Roman scale armour

Claimjumper (2006)

Ah, ‘Claimjumper’. I remember being fond of this story at the time. At the time I wrote it I was very into tropes like mysterious caches of alien technology, high-tech military hardware and people dying horribly. This story has all three, which somewhat blinded me to the fact that I was ripping off Alastair Reynold’s excellent ‘Diamond Dogs’ (a far more interesting story about loss of humanity in pursuit of a mystery) and Warhammer 40,000‘s Eldar Exarches (I’ll explain that one in the comments should anyone care to ask, as it’s a bit of a spoiler).

As you can see I was also keen to have multi-cultural casts, although I hadn’t yet worked out how to make it actually relevant. Still, this isn’t the worst thing I’ve ever written and I hope you enjoy it.

 

Claimjumper

Marie was the first to die. She was at the front of the team, halfway towards the next door in a seemingly endless sequence of identical rooms and corridors. There had been a flash of something–light glinting from metal–and half of her head was sliced clean away.

Some part of my brain was analysing the angle and height of the cut. Combat applications fed out a quick analysis: it was likely that whoever built this place grew taller than we tend to. I ignored these reports. They would have been no comfort to the elegantly tall and long-legged Marie.

We were a team of self-proclaimed archaeologists. Others called us looters, grave-robbers, cavaliers masquerading as serious scientists and explorers. We ignored this criticism. We were doing what we believed in, a tight-knit crew of a dozen ex-soldiers and ex-professors and explorers.

We had travelled beyond the fringes of the human worlds, delving into the artefacts of the long-dead civilizations we had found everywhere since the establishment of our first colony. Our team had made several finds that had brought us riches, and others that had opened promising new avenues of research. And still we kept searching, hoping to find something still grander: perpetual motion, a cure for death, spontaneous energy generation, faster than light travel–anything that might liberate us from our understanding of the universe.

This quest had brought us here, to a forgotten moon in an uncharted system. Our probes had located stable satellites around this little planetoid. They had turned out to be artificial. We scanned the moon, landed, and quickly came to blowing open a set of metre-thick doors embedded in the side of a mountain.

And so there we were, exploring this vast abandoned complex, and there was Marie, with half her head gone. Then her final stride carried her forwards and down. The contents of her skull made a sound like a wet slap as they slicked across the floor. The gore made an unsightly blemish on the monochrome surface. We should have realised that the floors were too clean, too clear of debris and dust.

Our newest companion, the machine analyst Pietre, threw up. He shoved aside his flimsy mask and filter before a spray of yellow shipfeed slop shot across the nearest wall. It disappeared neatly into it, not a single droplet rebounding or sticking.

We panicked. Nbutu and I had frozen in shock, our combat programming raging against an animal instinct too powerful to overcome. Ming, Hui and the other scientists just stood and stared.

Pietre reacted the fastest. He vomited again, and that time the wall reached out and took him. Don’t ask me how–I didn’t know then, I do not know now, and I never want to know–but one second he was there, then there was a suggestion of movement, a hint of shadow as contours developed, and Pietre was gone.

We piled out of the room in a disorderly rush. Nbutu tossed a stack of controlled pulse bombs back inside, forcing the heavy door shut. We crouched, took cover, and opened our mouths in readiness for an explosion that never came.

After a few more seconds we hurried on, following the same linear route deeper and deeper into the facility. None of us spoke of the necessity of exiting by that same route. Nbutu answered Hui’s nervous questions as best she could. I remained silent, watching for further threats.

Some say that sufficiently advanced technology cannot be distinguished from magic. I believe that sufficiently advanced technology cannot be distinguished from something non-hazardous.

Our first confrontation with a recognisable threat came as a relief. We had taken to breaching and clearing each new room in a military fashion, with Nbutu and I leading and the others following as we declared each one safe. One such room appeared to be a sort of control room, with rows of what were probably computer terminals laid out in odd geometries. At the far side of the room a door was flanked by tripedal shapes. A twitch of movement betrayed them. The combat applications in our suits kicked in, and our weapons powered into the green.

Despite the warning, the robot sentries shot first. They fired a hail of flechette needles, tiny slivers of high velocity plastic. Our suits popped ablative countermeasures, throwing out a burst of fast-hardening foam to meet the needles before they reached us. Most of the projectiles were deflected or slowed. What remained caused little damage to our armour.

My friends had reacted slower than our suits. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Ming choking a scream as his face was pulverised by a thousand tiny impacts. His thin suit blossomed red. Hui’s research assistant, a kid named Sam, went down behind him. One of her legs had been shredded.

