Read The Salvagers Online

Authors: John Michael Godier

The Salvagers

BOOK: The Salvagers
6.66Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub






The Salvagers



By John Michael Godier











2013. J. M. Godier




All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the author.


All rights reserved.


The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.


Cover image copyright
© 2013 Chalin and Harris Books


















Dedicated to all those people daring enough to expect a bright future for our species.




Chapter 1     June 5, 2461


"Men go abroad to wonder at the heights of mountains, at the huge waves of the sea, at the long courses of the rivers, at the vast compass of the ocean, at the circular motions of the stars, and they pass by themselves without wondering." - St. Augustine


              There it was, filling the windows of my bridge. The richest and most famous lost shipwreck in the solar system, presenting itself as welcoming and free for the taking. And I knew that it belonged to me. I had found a legend. More accurately, it was

I shouldn't have trusted my senses. I should have held my emotions in check. I should have realized that my mind was bathed in that fog that clouds a person's ability to recognize realities and spot future challenges during the initial moments of a discovery. The more I admired it, the more flawless it seemed—pristinely preserved, shining gloriously new. The polished steel plates of its hull reflected the sunlight like diamond facets as it slowly revolved against the black backdrop of space.

It was pure, dumb, blind luck that we found it. A minor course change in any direction over the previous month, and we'd have missed it entirely. It would have been a passing speck of light to be dismissed as just another chunk of ice or rock like a hundred trillion others dotting the solar system. It must have looked that way to countless other people, for it was well within the main trade routes to the Jupiter colonies, and it was only by chance that no one ever got close enough to see it for what it was.

Our course brought us just barely within the range of our telescope's ability to identify it. I can't say why I even bothered to look through the eyepiece. Maybe it was the regular rhythm of the light rising and falling that suggested it might be manmade. I wanted a look nonetheless, so when I floated away from my command station and trained the telescope on that bright dot and saw that it was a ship, dead in space and of a style that confirmed its identity, I knew that my greatest moment had come.

"All stop!" I yelled to my crew.

Over my 30-year career as a salvager, I'd learned to temper my ideas of what it might be like to find a Holy Grail treasure wreck. In my line of work, unless you keep your expectations in check, you will always meet with disappointment. Like the treasure hunters who plied Earth's old Spanish Main and found that the wood was always rotten and the sunken galleons no longer looked like ships, a wreck in space was almost always a crushed and shattered heap of metal. And that was the most you could expect. Sometimes it was just a widely scattered field of debris or a fresh crater on an asteroid. I'd learned to put little stock in the errant pipe dreams of finding that one perfect ship the other salvagers fantasized about—the one that wasn't utterly destroyed.

I had always tried to restrict my visions to strictly realistic expectations. I imagined the legendary wrecks as torn-open hulls with loose coins dotting zero-G minefields of human remains and jagged steel ready to shred space suits and punch holes in salvage vessels. Relics like that were no longer ships. They were shipwrecks, pitiful victims of violent accidents and failures that could offer only one certainty: they were always ready to take one more life.

I'd never dared to envision this particular wreck intact. Seeing its perfection disarmed me. I gathered enough rationality to ask myself whether I was seeing it through rose-colored glasses because I knew what was on the ship. Then the beauty of it finally overwhelmed me again, forcing me to make peace with the thought that it was real. I wasn't alone. Emotions ran high in every member of my crew. They also knew about the cargo; it was the fabled treasure of the Golden Asteroid, the stuff of legends since its loss 200 years earlier.

We maneuvered closer, watching the ship's name rotate into view. It was emblazoned boldly in matte black letters across the mirror-polished plating of the hull.
Cape Hatteras
. Seeing its name thrilled us and left us with no uncertainty. There would be no need for lengthy research in dusty half-forgotten archives poring over construction invoices to match up half a serial number on a fragment of wreckage. We knew unequivocally what ship we had found.

Our slow rising approach brought its enormous bulk into a better perspective. Over 700 feet long and 100 wide, it dwarfed our tiny
Amaranth Sun
. Its newness was striking and unnatural, looking as though someone had just finished building it and then shut off the lights before promptly forgetting that it had ever existed.

Cape Hatteras
was a mining vessel launched in 2258 by the Union of North American Governments (UNAG), the successor state to Canadaska, the Mexican Confederacy, and the United States Mark IV, themselves reboots of countries whose original names most people had forgotten. It had one mission: collect as much gold as possible from the asteroid 974-Bernhard and return it to Earth. The UNAG needed rescue from deep national debt and took a gamble, spending nearly a trillion dollars in the currency of the day on the mission. If all had gone as planned, it would have returned a hundred times that sum.

The UNAG was desperate. If they didn't find a major source of income, they'd have gone bankrupt within a decade and been forced to go the way of the governments they had replaced. It was the same old modus operandi of those times: borrow, spend, go bankrupt, remonetize, and finally come up with some new and unblemished name for the nation. And then, like a tired old scow dressed up with a fresh coat of paint, they would start the cycle over until the next time the polish wore off.

The loss of the
Cape Hatteras
had nearly made that bankruptcy immediate. If it hadn't been for a last-minute round of weapons sales that balanced the books, the UNAG would have faded into history. They survived but at a shameful cost: the deal fueled the last major war on Earth. A horror that tore apart Eastern Europe and Asia and left 200 million dead after two decades lost, the Eurasian war finally ended in a stalemate with no one winning a damned thing. But it did teach a lesson to the unions: if you're going to have a war, do it in space. Earth itself has been at peace ever since, ruling her empire of colonies, the politics of home always reverberating throughout the solar system.

