill, Svet-Jingo will help them.  That’s the theory.  But don’t worry.  You won’t be needed on this trip.”

“I suppose you can never be certain.”

“Are you hoping we might find breathers or sleepers on that hulk?”

“Not really.  It just seems such a shame if the people are dead.  They must have taken a lot of time and trouble, building that ship.  Planning exactly what to take.  Perhaps they knew their planet was dying, and they chose their best people to go out, looking for a new planet where their race could continue.  They must have been full of excitement and hope when they went into the ship.  It’s so sad if it ends like this.”

She looked at me.  “You’re right, Bea.  I’m glad you came.  When you do this job so often, you get used to it.  It’s just another hulk.  You forget it’s what’s left of a people’s hopes and dreams.”

8

CONTACT

We sat in silence for a while, with our own thoughts.  When Elizana spoke again, it was brisk business.  “Have you taken the pill?”

“Yes.  I’m looking forward to seeing you at work.”

“There’s not much to see.”  She checked her wrist unit.  “We’re about to leave 4D.  Wake, Victor.  Warn everyone that manoeuvring is about to begin.”

I felt the twist inside, and Victor announced,  “We have left the fourth dimension.”

“Let’s see Craft 543.”

The picture came up on the screen.  The ship I’d seen before, but now we were looking at it from behind the jets.  Elizana grunted.  I didn’t want to distract her by asking questions, but she told me,  “Not as near as I hoped.  Victor, let’s prepare a 4D jump.”

Groups of curly things appeared on the screen – numbers in Elizana’s language.  She gave sharp orders, changing some of them.  She sat forward, concentrating so much that she forgot to use her wrist unit, but I didn’t remind her.  I wouldn’t have understood what she was doing anyway.

After about five minutes, she stopped, staring at the screen for a few seconds, before ordering,  “Make that jump.”  I felt the twist, and the picture vanished from the screen.

Elizana leaned back in the command chair, and said,  “That’s it.  Let’s hope it’s good.”

After about 1% (a quarter of an hour), another twist in my stomach showed we were back from the fourth dimension – opposite the side of the other ship.  It filled the screen, so clear that I might have imagined I could reach out and touch it.

I asked,  “Is that taken with a low-light camera?”

“Yes.  We get the latest models because it’s important for us to see the other ships clearly.  Victor, try an internal scan.”

The picture shimmered for a moment, then cleared again.  Victor said,  “Internal scan failed.”

Elizana told me,  “Sometimes it works.  Rays will go through a plastic hull, and show us what’s inside.  That one’s probably metal.  Victor, broadcast the usual message.”  She explained,  “We broadcast greetings in all frequencies.  Federation rules say we wait 5% for a reply.”

Posson was standing in the doorway.  “Send out the robot?”

Elizana glanced at me.  “Yes.”  Was that a guilty look?  Did she think I might question that order?

Posson ordered,  “Victor, close all doors to the airlock.  Open outer door.  Contact robot, take position.  Close outer door.”

Elizana said,  “Bea, do you see the door of the ship?  Victor, zoom in on the door of the hulk.”  As the picture zoomed in, I saw the big outline of the door, in the middle of the bottom of the side facing us.

Elizana explained,  “The contact robot is going to knock on the door.”  I couldn’t help smiling, wondering if it would also look for a bell to ring.

Elizana went on,  “The robot’s grav drive is so slow that it will take at least 3% to reach the door.  It will attach a microphone to record any replies, then move around the ship, knocking at other places.  That will take at least another 10%.  Federation rules say we wait 5% after that, for a reply.  Since this ship is obviously a hulk, I wouldn’t have waited for that time before starting the salvage.”

I realised that, since I was the commander, she was asking if I agreed that they could go on with the salvage, without waiting for replies to the radio messages and knocking.  I hesitated.  There must be good reasons for the Federation rules, but Elizana and Posson were experts, and they wanted to go on.  They would be annoyed if I refused.

Posson said,  “What’s worrying you?  That robot can knock till the end of time, and it’ll never get an answer from that hulk.  If there’s people in there, they’ve been deaders for ages.”

Elizana added,  “Bea, we’ve followed the rules.  When the ship was first spotted, Scientists broadcast messages to it.  It didn’t reply.  We’ve tried again.  We can listen for replies as we start the salvage.”

I took a deep breath.  “All right.  You know best.”

“Thank you.  Our next step is to manoeuvre this ship onto the top of that one.  I’ll go as near as I can in 4D before using the grav drive.”

After two more hops through the fourth dimension, and a long 3% with the gravity drive, Elizana announced,  “That’s it.  We’re just above the hulk.  Posson, over to you.”

Posson ordered,  “Open airlock.  Packing robots, take position.”  A faint rumbling came from the airlock.

Elizana said,  “Bea, you would never guess what those robots are doing.  They’re spreading soft, rubber-like material on the hulk under this ship.  When they’re done, I’ll use the grav drive to settle our ship into that patch, then….”

