Rae Arizona dozed, floating on her surfboard in the Emerald Sea. Cousin Jan had ridden a wave in to get some cold drinks from their home on the beach. The warmth of Arcturus IX twin suns felt good on her tanned skin, her blonde hair almost white.
A sudden wave turned the board over. She went under and came up spluttering to see a huge red eye looking at her expectantly.
"Play?" a voice gurgled, "Play?" It was Spot, Sith and Pallas' pet Oxfish. His idea of 'play' was to dive deeply with someone on his back, then swim up, jump out of the water and splash down. Since Spot was the size of a land crawler, this was quite an experience.
"I'm sorry, Spot," Rae said, patting the creature's nose, "I don't have my pseudogills with me. We'll have to play some other time." "No play now? Spot sad, bye bye." He disappeared into the depths.
"That's right, you big lummox, make me feel sorry for you," Rae said to the departing fish.
"Who are you talking to Rae?" Jan said, floating up with their drinks.
"Spot wanted to play, but I said not now. He's just a big baby and I hate to disappoint him." "That 'baby' could swallow us both for an appetizer," Jan said, handing Rae a thermomug. "But he's cute in his own fishy way." A chime of a holocall was followed by the flickering image of Cedric Hyde-Mathis, Director Of Cosmic Retrievers, Ltd.
"Good fortune, ladies." "Good fortune, Cedric," They chorused.
"What's the assignment today?" Rae added.
"An unusual request came in this morning from the Interstellar Museum on Sirius X. They have received numerous reports of a seemingly derelict spacecraft that entered the galactic rim two Universal Weeks ago. It appears to be of ancient origin, quite possibly pre-Flettner ion drive which means it was still traveling to it's destination when the galaxy was colonized. The museum would like the derelict as ... Osiris' Flail! What is that creature behind you!?" "Play now?" Jan laughed, "That's Spot, Sith's pet Oxfish. They're ... I mean he's off exploring in the mountains and Spot gets lonely. We'll play in a bit, Spot." "Can wait." "As I was saying, the museum is interested in having the craft as part of it's collection, however they have requested the artifact be explored before they salvage it. This is a bit out of our usual procedure, but a payment of 150m Cr's is tempting. What say you?" Rae and Jan exchanged glances, and then nodded.
"We do enjoy a challenge," Rae replied. "Shall we say ... umm... 50 percent of the bounty considering it's out of ordinary procedure?" "Agreed; the information that's available on the derelict is being tight beamed to you as we speak. Good fortune to you." "Good fortune, Cedric," the women chorused as the holo winked out.
"Play now?" "Yes, Spot, we can play now," Jan said.
"Take it slow, big fella," Rae said as they seated themselves on the creatures scaly back, gripping it's dorsal fin. "We're not wearing pseudogills today." "Spot go slow." With a flick of his tail, Spot raced out to sea carving a glittering bow wave, the women whooping and hollering on his back. The captain of an 18th Century whaling ship would have certainly recognized it as a 'Nantucket Sleigh Ride' minus the whaleboat, harpoon and whale.
"Those are nuclear fusion motors," Sith said as the derelict came into sight on the view screens. "They're on pylons to reduce the crew's exposure to the radiation. With such a low thrust it must have taken thirty years or more to achieve maximum acceleration." The ship was indeed a relic of the past when Terrans had begun to explore beyond their own solar system. Records indicated a total of five such ships were launched, but only this one had returned.
It's configuration reminded Rae of an ancient thrill ride she had seen on a history chip when she was young ... what was it called ... oh yes ... a Ferris Wheel. The crew cabin was in the center and the engines were well away from it attached to spindly frameworks, as were other unidentifiable teardrop shaped objects on shorter pylons, possibly solar collectors or steering apparatus.
"I've tried hailing on all frequencies, but there's no response," Jan said. "I don't see how anyone could be aboard anyway. It's hundreds of years old. The crew must have died long ago." "The original crew of both sexes was carefully selected for their youth, genetic composition and personal compatibility," Sith said. "It's possible their descendants are piloting the ship home." "I'll check it out," Pallas added. "There must be a docking port so we can go inside." He exited the Sunflower through a specially designed hatch Jan had constructed for him and was soon circling the crew module.
