When there’s so little of humanity left, relics become deeply important. One person decides to repatriate one.
“And now, the one you’ve all been waiting for. Lot 386: a one-of-a-kind, printed book from Sol 3. Now, printed Terran books are rare enough, given what happened there, but this one – whoo-whee! This story incorporates their grey concept of good and evil, hints at some of their religious ideas, and encapsulates their dark humour beautifully. This is a well-read copy, but all of its pages remain intact, uncommon in a book of its age. Who will open the bidding at 10,000 platines?”
I had to have it. I’d used all my guile to be invited to this closed, shadowy auction – here, they trade in the trinkets of dead civilisations, private collectors from across the quadrant coming to scoop up all that’s left of them. Usually, these auctions gained little attention outside of their intended audience, one of the conditions being absolute silence on the existence of such auctions and their locations.
This, though… I’d picked up a tip from a trader on Proxima, a guy who owed me more than a few favours, that the book had been found on a derelict Terran cargo hauler and would be up for sale at the next dark auction. He thought it might be something I’d like, a piece of my home going on into the future. Instead, I was livid – the few of us left in the galaxy, homeless and unbound, would have been able to celebrate another small part of our culture that wasn’t simply crushed, castrated or carried away into the bleak blackness of space.
Imagine your civilisation had almost entirely been eradicated by a plague created by an itinerant species to remove indigenous populations from their target planets, so they could harvest it in peace; imagine you were one of the remaining few – an unexpected emergence of immunity in a subset of the population – and, as a child, had seen your parents, neighbours, leaders fight back, almost eradicating the invaders and stealing their ships to add to the Terran fleet and take out those hiding in orbit; imagine, once up there, seeing the swan song of the species that the less-than-a-percent of us who had survived had, in a mirroring of their impact on us, driven to the edge of extinction: a quantum bomb dropped coldly into the atmosphere, watching helpless as it burrowed into the core of the planet, before attempting (for some, futilely) to jump to light before the implosion. Sol is now a system with two stars, the destabilisation of the gravitational constant slowly destroying the rest of the system, feeding what was once Earth with rubble and gas.
If you’d seen all that, you’d want a piece of home too.
I don’t have 10,000 platines. I don’t even have 10 – 10,000 was more than two years earnings for most of us haulers. I’d already known this before I walked into the room.
I wasn’t there to buy the book.
I was there to steal it.
“250,000 platines to my left; do I hear 300,000?”
The quick flash of digital tokens registered the next flurry of bids, taking the price of the book to over half a million. That was retirement money. Retirement on a very, very nice, terraformed and protected asteroid. The sort of retirement which would cover three generations – their kids and grandkids wouldn’t ever have to work either. Inevitably, it would have been found by a poor hauler, as the byways of the galaxy weren’t frequented by passenger ships or research vessels.
Thus, I resolved to pilfer the book after the buyer had paid up and taken it off-site. But, to achieve this, I needed to know who the purchaser was, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to trace them. And so, here I was, wearing my best suit and some borrowed prosthetics, lest they realise my heritage and become suspicious.
“Aaand sold! For 785,650 platines to the gentlefolk from Arcadia, bidder number 916. That concludes today’s auction; all winners, please make your way to the collection zone. Those who haven’t taken a prize today – good luck next time!”
The collection zone was unsecured, the auction house reasoning that, once they’d received payment and handed over the goods, they were not responsible for the ongoing cost of protecting your purchase. Most people brought their own security – secured drop boxes, looming bouncers, direct drone transports. The winner of the book had opted for all three of these; I observed them enter the zone with the drone carrying the drop box and the two blundering bodies behind looking furtively in all directions. So obviously new to the game – poor observational skills, barely noticing those looking at this transaction. Idiots. Now I knew what the drone and dropbox looked like; I still needed the passcode to access it, otherwise it would be utterly impenetrable – these boxes were designed to transport government secrets between planets, they’d survive a supernova.
“You’ll need to do your research, kid. You won’t be able to shoulder-surf the code off that one, not in those circumstances.” The trader-with-the-tip had given me the heads up about the security measures they intended to employ; Captain Wild wasn’t convinced. “How will you work out their random code?”
“Usual drill for anyone – think about what they might value and go from there.”
