"Yes, I understand. We will report to you directly. Yes, I'll tell her. No, no, it's all right.
  "Yes, I hope so too." Saeed put the handset down gently, and sighed.
  "Great." He turned round, carefully avoiding the taped-together tangle of cables that floated near the comm board. The gravity on their old ship was one of the many things that needed a bit of work, and was also one of the many things that would have to wait just a bit longer. Given the conversation of the last few minutes, though, perhaps it wouldn't ever get the chance to be replaced. Saeed leaned towards the door, and yelled down the corridor, pitching his voice to carry.

  Kalle appeared through the door within minutes, looking irritated. She was dressed in a greyish dressing gown and rubbing her hair dry. It frizzed around her face as she pulled the towel away and slung it over one of the chairs, where it rested uneasily on the battered stuffing.
  "That was Exoplanet Central."
  "What do they want now?"
  Saeed looked away, bracing himself.
  "They want 'oomph'."
  Saeed sighed. "They're not happy with our results. They say if we don't find anything more.. interesting.. soon, they may have to let us go."
  Kalle's face went white, then flushed with anger.
  "What? They want what?" She spun around and kicked off the doorway, launching herself in a half-flying leap across the little cabin and narrowly avoiding the loose panel that hung disconsolately from the ceiling where its duct tape had broken yesterday.
  "We had two papers out last year! In decent journals! What, do they expect us to find a mummified alien or something? The key to the lost civilisations? What do they think we are, some kind of Indiana Jones outfit?"
  She barged into the captain's seat and reached for the comm switch. Saeed moved to intercept her motion, and caught her glare instead.
  "They'll be out of range by now anyway," he pointed out, reasonable calm in the face of her temper. "They're not expecting us to respond. And we have a ruin to examine, too." He gestured at the proximity sensor, and Kalle followed his gaze. The screen was a fuzzy grey, flickering occasionally. Exasperated, Kalle leaned over and thumped it, catching herself on the ceiling as the reaction propelled her upwards. The sensor flashed and settled into the same fuzzy grey as before, but this time showing three small dots among the flickers. Two were marked with the symbols that indicated rock and ore, but one bore a question mark and the 'semi-metallic' symbol. Her expression brightened.
  "Yes, we do! Good, I hadn't expected to arrive so soon. You get the crew up, and I want Daniel on point. It's about time he got a bit more experience."
  She spun round to give Saeed a flashing smile, anger lost in the prospect of new discoveries.
  "We don't need much more for the Xenoarchaeology Reviews paper - maybe that will convince Exoplanet Comical to give us more money."
  She breezed out of the cabin in a waft of ship-soap-scented air. Saeed looked down and sighed.
  "I don't think that will be enough this time," he said quietly, but only the ship heard him.

  The interior of the little ship was cramped and twisty, with equipment jammed wherever it could be fitted, held in - and occasionally held together - with bits of rope and gaffer tape. Health and Safety hadn't been near them for years, and the clutter of shipboard life and research overflowed the one small lab they were able to fit in the limited cabin space. Despite its obvious age, each piece of equipment showed signs of frequent use and care. There was no room for extraneous cargo; everything on board was necessary and carefully tended. Even so, age tells eventually, and most of the battered bits of technology, like the proximity sensor, were long overdue for service or replacement.
  The ship comm came on, crackling slightly. Extra loudspeakers were strung up overhead, trailing cables attached to the bulkheads with more duct tape.
  "All crew to the bridge, all crew to the bridge. We have a ruin to explore. All crew to the bridge."
  In his tiny, squashed cabin, Daniel raised his head from his book, looking grumpy. This was supposed to be his off shift, not that that ever seemed to make much of a difference. The door hissed and rattled open, and Vian, the junior post-doc, stuck her head round the door, her expression as excited and enthusiastic as Daniel's was gloomy.
  "Come on," she bubbled. "We've got another ruin!"
  Daniel sighed theatrically and dropped his book onto the bed, where it settled lazily into the covers.

