2947-11-26 – Tales from the Service: A Reacher’s Reward
One of the damndest thing about Reachers is that never has the same Reacher ship been encountered twice – each time one of their seashell-hulls appears, it has a different energy emission profile and a different, often vastly different, physical appearance. When a Reacher ship disappears into the dark, it’s never seen by human eyes or sensors again, as if the ships have a very short service life and are rapidly replaced.
This final chapter of Mus’ad Balos’s account (which starts with Tales from the Service: A Reacher's Request) begins to explain this oddity. The Reacher ship completed its repairs and departed the system before his ship even reached planetary orbit, but telescopic spies on Botterhill noticed something odd – it had left behind an object of mass not much less than the asteroids it had collected, an object which shone as it tumbled, like a polished shell.
Securing permission via Hypercast communication with his superiors at Maribel, Mus’ad took the squadron to investigate the Reachers’ refuse, in the hopes that something new might be learned about them.
The object they approached was not like a polished shell, it was a polished shell – three quarters of the outer skin of the Reacher dreadnought, all in one piece and including the damaged areas, had been left behind as easily as an Earth lobster sheds its chitinous armor. This explains why each Reacher we run into looks different; their ships apparently shed their hulls and nanotechnologically grow new ones with available material to save the trouble of patching up holes.
Much to the Navy’s dismay, this remnant proved to be of little use; though obviously nano-grown rather than manufactured, the ferrous material of the absurdly thick, inert hull the Reachers had left behind was little more than refined asteroid iron with a complex nano-scale crystal structure. The Navy poked it with everything they had, but in the end, they handed it over to the Botterdowns system authority, which is apparently planning to tow it into planetary orbit and build a unique orbital station in its conveniently massive interior.
As the five destroyers scanned and prodded this titanic remnant, Mus’ad led an EVA team from Penelope Ott into the cavernous interior, in the faint hope that the Reachers had left other trinkets behind. He was in luck – they had.
It was all Mus’ad could muster, and he was glad he had switched off his comms pickup. Four floodlight beams splayed out from the bow of Penelope Ott’s service launch, each painting a puddle of wan light on the fluted, arched wall on the far side of the hollowed-out Reacher hulk. Though spectroscopic analysis had suggested the shell was made of nothing but asteroid-harvested nickel-iron, the surface shimmered like polished gray mother-of-pearl.
Even in this weak illumination, the cathedral-like beauty of the discarded shell was evident. Though it had no clear floor, it did seem to have an all-around Gothic arched ceiling. The vast, lens-shaped interior where the Reacher ship’s working innards and crew spaces had been seemed the domain of ancient ghosts, though the mechanical beast which had grown the shell and vacated it only weeks before.
Mus’ad and his crew hadn’t come to the derelict shell to sight-see, of course. He switched back on his comm pickup. “All right, we’re jumping off. Perez, go check out the damage sites as soon as we’re clear.”
The launch pilot held the little craft perfectly still relative to the lazily tumbling hulk while Mus’ad detached the EVA support sled from its side and switched his safety tether to the hardy little drone. The other three members of the EVA team hanging onto the sides of the service launch each did the same, and the team kicked free of their ride.
As the launch zipped away under the power of its maneuvering thrusters, Mus’ad switched his comms channel to exclude its pilot, who had other duties to attend to. “At least one person and the sled stay in line-of-sight to the ship at all times.” He pointed to the gaping “mouth” of the Reacher ship-shell, beyond which the well-lit length of Penelope Ott sat only a few kilometers away. He doubted it would be possible to get lost in the mere shell of a ship, but a drone survey of the interior prior to the EVA mission had revealed a number of hollows and tunnels sunk into the thick, ferrous shell, and he didn’t want to take chances.
“We’re the first people to do anything like this, aren’t we, Skipper?”
“Far as I know.” Mus’ad tried not to think about it. Historical opportunities like this one were usually something the cautious Reachers took pains to avoid giving to Terrans, and he’d already spent the last several days puzzling over their sudden change of tack. “Let’s check out those chambers the drone found.”
Each of them reeled in their lines and grabbed onto the sled, and Mus’ad gave it the coordinates of the first and largest of the hollows carved seamlessly into the ship-shell. With gentle one-gee acceleration, the sled towed the team to its destination. At first, Mus’ad couldn’t see anything; the entrance to the hollow was hidden in the fluted folds of the inside wall until they were almost on top of it.
Playing a wrist-beam into a circular hole barely two meters across, salvage tech Moyna Phan at the front of the sled keyed on her comm. “Not sure I like the look of this. Could be anything in there.”
“If we’re lucky.” Mus’ad played out his line and reached for his side-arm, strapped to the thigh of his suit. He wasn’t asking for volunteers. “I’ll go first. If it’s empty, and it probably is, this should only take a moment.”
