Sorry if this is just a fragment, but it’s been rumbling around in my head for a couple of days, and if I don’t get it out soon, it’s going to claw out through my cerebellum. Not sure if anything will come out of this, but I’ll leave the idea here to pick up later.
The planet wasn’t anything special, not in the grand scheme of things anyway. It was the fourth satellite of its pale yellow star, the second smallest planet in an unremarkable system. According to the ships’s database, it hadn’t had any official visits since being surveyed by National Astrographic twenty five years before the war, which meant it might not have been seen by human eyes for over half a century.
Not that much would have changed. Perhaps in a few hundred thousand years, the narrow band of water and rocky islands around its equator would expand and liberate the rest of it from the thick ice that otherwise blotted out its surface.
“Oh, boy, another iceball,” Dot said into her her headset as she touched the control panel.
“Remind you of home?” the tinny voice of the ship’s engineer, who everyone called “George” because getting their tongues to pronounce his given name in Welsh was out of the question.
Dot ignored the jibe and read the data scrolling across her screen. This was only her third turn controlling the two sensor probes the Beagle carried in pods slung beneath her hull, and she wanted to make sure she didn’t miss anything “Rover” and “Rovette” sent back.
“Skipper, the pups are picking up a debris cloud around the rock,” she said, pointing to the main screen. The computer was using imagery from the probes to enhance the long-range image it displayed to the bridge. A thin, flat disk of small swirling shapes was slowly appearing around its view of the planet.
“Debris?” the captain asked. “What sort?”
Dot furrowed her brow and read the data off, “Aluminum, some titanium, hydrocarbons, trace amounts of iron, calcium, sodium.”
A new line of data streamed across her readout, bright red and flashing.
“Captain, it’s hot. Rover’s reporting a few big chunks of plutonium mixed in with all that.”
“The probes’re safe, right?” Skipper asked. “Damned things are expensive.”
“They’re holding at 10 kilometers from the outward edge, so they should be fine,” Dot replied.
The engineer piped up, “Sounds like a ship broke up. Maybe somebody’s reactor went critical.”
“Yeah, but it’s been out there for a long time if it spread out like that,” the captain said. “Any hunks big enough to identify?”
“Largest piece so far is about a meter wide,” Dot answered. “Maybe we can find something with a name or a serial number.”
“Don’t bet on it,” George said. “It’s likely most of the big pieces have deorbited and burned up.”
“Not a lot of traffic comes this way,” the captain said thoughtfully.
“Could be from the war,” Dot suggested.
“Maybe,” Skipper grunted.
“Hey, if we can find anything identifiable, I bet two nights of kitchen cleanup that Skipper knows who it was.”
“You know, I didn’t know everyone in the Navy,” Skipper retorted.
Dot looked over her shoulder with a mischievous smile. “You mean like that time we got in a fight with those marines and it turned out you used to be drinking buddies with two of their fathers?”
“Six degrees of separation,” the engineer’s voice teased.
“Shaddap, the both of you,” Skipper said, looking over the top of his bifocals at Dot. His stern glower was ruined when he winked at her.
“If some of the debris deorbited, it might have survived to hit the surface,” she suggested as she turned back to her station. “Ought to be easy to find against all that ice.”
Skipper sighed and pursed his lips for a second. “Maybe.”
He thought for a moment, then said, “Tell Rover to keep looking through that junk for anything worth salvaging and send Rovette to survey the surface. Look for any metal larger than a shipping container.”
“Aye, sir,” Dot said. She caressed the controls, sending the signal that said “Good dog!” to her semi-intelligent probes, then relayed Skipper’s orders.
“Put us in a high orbit over the iceball,” Skipper said. “We’ll hang out for a few days and see if anything interesting turns up.”
“Aye, sir,” the engineer replied. “It’s also my duty to remind the captain that it’s his turn to cook tonight.”
“I feel like celebrating,” Skipper said. “Not every day you stumble on salvage you probably won’t have to spend money on a lawyer to get the rights to. Steaks sound good?”
Both Dot and the engineer hooted their pleasure as Skipper headed down the ladder to the galley. Their ship braked into its orbit while Rovette dropped down close enough to the surface that she could scan the frozen surface. The Beagle’s crew, human and mechanical, settled into the mundane tasks they had done dozens of times before when looking for something worth salvaging.
On one of the small, rocky islands that dotted the planet’s thawed equator, a set of dark eyes looked up and noticed that a new star had appeared in the sky, and it was moving very quickly toward the horizon. Their owner watched as the small dot of light passed overhead, then hurried down from its perch and scuttled across the barren rock toward the long metal tube he had called home for decades.