Junker Joe

A Sci-Fi Short Story written by Simon Kewin

Junker Joe

by Simon Kewin

 

Simon Kewin is the author of over 100 published short and flash stories. His works have appeared in Analog, Nature, Daily Science Fiction, Abyss and Apex and many more. He is also the author of a growing number of novels. He lives deep in the English countryside. Find him at simonkewin.co.uk

Joe caught the faint echo of the hulk on his ship’s sensors. Excitement buzzed through him, a thrill that never got old. Goddamn sweet. No way was this a lump of space rock. No mistaking those clean lines even through the fuzz of the cracked display. A ship. The shattered remains of a ruined spacecraft. A huge spacecraft.

A thing of goddamn beauty. To a junker like him, the most beautiful sight in the whole wide universe.

“This is it, Avi. I told you. Sweet Jesus, this is the one. At last.”

He still talked to Avi. Like she was there on the Orpheus with him. Like she was still alive and not buried beneath ten thousand tons of asteroid a million kilometres and thirty years away in the Belt. She’d died and he’d carried on talking to her, that was all. No one else to talk to out there anyway.

Finger trembling, he plugged the hulk’s coordinates into the Nav system and hit the engines. The Orpheus rumbled as the drive lumbered into life … and then glitched out, plunging him into darkness.

“Goddamn.”

He sat there for ten, twenty seconds waiting for the ship’s systems to restart. There was no silence like that inside a dead ship alone in deep space. He could feel his body heat being sucked into the hungry void as the Orpheus drifted. Damn ship was barely more spaceworthy than the shattered warships he scavenged. There was so much epoxy patching up the microimpact holes in the hull there was barely any of the original carbon left. The Orpheus was a ragtag wreck of welds and fixes and jury-rigs. Just like him. They were both broken-down hulks past their time. Man and spaceship.

It was a marvel either of them still flew. In thirty years he’d taken apart and fixed up every system on her. Including life-support. And doing that without the luxury of a spacedock was no joke. Avi always said he could fix anything. She’d done the drilling and he’d kept the rig functioning. That was how it had worked.

He’d often thought about going back to the Belt. Give up being a junker. But there were too many ghosts. Too many memories. And it was far too dangerous. What was the average life-expectancy of a miner? One year? Two, tops? He and Avi had lasted four. Waste of goddamn time, anyway. Maybe one in a thousand struck lucky. The rest simply struck out, sooner or later. Even Avi, who was the smartest miner he’d ever met. Avi who could smell a mineral deposit from orbit. Even she had died.

No, out here he was his own man. He was free. Free to die a lonely, lingering death, sure, but still free. Free to talk to his dead, beautiful wife, too, if he felt like it, and no one to tell him he couldn’t.

Emergency lights finally flickered into life, bathing him in a red glow. Machinery hummed and whirred as the Orpheus rebooted. No rumble from the engines, though. Panic flared within him. Not panic he was going to die. He was used to that. That was his regular day-to-day existence. This was the much worse: the fear he was going to live to see some other junker spot the wreck and get there before him.

He wasn’t going to let that happen. This might be his last shot, his last roll of the dice. The pot of gold at the end of his rainbow. He was getting old. You couldn’t patch up failing systems indefinitely. This wreck was his. His and Avi’s. They’d vowed never to give in the day they left Earth. Vowed to stick at it until the end. And now here they were.

With a cry of frustration, he pounded the display screen. Starships were delicate, complex mechanisms, requiring a high degree of technical competence to maintain. Sure. And sometimes you had to whack them to show them who was in charge.

The Orpheus refused to burst into life.

“Come on you heap of junk. We need to move!” He struck harder, picking his spot this time. A control array he’d patched up more than once was under the display. Some connection still loose, maybe.

The drive sulked for another couple of seconds, just to make a point, then grumbled into life.

Taped beside the screen was his only picture of Avi, printed on actual paper. Bright sunlight shining on their young faces. The two of them at Hong Kong Station, that day they left. It was the picture he talked to, not thin air. He wasn’t goddamn crazy or anything. He talked to it now. To her.