Victor reported,  “Packing complete.”

“Descend to surface, and apply max attractive gravitational force.”  She told me,  “That will stick this ship to the other one with a gravitational force ten times higher than on the surface of Adjan 14.”

“Wouldn’t that be enough to hold them together, without the rubber?”

“It should be.  That’s what they did in the early days, until one salvage ship lost its hulk as it went into 4D.  That caused a lot of trouble.  The boffins suggested it was because of the gap between the two ships, so now we fill it with rubber.  It seems to work; we’ve never lost a hulk since.  When the robots are on board, we head back to Adjan 14.”

That was it.  We’d caught the hulk.  Svet-Jingo never appeared at all, and Larry crossed the control room twice – once towards the dining room, and once back again, carrying what looked like a salad sandwich.

The robots returned to the airlock, the door was shut, and we set off, on the flight back to Adjan 14.

9

FAREWELL CEREMONY

“What will happen when we get back to Adjan 14?”

Elizana smiled at my question.  “You’ll see.”

“If there are… dead people in that ship, what’ll happen to them?

“They’ll be given a farewell ceremony.  If the Scientists can find out what they would have done on their own planet, they’ll follow that.  If not, the Federation has a simple ceremony.  An Administrator reads a message of farewell.  So I believe.”

“Haven’t you been to one?”

Maybe she saw my surprise, because she explained gently,  “This is a job to me, Bea.  I didn’t know these people.  Yes, I’m sorry for them, but I can’t do anything for them, and I have other jobs to do.  Do you want to go?”

“I… I’m not sure.  What happens to the bodies?”

“After examination, they’re put in a box, and sent into the nearest sun.”  Again, she must have sensed my surprise, because she asked,  “Have you any better ideas what to do with them?”

“N…no.  It seemed heartless when you said it, but perhaps that’s what they’d want.”

“I’m sure it is.”

10

LANDING

We talked about other things, until Victor announced,  “We have reached Adjan 14.”  I felt the twist inside as we left the fourth dimension.

Elizana told me,  “We’re in orbit round Adjan 14, above the place where we’re going to land.  It’s in a desert.  We are now in orbit above the place.  We’ll use the grav drive to go down.”  She gave orders to Victor.  I didn’t feel the ship going down, but I did feel the gentle bump as we landed.

Elizana said,  “You can go to the door, but don’t go out until Posson says.”

“Out?”  I said.  “Aren’t we on top of the other ship?”

“Yes.  Take care not to fall off.”

Wondering, I went to the ship’s door, and looked through the gap between Larry-W and Posson.  Hot desert air came in.

Posson told me,  “Don’t go out.  See the hulk.”

The surface of the hulk was white and shining but, as I watched, the white melted to dark grey, which slowly turned paler.  Posson said,  “Ice forms on the hulk.  It’s cold in space, and it doesn’t warm up during a 4D trip.  The sun soon shifts it.  It’s safe now.”

He and Posson went out.  Svet-Jingo and I followed.  Two black boxes on wheels bumped out after us, before the ship’s door closed.  Black rubber bulged from under our ship.

Posson ordered,  “Stand back.”  He told me,  “There’s two ways of doing the next bit.  The official Federation way uses loads of fancy equipment, and takes about 30%.  We have an easier way.”

Larry-W said,  “It’s usually worth watching.  Elizana will set the grav drive to repel, and slowly boost the power, but the ship doesn’t always unstick easily.”

Nothing seemed to happen for a while, perhaps half a minute, then, with a noise like ‘flup’, our ship suddenly shot upwards, so fast that it almost seemed to disappear.

Larry-W asked,  “Would you like to be in there when it does that?  Elizana will be well strapped in.”

11

ON THE HULK

Posson gave an order to the black boxes, which rolled forward, and seemed to eat the black rubber.  I watched them for a short time, then looked around.  A bright sun beat down from a cloudless sky – so pale blue that it was almost silver.  Brown sand stretched in all directions to hills of the same colour.

We were near the middle of the top of the ship, which was huge, and so flat that I didn’t have to worry about falling off (as long as I didn’t go too near the edge), but I did have to take care not to catch my feet in the meteorite holes.

I knelt to examine the biggest one, which was about the size of my head.  The edges were melted, and the hole was surrounded by twisted metal, like the remains of metal foam with big bubbles.  It was so deep that I couldn’t see the meteorite that made it.

After about 2%, the two robots had removed all the rubber except a little that had gone deep into holes.  We stood around, waiting.  At least, Svet-Jingo and I stood around, while the two men lay on their backs.  I hoped Elizana would come for us soon.  Under that scorching sun, I felt like an egg, frying in a pan.

After 3%, Posson ordered,  “Keep clear.  She should be back soon.”  About ten seconds later, the ship came down to land, in exactly the same place.

Larry stood,  “All aboard for the spaceport.”  The ship seemed cool and dim.  What a relief!