  The small bridge was cramped by the four crewmembers who gathered there. Saeed wore a calm expression as always, but he was the only one. Vian and Kalle both fairly glowed with excitement and enthusiasm, while Daniel stared at his feet, wearing a badly-repressed scowl.
  "Right," Kalle started, "we have another ruin to examine. This one's all on its own, way out here, so we don't have much to go by. I want everything noted down, everything photographed - and be careful with everything!" She looked over her assembled team members.
  "Vian, I'm afraid you'll be staying here still. Your regeneration isn't complete yet."
  Vian looked downcast, but nodded. Her fingers strayed over her arms, where the skin was still tender.
  "Don't worry - you'll have a chance in a month or so," Kalle encouraged her, but Saeed looked away, knowing she was, if not lying, then at least taking a very optimistic view of their future. There might never be another ship to look at. "Stay ready," Kalle went on, "you'll be backup." She turned round, one hand on the control chair to steady her motion.
  "And for point - Daniel!"
  Daniel looked up, startled. He hadn't been paying much attention.
  "I want you in the light biosuit mech, all right? You've been on enough digs that you should know the ropes by now, and it's good experience for you." Daniel looked horrified, but Kalle, not noticing, went on. "Saeed, you take the heavy mech and go with him. Both of you take Sec-recorders - that way, if one fails, we still have a good record. I'll be intermediate; I'll wait at the ruin's entry." She looked around at her crew; Vian's determined, if disappointed expression, Saeed's inscrutable gaze and Daniel's sulkiness met her eyes. She scowled, and clapped her hands.
  "Come on, jump to it!"

  Docking with alien ships was never an easy task; many of the designs used by the long lost races were known and well-studied, but they all differed radically from each other and were not usually made to be operated by small creatures with two arms and five digits per hand. Kalle and Saeed between them had had plenty of experience operating alien airlocks, but each new one provided a fresh challenge, the first of which was maneuvering their ship into contact with the ruin without wrecking either.
  Vian's hands on the controls were nervous but steady as she matched velocity and tumble. Kalle and Saeed, by the airlock, scrambled into the large, powered exosuits. Beyond, in the semilit corridor, Daniel sulkily donned the more expensive biosuit which he had been assigned. Vian's voice came over the loudspeaker, hissing on the higher pitched syllables.
  "Ready when you are, captain."
  In the airlock, Kalle and Saeed checked each other's suits thoroughly, and closed the internal door. Daniel fiddled with his helmet, and checked over his own readings. In the cabin, Vian sat back, letting the autoguide follow the tumbling wreck, but keeping ready in case something went wrong. The readings showed her when the captain and Saeed drifted clear of the airlock, attached to the ship by slender cables.
  "Ready, Vian," Saeed's voice came over the radio.
  "Releasing grapples," Vian responded, and prodded a switch on the board. With an arthritic wheeze that only Daniel half-heard, the grapple doors opened, and the huge padded claws exited their container. Kalle and Vian caught them, controlling their velocity, and allowed themselves to float towards the wreck that, to them, waited motionless about a kilometre away. Vian held her breath.
  Saeed touched down an instant before Kalle, but his boots did not stick, and he scowled as he spoke to his recorder.
  "Non-magnetic hull," he said, and bent over to lock the grapple round the convenient protrusion he had aimed for. Not far away, Kalle locked her own grapple round a similar handle, and, anchoring herself to the wreck, started snapping photographs.
  "Grapples attached," Saeed reported to Vian, and she began slowly winding in the cables. Saeed watched carefully, but the alien hull seemed sound enough, and the Daedalus approached to the correct distance without incident. Vian shut down the cable winder and ran through the checks in the cabin.
  "All clear," she said. "I'm coming down to suit up." Saeed acknowledged her, and waited while she made her way to the airlock and got into the last exosuit. She and Daniel performed each others' checks, and she returned reluctantly to the cockpit, to sit and watch while the others explored the ruin before her. She didn't want there to be a problem, of course, but she did envy the others. Even Kalle, who as intermediate would probably not be going any further than where she stood now.
  Daniel waited in the airlock as the internal door closed and self-checked. When the button flashed green, he activated the external door, and it irised open in fits and starts. He almost wished it would jam, but it opened fully, if jerkily, allowing him a proper look at the alien wreck that floated below him. It was battered, and pocked with small craters, but his suit readings were already telling him that the space within was intact. He knew from previous reading that most ships from the Tetrarch period onwards bore a protective layer under an outer coat, but that didn't narrow down the age very much. He took a deep breath, and pushed away from the airlock, coming to rest on the hulk with a gentle impact. Saeed, six feet away, looked over; Daniel could hardly see his face, but he didn't need to. He knew the senior was wearing the gently disapproving expression he so often did.
  "Daniel," Saeed said, deep voice soft. "You didn't attach your cable to the ship."
  Daniel said nothing; he had forgotten, but he had known he had forgotten. And it was important. He bent and fumbled his cable clip out, attaching it to the hulk.
  Saeed let the transgression pass, and moved over to Daniel's side. Kalle, absorbed in her examination of an unfamiliar mechanism, had not noticed the exchange.
  "Ready to begin, Captain," Saeed said, and she turned round.
  "Excellent. Carry on," she said, and for good measure, took a picture of the pair of them standing by what they hoped was an airlock. Her postdoc and the College student on his first proper placement. It looked good.
  Saeed bent towards the putative airlock, and fiddled with the lock mechanism. It was familiar.
  "Airlock confirmed," he reported. "Functional, S-type, age unclear."
  "Go on," Kalle replied. " I'll have a closer look while you're inside."

