“What the frell do you mean ‘inconclusive’?”
Jass rolled the chewed-up wad of cellulose he had been munching on and spat it into the nearby recycling bucket.
The four-armed tub of barely sentient jelly that called itself a scientist shook its many chins in a way that probably indicated exasperation in whatever passed for language to its backward kind.
“I mean Jass… that the test was inconclusive! I don’t know how old it is! The solar scarring patterns on the metal are… strange.”
Jass’s second and fourth eyes tilted.
“Quantify that statement right now or I’m adding jet fuel into your rations.”
“Don’t make threats you won’t back up, jet fuel is expensive…”
Ronse shook a halfhearted fist before returning his eyes to the scope he was looking through.
“I mean the scarring is near total. Which means either there was some kind of completely unprecedented solar event that struck this thing without completely destroying it somehow… or it’s older than the test can measure.”
Jass mused, interested for the first time.
“How old would that be?”
“Uhhhh… over six… hundred thousand years?”
“Right, so it ain’t that then… Better question, how much do you think we can get for it?”
Ronse shifted his bulk, moving away from the mechanism he was hooked into and pulling himself onto the mobility sling he used to get around the high gravity environment his species wasn’t accustomed to. The mismatched crewmen moved to observe their find as they spoke, peering through a grubby window at the salvage they had pulled into the cargo bay. Worker drones were currently in the process of carefully enveloping it in a field of protective energy shields to prevent degradation.
“Uh… well it’s certainly a scientific curiosity. The big selling point is the mystery… it was picked up nowhere near any civilised worlds or even stars… rogue salvage. Oh, and it conforms to no known technological basis whatsoever.”
“Estimated tech level?”
Jass mulled that over while scratching an itchy spot on his back.
S1 was the designation for technology that just barely met the minimum for achieving spaceflight. Whatever this thing was, it came from a very young species… or it was an artefact from an older one that had been lost somehow. Either way, that meant value.
“Looks like the rust merchant scrapping company is gonna finally hit a little windfall!”
He chirped, feeling confident for the first time since his last partner had left him with little more than a bottle of powerful intoxicant and a promise to murder him if she ever saw him again.
He still had the bottle, not drinking it on account of how it was almost certainly poisoned.
“Call the fence… we have a little auction to set up.”
Jass pinged the pilot on his comm while Ronse swung away, making rude hand signs as he went.
“Set a course for Hanzo station.”
He barked at the pilot, not waiting for a response.
“We’ve got some rogue salvage to sell.”
Hanzo station’s response to Captain (pffft) Jass’s message to start an auction for an unknown artefact he had trawled up from an area of space emptier than a punter’s house after the auditor leaves was met with waves of grumbling.
First, there was grumbling about the very idea that a third-rate salvager using fourth-rate equipment could ever actually find anything of value in rogue space… lightyears from anything civilised.
Then there was grumbling that he had, to the despair of the station’s many bureaucrats, submitted all the correct paperwork for a legal auction of claimed salvage. Which meant they were actually going to have to set one up.
There was a short stint of grumbling about the grumbling, followed by an even shorter grumble about the complaining about the grumbling.
Then there was grumbling of a more curious nature when information about the artefact trickled through the many social strata of the station, from the stars of the spinward spires to the lichen-licking lower levels.
Then a message came through subspace coms from the other direction and the grumbling abruptly stopped, replaced with the flurry of panic that happens in a workplace when a surprise inspection is declared.
The station was crewed and occupied almost entirely by younger races. Still bright-eyed and curious about the infinity that surrounded them. But almost all is not all, and of the twelve elder species who had been exploring space when most other races were still figuring out which end of the club made a more satisfying noise when you hit your neighbour with it, there were going to be representatives of four of them at the auction.
Within an hour, the station was a kicked beehive. Station cleaners moved items that had sat in their corners gathering dust for cycles, politician donned their fanciest robes and in the end, little actually changed.
The Rust Merchant, pride of its captain Jass the scrapper and flagship of the fleet of one that was the Rust Merchant salvage company, pulled into the station during this upheaval to very little fanfare.
The pilot said all her usual boring pilot things to whoever was on comms directing traffic, Jass swore at the deckhands for being careless with the fuel lines, and soon, the small crew was sitting in the station bar discussing their find.
Ronse shook his head slowly, the greenish drink he was cradling on his belly threatening to spill with the movement.
“Sho tech is based on bio-organics… always has been. Even their first space exploration vessels looked more like lumps of coral than this pointy thing.”
Lem, the ship’s elderly mechanic, threw his arms into the air.