During the 3% flight round the planet, I asked Elizana,  “What happens next?”

“We leave the hulk until tomorrow morning.  That gives it time to warm up inside.”

“With no one to watch it?”

“Didn’t you see the guards?  Two men in a tractor.  No; you wouldn’t.  They’d be out of sight, over the edge.”

“When will someone go inside?”

“Tomorrow morning.”

“Who will do it?”

“You and Larry and Posson.”

Me!  I’d be one of the first to see inside that huge ship!  But….  I asked,  “What will we do when we go in?”

“Have a look round.  Posson will find the control room.  In theory there may be sleepers.  Larry will deal with them.”

I didn’t say anything, but I decided that Larry would also deal with those they called deaders.

Elizana went on,  “What are you doing for the rest of the day?”

“I’m not sure.  I don’t know if it’s worth going back to Yband 4.”

“Why not stay on Adjan 14?  We can have a look at the planet together, and spend the night in the base.”

“Thanks, Elizana.  I like the sound of that.”

We looked round the nearest town – something like a shanty town from films about the gold rush.  Wooden houses and dusty earth streets.  It was obviously intended for tourists.  An information board explained that it was an old mining settlement.  Diagrams showed men and machines in narrow rock tunnels.  There were three souvenir shops, and a comfortable café, where we enjoyed a local meal, before having an early night, so that we’d be fresh for our visit to the alien ship next day.

12

FIRST CUT

Next morning, Elizana and I had breakfast together in the base, then went out to her ship, where we met the other three team members.  I asked,  “Isn’t Tettat here?”

“No chance,”  said Larry.  “Not if there’s work to be done.”

Elizana said,  “Larry!”  but she didn’t correct him.

The flight round Adjan 14 took the usual 3%.  The morning was bright, with a pale sky, but the sun was low, behind the other ship, so we were in cool shadow.

When I saw the alien ship from the ground, I realised how big it was.  It towered over us, like a dark grey cliff, and it seemed to stretch forever in each direction.  The corners were rounded so, although the door was as the bottom of the flat part of one side, it was high above the ground.  The guards’ tractor had a trailer which had an extending ladder with a platform on top.  It was in place, against the bottom of the ship’s door.

Elizana told me,  “Posson and Dugsie will go up, and cut a hole in the door.  You and Larry and Posson will go in.”

I asked her,  “What about you?”

“My job’s done.  I’ve brought that ship back.  I’m only the taxi driver now.  I won’t take this ship away.  You can wait in it.  It’s cooler than the tractor.”

“Don’t you want to look inside the other ship?”

She smiled.  “Once upon a time, I was keen enough to do that.  But, when you’ve seen one hulk, you’ve seen them all.  Now, I would rather lounge in the command chair.”

“Would Posson and Dugsie mind if I watch them?”

“No.  Go ahead.”

Outside, Dugsie was on the platform, running his hand over the ship’s scarred door.  He was an old man with a wrinkled face and bright eyes.  I don’t think he was an agent; he wore a dark blue tracksuit, and a matching floppy cap.

Seeing him there, I realised the size of that door.  It was at least ten times his height, and nearly square.  Posson was on his way up the ladder.  I hesitated, but climbed after him.

The ladder looked like it was made of aluminium, with wide, rough rungs, and a handrail.  It didn’t feel wobbly, so I climbed confidently, until I looked down.  The ground seemed far below, with the black block of Elizana’s ship, and the clear bubble of the tractor roof.

I stopped for a moment, holding on tight to the handrail, and concentrating on the rung in front of my face, before I continued the climb.

The ladder went up to a gap in the waist-high railings that went round the back of the platform.  There wasn’t much room for me there, so I stood on the step below, hanging onto the railing.  I had a good view of the ship’s door between the men.  Posson turned, and gave me a grin.

Dugsie was concentrating on the door.  He had a black box, with the blade of a circular saw sticking out of it, and he was cutting a line down the door.  The saw cut through the metal with a loud hiss.

He took about 3% to cut what would be the top and right-hand side of our entry hole, then turned to Posson.  “This metal’s hard.  It’s blunting the saw.  We’ll need a new blade.  There’s one in the tractor.”

Posson said,  “You go on with the cutting.  I’ll get it.”  He turned – and saw me, in the way.

I had to offer.  “I’ll get it.”

Posson laughed.  “Hear that, Dugsie?  The commander’ll get it.  I wonder if we could train Tettat to do that.”

Their laughter followed me as I went down the ladder, one step at a time, without looking down.  The other guard gave me two spare blades, and the tool to change them.  I toiled up again.  When I reached the platform, Dugsie’s blade was halfway down the left edge of our hole.  I took the stuff out of my pocket and gave it to Posson.

Seeing it, Dugsie grunted with satisfaction.  He soon fitted a new blade, and completed the cuts – down the left and along the bottom.

