Short story - GALINA - part 1
In which a merchant frog tries to sell a human fossil.
Before we begin, I want to let you know that I’m now part of the STARSHIPS AND CYBERPUNKS book promo with BookMojo. There’s a lot of reduced-price books here, and a handful of free ones.
And WHO BUILT THE HUMANS? is FREE today on Amazon. Go grab it.
(Previously titled WHALE)
Before They found her, Galina Agafonov was an astronaut. She had completed the mission over a thousand times in the simulators. In her head she had played it through a thousand more. The Pallas was to intercept an object just outside of Jupiter’s orbit around the sun, at which point samples would be taken. When the Pallas reappeared from around the back of Jupiter it would send the data packets back into the inner solar system. The Pallas would then begin orbit around Jupiter, using minimal fuel until Earth had sent a reply telling them what to do next.
If the ship was ordered back to Earth, it would use Jupiter’s gravity to slingshot itself back into the inner solar system. There was a small margin for error. Too far, and the Pallas would fly off at a tangent, losing itself between the planets. Too close, and the ship would be torn apart as it entered Jupiter’s atmosphere.
Even if they got everything right, it still wasn’t the end. The chances of some contaminant or alien parasite were astronomically low, but preparations had been made. If contact with the object went wrong. If the Pallas became a danger to Earth, in any way, Galina was instructed to destroy the ship. Everyone on board knew this, and privately they had all come to terms with it. They knew the risks before they joined the mission.
Unfortunately, the ship never made contact. The ship had fallen into chaos as it approached Jupiter. System failure after system failure had meant the Pallas missed a critical transport window. The object slipped out of reach and the Pallas was forced to take the unlikely backup plan. The crew sent their messages back to Earth. The androids on board stood emotionless. Galina told her son she loved him over vidlink, being careful to suppress her fear. The data packets were sent back to Earth. The crew initiated the slingshot.
The slingshot failed. Earth lost all contact with the Pallas during the manoeuvre, and by the time the ship was due to reappear from around the back of Jupiter, she was gone. There was no way to go out and hunt for her, only wild speculation and telescopes, minds and dishes turned to the stars, waiting.
In the weeks that followed conspiracy theorists proposed alien abductions, a secret interstellar war, a zombie apocalypse on board. The wilder theories included the Pallas smashing headfirst into a great invisible barrier, that Earth was part of an intergalactic zoo. This was the furthest any manned mission had gotten, and many leaders of Earth’s new religions didn’t think Humans were destined to get much further. To them, this disappearance was proof they were correct. The solar system was an enclosed system.
Back at ground control the scientists chattered darkly and uncomfortably about these conspiracies. Some of them laughed at the stupidity of it all. But, in the silences between, some of them shared unsettling thoughts that slowly grew into facts. In the hushed meetings beside vending machines and in the corners of offices, the majority agreed that the Pallas crew were long dead by now, having obliterated themselves in Jupiter’s atmosphere. There were of course rumours about the object and its role in the disaster, but none could be substantiated, and the worst of them mirrored the conspiracies the scientists wanted so desperately to avoid.
The details had their place in history, but right now they weren’t important. Galina and her crew were dead. It was a simple, uncomfortable truth. Everything else was secondary.
Before They collected her, Galina Agafonov was long dead. She was a flattened corpse dredged from interstellar space, a monument of dust and blood. One of her legs was missing, and something very fast and very small had made a crater of one side of her skull. What remained of her ancient brain was frozen in place, a fulgurite-shaped thing of blood and viscera leaping out from the bone crater.
Galina was a glistening mound of red and black and white. Of metal and flesh and bone and frost, pulverised by time and by extreme conditions. She was almost unrecognisable, but the memories of her suit computer survived. Everything beside her final fifteen seconds were recorded, entombed on a crystal chip no larger than a fingernail. It waited halfway up her spine, partially exposed among the crushed vertebrae and torn metal. In here, what remained of Galina Agafonov was trapped.
