The area of space around the planet ‘Home’ was unusually neat and tidy. Oh of course there were the normal set of communication satellites, scientific and military hardware, but everything was orbiting as one would expect, without the usual clutter of debris threatening to collide with something important. If space had been capable of being polished then the orbit of Home would have glittered.
There were some unusual objects in carefully placed positions but to the practiced eye these were for the specific reason of keeping the area free from debris and were known as sweepers.
Sweeper 27 was listening to the stars as they sang to him. His grandfather had told him that this happened occasionally to those who lived in space but this time they were slowly fading away and were replaced by an alarm that had begun ringing while he was still asleep. With practiced ease he grabbed the nearest hand hold and started pulling himself along the short corridor leading to the computer room.
The only reason for his existence was the function of clearing the space around Home from the debris that had accumulated during the early explorative days of non re-usable space craft. There was very little left now and his hold was only half full with the materials he’d collected during the last year. This made the appearance of an unusual type of small craft coming into the range of his space craft’s sensors even stranger.
He was the last of the Home bred sweepers, the new automatic type had just passed its field tests and he would not be replaced by another biological pilot. However he didn’t feel any regrets, he was used to the isolation of space having lived on the orbiter all his life. His job was the sole reason for his existence and he was perfectly happy to end his days in the peace of zero gravity.
In fact nowadays his daily life was put out by the occasional visits from the Boffins who came only to take his cargo back home and replenish his simple stores. They were a noisy lot and always seemed to be arguing amongst themselves over things that 27 couldn't even begin to understand.
To our eyes 27 would have looked very strange. Many generations of service by his family in orbital sweeping had altered his appearance considerably. He was very thin from bone and muscle wastage, but was still perfectly capable of pressing the necessary buttons to do his job. More importantly he knew which buttons to press and when.
Having been born and bred in the orbiter he was well trained in doing his job and also any essential maintenance procedures required in his zero gravity spacecraft. He’d also developed an extremely thick skin over the years, his forefathers had been exposed to higher than normal radiation levels for generations, so that nowadays 27 only needed a helmet with a supply of air, to enable him to go outside the space craft for short periods in the unlikely event that he might be expected to repair any external damage.
27 was amazed when he arrived at the computer room to see a new signal on his computer screen. The trace showed an object coming in on an unusual trajectory. The fact that the alarm was ringing meant that it was of a dangerous size that would cause serious damage to anything it might hit.
He went through the automatic routine of matching speed and direction with the new object that had appeared. He came even closer until the magnification of his sensors had increased until it seemed to be floating just outside his own craft.
It certainly looked unusual now he could see it properly. It wasn’t the usual space debris that he’d been picking up for years but was a manufactured object nearly complete. It was a very strange looking artefact, badly pitted all over by micro meteorites and had obviously entered the Home system after a voyage of many years. It didn’t seem to be large enough to house any beings he’d ever heard about, but then of course he was only a sweeper. The main features were a bowl shaped object placed on top of a many sided box, but there was some evidence of damage to one edge where presumably some attachment had broken off.
It appeared fragile, so 27 took great care as he matched speed and trajectory to came alongside the object. He knew how sensitive the Boffins were to any unnecessary damage he caused to the stuff he picked up, so very gently he extended the grappling arm and touched the object with an exploratory prod. It appeared to take the slight shock without further damage so he decided to open the hatch and pull the thing into his cargo bay.
As usual, when he went to have a close look at the object it appeared smaller than he’d thought when seen on the external screens. Why the thing was not much bigger than he was! Hopefully the Boffins would be pleased to see his latest capture, after all it was obviously an alien artefact and must have strayed into Home space. He decided to take some images and send them to the Boffins, and then they could make up their own minds as to the importance of the thing once he’d returned to his standard orbit.
Well sweeper 27 had made at least one correct decision in his life. The Boffins arrived in an atmosphere flyer almost before he’d sent the message.
27 was at the airlock to greet them as they came aboard. In his eyes they appeared strange but then he supposed that to them he must seem equally unusual.
From his point of view they had two short thick legs and muscular arms sticking out from their shoulders. They also needed complicated space suits while they were outside for the few seconds necessary to transfer to his airlock. On the other hand they were capable of thinking the strangest thoughts far beyond 27’s imagination.
“Greetings ‘Freak yubed’,” replied one of them in response to 27’s grunt of “Hi fellers” and a friendly wave. Then as usual when they first greeted to him they all laughed.
27 was used to being called a freak but had never understood why they always laughed, but he was only too happy to be a source of amusement rather than an object of derision. He led the way to the hold that he’d pressurised in anticipation of their visit.
The Boffins were certainly impressed by his latest find. They swarmed all over it although they took care not to damage it.
“Definitely not from Home,” was the first conclusion, which at least agreed with 27’s thoughts. Then they decided they ought to take it back to Home with them to investigate fully and asked 27 to carry the artefact as gently as possible to the airlock of their craft.
Once they had it down on the planet in a laboratory, they began delving into the age and origin of the latest find. 27 had really come up trumps this time; to be on the spot and be able to catch an artefact of such great interest was a very fortunate coincidence.
John Smith was still an apprentice Boffin. He’d worked hard for his position throughout his schooling and had come top of his year in his engineering and maths exams. Now he was the youngest and least experienced of this particular group. Even so he counted himself lucky to be among the first to examine an artefact that had been hurtling through space for an unkown time.
Naturally the first thing he would have done was to take it apart to see what it was supposed to do. This was strictly vetoed by the seniors and the group began methodically checking in case there were any dangerous things to be found.
