Ellie slid her hands across the sensitive flesh of the Red Lament’s organic control console, coaxing her ship through the void of space. Lament had sensed a battle site nearby, the walls of her command chamber quivering in excitement at the scent of dead ships and spent munitions. Ellie had her well trained.
Something appeared on the screen. At first just points in space, catching the light of this system’s sun. As Lament flew towards them they grew into the corpses of ships. The nearest one was like a vast whale with bat wings growing from the sides, its skin cratered with the impact of explosive rounds, its weapons harness hanging loose from torn straps.
Grinning, Ellie surveyed the scene. Sensors indicated hundreds of vessels, the remains of a recent and substantial battle. That meant she could be picky in what she harvested, just taking the most valuable parts – brain fluids, optic lenses and any high value guns. The profits could keep her and Lament fed for months.
Lament slowed, coasting past the first corpse. As more came into view, Ellie noticed that many of them were arranged in patterns, spirals of dead ships rotating around a central point, the corpses of their crews floating in smaller arcs between them. She felt as if ants were crawling up her spine at the sight.
“Slower, Red,” she said and the ship obliged.
There was movement at one of the nearby wrecks, two figures in spacesuits drifting around the body. Nearby, sunlight caught the straight lines of an old-fashioned mechanical ship, box-like and ugly. Ellie scanned it, trying to work out whether it was scavengers or local authorities. Either way, the ship looked better armed than Lament, despite its out-dated frame.
Dammit, she was going to lose this one. Whether these people were scavenging from the bodies or preparing for a funeral, they wouldn’t want her around. She cursed her luck, which a moment before had seemed so great.
The scan came back inconclusive – ship and crew unknown. Probably scavengers then, or pirates. Though they weren’t behaving like pirates. A clawed arm extended from the ship and nudged the dead ship, pushing it into line with others around it, forming another spiral.
These people were arranging the bodies. Why would anyone do that? What sort of skewed perspective led you to sort corpses out in the black?
A hum from the console told her that the other ship had scanned them. She got ready to spur Lament into a run, but whoever these strangers were, they weren’t moving to intercept.
That was as strange as the rest of their behaviour, but Ellie wasn’t going to complain. She steered Lament towards the nearest ship and warmed up the cutting lasers. She would go straight for the brain stem, harvest as much as she could as quickly as she could, and run if these jokers came close.
Except that their very presence unsettled her. Hand hovering over the control panel, she tilted her head, trying to work out what they saw in this place of death and destruction, what in the darkness motivated them to rearrange bodies like this.
As she stared at her viewing screen, a spiral of dead ships turned in front of her, bringing one into view, then another and another. Lament, normally unfazed by the bodies of her kind, let out a mournful hum that Ellie could feel through her feet.
Then she saw it. As the face of one of the wrecks drifted towards her, its eyes wide and empty, she became aware of the majesty and sorrow of these beasts. Each turn of the spiral brought that experience to her anew. These weren’t wrecks any more, or resources to be scavenged. They were a spiral of loss, a metaphor for the war still raging in the systems around them. They were creatures who had lived and died, and whose loss touched her more deeply with each one that came into view.
She sighed, her voice in tune with Lament’s.
“Not these ones,” she said. “Not today.”
As they turned away from the battle site, she punched a button on the mechanical console she kept next to the organic one. An external camera caught an image of those sad bodies, and the console ejected a paper copy. Ellie set it down in front of her and sat, gazing at the sad beauty.
* * *
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