2947-03-12 - Tales from the Inbox: Salvage Surprise

“Would you look at that, Skipper. Ever seen anything like it?”

Donato didn’t answer Ainsley’s question right away. The rest of the crew loitered behind him, sifting through the earth and rock which they had just finished blasting away from the odd object buried in the hillside or snapping stills of what their prospecting had turned up.

Donato hadn’t seen anything like it, but he knew what he was looking at. The find was a potential gold mine, but it was also potentially a disappointment; so close to Maribel, it was highly likely the towering artifact had already been found and plundered by a previous wave of human explorers.

Even so, Donato salivated at the chance for a payout. The relic had been completely buried, visible only as an odd concentration of titanium and tantalum on their ship’s high-tech geoscanner. Though the artifact’s metal content was valuable enough, the little prospector ship and its crew of five couldn’t hope to lift it out of planetary orbit. Even if they could, the Navy would confiscate it for examination the moment they towed it into any civilized system. The value of the find wasn’t the titanic cylindrical shell which now loomed before them – the equally cyclopean doors, reminiscent of a cargo shuttle’s bay covers, inspired Donato’s visions of a quick fortune. “What have we got to get this open?”

Fields, the crew’s explosives expert, was the first to speak. “We’ve got plenty of thermite cord, but who knows how fragile the stuff inside is? Why don’t we try to wedge it open by hand first.”

“If there’s anything inside at all.” Traverse, always the pessimist, kicked a chunk of rock away from the base of the object. “I just hope what’s inside doesn’t wake up hungry.”

Ainsley, always high-strung, gasped. “You surely don’t think-”

“This has been here for a long time, Ainsley.” Fields’s interruption likely forestalled a full-blown panic attack. “Look at that corrosion. Titanium doesn’t do that unless it’s super-heated. This thing fell from orbit with no brakes. If there was anyone inside, the landing would have fixed that.”

“Then why was it in a hill, not a crater?” Traverse shot back, a wicked glint in his eyes. Donato frowned, knowing that the pilot was once again enjoying an opportunity to tweak the panicky junior member of the crew. “Almost like someone buried it after it landed.”

“A coffer full of buried treasure would be our lucky day.” Donato tried to bring the conversation back to practical matters. “We just need to-”

“And a coffin for something they couldn’t even kill by throwing it from orbit, we would find a new way to die on the Frontier.” The immediate response was delivered in Ainsley’s direction rather than Donato’s. “Maybe it will be our lucky day, and it would eat us quickly.”

“It’s perfectly safe in the ship, Traverse.” Santiago, the usually-quiet mechanic, suggested.

“Nah, open it up. I’ll just stand in the back.” Everyone on the crew knew that whoever was present for the division of spoils would, by the laws that governed salvage, be entitled to a piece of the bounty. Traverse couldn’t return to the ship without forfeiting his share of a potentially lucrative find.

Ainsley gulped but said nothing, apparently unwilling to let Traverse’s dire predictions scare him out of a fortune.

Donato, shaking his head, configured his Reed-Soares multitool into a prybar and stepped forward, placing its wedge tip into the seam between the leaves of the great metal hatch. Fields did the same and eventually the whole crew joined in, grunting and straining. Despite all their efforts, the doors never budged.

As the crew staggered away from the stubborn doors to recover their breath, Fields craned his neck up and followed the seams with one outstretched finger. “Think we could pull one of these doors off with a tug from the ship?”

“If that goes badly… we’re going to be here a while.” Traverse retorted. The pilot was right, Donato knew; the ship was their most powerful tool, but risking damage to its structure wasn’t an option.

Ainsley, leaning heavily on the scorched metallic bulk of the artifact, yelped and stepped back. “Skipper, take a look at this! I swear it wasn’t here a minute ago.”

The whole crew gathered around and saw that their junior compatriot was pointing to a perfectly circular groove in the ancient metal, slightly larger than an outstretched human hand.

“Might be a button.” Donato suggested, reaching out to touch the circle.

“Might ring the dinner bell.”

Despite Traverse’s snide remark, Donato pressed his hand into the circle and held it there. The whole crew went silent and watched for a reaction as the seconds ticked by.

Donato dropped his hand from the pitted metal surface. “Nothing. Fields, let’s start laying-”

Bluish, liquid light filled the groove, and Donato’s order died unfinished. As the crew watched, the light flowed upwards along a series of previously invisible lines, tracing a network of odd patterns and geometric shapes across the entire exposed surface of the artifact.