  Inside, the alien ship was dark and cold, although neither should have mattered to the pair in their mechanised suits. Their lights made nothing of the darkness, and their suits maintained the perfect temperature for comfort, but somehow, the alien chill lurked behind each bulkhead, hiding just out of sight in the dark that fled their bright lights as they approached. And so Daniel shivered despite his suit's warmth, expecting something, not sure what, to jump out of the stealthy darkness and overwhelm them both. Beside him, Saeed, absolutely focussed, took notes, moving the Sec-recorder around to record everything. He occasionally broke the silence, but only with a comment about what he was observing, and that to the captain. Daniel, overhearing their conversations, felt left out and confused, not knowing much of what they discussed.
  "Kalle, we have some really interesting architecture here - it looks like squid-style computing, but the fixtures - what there is that's left of them - resembles that recorded from arthropodean ships."
  "Show me."
  Saeed pointed the Sec-recorder at some of the fixtures in the room they were in, a large hall with a high ceiling and odd panels and pillars around the edges.
  "You know, that might not be squid-style," Kalle said after a while. "I saw a paper once about Tetrarch period ships.."
  Daniel lost interest, but it seemed like his senior would be here for a while, and he hardly wanted to venture on alone into the vaguely ominous dark. Disconsolate, he wandered to a different corner, and poked about in the heap of stone and rubbish that nestled there, barely taking notice of the conversation taking place over the radio.
  "No, I remember the one you mean, and this looks different."
  "Well, record all the details. None of it is working, is it?"
  "We should be so lucky."
  "It has happened." Kalle's tone was light, as though the possibility of finding working alien electronics was not important. Only four functional or semi-functional ships had ever been found. Even Daniel, scarcely the keenest student in the world, knew that.
  "Oh - and I keep noticing these odd stains.."
  "Show me."
  Over in the corner, Saeed swung the camera around, focussing on the wall where black lines ran down the wall, top to bottom.
  "Oh yes.. that is odd. Can you get a sample? What's Daniel doing?"
  Saeed paused for a second. "Investigating elsewhere. I'll get the sample."
  "Well, call me when you find something else."
  Daniel sighed, bored. He kicked idly at the small heap of rubbish, and pushed himself backwards slightly. His drift through the large room was intercepted by Saeed, who had finished with his camera work. The tall senior caught his motion and stilled the pair of them with practised ease.
  "Daniel," Saeed began, "don't be upset, but why did you sign on with us?"
  Daniel was silent for a minute.
  "I wanted to go into space," he replied, "and there was room on the xenoarchaeology course at College. But this - this is just old ships and old dust..."
  He felt more than saw Saeed push them back towards the corner he had been in.
  "This is someone's old ship and someone's old dust," Saeed said, deep voice quiet in the vast stillness of the alien ship. Daniel was suddenly aware of how big the hall was, and how little their lights actually illuminated at any one time. "And look here.."
  He let Daniel go and moved on to the corner of a room, catching himself on the wall. Bending over, he picked something up and held it out, apparently heedless of its status as probable alien artifact. It glinted dully in the light of his headlamp - small, metallic, with flecks of colour here and there. It had a hole at one end, but whatever had been in it was missing now. No mechanism was visible.
  "What was this?" he asked.
  Daniel peered at the object, but it was nothing familiar. "I don't know," he admitted reluctantly, oddly ashamed to admit his lack of knowledge even thhough he was aware Saeed knew how he felt about xenoarchaelogy.
  Saeed gave him a slow grin, barely visible through his visor. "Neither do I. But it was someone's once - they used it, they left it here - and millions of years later, you find it. Isn't that even a little interesting?"
  Daniel, staring at the object, did not reply. Saeed handed it to him and moved on, smiling, to the door in the far wall of the big chamber. He pushed the switch, but the door didn't budge. There were no pads to type in the multiple overrides that had been found to work on previous wrecks; Saeed set his gloved hands to a protruding part of the door, and braced his suit against the far wall. Its servo mechanisms whined as he pushed. Daniel belatedly noticed the uneven struggle and moved to help him, shoving the object in a pocket of his suit.
  The bulkhead eased open, and air rushed in. Beyond, it was utterly dark, past even the ability of their headlamps to illuminate. Daniel, wide-eyed, poked his head in. Saeed squinted beside him, and drew in a sudden, horrified breath. He swung round to his companion and grabbed his mech bodily, hoicking it over his shoulder. Behind the door, something stirred in the blackness, but Saeed was already legging it, carrying the surprised Daniel, both shouting incoherently into their suit mikes.

