Salvage is the only long-term game in the universe.
No tyrant of the star-nets or titan of trade ever admired a salvage crew; we’re the crows on their trash-heaps, the rats in their walls. But I don’t think any of them’s ever considered, either, that when their names have long gone airless and their works are rust and shadow, it’s junkers who write their elegies.
Every empire ever raised eventually falls. And sooner or later, the crows always come for the corpses.
Most crews won’t scavenge off the Bari Arm, despite the graveyard of scrap that’s been collecting in slow orbit there for a few human ages now. Junkers are a superstitious lot and there’s something wrong, they say, with Bari.
Which has always been fine with me, because it means more scrap for us.
On lucky runs we’ve found whole ships and sometimes stations, mining or monitoring, in the junk field. Most of them abandoned, nothing sinister, though once we ran across an E-class Isan transport ghost-floating with quarantine glyphs still burning phosphor-green on her hull. We left that one alone.
This time it was, of all things, a light combat cruiser. Entire and, to all external scans, intact.
We’d scrapped warships before, so I didn’t doubt we could manage it, and if we could salvage working weaponry it would be a legend on the Winged Market. But the warships we’d scrapped before were always by hire; we’d never just found one ghosting. Most consortia tend to keep track of that particular species of their shit.
But— “I don’t know it,” Kin said in comm. She sounded puzzled, and Eli paused only half-suited up. When your Oracle doesn’t know a thing, it’s occasion to pause.
“How do you mean?” I asked. “Is it an off-reg? Can’t you trace it?”
“I can’t read it, Mati,” she said. “The only hull-mark I parse as a might-be tag is in a glyph I can’t read. And it’s not a hullform I know.”
Which was occasion to bigtime pause.
In the silence, Eli started to strip his suit, his damaged face expressionless. Old soldiers are superstitious, too.
“No chance,” I warned him. “That’s a floating fortune out there, wherever it came from.” A one-of-a-kind Market legend.
He would’ve argued with me—Eli’s never stepped back willingly from an argument, it’s his special pastime—but Kin herself intervened. “Dushamaya,” she coaxed. “It’s worth a look, ai?”
No cat’s got anything on an Oracle when it comes to curiosity, bless their voracious souls.
Eli hesitated, cast an exasperated look upward, and grudgingly began pulling his suit back on.
“You know I’m the captain of this crew?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said, and crouched to strap his rag-knife to his boot. “But I like her better.”
The first peculiarity was the ship’s seals. I was still securing our wing tethers when Eli said, low and puzzled in comm, “These are live. Seals are still live.”
I made my way hand over hand across the stained and pitted hull to where he hung—upside-down from my vantage—considering the entry hatch with his head canted, ocular implant focused on the corroded keypanel. “So?” I asked. “Easier, nah? Just rat the code and key in. Saves us cutting.”
“But why are they still live, Esmat? This thing’s so old it doesn’t exist.”
“No offense to Her Sapience,” I said, “but just because Kin doesn’t know a thing doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.” I rapped on the hull: soundless in the black, but real enough that I felt the vibration in my bones. “Unless you’re not sure you can rat it?”
He muttered under his breath in Rukhani and shifted to work.
“We’ll go slow and look sharp,” I consoled him, and double-checked my gear. Eli didn’t grace me with a reply.
The hatch yielded readily enough to his persuasions, yawning smoothly open. I went in first, stunner at the ready.
The entry bay was vacant, dark and breathless. I was about to summon Eli after me when the back of my neck prickled and the words shriveled like rice paper on my tongue. For an instant I couldn’t breathe, felt something cold and stifling settle heavy on my chest.
And then it passed, like the shadow of some great winged thing. I dialed up my light and swept the bay, breathing like I’d just run a klick.
There was nothing to see. Bari superstition rubbing off on me. I felt clammy inside my suit.
“Clear,” I reported, and Eli came swinging through the hatch. He dragged it closed behind him and then turned to look at me, but if he’d heard anything in my voice or gotten any spike readings off my suit, he didn’t say; after a moment, he turned back to the wall and made his way along to the master panel. I dialed my light up some more and drifted, scanning the place again.
Most of the entry bay looked standard op, if clunky and outdated. There’s only so much variation you can work on the theme of airlocks. But black-marked on the wall beside the inner hatch, it wore an emblem that I didn’t know. The mark looked partly like a bird rising into flight, neck up and wings spread behind, and partly like the Iskaari kah for telling. It had been—smeared? inked? in haste, trailing streaks like tears.
“Kin?” I asked. “You getting this?”