“Well, who the frell can it be then!? It obviously doesn’t belong to a younger race, none of the other ancients are even close to that region of space… and all you will tell us about the solar scarring is that it’s ‘weird’”.
He emphasised the final word with a vocal upswing which indicated a quote, a racial tick the others had learned well from overuse.
Jass chuckled in that confident way you do when you know something others don’t before leaning in. His crew followed his motions.
“I’ll tell you what it is… there’s only one thing it can be.”
A pause for effect, then just before someone could tell him to stop jerking them around.
“…it’s an uncontacted species… only thing it can be.”
The expected chorus of disagreement came from the table, he let it peter out naturally. Then everyone started to think.
“If it really is… are we about to make history here?”
Alessa, his pilot questioned.
“I think so. No way it can really be over six hundred thousand years old. Only a couple of the ancients were even around then. Which means it-”
He was cut off by slapping footsteps on the grilled metal bar floor, slowed by the yell of the bartender when their owner tried to sprint up to their table.
The Merchant’s comms officer stumbled up to their table, gills flapping with the exertion.
“Big news! Really big news! You’re not gonna believe-”
“Frell’s sake Avarius, just spit it out.”
“OK, but you’re really going to be surprised.”
Jass put his drink down with a clunk that made everyone but his jaded crew flinch.
“Avarius, why did we ever make you a comms officer? Just tell us.”
Avarius looked a bit put out that he couldn’t hype everyone up like he had undoubtedly been visualising in his head.
“Oh well… there are going to be ancients at the auction… four of them.”
Ronse immediately started to choke on the drink he had been sipping while Alessa lightly tapped his back sympathetically.
Jass started turning some very interesting colours.
Many things occurred to him to say, but in the end, only one thing ended up coming out.
Arranged to cover ninety degrees of a circle that swallowed the auction room.
Twelves seats, for twelve ancients.
Jass wondered when the last time was that all had been occupied, a gathering of the ancients.
The only thing that sprang to mind was the end of the titanoclasm, when warring eldar species were finally dragged to the negotiating table… whether they wanted to be there or not.
Jass stood in the forefront of the lower seats that faced them, the subject of their scrutiny. Between him and them lay the subject of today’s fuss.
A metallic object, suspended in a gravity field to maintain its structure and prevent damage. It didn’t look all that remarkable, a white concave circular shape, some antennae.
It took tracking a ping smaller than an Antarian’s respect for the sanctity of life to find the thing against the backdrop of space. Only a scientific scan and uncovering the total lack of historical records revealed its unusual nature.
That, and they found it so far into the middle of nowhere that it circled back around to being notable, like finding a completely ordinary fish in the middle of a vast desert.
The bidders flowed in one by one, Jass took careful count. There were forty-seven individuals, representatives from seventeen different species all up.
Even knowing what was coming, he couldn’t help but moisten his lips in anticipation.
This was more than curiosity, more than interest. This was want.
He had something these people all wanted. The touch of greed tickled the back of Jass’s neck, making the fine hairs stand up. Play his cards right today and he might even leave here pocketing enough cash to retrofit the merchant, get more range, and better cargo space. Move up in this harsh galaxy.
Then a wave of silence in the bidding hall carried his thoughts of conquest away with it.
The younger species stood as one, a sign of respect that went back further than anyone could remember, and in they came.
The Marsun was first. Simian in appearance, with greyish cybernetics attached all over itself. Supposedly Marsun machinery was eons ahead of what the younger races could achieve, nothing less would be expected of an ancient.
A lumbering Vorlan followed, encased in a massive environmental suit. Little was known about the enigmatic creatures.
Then a sho. An organism resembling a floating amalgamation of crystals; it was impossible to determine the border between the parts of the technicolour mess of its body that was part of it and what was its technology. Jass hid his emotions, but quietly congratulated himself on being right again, no way was this thing sho tech.
Finally, there was the Antiskard.
A tall and slender humanoid with a greyish crest that tilted back from its head. It moved slowly, occupying the seat that was only one removed from the very centre.
The second oldest species in the known universe, the Antiskards were a special case. Essentially the first among equals when it came to the ancients, with only the oldest, the owners of that vaunted central chair being higher.
But they, of course, rarely participated in galactic politics.
Jass swallowed his nerves, and the bidding began.
He had been hoping to pocket something in the realm of eighty thousand union credits.
His eyes grew steadily moister with emotion as the competing price among the collection of scholars and scientists climbed above one fifty.