However he had been given the job of checking the artefact for radiation and soon found an active spot of material about an inch in diameter. The older members of the team retired for a moment to don radiation resistant apparel just in case the thing was dangerous. Then John was given permission to take a reading from the casing. He was amazed as he wrote the answer down, then he took another reading just in case he’d made a mistake with the first.
One of the seniors looked at him as he finished his work. “Well young man, how old is it”
“Assuming the material was applied during manufacture; its forty three thousand years sir,” came the reply and before anyone else could ridicule his answer he added “I’ve taken several readings sir and the variations are all well within instrumental tolerances.”
Naturally as the junior he had his ears boxed again before the senior man re-checked his readings.
“I have to admit the boys’ correct,” he said after going through John's figures. He took off his radiation proof suit now that he knew it was safe to do so, “but I don’t suppose we’ll ever know what someone was trying to find out when it was launched all those years ago! One thing’s certain; it’s not one of ours.”
There was the usual argument about this statement and the opinion was that after all this time it wouldn’t hurt to begin to disassemble the thing to see what else they could find out about it.
The spot of radiation proved to be on a light metal alloy cover containing a small golden disc that had fallen out during the preliminary examination.
"It appears to be made of gold but it's too light for that," said the Boffin examining the disc.
“There is some marking on the surface of this cover that appears to be a form of writing, accompanied by a diagram of some sort,” stated one of the oldest Boffins pompously.
John Smith picked up the shiny disc since nobody else seemed interested and noticed that there was a hole in the middle that was only slightly larger in diameter than his pencil. He was spinning the disc round his pencil when another of the seniors noticed him playing.
He snatched the disc away from the boy and boxed his ears for playing games at a time like this.
“Please sir;” said John rubbing his ear, “there’s still something else inside the cover.”
“Well don’t just stand there boy, take it out carefully and see what it is.”
The apprentice shook something out of the cover onto his hand and offered it to the senior examining the disc, who took it up and examined the artefact.
By now dozens of Boffins were crowding into the room having heard about the discovery of an alien artefact. Every one of them had his own opinion as to the purpose of the thing and the discussion soon relapsed into a row. Scuffles began around the room as people jostled for position and tried to grab any part of the machine that appeared solid enough to touch without any damage.
One of them had enough sense to begin recording every aspect of the machine with a camera, before going off to the nearest quiet room to study the images he'd captured.
"The culture who produced this apparently works in binary numbers," he stated upon his return to the main assembly "and some of the information at least has become apparent to me."
This pronouncement quietened the room to large degree. "The disc we found appears to require a rotation speed of 3.6 seconds per revolution using the item enclosed in the cover," he continued "and I suggest we break for a day or two to allow technicians to produce a suitable apparatus."
This statement had the required effect an the boffins, who all dispersed to continue discussing their own theories on the subject. A few days later the disc was played and copies made of the sounds it produced.
Alf wandered slowly along the corridor deep in thought. A noise slowly increasing in volume was beginning to upset his thinking processes. He would have had an awfully long way to return to his office by the way he'd come so he continued on his way becoming more and more distracted until eventually he lost patience with the uproar and deliberately tried to discover the source.
He stopped outside the Boffins common room door, no surprise there then! He went into the room and stood quietly by the door until the crowd noticed him and quietened down to give him the respect a genius deserved.
"Right lads," he said, "what's the problem this time?
As he expected the five nearest to him all began to explain at once. He waved his hands to show his annoyance and when they stopped talking he selected one of the most intelligent looking and just said, "you tell me."
The man tried his best to get his thoughts into order before explaining about the finding of the alien artefact and their attempts to make sense of the hieroglyphics they'd found attached. The results had completely baffled the Boffins.
The genius who was to solve their problems for them was known as Alfred. He had come into the meeting room just as everybody was talking as loudly as possible so that they could be heard over the noise everyone else was making. It soon appeared that the language on the disc was totally indecipherable and the strange diagrams made no sense to anyone.
Alf listened carefully to the copy made of the noises on the disc before he spoke.
"There are several assumptions I'm making about these noises but I think the people of this planet are all saying the same thing in different languages. I find it hard to believe that with the sort of complexity in speech you are proposing they have managed to produce an interplanetary space craft which I find an interesting construct! I'm sure all they're trying to tell anyone who hears this disc is 'hello' or welcome to our planet or some such."
He continued; assuming that the miscellany of other noises was to illustrate the variety of animal life found on that world, then went on to solve the diagrammatic problems listed by the Boffins and ended saying that the planet sounded similar to Home and was an interesting place that he wished he could visit.
Alf suggested comprehensively recording all the artefact's data before fitting the latest long life biological battery and sending the space craft on its way. To that end he wanted to visit the sweeper who hopefully had made a note of the speed and trajectory of the artefact before he caught the thing and sent for someone to come and look at it.
At least the sweeper had done his job properly thought Alf after his visit, as he left the orbiting sweeper station.
Shortly after the genius had left the sweeper, the satellite was superseded by the latest automatic model. 27 had to remain in orbit, he would never be able to visit the planet, but of course he never had so never missed the experience. Instead, parties of tourists began to visit the place of where an alien space ship had been found and he'd always end their tour by proudly showing them his autograph collection.
For most of his life Sweeper 27 had treasured his autograph book and particularly remembered the visit of the Genius when he and his party had sent the alien artefact to continue its journey. He would sometimes get his book out and read it. He thrilled every time he read the inscription,
'My thanks to the sweeper who recognised the fact that the artefact was from an alien culture thus proving that intelligent life did exist in another part of the galaxy.' Then the ultimate joy of reading the genius's signature.
'To sweeper 27 who made it all possible:- Alfred Zweistein.'