“I’m downlinking to the Arkhive,” she said, which I’d never heard her say but guessed was Kin-speak for I don’t know what the fuck I’m looking at either.
“Wait,” said Eli. He was still hanging at the panel. The chilly centipede of nerves ran across the back of my neck again and I twitched it off irritably.
When he didn’t say anything else, I said, “Wait what?” maybe a little snappish.
“It’s all still live. Systems. Not just airlocks, ai? Stasis mode, but live. Power, stabilizers. Air systems are up and atmo reads good.”
We looked at the inner hatch. It looked back at us, a blank black eye.
That was the moment, right there, when I could have called the salvage off. I could have said, No, fuck it, something’s off, leave it, and we could’ve picked up something else: a dead satellite, a junked drill, pieces of a broken-up transport. But I didn’t.
It was that sign: that black bird caught reaching for flight. Telling. It didn’t mean either of those things for all I knew, but some deeper-shadowed recess of my brain had heard it whisper and wanted to listen. It felt like a thing I ought to know.
Besides, I had a renegade Oracle and a half-mod resurrection soldier on my team, which put me two up against pretty much anything.
“Kin, you’re hailing her?”
“Thirty-six times so far,” she said. “Broadlink, at intervals. She’s a stone.”
“All right,” I said, and then to Eli, “Crack her.”
Eli’s pointed response was to holster his stunner and unsling his rifle instead, but having offered that opinion, he turned back to the master panel. “Hold onto yourself,” he said.
A moment later, light blazed and gravity seized me with a stomach-surging lurch.
The inner hatch opened onto darkness. Eli shouldered past me to go first, and this time I let him. He leaned through, holding the rifle level before him, and looked one way and then the other before stepping out. “Clear,” he said curtly a moment later. I followed, making the same cautious hesitation in the opening that he had, to take my bearings.
It was a bare industrial corridor, the hatch set flush in its wall, and there was nothing to see, either up or down. Night-bars set into the floor at intervals shed a dim and tranquil ruddy light. I stepped in and turned a slow circle. Glyphs had been painted on the wall; unlike the bird in the bay, these were flaked and faded. I couldn’t read the bones of whatever had been written there.
The hatch sighed shut behind me; a moment later, it sounded a chime, and a ring of blue light woke to life around it. We were in and she was tight.
I toggled my comm to open. “Two aboard,” I called in Pinghe, and then again in Sarahatbaan. My voice echoed tinnily. “Crew Ahuja, Three Pearls System, salvage reg Kinship of Ash. Any injured or distressed?”
Eli’s visor disengaged with a hiss, and he tugged the hood of his suit back one-handed. He turned a wary circle, like expecting the atmo might mug him unawares, and then nodded at me. “Clean.”
I was reaching for my own hood when Kin said dreamily, “It’s called Ihe.”
“The language, the script. Of the hull-glyphs and that sigil in the bay, and consistent with the letter-forms in the corridor. It’s an antique dialect out of the Swarm. Predates the Iskaar-Vethani Campaign and the Su-Sun Dynasty.”
For a long moment, the silence was absolute as vacuum.
Eli shouldered his rifle and asked mildly, “Who speaks it recently?”
“No one,” Kin said.
“Not possible, Fox,” he told her.
“Clearly it is. I don’t yet know how, but you are standing among the incontrovertible facts.”
Eli was already shaking his head. “That’s not junk, that’s artifact. That’s the wrong end of the galaxy and a few thousand solar years out of time.”
“The Bari field is anomalous,” Kin said blandly, which is as superstitious as AI gets.
“Claim her,” I urged Kin. “Now. Now.” I didn’t know whether the strange warship was anomaly or artifact or what just yet, but even the chance—it was like staring into sun-dazzle. A relic like Kin was talking about—we could sell the dead ship entire to the Vo-erja to use as a temple, and they’d pay us half their order’s fortune for the privilege. We could sell Free Swarm-era weaponry to the Khaiden for twice that again. We could start a galactic holy war and become the richest junkers in history in the bargain; we could make ourselves a three-person consortium to rival the Tradeways.
Not that I would.
I mean, probably I wouldn’t.
Eli was looking levelly at me. His expression was always hard to read on account of the scars and the false eye, but I could feel the preemptive disappointment washing off him.
“In case,” I told him. “If she’s that major a find, imagine what some unscrupulous firm might do with her, ai?”
“Imagine,” he agreed dryly.
“I’ve netted and tagged her,” Kin said. “No reg number; if she’s actually Ihe, she’d predate the current system. Her hull-name, though, translates to something like Singer-at-Dusk.”
“And the glyph in the entry bay?”
