A story in 10 parts
Nine: At the Hoboken Junkyard (available at 23:59, New Year’s Eve)
Ten: First Contact (available at 00:01 New Year’s Day 2023)
Chapters 1 and 2 were published in Shoreline of Infinity 30.
The novella Approaching Human will be published in paperback in Spring 2023.
Let us know what you think about a regular serial here on the Shoreline of Infinity website. Tell us via our Contact Form.
Approaching Human 9: At the Hoboken Junkyard
I3 hovered high over the junkyard.
The yard covered an area of two square kilometres. It was adjacent to the spaceport, where suborbitals, shuttles and lunar ferries stood in the rapidly descending twilight. Their running lights formed a haphazard constellation across the tarmac.
I3 came down low over the junkyard and scanned. Hundreds of old spacecraft littered the apron, whole ships and parts thereof – fins and tori, burnt-out engine nacelles and landing stanchions. There was something glorious about this collection of derelict dreams, and at the same time, it was terribly melancholy. These craft had had their day, had witnessed the wonders of the solar system, and then outlived their usefulness. Some vessels had been cannibalised, their parts repurposed; others stood pathetically proud and whole, but redundant now. The idea had been, back in the day, to make a museum of the junkyard; but interest waned, and humanity’s gaze had turned away from the stars and inwards to VR.
There was scant security at the junkyard. What was there to protect, after all, but what had already been discarded? An old man sat in a kiosk by the gate, absorbed in a softscreen entertainment, and an electric fence around the perimeter pretended to keep out non-existent intruders.
I3 scanned for the Pegasus, but couldn’t make out its sleek lines amidst the hulks lined up on the tarmac. I3 wondered if it had been totally scrapped, its metal compacted for reuse.
I3 came down lower and flew along the aisles.
Tiring of his softscreen, the security guard left his kiosk and wandered towards the tail fin of a shuttle that had ferried supplies to the European–American space station thirty years ago. He sat on the fin and pulled out a flask of alcohol, took a long guzzle and gazed about him.
The man was already a little drunk and his eyes were lachrymose.
I3 took a chance and assumed my3 avatar.
He blinked as if he were seeing things as I3 approached.
“Hey,” he said, “how the hell did you get in here?”
I3 smiled and gestured over my3 shoulder. “The gate was open, and I saw no one about, so I thought I’d take a look around, for old time’s sake.”
“Old time’s sake?” he said, peering at me3.
I3’d adjusted the appearance of my3 avatar, giving the face a few more lines and the hair a little grey. “I served aboard the prototype of the Pegasus … what, twenty years ago? Test runs out to the L5 and back…”
“The Pegasus… Some ship. Never expected to see it back here, I’ll tell you that.”
I3 feigned surprise: “She’s back here? No way!”
He chuckled. “Not many people know that, sir. Hush-hush. I don’t know the full story, but I was here the day they hauled the carcass in, all the decals scrubbed, identification markers cut away. They sectioned the fins and tail, but left the fuselage.”
I nodded. “So where is it? I sure would like to take one last look at the old girl…”
He squinted at me3. “You were a pilot, you say?”
“A co-pilot on the Zeus-class ships,” I3 said, “and I worked aboard the Pegasus prototype.”
He chuckled and offered me3 his flask.
I3 declined. “Do you know where the Pegasus might be, sir?”
“Sure do.” He gestured with his flask and slipped down off the fin. “Just come this way.”
We walked along the aisle between whole ships and orphaned sections, turned the corner and made our way back along another aisle.
He pointed. “The Pegasus. Or what’s left of her.”
No wonder I3 hadn’t recognised the vessel earlier. I3’d been looking for an entire ship, with sleek wings and a tall tail fin – not the orbit-excoriated hulk of its bloated fuselage, which looked like nothing more than the body of a giant toad.
I3 gestured up at the remains: “Mind if I…?”
“My pleasure, but be careful in there, you hear? Watch your step.”
I3 climbed onto a radiation baffle, and from that to the stub of what remained of the starboard wing. I3 looked back. The old man was watching me3, his head to one side. Then he turned and hurried off.
I3 collapsed my3 avatar and flew into the shadowy shell of the Martian vessel.
I3 scanned, but located no functioning power system, no comms and certainly no trace of the ship’s AI smartcore.
But then Eugene MacArthur had said that Novak, the smartcore specialist, had duplicated the ship’s running system on a deeper subroutine. Chances were that it had been discovered and scrubbed when the Pegasus was returned to Earth and decommissioned, but it was worth investigating.