Posson frowned.  “That skin’s thin.”  When Dugsie finished, he pulled the cut sheet aside, and we stared into the gap.  I’d expected to see the dark emptiness of the entrance hall of the ship.  Instead, all we saw was what looked like metal foam, the same as in the meteorite hole.

“The cunning devils!”  exclaimed Posson.  “They got a layer of metal bubbles to protect them against meteorites.”  He grinned.  “Looks like you got a job ahead of you, Dugsie boy.”

I asked,  “How are you going to get through that?”

Posson leaned back, and laughed.  “Answer the commander, Dugsie boy.  How you gonna get through that?”

Dugsie wrinkled his nose at the saw.  “Not with this thing, I can tell you.”  The two of them frowned at the gap.

I began,  “Could you…?”

Posson turned,  “Go on, commander.  Got an idea?”

“Do you mean that?”

“Yeah.  All ideas gratefully accepted.  Eh, Dugsie boy?”

I said,  “Could you borrow a rock-boring machine?  You know; one that digs tunnels.  They might have one in the town at the base.  It has mines.”

“D’you hear that, Dugsie,”  said Posson.  “I believe the commander has the answer.”

13

PREPARATIONS

We went to Elizana’s ship for the trip back to the spaceport.  Dugsie and Posson borrowed a tunnel-boring machine from somewhere on the planet, and took it to the big ship.  I expected to go with them, but Posson said,  “The cutting’ll take a while.  You wait here.  We’ll call you when we’re ready.”  He grinned, and slapped my shoulder.  “Don’t worry, commander.  You’ll be first into the hulk.”

I had lunch, early, then went to the cabin to wait.  About 32%, Victor gave me a report from Posson.  They’d run a probe through the metal foam, and found it was over two metres thick.  They’d started boring, and hoped we could get into the ship by 55%.  I lay down for a short sleep; it seemed our job might go into the night.  I got up at 50%, and learned that Elizana would come for Larry, Svet-Jingo and me at 58%.  I had a snack, and put on an expedition suit.

When Larry saw me, he asked,  “Going out in the jungle, miss?”

During the flight, Elizana said,  “I’m glad you weren’t at the hulk, Bea.  The tunnel is so deep that they had to crawl into it to operate the machine, and the cut edges of the bubbles are sharp.  Posson has not had a happy day.”

She also told me,  “Victor has traced the ship.  It’s not 100% certain, because it’s been out so long, but, 71 437 years ago, planet 19-38-79-41-01 was overwhelmed by solar flares.  It’s likely that the people, knowing what was going to happen, sent out this ship.”

“Over 71 000 years ago?”

“Yes.  That matches Victor’s estimate.  It also proves that the people must be deaders.  No sleepers have ever survived more than 15 000 years.”

I helped Larry to lay out the equipment we’d need when we went into the alien ship.  More accurately, I watched Larry lay out the equipment we’d need when we went into the alien ship.  Breathing mask and tanks.  A powerful torch, like a searchlight, that clipped on my belt.  I also had a head-torch (with camera and recorder) fitted to my helmet.

That made Larry comment,  “It must be a real dense jungle you’re expecting, miss.”

14

GOING IN

When we arrived at the alien ship, it was night-time there, but two big lights let us see the ladder.  The tunnel was a black circle at the bottom of the door.  A pile of black stuff lay on the sand below it; the metal they’d cut out of the hole.  Lying near the tractor was a round black thing, probably the tunnel-boring machine.

Posson’s uniform was in a mess – a worse mess.  The knees and elbows were shredded, and he was wearing a scarred helmet.  A breathing mask hung round his neck, and its tank, on his back, had long deep scratches.

He said,  “Dugsie’s lined the tunnel.  He’s cutting the inside of the door.  You’ll need that breathing mask.  The hulk’s full of gas.  We reckon it’s helium.”

When he climbed the ladder, I followed, to watch what they were doing.  Posson knelt on the platform, shining a torch into the tunnel, where Dugsie was lying on his front, with only the soles of his boots showing.  The hiss of the circular saw came from the tunnel.  It wasn’t very interesting, but I decided to wait.  I was glad of the expedition suit, because the night was cold; I felt it on the exposed parts of my face.

After a long 2%, Dugsie’s call of satisfaction came from the hole, and the saw stopped.  Posson moved clear so that Dugsie could back out.  He said,  “The hole’s lined, but watch the inner edge of the door.”

I came up onto the platform so that he could go down.  Posson told him,  “Tell that lazy Larry to get his butt up here, pronto.”  Then he bowed to me, waving me into the tunnel.  “After you, commander.”

“Do you want me to go first?”

“Yup.  You’re the commander.  Besides, the devils may have booby-trapped the place.”  His grin showed he was kidding.

I said,  “If I thought that, I’d order you to go first.”  He was laughing as I put my breathing mask over my face, switched on my head-torch, and crawled into the tunnel.  I felt a thrill of excitement.  We were about to enter a ship that had been sealed for over seventy thousand years.  What would we find?

