We weren’t even through our post-transit checklists after the jump, and I still had that nauseated tang in the back of my throat, when Jimi sang out from his station. “Picking up refined metal ahead.”
I pulled back from looking over Kessler’s virtual shoulder. “Details.”
Jimi gestured, and the contents of his heads-up display overlaid itself on the data already in front of my eyes. I foregrounded the new data as Jimi’s gestures and eye movements focused us both in on what had triggered his telltales: a bead of metal gleaming against interstellar space, no different to the naked eye than the spray of stars in its background, but clearly identified via spectrography as a mass of mostly pure and thus likely refined metal, only a few kilometers ahead of us.
“Is it one of ours?” I asked.
“No ID beacon.”
“Is it Faction?”
After a second Jimi shook his head, a movement which transmitted as a slight wiggle through his HUD. “Showing as entirely powerless, energy signatures invisible against background radiation.”
“So one of the Dead Races,” I said.
“That’s how I’d bet my pudding.”
I nodded and pushed his overlay off my HUD. “Relax a notch, then,” I said. “After jump checks, we’ll put together a roster for an ex-ex team. Tell Moise to start scoping for ID matches. She’ll be tickled.”
I was, too, a little bit. Adrenaline had spiked at Jimi’s call-out from the possibility of either another Emergence vessel out in our survey path, or a Faction ship startled into a confrontation. But a Dead Race derelict was colorful, too—not technically rare or newsworthy in the grand scheme of things, but worth exploring before we turned to geosurveying the nearest star system. It was the first one I’d ever run across while sitting in the captain’s chair. And if it was previously undiscovered—which it could easily be, as the whole point of this survey route was to tag rocky planets beyond current exploration—then it would be the first I’d seen unclaimed in two decades in space. Probably not enough salvage value to tow it through a jump, but a pleasant surprise nonetheless, and few surprises in space are pleasant.
“Captain!” Kessler almost bounced out of his seat. “Can I reserve a slot in that ex-ex team?”
With a gesture I pulled his work area into my HUD. Kessler was Transit officer; his role was to prepare the complex gravitonic calculations necessary for a successful transit jump, and protocol required that there always be a valid jump calculated from wherever we were, even if we had just gotten there. I could see that his work was barely begun, charting and quantifying the gravitational wells and rolls in space-time which transit jumps had to negotiate.
“You know the answer to that,” I said. “Get gravitonics completely nailed down for here and now, and you might get a look. Until then, you’re not going anywhere.”
Kessler’s face fell. I knew he was the biggest Dead Race theorist on board the Anaximander, and the very real possibility of not being on the initial external-exploration team aboard a freshly discovered vessel was probably souring his gut.
I said in a more conciliatory tone, “I’ll tell Moise not to be in too much of a hurry to get over there, okay?”
Kessler tried to put on a brave face as I tugged off my HUD collar, automatically signaling to the ship that I was going off bridge duty and transferring command functions to Jimi; Jala, my command relief, was due on duty in only a few minutes. Then I wafted myself to and through the hatch from the command module.
I found Moise in the cramped “common area” of the survey crew section, consulting duty rosters for her ex-ex team. Moise was the official liaison between the Anaximander’s crew, of which I was captain, and the geosurvey team that we were there to ferry between rocky planets and asteroid fields so they could assess exploitable resources for the Emergence.
“Captain,” she acknowledged, her eyes still on the personnel lists as she rubbed her chin.
“Moise,” I said in return. “Hey, I don’t know if any of your guys are Dead Race theorists, but Kessler’s big into all that stuff. If you’re okay with waiting a bit until he gets the gravitonics nailed down on this side of the jump, he’d be a good member of the Anaximander crew to include in the ex-ex.”
She nodded again, still scrolling through names. “He’s already spoken to me. We’ve identified it as a Slugger ship, which means it’s probably been drifting since our ancestors were trying to pull themselves onto dry land. I figure a few more hours won’t hurt.”
“A Slugger ship, huh?”
She finally minimized the list and looked at me. “Sluggers are fine by me. No solid bodies, so there’s probably nothing left of them except some hydrocarbon stains on the bulkheads. A lot better than Crabbies.” She shuddered. “I was on a first-in team on a Crabbie ship a decade ago. The pics and holos, they don’t do those critters justice.”
Crabbies were one of the five Dead Races—though by some tallies, there were only four and a half, and they counted as the half. Carapaced, multi-limbed lifeforms with a half-dozen regular subspecies in each of their semi-organic ships—which resembled transit-jumping interstellar anthills more than anything else—they had been a source of academic and cultural controversy. Some exobiologists insisted that they weren’t an intelligent space-faring race as such, but instead a hive species which had evolved in and was perfectly adapted to life in space, and operated more like the terrestrial social insects they resembled than like us or, presumably, any of the other species which had gotten into space by intellect and technology.
I said, “If Kessler takes too long, don’t put off the ex-ex. A Slugger ship is interesting, but they’re all the same, and we’ve got real work to do. He’ll just have to cry in his milk…”
[“Full Dark” by Nathan Shumate is part of SPACE ELDRITCH II, anthology of Lovecraftian pulp space opera, on sale now!]