By J. B. Tilton


A lone figure monitored the equipment on the bridge of a ship that glided silently through the outer reaches of the Solar System. It was time to wake the others. With less thought than it took to do it the figure activated the hyper sleep chambers located on the deck below. The process would take a while but soon the occupants of the ship would be awake. Satisfied that it has successfully begun the awakening cycle, the figure got up and moved off the bridge.

Long periods of hyper sleep would leave the occupants very hungry. The figure moved through the ship to the galley to prepare a meal. As it passed a panel it glanced once at that panel to check the readings. The visage reflected in the panel might have appeared startling to some.

He appeared to be a male of about 30 years of age. His brown hair was immaculately tended and he was clean shaven. But the eyes were somewhat disconcerting. They were solid blue orbs with no pupils. The figure did not even notice his reflection in the panel. He checked the readings; satisfied they were accurate; and then headed to the galley. In thirty minutes the others would be awake and ready for their meal.

* * *

"Alpha, you've outdone yourself on this meal," said a young black man sitting at the table with the group of people onboard the ship. "You must have taken some cooking lessons the last time we were docked."

"That would be an incorrect assumption, Mister Jackson," said the figure with blue eyes. "I can be programmed with new information but 'taking lessons' would not be a correct description of that process."

"Well, whatever it is your cooking is getting better," said Jackson. "Keep this up and we might have to worry about you being stolen away for one of those cruise ship lines. I hear they're always looking for an android cook."

"I prefer the term artificial life form," said Alpha. "While not altogether accurate it is a somewhat correct description of what I am. And you have no need to fear that I will be 'stolen away', as you put it. My duties aboard the Solar Wind make me somewhat indispensable."

"Ease up on him, TJ," said an older man sitting at the head of the table. "Alpha has been a part of this crew from the beginning and I'm not about to let him be stolen by anyone. Like he said, he is kind of indispensable."

"I know, Trent," said Jackson. "Just yanking his chain, that's all."

"Which is of no use since I have no emotional awareness," said Alpha. "I am an artificial life form and such activities are waste on me."

"Trent," said a man in his fifties sitting next to the captain, "maybe you'd like to fill us in on what we're doing out here. We didn't get much of a briefing before we left Earth dock."

"You know as much as I do, Doc," said the captain. "Actually our guest may be able to shed some light on that. All I can tell you is that Tiberian Amalgamate seems to have lost one of their ships and we've been hired to retrieve it. And their offering a fifteen percent recovery fee for it."

"Fifteen percent?" questioned a young black woman sitting next to Trent. "That's more than the standard ten percent for space salvage. This must be a very important ship."

'It is," said a man in his late forties sitting at the end of the table. He didn't seem to fit in with the others. He had salt and pepper hair and he was somewhat overweight. "I'm Dr. Nathaniel Wise. I'm a senior vice president for Tiberian Amalgamate, your current employer. And the Orion – the ship we're going after – represents a considerable investment by Tiberian."

"What's the cargo?" asked an Asian man sitting next to TJ.

"Four hundred thousand metric tons of Cadmirite," said a man sitting next to Wiseman.

"Cadmirite?" questioned the Asian man. "Raw ore or processed?"

"Processed," said the man. "I'm sorry, but who are you?"

"Perhaps I should introduce my crew," said Trent. He indicated the black woman to his left. "This is Jennifer Bonham, my first officer. This," he indicated the older man sitting to his right, "is Dr. Jonathon Sterling, ships' medical officer. We just call him 'Doc'. Next to Doc is Peter Drake, ships' engineer. Next to him is Thomas Jackson. He goes by TJ. He's Peter's assistant.

"Next to Jen is Patricia Farling, our pilot. Next to her, Walter Mansifeld, communications officer. Of course you are already familiar with our ships artificial intelligence, Alpha 176. We usually just call him Alpha for short. As you also all ready know I'm Trent Michaels, owner and captain of the Salvage Ship Solar Wind."

"I am familiar with the crew," said Wiseman. "This," he indicated the man next to him, "is Jeff Hightower, my personal assistant."

"Okay," said Jennifer, "now that the intros are out of the way, care to explain why Tiberian hired us to come all the way out here? The coordinates supplied to us indicated that our destination was out beyond Uranus' orbit. That's a long way to go even for such a large shipment of ore used to produce fuel for ships."

"Right you are," said Wiseman, noticing that Jennifer's attitude seemed to be more antagonistic than he had anticipated. "As I said, the cargo represents a large investment by Tiberian. And there's also the cost of the ship itself. The Orion is our largest cargo ship and it's cheaper to retrieve it than replace it."

"Not to mention the crew," said Jennifer. "Or are they just incidental to the mission?"

"I'm sorry, Miss Bonham, is it?" asked Wiseman. "Have I offended you in some way? You seem to have something against me."

"You work for Tiberian," said Jennifer. "Do I need anything else?"

"You have to forgive my first officer," said Trent. "Her husband was killed at Insortac. She's still a bit bitter about it and holds Tiberian responsible for his death. I can't say I really blame her."

"Oh, yes, Insortac," said Wiseman. "The mining accident on Io. I'm sorry, Miss Bonham. That was a terrible tragedy."

"It wouldn't have been if Tiberian had taken proper safety precautions," said Jennifer. "The only thing they're interested in is the bottom line."

"Tiberian Amalgamate was cleared of any wrongdoing in that matter," said Hightower. "They adhered to all required government rules and regulations. As Mr. Wiseman said, it was simply an unfortunate tragedy. Nothing more."

"Okay, that's enough," said Trent. "We aren't here to lay blame on something that happened three years ago."