“Skipper, this thing’s not dead.” Ainsley’s tone was feeble and trembling, much like the young man himself. Donato waved everyone back, but they didn’t need much encouragement to scurry away and take cover behind the piles of debris which their own explosives had cleared. Donato, too, took cover, peering out from behind a pile of jagged stone fragments.

As soon as the light had crawled across the whole visible face of the artifact, the big double-hatch emitted a hiss of equalizing pressure and began to swing open. From within poured a thick, heavy mist, lit from within by more of the same brilliant blue light. Ainsley gasped and hid his face, Santiago crossed himself and whispered a prayer, and Traverse produced a small handgun he wasn’t supposed to have, pointing it into the veiled interior of the artifact.

Donato and the others waited for something to come out, but nothing did. The mist hugged the broken floor of their excavation, flowing downhill and dissipating into the breeze, and still the silent glare from within obscured whatever treasures or horrors they had unearthed.

Fields was the first to break the tense silence. “Skipper?”

“Yeah, let’s check it out.” Donato stood and gestured for the explosives tech to join him. “The rest of you, stay put.”

Donato crept toward the open hatchway, avoiding the sluggish rivers of pale mist which snaked between the rocks. The vapors looked like simple fog, but he didn’t want to take the chance. Fields, two steps behind, knelt to look more closely, but he too avoided touching the substance.

“What can you see?” Ainsley, obviously terrified, still kept enough of his wits about him to be curious.

Donato peered into the light, but all he got for his troubles was a set of bright discolored blotches on his retinas. “Not a damn thing. Maybe-”

Though his dazzled eyes saw nothing and there was no sound besides the breeze in the rocks, Donato paused, certain something inside the artifact had moved.

With an electric snapping sound, something lanced out of the open hatch and toward Donato’s face. He dove out of the way just in time; the energy dart passed so close that he felt its warmth on his skin, and his already protesting retinas were thoroughly overloaded.

Before he could get up, the salvage skipper felt himself being dragged away. Fields, with the help of Santiago, were pulling him away from the opening while the others fled to an even safer distance.

As soon as everyone was out of sight of the artifact, Donato batted away the hands of his rescuers and tried to blink away the spots clouding his eyes. “I’m all right. Let me up.”

“Close shave, Skipper.” Traverse muttered.

“My God!” Santiago’s exclamation drew everyone’s attention. “Look at him!”

The others turned to look down at Donato and each one gasped or muttered.

“Me? What’s-” Donato reached up to touch his face. At first, it felt normal, if somewhat inflamed by its close call with a searing energy weapon. As he brushed his fingers across his cheekbone, however, he caught sight of them between the spots in his eyes – his hand was being lit by a bluish glow. “It’s on my face! Get it off!”

Santiago’s strong hands held Donato down and restrained his arms, keeping him from clawing at his eyes.

Even as he struggled to free his arms, Donato heard Fields’s voice from somewhere nearby. “Skipper, it’s not on your face.” The explosives tech’s voice bore a too-level tone, by which Donato guessed how bad it really was. ”It’s in your eyes.”

Here at Håkøya one hears a lot of odd tales, and most of them obviously exaggerated or outright fabricated. As the fitting-out process for the Naval Survey Auxiliary installation is still very much in its early stages, most of the stories come from independent spacers - prospectors, small-freight outfits, mercenaries, private surveyors, and others. While I record such stories almost daily, few make the text feed - I research what I can, and anything that has a scrap of plausibility to it goes into the pool of items which are groomed for this space.

Today's entry may seem outlandish, but I personally interviewed Mr. Donato and secured permission to use his name. As I conversed with him, he was preparing to enter the medical wing of the station for detailed examination, bandage wrapped around his eyes more to hide the damage than anything else. As he was being rushed back from the unpopulated, arid world where his crew made their find, his eyesight returned almost completely, except that his eyes (I can personally verify this claim) remained shot with permanent, glowing blue light. The symptoms are mainly cosmetic - Mr. Donato's eyes seem to work fine despite this odd glow - but the medics will know more in a few days when they are done examining him.

One can only speculate what manner of energy blast he nearly absorbed, and what it might have done to him had it connected. The Navy sent a small patrol to secure the site of the artifact both to examine it and protect future would-be treasure hunters, but as of yet they have released no findings.