A loner on a skiff, drifting through the Burial Grounds in search of ancient derelicts to salvage, reveals a secret of Galactic importance. This story serves as exposition for the Cathedral Galaxy universe.
I released a significant re-write of this story on 18 Jun 22.
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Between wrecks, Kaelin dan Voresli liked to enjoy the quiet. He would power everything down — drives, processors, even life support — and let his skiff drift along. He left only a few essential instruments active in the cockpit (Kaelin also liked using an archaic control board instead of projections or a direct interface) to glare against the tiny port while he stared out. Sometimes he would fire a reaction thruster before he shut down, to put a slow spin on the skiff and rotate new sights past the window port. He would sit and stare for minutes, hours — until he reached the next wreck or had to eat or breathed too much of the cabin air and had to power on again.
The lazily drifting expanse outside was a fraction of the Burial Grounds, not far off from the Axiom Republic border. At this moment, Kaelin’s stare took in a magnificent derelict, its hard-edged black shape silhouetted against the orange-red reflection of the Panther Nebula. Jagged spires protruded from one side of the gargantuan hulk, evidence of the violent demise of the original construct. Probably gravitational tides: the wreck was easily a hundred kilometers across. How huge had the construct been before the universe ripped it asunder? Thousands? Planet-scale? When the construct transitioned from a functional, purposeful unit to an abandoned derelict, whatever mechanism it used to counterbalance tidal forces ceased and it succumbed. The Librarians engaged in wild speculation on the function of these behemoths, but never could agree on their reason for existence. Not even Kaelin knew the purpose of these constructs.
Kaelin dan Voresli stared and stared as the slow rotisserie spin of his little skiff carried the Panther Nebula from his sight. He felt small.
Who built these leviathans of empty space? Everyone just called them “Ancients” or “Old Ones” or similar such names. Kaelin himself preferred the “Architects.” By the time the peoples of the galaxy discovered the principles of spatial trajection and stumbled across the wormhole channels that now united commerce and traffic, the Architects were already vanished. They left artifacts of stupefying size scattered throughout the galaxy, including the anchor stations of the wormhole network, but there were a few tracts of space in which the dead relics concentrated. In the Burial Grounds, Kaelin could see evidence of the hulks with his naked eye if he looked in almost any direction. They popped out as ragged dark silhouettes against stars or nebulae. All of them were defunct, lifeless, slowly disintegrating to space. Most of the galaxy cared little about the relics as long as no answers were forthcoming. The only ones to traverse the Burial Grounds were fortune-seekers like himself, mixed with occasional scientists and archaeologists.
Eventually, the cabin grew stuffy. Kaelin coughed, and reached up to the bulkhead to push himself toward the control board. His freefall-adapt body curved gracefully through the narrow confines of the habitation compartment, slow and stately as the derelict revolving outside. Or so he imagined, caught up as he was in contemplation.
The control board bathed Kaelin’s features in soft lights of primary colors. The atmospheric monitor panel winked at him, alternating red and blue in a rhythmic heartbeat. He reached over and flipped the activation toggle, and noticed an anomalous indicator also pulsing for attention. With a faint hum rising in the cabin as cool, conditioned air began cycling again, he examined the navigation board. The processor had identified an opening in the wreck before his ship.
“Time to go,” he said to himself. Kaelin got ready to bring the skiff in.
Kaelin floated through a wide triangular corridor broken up with long spars and vanes. His helmet lights played over the dull metal. He kept his head pointed forward most of the time, giving himself an accurate gauge of upcoming obstructions he might need to push off or move around, but he regularly swiveled to the sides. He had come through a lock and was floating through some kind of atmosphere, but left his suit closed against the ancient air. This section of the derelict looked relatively fresh, but uninteresting.
Finally he spotted a side passage. He rotated around, caught a passing spar, and launched himself in that direction.
This looked like a utility access, much better for salvage. Maybe he could find some bits of Architect tech, maybe even data cores. At the very least, he could pull some ornamentation and sell it as genuine Ancient artifacts to some stuffy collector in the Traders’ Rim.
A monitor pinged. Kaelin followed the indicator to a panel on the passage wall. A common salvager tool that tried to induce a response in nearby active circuitry. Something was still working in there. Kaelin worked the panel loose enough to wedge his prybar in. He wrenched at it, his breath fogging the helmet. He didn’t have enough purchase. He repositioned himself, bracing against the opposite wall to give a good heave on the wall plate.
It came loose. Behind the panel, a tangle of devices. Kaelin fumbled at a pouch on his suit, and drew forth a tool tethered to his suit processor. He carefully probed at the panel, finding a compatible terminal. A bulbous cylinder in the cavity began to emit a soft green glow.
“Perfect,” he said. This was a valuable find.
Kaelin felt a reverberation through the deck below him.
Had he activated something? Or was someone else here?
He expertly unplugged the device from the cavity and pocketed it. A quick somersault reoriented him, and he pushed off down the passage.
Every so often, Kaelin paused and rested against a corridor wall. Intermittent vibrations and thumps continued. He kept going, direction-finding from the strength of the echoes. Eventually he started to hear muffled sounds transmitting through his closed visor.
Finally, as he made his way through a particularly cramped tube, he caught a flash of light. Someone else was here. Kaelin pulled himself along slowly, gingerly tapping at the walls to adjust his motion. The flash came again, from an intersection in the corridor ahead.
Assuming a helmet light like his own, Kaelin waited for the next flash before poking his head over the lip.
Kaelin recognized them immediately from the craggy, thick skin that protected them against vacuum exposure even without suits. Revenants.
“Oh, no.” He pulled back.
