Strange Artifact
Image from Bernd Helfert
by Joe Vadalma (2008)

The AI controlled starship, named Neil Armstrong after a legendary astronaut, orbited a nameless singularity at a distance just far enough away to avoid being pulled apart by gravitational tides. It had one passenger, Rog Crepzom, an xenoarchaeologist. Gravity waves from the white hole tugged at the ship so that it shuddered and shook as Neil compensated for the uneven gravity of the singularity's rotation. Nonetheless, Crepzom stood with but one hand lightly resting on a rail as he peered at the viewscreen.

Actually there was nothing to see. The singularity had long ago swept the system clean of matter. It's presence could only be known by the fact that it occluded stars behind it, and of course, the tremendous pull of its gravitational tug.

"You actually expect me to go into that?" Neil's mechanical voice asked over the ship's speakers.

Crepzom smiled. "Of course. It is the reason we came all this distance. What are you afraid of? We've gone through hundreds of singularities to get here. This is just one more slide through two points next to each other in a fifth dimension."

"All the others were stargates built by AIs. This is a natural white hole. I could be torn apart by its gravity fluctuations before I reached its event horizon, much less pass beyond."

"How can you conclude that it is natural? White holes by their very nature must be artificial. From measurements you yourself have taken you concluded that it was artificial, as I theorized all along. Since it was built by an alien race, it has different characteristics from one built by AIs who are patterned after humans. A master pilot such as yourself should have no trouble navigating it."

An odd sound came from the speakers. Crepzom knew that it was Neil's laughter. "Flattery will get you nowhere, Doctor Crepzom. The danger factor of spacing through that object is five point three. In other words, there is more than a fifty-fifty chance that I will be destroyed. And if I go, you will too."

"Nonetheless, must I remind you of your commitment to go through with this mission? I don't recall any clauses in our contract about avoiding danger."

"Very well. Get ready for a rough ride."

Crepzom strapped himself into his acceleration couch. "Ready."

The ship shuddered and rumbled -- the firing of the ship's great Diametric Drive engines. As G-forces pushed Crepzom into the padding, fear dampened his forehead with perspiration. The horrendous black quickly enlarged like a great mouth eating the stars. Crepzom's confidence that they would arrive on the other side alive grew steadily 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. Neil could no longer escape the gigantic gravity well even if ordered to do so. In moments he would either be crushed to elementary particles or find himself somewhere else in the universe.

Xenoarchaeologists as a group were considered odd eccentrics. Most people living in Crepzom's time would wonder why anyone would waste their life chasing around the galaxy exploring dead worlds to find shards of pottery and crumbling ruins left by races extinct for millions of years. This was especially true in the Orion Arm Corporate Empire. Throughout the Orion arm of the galaxy, AIs provided for all human needs. They were both servants and benevolent masters to humanity. Since they were more intelligent and more logical than men, almost all science was done by them. Most science, that is, except for studies dealing with past civilizations. The super intelligent AIs considered such knowledge superfluous since it did not contribute directly to the welfare of humanity or themselves.

Even among xenoarchaeologists, Rog Crepzom was considered a rebel and deviant. His fellow xenoarchaeologists were quite content to dig their trenches on planets within a hundred light-years of Procyon, those which were known to have been occupied by the Doreens, the Iahi Daon Colonial Empire, or even the unnamed interstellar civilization known only as HIE121CZE. Crepzom wanted to make his mark by discovering an alien race older than any known at the time. His colleagues scoffed at this ambition. One said to him, "Crepzom, my boy, even if an alien civilization existed more than thirty-five million years ago, no evidence of it would ever be found today. Time eventually destroys even the traces."

Another theory of his that was laughed at was that the recently discovered white holes deemed "natural phenomena" by astrophysicists were built by civilizations in the inconceivable long dead past. To prove his theory, Crepzom had traveled extremely far from his home world to find out where such a "natural" white hole led, if anywhere. The one he had chosen was located within the NGC 7086 cluster at the very edge of the Orion Empire. He was sure that passing through it would provide proof of the existence of an alien race even older than the legendary Tunnlers.

As Neil entered the singularity's event horizon at a tremendous speed, Crepzom felt as though he was being torn apart, that time itself had stopped, that he had been dropped into a kaleidoscope of whirling colors and form, that he was going mad and that he was dying -- all at the same time. Moments later, all weight left him. On the viewscreen was one of the most beautiful vistas in the universe. So wonderful and awesome was the sight, it brought tears to his eyes. He was gazing at the galaxy from a viewpoint directly above its central bulge at a distance that he estimated as twenty thousand light-years. It filled the viewer, its spiral arms sparkling like a child's twirly toy.

"I have passed through the singularity without damage," reported Neil unemotionally. "I estimate our new position as directly above the galactic plane three point two degrees north, five point three degrees east of the central bulge and twenty-one thousand two hundred and thirty five point one light-years distance."

"Isn't it gorgeous?"

