I wrote this to my Patreon patron M.B.’s prompt “Wheels within wheels.” It came in at 2,147 words. It is also set in the same universe as my Polynesian space empire, but it is a long way from there – this area is much nearer Earth.
Erni and Brun were shining their hand lights around the space they'd entered, trying to get an idea of how big it was and what was inside it. Their ship's sensors had told them that there were no detectable active power sources or systems as well as no detectable life signs, but that wasn't always the whole story. "There's Armesan and Romaji stuff in here," said Brun. "So, whatever this place is and whatever is going on, it's been around for at least a thousand years."
Erni asked the team member back on their ship, "Floyd, are you absolutely certain that there's nothing else in orbit, or docked, or down on the surface anywhere? It'd probably be cold and empty by now."
"I've already started the scans running again," Floyd assured her. "With upped anomaly sensitivity. I'll get back to you two if I find anything, or of I finish the scan without finding anything. Actually, I’m barely getting a reading on you two in there. Stay safe and be careful – I can’t guarantee that you’re alone."
"Will do," Erni replied. Then, on their local channel she said to Brun, "So, I know we've been over this before, but did Professor Gumdrop or any of his alternates say anything to you that wasn't in the official brief?"
"No." Brun's initial response was quick and brief, then he said slowly, "If anything, they were less all over the place than usual. It was only Professor Gumdrop the entire time. Not even The Contessa showed up. Plus, Professor Gumdrop was completely business-like all the time."
"Are you sure that it was Professor Gumdrop that you were dealing with," asked Erni, "and not another alternate pretending to be him? Altradno would be capable of it, and I don't think we've met all of the alternate personalities. Altradno may not be the worst of them."
"Whoever it was, I don't think they were faking their concern," replied Brun. "Something about this had him/them worried. There was a lot of finger pointing."
"Finger pointing? What at?" Erni shone her light on a wall to show a block of writing painted there. "Hang on, that's in one of the older Latin-script alphabets - I think those ligatures make it Ægiran."
"If it's Ægiran then it's got to be almost three thousand years old," said Brun. They were both quiet for a moment because even after nearly three thousand years the Ægirans were still the bogymen of interstellar space. Then he asked, "If that's paint how did it last that long in a breathable atmosphere?"
"So, either it's not paint or there isn't normally a reactive atmosphere in here," replied Erni. "I would be happier if it's not paint. Otherwise there is something here that moves the atmosphere in and out either it's not working now or we can't detect it."
"We should take a scan of the writing and send it to Floyd," said Brun. "The ship might have a translator for it somewhere in the library."
Erni followed his suggestion and neither of them said that if they didn't make it back to the ship, then at least the message would get back to whoever might be in the next team that was sent out here.
Floyd acknowledged their transmission and told them he had put the ship's library to work on it. The ship's scans were still running.
Then they moved closer to the message on the wall to get a better look at what it was made of and found not only was it embossed onto the wall, but it had been catalogued using protocols they recognised no less than three times. Two of the small tagging dots attached to the wall were years old and from institutions they'd heard of but had never been in contact with. The third was from the group Professor Gumdrop was worried about and it was barely a month old.
They continued their systematic search of the manufactured space inside the asteroid and found artefacts from three more historical cultures before Brun said thoughtfully, "It strikes me that most of this is ship components. There's a lot of explosive damage and some cutting, but a lot of careful disassembly too."
"So this is a junkyard where they haven't pulled all the good stuff out yet?" Erni asked the question as she eyed off a panel encrusted on one side with gold circuitry.
"Or a place someone pulled apart a lot of spaceships looking for something." Brun shook his head. "If we weren't looking for Professor Gumdrop's people, or what happened to them, then this place would be worth a fortune. It still could be if we knew what was going on."
They rounded a pile of Catharite interior panels and found the shelter.
It was jury rigged from pieces of a Thorell-class ship - the designation was helpfully and clearly marked on one of the panels forming the near side of the structure. To one side there were a small power generator and a water purifier, both were common designs familiar to Brun and Erni, and both were often used for temporary expedition campsites. Everything was tied down so much that it looked overengineered. The two of them exchanged looks and Erni nodded. Brun stepped back three paces.
Erni called out, "Hello! Visitors here! Anyone in there! We're looking for some people who were coming in this direction?"
Three figures boiled out of the door. They were wearing scruffed up exploration suits with the sealable helmets hanging off the back, and they were thin, but they were alive. That left four team members missing.
The medium sized, male-looking one with an asymmetrical haircut eagerly asked, "Are you here to rescue us? Did Zayeresk send you?"
Erni replied carefully, "I'm afraid I don't know a Zayeresk. If you're off the Fowler Devine, then Professor Gumdrop sent us. If you're not and you're stranded here, we can still rescue you."
"Thank Hanneluj! I don't care who sent you, I'm just glad that you're here!" The one with the asymmetrical haircut was still talking and bouncing with excitement.
The taller male-looking one said quietly, "Professor Gumdrop is one of Zayeresk's alternate personalities. I hadn't realised that they co-operated this much. I'm Doctor Pallinus Dresain, Interdepartmental Archaeological Survey Section, Damaraine University. We're what's left of our team, after the ship exploded and this place did a vigorous atmospheric vent."
