The laser beam hit me smack in the face.
I twisted away. My helmet buzzed and went dark as its sunshade overloaded. Get inside the ship. I yanked on a strut and tumbled into the yawning, fluorescent-lit airlock.
In the asteroid belt you either have fast reflexes or you’re a statistic. I slammed into the airlock bulkhead and stopped dead, waiting to see where the laser beam would hit next. My suit sensors were all burned out, my straps were singed. The pressure patches on knees and elbows had brown bubbles in them. They had blistered and boiled away. Another second or two and I’d have been sucking vac.
I took all this in while I watched for reflections from the next laser strike. Only it didn’t come. Whoever had shot at me either thought Sniffer was disabled, or else they had a balky laser. Either way, I had to start dodging.
I moved fast, working my way forward through a connecting tube to the bridge—a fancy name for a closet-sized cockpit. I revved up Sniffer’s fusion drive and felt the tug as she started spitting hot plasma out her rear tubes. I made the side jets stutter, too, putting out little bursts of plasma. That made Sniffer dart around, just enough to make hitting her tough.
I punched in for a damage report. Some aft sensors burned out, a loading arm melted down, other minor stuff. The laser bolt must have caught us for just a few seconds.
A bolt from who? Where? I checked radar. Nothing.
I reached up to scratch my nose, thinking, and I realized my helmet and skinsuit were still sealed, vac-worthy. I decided to keep them on, just in case. I usually wear light coveralls inside Sniffer; the skinsuit is for vac work. It occurred to me that if I hadn’t been outside, fixing a hydraulic loader, I wouldn’t have known anybody shot at us at all, until my next routine check.
Which didn’t make sense. Prospectors shoot at you if you’re jumping a claim. They don’t zap you once and then fade—they finish the job. I was pretty safe now; Sniffer’s strutting mode was fast and choppy, jerking me around in my captain’s couch. But as my hands hovered over the control console, they started trembling. I couldn’t make them stop. My fingers were shaking so badly I didn’t dare punch in instructions. Delayed reaction, my analytical mind told me.
I was scared. Prospecting by yourself is risky enough without the bad luck of running into somebody else’s claim. All at once I wished I wasn’t such a loner. I forced myself to think.
By all rights, Sniffer should’ve been a drifting hulk by now—sensors blinded, punched full of holes, engines blown. Belt prospectors play for all the marbles.
Philosophically, I’m with the jackrabbits—run, dodge, hop, but don’t fight. I have some surprises for anybody who tries to outrun me, too. Better than trading laser bolts with rockrats at thousand-kilometer range, any day.
But this one worried me. No other ships on radar, nothing but that one bolt. It didn’t fit.
I punched in a quick computer program. The maintenance computer had logged the time when the aft sensors scorched out. Also, I could tell which way I was facing when the bolt hit me. Those two facts could give me a fix on the source. I let Sniffer’s ballistic routine chew on that for a minute and, waiting, looked out the side port. The sun was a fierce white dot in an inky sea. A few rocks twinkled in the distance as they tumbled. Until we were hit, we’d been on a zero-gee coast, outbound from Ceres—the biggest rock there is—for some prospecting. The best-paying commodity in the Belt right now was methane ice, and I knew a likely place. Sniffer—the ugly, segmented tube with strap-on fuel pods that I call home—was still over eight hundred thousand kilometers from the asteroid I wanted to check.
Five years back I had been out with a rockhound bunch, looking for asteroids with rich cadmium deposits. That was in the days when everybody thought cadmium was going to be the wonder fuel for ion rockets. We found the cadmium, all right, and made a bundle. While I was out on my own, taking samples from rocks, I saw this gray, ice-covered asteroid about a hundred klicks away. My ship auto-eye picked it up from the bright sunglint. Sensors said it was carbon dioxide ice with some water mixed in. Probably a comet hit the rock millions of years ago, and some of it stuck. I filed its orbit parameters away for a time—like now—when the market got thirsty. Right now the big cylinder worlds orbiting Earth needed water, CO2, methane, and other goodies. That happens every time the cylinder boys build a new tin can and need to form an ecosystem inside. Rock and ore they can get from Earth’s moon. For water they have to come to us, the Belters. It’s cheaper in energy to boost ice into the slow pipeline orbits in from the Belt to Earth—much cheaper than it is to haul water up from Earth’s deep gravity well. Cheaper, that is, if the rockrats flying vac out here can find any.
