"Head" by Charles H. Tyler, IV


Strange Artifact
by Joe Vadalma


I am leaving this message as a warning to anyone who enters this space station. My name is Rog Crepzom. I and my partner, Sal Lazdos, are alien archeologists. Some would call us alien grave robbers. Our occupation is to locate, and bring back to the museum we work for, artifacts of alien races. The work is sometimes dangerous, but pays well. I could blame my current predicament on my partner, the lovely Sal. But that would be a lie. The fault is all my own.

It all started when Sal and I went to investigate a newly discovered singularity. Its discoverers claimed that it was natural because of its peculiarities. I had a theory concerning those peculiarities. Although Sal was reluctant at first, I talked her into coming with me to investigate. Since true faster-than-light travel is impossible except through a singularity, we journeyed through hundreds of artificial singularities to get to the anomaly. Sal, who is a most excellent pilot, parked our starship into an orbit far enough away from the singularity to avoid being pulled apart by gravitational tides. Even there, gravity waves tugged at the ship so that it shuddered and shook until Sal compensated for the uneven gravity of the singularity's rotation.

I set the viewscreen and our instruments to examine the singularity. Actually, there was nothing visible. The singularity had long ago swept the system clean of matter. The only manifestations of its presence were the occluded stars behind it and the gravity fluctuations.

"You actually expect me to navigate through that?" Sal asked, rather petulantly. She had been rather terse for this whole voyage. She had a new lover and accused me of proposing the expedition to separate them. She knew how I felt about her, although she had told me again and again that we could never be anything except business partners.

Two years previously we had been lovers, but she broke it off. "I just can't live with a man as reckless and impetuous as you," she told me. "I need stability in my life." I cried then. Nonetheless, we stayed partners and friends.

"Of course. It is the reason we came here. What are you afraid of? This is simply one more slide through two points next to each other in a fifth dimension."

"The other singularities were engineered stargates, for which we had full parameters to feed into the ship's computer. This is a natural white hole. I would need to navigate through it manually. Our ship could be torn apart by its gravity fluctuations before we reached its event horizon."

"How can you conclude that it is natural? Natural singularities cannot exist. They would dissipate or eventually become a black hole if there were enough matter around. This had to have been built by an alien race. You knew there were going to be risks. Why did you come if you were afraid of a little danger?"

Sal chuckled. "You know why, Rog. If we discover something that would make us rich, I would never have to do this again. A little danger is one thing, but there's better than a fifty-fifty chance that we'll be destroyed if I try to pilot through that." She pointed at the invisible thing on our viewscreen.

I loved it when she was arguing with me. Her arms flew about, her beautiful auburn hair waved about in zero gravity, her full lips quivered, and her dark eyes widened. At moments like that I could've grabbed her and kissed her, but I knew that such an action would only make her angry. I needed to soften her up first. Flattery was called for. I knew she was vain about her piloting abilities.

"Nonetheless, you committed to go through with this mission? I don't recall any clauses in our contract about avoiding danger. A master pilot, like you, should have no trouble navigating this singularity." I also loved to challenge her in this manner. She was so competitive, I could get her to do almost anything -- anything short of falling in love with me.

Sal rolled her eyes. "That's what I hate about you. You're always putting me in a position where I can't say no to your insane schemes."

I shrugged. "Nonetheless, you've profited from every one."

"Very well. Get ready for a rough ride. At least I'll have the pleasure of knowing that you'll die with me." From the glint in her eye, I could see that she was so confident in her piloting that I had no doubt we would get through the monster unscathed.

The ship shuddered and rumbled as the ship's great ion-drive engines fired. Great G-forces crushed Sal and me into the padding of our acceleration couches. Terror dampened my forehead. The horrendous black quickly enlarged like a great mouth eating the stars. My confidence that we would arrive on the other side safely grew shakier. But there was nothing to be done about it at that juncture. The ship was already in the area of negative energy, the so-called point of no return. We could no longer escape the gigantic gravity regardless of what Sal did. In moments we would be crushed to elementary particles or find ourselves elsewhere.

As our ship entered the singularity's event horizon at a tremendous speed, I felt as though I was being torn apart, that time itself had stopped, that I had been dropped into a kaleidoscope of whirling colors and forms, that I was going mad and that I was dying -- all at the same time. This lasted several minutes. I was jolted from side to side as Sal maneuvered through the narrow band at the exact center of the singularity. The slightest deviation, and we would be crushed to atoms. The pressure grew increasingly stronger. My eyes bulged, and the skin on my face was pulled backwards. My weight increased enormously. It was absolute torture.