  Saeed stopped behind the next bulkhead and twisted the door shut before dropping Daniel. He sagged back against the door, taking deep, gulping breaths in relief. Daniel stood up, brushing himself off and turned to face his senior, partly convinced that Saeed had lost his mind.
  "What was all that for?"
  Saeed waved a hand for space, still catching his breath for all that the suit should have done most of the work for him. His breathing, over the radio, sounded hoarse and still slightly panicked, and Daniel felt a rush of desire to get out of the abandoned, alien wreck, with its incomprehensible corridors and halls full of a dark that moved and responded. Then Saeed caught his breath, and spoke.
  "This is quite unusual," he began, "but it has been seen before. It's common on these ships to have had genetically modified creations - like bacteria - that we think they kept to eat certain kinds of garbage. They appear to have selected or engineered their creations so that they couldn't swap genetic material - whatever they used for genetic material - between them."
  Daniel's eyes were wide. He'd never come across this before, but his reading had, to be fair, been somewhat scanty. This was actually interesting.
  "On some ships, though," Saeed went on, "the selection or creation went wrong, and the garbage eaters combined somehow - symbiosis, we think - and pretty much ate portions of the ship. They couldn't eat everything - there's special plating put in the hull and the bulkheads on every ship found with the garbage eater tanks so far, so these combined eaters lie dormant when they more or less ran out of air. They're still around on some ships, and incredibly dangerous."
  Daniel's eyes widened in horror.
  "And this is one of them?"
  "Yes! It's fantastic!" Saeed clapped his gloved hands together and raised a clenched fist on high with a whoop. Daniel looked at him like he'd gone mad.
  "These growths are the last remaining life known of the aliens! They're full of information, they mean we can date this ruin reasonably well - and they're worth a fortune!"
  The wreck vibrated as Kalle bounced up, breathing hard and laughing in delight.
  "I never thought we'd find one.. they're so rare! And this means we can date this ship - it must be part of the Elliptical Transit, don't you think, Saeed?"
  "Actually, given the style, I suspect it might be a very late ship from the Orgarian Period.." Saeed required very little encouragement to begin listing his conclusions.
  "Pity we just lost a section."
  Daniel, feeling slightly excluded from their obvious jubilance, looked at the door again. Kalle nudged him.
  "Go on then - you got to get some," she said, and grinned at him expectantly.
  "Me? Why?" Daniel demanded, horrified.
  "You've got the biocontainment suit on," Kalle said, as though it were obvious. "Vian's still recuperating so she can't operate it. Give me and Saeed half an hour to get clear and then go in. It can't get you. Use the category 3 sample tube; you don't need much."
  She looked at Daniel as though, horribly, she thought of him as competent. Daniel realised then just how wrong she was, but he also realised that he wasn't about to let her know that.
  "... OK."