Galina’s broken body made its slow ascent toward the hold of the trading ship. The machine was a mess of salvaged and stolen parts, engines and airlocks and tubing and cockpits jutting out in almost every direction. To the right side of the ship a rotating forest habitat had been affixed to a mining vessel, which in turn had been cut open and welded to the original trading ship. Mismatched boosters and weapons systems bristled out at odd angles, giving the whole ship the appearance of a flying scrapheap. At its underside a salvaged Tekekk transport beam was used to pick up new treasures, its connected spiralling aperture welded shut. The sparkling teal beam guided Galina’s fossil gently upward into the modified hangar entrance, which shuddered shut behind her. The exterior aperture remained ajar, but a retrofitted airlock snapped shut above it.
The trader checked the xenoarchaeological records on the ship’s computer, hoping this fossil would be worth something. He read the handhold carefully, doubting its conclusion.
The characters on the suit were Human Russian.
Pacing the room with flabby hands and feet, the trader hummed an old Human song and thought about his record collection. The handheld beeped and he flinched, catching it in mid-air.
The result: Early twenty-third century. The trader croaked happily. With this information the list of possible androids and Humans was narrowed down to a few thousand, most of which were accessible from the scattered records left behind in Human settlements. He scratched his amphibian head and pouted, itching the orange flesh around his earholes.
“If this is a real one, this rock alone could get us an entire fleet of brand-new trading ships,” he said to the room. The ship computer listened silently.
“Or a planet-ring mansion. Or a sublight drive,” he continued. His heavy, padded hands moved along the edge of the stasis chamber. The Human’s broken parts were maintained in a zero-gravity field for now, preventing their collapse. The trader tilted his head and stared at the frozen splatter of brain jutting up from the skull. He went quiet for a moment. His mood grew dark and ambitious.
“Or a fragment of timeship.”
He thought about the Tekekk transport beam below his feet. It was a lucky find, most of their ships had been melted down by now. There were no timeships on any records, just rumours that had survived between the stars long enough to become religions. Timeships were how the Tekekk got around the universe before anyone else. A timeship would make him a god.
He was getting carried away with himself. Images of blue and grey, black and red, yellow and pink spaceships zipped through his mind, almost making him forget about the fossil. He had never seen such wealth in one place, not since looting the Orakisk funeral ships. All those circuits. All those books. All that gold. He was drooling now. He shook his head and returned to reality. The fossil waited behind the stasis field, ancient and perfect. The handheld kept chugging through the data, glitching every now and again as if to remind him that it too was salvaged a long time ago.
A new result: Data chip in the spine.
This was not conclusive proof it was Human. Androids had the same chips in the same places. To make matters worse, this ship was not equipped to translate the data.
Solemnly the amphibian climbed to the next floor, pacing the boardwalk in the cargo hold, dragging fat webbed fingers along the safety rails and pondering. He ordered the computer to put some songs by his namesake, Duran Duran, on the intercom. The computer obliged, and Duran the trader began to meditate on his predicament.
“Need more data,” he told the ship’s computer. “We have so much treasure here, if only we could sell it.”
He croaked loudly in frustration, rattling the railings.
“But who to sell to?” he spun on his wide feet, dancing to the song. The computer sent a list of potential buyers to his handheld. None of them were promising.
He could take the fossil to the black market, where its value could be inflated, but he would be at risk. If the thing was worth trillions, he would no doubt be spotted and killed off by some roving warlord who saw no benefit in honouring the transaction. They might pay him first, then bounce the money back after putting a hole through his head. No, that route was too risky.
“Unless I took a faker,” he told himself. “Get them to pay up and escape.” He stopped short. It was a stupid idea.
But Duran couldn’t go the official route either. The official route meant having the artefact claimed by some government agency, never seeing any money. He was in an owned quadrant anyway. Anything that was drifting here for the last few thousand years wasn’t his to take.
If the scan was correct, this Human was much, much older than the owners of this quadrant. But it wasn’t worth the risk. Any low-level agency would argue their rights to the thing. Any smart agency would pretend the thing was younger than it was. Any really smart agency would find some way of impounding his trading vessel and accusing him of tampering with items of historical importance. They might claim the fossil needed a second opinion, and ‘lose’ it during transport. And any agency with that sort of power was likely working with the warlords anyway. Duran might wind up thrown out of the same airlock.