Suddenly, all weight left me. On the viewscreen was what must be one of the most beautiful vistas in the universe. So wonderful and awesome was the sight, it brought tears to my eyes. I was gazing at the galaxy from a viewpoint directly above its central bulge at a distance that I estimated as twenty-thousand light-years. It filled the viewer, its spiral arms sparkling like a child's twirly toy.

"Isn't it gorgeous?" Sal remarked, stating aloud my own feelings. That's another thing about her. She has a real sense of the beautiful. "Hey Rog, I'm detecting a metallic object of an artificial nature less that five thousand kilometers from our current position."

"Wonderful. Head for it immediately. What is its size?"

The galaxy disappeared from the viewscreen to be replaced by an object too dim to make out any details.

"According to my readings the object is one-hundred-and-sixty-five meters in diameter. It's either a large circular spaceship or a small space station. Wait, let me crank up the magnification."

Even when the object filled the viewscreen, it was too dark for us to tell anything about it, except that it was roughly spherical. "I can't make out any details."

"That's because the only natural light in this area is from the galaxy and distant stars," she noted.


* * *


An hour later Sal had the starship in orbit around the artifact. Spotlights mounted on the ship's underbelly illuminated it. I could barely contain my excitement and curiosity, although I knew I must be patient. Sal would be watching that I did everything by the book. In the viewscreen, the object was obviously metallic and pockmarked by micrometeorite strikes, which told us that it was extremely ancient to be struck so many times in this empty portion of space. "Record its structure for several orbits, Sal, and do a chemical analysis. Are those hieroglyphics in that area?" I pointed at a corner of the viewscreen.

"My readings tell me that it's hollow and constructed of alloys of iron, magnesium, and an unknown metal. If those squiggles are hieroglyphics, they're in no known language past or present."

"Search our ancient alien-cultures data base."

After a couple of minutes, Sal said, "There are no comparisons with any alien race. Perhaps they're simply designs."

"Or in a language of a previously unknown civilization!" I could hardly contain myself. I was itching to explore. "Do you see an egress, Sal?"

"Yes, that circular indentation must be an entrance hatch. It's quite large though, obviously not built for entities our size."

"It's possible that the aliens that made this thing were much different than humans. On the other hand, that hatch could be meant for vehicle entry. What else can you tell about the object?"

"According to iron dating by atomic decay, the shell is ninety-two million years old."

"Ah ha, just as I thought. This is a major discovery. We've found an artifact built by beings who lived over ninety-million years ago. What's the interior like?"

"Out detection gear can barely penetrate the outer shell. The only thing I can tell is that it's mostly empty and divided into compartments."

"No gases or liquids?"

"A trace of oxygen and argon. For practical purposes, the interior can be considered to be a vacuum only slightly less pure than the space surrounding it."

"Okay, keep mapping the exterior. I'm going to explore."

I got my gear together and stowed in the one-man shuttle. Sal stood with her hand on her hip watching me. When I finished, I turned to her. "I'm ready except for my space suit." I put my hand on her arm. "Gonna give me a kiss good-bye?"

She gave me a weird look as though she wasn't sure whether I was kidding or not. "Rather kiss a toad."

I pulled her close. "Oh c'mon, I could die down there. Just a last kiss in case something happens to me." I didn't wait for her reply, but took matters into my own hands. I pressed my lips against hers while squeezing her body against mine.

She jerked away and slapped me so hard I was stunned for a minute. "You bastard. I hope you do die." She returned to the command cabin without a look back at me.

I felt like crying or killing her. To me, it seemed that she had been coming on to me the whole trip, yet she wouldn't give me the pleasure of one last kiss. I donned a space suit and entered the one-man shuttle. I thought maybe once I was aboard the artifact I could impress her with my expert analysis of alien technology.


* * *

I landed near the circular indentation, which had several strangely shaped knobs at one end, which I assumed were used to operate the hatch. I uploaded pictures to the starship and tried various ways of manipulating the knobs -- to no avail. The hatch remained impenetrable. Although I hated having to mar the alien artifact, I realized that I must if I wanted to gain access to the interior.

It took me two hours with a proton torch to cut an opening large enough to squeeze through. Using my spacesuit's head lamp, I explored the interior. It was enormous and divided into compartments and hallways. To my disappointment, every one I went through was empty. The walls contained hieroglyphs similar to the ones on the hull, but I found nothing that gave a clue as to what the builders had been like. In one room I stepped on a small fastening device similar to a screw or bolt. I uploaded pics of its location and placed it inside a hermetically sealed collection bag. Hatches, much larger than a man would need, led to deeper levels.