“Means listen. Or—more formal, more imperative than that. Hearken, maybe.”
I felt the shiver of nerves again, a brief flush like icy water beneath the skin. Listen, the black bird whispered in memory. “Listen to what?” I asked, and pulled my own hood back.
Kin had no answer. Eli and I stood staring at each other. The corridor was silent: a faint, felt thrum underfoot, the slow pulse of a drowsing ship, but no sound.
Eli was first to finally shake his head, like twitching off cobweb. “Nothing here.”
“Maybe deeper,” I suggested.
We found the first three bodies—or the last three, as it proved—in what might have been a rec room.
We’d ventured down a narrow branchway walled on either side with tanks. They were scaled and occluded by whatever long-dry liquid they’d once held, and a film of clotted filth ringed their bases. That path opened two ways at the end: a room, and another corridor. I picked the room.
Eli had fiddled with the ship’s day/night cycle and brought the lights up so that it felt less like we were sneaking. Even so, even with everything cleanly awash in cheerful synthetic sunlight, it took me a moment to process what I was seeing when I stepped through that door.
Two of them were sitting cross-legged on the floor at a low table against the far wall. They’d been playing a game that looked like Fives, but one of them had keeled onto the grid and scattered the stones; the other slumped against the wall, head tipped up, as though contemplating an anomaly on the ceiling. I looked up too, in spite of myself. There was nothing wrong with the ceiling.
The third was seated on a bench at a big mess table in the center of the room. They’d tipped sideways to lay head and one outstretched arm on the table. A bowl before them held only dusty residue now.
Eli bumped me gently from behind. “Esmat?”
I shifted aside. He stepped in to survey the scene.
“Name of God,” he said mildly. Eli was never surprised by death; he was tolerant but resigned, as if it were a thoughtless relative who’d insisted on dropping in at a bad time. Bossy Auntie Death.
Of course, he’d known her a lot longer and better than I had.
I found my own voice. “What happened?”
He kept the rifle at the ready before him, full-charged, as he moved to investigate, which was as absurd as the way I held my stunner like a ward. These people were long past posing any sort of threat.
There was no indication of anything gone awry in here, apart from the fact the trio was dead. No signs of alarm, no wounds or broken bones, no weapons even present. All three of them sat as though they’d simply fallen asleep, passed out where they were sitting.
Time and exposure had mummified them: they were desiccated, shriveled to dark leather and lacquered bone, gaping mouths and sunken eye-pits. Whatever they’d worn in life, it was now a uniform of colorless rags and dust.
Eli crouched by the one on the bench. “Not violence,” he said. “And not plague.”
“Why not plague?”
He glanced back, showing me only the undamaged side of his face, faintly sardonic. “Not many plagues could kill three people simultaneously, and if not simultaneous, once the first one died, you’d think the other two might’ve caught on.”
“Right.” The moment’s shock had made me stupid. “Systems failure?”
He rose to his feet and shouldered the gun again. “Only they’re working now.”
“Ai, but—” I indicated the atrophied bodies with my chin. “In that state? They went deep-cold or airless or both for at least a while.”
He weighed this and conceded it with a one-shouldered shrug.
“Kin,” I said. “Can you pull systems history?”
“Not from here,” she said. “It’s a sealed stasis. I’m not sure Singer’s mind is intact at all. You’ll need to get to a core console and call her up again for me to link with what’s left.”
It was a slow progress through the mostly-empty, silent ship. We found more bodies in the crew berths. They were as peaceful as the trio in the galley, sleeping like the—well, you know. Withered husks, curled like chrysalids in their bunks. The beds themselves had gone to nests of dust and brittle fragments around them.
Eli paced the row of beds, murmuring in his own language. I moved slower, from berth to berth. I didn’t love looking at them, but it felt—disrespectful, maybe?—not to pause at each one.
Listen, the black bird said.
What was I listening for?
“Too few,” Eli said at last from the other end of the room.
“What?” I glanced up from the one I’d been staring at.
“Too few,” he repeated. “For a cruiser. This isn’t a fighting force. They’re barely enough to crew a modern ship this size.”
“So we’re in for a heap more of them somewhere?” We’d been working our way gradually toward the heart of her; I had an unpleasant picture of a hill of grisly bodies waiting in the core.
There was something nagging me about the way the body beside me was curled on its side.
“Deserters, maybe,” Eli suggested. “Who would they have been at war with?”
“The Iskaari,” Kin’s voice replied.
I paused and Eli canted his head.
“The Iskaari?” I asked. “You said they predated —”
“The Vethani campaign, yes. The Ihe shared the Iskaari homeworld and moons in the Swarm, and were the first Iskaari conquest before they got really ambitious. They were completely subsumed. A dark footnote in Iskaari history, as the Arkhive puts it.”