The screen rippled green. It drew a cone for me, Sniffer at apex. Inside that cone was whoever had tried to wing me. I popped my helmet and gave in to the sensuality of scratching my nose. If they scorched me again, I’d have to button up while my own ship’s air tried to suck me away—but stopping the itch was worth it.
Inside the cone was somebody who wanted me dead. My mouth was dry. My hands were still shaking. They wanted to punch in course corrections that would take me away from that cone, fast.
Or was I assuming too much? Oresniffers use radio for communication—it radiates in all directions, it’s cheap, and it’s not delicate. But suppose some rocker lost his radio, and had to use his cutting laser to signal? I knew he had to be over ten thousand kilometers away—that’s radar range. By jittering around, Sniffer was making it impossible for him to send us a distress signal. And if there’s one code rockrats will honor, it’s answering a call for help.
So call me stupid. I took the risk. I put Sniffer back on a smooth orbit—and nothing happened.
You’ve got to be curious to be a skyjock, in both senses of the word. So color me curious. I stared at that green cone and ate some tangy squeeze-tube soup and got even more curious. I used the radar to rummage through the nearby rocks, looking for metal that might be a ship. I checked some orbits. The Belt hasn’t got dust in it, to speak of. The dust got sucked into Jupiter long ago. The rocks—”planetesimals” a scientist told me I should call them, but they’re just rocks to me—can be pretty fair-sized. I looked around, and I found one that was heading into the mathematical cone my number-cruncher dealt me.
Sniffer took five hours to rendezvous with it—a big black hunk, a klick wide and absolutely worthless. I moored Sniffer to it with automatic moly bolts. They made hollow bangs—whap, whap—as they plowed in.
Curious, yes. Stupid, no. The disabled skyjock was just a theory. Laser bolts are real. I wanted some camouflage. My companion asteroid had enough traces of metal in it to keep standard radar from seeing Sniffer’s outline. Moored snug to the asteroid’s face, I’d be hard to pick out. The asteroid would take me coasting through the middle of that cone. If I kept radio silence, I’d be pretty safe.
So I waited. And slept. And fixed the aft sensors. And waited.
Prospectors are hermits. You watch your instruments, you tinker with your plasma drive, you play 3D flexcop—an addictive game; it ought to be illegal—and you worry. You work out in the zero-gee gym, you calculate how to break even when you finally can sell your fresh ore to the Hansen Corporation, you wonder if you’ll have to kick ass to get your haul in pipeline orbit for Earthside—and you have to like it when the nearest conversationalist is the Social/Talkback subroutine in the shipboard. Me, I like it. Curious, as I said.
It came up out of the background noise on the radar scope. In fact, I thought it was noise. The thing came and went, fluttered, grew and shrank. It gave a funny radar profile—but so did some of the new ships the corporations flew. My rock was passing about two hundred klicks from the thing and the odd profile made me cautious. I went into the observation bubble to have a squint with the opticals.
The asteroid I’d pinned Sniffer to had a slow, lazy spin. We rotated out of the shadow just as I got my reflex-opter telescope on-line. Stars spun slowly across a jet-black sky. The sun carved sharp shadows into the rock face. My target drifted up from the horizon, a funny yellow-white dot. The telescope whirred and it leaped into focus.
I sat there, not breathing. A long tube, turning. Towers jutted out at odd places—twisted columns, with curved faces and sudden jagged struts. A fretwork of blue. Patches of strange, moving yellow. A jumble of complex structures. It was a cylinder, decorated almost beyond recognition. I checked the ranging figures, shook my head, checked again. The inboard computer overlaid a perspective grid on the image, to convince me. I sat very still. The cylinder was pointing nearly away from me, so radar had reported a cross section much smaller than its real size. The thing was seven goddamn kilometers long.
