Flash Fiction: Cold Crawl

We lived in the Bones. The view is incredible, what with a million wrecks and a trillion shreds of debris, twinkling against a backdrop of nebulas backlight and glowing from embedded stars. You could say the ghosts of a billion warriors haunt the Bones. If you like that sort of thing.

Miners, scavengers, whatever you want to call us: we scour the wrecks for valuables and raw materials. We tend to call ourselves wranglers, a term whose origins are lost – kind of like ours.

Since the prime targets in any battle are the power units that drive the ship and its weapons, and since such power units tend to be physically isolated from the rest of the ship, a lot of sailors and settlers don’t get vaporized. The bodies, often still fresh in their suits no matter how long they have floated in icy space, we slap a microthruster on and nudge toward an eventual rendezvous with a nearby star. When we have the time and the spare microthrusters. Seems like the right thing to do.

On this side of the Cold Crawl there is territory worth having. This side is one of those rare oases of interstellar calm. Dozens of yellow stars near 1 standard mass; background radiation is tolerable with minimal magnetic shielding; nearly a hundred workable if not already livable planets. Close, but not too close. Good solid civilizations have lived in this little bubble, hardly 20 cubic light years, for millions of years.

The other side is not quite so nice, and not nearly as densely packed with habitable planets. Conquerors or settlers – remarkable how alike these classes are in practice – inexorably explore and push their way through the nebulas, in those comparatively cold parts where dust and debris shield them from the background radiation. At least three stars blew, those many millions of years ago, and their shock waves and nebulas interacted to create dead spots. Those shifting passages we call the Cold Crawl.

A thousand great battles have been fought right here in the Boneyard, where the Cold Crawl clears the nebulas. It’s the logical place to take a stand in defense of the bubble, the only place an attack from the direction of the galactic core can realistically come from. The conquerors/settles come in their millions, in their thousand ships, are met there by the defenders of the bubble.

Plenty of planets and resources on either side, really, but when has that ever stopped anyone? Empires conquer or get conquered, certain as the law of gravity. And so an economy of sorts has arisen. We junk wranglers fertilize the growth of the this pocket republic (a republic this week, at least) with the bones of a million ships.

Microthrusters are darn handy. Stick one or more on a part or a meteor or a body, tell them where you want them to go, and they take care of the rest. If it’s close by, might only take an hour or a week. Tell them to go to a star a half light year away, and it might take a few thousand years – but they will do it. We found crates of the things on a dead freighter when I was a kid. We’ve sent many a dead warrior to his own stellar pyre, and still have thousands of the things left. We slap them on smaller wrecks and let them reel them in. Darn handy.

The supply of wreckage never ends. It was only 11 standard centuries ago – yesterday, in space – when a long banished Usurper from the Outlands and his puppet emperor decided, in the name of the Empire’s gods, to take over the Empire and reinstate traditional Order. Ten thousand ships, so the story goes, crept through the Cold Crawl, and met the Master General, with 10,000 of his own. That epic battle restocked the Boneyard.

After 11 centuries, most of the things on board the wrecks that were going to spontaneously explode have already done so. We hope. None of us have gotten killed yet. Harvest has been good. For generations, my clade has grown fat.

Lucky us.

Nobody knows how many battles have taken place in the Boneyard, or for haw many years. We still come across tech we’ve never seen before from some battle unknown ages past. About 100 million standard years, give or take, is a popular guess.

My clade has a nice rotator, with a nice solid .9 g out on the rim. 315 of us live there, not a freak or a stretchy among us. Took us a couple centuries to build. Our power array orbits the red giant. Probably good for a few more millennia, at least.

But we’re most proud of our Gatling spinnies. We have three, top drawer, two deployed and powered up at all times. Nobody is messing with us. Until that one day they did.

I’d never seen a ship like that before, black and thin as a razor. It approached like a thin black line, some unfamiliar tech masking its approach. Somehow, it disabled the spinnies.

In the vast volume of the Boneyard, we wranglers some times come across the remains of tech nobody alive has ever seen before. Creatures not like us, not biologically human, seem to have fought over this same turf time out of mind. Sometimes, scavenger diagnostics will even figure out what it is, before some slipup kills them. My guess is we were being raided by just such a lucky wrangler.

Our scanners told us that they had us. Any attempt to power up weapons would mean instant death. And they’d already taken out two of our spinnies.

We were negotiating surrender, or, really, how soon and painfully they would kill us. We scavengers can’t leave a raid unavenged. It’s not how the game is played, at least not for long. So if you’re going to raid another wrangler, you might as well exterminate the clade, because you’ll need to kill them all sooner or later. All the parties involved knew this.

A synthesized voice came over the comm. “Send your stores over now, and we’ll let you live.” A blaster shot neatly sliced a small corner off our rotator’s hub, the piece of glowing metal spiraling off into the blackness. “Any more delay, and we will not be so kind.”

Our storehouses, per common practice, are at the ends of long arms radiating out from the rotator’s core, perpendicular to the Wheel. The doors opened, and a slow parade of salvage started slowly toward the attacker. Unless they really liked our rotator, they would wait just until the last item cleared the doors, then slice us up. We become more raw materials.

The nondescript crates and boxes, each with a dozen or so microthrustors, marched past. On one box was a body in a suit.

Nobody really likes to do it, but sometimes a suit is special. Sometimes you evict the late occupant and keep it. So seeing a suit in with the scrap was not so unusual.

This was not one of those times. Scanners showed nothing, no life in the suit and nothing powered in the box. We sometimes found cool ancient tech ourselves.

The box and the body on it got nearer and nearer to the attacker’s ship, until it was only a hundred meters away, beneath cargo doors that had just opened.

The plan became clear. The suit’s owner was waiting to get into what should be a blind spot in the attacker’s defenses. Right in the ship’s belly, with the doors’ wings blocking any clear shot. Just as the last crate was about to clear our warehouse, something came alive one the scanners. The box and its rider separated. The box accelerated as fast as several dozen microthrusters could push it, the rider shot like an arrow in the opposite direction.

“You displease u…..” began the synthesized voice, right as our backup gatling spinny simultaneously obliterated the box it as in and lit up the inside of their cargo bay.

Thousands of tungsten slugs tore through the attacker’s ship in an instant, then the spinny, overheated, blew.

The lone figure in the suit, flying at reckless speeds, entered the cargo bay just ahead of the debris from the shredded, exploded ship. She flew up the radiating arm under power, flipped and blasted to a halt as the armor door slammed shut.

That was some flying. I’m proud of my daughter.

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Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

4 thoughts on “Flash Fiction: Cold Crawl”

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