Eli muttered something in Rukhani that even I knew was extremely rude.
“That bother you, Exemplar?” I asked him, maybe a little more sharply than needful.
Genocide had been his people’s game, a long time back and a lifetime ago, and Eli had been pretty good at it, and sometimes it still stuck between us, what with my folk being the ones genocided and all. It had turned out—I mean, there’s no good word for how a thing like that turns out, even when conquerors fail. It’s hard to say we won over the silence of all the lost.
He turned his head to look at me straight on, both mismatched halves of his face, one natural eye and one milk-white implant. The scars he’d taken in our old, long war. “Yes,” he said.
I turned away, went to the corpse I’d been studying and knelt down.
It cradled something in both arms, had curled around it like a lover in sleep. I stood up fast and stepped back, swallowing a hard and bitter knot.
Eli was there, somehow. “Esmat?”
“It’s got—” I took a deep breath. “It’s holding something. Small. I can’t tell—”
He had already stepped between me and the body. “I’ll have a look.” He crouched down and I turned my back.
“Kin,” I said. “Tell us about the Ihe.”
“Not much else to tell,” she said. “Technologically peers of the Old Iskaari, but fewer in number, and then either extinct or assimilated. The language is phonetically dissimilar from Iskaari, but the alphabets are distantly related. The Arkhive only knows of it because the Iskaari administered their Ihe territories in that language for a century or so, and some of those records were preserved.”
The Arkhive didn’t pay. The Arkhive wouldn’t pay us, not even for a relic this spectacular. I wondered if Pham could turn up a philanthropist rich and eccentric enough to pay us for it and then make the donation themself.
“Mati,” Eli said. He’d risen back to his feet and was holding something cupped in his hands. He held it out to me wordlessly.
It was some kind of idol, and my knees went so loose with relief that I had to beckon him closer because I briefly didn’t trust myself to move.
It was stone of a deep blue-green hue, striated with darker lines, and it had been carved in the shape of a two-headed tortoise. I took it carefully from Eli. There were tiny stars etched on the broad vault of the shell; the eyes of each head were holes drilled straight through, so that you could see light through them when you held it up.
“It’s beautiful,” I said, and Eli nodded at me. As I stood studying it, he moved away down the row of beds again. I turned the heavy carved figure in my hands. “But who sleeps with a stone idol?”
“This one has—I don’t know. A document?” He tugged something from beneath another body and held it up. It was a tile of some pale, glassy material, faded lines inked on it. “And this one has” —he turned and crouched again— “jewelry?” He slipped it free. “A memory-pendant.” He raised a badly-tarnished locket.
“Mother of stars,” I said, and then couldn’t speak for a moment at all.
I had seen aftermaths; I had seen graveyards. I’d cracked tombs before this one, and counted the things the dead had treasured.
But I’d known, breaking into those others, that they were tombs. I’d known what I would find. This time, I hadn’t.
These people had.
I hugged the stone tortoise to my chest. “They’re not—they’re mementos. Each of them has— Eli, they knew they were going to die here? They took their precious things, things that would last, and they lay down in their beds and—”
He turned politely away when I couldn’t finish, to resume his gentle grave-robbery.
We found the core console what felt like a very long time later. It was an entire room, layered in dust and silence. Some sort of fungus had spread in patches across the ceiling, leaving only a sort of brittle fur behind, some of which sifted down like snow as soon as we troubled the room by entering.
There were no corpses. The console panels were blank and mute, gray-frosted with age. I couldn’t read any of the controls.
“Fox,” Eli said, and unslung the pack he was carrying now to set it softly in the dust. “We’re in core.”
“Introduce me,” she said, and Eli unsealed a pocket to take out the black phial.
The console woke to Kin’s ministrations very loudly and all at once. There was an ungainly rattle-and-clunk, and the light in the room flared almost unbearably before adjusting. I threw up a hand to shield my eyes.
When I lowered it, the panels were live. On every single one of them burned the glyph of the bird: Listen.
Eli and I both stood for a moment. The repeating glyph brightened gradually, insistently around us: Listen.
“Fox?” Eli asked, puzzled. “Is she there? Singer?”
“No,” said Kin. “This is— I’m not sure what I’m looking at. She was here, but she’s been largely overwritten by something. She overwrote herself? It’s encoded. There’s a fragment here I think is the last of her, but she’s not responding to me. Maybe just some kind of echo?”
The glyphs were nearly blinding now. The bird rustled at the back of my brain.
