Fast forward to a brave new world!
When the impact came it nearly took Arkin from his feet, for all he was clinging to the airlock handholds. He had his helmet on already, waiting for the alarms to tell him they had a hull breach. Or perhaps they were still intact, but now attached inextricably to the ancient space station, about to explore this brittle treasure trove only to discover that there was no way back.
“We have a seal,” Serry Lain’s voice came in his ear.
“Orbit?” This from their leader, Channec, clinging on next to Arkin.
“Too soon to tell. If we have knocked it loose, it’s only by a little. You’ve got time to get in and out,” Lain reported. Her voice was fizzy with static, ghosting with sudden tides of white noise. The sound brought both wonder and wariness to Arkin. Interference like that meant something was live on the station, after so many, many years.
Live meant worth salvaging. Salvage was why they were here.
Some time long before, a distant ancestor of Arkin had looked up past the thinning clouds and seen the night sky full of stars. The ice had been retreating; the dust of ages had finally settled out of the upper atmosphere, letting the sun take a renewed interest in the planet. Geothermal fires, brought close to the surface by the ice’s own creeping weight, did the rest. Summer returned to Planet Earth, and with it a chance to stargaze.
Even back then, as proto-Arkin tilled his fields and hoped the raiders wouldn’t come this year, he would have noticed how many of the stars moved swiftly across the sky. Old Farmer Arkin couldn’t have known what they were; he couldn’t have known that his distant descendant would travel by thunderous blazing rocket up to those stars, to become a raider himself.
“Check your lid,” Channec said, all business and clasping her own helmet into place. They were piecemeal, these suits. Arkin was uncomfortably aware that two people had died in his before they had patched it up once more and given it to him. But everything was scarce, back home. The great wealth of the Old Empire people had been mined, drilled, burned up, squandered back in their day. Arkin’s people lived on a planet scattered with their leavings.
Almost everything we have is a hand-me-down, he thought, not for the first time. They were here in a rocket that was a child’s crude sketch of the beautiful vessels the ancients had built. They were here because a classicist – meaning someone skilled in interpreting Old Empire writings – had discovered something about this orbiting hulk the ancients had left to the vacuum of space. We’re just ticks on their dead body.
But he had his helmet on. No doubt Channec would say people back home were counting on him.
“Air out,” Channec ordered, and Lain confirmed. Arkin felt his suit bulk out around him, waiting to see if any warning lights would come on this time. Of course, if they didn’t, it might just mean the warning systems had malfunctioned as well.
“Let’s get in there.”
Arkin wound the handle and the airlock hatch juddered open. He checked the seal, finding just enough holes to make him unhappy. Facing them was a pitted section of metal wall, holed through at two or three places. Channec nodded to him and they began the tentative, painstaking job of breaking through.
“I’m detecting low-level power readings,” Lain’s half-obscured voice informed them. “We’re knocking on the right door.”
A section of the station wall suddenly came free in Arkin’s shears and he toppled forward with a cry. For a moment he lost all reference, the universe wheeling freely around him. He was horribly aware of the jagged edges of his incision, the ballooning fabric of his suit, the airless, unpressurised death all around him.
Channec snagged his boot, and for a moment he was just a frozen weight on the end of her arm, already crossed over the threshold into the territory of the ancients.
“Get a grip,” came her sharp voice in his ear, with her own backing of static now, and he managed to orient himself and find something to hold onto.
He looked and nearly swallowed his tongue. He was sharing the compartment with a corpse.
The ancient had died without a suit on, just clothes that looked pale and papery. He – she? – drifted there like one of the drowned, slowly turning, withered to a dry-stick figure, skin brittle and tight over bone. The ends of all four outflung limbs were broken off by collisions with the walls. Arkin’s eyes tracked a lone, mummified finger as it spun slowly past his visor.
“Stop gawping,” Channec told him. “It’s not like it’s your first.”
“Ah…” Lain was hard to make out. “Getting increased power sig… …ever you’re going to do… quick….”
“We don’t even know what we’re going to do,” Arkin muttered.
“Just come with me,” Channec told him. She shouldered forwards, batting the vacuum-dried corpse out of the way as though it were no more than a bad dream.
“What? What do you know? What did they give you?” Arkin thought of that classisist, sitting safe at home on Earth while they risked their lives on a hunch.
“Enough.” Channec pulled herself forwards – zero gravity was like second nature to her; she seemed to swim through the airless spaces of the station while Arkin blundered along behind.
