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. (Warning: this character curses a lot.)
/ / /
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 the direct interface when he could help it) 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 bring 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 Halls of Taron. 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 klicks across. How huge had the construct been before the universe ripped it asunder? One thousand? 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 the 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 in the Galaxy just called them the “Old Ones” or similar such names. When the peoples of the Cathedral Galaxy discovered the principles of spatial Trajection and stumbled across the Channel Anchors, the Old Ones were already ten million years vanished. They left artifacts of stupefying size scattered throughout the Galaxy, but there were a few tracts of space in which the relics concentrated. In the Burial Grounds, Kaelin could see evidence of the hulks with his naked eye if he looked in almost any direction. 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.
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 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 nav collectors were one of the few systems he left active in the hours while he drifted. The Burial Grounds were, naturally, strewn with debris, and early warning against the possibility of an impact was a necessity for survival.
This indicator told him that a low-level emission source was slowly moving alongside the skiff. It was not yet in proximity range, so the nav processors had not sounded an urgent alarm. But it was there, just within the threshold of detection above the soft radiation from the ancient hulks. A ship. Kaelin pulled up a processor console and ordered a filter on the other’s state. First detection was over an hour ago, and it was on an asymptotic low-energy approach trajectory. Moving in slowly…perhaps his drift made the other ship’s occupants think he was suspended or asleep.
Kaelin was a few Trajections from the Channel Anchor at Isis. The wreck-runners in this part of the Burial Grounds, himself included, came through that Channel from the Halls of Taron, but most of them Trajected directly to the immense Ark of Gods derelict field. This run, Kaelin dan Voresli decided to go a little farther afield, and he shot his skiff over to the sparse region where the Ark ran into Chimas’ Folly. While he drifted between wrecks, an encounter was astronomically improbable—though not quite impossible. The wreck-runners were always looking for an edge over their competitors, but there were a lot of hulks to go through. The Ark of Gods field alone was almost a light-year across, and most of the Librarians agreed that it all came from the same construct.
Who were these guys? Kaelin booted up an analysis processor. He ran all the available collector data through its ident program. The other ship was big, almost a cruiser, and it was approaching with a precision not often seen among the wreck-runners. There wasn’t a lot of other data forthcoming. The thing wasn’t giving off much, even limiting its drive output to the bare minimum required to intercept the skiff. The asymptotic approach trajectory wouldn’t be the choice of a grabber looking to make a quick catch. That meant, maybe, the Sector military or a police cruiser running under camo. But the Statues required a police ship to announce its intentions and approach to a civilian—except in a covert op. Kaelin hadn’t done anything to merit the covert target list (at least, he didn’t think so…he was pretty scrupulous with his deals after coming out of the wrecks). Not military or police, at least, not the regular kind. So who the shit were these guys?
For about twenty minutes, Kaelin dan Voresli debated whether to run up the drives and beat it. Of course, that would turn a cat-and-mouse game into an outright chase, and this was a cruiser he was up against. It was bigger than his ship, and that meant bigger engines. Bigger acceleration. He would lose, unless he could pull some trick to throw the odds the other way.
No, he eventually decided. The best way to gain an advantage over someone who thinks they’re sneaking up on you is to show them that it’s not working. Then they have to tip their hand.
He keyed the transmitter for a focused beam on the pursuer. No mistakes, then. “Okay, cut the crap. I’m honest. What’re you creeps playing at?”
No answer on the waves. But five seconds later, the pursuer ran up to full power and arrowed in at Kaelin’s skiff.
“Shit,” he said to nobody in particular. He punched the controls angrily, toggling the drive inducers. His own run-up would be from a full standby. “Fuck.”
The receiver panel squealed some harsh white noise at him. He absently elbowed it, concentrating on squeezing the run-up to go a little faster.
“Hold station,” came a voice from the receiver panel. Kaelin jerked.
“Shit,” he said again, this time to the receiver.
The drives cancelled their run-up of their own accord. Too many high-energy neutrinos crossing the chamber, said the diagnostic board, to achieve the proper quantum state in the impellers.
The collector board told Kaelin that the other ship was beaming neutrinos at him.
Well, he thought, that’s all there is to it. “Shit.”
The guy who came through the airlock into Kaelin dan Voresli’s skiff looked about warily. Kaelin floated, self-conscious, in the middle of the compartment. He knew full well that his skiff didn’t look like the slickest thing in the Galaxy, inside or out. The guy in the unfamiliar uniform took in the main hab compartment, colored entirely in browns and tans and a few dull grays and covered with anachronistic lights and switches along with a few strategically placed sheetscreens and visual projectors.