He looked again at the lettering on the burnt scrap of spacesuit, at the crushed Human skull and the brain explosion frozen in time. Through the glistening opalescent surface of the containment field, the fossil felt like something in an old movie. He squinted at the skull as if he might have a hope of telling if it was Human or android with his own eyes. If it was android, it might buy him a new sensor cluster or salvage claw. If it was Human, then the thing was the single most valuable find in his fifteen-decade career.
“How much are real Humans worth again?” he asked the ship’s computer. She sent the reply silently to the handheld, as she always did when Duran had music playing. He read the numbers silently in his head, which felt as if it might implode under the pressure of imagining them,
“I could buy a planet,” he gasped, “A planet made of starships. Timeships even. All of them stacked together like a continent. Just like the stories.”
He asked around. The trade vessel had nobody on board that could read the letters. One young Hyhsks knew it was Russian, but only from his memory of his kleptomaniac mother. He couldn’t read the stuff, only recognise it. A few more of them had their own ideas about it, similarly trivial.
The Hyhsks, the trader thought, were generally useless when it came to anything beyond general knowledge. Most of them knew a bit of something about everything, but almost none of them knew much about anything specific. They also slept too much, and their fur got on everything. They smelled bad too, and they had a proclivity toward casual violence that was unbecoming in a civilised trading vessel such as this. But, Duran thought, this was useful when pirates wanted to pull parts off the ship.
The trader returned glumly to the cargo hold and reached a decision. He could not trust governments or pirates or even other traders. He would take the fossil to the only place it would be treated properly. It was to go to the museum system, where even if it would be undervalued, it would at least be properly examined. If it was really what he thought it was, it would only be right to transfer it directly into Their careful hands, rather than through the endless clumsy bureaucracy of galactic government. If he didn’t like the price offered, he could always default to the pirates. That is, if They let him leave.
Duran made a coffee, using a Human recipe, and held it with shaking hands. They were not something he had ever planned to encounter. But for a treasure as valuable as a Human fossil, there was simply no other option.
He spat the first mouthful out over the cargo hold floor. Somehow one of the Hyhsks had got their fur in the coffee maker. He fished out the hair and drank the rest of the coffee, all two litres of it, and frowned at the thought of Humans taking it from tiny cups. Why they would punish themselves in such a way was beyond him. True coffee, good coffee, could only be properly appreciated by the litre, in much the same way a well-written poem becomes refined through its association with other poems in a collection. It was the building of an image, an experience. Small cups of coffee were pointless, like individual pixels outside their context.
Duran nodded and croaked at his own wisdom, putting the empty coffee chalice down. It had at some point been used for transporting cloned embryos, but he had cleaned it since.
He ordered the machine to heat up another litre and drank it quickly and nervously. The owners of the museum planet were ancient and secretive. They collected anything that hadn’t been collected before, including guests. Duran had to hope his species had already visited once before. Otherwise, They would surely want to keep him. He thought about what he knew about Them, asking the ship computer to remind him of any critical details. They had no name, no form, and no past. Whilst some theorised that They had taken to keeping planet-sized museums as a spiritual remedy for the harrowing existential void of Their own past, it was obvious to Duran that the curators of the museum world did have a rich history behind Them, but that They kept it a closely guarded secret. Any civilisation so determined to catalogue every living thing would surely dive into their own prehistory.
So why hide it? They held forbidden knowledge on countless unknown civilisations. They likely knew where the last timeships went, whether or not the Tekekk were really extinct, how far the Atanattat empire had stretched, how many parallels had been cracked open. Their knowledge could change the universe.
As far back as records went, They were always there on that planet, always collecting, always watching, always silent.
“What are They hiding?” Duran asked the universe.
“Everything,” the ship computer replied.
“I don’t like that reply,” Duran grumbled.
“Would you like me to employ a less emotive personality?” the computer asked gently.
“You can get even less emotive?”
Parts two and three will be coming soon in the form of a free eBook. But before then, if you haven’t heard, there is going to be a sequel to WHO BUILT THE HUMANS?. I announced it last night. If you missed that post, check it out here.