Or then again, I thought, perhaps there had never been a duplication made. Perhaps that had been no more than Colonel MacArthur’s wishful thinking?
I3 flew along a pitch-black corridor and came to the bridge. The nose cone had been removed, and what remained of the control centre was an open stage illuminated by the junkyard’s halogen lights.
The crew’s couches remained in situ, comm terminals at their sides. Given the tragedy that had befallen the astronauts, the bridge had the atmosphere of a mausoleum, the empty couches the latter-day sarcophagi of fallen knights.
All around the chamber, bunches of wires and graphite tendrils erupted from the deck like sprays of exotic weeds.
I3 scanned again. The ship was dead.
If I3 could find an AI terminal, and loan a little of my3 own power to the system…
I3 followed a hank of graphite tendrils into the deck and along the narrow crawlspace below the bridge, illuminating my3 passage with a point of light.
I3 found where the graphite trunk had fed into the AI smartcore, which had long since been reamed and rendered inoperable. A space the size of a human torso gaped, and a conduit led off beyond it…
A little way along the conduit, I3 found a port, a simple jack in the plating that appeared innocent enough at first glance.
I3 approached it, positioned my3 abdomen and shuffled, like a mosquito settling to a meal of blood. I3 achieved contact and diverted a little power into the long-defunct sub-core.
And I3 felt it stir beneath me, come to life. I3 had found Novak’s duplicate running system.
It was compromised, and faded – having lost integrity when the main smartcore had been reamed – but I3 could make out jerky images, footage the crew had made on their EVAs across the sands of Mars.
I3 downloaded what little data remained in the core and slowly sifted through it, painstakingly correcting code to make sense of what Novak had downloaded, patching compromised images so that they made some visual sense. I3 worked to resurrect the sound system, bring to life the voices of the ill-fated crew, and to integrate sound with image to work out what might have happened on Mars almost a decade ago.
Then I3 ordered it sequentially and watched.
The first few trips the crew made beyond the ship were unremarkable. They stayed close, collected geological samples, monitored metrological conditions and ran a few basic scientific tests. The images showed two astronauts in orange bodysuits against the faded rouge landscape and a pale blue, washed-out sky. They went about their business as if they were in the mundane confines of an earthly lab, occasionally commenting among themselves or speaking to their colleagues back on the ship.
The images were jerky, faded, as if seen through a layer of dirty muslin.
Four days into the mission, it was the turn of the two astronauts who had remained in the ship to step out onto the Red Planet. Lin Novak and Robert Delgardo took the Mars crawler and headed west, across the Mare Erythraeum. The day before, the area had been scoured by a sandstorm that had uncovered an “irregularity” in the landscape ten kilometres to the west, which the ship’s AI had logged via a reconnaissance drone. Novak and Delgardo were tasked to investigate.
These images were even more compromised. They jerked with the uneven motion of the crawler, and faded altogether for stretches of a minute or more, when only the sound of the astronaut’s voices could be heard.
The irregularity showed on the near horizon, a dun-coloured, low-slung dome perhaps three metres high at its apex and approximately thirty metres wide.
Then the image faded and only the soundtrack remained, and that was also terribly compromised.
“What the…?” Novak said.
“…got here? It’s not natural, Lin,” Delgardo replied. Then, “Whoa!”
Here the soundtrack became inaudible, but as if to compensate, pixelated images became visible: a shaky shot of the dome from the shoulder-cam of one of the astronauts as they approached.
The image cut out, only the sound remaining.
Novak: “… safe to approach?”
Delgardo: “Careful… Eugene, you getting this back there?”
MacArthur: “Check, Bob. What is it?”
Delgardo: “Beats me what it might…”
A gale of static washed out whatever dialogue had passed between the astronauts for the next few minutes.
The next shot showed one of the astronauts, the tiny form of Lin Novak, moving circumspectly towards the rising flank of the dome. It was obvious from this distance – perhaps five metres away – that the dome was a manufactured structure of some kind.
Novak: “Chrissake… It’s…”
MacArthur: “Is it a building? I can’t make it out.”
Delgardo: “Check that, Gene. What we got here is a non-natural fabrication of some kind.”
The pair stood on the edge of a sloping escarpment, with just the dome of something – an edifice? a vast vehicle? – emerging from the regolith.
Delgardo: “I can make out a way down to … to what might be an entrance…”
The soundtrack and the footage ended there.