I stared at that strange, monstrous thing, and thought, and suddenly I didn’t want to be around there anymore. I took three quick shots with the telescope on inventory mode. That would tell me composition, albedo, the rest of the litany. Then I shut it down and scrambled back into the bridge. My hands were trembling again.
I hesitated about what to do, but they decided for me. On our next revolution, as soon as the automatic opticals got a fix, there were two blips. I punched in for a radar Doppler and it came back bad: The smaller dot was closing on us, fast.
The moly bolts came free with a bang. I took Sniffer up and out, backing away from the asteroid to keep it between me and the blip that was coming for us. I stepped us up to max gee. My mouth was dry and I had to check every computer input twice.
I ran. There wasn’t much else to do. The blip was coming at me at better than a tenth of a gee—incredible acceleration. In the Belt there is plenty of time for moving around, and a chronic lack of fuel—so we use high-efficiency drives and take energy-cheap orbits. The blip wasn’t bothering with that. Somehow he had picked Sniffer out and decided we were worth a lot of fuel to reach, and reach in a hurry. For some reason they didn’t use a laser bolt. It would have been a simple shot at this range. But maybe they didn’t want to chance my shooting at the big ship this close, so they put their money on driving me off.
But then, why chase me so fast? It didn’t add up.
By the time I was a few hundred klicks away from the asteroid it was too small to be a useful shield. The blip appeared around its edge. I don’t carry weapons, but I do have a few tricks. I built a custom-designed pulse mode into Sniffer’s fusion drive, back before she was commissioned. When the blip appeared I started staging the engines. The core of the motor is a hot ball of plasma, burning heavy water—deuterium—and spitting it, plus vaporized rock, out the back tubes. Feeding in the right amount of deuterium is crucial. There are a dozen overlapping safeguards on the system, but if you know how—I punched in the command. My drive pulsed, suddenly rich in deuterium. On top of that came a dose of pulverized rock. The rock damps the runaway reaction. On top of that, all in a microsecond, came a shot of cesium. It mixed and heated and zap—out the back, moving fast, went a hot cloud of spitting, snarling plasma. The cesium ionizes easily and makes a perfect shield against radar. You can fire a laser through it, sure—but how do you find your target?
The cesium pulse gave me a kick in the butt. I looked back. A blue-white cloud was spreading out behind Sniffer, blocking any detection.
I ran like that for one hour, then two. The blip showed up again. It had shifted sideways, to get a look around the cesium cloud—an expensive maneuver. Apparently they had a lot of fuel in reserve.
I threw another cloud. It punched a blue-white fist in the blackness. They were making better gee than I could; it was going to be a matter of who could hold out. So I tried another trick. I moved into the radar shadow of an asteroid that was nearby, and moving at a speed I could manage. Maybe the blip would miss me when it came out from behind the cloud. It was a gamble, but worth it in fuel.
In three hours I had my answer. The blip homed in on me. How? I thought. Who’s got a radar that can pinpoint that well?
I fired a white-hot cesium cloud. We accelerated away, making tracks. I was getting worried. Sniffer was groaning with the strain. I hadn’t allowed myself to think about what I’d seen, but now it looked like I was in for a long haul. The fusion motor rumbled and murmured to itself and I was alone, more alone than I’d felt for a long time, with nothing to do but watch the screen and think.
Belters aren’t scientists. They’re gamblers, idealists, thieves, crazies, malcontents. Most of us are from the cylinder worlds orbiting Earth. Once you’ve grown up in space, moving on means moving out, not going back to Earth. Nobody wants to be a ground-pounder. So Belters are the new cutting edge of mankind, pushing out, finding new resources.
The common theory is that life in general must be like that. Over the last century the scientists have looked for radio signals from other civilizations out among the stars, and come up with zero results. But we think life isn’t all that unusual in the universe. So the question comes up: If there are aliens, and they’re like us, why haven’t they spread out among the stars? How come they didn’t overrun Earth before we even evolved? If they moved at even one percent the speed of light, they’d have spread across the whole damn galaxy in a few million years.
Some people think that argument is right. They take it a little further, too—the aliens haven’t visited our solar system, so check your premise again. Maybe there aren’t any aliens like us. Oh, sure, intelligent fish, maybe, or something we can’t imagine. But there are no radio-builders, no star-voyagers. The best proof of this is that they haven’t come calling.