I checked my oxygen level and informed Sal before I floated down through an open hatch. Further inside were more empty hallways and rooms. Whenever the builders had abandoned the space station, they had removed everything, every piece of equipment, every scrap of personal effects, every tool.

I wandered deeper into the interior. Everything was the same, simply empty rooms and corridors. It was eerie. The alien race went through great lengths to ensure that no one would find anything that would tell anything about them.

Sal buzzed me a warning. "You better head back. Your oxy is running low."

I checked my gauge. I had just enough to make my way up through the various levels and return to shuttle, with a bit to spare. I radioed Sal, "On my way."

On the return trip, however, I noticed a closed hatch that I had bypassed before. It aroused my curiosity. Like the one on the exterior bulkhead, it had five strangely shaped knobs. I imagined creatures with five hands. I used small toolbots to manipulate them simultaneously. After I tried several combinations, I heard a satisfying click, and the hatch opened. To my delight, it led to a what was obviously a control room. I radioed Sal. "Sal girl, I've found something important. Send a bot down with additional oxy." I uploaded my coordinates within the artifact to her.

While I waited for the bot, I carefully examined the equipment without touching it. As I surmised earlier, the builders had been large, perhaps twice as tall and four times as bulky as human beings. Also, they seemed to have had at least five manipulating appendages; I could not tell whether they were similar to hands, elephant's trunks, tentacles, or something different altogether.

After a while, I received a warning buzzer that my oxygen was almost depleted. I no longer had enough reserves to return to the shuttle. I began to sweat. I rechecked the coordinates I had given Sal on my pad. A crazy paranoid thought occurred to me. Suppose Sal hated me enough to wait until it was too late to send the bot with the tanks. I buzzed her. She did not reply. Either she was away from the comm unit, or was not answering for her own reasons.

Just as the situation became crucial, a bot showed up with extra tanks, enough oxygen for several hours, enough time to examine the artifact's controls in minute detail. As I breathed in new air, I wondered why it had taken so long to arrive, and why Sal did not answer my buzz.

Nonetheless, I went to work examining the knobs, gauges, levers, and raised dimples. The hieroglyphics were everywhere on what I guessed was the main control panel. It would take years to decipher them and a lot of computing power. That was a task for the long journey home. I carefully examined each control, trying to determine its function. After a while I came to the conclusion that since the station was so near the singularity, some portion of the control panel had to be for communicating with starships entering and leaving it. Other controls would be for maintaining the station's environment or had to do with repairs and maintenance. Dare I manipulate one? I thought. What harm could it do? That was the biggest mistake of my life.

There was a series of knobs close together. Using the bots again, I twisted all five at once. What I had thought was a blank wall turned into a viewscreen. A strange creature, a sort of blob with tentacles and thick hairy legs, appeared. Grunts, mutters, and belches came from hidden speakers as three orifices in its upper torso opened and closed. It wore clothing of sorts in strips around various parts of its body. I wondered whether the metallic objects on it were decorations, tools, or weapons. I recorded it as it spoke. It was lecturing about something, its waving wildly at what could've been abstract art or indecipherable charts. Although I looked for clues in its body language, none of what the creature said seemed to have anything to do with the control panel or anything else on the artifact. The recording continued for approximately a half an hour before the screen went blank. When I manipulated the levers again, the alien message was repeated.

My comm unit buzzed. Sal's voice said, "What's going on, Rog? Did you get the extra oxy? Sorry, I didn't answer your first call. I had to make an emergency repair. We sustained minor damage going through that singularity."

"Yeah, I got the oxy okay. But Sal girl, I found a control room. I manipulated a control and got a prerecorded message by the aliens. I'll upload it now. Maybe you can run the language software on it."

"Okay Rog. But don't fool with any controls. You don't know what they do. You could be putting yourself in danger."

I smiled. She was actually worried about me. "I'll be careful."

"Did you find any artifacts?"

"Nah. Just that recording. The aliens who owned this station removed everything that was not nailed down when they abandoned it."

"I see. Well, just take pics of the control room then and come back to the ship.

"Miss me all ready, sweetheart? Is this an invitation for hanky panky?"

"You creep. Stay there until hell freezes over for all I care."

