Karg -- Chapter 4

Journey to Karg

copyright 1997 by Pat Powers

Pelman jumps were named after the scientist who made the key deduction in understanding the Voerhaven installation's Pelman jump facilities. Once the facilities were understood, it became possible to know where a jump was headed -- and to know how to get back. This was what made real interstellar trade and commerce possible. The wild diaspora that had taken place while the Voerhaven facility was little understood was strictly people who didn't care if they ever saw the rest of the human race again -- and in fact, none of them ever did.

But their descendants did, because one of the first things Earth system did after Pelman jumps became practical was to begin searching for survivors of the diaspora. Over time, survivors were found, although it was more common to find desolate ruins filled with bones sited on planets that would never support human life, or silent ships drifting through the darkness of space, their life support functions gone, their crew and passengers frozen in the attitudes of madness, despair or resignation in which their fate overtook them.

But the settlements on Eniar III, Valsom's World, the Astaroth Fields and others had not only survived, but prospered, and quickly started up a lucrative commerce with the planet their ancestors had fled.

Other former colonies had survived, albeit with reduced technology and culture. Several had been reduced to hunter/gatherer status in just a few generations. Even these often produced unique cultures and artifacts that brought good prices in Earth system and elsewhere.

M2395b looked to be such a planet. An AI probe of the system had found two Forerunner installations: Celtan and Two Mazurinsky III (the latter site belonged not to a specific culture, but was more a name for a grab-bag of cultures found in the 2+billion-year range in this arm of the galaxy).

More to the point, the planet that at present bore no more designation than the letter b had shown signs of habitation. Closer inspection by the AI ship had shown that there were roads, buildings, primitive wheeled vehicles and bipeds that looked very much like human beings walking on those roads and living in those buildings.

The betting at Jupiter base was that we were looking at a lost colony group that had reverted back nearly to prehistoric levels. They weren't ALL the way back to hunter-gatherers -- the roads, buildings and fields showed that they'd been able to stabilize before that happened -- but they were very nearly there. There were no radiations, radio signals, or chemical elements in the atmosphere to indicate advanced technology. There were very likely quite a few tribes on the periphery of this "civilization" at hunter-gatherer status, and they were probably several notches up from the wretches who lived at the bottom-most rung of the "higher" culture.

All of this data came from the AI probe that had flown through, explored the system for a week, and flown on, sending back a report via a Pelman-jump drone to Jupiter base.

As soon as the drone's first transmissions came in, the nets started buzzing with the news. So far, the exploration of h-space (i.e., human space) had turned up 43 surviving colonies, and each one was a huge success in terms of entertainment net ratings, and also generated huge interest in the academic, scientific and biz nets, and of course the gossip nets went wild.

When the news hit that we would be the team that explored, our Net traffic went through the roof. We had to get an AI program to answer the mail for us -- there would have been no time to prep for the mission. We just got tidbits and whatever we asked the AI to screen for. I asked it to let through proposals of marriage (there were 227) and photos of naked men (there were 4,765) and Tully asked it to let through the same thing: he had several thousand marriage proposals and several thousand photos of naked women, generally both at the same time.

We both had about a thousand photos and a hundred proposals of marriage from members of our own sex, as well.

Some people just sent us images of their genitals, which I thought was kind of sad and had the AI screen out after seeing the first few, but Tully said they were just trying to participate in our mission in their own peculiar way, cheering us on with the knowledge that many excited genitals waited for us on Earth upon the successful completion of our mission.

We toyed with the idea of matching our photos and marriage proposals up and returning the appropriate men's photos and proposals to women whose appearance and suggestions seemed to be complementary, and vice versa. But we knew that would be a cruel thing to do, so we just had our AI agent send out noncommital thanks for all the mail we received, even the stuff we would rather not have received.

There was also a lot of E-mail that was much more relevant to our mission. Some hobbyists who tracked re-contact missions sent us very cogent summaries of what we might expect, briefs that were very close to what we were getting from our Jupiter base trainers. There was also considerably less cogent advice to be had: several people wrote to say they were certain that the planet's populace originated in the lost continent of Atlantis, Mu, Lemuria and other unlikely places. Others claimed to BE from the planet we were about to investigate, and either asked for return passage to their homeland in the most desperate and pathetic terms, or warned us to stay away lest we disturb the highly evolved beings who lived there. A couple of the letters included extremely detailed and elaborate drawings, paintings and diagrams which purported to prove the sender's assertions, but in fact served only to demonstrate the sender's incipient schizophrenia. (Our AI agent discreetly sent copies to the sender's local mental health agencies, when their addresses were known. A lot of the mail we got was sent anonymously or under and untraceable pseudonym).

Well, that was Earth system for you.

Our ship, the Hillary (named after the 59th President of the old U.S.) was a roomy affair, with berths for twice as many people as it carried (the number of people sent on a mission varied, depending on what kind of information the AI probe sent back). As we approached, telemetry resolved it into the standard exploration vessel -- a collection of circular Asimov cells strung together into a necklace by a spidery webwork of steel beams, with the ion drive hung in the center (the Pelman drive emitted no dangerous radiation and did not push the ship per se, so it was located in one of the Asimov cells.)

With its running lights on it was a beautiful sight as we approached it, gleaming against the darkness of interstellar space, with Jupiter in the background. It was a nice thing to look at as we sat and absorbed our final instructions before boarding.

The Dawn Treader's command cell was a roomy place, and we'd trained in enough cells like it that it was also very familiar. After stowing our few items of personal gear in the bunk cell, we congregated in the command cell and got the ship underway, under the watchful eye of videocams that were sending feeds to the Earthside nets.

