The caretaker

“Welcome back, Sam.”

The pod opened.

“Good morning,” Sam replied, rubbing her eyes.

“It is 2.43pm, universal coordinated time,” the voice replied.

“Well, I’ve been asleep for-” she glanced at the display to her right, “-about 23 years. It feels like the morning. Where are we?”

“Sector EGSY8p7.”

That meant nothing to Sam. “So what woke me up this time?”

“We are to encounter an unclassified object in three minutes and 28 seconds. I need your approval to change route and scan the object.”

“Ok, let’s have a look at it. Bring it up on screen.”

At an arm’s length from Sam’s face, an image flickered into view. It looked like nothing more than an asteroid.

“A space rock? You woke me up for a space rock?”

“It is unclassified, Sam.”

“It’s a space rock. Asteroid. There. I classified it for you. I’m going back to bed.”

“I’m afraid you can’t go back to bed, Sam. The item does not fit the class of asteroid, nor anything in our database.”

“Why not?”

“Because it’s hollow.”

“Hollow?”

“Yes. Our long range scans tell us that there is a cavity, not much bigger than one of the cryo-pods, inside the item. Asteroids do not have cavities of this nature. Hence, the item is unclassified.”

Hence? Sam thought to herself. This fucking ship. “Ok,” Sam replied, as she lowered herself off the bed. She looked around at the other pods. She calculated in her head the last time any of those pods were open. 1,127 years. Nothing had changed. Nothing ever changed. The were still drifting through space, looking for a new home.

Sam wondered over to the window, and looked out at the fleet. There were 300 ships in total. Each carried anywhere between 50 and 200,000 souls. And all of them were fast asleep.

“We need to slow our speed and adjust course if we are to investigate the object, Sam. We need a decision.”

“Did scans pick anything else up? Any signs of life? Movement? A power source? Anything in anyway suspicious?”

“Nothing at all. Radiation levels are within the normal range. There’s no life detected, or movement of any kind. Everything so far suggests it is nothing but a hollowed out rock.”

“Ok, decelerate fleet to scanning speed. Change our course to intercept the rock. Keep the rest of the fleet on its current track.”

“Thank you, Sam.”

Sam’s stomach turned a little as the ship slowed.

“Can you make me some coffee and eggs?”

“I’m already making it, Sam. It’ll be ready in just under a minute.”

“How about a little shot of rum in the coffee?”

“Of course, Sam. But just a dash. You will need to be in full control of your senses to examine the results of the scan. Two sugars?”

“Thanks, Ship.”

By the time Sam had finished her eggs — soft boiled with soldiers — the results of the scan were ready.

“Ok, bring ’em up.” The screen displayed a table titled ‘Significant anomalies’. There was three entries in the table.

The first anomaly: the rock is hollow. Sam already knew that. The cavity was approximately 64% of the volume of the asteroid.

The second anomaly: There were trace elements of organic matter on the inside. Nothing was alive any more, however the evidence suggested that bacteria was once present on the inside of the asteroid.

The third anomaly: There were trace elements on non-organic matter on the inside. Filings from an unidentifiable metal substance were scattered about the chamber.

“What do you think, Ship?

“The most likely outcome is that a ship crashed into the asteroid, creating the cavity and depositing both the organic and non-organic matter in the process.”

“Yeah, that’s what I thought,” Sam leant back in her chair and scratched her legs. No stubble. It was weird to wake up without stubble. “Ship, I need you to check the records. Has any ship ever visited this sector of the universe?”

“No, nothing on record.”

“Yeah, that’s what I thought.”

Fleet Mercury — which Sam was currently sitting on — had left earth over a millennia ago in the search for inhabitable planets. Sam was 57 years old when it left. In one sense, she still was. In another, she was 1,192.

All five fleets — Gemini, Shenzhou, Soyuz, Beagle and Mercury — set off along paths mapped out with known Earth-like worlds. So far, Mercury had passed twelve of these worlds, and none of them were suitable.