I took a deep breath and stepped into the middle of the room. “We’re listening,” I said aloud in Pinghe.
The glyphs blinked out.
And then, all at once, every panel filled with light. Alien glyphs flowed across them in dazzling, endless gibberish strings, an unstoppable, unreadable panorama.
I turned a slow circle, transfixed. There was no way for a human eye to take the river of it all in, even if I could read the language.
A few paces away, Eli was making the same wondering circle.
“God’s Name,” Kin said reverently. She sounded—if she were human, I’d have said she sounded choked up, which is a state I’d never seen her in, not even when she wore her human body. “Mother of God.”
“What? Kin, what is it?”
“It’s a poem,” she said. “Singer-at-Dusk is gone. The last fragment of her I found—I think she was waiting? And now she’s gone out. But this is a poem. Composed by her.”
“A poem?” Eli asked, like the word didn’t parse.
“It goes on and on and on.” She was silent for a moment and then said, in a soft, strange voice, “Listen: These we sing at last into darkness. These last, these few, these valiant. Take these— I can’t tell, this could be words or souls, it’s ambiguous— and remember.” She was quiet.
We were all quiet. I held my breath.
At length Kin said, “She composed—it’s an elegy for her crew, but also for—there’s so much here. A history of the Ihe, the whole saga of the war. It’s—” Silence again.
Eli had been staring at me, but now he turned his head so that I could only see expressionless scars and tech, his real eye hidden.
“Kin,” I said very carefully, and leaned against the nearest panel, because my knees were weird again. “What happened? Just—here. To them, and her. What happened?”
For a moment I thought she wasn’t going to answer, but then she said roughly, “They knew it was finished. The war. The rest of the fleet had surrendered. But these—they wouldn’t. They wanted the system, the Swarm, to know; they wanted to warn them. About the Iskaari. The crew agreed that all her resources had to go to that end, over Singer’s objections. The ones in their berths took poison, to minimize system load. The three in the room were the—the Captain was called Shaeh Toh, and those were her two officers. They remained to crew Singer as long as they could, and to manually override her life-system mandates in the end. They would have—it would have been like slipping into sleep, I suppose. She–when she realized she wasn’t going to be able to maintain herself indefinitely even without their resource load, she began to write the poem, to carry it with the last of herself.”
“How did they get here?” My voice sounded odd.
“I don’t know,” Kin said. “I don’t know. They’ve been adrift — God knows.”
I was still looking at Eli.
Why don’t you ever get your fucking face fixed? I used to ask him, maybe once a cycle. Rest of us don’t love looking at that shit.
Neither do I, he’d finally said back to me one day. But some things should be remembered. And some people shouldn’t get to hide.
“Are you still linked to the Arkhive?” I asked Kin.
“I am,” she said.
“Uplink it,” I said. “Give them the whole thing. Hell, outlink it—send it to Pham, tell them to broadcast it on the Tradeways. Send it to Nansi Station and the Commonwealth Terract. Give it to the Vo, they’ll carry it even farther.”
“Mati,” Eli said.
“Shut up,” I told him. To Kin I said, “Any open link you can hit right now, anyone who can handle the load.”
“Mati,” Eli repeated patiently. “And Iskaar?”
“Yes. Yes to Iskaar. To them and to every one of the Swarm-states.”
“That might,” Kin said, “make things diplomatically awkward in certain zones. For us, at least.”
“They started it,” I said. “Besides, we’re just a crew of crows. What’s diplomacy?”
Eli laughed abruptly.
The ship that had been Singer’s husk and memorial didn’t make it. Eli and I had barely cleared her, winging back toward Kinship, when her systems went dark behind us. By the time we were home aboard, she’d begun to break up.
Eli and I stood together before one of Kin’s monitors, watching a priceless artifact disintegrate in the black.
“Sorry about your fortune,” he told me. We still had a stone tortoise and a locket and some other pieces stowed away, but he knew without my saying that those weren’t ours to keep.
“S’all right,” I said, and leaned against him. He put an arm around my shoulders. “We’ll find another, someday, ai? Anyway, she wasn’t an artifact. She was a ghost.”
“Superstitious,” he chided me.
“Yeah,” I agreed. “Maybe a little.”
All across knownspace, a black bird was instructing: Listen.
Wren Wallis lives in eastern Massachusetts with her husband, daughter, and an odd number of chickens. Her short fiction has appeared previously in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Daily Science Fiction, Lackington’s, and various anthologies. She can be found online at wrenwallis.com, and on Twitter @invisibleinkie.
Published November 2018, Shimmer #46, 4500 words
Into the Depths