The tunnel was just big enough for me to crawl in, but I had to keep my head low, to stop my helmet and air tank from bumping the roof.  To help me, Posson shone his torch in.

As Dugsie had warned, I kept clear of the sharp inner edge of the door as I poked my head and shoulders into the ship.  I could see nothing except black emptiness.  When I looked down, my beam showed that the tunnel came out a few centimetres above the grey metal floor.  Dugsie had left the cut circle there, so I pushed it aside.

15

INSIDE

I crept out, looking around in nervous excitement.  I was the first person to stand here in more than 71 000 years.  But I couldn’t see much.  The head-torch had seemed powerful when we tested it in Elizana’s ship, but its light seemed to soak into the darkness of this place.  I thought I could see a pale grey wall to the left, and something black and shiny, high above my head.

I stood aside as Posson’s head-torch bobbed through the hole, and he stood beside me.  “Larry’s on his way.”

“Should we wait for him?”

“We better.”

Larry’s voice came through the tunnel.  “I’ll never get through there!”

Posson leaned in.  “Come on, Larry boy.  Squeeze yourself through.”

“No chance!”

Posson said.  “Come on.  Do your duty.  Commander, order him to move his butt.”

I peered into the tunnel, but it was too dark to see anything.  “Larry, have you got problems?”

“You bet I got problems.  This tunnel’s too narrow.”

“It’s you that’s too wide,”  said Posson.  “Come on, Larry boy.  Lie on your side and wriggle through.”

I won’t report Larry’s reply.

I asked,  “Posson, is Larry really needed in here?”

He answered,  “Is Larry really needed anywhere in the Galaxy?”

“Can he wait outside?  We’ll call him if we need him.”

Larry said,  “Thanks, miss,”  and Posson said,  “Which’ll be never.”  He turned to me.  “If you want to explore, watch where you’re walking.  There could be pits in the floor.”

I asked,  “What are you going to do?”

“Look for the control room.  If this hulk’s got a computer, that’s where I’ll find the main terminal.”

“Can I do anything useful?”

“Nah.  Just look around.  Check it’s an ark.”  He laughed.  “Don’t get lost.  I’d have to order Larry in to look for you.”

I unclipped the big torch from my waist.  But, before I switched it on, a whumping noise echoed around us, lights flashed on, and a machine began to hum.

16

EXPLORING

Beside me, Posson exclaimed,  “What…?”

I was astounded too.  Lights were glowing around the edges of the ceiling.  They had a yellow tinge, but they were bright enough to let us see we were in a huge hall.  The shiny black shape above us was the nose of a thing like a small jet plane.  Another one was parked behind it.

Posson said,  “By coming in here, we’ve triggered the lighting.”

We walked slowly forward, to stand beside the nearest plane’s wheel.  It was about as high as me – black with a black tyre.  It may have been over 71 000 years old, but it was shining like new.

Posson looked up at the smooth black body.  He whistled.  “What a beauty!  A scoutship.  We got ourselves an interesting hulk here, commander.”

Pale grey stairs zigzagged up the three sides of the hall, with open doorways off their landings.  After eight levels, they went through the ceiling.

I said,  “This ship will need some exploring.”

“You don’t have to do it all,”  said Posson.  “If I was the designers, I would put the control room behind this hall.”  He strode off in that direction.

Leaving me.  Now that I was in this ship, it seemed even bigger.  A wide doorway at the left took me into a huge room.  The roof was so low that I might have reached up to touch it.  Some of the lights were out, but enough were glowing to let me see rows of machines, like Earth tractors – green, with smaller wheels at the front, and big, deep-treaded ones at the back.  Shining, as if they’d just come out of the factory.  Behind them, others of different shapes and sizes, probably farm machines.

These were machines that settlers would need.  I returned to the big hall, climbed three levels, and went through another doorway.  This led to a narrow passage between smooth grey walls.  Every ten metres or so was a door with a label on it.  I put my hand on the handle of one, wondering if I should open it, until I saw a few seeds, like grains of wheat, that had escaped under it.  This was where they stored their grain.

One room was filled with rope.  Yellow.  Huge coils of it, in all thicknesses.  Another was stacked to the roof with brown cloth.  Perhaps sacks.  The next room had machines packed together, but I couldn’t see them properly, because they were hidden under grey covers.  There was so much here, and the rooms must be huge, if they stretched to the front of the ship.  I went out, sure we’d found an ark.

17

CONTROL ROOM

“Commander!  Commander!”  Posson’s voice echoed round the big hall.

I leaned over the wall at the nearest landing, but I couldn’t see him.  “Posson!  Where are you?”

“At the back.  Come here.”  I heard excitement in his voice, and saw him, leaning over the wall of the second-floor landing at the back of the hall.

I ran down, across the hall, and up to where he was waiting.  He said,  “Come here.”

As he led me along a wide corridor, I said,  “You’re not wearing your breathing mask.”

