Author : Bob Newbell, Featured Writer
“Welcome to our asteroid belt,” said the Congolese captain of the AFS Seretse Khama.
Your asteroid belt, thought Dragoslav Ibrahimovi?. Yet the captain of the BAS Peter the Liberator had to admit that his African Federation counterpart had a point. A legal point, to be precise. Sensor sweeps showed that every asteroid of any appreciable size in the area had its own unique transponder signal. Being the first to land a vessel, even a small automated radio transmitter, on an asteroid gave the government in question a legal claim to the property. The African Federation produced, launched, and landed transponder drones by the hundreds of thousands annually. Legally, nearly the entire asteroid belt was their property.
“Just passing through, Captain,” Ibrahimovi? replied over the comlink. The Peter the Liberator moved on across the belt into the outer solar system. Balkan Alliance territory.
One month later, while performing a gravity-assist maneuver around Jupiter, the commander of the Sasselov Station on Callisto contacted Ibrahimovi?.
“We've downloaded your manifest. It says your ship is full of supplies and heading for Neptune. But our sensors say your hold is almost totally empty. And you're the sixth empty supply ship to come through here in the last four months. Looks more like you're bringing something back, not hauling supplies out. What's out there?” asked the commander.
“Just helium-3 processing stations,” Ibrahimovi? replied.
“Did you find something that will put us out in front of the African Federation? Something better than a bunch of rocks floating in space? No more of that being a distant second to the world's only superpower stuff?”
“I'll inform Bucharest your station sensors are malfunctioning,” said Ibrahimovi?. “I suggest you have a good explanation for why you didn't report the problem four months ago.”
Ibrahimovi? cut the comlink.
The Peter the Liberator sailed out into space for many more months, performed an aerobraking and course correction around Neptune, and finally after a long, slow powered deceleration, settled into orbit around Charon, the largest Moon of Pluto. Twelve hours later a shuttle carrying Dr. Aris Kosionidis rose from the surface of Charon and docked with the Peter the Liberator.
“We've got it mostly unburied now,” said Kosionidis to Ibrahimovi?. “We know it was a ship, not a robotic probe. We were able to get inside and we found the remains of the crew.”
“Do you know where it came from?” asked Ibrahimovi?.
“We have no idea. We do know it crashed into Charon around 16 million years ago.”
Ibrahimovi? let that sink in.
“We also know,” Kosionidis continued, “that we can't even guess yet about what half the technology on that ship is for. And the half we can identify is as far in advance of 2299 as we are from the time of the pharaohs.
“We could study it for a hundred years and still not figure it out,” said Ibrahimovi?.
“That might not be necessary. The ship has been trying to talk to us,” said Kosionidis.
“Verbally. Whatever powers it is still functioning at a very low level. Apparently it's been listening to us talk inside the pressure dome we erected around it. At first it just repeated back what we said but in the last four days it's been trying to converse. We're hopeful eventually it can tell us about its origins and explain its technology.”
“Better than a bunch of rocks floating in space,” Ibrahimovi? muttered with a smile.
“Captain?” said Kosionidis.
But Ibrahimovi? didn't answer. His mind was elsewhere. Keep your asteroid belt, he thought. Welcome to our galaxy.
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