Our first #SFSwap story is my own, and – in an unconscionable act of corruption – was plucked from the list of prompts before the randomisation process because I loved it so much. @Gileadamit’s prompt was pure pulp, and gave me a free pass to spew some completely unabashed space opera, including lizard men. The inspiration came from a long look at Cleopatra’s Needle on London’s embankment during a very drizzly afternoon: I would recommend the experience to anyone. The below comes with particular apologies to Alastair Reynolds.
STORY NUMBER: 1
PROMPT PROVIDER: @Gileadamit
PROMPT: Sandra and her crew are galactic graverobbers, mining the asteroid mausolea of long-dead space kings
TITLE: The speed of bad news
There would be something terrible inside the tomb.
Sandra hugged her knees and sipped from her bulb. The feeling came every time: dread was normal with the comedown from the acceleration drugs, and she was used to dismissing it like a bad smell. But sometimes it clung.
She looked out from Bright Nugget’s bridge at the Tomber King’s death mask, and shivered. As it turned slowly in Tartarus’ red twilight, the carved asteroid revealed the reptilian immensity of the King’s body, pitted by megayears of attrition.
But despite its size, this death-statue was little different from the others. In most every system with a belt, you’d find the work of the Tombers.
After achieving spaceflight, their culture had nosedived into brutal feudalism – perfect for exponential expansion, but anathema to innovation. No other species had achieved such dizzying spread, nor gone interstellar with such primitive technology.
Their generation ships had crawled at speeds twenty-first century humans would have winced at. When they arrived at a system they would ravage its asteroid belt, building a tomb for the fleet-king. After his interment, his heirs would build dynasty fleets of their own, and move on. The mausoleums would remain.
Three million years ago, they had stopped. Nobody knew why. Their ships were still out there, cruising light-centuries past their destinations, silent.
This would have been of passing interest – but they had left gold behind.
The Tombers were, as far as anyone knew, the only race besides humans ever to have valued the stuff. Whole belts’ worth had been refined and cast into grave-treasure, then left undefended.
Other civilisations scoffed at the gold rush that had kicked off when humans discovered them, but quietly: it was rude to belittle a species that had made it past the filter of nuclear conflict, and sanctions were often spared those who sniffed around the ancient graves.
Sandra and her crew made a living from it: while early Tomber finds had put enough gold into the market to devalue it massively, tomb-art was still worth just enough to keep a few Ghulmannschaften in business.
Their diminished margins demanded savage efficiency; Bao and Winston would blow the outer seals, disarm the comically unimaginative traps, then move into the burial city and locate the Sepulchri Regis. With the route flagged, drones would do the rest.
Winston screamed from the main feed and made Sandra lurch in her crash-couch.
Snapping round, she saw the old miner’s hands flail in torchlight, batting swirls in the bright dust, then something huge and toothy looming from the dark.
Everyone on the feed swore, cursed, caught their breath as Winston shoved the huge corpse aside. It was one of the builder caste, a mole-shrimp by way of an iguana, woody flesh shrunk back from a huge corundum beak. They were usually sealed into niches, slaughtered after their labours, but this one was free.
“Must’ve been knocked loose” muttered Winston, unable to hide his unease as he drifted past the builder. Bao was muttering. As usual the engineer had been anxious going in, and Lexi had taunted him for being scared of ghosts. It was the usual Russia/China stuff.
But now even Lexi, sat cocky as ever with one leg up on her battle crab, looked nervous.
“They’re loose” she murmured. Peering closer, Sandra saw she was right – the torchbeam caught on hundreds of builders, white husks drifting through the dark like fish in a night pond.
“I don’t like this” muttered Bao. Sandra growled him quiet. Nervous was fine, but verbal admission was crossing a line.
“There’s nothing sinister going on” she said, convincing herself. “You saw the crater; place took a knock at some point. Just get on and watch your step – the Regis’ll be ahead. Then you can get out.”
Sure enough, the royal chamber’s door loomed two klicks on, with its usual ring of unsettling diagrams. But where usually the lintel bore a cloud of ritualistic curses, here was a single glyph.
“Don’t go in” croaked the translator bolted to the Rotten’s glass-bubble cradle.
It was the fifth member of their crew, and stank so bad it was kept on a separate life support system. It looked worse, a horse skull emerging from a rippling fungal bloom. The Rotten were a weird species, a terrible symbiosis that horrified humans – but they were the only sysadmins that worked for free, and their species had cracked the Tomber language sometime around the siege of Constantinople.
“Why not?” snapped Sandra.
“That’s what it says above the door” barked the translator, as the misted terrarium pulsed with the clouds of insect-analogues that passed for the Rotten’s laughter.
Lexi was spooked now, huddled over her crab and stroking the straps holding its fighting claw, while Bao mumbled to himself over the comm. Thinking of forgoing a year’s pay for the sake of a king’s curse.
“Proceed” said Sandra, inviting no argument, and Winston obliged. He made it forty feet through the door before his throat closed with a squeak.
There, in the dark, floated a Tomber King. They were only ever seen as skeletons, set in sarcophagi filled with molten gold. But this one floated free, fragile, an emaciated tyrannosaur with papery skin and delicate limbs shattered at the trunk.
The spherical room, usually rammed with funerary riches, was otherwise bare.
As they registered there was no treasure, the crew clamoured to be out as quickly as possible. Lexi began arming the fusion charges to blow the place and hide their visit.
But there was something different about this tomb. The royal chamber was usually lined with carvings, every inch inscribed with royal deeds: siblings consumed as nauplii, workers killed for sport, gold amassed. Here, scrawled in haste, was a single line.
Sandra glanced at the Rotten’s dome, heard the muffled, summer-meadow buzz of its low humour.
“What does it say?” she asked, as the rest of the crew packed for retreat.
“This is all for nothing” it answered.