Every wreck-diver and scavenger’s nagging fear. They came from the remote region of the galaxy known as the Underworlds and maintained contact with nobody — neither commerce nor diplomacy, above-board or illicit. The ancient artifacts were their only apparent interest: they ventured forth throughout the galaxy to do who-knew-what with the old hulks, taking a particular interest in the broken and derelict ones like those in the Burial Grounds. Two things the scrappers knew for sure about them: first, they would just as soon vaporize you to get you out of their way; and second, talking to them was useless. The few actual conversations with them on record were incomprehensible to even the best translator programs. When they appeared in civilized space, even local authorities and militaries just made a cordon and held civilians back to let the Revenants pass through.
At least they were single-minded in their appointed missions, whatever they were, which gave a playbook for dealing with them. Avoid; if not possible, run; if not possible, don’t interfere with whatever they are doing. They would leave you alone. The only pitfall: if you can’t figure out what they want to do next, and are in the way of that…
Kaelin had not run into Revenants on a station before. He had seen their ships, and bugged out — that was true of almost anybody in his line of work. But this kind of proximity unnerved him.
A muffled thunk rang out. He looked around, and — “Fuck!” He could see light beams penetrating into the access tube back the way he had come. They were behind him now, too. He called up his suit nav projection, studying the miniature representation projected inside his helmet for a way around. The map was wildly incomplete, and he couldn’t match the derelict station’s layout against any other wreck he’d been on. The only sure way back to his ship was through them.
Okay, fine, he thought. Fuck it. What were they doing? Just slip through and don’t get blasted.
Kaelin leaned forward again to get a better look.
Three main groups moved about the cavernous chamber beyond. One was clustered around some kind of ancient control console, manipulating the manual controls. It didn’t looks like they were accomplishing anything; the console was dark and silent. Another seemed to be systemically peeling back wall panels, latching them together into neat stacks. The third and smallest group moved back and forth at unpredictable intervals between a huge coppery spherical contraction suspended from the ceiling and a translucent green pyramid sticking out of the wall. Kaelin noticed that there were a few body shapes among them, all zero-g adapts with limbs or appendages arranged for free-floating locomotion and manipulation. None of them seemed to be communicating with one another. The silence unnerved Kaelin.
More thumps and clanks from behind him. Kaelin had no idea what those Revenants were looking for, so he figured it was better to dance around those in the chamber ahead before doubling back to his ship. There should be plenty of room to get between the wall panels and that pyramid thingy, he thought.
He steeled himself and waited until the last Revenant left the pyramid, then heaved himself into the chamber, angling to zoom straight through to a passage on the other side.
All motion ceased. To a one, the Revenants turned to look at him. “Uh-oh.”
They started to push off from their own handholds to follow Kaelin.
Kaelin slapped at the corridor walls to accelerate. His suit tagged the pursuing Revenants as glowing orange dots in the wan blue framework of his sketchy map. They were just as adept at navigating in zero-g as he was.
He couldn’t get over his surprise at this. Revenants were never interested in people, just the old hulks. What in the hell?
Kaelin matched the corridor ahead to his map and aimed himself at a spar crossing the passage. He grabbed it and timed his release, swinging into a side route. This tube led to a cubical chamber with an opening on each side. He floated through to the opposite wall, absorbed the impact, and sprung again, launching toward the passage in the direction of his ship. The leading Revenants started to appear from the corridor. He could see on the map that he had less than a hundred meters to go.
It was a dead end. “No, no, shit, noooo—”
He spun. They were behind him.
The Revenants each came up about five meters from him and took position in a sort of grid across the corridor. The lithe and wiry ones had caught up to him first, with stockier ones arriving now. As the grid filled out, Kaelin made a decision.
He waited for the little pause between preparation and action, and switched his suit external speakers on. He addressed the Revenants directly.
“Directive:/halt-all,” he said.
Several of the Revenants — those with eyelids, Kaelin supposed — blinked hard. As one, they began to move toward Kaelin, slowly.
“Override//Directive:/vacate,” Kaelin tried. One of the Revenants cocked its head, and another shifted an eyestalk pair. They kept drifting forward.
Kaelin had not spoken this language except in a classroom setting a long time ago. He tried to reframe himself for a more basic attempt. “Query::priority-stack;”
The closest Revenant arrested its forward momentum and locked its eyes onto Kaelin’s helmet. A modulated metallic voice came through Kaelin’s helmet mike. “Blue\nebula\ascendant; trace,” it said.
“Right,” Kaelin sighed. Some of the syntax came back to him. “Query::full-stack; activity enumerate.”
“Transistor\collapse\lithium,” began the Revenant. “Siphonophore::access.”
The Revenant continued in this vein, and Kaelin lost track completely. But the rest of the Revenants also waited by the sidelines. Kaelin gathered himself, pushed off the wall, and raced back down the corridor.
They didn’t follow him quickly enough.
Kaelin didn’t slow down until he reached his ship, banging the airlock panel over and over until it let him in. He locked the door, slapped his way to the cockpit, and started running up the impellers.
As he swung around the wreck, he caught sight of the Revenants’ ship docked to the derelict hull. It looked like it had been carved directly out of a metallic asteroid, with the reddish gray-brown surface filed down into irregularly faceted plates, like hodgepodge scales. Vents and lights poked out through the gaps, bathing the ship in its own patchy light. It detached from the riven hulk, floating slowly for a moment before rotating to point at Kaelin’s little ship. No matter; they wouldn’t be able to track him through a jump. He moved over to the trajector controls.
Ordinarily, after a salvage run, he would jump back to Isis and sell his loot at one of the stations clustered around the gate there. He even kept apartments there to give himself some downtime. But Revenants that broke from their set programming to seek him out?
Kaelin’s people existed to be the eyes and hands of the transcended Architects. This had to be reported. He set his coordinates for the far end of the Necropolis Field and the ark station of the Voresli.
His skiff vanished into the lensing effect of a jump.