  The time it took for Saeed and Kalle to return to the Daedalus and release the grapples felt like an eternity to Daniel, nervously waiting by the locked bulkhead. The little ship edged away, maneuvered by Vian's light touch on the controls, with Saeed and Kalle clinging to the outside of the hull, too excited and eager to bother cycling the airlock.

  "Daniel, go ahead."
  The bulkhead hissed open at his touch, and Daniel stepped through. He had switched off his light, at Saeed's suggestion that that was probably a stimulus to the mould. The air rushed past him and into the locked chamber, but his wide eyes saw only blackness within blackness. The biosuit's expensive scanner provided, instead, what he needed; the mould lay, quiescent, about halfway to the door. Daniel edged nervously towards it, flinching every time his foot hit the deck. His suit might be supposed to be proof against the mould, but he didn't care to test it.
  Shivering, he pulled the tube out of his pocket, and the object Saeed had given him earlier came with it. He paused, knowing what it was more because it was the only other thing it could have been than by recognition.
  "These people," he said, quietly, "these aliens who left this ship here for millions of years... Did you make them leave?"
  He looked over to where the suit scanner told him the mould lurked.
  "Did you eat their ship out from underneath them? But the ship is almost intact.."
  The mould didn't reply.
  "Where did they go?" The question was quiet and not transmitted, but somehow it seemed to echo off the walls of the chamber that now belonged to the engineered lifeform of the original owners. They were gone, long gone, and he felt very small beside this monument to their ability and skill. Only the void remembered their efforts, only this wreck, hanging unremarked in space, commemorated their existence.
  The radio beeped softly, bringing him back to himself. Just outside, a small ship hung in space, festooned with people who waited eagerly for him. He was here, now, and the original builders were not. More, their mistake lay before him, waiting for him to take a sample, waiting so, perhaps, he and his might not fall victim to the same error its creators had. Daniel bent and swiftly scooped a small sample into the tube he held, and stoppered it tightly. Then, stepping out of the room and toggling the door shut against the curious goop, he switched the radio back on.
  "I have it," he said, and grinned at the tumult that greeted his announcement.

  On the Daedalus, the specimen tube was packed into a biocontainment box, keyed to the highest security. It rested on the bridge table, unremarkable in every way but surrounded by grinning xenoarchaelogists.
  Kalle slammed the handset down and turned round, grinning.
  "Exoplanet have promised us more money and a refit to find more ruins!"
  "This is new space - there could be anything out there!" Vian's eyes glowed; she'd get her ship to explore. Saeed waved squeezy bulbs on high and Kalle, seeing them marked with the rare symbol denoting alcohol, gave enthusiastic consent.
  "Saeed, you should get writing tomorrow," she added, as her second handed out the bulbs. "Forget the review for now, this is more important."
  Saeed nodded in acknowledgement, and then turned to Daniel.
  "You too," he said. Daniel blinked in surprise.
  "You should be on the paper, too," Saeed said. "After all, you found it."
  Daniel had never even considered a paper, never thought about publications or even much beyond avoiding work and getting home as soon as possible. Somehow, he found himself nodding enthusiastically. Vian drifted close to him.
  "You know that means you're going to be doing most of the writing," she said quietly, and gave him a mischievous grin.
  Daniel grinned back.
  "Fine by me," he said, and squirted champagne over his face. He spluttered and laughed with the rest of the crew, and took the tissue Vian handed him to wipe it off. Round his neck, on a cord, the small metal object thumped against his chest, and he tucked it gently inside his top, and took another drink.

toothycat.net is copyright Sergei and Morag Lewis