None of the others protested, not wanting to be the first to crawl into the tight confines of the smooth-walled tunnel even though the safety line back to the sled would prevent any loss of contact. Perhaps if he had been a proper captain with a whole cruiser and attending ships to command, someone might have been honor-bound to hold him back and go themselves, but a destroyer skipper was hardly irreplaceable.
The lip around the opening protruded slightly out into the cavernous hollow of the ship-shell, its edge wrinkled slightly as if the heavy nano-grown metal was an orifice that could widen or close at will. Suppressing a shudder at the thought, Mus’ad switched his suit-lights to maximum power and pushed off down the curving, tubular shaft.
According to the drone’s survey, the tunnel should have been only six meters long, but Mus’ad thought it seemed more like twenty before it terminated in an enclosed, globular chamber. The drone data said the space was about ten meters across on its widest axis, but again a trick of the smooth, gleaming walls made it seem at least twice that big. Tiny holes riddled the opposite wall like worm-tunnels burrowing through a rotten tree, but the opening of each was as smooth and seamless as every other surface – the holes were original to the shell, and they had a purpose.
Mus’ad drifted into the middle of the space and tried to imagine what it was for. For the barest instant, he pictured a lone three-limbed Reacher drifting there instead of himself, surrounded by and entangled in a cocoon of sensory equipment, with its multivariate grip-tendrils grasping the controls that steered the ship, each of its three eyes fixed on a display of what could be seen outside the ship in one direction or another. It was a fantastic thought to be sure – Reacher ships were probably so fully automated that they did not need pilots or even helmsmen like Terran ships. He doubted any human would ever see the inside of a Reacher vessel to test his imaginative speculation.
“Skipper, you’d better come out here.”
Tech Phan’s voice startled him out of his over-imaginative reverie. Mus’ad triggered the safety-line spindle on his belt and guided himself back up the tunnel as it dragged him toward the sled.
The moment he appeared in the opening, the tech turned and pointed with one heavy-gloved hand at something the other two members of the EVA team were already staring at intently with their meta-lens helmet magnifiers. Switching his own on, he pulled the bearing and zoom settings from their units.
The object they were looking at drifted without tumbling a few dozen meters out into the empty center of the ship-shell, its gleaming grey material matching that of the shadowed walls beyond. One of the other EVA personnel had fixed the sled’s lights on the object, and Mus’ad could see subtle fluting along its spindle-like profile. The suit’s computer estimated the object’s length at barely forty centimeters. “That wasn’t there a minute ago.”
Phan shook her head inside her helmet, since they were close enough for the gesture to be visible. “Negative, sir. The sled’s sensors flagged it while you were down there.”
“Same temperature profile as the hulk.”
One of the other techs gestured wildly. “Hey! There’s writing on that thing.”
Mus’ad set his tether line to play out once more, then kicked out from the iron orifice toward the offending object. The possibility that it was a booby-trap occurred to him – was the whole hulk left as a test to the curiosity of Terrans, and would an excess of that urge be considered a failure?
Slowing his forward motion with suit attitude jets, Mus’ad crept up on the spindle. The lights from the sled and his own suit lights brought out its mother-of-pearl shimmer to an impressive degree, and he might have paused for several seconds to appreciate the play of light along its fluted ridges if he had not spotted the inscription.
Reacher glyphs had been found on some of the trinkets which their kind had traded to Terrans over the centuries, but no headway had ever been made in translating them. Evidently, the Reachers had no similar trouble with the written language of humans. Etched precisely as if by electro-pencil along the top of one of the ribbed protrusions, Mus’ad picked out Terran block-letters.
The others, picking up the feed from Mus’ad’s helmet camera, had identified out and read the inscription before he did. Though all three made noises of surprise which the comms circuit elected to transmit, Phan recovered first. “Skipper, is there something you aren’t telling us?”
Phan’s gasp preceded Mus’ad’s further shock by less than a second, as he read the inscription himself.
CONTENTS PROPERTY OF LT CDR MUS’AD BALOS, DD-641 PENELOPE OTT
“I wish there was.” Mus’ad reached out for the container – for container it must be, to have contents. He half-expected his gloved hand to pass through it, revealing it to be only a product of his imagination, but his fingers found unyielding metal. Perhaps the Reachers had discovered the cost of the license he’d bought them – both in credits and in the chewing-out he’d received from the civilian administration – and decided not to accept Terran charity. Perhaps they – the always mercantile Reachers - had merely elected to leave a gift for unrelated reasons. Perhaps – and Mus’ad thought this most likely - this was yet another step in a scheme brewed in a wholly alien mind, which his own neural structure could not begin to process.
Carefully, Mus’ad wrestled the object into a sample container and sealed it. He doubted the item was dangerous now, but he would have Phan and several other techs work it over, just to be sure.
Unfortunately, Naval Intelligence drew the line here on this story. They wouldn’t let Lieutenant Commander Balos talk to me about the canister further, except to say that his crew did eventually get it open. Whatever was inside, I hope the skipper does eventually get it back from the spooks; seems to me the Reachers might be offended if he didn’t.