It's the find of a lifetime - an ancient alien spaceship, hanging in a forgotten corner of space. For Song, this could change everything. She's got as many problems with her finances as she does in her marriage - but maybe, at last, her passion for wreck-diving will pay off. One piece of unknown tech could set her whole crew up for life.
The ship conforms to nothing in their records, and dwarfs the largest human vessels. Battle-scarred, and old before humanity ever reached the stars, it's a mausoleum of an unknown, long-dead species.
And it's just winked at her.
Tom's best known as a fantasy author, so I was delighted when he turned his attention to classic science fiction – and of my favourite kind, too! Who can resist a mysterious alien relic floating in space? And who could resist trying to explore it? Not me, that's for sure! Nor, of course, can our heroes in this story. – Lavie Tidhar
"an enthralling ambiance and eerie setting… give this awesome novella a go"– FanFiAddict.com
"A chilling, quick read, but worth a look if you like your horror set in places where no one can hear you scream."– Fell From Fiction
"an intelligent SF story that will appeal to fans of that genre, but it also effortlessly describes the simple horror of deep space, psychological horror fans will also enjoy the book."– SFBook.com
Finally the drone's finished its scan of the interior and the computer's running through the intricate details. Sim's already checked the headlines and it's pretty much what we expected.
'Clear of debris,' she reports. 'Minimal small particles, minor obstacles. No power, unknown composites in the walls and signs of mechanisms on all surfaces. Nothing that should stop you going in, Song.'
'Side-note,' Jad pipes up. 'Nothing about the ship, but it's about to get dark in there.'
I peer forward at the unlit cavity ahead of me.
'It's already pretty dark,' I point out. 'What with us being out in space and all.'
'Yeah – more so. The orbit of the ship is taking it around the planet. Nothing unusual, just thought I'd mention it. Entering shadow in one minute.'
'Plunged into cold and darkness. However will I cope?'
'Like she wouldn't whine if it had come as a surprise,' Sim mutters in the background.
'I heard that!'
'Oh. Whoops. I must have forgotten how a comms system works. Deary me.'
'You know, on some ships they have a little respect for the captain. Even call them "Captain" from time to time.'
'Only to their faces,' Sim reassures me. 'Behind their back it's something else. Happy to start that whenever you want, boss-lady.'
I harrumph but the conversation's going nowhere and I have places to be. I ease the shuttle forward, ready at a moment's notice to fire the direction engines and jolt me back out if necessary. As it is, nothing happens. The shuttle glides gently forward. The drone's lights play briefly across me then return to the interior of the bay.
The walls are pale matte grey, the floor a darker shade presumably to help orient the eye. Not that there is a "down" right now, not without power in the place. But the nominal floor is smooth while there are ridges and projections on the walls and ceiling almost like climbing aids.
Smears of dust adorn sections or hang like ghosts in the air, given brief life by the play of our lamps, but mostly the bay is clean and clear. No weapon impacts scar the walls, no ancient blood stains the floor. It's just dark and cold and full of sadness somehow.
Honestly I don't know what I expected. I've read a few accounts of investigating battle-damaged wrecks, but I don't remember the details well. We know there have been a number of system-spanning conflicts of genocidal proportions, have even come across battlefields but those are just a huge mess of debris that's barely worth the salvage. Actual battle-damaged craft you can explore are incredibly rare. Most lose their orbits and crash if they're not destroyed entirely, leaving little of use for people like me. So maybe after a hundred thousand years in space there wouldn't be brains splashed on the walls anyway. Somehow the question's never come up in my life until now.
It's a functional place on first assessment. The smooth edges of panels and units remind me faintly of a human style of ship-building, but one you don't see in these parts much. The sleek Aratan craft are the closest I can imagine, but those are mirror-polished and knife-shaped. This is… well, functional but with a smooth near-organic grace to everything. It makes the Sakakawea look blockish and dull in comparison. I make a mental vow to convert her with whatever this gold and black material is – honour the ship that has made my fortune. And with that in mind…
'Bringing her down,' I comment as I put the shuttle on the nominal floor.
The suckers flash orange on my console for a moment then turn green to indicate they've got a secure hold. I check everything, glance over at the drone that's just hanging in space a few yards away and slowly directing its lights around the bay.
'Close visor,' I say, to my suit as much as Kall. He has to do it manually, but after a few seconds it's secured in place and he gives me a thumbs-up.
My EVA suit confirms it's ready and I pull the atmosphere from the shuttle before opening the top hatch. A tap on the seat-release frees me from the straps and tilts it so I can get out. Kall's nimbler, easing himself over the edge and swimming through the zero-g space until he's clear. I work my bulky frame out of the hatch and close it up behind me.
That done I can get my boots onto the floor. They clunk heavily onto the metallic surface. A dial spins briefly on my Heads-Up-Display as the suit searches for a good balance then it flashes green and I take a step. It's laboured, but no different to walking on muddy ground and I cross the bay quickly to peek outside. Kall drifts up behind, grabbing my shoulder to anchor himself before seeking a boot lock.
Far into the distance, blazing bright even with the suit compensating, the last of the sun peeks around the planet's edge.
'Nightfall,' I comment, 'and all's well.'
'Better'n well,' Kall says. 'We're about to be rich.'
'Let's not be hasty on either front,' Sim replies. 'Now get out of the way so I can pull the drone back.'
'Worried about the cost again?'
'Just want it in position in case the signal weakens,' she says. 'That hull material could be a problem so we might have to relay comms. Don't want you to fall dark.'
I shiver and nod, searching for the Sakakawea amid the starry darkness, but I can't make it out at that distance.
'You know what's odd about this?' I ask, turning to Kall. 'There's no writing.'
I point towards what I'd expect to be a console in a human equivalent ship. It's entirely blank – without texture or colour. That bit isn't a surprise, but all human ships have notifications and warnings in every working section.
'Maybe a hundred thousand years ago they didn't believe in regulations and safety notices,' he says with as much of a shrug as is possible in a suit.
'A species that built something this big?' Sim chimes in. 'Seems unlikely.'
'And yet there's nothing,' I say. 'No permanent writing of any kind. It's not insane, just a little odd to my mind.'
'Enough wasting time,' Sim replies. 'Do it already.' Her words are echoed by Jad and Kall claps his hands like a child.
'Yes, Miss. Signal clear?'
'Signal clear,' she confirms.
'Good. In which case – my name is Song Ezaralar, captain of the scout ship Sakakawea, registered in Thieler Port of my home planet, Sien Nau. We have discovered a wrecked ship of unknown but non-human origin and on behalf of myself and my registered crew I claim it under the Interplanetary Salvage Agreement. As per my contract of employment with the Filerich Conglomerate, I offer them sole and exclusive partnership rights in this enterprise.'
There's a small cheer in the background from Jad and Kall as Sim taps away on her console.
'Declaration transmitted to all necessary figures,' she reports, by which she means three planetary councils, our employers and a handful of lawyers – spreading the word far enough that no corporate arsehole suggests in a board meeting it's cheaper to murder us and take the find for themselves.
I don't work for particularly murderous types, of course. Not compared to some anyway. Still – the day you start trusting in the morals of management is the day you get blown up in some distant backwater by a bastard with share options. Across my view I see the light fade as the sun disappears. I'm still looking out at the vastness of space when a panel on the ceiling briefly glows. Without warning the shuttle bay doors slide shut.