The mere presence of the ancients was making the auction something more than a simple sale. There was an element here he was unaware of. Maybe those bidding didn’t know what was going on either, only that it was something important.
This was the kind of profit that would take Jass six months to gather normally. He surreptitiously peered behind him at his crew, seeing equally hungry looks in the various faces of the motley bunch. There weren’t two among them that were the same species, but in that moment, they were as unified as any band of brothers.
The bidding came to one hundred and ninety thousand credits and stalled, the auctioneer asked for any last takers and gave the silence time to propagate. But just before she could bring the hammer down…
“I have a bid to make.”
It was the Vorlan, its voice coming from the other side of an advanced translator unit that betrayed nothing about the speaker’s attitude, gender or even species.
During the entire bid, the four ancients had done little but occupy their four chairs and stare at the rogue artefact. There was nothing to say they were communicating, discussing it on channels that probably used transmission methods unknown to anyone else in the room. But Jass knew they were.
The Vorlan triggered a small mechanism on the side of its cybersuit, causing a small compartment to slide out. He withdrew a small container from it, transparent, with tapered ends.
Within was a ship, rendered in such exquisite detail you would be impressed unless you knew what it actually was. Then you would be really impressed.
The Vorlans were masters of compressing space, folding matter in ways that physics really should prohibit.
That wasn’t a model of a ship… it was an actual ship.
“The Vorlan consortium bids a… galaxy-class container ship, fully operational.”
The Vorlan hesitated over the classification, clearly trying to parse in galactic common what the ship was called. Jass’s mind would surely be tossing over what it might sound like pronounced in the ancient’s alien tongue if it wasn’t so busy struggling to comprehend that statement.
There was a very brief pause. A lull in the room while the collected races processed the bid… then pandemonium broke loose.
Jass and his crew stood in the middle of the semi-panicked shouting, gaping shamelessly.
A galaxy-class ship was a Vorlan design that integrated technology no young race could even comprehend, let alone recreate. A cargo hauler that could gather and move insane quantities of material, was virtually indestructible and like all Vorlan ships, could access phase space, tunnelling through the universe much faster than the warp drives of the Merchant.
Its value was…
Jass didn’t know, he couldn’t recall a price in credits ever being placed on ancient ships.
It was priceless. There were pirates, governments and private interests who would trade almost anything to get their hands on one.
As though infected with fungal plague, Jass turned on a stiff neck to regard the rogue artefact again.
What the hell was it?!
The Vorlan prompted, hurrying the proceeding along. The auctioneer, a Mimoth like Jass, cleared her throat.
“Uh- um… yes. Any… any counterbids on the… galaxy-class asset?”
A silence that nobody really expected to be filled.
“Then the items is sold, to the Vorlan ambassador.”
In the wake of the auctioneer’s declaration, the chaos started up again. Witnesses and bidders jostled for place, shouting across the room to try and make their very important opinions known on what had suddenly become a historic auction.
The container was handed to Jass, giving him a chance to examine the ship within.
It was beautiful.
Elegant curves and lines gathered to form a speartip of captivating design. With the spacial compression technology on board, you could probably fit a large city within. The rust merchant would be able to comfortably dock without even occupying one of the larger bays.
Jass was now an insanely rich man, he held the vessel like it was his newborn.
The Vorlan stood, obviously planning to examine its prize.
Then a flash blinded the room.
Jass was lucky enough to have his lower eyes closed, so he simply opened them, closing his upper ones to recover from the blinding light.
That was why he was probably the first to see what had just appeared in the room.
Behind the central chair on the ancient’s dias were two golden figures.
Standing at something close to nine feet tall each, they were draped in silvery robes with no skin showing, just a reflective metallic sheen of something that was probably not metal at all.
They wore steeped, avian helmets, tilted at a slight angle. Each carried a spear a little taller than they were in their right and left hands respectively, making a mirror image of one another.
Jass knew what they were immediately. So would everyone else.
The most powerful land combatant in known existence. There was no tank, no combat walker, and no heavily armoured cyborg that could compete. Each of these beings was a walking army.
More importantly, was what they heralded.
Because the seraphs were only ever seen in the company of their creators.
At the exact moment when everyone had recovered from the light, just enough to be staring in dumb awe at the sudden intruders. A second, smaller and more contained burst of energy occurred directly before the central seat.
Never mind that teleportation technology is something even the ancients have struggled to master.
Never mind that they were in a shielded and private room where a precise micro-teleport should have been utterly impossible.
All of a sudden, the humble auction house of a backwater station was host to the eldest of the ancients, a species that was exploring the universe before any other had even evolved speech.
