Clark wasn't sure how he was going to approach the planet. It was obvious a space faring race, proven by the orb that had intercepted him, inhabited the place. The question that had to be answered was if the orb had been a normal picket, out there searching for other space craft or had it been sent up to investigate him specially. Was their detection ability so good that they could spot his tiny ship while it was still in deep space nearly a light year away?
"Give me a visual on the planetary system," he told the computer.
The computer didn't answer but displayed the system on the HUD, showing the inner planets in red, except for the two in the biosphere which were bright blue, and the outer, gas giants in bright green. Pinpricks of light, an dim orange, showed the assorted debris in orbit around all planets.
"Indications of intelligence?"
An arrow appeared pointing to the fourth planet. The computer voice said, "No radiation detected. It is not a radio source."
"Any indications at all?"
"Large scale structures. Atmosphere is nitrogen oxygen without the abundant traces of carbon dioxide that would be indicative of carbon based life."
"Has it been abandoned?" asked Clark.
"Flight time to planet?"
"Under current speed, eighteen hours, thirty-five minutes. Under masking, twenty-two hours, fifteen minutes. Fastest approach could be made in nine hours, four minutes."
"Plot quickest and the masked, and display."
"Course is laid in."
Clark studied the data, decided the enemy already knew he was near, and punched in the quickest course. Satisfied with that decision, he said, "Initiate."
Again there wasn't a verbal response. The engines kicked him, pushing Clark back into his seat. Outside the cockpit nothing changed. It was as if he was sitting still, hovering in space.
Then slowly, the star began to brighten and it was obvious that the ship was slipping deeper into the system. The gas giants, which had been faint points of light grew into blue green balls, tiny pinpricks of brightness near them showing the locations of the satellites. One planet had a network of rings that rivaled that of Saturn. Another had a smaller, dimmer set of rings that looked incomplete.
Clark watched one of them slide by. There was no evidence of any type of outpost it, or on any of them. No lights, no radiation, nothing. Just a big glowing ball of gas orbiting the star.
"Indications of intelligence?" asked Clark again.
That seemed to make no sense, but then, if Earth was abandoned, there would be the cities, filled with machines that would continue to operate, some of them repairing other machines or the buildings. No human life was required now that the machines had been built. At least no humans would be required for a thousand years or more.
"Scan space near us. Any other ships?"
"Scan complete. Nothing sighted."
Clark took a deep breath and rubbed his face. He scratched at his head. It didn't make any sense. It could be that radio was so old fashioned that they no longer used it. They'd found another way to communicate.
"Continue toward the fourth planet."
The computer said nothing.
They continued on their path, the fourth planet slowly edging around until it was centered on the nose of his ship. There was nothing spectacular about it. The color ran toward a dull reddish tan. Three moons circled it.
"Signs of a space port?"
"Negative. One city located at the north pole. Supporting highways toward the equator but no detectable signs of traffic along them. Underground communication system linked to the major complex at the pole."
"Record all this."
Clark watched the heads up, looking for anything unusual but found nothing. No craft were launched, no sensors turned toward him, nothing at all.
He kept his attention focused on the planet as it came closer. No lights appeared on the dark side. Nothing to indicate civilization.
The surface changed until he could see continents and oceans, and then lakes and rivers and mountains. No signs of any cities except for the giant one at the top of the world. Not the best place for humans, but then, no there was no evidence that humans lived there.
The computer chimed and announced, "Sensors indicate that life forms on the planet's surface."
"At the pole."
"Okay," said Clark. "Let's slow down now. Give me a parking orbit twenty thousand miles above the surface. Keep recording all incoming data."
"Give me a magnified view on the heads-up."
Clark studied the image. It was tilted and exaggerated because of the angle and the range. He could detect no movement anywhere on the planet's surface but that didn't surprise him. To see something move, even at full magnification would have meant that a mountain was adrift.
The tans of the planet's surface gave way to a volcano ring at the southern edges of the giant city. The city itself was a chocolate brown. Although it was in the twilight zone of the planet, there were no lights.
"We have been swept by strong sensor probes."
Clark nodded but didn't speak.
They slipped into the parking orbit, looking down of the surface of the planet. The city was made of thousands of concentric rings with roads radiating out from the center like the spokes of wheel. As they moved out farther, more roads were added so that the distance between the streets remained about the same.
"Sensor sweep again," announced the computer. "Electrical activity increasing."
"I thought you said they didn't use radio," said Clark.
"Affirmative. Identification of shielded wiring carrying heavy electrical impulses. No sign of normal radio communications."
"Great," said Clark. "Have to ask the right questions to get answers around here."
"Sensors have locked onto our craft."
Clark didn't like the sound of that. He glanced out the tiny window but that told him nothing. The data was parading across the HUD. There was no way he could tell if it was a weapons system that locked on, a landing beam designed to assist in descent, or something else. Something that was more menacing.