“Here we go, Avi. I’m gonna go claim that hulk. For us.”

Avi smiled her usual knowing smile but didn’t reply. Joe punched in the target again, and this time the engines lurched into life. The starfield whirled as the Orpheus found its vector. The aft drive array flared. The displays thought about things for a while then gave him a readout. ETA: two hours.

He spent the time glued to the screen, terrified of seeing some other junker closing in at higher velocity. Nothing.

Thirty minutes from the hulk, still blissfully alone in the void, he began to get detailed scans. He’d assumed it would be some wrecked Earth dreadnought blasted into oblivion during the Medusa War. They’d lost a lot of ships back then. The battles had been fought over such vast distances that even now, fifty years on, there were wrecks to scavenge. Inner-system space had been picked clean, but out here in the Kuiper there was still treasure to be found. Wrecks for junkers like him to feast on.

But no. This was no human ship. No Earth dock had ever constructed anything so alien. The twisted, intersecting planes of its fuselage hurt his brain. It looked like a collision between at least three separate ships. Vast, crazy, wrong. Medusan, no doubt about it. Half of her was gone, a ragged, gaping tear where the aft section – if it was the aft section – had been ripped off in some collision or explosion.

The alien ship was weird, but beautiful in a way. If you’d drunk one too many slammers. Earth ships were clumsy and functional by comparison, all engine pods and artillery arrays and whatever else needed to be stuck on, stuck on. The Medusan ships were sculptures. Towering, twisting sculptures.

That had always troubled him. The Medusans had been cruel enemies. They’d arrived without warning, levelling stations and habs from Charon inwards, never stopping to negotiate or explain, seeking only to destroy. They were like mindless animals. Yet here were their ships, more works of art than battleships.

Still, the truth was seven Medusan ships had come close to defeating everything Earth could throw at them. Only the last line of defence, the orbiting nuke platform around the planet, had saved humanity. Although sometimes he doubted humanity had been saved. Earth seemed like a distant, alien place to him now. A war machine ruled by Generals constantly ready for another attack. He’d never go back.

In the fifty years since the war, only one Medusan craft had ever been recovered, and that had been tiny, a shuttle. And here were the remains of one of the seven, slowly spinning in the dark of the void. To the military back on Earth its worth was incalculable. Name-your-price, mega-rich, goddamn incalculable.

Heart belting away in his chest, Joe fired the beacon that would mark the wreck as his. He half-expected the ship to glitch out again, just to annoy him.

For once everything worked. The beacon tore through space at ten times the Orpheus’s velocity. It was programmed to stop ten kilometres from the hulk and begin broadcasting. Seven long minutes later he picked up the first signal, loud and clear, sending out his signature to the universe. He whooped out loud and punched the air. The wreck was officially his.

“We did it, Avi. We actually did it. Like you always said we would.”

The problem was what to do now. Legally speaking no one could take the hulk from him. He had salvage rights. But out here in the Kuiper, respect for the law was as faint as the heat from the distant sun. If a rival with a bigger ship turned up they could destroy the beacon and the Orpheus and who would know? That was how it went.

Problem was, he couldn’t tow the wreck in-system. Far too massive. It would take lifetimes to reach a spacedock at the sort of thrust the Orpheus could put out. He eyed the ghostly outline of the hulk on the screens. Was there a chance he could get the alien ship’s drive working? He was pretty good at patching up human craft, but a Medusan? Maybe, maybe not. Worth a look at least. And if he could salvage something – an artefact that proved his find – he could at least take that back to civilization to prove his claim.

Okay. That was a plan. He punched in a course for the severed end of the Medusan ship. That would be his way in. While the Orpheus manoeuvred he prepared for an EVA.

###

He crept along in the bubble of light from his suit, his own ragged breathing the only sound in the universe. The interior of the ship was as fucked up as her fuselage. Floors twisted round to become walls. Rooms intersected at random angles, as if the ship’s designer had been insane. Or as if several insane designers had battled over the layout and in the end they’d all just done their own thing.