A female human stood before her rightful chair and appraised the room.
Like her bodyguards, there was nothing visible under her garments. She wore a flowing robe of white and grey, topped by a smooth oval helmet, featureless in front with an ornate designed wrought in the rear. No limbs were visible; whatever appendages, if any, she possessed were concealed beneath her robe.
The moment she appeared, a wave of emotion washed over all present, forcing some weaker-willed species to their knees.
Jass knew, academically, that he was experiencing the psychic backlash from the human. The other races sensing a fraction of a fraction of what she felt. But it felt as though it came from within.
She wasn’t looking at any of them; the featureless faceplate of her helmet was directed downward at the energy field containing the artefact. She glided forward to the edge of the railing that separated her from it.
Jass distantly noted the clear gap between the hem of her robes and the floor, she hadn’t once touched the ground since arriving.
For a long moment, nobody spoke.
Even the other ancients only stared, the arrival so incredibly unexpected that nobody had the slightest clue how to respond.
Humans didn’t come to auctions!
This was officially the most insane moment of Jass’s sixty-two cycles of life.
When her mask finally snapped over to him unnervingly, not needing to look around to see who the seller was, he felt the weight of her gaze like a physical force.
“I wish to purchase this item.”
Her voice sang throughout the room, grabbing attention with careless ease.
Jass stammered, saved from embarrassment by the fact he was apparently the only one who could speak at all.
The auction had technically ended, he was holding the price of the successful final bid in his hands.
That white helmet dipped, appraising the capsuled ship, he looked down at it too.
“For possession of this artefact, as well as all relevant tracking data and vectors, humanity offers the seller unlimited access to a starforge for a duration of no more than one cycle.”
The ship slipped from Jass’s fingers and crashed onto the ground like a discarded can of soda.
She turned on the spot, leading with her head and the rest of her gliding about to follow her until she was facing the Vorlan.
“Do you object to this?”
There was no… obvious… challenge in the words.
But Jass would not doubt it was there.
“…no. The Vorlan consortium withdraws its bid.”
The human nodded once, gracefully, then turned to Jass, saying nothing.
“I uh… I accept.”
There was little else Jass could say.
The thought was too big to fit in Jass’s head. He heard a thump on the metallic floor of the bidding hall behind him and guessed without looking that one of his crew had just passed out.
Probably Avarius; Aquans were prone to fainting when not submerged.
Also, Jass remembered, Aquans were one of the many species who evolved on a planet the humans had made with a starforge.
Jass felt his mouth dry out as that thought occurred to him.
He could make planets now.
For an entire cycle.
The rest of the proceedings went by in a blur. Jass was barely paying attention.
It was only after, when he found himself staring up at one of the seraphs, that his mind began to catch up.
“Captain Jass of the Rust Merchant.”
The human hovered between her bodyguards, dwarfed by them, but also in an undeniable position of absolute authority.
“Your assistance is required… you will take me to where you picked up the probe immediately.”
It was the tone of voice that snapped Jass back to reality.
The events up until now were almost like a dream. Impossible things happening, the sort of things you read about not in the news, but in fairy tales. Ancients bidding over a mysterious artefact found in the void between stars, a human sweeping in and purchasing it at a cost no other species could possibly hope to match.
The last time humanity had so abruptly and directly interfered in the mundane universe the rest of them lived in it was to end a war between ancients that threatened to swallow the younger races in its wake.
Somehow, Jass finding this artefact was now a discovery of equivalent importance to that historic moment.
But the tone she used was that of a manager accustomed to being obeyed.
It was a voice Jass was very, very used to. And that brought everything back to ground.
He cleared his throat, feeling as though he hadn’t used it before today.
Jass struggled not to chuckle involuntarily at the reflected mirth. The laughter he heard behind him told him some of his crew were not as successful as he was.
“-What is it? If… you don’t mind me asking.”
For a moment, she just stared at him, saying nothing.
“…It is… a very old artefact from a very old species.”
“My people are delighted to have it back.”
Jass heard Ronse splutter behind him.
The human nodded slowly.
“It’s been lost for a very long time, and it might contain a clue to something we have been searching for since before your species left its cradle world.”
The human drifted over to the artefact, her seraphs following with slow footsteps behind their master. A slender limb emerged from the folds of her robe, the first time she had revealed one. She passed through the preservation barrier as though it wasn’t even there and brushed long, delicate-looking digits against the surface of the artefact with a touch Jass could almost swear was… reverent.
Republished with permission from the author, Reddit user u/ThreeDucksInAManSuit. Image created using Stable Diffusion