My Uncle Ralph and I are floating weightless, gripping handles, inside this umbilical-hall, which is sealed against the side of Artifact One. The opening, or entrance to this thing reveals what looks like a room painted black. They installed glow bulbs set up on tripods in there, but it still looks as dark and foreboding as a cave that on Earth I would never consider entering.
Ralph has on his so-called good-luck Blue Jays baseball cap, and he says, “We have to manoeuvre ourselves…” He points down at the strip of blue rubber matting of this umbilical hall’s designated walk. “Grab those orange handles, and hold yourself level with Artifact’s floor, then crawl in. Don’t drift in or its gravity will crash you down.”
Now he’s already told me this thing has its own induced gravity, so I just nod and follow his instructions so I don’t make an idiot out of myself in a station full of some of the smartest people around.
Keeping a tight grip to hold myself to the umbilical hall floor, I tug myself forward and slide belly down onto Artifact’s smooth as polished marble floor. It doesn’t feel like the stone it appears to be. Through my palms I feel warmth—more like the temperature of wood, not cold like I would expect. My uncle and I stand. Sure, feels good to do that. Like I said, it’s fun to float around in Zero-G, but after a while I feel like I’m on a fun ride I want to get off but can’t until the next scheduled shuttle can take my butt back for another joy ride down to Earth. “Crazy,” I say to Ralph, while I look up at the ceiling and walls, “Looks like some miner hacked out this chamber with a pick-axe.”
My uncle ponders the ceiling and walls with a kind of reverence. His scientific curiosity is in bliss. I can see it in his face. He heads the team investigating Artifact. It puts him in a historic moment as big as an archaeologist discovering King Tut’s tomb. However, whatever treasure he hopes to find will be in data. Data like: How the hell does this thing induce gravity? And oh yeah, where did it come from? And, let's not forget, what the hell is it?
I’ve seen the photos, but there’s aren’t many details to distinguish.
Yesterday, the images Ralph showed me were of greater clarity, but still showing just more of the same. Looks like an enormous block of coal, with edges smooth and rounded as one of those eroded bricks dumped as landfill to bolster the Leslie Spit shoreline. As I said, I think it’s a container of some sort. It’s about the length of two of our shipping containers, and two shipping containers wide. But around scientists I keep my brilliant ideas to myself.
“You run any more tests on what this thing is made of?” I ask Ralph as he walks through the chamber to the central hallway—or should I call it burrow-way, because the concave gouges on the walls and ceiling look like a giant groundhog gnawed its way in here. Okay, that’s just my fanciful imagination, not a theory, just me entertaining myself.
There’s stillness, a quiet. That dead sound, as in a recording studio—no reverberation. Or like being in the shaft of a coal mine, which I’ve never been in, so I’m just speculating here—a kind of claustrophobia, which I have to some degree. Not like I can’t control it. I just don’t like it. I mean even elevators get on my nerves so you’d never get me in a mine or to go spelunking in one of those underground caves… wait, this is good—a night sky without stars. I like that.
“Our lasers can't nick a molecule from this substance,” Ralph says, running his hand through his thick white hair brushed back. Guy still looks more like forty than sixty-three. My father was fifty-two, when he died, only two years older than Ralph. I never knew my father or mother as I was only a one-year-old when they died up there on the orange planet. My Uncle Ralph and his wife took custody of me. Then Ralph’s wife died when I was three, so I don’t remember her too well either.
“Something carved these four interior chambers out of this block of something,” I say. I don’t mention my amusing giant groundhog analogy. He nods his head slightly, but isn’t one to make verbal speculations.
My job is to set up a computer Console in the end chamber. I extend my arm out the side opening of Artifact and grab the handle of the first of four packing cases still floating out in the weightless umbilical hall. WHAM! It smacks against the black floor. I’ll be more careful to pull the other three cases down level with this floor and then drag them in.
My uncle is looking at me.
“It’s okay,” I say, “I packed these things myself. No minor bump will jostle these modules.” Cripes, I hate fucking up in front of him. But I’m not worried. They could drop this cases from ten metres—and probably have, down on the surface spaceport. Those guys have been having contract disputes and are pissed at any inanimate thing they can take it out on. These cases were designed for that kind of punishment. After pulling the other three in and setting them on to the floor, I tug out the handle of the first of the four and pull it like a suitcase with wheels toward the central hallway—if that’s what you can call it. It’s more like a tunnel. This smooth floor has no marks or imperfections. If anything was in here prior to us finding it, it didn’t scratch the floor. Or maybe aliens put those little felt pads under the legs of their furniture.
Another chamber is across the central hallway from the entrance chamber I’m in, and then one chamber at either end. The central hallway connects all four. I turn left and follow Ralph. He’s guiding me to the end chamber, where a briefcase size slab was cut out of this container’s floor with cookie-cutter precision. Our scientists refer to it as—The Cavity.
Saying a slab was cut out of the floor is an assumption because we don’t know who or what manufactured this thing out of a material no one can identify. With a bar code pattern, vertical glass lines mark the inside frame of the cavity. Ralph says they are light windows into an artery matrix that spreads like an internal nerve system through the material of Artifact’s walls and floor. I park my module case in front of the Cavity and go fetch the other three cases. I think what bugs me is the dark depth of the barren material this thing is made of—it’s like peering into a still dark surface of an unknown lake, wondering how deep it is, wondering if there’s anything carnivorous down there waiting for supper. Can you imagine I think of this crap? Even if I were standing on a dock of a Northern Lake, there’s nothing but frightened fish in those lakes. I did, however, once emerge with two leeches on my leg.