None of it looked like any warship he’d ever seen. None of it looked like anything he’d ever seen.

Weird shadows leaped around in his peripheral vision, the crazy angles of the walls throwing up phantoms. He ignored them and carried on. He was used to seeing ghosts in the shadowy corners of spaceships. His mind playing tricks on him.

He crept across a room cavernous enough to house the Orpheus a hundred times over. It twisted into a spiral and seemed to curve back on itself, tying itself in knots. He could see no sign of engines, or controls, or any goddamn thing he recognized.

He passed a circular doorway, sealed shut. Perhaps it led somewhere. It looked strong enough to be a vacuum hatch, sealing off this section when exposed to space. Would it take him to some vital part of the ship? There were no signs, no references to give him any clue. Through the gauntlet of his EVA suit he felt a faint buzz when he touched the door. The ship was still functioning on some level. He took his hand away. Could there still be Medusans onboard? Maybe he should get the hell out of there while he still could.

But what then? Leave the broken hulk? Head in-system and hope no one else saw it? Hell, he wasn’t going to risk that. This ship was his.

He touched the door again. There were no controls of any sort that might open it. There had to be electronics involved somewhere, but he had no idea where they were or how they might function. In frustration he pounded on the door with his fist.

To his surprise, the door irised open to reveal a long, straight corridor illuminated with a white glow. He stepped back, expecting attack. Expecting something. But it was just a corridor. No sign of Medusans. No sign of anything. But there was power. That was something. Maybe he could fix up the wrecked ship after all.

He stepped through the door. As he’d imagined it would, the seal irised shut behind him.

Okay. If all else failed he could instruct the Orpheus to cut him out of the alien ship. The drilling rig the ship still carried might be powerful enough to punch through the hull. Although he wished he’d checked first, now. He shrugged inside the heavy EVA suit and clumped forward.

After a few minutes his suit informed him there was atmosphere in the corridor. Breathable air. That stopped him. How the hell was that possible? That buzz he’d felt when he touched the door. Some automated system maybe, maintaining life support. Did the Medusans breathe the same air, then? No one had ever found out.

Tentatively, he released the seals on his helmet. After years of keeping the Orpheus patched up, he’d learned to trust his own senses more than those of his suit. The suit didn’t tell you when the ship smelled wrong, when there was the whiff of something burning that shouldn’t be burning. The suit didn’t tell you when the hum from the engines was the wrong hum.

The air on the alien ship smelled good. Weirdly good. Sweeter than that on the Orpheus. Which didn’t make a lot of sense. Carrying his helmet, he edged forwards, feeling more unsettled with each step. What was he getting into here? There was a door up ahead, at the far end of the long, white corridor. His only choice was to go through. He couldn’t shake the feeling he was being directed. Even that the ship was forming itself around him to bring him to this place.

Crazy, of course. The weird lines of the alien vessel were getting to him. He needed to find the engines soon, see if he could patch them up. That or get the hell out now. He had the footage from his suit’s cameras. Video could be faked but maybe it would be enough proof if someone else claimed the hulk before he did.

He approached the door. This was no vacuum seal. It was just a door. Yet it was oddly familiar. The sight of it stopped him dead. He’d seen it before. How was that possible?

The door was from Hong Kong Station. The hab room they’d stayed in the night before they left. It was utterly insane. He saw then how it was. All that time on his own had broken his mind. He’d gone crazy and never even noticed.

He knew there was no way he should go anywhere near the impossible door. At the same time, he had no choice, did he? How could he turn back? He had to find out what lay beyond. Heart pounding, he pushed the door open.

Inside, the room was just as he remembered it. Cramped, functional. The double-bed taking up most of the space. And there, lying on the bed, was Avi. Sweet, beautiful Avi. She seemed to be asleep, but as he stood there, unable to move, unable to speak, her eyes flickered open and she smiled.