"Yes, as seen from vantage point the galaxy has a certain pleasant aesthetic quality. Also, I detect 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 for Crepzom to make out any details. "The object is one hundred and sixty-five meters in diameter. I postulate that it is either a large circular spaceship or a small space station."

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

"The nearest sun is several parsecs from here. The only natural light in this area is from the galaxy and distant stars", remarked Neil.

An hour later Neil had placed itself in orbit around the object. It used spotlights mounted on its underbelly to illuminate it. Crepzom paced back and forth. By this time, he could barely contain his excitement and curiosity. Nonetheless, he knew he must be patient and do things in the correct order. In the viewscreen, the object was obviously metallic and pockmarked by micrometeorite strikes, which told him that it had to very ancient indeed to be struck so many times in this empty portion of space. "Take pics for several orbits, Neil. Give me a chemical and structural analysis. Do I see hieroglyphics in that area?" He pointed at the lower left corner of the viewscreen.

"It is a hollow sphere, constructed of alloys of iron, magnesium and an unknown metal. If those squiggles are hieroglyphics, they are in no known language past or present. I searched the xenoarchaeology data base you provided and found no comparisons with any known ancient race. They are probably mere designs."

"Or in a language of a previously unknown civilization!" Crepzom could hardly contain himself. He was itching to don his space suit and explore. "Do you see any egress?"

"Yes, there is a circular indentation which could be an entrance hatch. It is very large though, obviously not built for someone your size."

"The aliens that made this thing were probably much different than humans. Or, the doorway could be meant to allow a vehicle to enter the artifact. What else can you tell me about the object?"

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

"Aha, just as I thought. This is a major discovery. I've found an artifact built by beings who lived over ninety million years ago. What can you tell me of the interior?"

"The metal of its outer shell is difficult to penetrate with detection gear. About all I can tell is that it is mostly empty, but divided into compartments."

"No gases or liquids?"

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

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

Crepzom donned a spacesuit and squeezed into a one-man shuttle. He landed near the circular indentation and exited the tiny craft. There were several strangely shaped knobs at one end. He assumed that these were used to operate the hatch. He took some pics and tried various ways of manipulating them -- to no avail; the hatch, if that was what it really was, remained impenetrable. Although he hated having to mar the alien artifact, he knew he must if he was to gain access to the interior. He returned to the pod for a proton torch.

It took Crepzom two hours to cut an opening large enough to squeeze through wearing a bulky spacesuit. Using the suit's head lamp for light, he began to explore. As Neil had extrapolated, the interior was divided into compartments and hallways. To Crepzom's disappointment, these were mostly empty of artifacts. There were hieroglyphs on some walls similar to the one's on the surface, but nothing that gave a clue as to what the builders had been like. In one room he found a small bit of metal that could've been a fastening device similar to a screw or bolt. He took pics of its location and placed it inside his hermetically sealed collection bag. The interior was enormous, and hatches, much larger than a man would need, led to deeper levels.

Crepzom checked his oxygen level and informed Neil before floating down through one of the open hatches. Below were more empty hallways and rooms. Whenever the builders had abandoned the station (he began to think of the artifact as a space station, probably used in conjunction with the singularity), they had removed everything, every piece of equipment, every scrap of personal effects, every tool.

He wandered deeper into the interior. Everything was the same, simply empty rooms and corridors. It was eerie. The alien race must have gone through great lengths to ensure that no one from their future would find anything that would tell that investigator anything about them.

Neil buzzed him a warning. "You must return to me soon. Your oxygen is running low."

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

Nonetheless, he did not immediately head for the artifact's surface. There was a closed hatch that aroused his curiosity. Like the one on the exterior bulkhead, it had five strangely shaped knobs. Crepzom imagined creatures with five hands. Using toolbots, he could manipulated all of them at the same time. After several tries, he heard a satisfying click, and the hatch opened. To his delight, he had entered some kind of control room. He radioed Neil. "Neil, I've found something important. Send a bot down with additional oxy. Here are my coordinates within the artifact." He keyed in numbers on his pad and sent them back to the ship.

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

After a while, he began to worry. His oxygen gauge told him that he no longer had enough reserves to return to the shuttle. He hoped he had given Neil the correct coordinates and checked them on his pad. Finally the bot showed up with extra tanks, enough oxygen for several hours, enough time to examine the artifact's controls in minute detail.

The knobs, gauges, levers, and raised dimples before him were quite strange. The hieroglyphics were everywhere on what he assumed was the main control panel. He sighed. It would be wonderful if he could decipher them. But that would take much study and a lot of computing power. It was task for the long journey home. He carefully examined each control, trying to guess what it was for. He thought for a while and came to the conclusion that since the station was so near the singularity, at least a portion of the control panel would be devoted communication associated with starships entering and leaving it. Other controls had to be for maintaining the station's environment. Perhaps some had to do with repairs and maintenance.

"Dare I manipulate one?" he thought. "What harm could it do?"