Not Ralph or any of his science team has told the media what the hell this Artifact’s function is or was. “No conclusion,” has been their reply to the media. But that’s because they’re scientists. They don’t want to look foolish saying alien technology crafted this thing, then discover that indifferent forces of the cosmos shaped it out of an old asteroid. If I had authority to talk to the media, I’d say, “Outside of it being a container, we don’t know what the hell it is.”
So mainstream media flogs the story that it’s a strange asteroid. Some people are happy to accept that. Others are happy when rumour media tells them aliens made it. Me, I’m indifferent because even if it is proof of alien intelligence out there, no aliens will come save our sorry asses from self-destruction. Any intelligent species that’s smart enough to come here must be smart enough to know they should steer clear of us and have been doing just that.
However, it’s not like any documented asteroid. Few asteroids out there have four chambers connected by a central hallway. Or maybe they do. How the hell would I know? This might be the only one of many others we haven’t found. It looks like a container, so I’m calling it a container. Though a container with a gaping hole in its side and no door is useless. Out of each case I removed a Console module. All four interlock together and create the horizontal surface of my workstation. The four now-empty travel cases are paired on each side as support columns, making this Console big as the old wooden office desk my uncle has in his study. When I moved out of his house, I got my great place in Kensington market, which is where I wish I were right now. I enjoy being where there’s food stalls, coffee shops, and open air. Oh, wait—I’m going to miss that club event where an attractive naked woman reclines and reads from classic novels. Tomorrow’s novel is War and Peace. No live entertainment like that up here in this orbiting science lab, and I sure as hell can’t get any good weed here either.
I turn the power on. The Console folds up its virtual brain, and I adjust its size to that of a basketball. Virtual controls float, ready for me to birth its Synthetic Consciousness.
Interesting point: this brain is modelled on the bits and pieces, in various storage jars, of Einstein’s brain. All those parts assembled as a virtual brain. No Einstein left in here though—just using his brain as a hologram template for a Synth.
My Asimov codes dictate that when the Console births this Synth, its consciousness will do what it’s told and not develop an independent identity. No “I think therefore I am” for these Synth buggers. I like to think of it as my lobotomy code, and it’s my patented Asimov coding that makes me the money.
After being a broke student for so many years I love spending money, but up here orbiting Earth, there’s nothing I can spend it on. Well, I can shop online, of course. Reminds me, I want to bid on a 2015 sunburst Les Paul. Hope I’m not so busy up here that I can’t find time to do that.
“So, you still consider Artifact as some kind of memory tech?” I ask. Ralph mentioned this to me yesterday—unofficially—when he gave me my intro tour of this thing.
He walks toward me, studying notes, not showing if he heard my question. I suspect he has, but his brain is busy now. His soft rubber shoes make no sound as he pads across the smooth matte black floor. The glow bulbs sitting upon tripods like some fashion shoot create no reflections on the floor. In fact, I’m told the stuff this container is made of absorbs all light and reflects zero waves or particles.
He passes in front of the Console and approaches the square cavity in the floor. He then crouches by the hole. He does that a lot. “Within twenty-four hours,” he says, “we’ll have a lightamp that can engage with this Cavity.”
All test amps failed. It was trial and error to match the window slots scoring Cavity’s inside border with this lightamp.
He hits me with that serious look of his, where he’s coiled to get pissed off if he doesn’t get the answer he’s expecting. “Will you have the Synth birthed and ready?”
“No problem, uncle, I’m on top of it."
I glance to my side, where the coil of nerve bundle lies on the floor. It will link the Console to the lightamp and the lightamp will inset into the cavity, engaging it with this hull. I’ve the job of programming the Console’s Synth, so I’m expected to be here.
My curiosity pulls me forward, but in my gut, I feel apprehension. I mean, I’ve birthed Console Synths before, but with a Console connected to alien technology it stands to reason we can expect alien results.
Ralph relaxes a bit, happy that I’m on schedule. He’d give me grief if I wasn’t, and I don’t blame him. I may be his nephew, but he doesn’t treat me with favouritism, though when he gives me grief, I sense he regrets having to do it. Then I feel even worse for disappointing him, which I don’t like to do.
“Trevor,” he says and gets my attention. I’m staring at the Console, not thinking about what I’m supposed to be thinking about.
“As to your question,” Ralph answers my query, “Do I think this is a memory device? We’ll have some answers when our lightamp probes light into Artifact’s optic veins.”
The Console’s Synth uses a standard lightamp (if you’ve never seen one it looks like an ice cube the size of a Rubik’s Cube) to model its hologram brain. Artifact’s cavity needs twelve linked lightamps to fill the volume and cost more than my condo. With no consciousness, the lightamp will extend my Console’s Synth only. The nerve bundle from the Console to the lightamp connects our technology with alien technology. That’s a big deal.
We’re like a bunch of cavemen who discovered a blender. Or perhaps we’re making a big fuss about what is only a piece of technological space flotsam that fell off whatever whole it was a functioning component of and drifted away. The optic veins might be nothing more than an equivalent to a bar code, this empty container once used for shipping supplies, like our standardized shipping containers to move goods around on Earth. It fell off the mother ship and drifted away. And here we are wondering what it is.
Well, one thing not open to debate is that I’m hungry and I don’t like dealing with the mystery of the universe on an empty stomach.