“Hey, Joe.”

It took him long seconds to form a reply. “Avi, but … what the hell’s going on? How can you be here? You died thirty years ago when that bore shaft collapsed. I heard you die.”

Avi – or the delusion of Avi – rose from the bed. She padded across the room to stand in front of him. She sure smelled like Avi. She smelled wonderful. She touched him on the side of the face, cupping his chin like she used to. “I know. I died, Joe. I’m sorry. I tried not to.”

He stepped back, freeing himself. “No. You can’t be here. You’re in my head. You’re a delusion. I don’t know what you are.” He had to get off this ship. Get away. This was all some cruel trick.

“Oh, Joe, no,” said Avi. “Here. Touch me. Feel me. I’m real. I’m as alive as you are.”

He longed to succumb. “No. It’s not possible.”

“Many things are possible,” said Avi. “Things humanity knows nothing about.”

“So, you’re not human? You’re not her? You admit it? This is, what, some Medusan trap?”

“Medusan? No. I’m not human, that’s true. But I’m not Medusan. And I am also Avi. Look at me. See me.”

“You look like her, sure. But different, too.”

“And you look like you. But different, too.”

“What the hell does that mean? I’ve changed, of course. I’ve aged thirty goddamn years for one thing.”

“I know,” she said. “It’s not just that.” She studied him for a moment, peering into his eyes. “You’re sadder, too. You look weighed down.”

“Yeah, well. Had a lot to weigh me down.” This was insane. Now he was arguing with the phantoms his own mind was creating. Arguing with himself.

“You stayed true, though,” she said. “Those promises we made to each other that day at Hong Kong Station.” A wicked smile crept across her features. “And the ones we whispered the night before in this cramped little hab room. You remember?”

Of course, he remembered. “You can’t be here,” he said again. “We’re on a wrecked alien spaceship in the Kuiper Belt, not at Hong Kong station. That was all a long time ago. You’re not Avi. None of this is possible.”

“But it is.”

“How? How can she be here? How can you be her?”

The alien shrugged dismissively, a perfect copy of Avi’s own mannerism. “You brought her with you when you came onboard. I see Avi in your mind. In your surface thoughts and your deep memories. The shapes that were Avi.”

“Memories. Nothing real.”

“Memories are real. What is an individual after all? A pattern of unique thoughts. Nothing more.”

“No, you’re wrong,” he said, angry now, heart thumping. “That’s goddamn nonsense. An individual is a person. A body. A lifetime of scars and wrinkles.”

The alien nodded her head. “In part. But still, is your body really you? Or a shell? A vehicle you travel around in? Cells die and get replaced. The atoms that make up your hands or your heart or your brain change all the time. Only your mind remains. The patterns that are uniquely yours. By taking on Avi’s identity I’ve become her. Partly her.”

“That’s bullshit. That’s just words. You’re not her. You could never be her.”

“Joe, I…”

“It’s a shame this ship wasn’t destroyed and you with it.”

He stormed away, back through the door, his whole body shaking. He clamped his helmet back into place. He thought she’d stop him leaving, seal him in. But the door at the end off the corridor spiralled open to his touch and he was back in the twisting, cavernous space he’d first seen. In the distance, through the ragged wound in the ship’s hull, the stars shone quietly away.

He hit the suit’s thrusters and headed for them. Three minutes later he was cycling the air-lock on the Orpheus and climbing back inside.

He sat tight for a week, his tiny ship and the vast alien wreck dancing through space together. He kept expecting the Medusan ship to leave. Or to blast him out of existence. Something. But all was quiet. The whole universe was quiet except for his beacon and the comm system’s background hiss.

His thoughts were a mess of anger and the lingering fear of other junkers turning up. More than once he fired up the engines, intent on heading back to civilization to claim his prize. Intent on getting away. The military could deal with the alien witch. But each time he found himself hoping the drive wouldn’t work. When they powered up perfectly he ended up killing them manually. Once he got a few thousand kilometres away before shutting them down.