“Er…” started Kaelin, as the intruder pushed himself further into the compartment. Another one immediately appeared at his place in the airlock. He was nearly identical to the first except that his uniform had a bandolier with a lot of important-looking decorations on it.
The first interloper twisted in place to transfix Kaelin with a dull stare. His eyes were matte gray. “Why are you here?” he stated directly.
“What?” Kaelin was taken aback at the question. Couldn’t they see the equipment on the skiff exterior? The grapples, harnesses, and AAD manipulators? The cargo modules? The salvage-grade scanners?
“Why are you here?”
“I’m, uh, a wreck-runner. I’m just digging through the hulks for interesting, uh, things.” Why else did anyone come into the Burial Grounds?
The intruder with the bandolier glanced over from toying with a broken switch on the wall. “You do not leave the dead in respect?” he asked.
“What, uh—” Kaelin stammered. He blinked a few times to clear his head. “There are no dead here. No living, either. Except us, I guess.” Shit, what were these guys playing at? “Look, uh, what do you want from me? If you want this wreck, I can leave you to it, I’m happy to Traject over to, uh, someplace else.”
They ignored his remark. “Where do you bring your, uh, things after you collect them?”
“Yeah, there’s an Anchor there and a couple of small-time worlds. That Channel goes to some better trade worlds.” Didn’t everyone here know Isis?
“What are the coordinates of Isis, where you bring your interesting, uh, things?”
“You don’t fucking know the coordinates for Isis?” Kaelin exploded. This was too much. “Everyone out here knows Isis! Where the hell did you come from that you don’t know—”
But this, unfortunately for Kaelin dan Vorseli, was too far. The intruder with the bandolier twisted something on it and he felt a wave of lightheadedness. A moment later, his inert body drifted into the wall and bounced away again.
Kaelin awoke floating in a room with white triangular walls at least ten meters apart. There were grills in the center of each wall, blowing air at him regularly to keep him floating in the center. He couldn’t move beyond swinging his arms and legs about, and he couldn’t feel anything except by moving.
I’ll go crazy if I’m kept in here too long, he thought, this is torture.
Every now and then, in the solitude, a thought or conclusion would float up from the back of his mind. These people didn’t know of Isis—that meant they weren’t from near the Burial Grounds. Only a few Channels came into the sector, but surely if they were from one of the major civilizations their navigational charts would include Isis. No, their utter confusion at Kaelin’s salvage work and Isis indicated that they were out of touch from the Sector Republic, the Imperium, Shobah, Harrow’s Core, the Trader and Mariner Worlds…all the great galactic polities had superb charts available. Possibly they came from the unexplored Far Reaches in the near spiral arm. But Kaelin had a nagging suspicion that they were not alien explorers…but rather that they originated from one of the outer realms cut off from the main body of galactic civilization. Realms of The Exiles. Babylon—last known contact, twelve hundred years ago, and a peculiar realm even then. The xenophobic and ungovernable “Free Worlds,” which resisted outside influence belligerently. The Dead Ones—about which little was known, and even less was speculated.
After a few hours, he was coming up with descriptions of the patterns he saw on the walls and desperately trying to remember the name of the regular polyhedron the room formed, as if the answer would be the key that let him out, when his captors came back for him. It was Bandolier Guy. He put on a smile, his most charming (he hoped).
“Okay,” Kaelin said brightly as his slowly drifted around away from his visitor. He had to twist to look back at the guy in the compartment hatch. “So maybe I was wrong to be so rude to you before. I apologize, and I want to tell you where Isis is.”
“We know that.”
“Shi—uh, I mean, oh. You’ve…been through my computers, have you.” His smile faded to a stilted facsimile.
“Yes.” Kaelin received a quizzical look. A flat statement: “You are apprehensive.”
“Well, yeah. I’m kind of, uh…” How do you ask someone if they are really a bogeyman of legend, out from the unspoken-of reaches of the Galaxy? “Who are you guys, um, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“We are from the other side of Bablyon. We seek the Old Ones.”
The other side of Babylon. Damn it all to shit!