Each of those five fleets will be further away from earth than any other ship in the history of man. They’d set off in different directions, meaning they each were thousands of lightyears apart.

They were so far away from each other and travelling at such speeds, communication with other fleets was impossible. But still, even if another fleet had changed paths, they wouldn’t have been able to catch up with Mercury — let alone overtake it.

All this is to say that no ship from earth could have crashed into this rock.

“Ship, considering that this couldn’t have been a ship, what other possibilities are there?”

“It’s possible — though highly unlikely — that another asteroid could have created the cavity.”

“Why highly unlikely?”

“I have run millions of simulations and I cannot create an object of the right shape and mass to create such a cavity through simple collision.”

“So how could a ship have made it?”

“It’s possible that through an explosion that the cavity could have been created. An explosion would require specific chemicals to be present.

“But this is possible, right?”

“Yes, it is possible. It is possible that an asteroid containing both bacteria and the right combination of chemicals could have collided with this asteroid. Asteroids with biological matter have been found in space exploration, as has asteroids with the combination of chemicals required to make the type of explosion that could have created this cavity. However never one with both.”

“Are there any other possibilities?”

“Thousands, Sam. But those are the two with the highest probability. And one is extremely unlikely, and the other is impossible.”

Same stretched, yawned, and then stared at the screen. After several minutes, she said: “OK, we need to take a look at this thing. Up close.”

“Would you like me to alter the route of the ship again Sam?”

“No, that’s too risky. Dispatch a pod,” and then after a moment of hesitation: “Wait — do not dispatch the pod until I am on board.”

“Sam, pods do not have adequate quarantine zones.”

“I’ll wear a suit.”

“Sam, this goes against procedure. We are only allowed to bring an unidentified object on board if it can be quarantined.”

“Well what would you suggest?”

“I’ll dispatch a pod to pick up the object. Once the object is on board, it can be scanned. You can interoperate the data from here.”

“The scanners are only designed to look for things we understand. Plus, the pods aren’t equipped to send scanners inside that thing. I need to see it. Stop arguing with me, you know I can override you.”

“I have a compromise, Sam.”

“I’m listening.”

“We have two pods. I’ll dispatch one pod which can bring the object on board and scan it. Meanwhile, you can board the other pod. If scans show nothing harmful, you can fly over and investigate the object.”

It was a safer approach, and would allow Sam to investigate the object.

“Do it.”

***

Sam stood staring at the rock.

The scans had picked up nothing unusual, although the limitations of the pod’s scanner meant they hadn’t been able to get inside. They were, however, able to confirm that Sam didn’t need to wear a suit, which she was particularly happy about. There was nothing special about this thing. It was — with the exception of the great hole in the middle — an asteroid. Nothing more. She walked up and slowly put her hand on the asteroid. Sam’s dad had mined asteroids, and he used to let her see them every now and then. Sometimes she was even allowed to touch them.

She pressed her ear up against the rock. Nothing but the sound of her own blood rushing around her head.

The only way into the cavity was a small hole just big enough for Sam to squeeze through. Sam had never been caving before, but she figured this was what it felt like. The sides of the hole were smooth, and she pulled herself into the cavity.

The cavity was dark, although a small amount of light shone in through the hole. Sam’s eyes adjusted and she could just about make out the edge of the cavity. She looked around, there was nothing. She looked up, there was nothing. She looked down. Something was drawn on the floor.

Sam fumbled around her pockets for her light. As she flipped it on, the entire cavity was illuminated. Blinking, she stared down at the floor below her. There were three drawings. The first consisted of two circles, each of which had an arrow on top. The arrow on one of the circles pointed up, and on the other it pointed down. There was a horizontal line connecting the circles, with a small vertical line below. The second diagram was about 30 dotted lines emanating from a central dot. The third diagram looked like a series of dots, with one larger dot on the edge.