“Nah.  Don’t need it.  When we triggered the lights, we also triggered air pumps.  You can hear them humming.”  I lifted the mask from my face and took a cautious breath.  He was right.  I took the mask off, and slid the air tank off my back.

He led me through a doorway at the right.  “The control room.”

It was as big as my school room on Earth, with a grey screen filling one side, above a panel which had rows of dials and switches.  A high armchair, surprisingly like a Federation command chair, faced the middle of the screen, with a row of five lower ones on each side of it.

Posson said,  “Couple of things to show you.  D’you see that?”  He pointed to a light that was glowing faintly red near the middle of the panel.   “Know what that means?  Some power is still on in here, meaning we can use their computer.  That means we’ll learn a lot about them.  I left my communicator in the ship, not thinking I’d need it.  I’ll get it, and hitch it to their computer while there’s still life in it.  D’you want to meet their leader?”

“What do you mean?”

He took me to the back of the room, which had lots of light grey doors, about a metre square, hinged at the top.  One, about level with my waist, had a small silver star in the middle.  It was hanging a little open.

He said,  “Doors like this are a giveaway.  That’s how most arks store sleepers.  I reckon the star shows their leader.  Wanna see him?”  He put his hand on the knob.

I asked,  “Is he…?”

“A deader?  Of course he’s a deader.  After 71 000 years, what d’you expect?  But he looks good.  These people knew what they were doing.  Wanna see him?”

My first instinct was to gasp,  “No!”  but I hesitated.  We were the first to see this leader, at the end of his long journey.  I whispered,  “Yes.”

Posson lifted the door, letting me see into the compartment, which stretched back, with the man lying on his back, so I could only see his head and shoulders.  He looked no more than 30, with pale skin, and short fair hair.  His eyes were closed; he might have been sleeping peacefully.  He was wearing something brown, with a gold star on each shoulder.

Posson started to speak, but I hushed him with a sharp,  “No!”  I stood for a few moments, looking down at the face.  He was the leader of these brave people, who’d set out to find a new planet to settle and start a new life.

Now, that would never be.  Their tractors would never plough fields.  Their seeds would never produce crops.  Federation scientists would swarm over the ship, learning all they could.

Posson had talked about searching their computer.  Maybe they would like that.  If their knowledge survived, it might help others.

But… they hadn’t survived.  I didn’t really say a prayer, but I wanted to mark the end of their dreams by a moment of silence.  Perhaps Posson sensed my mood, because he silently held the door up.

At last, I said,  “Thank you, Posson.”

In a quiet voice, he said,  “Pleased to oblige, commander.”  He let the door down gently.  “What d’you aim to do now?”

“I don’t know.  While you’re working here, I’ll look around a little more.”

18

DOORS

We left the control room together.  Posson went across the hall to the tunnel, while I swung left, to the end of the ship I hadn’t seen.  I checked the first-floor entrances.  Narrow passages with ceiling to floor square doors like the ones at the back of the control room.  This was where the people were.

I climbed stairs until I was higher than the ceiling of the entrance hall.  Still the stairs went up, now with passages on both sides, all with those square doors.

I didn’t really know where I was going.  I wanted a few moments of silence among the people.  A few moments with them all round me.

I climbed a bit higher, and went into a corridor, where the doors were smaller.  The children must be here.  I walked slowly along, thinking of them.  Hundreds of them.  One behind each of these doors.  Had they known what they were doing when they came in here, so long ago and so far away?

I stopped with the yellowish lights showing the corridor stretching in each direction, as far as I could see.  I thought about these people, rows and rows and rows of them, all round me.  They had come into the ship with excitement, and perhaps with apprehension.  With hopes of a happy new life.  That would never be.

I don’t know how long I stood there, saying goodbye to them.  This was their last moment of peace.  I had done my job.  I had been the first to come into their ark.  I had confirmed that they hadn’t survived.  The next person to come along here would be a scientist, with his head full of business.  I sighed, as I turned to leave.

A whimper.  A whimper came from somewhere near me.

19

DISCOVERY

For a moment, I stood, frozen in surprise.  Had I really heard a whimper?  When it came again, it roused me to action.

The noise was coming from a door at my left, about level with my head.  I grabbed the knob, and jerked it open.  A head of dark hair, moving.  Perhaps seeing the light, the child – a little boy – started to cry.  He tried to wriggle out, and I stretched into the compartment, to help him.  He was wearing a brown tunic like the leader’s, but his hands felt terribly cold.  He wriggled, and I pulled, until we fell in a heap on the floor, with him on top of me.

What should I do?  I had to get him to the doctor as soon as possible.  With a struggle, I hoisted him on my shoulders, but he wriggled, and the passage was too narrow for me to carry him like that.  I laid him gently down, but he tried to stand.

I held his small cold hand and talked quietly to him, wondering if I should use a stun-gun on him while I went for help, but he probably ought to be moving, to warm himself up.  As these thoughts flashed through my mind, whimpering came from behind another door.