"In answer to your question, Ms. Bonham," said Wiseman, "the crew always come first."

"Of course," said Jennifer more than a little contempt in her voice.

"Just why are we out here?" Peter asked.

"On January 17 of this year," began Wiseman, "Tiberians' long range communications array lost contact with the Orion. It had just left the Miranda mining facility with a full load of Cadmirite."

"I didn't know there was any Cadmirite on the mining facility on Miranda," said TJ.

"It was only recently discovered," said Wiseman. "All indications are that it's the largest deposit in the system. The Orion was binging back the first load of it when we lost contact with it."

"Lost contact?" asked Mansfield. "What exactly does that mean?"

"It means that they didn't make their normal check in as required by Tiberian regulations," said Hightower. "All Tiberian ships are required to report their position and condition every twenty-four hours. The Orion did not report in as required. When we attempted to contact it we received no response."

"Then how do you know where it is?" Doc asked.

"The transceiver," said Peter. "It acts like the old black boxes in aircraft back in the 20th and 21st century. It constant relays information to ground command. All space vehicles are required to have them. Even the Solar Wind has one."

"Exactly," said Wiseman. "The telemetry tells us that the Orion is drifting in space. We don't know what happened or what's going on. That's why the Solar Wind has been hired. We need to go out and find out what's going on with the Orion."

"And you're here because?" questioned Jennifer.

"I'm simply here in an advisory capacity," said Wiseman. "My job is to assess the situation with the Orion and make a determination as to its disposition."

"Just as long as you understand that on my ship I give the orders," said Trent.

"That was made quite clear to me by Mr. Taggert, the COO of Tiberian," said Wiseman. "As I said, I'm here merely in an advisory capacity."

"If I may ask a question," interrupted Alpha, "is it suspected that the ships A.L.F. has malfunctioned?"

"A.L.F?" questioned Wiseman.

"Artificial life form," said Hightower. "That's how they refer to themselves and each other."

"Oh, of course," said Wiseman. "We really don't know. The Orion was equipped with a Sierra 217 series android. Excuse me, artificial life form. We believe it is possible that something may have happened to it."

"A Sierra 217 series," said Alpha. "That's the most current model of the A.L.F. A hybridized mechanism if my information is correct."

"Hybridized?" questioned TJ.

"Yes," said Alpha. "What used to be called a cybernetic organism. A hybridized artificial life form has the skeletal structure composed of Medinite and Targanite. The brain is a series L artificial intelligence. Over the metal skeletal structure is a synthetic organic material extremely similar to human skin."

"But they still have the blue eyes with no pupils," said Hightower. "Required by law to show that they are, in fact, androids and not true life forms."

"Of course," said Alpha. "And all are programmed with the four laws of robotics just as all artificial life forms are required to have."

"The Orion is classified as a deep space vehicle," said Hightower. "Just as the Solar Wind is. That means for the bulk of the trip between the planets the crew travels in hyper sleep tubes. The android pilots the ship while the crew is in hyper sleep, much as I'm sure Alpha does with the Solar Wind."

"What about the crew?" Doc asked. "Any idea what condition they're in?"

"None," said Wiseman. "To be honest you know as much about the situation as we do. We're only getting intermittent readings from the Orion's transceiver. It's enough to tell us that the ship is still intact but other than that we know very little. That's why we're going out there."

"Mr. Wiseman," said Mansfield, "we left Earth dock nine months ago. We've been in hyper sleep that entire time. What makes you think the situation hasn't changed since we left Earth?"

"Tiberian will be sending us regular updates on the situation as they become available," said Hightower. "I'm sure once you check the communications log you'll find at least one communiqué from Tiberian."

"That will be our first order of business," said Trent. "Right after we do a systems check of the ship. When the meal is over I want everyone checking their stations. Alpha, I assume there isn't anything substantial to report about the trip so far?"

"Nothing of consequence, Captain," said Alpha.

"Fine," said Trent. "How far are we from the rendezvous coordinates?"

"Approximately twelve hours," said Alpha. "I've all ready accounted for the drift of the Orion and updated the navigational computers so that Ms. Farling should be able to compute our approach vector."

"Thank you, Alpha," said Patricia.

"My pleasure, Ms. Farling," responded Alpha.

"Very well," said Trent. "Mr. Wiseman, as soon as you're finished eating you need to report to the infirmary so that Doc can check you over."

"Is that really necessary?" Wiseman questioned. "I feel perfectly fine and I'm sure Jeff isn't feeling any ill affects from our hyper sleep."

"Regulations, Mr. Wiseman," said Trent. "All crew and passengers of deep space vehicles are required to undergo a medical exam after hyper sleep. This is to insure there are no side affects from such long term sleep."

"He's right, sir," said Hightower. "Tiberian regulations require a medical exam especially for those who have experienced hyper sleep for the first time. This is your first deep space assignment."

'Very well," said Wiseman. "Jeff and I will report to the infirmary as soon as the doctor is ready for us."

"That's all I ask," said Trent. "Okay everyone I want a complete systems check of the entire ship. Bow to stern. We're farther out than any ship has ever been and I don't want any mistakes made on this trip. Report to the First Officer when you're finished. Walter, send a report to Tiberian Headquarters. Let them know we've arrived safely and we're preparing to intercept the Orion.

"It will take about three weeks for the message to reach them from here," said Walter.

"I know that," said Trent. "But I want to keep them apprised of what's going on."

"Understood, sir," said Walter.

Everyone finished their meal and then moved to their sections to perform the routine checks they had all made numerous times before. They all knew that if they made even the slightest mistake they might never be able to return to Earth.