“Er, Ship?”

“Yes, Sam.” The ship’s voice echoed in the cavity.

“I need you to get a camera in here.”

***

“Coordinates?”

“Yes, Sam. Coordinates.”

“I was just looking at that thing. It didn’t look coordinates.”

“I assure you the diagram represents coordinates. The first figure is a schematic representation of the hyperfine transition of hydrogen. The small line below it represents the digit 1. The arrows represent a spin-flip transition, which can specific a unit of length, as well as a unit of time. The two diagrams below are maps, showing relative positions of items within our galaxy. The two units of measure give us scale, which allows the diagram to specify a point within space. It’s really quite ingenious. How do you communicate coordinates without language, numerical system or units of measure? With a diagram, of course! It really was quite the puzzle.” The ship sounded excited. “These, I can assure you, are coordinates.”

Sam was dumbstruck. “Ok. So these are coordinates?”

“Yes.”

“To where?”

“I don’t know.”

“Who put them there?”

“I don’t know.”

“Is it possible humans put them there?”

“In the sense that anything is possible, yes. However in the sense you are asking, no, it is not possible.”

“So these came from…”

“An intelligent species that does not originate from earth.”

“Aliens?”

“If that is how you with to describe them.”

“Well, fuck.”

Sam poured herself a rum.

***

Sam sat and stared out of the cockpit window. She hadn’t been out of cryo for this long since they left earth. It’d be three weeks, and Sam still didn’t know what to do.

Well, she knew what she should do.

She should pull the council out of cryo and inform them of the situation. But she didn’t want to do that. She knew the council. They were bureaucrats. And bureaucrats didn’t get promoted by taking risks.

Scientists had already ruled out the sector of the galaxy that the coordinates pointed to. They did not contain Earth-like worlds.

And whilst she was the admiral — and she was in charge of the fleet — if the council voted unanimously they could override her. And she knew exactly what their decision would be: ignore the coordinates and keep to the path set out.

Which meant the decision to wake them up was the decision to stay the course.

Technically, she was well within her rights to leave the council in cryo and make the decision herself. But only technically. It wasn’t — as the council so often said — within the spirit of the law. As soon as they woke up, they’d strip same of her admiralty, and if the coordinates led to anything other than an inhabitable world, they’d likely file charges too.

“Would you like me to pull the map up again, Sam?”

“No thanks, Ship.” Sam had looked at the map every day since she’d woken up. It didn’t tell her anything. The coordinates pointed to a star orbited by dozens of uninhabitable planets. They could deviate from their current path and be there inside 500 years. They could be back on their path within 450.

“What would you do, Ship?”

“I am not equipped to make that decision, Sam.”

“I know, but you’re capable of doing so. What would you do?”

“I would wake up the council and inform them.”

“Let’s say that’s not an option. If it was a straight choice between sticking to the current path and deviating from it to explore these coordinates, what would you do?”

“I would explore the coordinates.”

Sam was surprised by this response. The ship’s number one priority in any situation was the safety of its crew.

“Why would you make that decision?”

“It is the most logical decision. This ship can run for thens of thousands of years. We can visit these coordinates and be back on track within a millennia. The odds of ship failure within that time increase slightly due to the unknown nature of the voyage, but not by much. The chances of death do increase, due to the unknown nature of the destination. Given the only intelligent species ever know — humans — warred consistently throughout their history, it is very possible whoever put those coordinates there are hostile.

“However we have four more fleets which ultimately means this risk will increase humanity’s overall chance of survival. It is a calculated risk.”

That last bit was cold, Sam thought. But the ship had articulated everything she’d been thinking about for the past 22 days.

“Ship, change course of the fleet to the coordinates found on the asteroid.”

“Are you sure, Sam?”

Sam took a large swig of rum and climbed back into her pod.

“Yes, I’m sure. That’s an order,” she said, closing the pod.

“Goodnight, Sam.”

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