We circled the
Cape Hatteras
and then moved forward to inspect the bow of the ship. Its bridge windows were as black as holes in space, showing no obvious signs of damage but otherwise revealing nothing. Even the direct light of the sun seemed to disappear without a trace into that dark void. The eeriness of it evoked the uncertainty of what had happened after it finished its mission to 974-Bernhard.

974-Bernhard was also called Walton's Rock after the scientist who had discovered it. Dr. Walton was a preeminent astrogeologist and had spent decades studying the asteroid. It became a singular obsession for him. He was convinced that it held the key, one way or another, to solving all of Earth's troubles. He might have been right in some sense.

Unlike most asteroids it was filled with heavy metals by virtue of having originally been the center of a large protoplanet's core. An unusually slow rate of cooling allowed the heaviest metals to concentrate before finally solidifying. Then it was blown to bits by the impact of an object two-thirds its size, leaving a chunk of metal and rock floating in space and presenting easy access. Most of it was useless iron and nickel, along with uranium, thorium, and other radioactive scrap not worth the trouble to haul back home. But it was also loaded with gold.

Walton attached much more importance to it than the value of its metal. From early on he got out into the media to promote his discovery, but when no one shared his vision he grew despondent. The poor man faced every kind of negativity imaginable. Some said that it was too expensive to mine, others commented that it ought to be preserved as it was, and someone even suggested that it be blown up with a particle laser so everyone would quit fighting about it.

It all proved too much for Dr. Walton. His mental health declined, and he started saying all kinds of crazy things such as that the asteroid was the metaphysical equivalent of the fusion reactor, that it held the key to spiritual happiness, and that it was a transmitter to contact aliens through dreams. His rants became stranger the older he got, and the media were more than willing to let him keep spouting for the entertainment value. He even believed that the UNAG was sending secret missions to 974-Bernhard so they could steal it from him. In the end he was right about the asteroid’s resources, and a decade after he died the
Cape Hatteras
project commenced.

We hadn't seen anything that suggested an accident. The hull plating of the ship was intact, and there was no torn or twisted metal that would indicate a violent decompression. We moved on to get a look at the engine nozzles arrayed across the stern. Amazingly, they were sparkling clean, as though someone had recently scrubbed them. Maybe that was a clue, we thought. Perhaps something catastrophic had made the ship's fusion reactors shut down, effectively marooning the crew in outer space. Residues accumulate in engine bells during their use, so to perform a cold restart on a ship's engines you must first spray low-temperature cleaning gel into the nozzles. Then you go through a very involved and tedious process to get everything running again. We speculated that they might have lost power and were trying to get the engines going when they simply ran out of time and oxygen. My crew kept theorizing as we explored further, but my thoughts drifted back to the cargo.

Cape Hatteras
had mined the asteroid for nearly a year. The ship was equipped with an automated smelting system; as they mined the asteroid, the system would cast the gold into bricks refined to a perfect .9999 fineness. The crew would then catalog and securely strap each brick onto pallets in the cargo hold until they filled it with a titanic amount of gold. It was enough to increase the supply on Earth by a third. If melted into a single block, it would have been 70 feet long and 20 wide and high. They were about to begin their ten-month journey home when contact was lost. No trace of the ship was ever found.

So many questions haunted the
Cape Hatteras
’s fate that its fame ensured a dedicated following of enthusiasts. Hundreds of books had been written about it, all of them with a different theory about what had happened. In addition to salvaging its cargo, we hoped that that we'd be able to lay all that controversy to rest and solve the mystery once and for all.

The UNAG's earlier conclusions about the accident had only added to the conundrum. An official panel was convened to figure the whole thing out, but their answers fell short of satisfying anyone. They determined that the
Cape Hatteras
had inferior hull plating, claiming that it was too thin to withstand a hit by one of the billions of small boulders that race at high speed around the asteroid belt. One, they proposed, must have struck a weak point in the armor, violently decompressed the ship, and killed its crew of five instantly; however, they had no real proof, just some telemetry readings and a few minutes of footage taken by an orbiting telescope. None of that evidence was released to the public, ostensibly out of concern for the victims’ families. But that evasion led to a veritable fire storm of public speculation that only grew worse as the years wore on, shifting the story from a human tragedy to a romanticized legend.

Not seeing anything revealing in a horizontal trajectory, I ordered the
Amaranth Sun
to a vertical position relative to the sun, hoping that our realignment would give us a better chance of spotting something. I wanted no movement at all in order to take advantage of the derelict's own rotation, but the axis of the ship was such that not enough sunlight was reaching where we wanted to see. I ordered our spotlights turned on and set in a diffused pattern that illuminated much of the
Cape Hatteras
in a bluish light. Again we saw nothing but an expanse of perfectly intact hull.

I joked with my crew that the ship might still contain a breathable atmosphere. In truth, that was highly unlikely. In all of my years in space, I'd only heard of one ship that stayed pressurized for over a century, much less two. Even 30 years was often too much to ask. The mothballed Solar Regatta ships at Mercury had all gone to vacuum. But the improbable wasn't absolutely impossible, so I allowed myself some small measure of hope because an oxygenated atmosphere, however compromised, would make for an infinitely easier salvage.

Hope was a good thing, but I had to be careful. It's a tool as much as an emotion, and when misplaced it can lead to disaster. When Earth-bound sailors became spacemen, they kept their old maritime traditions. But hope can eventuate in good luck, so I abandoned the last remnants of my stoic rules and for the first time allowed myself the irrational expectation of an easy salvage. In hindsight, I jinxed it.

BOOK: The Salvagers
6.66Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

Feile Fever by Joe O'Brien
Three Sisters by James D. Doss
The Opposite of Wild by Gilmore, Kylie