That decided it.  I increased the range of my wrist unit to maximum, and called into it,  “Posson!  Posson!”

No reply.  Not surprising.  The metal walls would block the wrist unit’s radio signal.

Leaving the boy, I ran back along the corridor.  I left my helmet as a marker on the landing, and ran down the stairs.  Countless flights.  Had I climbed as far as this?  Surely I should be into the top of the entrance hall by now.  Had I missed my way?

To my relief, the next flight took me through the ceiling of the entrance hall.  I called into my wrist unit,  “Posson!  Posson!”

No reply.

I leaned on the wall, looking over.  “Posson!  Posson!”  My voice echoed round the entrance hall, but sounded horribly feeble.

No reply.

I ran down until I was halfway to floor level, and tried again.  “Posson!  Posson!”

No reply.

I ran down to the hall, and across to the tunnel.  I crawled desperately through, and leant, panting, on the railings of the platform.  “Elizana!  Larry!”

20

RESCUE

The ship’s door was shut, but Dugsie’s voice came from beside the tractor.  “What’s the noise?”

“I’ve found children alive!  At least two!  Send Svet-Jingo!”

By the time he’d run to the ship, I’d realised it was my job to organise the rescue.  When the others came rushing out, I called,  “I’ve found children alive.  Elizana, Dugsie, come with Svet-Jingo and me.”  I pointed to Larry and the other guard.  “You two, wait at the platform here.  We’ll pass them through to you.  You take them down to the ship.”

I crawled back into the entrance hall, and bawled,  “Posson!”  as loud as I could.  That brought him to the landing outside the control room.  I called,  “Come and help.  I’ve found children alive.”

A big black bag appeared through the tunnel, followed by Svet-Jingo.

“This way!”  I called to her.  I ran across the entrance hall to the stairs  She followed, carrying the bag.  Elizana and Dugsie were soon after us.

While I was rushing for help, I hadn’t noticed how tired I was, but, now, trying to run up the stairs, I soon slowed.  I was gasping, and my legs felt wobbly.  I forced myself to keep going, but at a pace that got slower and slower.

Svet-Jingo, ahead of me, turned to call.  “Hurry, girl!”

“I… I can’t.  Keep… keep climbing.  Go into… into the passage at my helmet.  They’re… they’re along there.”

Svet-Jingo gave me a look of contempt, and ran on, up the stairs.  Dugsie followed.  Elizana hesitated, but I said,  “Go!  I’ll… I’ll follow.”  She ran on, and soon Posson went after her.

Maybe I should have waited, but I followed them, as fast as I could, forcing my jelly-like legs to take step after step.  I was above the ceiling of the entrance hall when Dugsie came running down with the little boy over his shoulders.  As he passed me, he grinned breathlessly and spoke, but he didn’t use his wrist unit, so I didn’t understand.

About two flights higher, Elizana came down carrying a fair-haired child that looked like a girl.  She also gave me a grin, but she used her wrist unit.  “There are at least four alive.  Well done, Bea!”

As I reached the landing at my helmet, Posson came out of the passage with another child over his shoulders.  He also grinned, but didn’t speak.

Walking on the level was easier, so I went more quickly along the passage, to where a boy was lying in the recovery position, and Svet-Jingo was working on a girl.  She looked up.  “At last!  Make yourself useful.  Look in these boxes.  Find the living ones.”

I knew where to look first.  Following a mind signal, I opened a door at waist height, and found a little girl, struggling to move.  I helped her out, rubbing her hands to warm them up.  Dugsie pounded along the passage, pulled the nearest child over his shoulders, and ran away, awkwardly, sideways along the passage.  Svet-Jingo moved to the new one.

I opened more doors.  In one, the child wasn’t moving, but I sensed thoughts, horribly faint.  I pulled him out – it was a boy – and laid him gently on the floor.  I moved on, quickly opening doors, and leaning in, but sensing no sparks of thought.  Svet-Jingo moved on to the next one, and Elizana arrived to take the girl away.

The compartments where we’d found the live ones were clustered together, so I checked the ones nearest them.  I found one more child, a girl, but her mind signal was weak.  Posson took the boy away while Svet-Jingo started to work on the girl.  I kept pulling doors open, finding more small heads, but with no trace of life.

After the doors had been opened, they didn’t shut properly, so I could look along the passage and see the compartments I’d checked.  More than ten metres on each side of where Svet-Jingo was crouching beside the girl, watching me.  I asked,  “Will they survive?”

“Probably not the last two.  The others should, if we get them to hospital soon.”

I took a deep breath.  I had to make the decision.  “Elizana will take these children away.  You and Dugsie and Posson and I will check the other corridors.  Elizana will bring others to help us.”

21

A LONG NIGHT

That’s the plan we followed, giving me a long night of strain and worry.  I knew – I don’t know how – that we wouldn’t find anyone else alive in that ship, but we had to make sure.  I plodded along several endless passages, before Elizana came back with thirty volunteers, brought out of their beds in the Adjan 14 base and the nearby town.