I’d never thought about that line of reasoning much, because that’s the conventional wisdom now; it’s stuff you learn when you’re a snot-nosed kid. We stopped listening for radio signals a long time ago, back around 2030 or so. But now that I thought about it—
Already, men were living in space habitats. If mankind ever cast off into the abyss between the stars, which way would they go? In a dinky rocket? No, they’d go in comfort, in stable communities. They’d rig up a cylinder world with a fusion drive, or something like it, and set course for the nearest star, knowing they’d take generations to get there.
A century or two in space would make them into very different people. When they reached a star, where would they go? Down to the planets? Sure—for exploration, maybe. But to live? Nobody who grew up in fractional gee, with the freedom the cylinder world gives you, would want to be a ground-pounder. They wouldn’t even know how.
The aliens wouldn’t be much different. They’d be spacefarers, able to live in vac and tap solar power. They’d need raw materials, sure. But the cheapest way to get mass isn’t to go down and drag it up from the planets. No, the easy way is in the asteroids—otherwise, Belters would never make a buck. So if the aliens came to our solar system a long time ago, they’d probably continue to live in space colonies. Sure, they’d study the planets some. But they’d live where they were comfortable.
I thought this through, slowly. In the long waits while I dodged from rock to rock there was plenty of time. I didn’t like the conclusion, but it fit the facts. That huge seven-kilometer cylinder back there wasn’t man-made. I’d known that, deep in my guts, the moment I saw it. Nobody could build a thing like that out there and keep it quiet. The cylinder gave off no radio, but ships navigating that much mass into place would have to. Somebody would have picked it up.
So now I knew what was after me. It didn’t help much.
I decided to hide behind one rock heading sunward at a fair clip. I needed sleep and I didn’t want to keep up my fusion burn—they’re too easy to detect. Better to lie low for a while.
I stayed there for five hours, dozing. When I woke up I couldn’t see the blip. Maybe they’d broken off the chase. I was ragged and there was sand in my eyes. I wasn’t going to admit to myself that I was really scared this time. Belters and lasers I could take, sure. But this was too much for me.
I ate breakfast and freed Sniffer from the asteroid I’d moored us to. My throat was raw, my nerves jumpy. I edged us out from the rock and looked around. Nothing. I turned up the fusion drive. Sniffer creaked and groaned. The deck plates rattled. There was a hot, gun-metal smell. I had been in my skinsuit the whole time and I didn’t smell all that good either. I pulled away from our shelter and boosted.
It came out of nowhere.
One minute the scope was clean and the next—a big one, moving fast, straight at us. It couldn’t have been hiding—there was no rock around to screen it. Which meant they could deflect radar waves, at least for a few minutes. They could be invisible.
The thing came looming out of the darkness. It was yellow and blue, bright and obvious. I turned in my couch to see it. My hands were punching in a last-ditch maneuver on the board. I squinted at the thing and a funny feeling ran through me, a chill. It was old. There were big meteor pits all over the yellow-blue skin. The surface itself glowed, like rock with a ghostly fire inside. I could see no ports, no locks, no antennae.
It was swelling in the sky, getting close.
I hit the emergency board, all buttons. I had laid out good money for one special surprise, if some prospector overtook me and decided he needed an extra ship. The side pods held fission-burn rockets, powerful things. They fired one time only and cost like hell. But worth it.
The gee slammed me back into the couch. A roar rattled the ship. We hauled ass out of there. I saw the thing behind fade away in the exhaust flames. The high-boost fuel puts out incredibly hot gas. Some of it caught the yellow-blue thing. The front end of the ship scorched. I smiled grimly and cut in the whole system. The gee thrust went up. I felt the bridge swimming around me, a sour smell of burning—then I was out, the world slipping away, the blackness folding in.
When I came to, I was floating. The boosters yawned empty, spent. Sniffer coasted at an incredibly high speed. And the yellow-blue thing was gone.
Maybe they’d been damaged. Maybe they just plain ran out of fuel; everybody has limitations, even things that can span the stars.
