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The Nimrod Hunt

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The Nimrod Hunt

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Alternate Title: The Mind Pool
Author: Charles Sheffield
Publisher: Headline Publishing Group, 1988
Baen, 1986
Series: Chan Dalton: Book 1

1. The Nimrod Hunt
2. The Spheres of Heaven

Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
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In the 23rd century, humanity is considered one of the lesser galactic breeds -- until a threat to all life in the galaxy arises, and suddenly human valor and stubbornness come in very handy.


Prologue: Cobweb Station

The first warning was no more than a glimmer of light. In the array of twenty-two thousand monitors that showed the energy balance of the solar system, one miniature diode had flicked on to register a demand overload.

To say that the signal was neglected by the crew at the Vulcan Nexus would be untrue and unfair. It was simply never seen. The whole display array had been installed in the main control room of the Nexus for the benefit of visiting dignitaries and the media. "There!"--a wave of the hand--"The power equation of the whole system at a glance. Left side, energy supply. Each light shows energy collection from a solar panel. The individual demands are on the right."

The visitors took a moment or two to examine the array of gently winking lights, and the tour went on. The impressive part was still to come, with the powered swoop past four hundred million square kilometers of collectors, each sucking in Sol's radiance. The array orbited only two million kilometers above the photosphere, where Sol's flaming disk filled thirty degrees of the sky. It was an unusual visitor who gave the display room a second thought after a roller-coaster ride to the solar furnace, skimming over vast hydrogen flares and the Earth-size-swallowing whirlpools of the sunspots.

So the overload signal was seen by no one. But human ignorance of minor energy fluctuations was no cause for concern. Supply and demand had long been monitored by an agent far more efficient and conscientious than unreliable homo sapiens. The distributed computing network of Dominus at once noted the source of the energy drain. It was coming from Cobweb Station, twelve billion kilometers from the Sun. In less than one hour, energy demand at Cobweb had increased by a factor of one hundred. Even as that information came through the computer network, a second light went on in the displays. Energy use had increased again, by another factor of a hundred.

Dominus switched in an additional power supply from the orbiting fusion plants out near Persephone. Reserve supply was more than adequate. There was no sign of emergency, no thought of disaster. But Dominus initiated a routine inquiry as to the cause of the increased energy demand and its projected future profile.

When there was no reply from Cobweb, Dominus brought new data on-line. A communications silence for the past twenty-four hours was noted for Cobweb Station. That was correlated in turn with the pattern of energy use, and a signal showing that the Mattin Link system at Cobweb Station had been activated, although not yet used for either matter or signal transmission.

Dominus flashed an attention alert to the main control displays at Ceres headquarters and scanned all probes beyond Neptune. The nearest high-acceleration needle was nearly a billion kilometers away from Cobweb--seventeen hours at a routine hundred gee.

Dominus dispatched the needle probe just a few seconds before the problem first came to human attention. The technician on duty at Ceres checked the status flags, noted the time, and approved both the increased energy drain and the use of the needle probe. She did not, however, call for a report on the reason for the energy use on Cobweb Station. The anomaly appeared minor, and her mind was elsewhere. The end of the shift was just a few minutes away, and she had an after-work date with a new possible partner. She was looking forward to that. Staying overtime to study minor power fluctuations, far away in the Outer System, formed no part of her evening plans.

Her actions were quite consistent with her responsibilities. That she would later become the first scapegoat was merely evidence of the need for scapegoats.

When the needle probe was halfway to Cobweb Station, energy demand flared higher. That surging rise by another two orders of magnitude finally pushed the problem to a high-priority level. Dominus signalled for an immediate increase to emergency probe acceleration and began the transfer to probe memory of all structural details of Cobweb Station.

The racing probe was less than two years old. As a class-T device it contained the new pan inorganica logic circuits and a full array of sensors. It could comprehend as much of what it saw as most human observers, and it was eager to show its powers. It waited impatiently, until at five million kilometers from Cobweb Station it could finally pick up the first image on its radar. The hulking station showed as a grainy globe, pocked by entry ports and knobby with communications equipment. The probe's data bank now included a full description of the station's purpose and presumed contents. It had started all-channel signalling even at extreme range, with no reply.

Cobweb Station's silence continued. The probe was closing fast, and it was puzzled to observe that all the station's entry ports appeared open to space. It sent a Mattin Link message track to Dominus, reporting that peculiarity, and decelerated hard until it was within a undred kilometers. The high-resolution sensors were now able to pick up images of small, irregular objects floating close to the station. Some of them gave off the bright radar reflection of hard metal, but others were more difficult to analyze. The probe launched two of its small bristle explorers, one to inspect the space flotsam, the other to enter and examine the interior of the station.

If the second bristle explorer's task was ever completed, the results were not recorded. Long before that, every message circuit on the probe had hit full capacity. A blast of emergency signals deluged through the Mattin Link to Dominus, while rarely-used indicators sprang to life on every control board from the Vulcan Nexus to the Oort Harvester.

The first bristle explorer had encountered the debris outside Cobweb Station. Some of it was strange fragments, mixtures of organic and inorganic matter blown to shapelessness by the weapons of station guards. But next to those twisted remnants, sometimes mixed inextricably with them, there floated the bloated, frozen bodies of the guards themselves. In shredded uniforms, cold fingers still on triggers, the dead hung gutted and stiff-limbed in the endless sarcophagus of open space.

Throughout the solar system, alarm bells sounded their requiems.

Copyright © 1986 by Charles Sheffield


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