"Record and then let's break orbit."
Clark continued to study the HUD. Red lights began to appear all over it, showing the locations of potential weapons. The outer ring seemed to bristle with them. The center was nearly all red, suggesting that something there had to be protected. Something considered important was there.
At that moment, as beams began to flash, the ship accelerated, the beams falling away. Some swung toward him, touching the rear of the ship and then slipped off as he jinked right and left and continued to climb out.
"Missile launched," announced the computer.
"Will it catch me?"
"Insufficient...negative. It is falling away."
Clark turned his attention from the HUD to the tiny cockpit windows. He watched as one of the moons slipped past him and noticed a flash of light on the surface of it, near the twilight zone.
"Missile launched," said the computer.
The ship accelerated suddenly, shoving Clark into his seat. A curtain of black slipped down, over his eyes and he was looking down a long, thin tunnel. Slowly his vision came back.
"Missile evaded. Falling away."
"Sweep the system in front of us. Any indications of enemy ships?"
"Let's just keep accelerating."
Now that they had moved away from the planet and its moons, the sensation of speed was gone again. Clark refused to look out the windows, but watched the distant build as measured by the HUD. He was racing from the enemy system, about to hit light speed.
"Target located directly in front."
"On the heads up."
It appeared as a tiny flashing light centered on the HUD. The distant to it was just over seven thousand miles. It appeared to be trying to intercept.
Clark couldn't believe that the object was anything other than another enemy ship. It looked as it was coming at him. And that, be definition, made it an enemy. Anything coming at him was the enemy until he identified is as friendly. That wouldn't happen here, he was sure of that. He put his hands on the controls.
"Second target located."
"On the heads up."
As the new target appeared, a third followed quickly and then a fourth. They were spread across the sky, arranged so that one of them would be in a position to intercept him no matter what he did or how he tried to escape. The others would be in a position to back up if he engaged anyone. He could always retreat toward the sun, but if they had been able to get in front of him, there would be a line on the other side of the star ready to intercept. They could even launch from the planet's surface and still have a good chance of intercepting him.
"How long before I can engage the closest target?"
"At current acceleration, four minutes."
"Course to closest contact. Fire missile as soon as we're at maximum range. I have the controls."
Clark closed his eyes for a moment and took a deep breath. He wiped his hands on the his shirt and then gripped the controls. He watched the distance on the HUD shrink. The enemy ship, an orb just like the one he had encountered entering the system, was a small pulsating light on the HUD.
He raced toward the enemy ship, the numbers on the HUD unwinding rapidly. As soon as he was in range with his missiles, the computer locked on the target and fired. Through the tiny window, he could see the pinpoint of light that marked the missile's rocket motor. It faded from sight and he watched the track of the missile and the orb on the heads up. Thirty seconds later, far short of the target, the missile detonated.
Clark took that as his cue. He shoved the stick forward, dived low and turned toward the right, away from the path that would take him back to the fleet. He kept an eye on the HUD, watched the enemy ships. The farthest from him took no action, but the three closest turned with him, diving to meet him. He hit a button and dropped a spread of glowing flares.
He accelerated again, pushing for light speed. He kept his attention focused on space in front of him. Safety was there, if he could break out of the system.
"Rear view on the HUD."
Only two of the enemy ships showed, both aimed right at him. The missile was a tiny point with a yellow tail. It didn't seem to be closing the distance.
"How soon to light speed?"
"Transition in two minutes."
Clark grinned. He was going to win again. He kept the stick shoved forward, watching the enemy ships as they fell farther astern. The missile trail flashed and faded as the weapon stopped accelerating, its fuel was exhausted. Evading it was no longer a problem. But the closest of the enemy ships fired a spread of missiles. Four of them designed to prevent him from turning back on them for the moment. Clark wasn't worried by the tactic.
"Give me a spread of mines across our trail."
"Mines dispersed. Transition of light in one minute, thirty seconds."
But Clark wasn't interested in that. He was watching the enemy orbs as they shot forward, at the string of mines that he'd laid. The lead ship passed close to one and it detonated, the fire ball growing brightly to engulf the enemy. A secondary explosion flared and faded. The enemy was gone, now only a growing cloud of debris.
"Transition to light in one minute."
The remaining two enemy ships kept coming. One fired another missile but it malfuntioned, spinning off to the left and detonating suddenly. The second enemy ship seemed to decelerate and began to fall away. It could no longer keep up with the chase through the system.
"Their equipment sucks," laughed Clark.
"Ten seconds to light speed."
Clark braced himself, felt a slight shutter in the ship and everything outside shifted suddenly, blurring to the red. As he crossed over, he began a long, louping turn back toward the fleet. The HUD was clear, the enemy ships having been left behind him.
"Distance to system end," said Clark.
"One minute. Distance to the fleet now four days."
"Let's just keep accelerating."