They found more shrivelled revenants: some buckled in as though a little webbing would save them, others floating loose like ghastly bobbing apples. Channec had no time for them, shoving them aside so that they span end over end, colliding with the walls or with Arkin. He could feel a sickness creeping up inside him: he had seen the occasional space-dead corpse before, but when this station powered down it must have had twenty or more souls aboard it. His mind was full of their last moments, as imagined by their distant, distant descendant. They had been the ancients. They had walked the stars and commanded the elements with a science that might as well be magic for all Arkin understood most of it. And yet they had died.
“Here.” Channec had stopped at a half-open hatch. Beyond was a room walled with screens and the minimalist consoles the ancients favoured. Everything had been done for them by their machines, Arkin knew. They had not needed the buttons and levers and instruments of the crude rocket that had brought the salvage team up into orbit. Their civilization had been ghostly, transcending the physical.
But by trial and error, Arkin’s people had learned how to pirate some few scraps of that world: reviving long-dead electronic libraries just long enough to steal a book or two, pirating from the memories of lobotomised computers. Just enough to recreate a fraction of the wonders of the ancients.
Lain said something over the comms, but they heard nothing except static.
“’Here’ what?” Arkin demanded, but Channec was orienting herself, choosing one featureless console over the others. She bent over it, thick-gloved hands moving carefully as she unhooked something from her belt: a reader.
“How do you know there’s anything?” he demanded, but she ignored him.
He swept his torch beam across the room and felt his gorge rise another inch when he found two bodies up against the ceiling. These were wearing suits: one had no helmet, the exposed head no more than parched skin stretched over an eyeless skull. The other had its helmet on, and Arkin imagined that one ancient living out some few additional hours until the suit’s air supply was exhausted. Had they railed against their doom? Had they desperately tried to reactivate the dead consoles to hear another human voice before the end?
Then the lights came on, throwing their shadows, Arkin’s and Channec’s and the corpses’, into sharp relief against the walls. Something was glittering over the console.
Arkin stared. Stars; he saw stars. They glittered and span in the air around Channec. He saw her head tilted back inside her helmet, her hard-bitten expression transformed to childlike wonder.
“It’s here!” Over the comms, her voice crackled and spat, the static ghosting louder like a heartbeat. “This is the motherlode!”
“What is it?” He couldn’t take his eyes from the display.
“Maps, maps of where the ancients went!” Channec explained. “The worlds they visited, the new homes they made for themselves amongst the stars. Worlds that aren’t neck deep in poisons, Arkin.”
He felt something catch at his throat, and then the comms roared with a new voice.
It was four times as loud as Channec had been. It spoke with the irregular heartbeat of the static, and in a language that had no native speakers left alive. Stern and pitiless it exhorted them to do something. Leave, Arkin decided. Red sigils were appearing in the air, flickering and corrupt, but definitely bad.
“It’s still alive!” he yelled, but there was no chance of anyone hearing him while that artificial voice dominated comms.
Channec was focused on the reader, willing it to speed up its download. Who knew what would actually be readable, of the pittance they could carry away. But he had seen the stars now. He knew what was at stake.
The virtual starfield wheeled about him, ancient numbers and alphabets projected across his visor and his suit, and the shadows moved too.
He saw it too late: the shadows moved more than the lights.
The suited figure was drifting down from the ceiling. Within its helmet Arkin saw a death’s head shift loosely as the suit’s ancient mechanisms propelled it towards Channec.
He yelled; he yelled at her, and tried to bumble his way towards her, but already too late. One gloved, dead hand snagged the hoses of her suit.
Channec twitched and flailed, unable to see what had her. Arkin bounced off the consoles, spun through the stuttering red glyphs, groping for purchase. When his view brought him Channec again, she had smashed the ancient suit’s faceplate in with something, but of course the wasted cadaver within was not directing its movements. He saw its armoured gloves clamp to her own helmet. His screaming voice was loud in his own ears, and in his ears alone.
With a convulsive movement Channec wrenched the reader from the console and shoved it at him, even as he reached her. Her helmet was askew. He caught a last view of her determined face.
She got the reader clamped to his belt and kicked him in the chest, sending him hurling back the way they had come, sending herself and the homicidal suit spinning off across the room. Before they reached the far wall, he saw her helmet come loose.
Whimpering and panting, surrounded by the sounds of his own exertion, he fumbled and scrabbled his way back towards Lain and their ship, desperate to escape this orbital mausoleum with the inestimable treasure Channec had died for.