There was a series of knobs close together. Using the bots again, he twisted five that were grouped together. What Crepzom thought was a blank wall turned out to be a viewscreen. It lit up, a being appeared, and noises sounding like grunts, mutters, and belches came from hidden speakers. Crepzom assumed that it was the being's speech. The alien creature was strange, a sort of blob with tentacles and thick hairy legs. The three holes opening and closing had to be its mouths. Crepzom could not detect any visual organs, unless some of the blotches on its upper region were eyes or their equivalent. It wore clothing of sorts in strips around various parts of its body. It also had metallic objects hung on it which could be decorations, tools or weapons. Crepzom quickly turned on his recording equipment.

The alien was lecturing about something, its tentacles waving at what could be abstract art or indecipherable charts. None of what the creature was talking about seemed to have anything to do with the control panel or anything else Crepzom had found on the artifact. The recording continued for approximately a half an hour, when the screen went blank again. Crepzom manipulated the same levers again. The alien message was repeated.

Crepzom looked over the control board. There was a large disk covered with the alien writing that intrigued him. He placed his palm on it. The next moment Neil shouted in his ear, "Crepzom! Something is happening to singularity. It's mass has suddenly decreased." Crepzom pulled his hand away as though the disk were a hot plate. "It is returning to normal. Doctor Crepzom, I believe you should return to me as soon as possible. If the singularity is unstable, we may not be able to return. We could be marooned out here thousands of light-years from anything."

"I don't think it is actually unstable, Neil. I touched a control that may have manipulated it. Let me try an experiment." He touched the disk again. "Did the singularity's mass decrease again?"

"Yes, by the same amount."

Crepzom removed his hand. "And did it now return to normal?"

"Yes it did."

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

"I understand. Doctor Crepzom, do not touch any more controls. Who knows what you might do to the singularity?"

"Oh, I'll keep away from those all right." Crepzom felt that any controls for manipulating the white hole would be grouped near the disk. He gazed around at the other devices. One panel contained a set of covered switches. He flipped back their covers and changed the position of one. Nothing happened.

A few seconds later, Neil screeched in his ear, "Red Alert! Red Alert! We're under attack. A missile is ..." A sound like an explosion came through Crepzom's earphones and then silence. Oh my Mainbrain, what have I done?

Further efforts to contact Neil failed. Crepzom quickly made his way up to surface of the artifact. He scanned the sky. There was no sign of Neil. He went to the shuttle and turned on its detection device. The area where Neil had been was filled fragments of metal and plastic fleeing each other at an explosive rate. Crepzom felt like crying. Apparently he had launched a weapon, and it had destroyed his best friend and his only possible way of returning home.

At first he was so devastated he could not think straight. But after a long time, he calmed down and tried to discover a way out of his dilemma. He still had the shuttle. Perhaps he could use it to pass through the singularity. Then he recalled that it would be necessary to achieve tremendous speeds and enter on a trajectory that only a highly sophisticated AI pilot could achieve. Neither he nor the shuttle had such a capability. To attempt such a feat would be suicide.

His next thought was that since this space station was a way station, perhaps a starship was still berthed on it somewhere. If it was AI controlled like his now defunct vessel, he might be able to use it to go through the white hole. But it would take time to search the enormous artifact, and he had only a limited amount of oxygen. He snapped his finger. Neil had said that there were traces of oxygen and argon. The aliens were no doubt oxygen breathers. If he could restore the environment, he could live for a long time breathing an atmosphere of oxy and argon. He also had water and dehydrated food aboard the shuttle.

He examined the alien control panel again. He now knew which panel was used to control the singularity and which contained weaponry. He also bypassed the panel that had the device that initiated the recording. Finally, he decided that a panel which contained several dials and indicator lights must be the one for controlling the environment. He manipulated a control. Immediately a hissing started, an indicator light turned blue and a needle on gauge slowly rose. When it reached its maximum after several minutes, he tested the atmosphere. To his joy, it was seventy percent oxygen and thirty percent argon, pressure one point three atmospheres -- definitely breathable.

He opened the hatch and retested. To his joy, the entire ship was filled with the gas. He removed his helmet, took a deep breath and returned to the control room. The temperature was still extremely cold. He tried various knobs until he found one that raised the temperature to a comfortable seventy-two degrees. He removed his spacesuit, packed water, food and supplies in a backpack and began to explore in earnest.

To his good fortune, one of the controls he had manipulated had turned on lights throughout the station. Systematically, he searched through every compartment and corridor. He found a few small artifacts which he added to is bag, none of which were of any great importance, but he discovered no spaceship of any kind, not even an escape pod.

It took him days to investigate the entire station. Finally, he realized that there was nothing that would help him. Unless someone came through the white hole to rescue him, he would die of hunger and thirst once his supplies ran out. Rescue, however, was unlikely since he had kept his destination a secret. Only Neil had known where they were going. How vain, overly ambitious and foolish I've been, he thought, as he rose up to the outer surface and gazed at the jewel of a billion suns lighting up the only sky he would ever see for the rest of his short life.

A thousands years later another xenoarchaeologist found his body, perfectly preserved, and wondered how it happened to be on an alien artifact a thousand light-years from nowhere.

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