After that, my job was organising the search.  I stayed in the entrance hall, leaning against one of the big wheels, and sent the people into the passages, with orders to walk quietly along, watching and listening.  If they had any doubts, they should open a compartment.  Svet-Jingo waited silently with me, ready to run if anyone found signs of life.

By the time every passage was checked, I was so tired that I could hardly think.  I struggled through bright sunlight to Elizana’s ship, and the flight to the base.  Elizana talked excitedly about the rescued children.  I smiled, and tried to speak sensibly, but I was relieved when I could struggle to the cabin in the base, and collapse onto the bunk.

22

FAREWELL

I slept for 50% – that’s more than twelve hours.  After I’d showered and eaten, my mind felt brighter, but my legs still ached.

The only other member of the team I could find was Elizana, outside her ship in the spaceport.  She said,  “I’ve never stopped, ferrying scientists, engineers, and nosy-parkers round to the ship.  Everyone wants to see it.”

“Where are the others?”

“The others?  Larry and Svet-Jingo have gone back to their own jobs.  Posson is organising the investigation of the ship.  He’s made contact with its computer, and learned the language.  Dugsie’s there with him, using the tunnel-borer to enlarge the entrance.  Have you heard about the children?”

“No.  Victor says they were been taken away for treatment, but he refuses to say where they are.”

“I can tell you about two of them.  They didn’t survive.  I took them back to their ship.  From its computer, Posson learned that these people cremated their dead.  They even brought four machines to do it.  Posson has already started.  Do you want to be present?”

“N…no.  I said goodbye to them.”

“If you see the other children, give them my love.  Tell them – tell them I’ll come and see them some time.”

A voice called from the ship.  Elizana glanced towards it.  “I have to go.  This bunch of passengers think they’re very important, and they’re getting impatient.”

“Thanks, Elizana”  I said.  “It may have been a simple job to you, but it was a memorable experience for me.”

She smiled.  “It wasn’t the simple trip I expected.”  She hesitated.  “I don’t suppose you would be our commander for all the trips?  We could use a good commander.”

“Thanks, Elizana.  But you don’t need me.  You’re a good commander yourself, and I have my own job.  I’d like to come with you again, sometime though.”

An angry man leaned out of the ship’s door to shout at Elizana, so we had a quick hug, before she went.

I ordered Victor to pass on my thanks to Larry, Posson, Svet-Jingo and Dugsie.  I also asked him to thank Tettat for the invitation.  Then I went for the shuttle that would take me back to Yband 4.

23

REPORT

I thought the experience might have affected my mind, so I went to the hospital.  The Federation has machines which treat your mind so that you remember what happened, but don’t worry about it.  I didn’t like the idea at first, but now I have my mind treated when I think I might need it, and it makes me feel better.

Next morning, I went to see Martin.  He said,  “I’ve heard your report.  Well done!  You had a busy time.”

“Yes.  Have you heard how the children are?  Victor won’t tell me.”

He smiled.  “They’ve been in hospital.  The doctors say they wouldn’t have survived if you hadn’t found them.  Bea, why did you go to that corridor?”

“I don’t know, Martin.  I wanted to be among the people, to… to say a quiet goodbye to them, before the scientists arrived to spoil their peace.  If some mind signal drew me to that corridor, I didn’t know about it.”

“Well, these children have you to thank, for saving their lives.”

“Not me.  I only found them.  Svet-Jingo and the others saved them.”

“They’ve become so famous that everyone wants to see them, so they’re well guarded.  I’ve been authorised to tell you about them, but may I dispose of some details first?  Congratulations on your new rank.”

I tried to stop myself blushing.  My new rank, on the chestband of my uniform, was 629.  I muttered,  “It… it surprised me.”

“It’s a big jump,”  he said.  “Victor must consider that you handled the mission well.”

I smiled.  “It’ll go down again after the next one.”

“Perhaps.  I’ve been asked to give you that next mission immediately.”

“Immediately?  Can’t I see the children first?”

“The next mission is urgent.  Your orders are to start it without delay.”

I tried not to show my disappointment.  “That’s a pity.  They were lovely children.  I’d hoped to meet them.  Elizana told me that two died.  How are the others?”

“The other five are bright and healthy.  Their minds have been treated to remove the distress.  Do you want to meet them?”

“Yes, of course.  When?”  I was suddenly nervous.

“Now.”  He went to the door.  “Open.”  The five children flooded in, and clustered round me, all trying to put their arms round me, and say thank you.  I crouched, to put my arms round them.  I let their happiness flood my mind.  These might look like bouncy six-year-olds on Earth, but they’d survived for 71 000 years.  Tears came to my eyes.

After a while, Martin shushed them, to say,  “Bea, these children know nothing of the Federation.  So that’s your next mission.  Tell these children about it.”

Hearing that, the children laughed in delight.  And I admit – so did I.