Quickly, I returned to the docking bay. The Arcadian shuttle was still there, unattended. The drone would take the dropbox into orbit where the shuttle would intercept it, a mechanism which would allow the drone’s inbuilt weapons to protect the box without damaging the shuttle. The easiest way to grab the box, therefore, was at the point the shuttle and the box met one another, after the drone’s shutdown had been completed, without any other security to deal with other than the code.
I swapped into my EVA suit and hid in the beams of the bay. I’d need to move fast to pull this off.
The Arcadians returned shortly after, gliding into their shuttle as only the extraordinarily rich can do, dark satin cloaks drawing behind them. The rookie security entered first and last, protecting both ends of the delegation. As the shuttle door rose into position, like the drawbridge of an ancient castle, I ran. Across the bay, hiding in the shadows, until I reached the rear of the craft. There, I grabbed the safety handle, clipped my EVA tether to it, and held on tightly – this was going to be a bumpy ride.
Take off was a breeze; the initial acceleration was more of a gale; the ramp up to break orbit was akin to being chained to a concrete floor three inches from the fan in a wind tunnel. Even through the transparent mask of my EVA suit, I could feel the weight of it angrily pushing against me, as if another burly-but-brainless member of the security team was out here with me, fighting to prevent my victory.
I clung to that handle like it was my mother’s hand.
The sky began to darken as we passed through the upper layers of the atmosphere; the pressure waned and was replaced by its opposite. I could see the flashing lights of the drone up ahead; I would need to move quickly now. The shuttle would inevitably have an automated system for package retrieval; all I needed to do was grab the package before it went in and replace it with something appropriately sized – they wouldn’t check until they arrived home, as the system would just register the collection of the item and their arrogance wouldn’t allow them to consider that someone could’ve intercepted it.
Thus, the best (and most dangerous) part of the plan came to fruition.
“Look, I’m not saying that I don’t understand – really, I do. But how do you think you’re going to pull off a suborbital heist like that, kid? In space, with nothing there except their security?”
I’d smiled at him, the Captain of the ship we’d ended up on all those years ago, beatifically and simply replied, “Exactly.”
The shuttle pinged the deactivation routine to the drone and it’s lights went out. It automatically released the dropbox; seconds later, a hatch opened and an auto-grip descended. I moved with the speed of a cheetah: I gently pushed myself in the direction of both the box and the drone; at this height, I still had a little gravity on my side, enabling me to drift slowly. My EVA tether pulled taught just as I reached them both, the grip eeled behind me in the same direction. Quickly, I pulled the dropbox towards me and tugged my tether, allowing me and the box to drift backwards; the grip, finding nothing else, snapped its jaws around the deactivated drone and began to winch itself back into the shuttle. Sensing it was time, I unclipped my end of the EVA tether from my suit and watched the final motions of the Arcadian retrieval. The moment the grip hatch closed, drone safely ensconced within, they jumped to light.
Nobody could hear my laughter but me.
Captain Wild picked me up just over half an hour later, dropbox and all. The beat-up cargo hauler he was punting around in nowadays was half a century old, but it had an aerodynamic, almost aquiline charm about it. Plus, he had worked hard to earn his shipping lanes passcodes, meaning a quick swing by this remote planet was not out of the ordinary – even if it was the same ship twice in a day, even if it was on an auction day, and especially given nobody beyond the ultra-rich were meant to know that these auctions even happened at all. I was scooped into the loading bay airlock – all the better to eat me with – and we, too, went to light.
The post-shower debrief was electric. I recounted the tale to the crew, skipping dull bits and embellishing others. The box sat in the middle of the briefing table, conspicuously unopened.
“Makes no odds how you got it if you can’t get into it though, kid.” Wild wasn’t wrong.
“I took your advice, Captain. I did my research.”
“What, prey tell, did you unearth?”
“Simply that Arcadians aren’t motivated by culture. They’re solely motivated by money and capital value. They’re also hilariously arrogant – they like simplicity and live in the knowledge, however inaccurate, that security isn’t a problem for them.”
Into the dimly lit number pad, I dialled 386916785650. The panel turned lime.
“Oh, and they often like to go with simplicity – codes, for example, tend to be numbers fresh in the mind.”
Unceremoniously, the side of the box fell open. Smiling, I reached in and withdrew the book, holding it up for the assembled remnants of humanity to see.
There, in my hand, was an almost priceless, and well-thumbed, copy of Good Omens.
Follow my main account in the Fediverse: @email@example.com