I stretched out and let the hard knots of tension begin to unwind. Time enough later to compute a new orbit. For the moment it simply felt great to be alone and alive.
“Ceres Monitor here, on 560 megahertz. Calling on standby mode for orecraft Sniffer. Request micro-burst of confirmation on your hail frequency, Sniffer. We have a high-yield reading on optical from your coordinates. Request confirmation of fission burn. Repeat, this is Ceres Monitor—”
I clicked it off. The Belt is huge, but the high-burn torch I’d turned loose back there was orders of magnitude more luminous than an ordinary fusion jet. That was one reason I carried them—they doubled as a signal flare, visible millions of klicks away. By some chance somebody had seen mine and relayed the coordinates to Ceres.
All through the chase I hadn’t called Ceres. It would have been of no use—there were no craft within range to be of help. And Belters are loners—my instinct was always to keep troubles to myself. There’s nothing worse than listening to a Belter whining over the radio.
But now—I switched the radio back on and reached for the mike to hail Ceres. Then I stopped.
The yellow-blue craft had never fired at me. Sniffer would have been easy to cripple at that range. An angry prospector would’ve done it without thinking twice.
Something prevented them. Some code, some moral sense that ruled out firing on a fleeing craft, no matter how much they wanted to stop it.
A moral code of an ancient society. They had come here and settled, soaking up energy from our sun, mining the asteroids, getting ices from comets. A peaceful existence. They were used to a sleepy Earth, inhabited by life-forms not worth the effort of constant study. Probably they didn’t care much about planets anymore. They didn’t keep detailed track of what was happening. Suddenly, in the last century or so—a very short interval from the point of view of a galactic-scale society—the animals down on the blue-white world started acting up. Emitting radio, exploding nuclear weapons, flying spacecraft. These ancient beings found an exponentially growing technology on their doorstep.
I tried to imagine what they thought of us. We were young, we were crude. Undoubtedly the cylinder beings could have destroyed us. They could nudge a middle-sized asteroid into a collision orbit with Earth, and watch the storm wrack engulf humanity. Simple. But they hadn’t done it. That moral sense again?
Something like that, yes. Give it a name and it becomes a human quality—which is in itself a deception. These things were alien. But their behavior had to make some sort of sense, had to have a reason.
I floated, frowning. Putting all this together was like assembling a jigsaw puzzle with only half the pieces, but still—something told me I was right. It fit.
A serene, long-lived, cosmic civilization might be worried by our blind rush outward. They were used to vast time scales; we had come on the stage in the wink of an eye. Maybe this speed left the cylinder beings undecided, hesitant. That would explain why they didn’t contact us. Just the reverse, in fact—they were hiding. Otherwise—
It suddenly hit me. They didn’t use radio because it broadcasts at a wide angle. Only lasers can keep a tight beam over great distances. That was what zapped me—not a weapon, a communications channel.
Which meant there had to be more than one cylinder world in the Belt. They kept quiet by using only beamed communications.
That implied something further, too. We hadn’t heard any radio signals from other civilizations, either—because they were using lasers. They didn’t want to be detected by other, younger societies.
Why? Were the aliens in our own Belt debating whether to help us or crush us? Or something in between?
In the meantime, the Belt was a natural hideout. They liked their privacy. They must be worried now, with humans exploring the Belt. I might be the first human to stumble upon them, but I wouldn’t be the last.
“Ceres Monitor calling to—”
I hesitated. They were old, older than we could imagine. They could have been in this solar system longer than man—stable, peaceful, inheritors of a vast history. They were moral enough not to fire at me, even though they knew it meant they would be discovered.
They needed time. They had a tough decision to face. If they were rushed into it they might make the wrong one.
“Orecraft Sniffer requested to—”
I was a Belter; I valued my hermit existence, too. I thumbed on the mike.
“Ceres, this is Sniffer. Rosemary Jokopi, sole officer. I verify that I used a fission burn, but only as a part of routine mining exploration. No cause for alarm. Nothing else to report. Transmission ends.”
When I hung up the mike, my hands weren’t shaking anymore.
© 1979 by Gregory Benford.
Originally published in Omni.
Reprinted by permission of the author.