"We were the only ones that managed to secure our safety lines," added the curly haired blond who might be a woman. "Then the remains of our ship were dragged in here through the main entrance by constructs of some type and dismantled some more. If I were drawing observational conclusions, I'd say they were looking for something. I don't know if they found it, because when they left, they didn't take anything with them."
"I'm Erni Lessning, and this is my colleague Brun Thenrap." She indicated Brun standing behind her and to one side. "We're with Thesselrain Recoveries and, in view of the lack of communication from your group, Professor Gumdrop commissioned us to find you and bring you home."
"That was quick," commented the first one who'd spoken. "I'm not complaining about that at all, and could we please leave now? I'm Lem Borska, by the way. Associate Under Dean of Lementive Studies."
"And I'm Delil Glynn, postgraduate student intern. It's not like we have anything we want to bring with us," went on the blond. "Our personal stuff was either on the ship or got sucked out with the atmosphere."
Doctor Dresain looked back at the shelter and said, "I feel like I should turn everything off first."
Flynn's voice cut into the conversation from both Erni and Brun's communications sets, the volume cranked up from his end. "Get back to the ship now! This is not a drill! Drop anything that'll slow you down and run!"
It was Brun who said, "Flynn, we found survivors."
"Bring 'em! Help them move as fast as you can. An onboard legacy security protocol's been activated, and I'm doing what I can, but if the conditions are met, the self-destruct is going to activate with disabled overrides. Move it!"
Associate Under Dean Borska said, horrified, "Our ship self-destructed?"
"Less talking, more moving," snapped Flynn. "I'm doing my best but not all of this is under my control."
They jogged back the way Erni and Brun had come, taking a more direct route to the maintenance access they'd entered by. The survivors began running out of puff before they were three quarters of the way there, but Brun was able to give each of them a short rest by carrying them one at a time as he jogged along. Erni scouted ahead, making sure that they weren't going to waste time by taking a dead end into a piece of substantial wreckage. Every so often Flynn's mostly incoherent mumbling at the ship's systems was punctuated by an explosive profanity. When they sealed the outer door of the airlock behind the four of them, he said, "Thank freaking Hannu and the Forty Saints. Move further into the ship if you can but hang on - I'm running straight to jump now that you're aboard."
They were still closing the inner airlock door behind them when the ship made the transition into jump space. They could feel the surge of the engines through their feet and, unusually, a physical feeling like a chill moving through them as the ship removed itself from normal space. Doctor Dresain commented, "That was odd. I wonder how deep we've gone?"
Flynn's voice came over the ship's intercom this time and not through the suits' systems. "Can you all come the common area, please? I have some things to explain."
The ship's common area abutted the galley and once they were there, Brun got everyone a mug of water, set enough soup for six to heating, and started asking about preferred beverages.
"That can wait," said Flynn as he came into the room from the direction of the cockpit. "I need everyone's attention for a few minutes." He looked every inch a Durrovian with the faded scars on his brown face, the braid of brown hair that hung to his waist, and a long tunic and heavy belt over his trews. Delil Glynn sat down and began to look like a small prey animal trying to hide in plain sight. "The reason we left that place so quickly was that on our second sensor sweep the ship found an Ægiran war factory powered down and in orbit on the far side of the asteroid."
There was swearing in eight languages. Finally Associate Under Dean Borska said, "That explains a lot."
"It turns out," continued Flynn, "that there is still a legacy security protocol for encountering Ægiran war factories sitting in the navigation systems of modern star ships. Its intent is to stop the locations of any non-Ægiran inhabited world falling into their hands. The protocol assumes that we can't outrun them, and that we can't avoid being tracked by them, although it does predate jump space technology, so I have doubts about the second one. Fortunately, I've modded this ship's interface so it tells me about stuff like that. Our other piece of luck is that either I found it before its remotes found us or before its reactivation protocols had kicked in. We got out before their sensors pinged us. I've changed our emergency evacuation jump destination from the Demaraine-Sargass Multiplex to an unclaimed and uninhabited system. We'll do two more jumps to similar systems after that, then I'll reinstall the navigational database and we'll go to Ossorree so we can report directly to the military.”
Doctor Dresain asked cautiously, “Reinstall the navigational database?”
“Yes. I made sure I still had the offline backup and the last offline update, then I wiped the database off the system so the security protocol doesn’t think that we’re a risk.” The wry twitch to Flynn’s face wasn’t meant to be a smile. “My aim is for the ship not to blow up with us in it.”
Later, after food and personal ablutions, the postgraduate student approached Flynn while he was in the galley infusing something in a mug. "Does it have to be a Durrovian facility?" Delil Glynn asked the question timidly. "I mean they have rules about where people born on Durrow can be, depending...."
Flynn gave a sympathetic grin. "You're a scholar. You'll have a scholar's robe on over your clothes and you're in the company of other scholars. Remember that you have a degree and a position at a university, don't go into any military-only areas, and you'll be fine - they won't think to question your right to be where you are." He winked and added, "No-one's questioned my right to be anywhere in years."This entry was originally posted at https://rix-scaedu.dreamwidth.org/128134.html. There have been comments there.