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At first Gill assumed it was just another bit of space debris, winking as it turned around its own axis and sending bright flashes of reflected light down where they were placing the cable around AS-64-B1.3. But something about it seemed wrong to him, and he raised the question when they were back inside the Khedive.
"It is too bright to have been in space very long," Rafik pointed out. His slender brown fingers danced over the console before him; he read half a dozen screens at once and translated their glowing, multicolored lines into voice commands to the external sensor system.
"What d' you mean, too bright?" Gill demanded. "Stars are bright, and most of them have been around a good while."
Rafik's black brows lifted and he nodded at Calum.
"But the sensors tell us this is metal, and too smooth," Calum said. "As usual, you're thinking with the Viking-ancestor part of what we laughingly refer to as your brain, Declan Giloglie the Third. Would it not be pitted from minor collisions if it had been in this asteroid belt more than a matter of hours? And if it has not been in this part of space for more than a few hours, where did it come from?"
"Conundrums, is it? I'll leave the solving of them to you," Gill said with good humor. "I am but a simple metallurgic engineer, a horny-handed son of the soil."
"More like a son of the asteroidal regolith," Rafik suggested. Not that this particular asteroid offers much, we're going to have to break up the surface with the auger before there's anypoint in lowering the magnetic rake. . . Ah! Got a fix on it." An oval shape, regularly indented edge, appeared on the central screen. "Now what can the sensors ten us about this little mystery?"
"It looks like a pea pod," Gill said.
'It does that," Calum, agreed. "The question is, what sort of peas, and do we want to harvest them, or send them gently on their way? There've not been any recent diplomatic disagreements in this sector, have there?"
"None that would inspire the placing of mines," Gill said, "and that's not like any space mine I ever saw. Besides, only an idiot would send a space mine floating into an asteroid belt where there's no telling what might set it off and whose side might be worst injured."
"High intelligence," Rafik murmured, "is not inevitably an attribute of those who pursue diplomacy by other means. . .close reading," he commanded the console. "All bandwidths. . .well, well; Interesting."
"Unless I'm mistaken Rafik paused. "Names of the Three Prophets! I must be mistaken. It's not large enough. . .and there's no scheduled traffic through this sector. . .Calum, what do you make of these sensor readings?" I
Calum leaned over the panel. His sandy lashes blinked several, times, rapidly, as he absorbed and interpreted the changing colors of the display. "You're not mistaken," he said.
"Would you two kindly share the great insight?" Gill demanded.
Calum straightened and looked up at Gill. "Your peas," he said, "are alive. And given the size of the pod -too small for any, recycling lifesupport system-the signal it's broadcasting can only be a distress call, though it's like no code I've ever heard before."
"Can we capture it?"
"We'll have to, shan't we? Let's hope ah, good. I don't recognize the alloy, but it' definitely ferrous. The magnetic attractors should be able, to latch on easy, now," Rafik admonished the machinery he was setting in action, "we don't want to jostle it, do we? Contents fragile. Handle with care, and all that.... Very nice," he murmured as the pod came to rest in an empty cargo bay.
"Complimenting your own delicate hands?" Calum asked caustically.
"The ship, my Mend, the Khedive. She's done a fine gentle job of harvesting our pea pod; now to bring it in and open it.
There were no identification markings that any of them could read on the "pea pod," but a series of long scrolling lines might, Calum, surmised, have been some sort of alien script,
"Alien, of course," Rafik murmured. "All the generations of the Expansion, all these stars mapped and planets settled, and we're to be the first to, discover a sapient alien race I don't think. It's decoration, or it's a script none of us happens to know, which is just barely possible, I think you'll agree?"
"Barely," Calum, agreed, with no echo of Rafik's irony in his voice. "But it's not Cyrillic or Neo-Grek or Romaic or TriLat or anything else I can name. . .so what is it?"
"Perhaps," Rafik suggested. "the peas will tell us." He ran delicate fingers over the incised carvings and the scalloped edges of the pod. Hermetically sealed, of a size to hold one adult human body, it might have been a coffin rather than a life-support module. . .but the ship's sensors had picked up that distress signal, and the signs of life within the pod. And the means of opening, when he found it, was as simple and elegant as the rest of the design; simply a matter of matching the first three fingers of each hand with the pair of triple oval depressions in the center of the pod.
"Hold it," Calum, said "Better suit up and open it in the air lock, We've no idea what sort of atmosphere this thing breathes."
Gill frowned. "We could kill it, by opening it. Isn't there some way to test what's in there?"
Not without opening it," Calum said brightly. "Look. Gill, whatever is in there may not be alive anyway and if it is, surely it won't last forever in a hermetically sealed environment.