"I have found two entrances," Pallas announced. "They appear to be double chambered airlocks, but there is no docking port. All exterior maintenance appears to be by remotely controlled mechanisms. I cannot detect signs of life. Do you want me to force an airlock open?" "I have a better idea," Rae replied. "Let's anchor our docking module to the ship's side and create an opening. That way the internal atmosphere won't be compromised possibly destroying some valuable artifacts." All agreed it was sound reasoning and soon the Sunflower was clinging to the crew module as a remora clings to a shark. Sith's wielding of a plasma cutter created a being sized opening and the odd fragrance of the derelicts air wafted into the Sunflower's cabin. Weapons at the ready, the three moved cautiously into the dimly lit interior, Pallas joining them a moment later.
The room they entered was sparsely furnished with tables and chairs; equipment lockers lining one wall. A fine layer of dust on everything indicated the space had not been occupied in some time.
"It appears the crew is long dead," Jan observed, holstering her positron pistol. "I wonder how the craft came to return here and not continue on into infinity." "It may have strayed too close to a collapsar's gravitational field and that altered it's course," Sith said. "The intensity of it's gamma rays could have very well killed the crew, thus it became a ghost ship." "Let's see what the rest of this rig looks like," Rae said, opening a door into a dimly lit corridor. They opened several doors along the way, revealing what appeared to be living quarters containing bunks, tables, chairs and lockers, all coated with dust. Exploring other corridors and other rooms yielded the same result.
"Where are the remains of the crew?" Jan wondered.
"Let's find the main control room," Sith replied. "Maybe they're in there. Can you determine where it is, Pallas?" "I think so," the sphere replied. "Every system seems to be inactive, but I can trace residual electrical impulses to their source, they are stronger in this direction." Wending their way along the corridors they came to a bright yellow door, with a thick plastiseal.
"This is it," Pallas said. "The impulses are considerably stronger." Jan turned the levered handle and the door opened inward with a hiss of escaping air under pressure. The room was large and brightly lit, control consoles and view screens occupying the floor and wall spaces. No one was there.
"Anubis' fangs," Rae swore. "What is going on here? There's no bodies, no nothing, yet this equipment isn't dusty, it appears to have been used recently. I'm getting a funny feeling about this derelict." "Welcome to the Ad Astra, space travelers," said a reedy voice behind them.
Startled, Rae and Jan spun around, pistols springing into their hands as Sith went into a fighting crouch, a snarl on his lips.
Standing in the doorway was a tall gangly humanoid dressed in a gray toga-like garment. It's oddly shaped head was devoid of hair, it's eyes unnaturally large, it's nose diminutive, it's mouth a lipless slash.
"What are you and where's the crew of this ship?" Rae barked.
"I am a member of the crew," the being said calmly, unmoved by their hostility. "I waited for you by the aft airlock, but you entered elsewhere." "Where are the other crew members?" "They are" ... a pause..."Elsewhere in the ship, they will be here presently." "This craft's crew was Terrans from Old Earth. You don't resemble them," Jan said.
"We are their descendants" ... another pause..."But we have changed in the course of our journey, we have evolved." "This beings appearance is not in accordance with projected evolutionary changes in humanoid species originating in the Sol star system," Pallas said in his partners' minds. "It is primarily a carbon based life form, but there are other elements that compose it's physical composition that I will need to analyze further." "It's not human?" Rae asked.
"By scientific definition, no." "Tell Jan and Sith we'll play along for the moment, they may have the human crew hidden away somewhere." Quick glances from them told her the message was received.
"The crew members have assembled in the forward dining area," the being announced. "They are interested in meeting you." "Likewise," Sith muttered.
The thirty crew members were mirror images of each other, appearing sexless or possibly hermaphroditic; at any rate they were not human. They were polite, deferential, soft spoken and curious, but not overtly so. They tentatively touched Rae and Jan's skin, Sith's pelt and held Pallas in their hands as he turned a comforting shade of green and radiated warmth.
They seemed indifferent to their guests' weapons, barely giving them a glance. Rae noticed that every one of them made a point of briefly touching each of their guests with an outstretched hand, palm against skin or fur as if taking a reading. It was quite odd.
Once back in the ship, Rae and the others discussed their meeting with the self described crew. They had noticed peculiarities among the beings that combined with their appearance and demeanor only heightened their alien aspect. Pallas' assessment was correct; these beings were not of Old Earth.
Rae described the peculiar touching that went on during the encounter, Jan noticed couples staring intently into each other's eyes, keeping perfectly still as if silently communicating and Sith had seen the beings angling their foreheads against one another, seeming to merge and then separating.
"Since they were so curious about me," Pallas began, "I was able to extract minute tissue samples from each and analyze them. Their cellular structure is essentially carbon based, but with two significant differences. Two molecular components are also present in naturally occurring quantities; tropocollagens and polymers of high molecular mass." "Which means?" Sith said.