Swearing profusely, he kept busy with maintenance tasks that really weren’t urgent. The control array that kept glitching out needed fixing. He crawled underneath and began to strip out old circuits and switch in new ones. It was good to focus on a simple task.

When he was done he wriggled out of the confined space. The picture of Avi was on the floor, dislodged by all his banging. It lay face down beside him. He picked it up, turning it over and over in his fingers. It was just a square of paper, its image slowly fading. It wasn’t Avi. Of course, he knew that. It hadn’t stopped him talking to it all these years had it?

Like a fool he smiled at her. As ever, she didn’t respond. He set the picture down and, not stopping to think any more, headed for the EVA locker.

The room was the same as before. The alien stood there as if she hadn’t moved while he’d been away.

“Look, why are you here?” said Joe. “Why are you doing this? This game – what’s it for?”

The creature looked sad. He’d hated it when Avi looked sad. The alien turned away to gaze through the little square window. It was just what Avi would have done. He wished she’d stop playing these games. There couldn’t be anything outside the window to look at.

The alien sighed. “My sisters and I roamed the stars for a long time. Such a long time. Seeking company. Seeking others. When we started there was no one else in the galaxy, you see. We were the first. Space can be a lonely place. Although you know that, don’t you? We craved contact with others. Craved it so much we learned to bond with those we encountered. Over the millennia, we learned to copy them. Join with them. Become them. Just as I’ve now become – partly – your Avi.”

“And partly a goddamn ancient, metamorphosing alien.”

She turned to grin her grin at him. “That’s true, yes. Isn’t life glorious?”

“And the Medusans?”

“They were ones we encountered. We found them after aeons of roaming alone. A primitive, warlike race. Communing with them was a mistake. But anything was better than the aching loneliness of millennia among the stars. We joined with them and became them and with our ships they became the cruel tormentors you fought. I’m sorry for what we did.”

“We defeated you in the end.”

“You did. And perhaps it was for the best. By destroying our ships, you broke our bonds with the Medusans.”

“Your people died too?”

“My six sisters are gone.”

“So, the Medusans really are no more?”

“They are. And now there is only me, drifting alone in this broken ship.”

“We have to tell Earth,” said Joe. “Tell them there is no threat any longer.”

“Yes. Tell them they are safe. But they won’t believe you. You’ll have to turn me over to them. Tell them where I am so they can see for themselves. Perhaps it’s only what I deserve.”

That stopped him. If he did that, she wouldn’t survive. They’d rip the ship to pieces. Her, too, to find out everything they could.

There was a moment of silence, during which the stars turned and the universe aged a little. But he’d already come to his decision by coming back.

“This ship,” he said. “Is it beyond repair?”

She shrugged, looking about the hab room. “Once our ships regrew themselves, but not any more. I can direct it to effect small changes like this room, but that’s all. This ship is too broken. Its heart is gone.”

“We could repair it.”

“I’ve tried. But I was the Navigator of the seven.”

“We could do it between us,” said Joe. “Fix what was broken. We could at least try and get the self-repair systems going so the ship can do the rest. I’ve got pretty good at beating dead ships back into life.”

She studied him for a moment. “You would do that?”

The ship’s worth was incalculable, sure, but here was the thing. What the hell would he do with all that money? Where would he go? Avi was all he’d ever really wanted.

“If you’re really her you know I would,” said Joe. “We’re both alone out here. I guess you’re partly Avi. And I’m not one of your sisters, but maybe we’re the closest either of us is going to get to what we want.”

“And Earth?”

He shrugged. “I left the Earth behind a long time ago. We can tell them the truth. Up to them whether they believe it. Then we can wave this little system good bye for ever. Leaving Earth was supposed to be an adventure, remember?”

A smile spread across the woman’s features. A smile that was ancient and wise, but also pure Avi. That wicked glint in her eye that made his stomach fizz.

“I remember,” she said.

“Then come on,” he said. “Let’s get to goddamn work.”

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