The whole ship did that deep groaning and subtled shifting an Asimov ring ship does as it took up the strain created by the ion drives' thrust. You couldn't hear the ion drives, or see them directly from the command cell, but you could feel the vibrations travelling from the engines, damped though they were by the webbing that held them in place.

Sammy took the captain's chair, Anna handled astrogation, I was traffic control and Tully was sysop of the comp nets, inboard and outboard.

Actually, we were all supercargo -- the AI was flying the ship, and we were just watching the readouts to make sure everything went according to spec. But in Earth system, deep backup was mandatory, as there was just too much stuff whizzing around the Pelman jump points to take any chances at all.

Besides, it was good PR to show the brave young explorers running the ship.

I was the only who was really busy, trying to respond to all the well-wishing from Earth system potentates. It kept me busy, which was a blessing, because after all my training, I was really ready to hit that jump point and check out M2395b.

Before I knew it, I heard Anna's voice saying, "Pelman jump point 131XC on approach. Ten seconds..."

And suddenly there was no Earth system, no stars, no nothing but the absolute silence and the towering quasi-structures of subspace. The pillarlike formations that towered above us and below us, receding to infinity, did not in fact exist in the sense that we did, but it was still not wise to fly through them, and the AI drove the Pelman engines in microjumps that would in a few day's time put us at the jump point for M2395b, without impaling us in a quasipillar.

Subspace travel was about as boring as it got, and being veterans, we all buckled down and studied our primitive cultures and temperate worlds databases, not looking for anything in particular, just absorbing all we could in the hope that we'd pick up that one little piece of data that would make the difference between a successful mission and a washout.

It was boring, but it was the only thing we had to do that would help us on the mission, other than staying fit and healthy, so we did it.

Three days later, Anna announced "Pelman reentry point obtained," and suddenly we were back in normal space, gazing at the tiny distant speck that was the live sun of the system we were about to explore. We were actually a few hundred million klicks out of the orbit of a dead dwarf star that was M2395b's companion in the system, but was so remote and small (in stellar terms) that its only effect on the system was to warp the orbit of a couple of tiny ice balls that constituted the system's outer planets. Its orbit didn't interfere with the system's Oort cloud, so it didn't even have the occasional baleful effect that Nemesis had had on Earth's evolution.

We sent a drone back through the Pelman point to let Earth system know we were safely arrived, then began deep scanning everthing in the system, replicating exactly the steps taken by the AI probe when it first entered the system.

Every shift, we sent another drone heading for the Pelman point. The drones would make the subspace jump to our Jovian Pelman point, where they'd head for a drone station in close orbit. There, the drone's data would be sent to Earth, it would be refuelled and fitted with news from Jupiter base and the Earth feeds, and sent back through the Pelman point to us. Thus, we'd have a constant supply of new drones to return to Earth, and a constant supply of news from Earth, while Jupiter base would be able to keep tabs on our progress.

There would be some delays -- as we headed insystem, the distance our drones would have to travel to and from the Pelman jump point would increase, so the lag between what was happening and when it got to Earth system would increase, but there was no helping that.

Our deep scans revealed a solar system that had been progressing in just the way a solar system should -- the usual Kepler stuff.

We checked out the Carmel and Mazurinsky installations. Both were based on asteroids orbiting near the system's single gas giant planet. The Carmel installation was superficially typical of all the others that had shown up in the last few years.

The Mazurinsky installation, like most sites dating back over 2 billion years, was only identifiable as a site because it had existed in the vacuum of space. On a live planet, it wouldn't even be an identifiable fossil, just another collection of chemicals in the lithosphere. Even in space, micrometeorites and radiation had pretty much reduced the site to rubble. It was the sort of place you didn't lean against the walls in, because the walls would just crumble into dust under your weight, even in the negligible gravity of an asteroid. We could tell that the beings who built it had been smaller than us, from the size of the doorways and rooms, and there were a few indications that they had a different body plan than us as well.

But there weren't any intact datasets of any kind -- nothing that we could recognize as a storage medium which had withstood the ravages of two billion years. Whoever had built this facility was a mystery to us, like so much else that we were finding as we explored our Arm of the galaxy.

I was deeply conscious of the fact that I and the others were the first sentient beings to visit this site in centuries -- perhaps millions or billions of years, if the original colonists hadn't found the site. And odds are they hadn't, or hadn't investigated them if they had, because 200 years isn't much time in space, and any little bit of litter they'd left behind would have been there, good as new.

The Carmel installation was much better preserved, but our scans gave an estimated date of 80,000 years for the site, which meant that none of the equipment worked. A fair-sized meteor had breached the installation's walls at some point after the meteor shield had gone down, and it had no atmosphere. The area where the meteor had hit was a mess -- it appeared to have been a warehousing facility, now it was just a jumble of half-melted metal and scraps scattered by explosive decompression.

There were living quarters inside the base that were eerily intact -- I half expected to see the beaked visage of Carmelite as I turned a corner. The Carmelites were a well-documented race -- we'd found and interpreted many of their records much more easily than we'd managed with the Voerhaven site in Earth system, perhaps as a result of the expertise we'd picked up in that effort. So when we found the installations com center and all its records, many of which appeared to be salvageable, we were pleased but not ecstatic. Most of the records would be accounting and inventory information, as the Carmelites were a trade empire.

Archaeologists would sift through the records, but probably not anytime soon. There were too many much hotter sites out there to explore.

To put our explorations of these sites in perspective -- I personally found it fascinating, gripping, to explore the ruins. But the net feeds in Earth system weren't running them for general interest, because after hundreds of such sites had been found and explored, there wasn't much general interest.

So after the preliminaries we moved on to M2395b and set up orbit around the planet at about 30 klicks, scanning it with the full array of instruments in our ships, and if there was one thing our ships had, it was the best scanning equipment Earth system could produce.

It was time to get down and explore this planet.