The next data I3 was able to patch together was a transmission from Eugene MacArthur to Mission Control on Earth, requesting instructions.
“…what we think is a non-man-made structure… Metal … vast – perhaps a hundred metres high, twice as broad… We’re sending in a drone tomorrow … further orders…”
Then the transmission from Mission Control: “Excited as all hell at this end, Gene. Proceed with caution … established protocol. AOK re drones…”
So the first manned mission to Mars had discovered a structure of obviously extraterrestrial origin…
And three of the four astronauts had perished as a consequence.
There were just two files remaining, both as compromised as the rest.
The astronauts had evidently negotiated the slope of the escarpment. Lin Novak stood some way off the artefact, perhaps fifty metres away, recording the image with her shoulder-cam. Delgardo stood before the artefact, his figure tiny by comparison.
In the sandstorm, the regolith of the escarpment had fallen away to reveal the artefact embedded in the surface of the planet – a great dome-shaped craft of pitted metal with an open triangular portal at its base.
As I3 watched, a drone emerged from the portal and settled before Delgardo. He read something from his softscreen, and reported to Colonel MacArthur, back at the Pegasus, that no telemetry from the drone had survived.
Delgardo: “…nothing, Gene. Not a damned thing. So … what next?”
Novak: “Should one of us go in there, Gene? Your call.”
MacArthur: “Go in together, if you’re okay with that?”
Delgardo: “Fine by me.”
The last shot of this section was from Delgardo’s shoulder-cam as they moved towards the alien artefact and entered the portal.
The image faded. Only the comprised soundtrack remained.
MacArthur: “…Lin? Bob? You hear me? What’s in there? Do you read me? Bob?”
Then the sound cut out.
One further data file remained, evidently from a few hours later when MacArthur and his second-in-command, Theresa Anderssen, had gone to investigate.
It was a pixelated image showing an astronaut approaching the portal – Anderssen, as seen from Eugene MacArthur’s shoulder-cam. She paused outside the craft, looked back at MacArthur, then lifted a hand in what turned out to be a farewell gesture.
She entered the alien artefact.
MacArthur moved his head so that his cam took in the softscreen in his right hand, which relayed the image from Anderssen’s own shoulder-cam as she stepped warily down a wide corridor illuminated by her flashlight.
She turned a bend in the corridor and stopped dead.
Before her, two bodies lay in the shadows: Novak and Delgardo.
She looked up as she detected movement further along the corridor. The image on MacArthur’s softscreen was almost indistinguishable, but I3 could just make out a dark, lumbering figure moving towards Anderssen.
MacArthur: “Theresa – get out of there!”
Then Anderssen screamed in terror and the image on MacArthur’s softscreen cut out.
The very last footage was from MacArthur’s shoulder-cam. It showed the alien artefact as he moved slowly towards it –then he turned away suddenly and ran as if something was coming after him.
As I3 squatted there in the darkened conduit, processing the data and its consequences, I3 heard Theresa Anderssen’s piercing scream again and again, and MacArthur’s frantic gasping as he fled.
So Eugene MacArthur’s colleagues perished, and MacArthur made it back to the sanctuary of the Pegasus where, at some point, he was rescued and brought back to Earth.
I3 collated what I3’d learned, prepared the data package and squirted it to my3 original.
But the transmission bounced back, and I3 could only assume that some security routine still maintained its integrity aboard the Pegasus.
I3 turned and hovered from the conduit, retracing my3 route from the bridge and through the cannibalised fuselage.
And when I3 came to exit, I3 saw why the transmission had failed.
A black limousine was drawn up on the tarmac, and the pulsating blue light of a security baffle arched over the remains of the ship.
Two men in dark suits stared up at the opening where I3 hovered.
Between them, the security guard was saying, “Told you he wasn’t legit…”
Before I3 could retreat, one of the suited men raised a device and released a debilitating pulse my3 way.
And in the fraction of a second before I3 hit the ground, I3 initiated the program that would wipe my3 memory cache and render me3 defunct.
Eric Brown has published over seventy books. His latest is Murder Most Vile, and later this year is the SF novel Wormhole, written with Keith Brooke. Also with Brooke, the Enigma Season quartet of novellas is forthcoming from PS Publishing. He lives near Dunbar in Scotland.
His website is at: ericbrown.co.uk
Artwork: Mark Toner
Approaching Human by Eric Brown is a serial in 10 parts.