She clicked off so quickly, I figured that she was really angry. I also realized that she was anxious to return to Earth. Well the hell with that, I thought. I wasn't going to leave until I determined the function of everything in that room. A large disk covered with alien writing intrigued me. I placed my palm on it. I heard a loud hiss, which continued.

I buzzed Sal again. "Sal girl, sorry about that last remark. I was just kidding around. Could you do another check of the interior?"

"Okay, I shouldn't have lost my temper. I know you're a jerk. I should just let what you say roll off my back. Hey, what happened? The interior is filling with gas, starting with the chamber that you're in now."

"What kind of gas?"

"Ninety-percent oxy and ten-percent argon."

"Then it's breathable." I unlatched my helmet and took a sniff. The air smelled weird but was not toxic. "I just removed my helmet. Looks like I won't need any more oxy packs. This part of the control board must be the environment controls."

"You're insane, Rog. You're still messing with those controls. Come back to the ship now!"

She's really worried about me, I thought. If I stay here long enough, she'll realize that she still loves me. I looked over the controls again. One large panel had several large handles on it. I wondered whether they controlled the main power to the station. If I got power up to the entire station, I could explore more of it. So far, I had been to a very tiny section. Who knows, the aliens might have left something behind somewhere on the station. I moved a group of five handles two centimeters from their original position.

The next moment Sal screamed in my ear, "Rog! Something is happening to singularity. It's mass has suddenly decreased." I quickly moved the handles back to their original position.

Sal shouted over the comm, "The singularity returned to normal. Rog, you fool, you must get back here as soon as possible. If the singularity is unstable, we could be trapped here, thousands of light-years from anything."

"It's not unstable; I moved a control that manipulates it. Let me try an experiment." He moved the handles. "Did the singularity's mass decrease again?"

"Yes, by the same amount."

I returned the controls to their starting position. "Did it return to normal?"

"Yes, it did."

"My theory is proved. The alien race who built this artifact also constructed the singularity. It can be controlled from here."

"Rog, you're completely nuts. Do you want to strand us? Please don't touch anything. Who knows what you might do to the singularity."

"Oh, I'll keep away from the panel that controls the singularity."

"Please, please, Rog. Leave everything alone. Come back to the ship. You're frightening me."

Her voice was a whimper. Curse the fool that I am, I felt that making her beg gave me power over her. The more frightened she became, the more I was sure that she would eventually give in to my amorous advances. I gazed around at the other panels. One contained a set of covered switches. I flipped back their covers and changed the position of one. From my point of view, nothing happened.

A few seconds later, Sal screeched in his ear, "What in damn hell did you do? A hundred missiles and several proton torpedoes were just launched. I don't know if I've got time to ... " A sound like an explosion came through my earphones, and then silence.

Oh dear God, what have I done? I thought. "No. No. No." I cried. "It's not possible."

I tried to contact Sal. Every attempt failed. As swiftly as possible I pushed my way to surface of the artifact and scanned the sky. There was no sign of the starship. I went to the shuttle and turned on its detection device. The orbit where the starship had been was filled with fragments of metal and plastic fleeing each other at an explosive rate. I nearly went mad. I realized that I had launched weapons that had destroyed the one person I loved most in the universe and my only way of returning home.

I was so devastated I could not think straight. After a long time, I calmed down and tried to discover a way out of my dilemma. I still had the shuttle. I wondered whether I could use it to pass through the singularity. Then I recalled that it would be necessary to achieve tremendous speeds and enter on a trajectory that only a highly sophisticated pilot like Sal could achieve. Neither I nor the shuttle had such a capability. To attempt such a feat would be suicide. But at that point perhaps that is what I really wanted. Nonetheless, as much as I grieved for Sal, I was incapable of taking my own life.

My next thought was that since this space station was a way station, perhaps a starship was still berthed on it somewhere. It took days to search the enormous artifact. Meanwhile, I depleted my limited supply of water and dehydrated food that was stored aboard the shuttle. So unless someone comes through the singularity to rescue me, I'll die of hunger and thirst soon. Rescue, however, was a pipe dream since Sal and I had kept our destination a secret. How vain, overly ambitious, and foolish I've been. Was it simple curiosity that caused me to kill the woman I love and strand myself here? Or was it my perverted attempt to frighten her into showing feelings for me? Or was it a simple stupid mistake? Those are the questions I have to ponder before I die.



Story © 2003 by Joe Vadalma jvadalma@hvc.rr.com

Illustration © 2003 by Charles H. Tyler, IV imager777@softhome.net



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