Kaelin dan Voresli knew instantly where that put them on the Galactic map. Right across Babylon from the Burial Grounds were the supposedly lifeless worlds of the Dead Ones. The stories he heard in Isis about the Dead Ones…officially, that term just covered a region of space cut off from the main Channel network, filled with uninteresting or sterile worlds as far as remote sensing could tell across light-years. Expeditions didn’t go in there: the Free Worlds and Babylon wouldn’t let anyone through their Channels, and the only other ways in were long sequences of Trajections from the desolate Far Reaches or the hazardous Ramparts. Still, tales filtered in to the watering holes at Isis and other port settlements in the Burial Grounds. Myths of reclusive alien beings who would just as soon take your life as they would your possessions. Tall tales of disembodied souls haunting empty worlds. There were even cults that insisted on imparting dark religious significances to that realm on the Galactic margin. Now Kaelin began to wonder how he could get out of this situation inside his own skin.
And he knew that he must do so. This encounter was far too important to leave unreported.
First: information. He threw his façade back on. “So, uh, why did you come all this way across Babylon? What’s in the, uh, Burial Grounds that might interest people of your, uh, fine stature?” (Maybe that was too much.)
His demeanor did not seem to affect the tone of the response. “Our detectors registered a shift in the Channel network. Perhaps a new Anchor has opened. This is evidence of the Old Ones.”
People from a region where the worlds were supposed to be dead and irradiated, full of ghosts and myths. People with detectors capable of monitoring the extended Channel network. People in search of the Old Ones.
Kaelin’s head spun. His mission now overrode his salvage efforts in the great wrecks. It overrode self-preservation at this point. These people sought, they were connected with, the beings that were ancient when the modern galactic civilizations were first crawling out of their respective primeval sludges. Nucleodating some of the Old Ones’ leviathan hulks gave estimated ages on the order of ten million years. How could the Old Ones still be present in the Galaxy? Could they still exert influence over their network of interstellar transport Channels?
Bandolier Guy broke into Kaelin’s thoughts. “Where is the nearest Anchor?”
“Isis is it. There’s another near Taron’s Throne and the next closest one is near the Lost Dwarfs and goes to Babylon.”
“How old are each of them?”
This question surprised Kaelin, but not as much as some of the others. “Uh, I think they’ve said about ten million years. Sector Republic standard.”
“All of them?”
This was interesting. “Uh, all of the Anchors are the same age.”
“False,” said the guy. “Our detectors registered a shift in the Channel network.”
“I didn’t even know it could—” Kaelin began.
His captor cut him off. “What you do not know is irrelevant. We have probed your vessel’s navigational charts. However, your encyclopedic data cores are lacking.”
“Hey, I’m just a wreck-runner! I can’t afford comprehensive encyclopedics, and we’re too far out to tie into the Sector sharenet.”
“Then where do you receive your information about the Old Ones? We have been probing you as well.”
Fuck. Kaelin just stared at his interrogator. So he was getting probed. Fuck again. This did not sit well with him, and so he let the silence stretch out. Tried to concentrate as hard as he could on an engraved panel in the wall. Blanked out his mind.
“Your mind patterns are similar enough to our own to decipher,” Bandolier Guy said in a matter-of-fact tone. “However, they are sufficiently dissimilar that we cannot interpret all of them. We need you to provide us with your information sources. They are…diffuse in your mind.”
Kaelin remained stubbornly silent.
“It may interest you to know that not all of your conclusions about us were correct. You did deduce the location from which this ship originated. However, we are not…as you would put it, ‘bogeymen.’ Nor do we seek to relieve you of your internal organs or expose you to a disfiguring plague.
“We find ourselves in need of your assistance. Had our probes answered all our queries sufficiently, we would dismiss you. But they have not, and so we need you to accompany us to Isis and either demonstrate your information-gathering methods for us or accumulate the data we desire.”
“Well…” Kaelin said, slowly. “I guess I am pretty good at that.”
“You will be compensated.”
He smiled inwardly. Now the interrogation was a negotiation. The aliens had just made the mistake that would get him out of this, as long as they weren’t probing him anymore. He’d have to chance it.
Kaelin managed to convince the Dead Ones to put him on his own skiff and slave the navigation system to theirs. As soon as they executed their first spatial Trajection, he tried out a little software trick he learned from a processor twister in Shobah. On the second Trajection, the little skiff separated from the alien ship.
These events carried grave importance. Kaelin would have to go home to relay his tale.
Home. Not Isis, his base of operations as a wreck-runner. No, home to a tiny segment of the Ark of Gods, to which he had not been since its systems revived and released him eleven years ago. A functioning derelict several more Trajections out from Isis than the wreck-runners ever ventured. One of the very, very few, apparently—Kaelin had not yet seen another active hulk from the time of the Old Ones in all his time diving through the wrecks in the Burial Grounds. The Ark segment was an island.
And there were people out here looking for the Old Ones. This would be an interesting homecoming.