Nbutu and I were shouting to the others to stay back even before Ming had choked. I flicked a trio of EMP bomblets towards the sentries. In turn they focused high-intensity lasers on Nbutu. The surface of her suit mirrored in a microsecond, and vents puffed thick clouds of fines into the path of the lasers to diffuse the beams. It was a little too slow. One of the beams cauterised a wound right through her arm. Then my bomblets detonated and the robots shut down. Nbutu, wincing, had put a trio of railgun slugs into each one, not wanting to take any chances. Their only reaction was to shower sparks.

Less than a dozen seconds had passed since the robots had gone live. Sam was screaming, her hands flapping uselessly at her crippled leg. The muscle and tendons were puree. There would be no saving it, and I remember a powerful pang of regret at that realisation. Sam’s legs had been beautiful. I’d had ambitions of charming her into my bunk on the journey out of here.

Nbutu knelt beside Sam, unpacking a field medical kit and shooting her full of painkillers. I called to the others, telling them it was safe to join us. Hearing no response I stepped back out of the room.

Back the way we had come I saw three thin smears of blood shooting off in different directions. One looped around the corridor in a spiral, terminating at an apparently arbitrary point. The other two zig-zagged a little then met in a thin, centreless circle. Three streaks, three dead friends.

I moved back into the room, pulling the door shut behind me and trying not to look at Ming’s corpse. By this point Sam was deep in a haze of opiates. Nbutu was tying off her ruined leg with a tourniquet. I had moved to help, spraying the girl’s leg with medical foam, and tersely told Nbutu what I had seen.

We were terrified by this point, but could not face going back. We told ourselves that to do so would have been mocking the ‘sacrifice’ our companions had made, but we both knew it was because we could not stand the idea of retracing our footsteps.

We carried on. Nbutu hauled the unconscious Sam along, trusting me to cover them. We both kept our combat applications live and our weapons and suits at full power. To Vega with the power drain, we said, we can find a shorter route out once we have what we came for.

It seemed that we were rewarded for our perseverance. Just a little way down the line, past a few more cautiously cleared rooms, we came across a huge vault door. We blew the locks and hinges with controlled charges and entered the techvault.

The contents were initially disappointing. A few racks of recognisable dataplates stood to one side. They might have contained useless administrative records, or they might have contained more information than any human civilization had ever amassed. It was difficult to say.

Further in there was a row of specimen jars that had once contained biological samples. Just past those something had caught my eye: an apparently discarded suit of thin, elegant armour.

We confirmed that the vault looked free of hostility, although we kept our systems running hot just in case. Nbutu dumped Sam by the dataplates and set to examining them. I headed straight for the armour.

It was surrounded by a thin layer of dust. I poked it around with a finger before understanding came: organic remains. Bone dust. This must have been here a very long time.

I picked up the ornate helmet, lifting it carefully. Forwardswept points like inverted goat horns crept up its sides. There was a narrow vision slit with a translucent amber band that I guessed was for tactical overlays. This was the armour of a warrior. It felt odd to find it here, locked inside a vault with the remains of its former occupant strewn about. And it looked so strange as well. It was needlessly ornate, and seemed almost primitive. I might have dismissed it as such but it did not look aged. Like everything else in this complex it was ancient and in full repair.

I stood up, still holding the helmet. Nbutu glanced at me. I pretended I was about to put the helmet on and she snapped at me. Fool that I was, I laughed at her. Deep in an alien place, haunted by the recent ghosts of half a dozen friends, and clutching something I did not understand, I laughed. I’m not going to put it on, I said. And even if I did I’m still wearing my suit. I’m safe.

She turned back to the dataplates. I imagine that she was angry at me. I didn’t care about that. I was obsessed with my find. My need to put on the helmet was growing, and it seemed so natural to me that I didn’t even think to question why.

I moved to slide it over my head. Nbutu saw this and turned towards me, starting to shout. I ignored her and pulled the headwear down, and then I saw her through the amber slit. Time slowed. Voices spoke inside my head and I understood their words.

– Welcome, forty-eighth paladin.

– Champion.

– Pioneer.

– Ranger.

– Hero.

– Your destiny greets you.

– Greet your destiny.

– We are one now-

– …and unified we shall struggle.

I panicked. I tried to yank the helmet from my head, and instead found myself strapping a bracer to myself. Then the bracer was extruding tendrils, creeping and coiling up my arm, trying to meet the helmet. There was a space where a shoulder-plate, still lying on the floor, could be placed. I shrieked in mindless terror.

Nbutu moved then, striding towards me. She walked so slowly, as though I really were seeing her trapped in amber, drowning in tree sap. I tried to shout to her.

– Hostile.

– Approaches.

My actions were not my own. I fought against the movement but half of my body had already been stolen from me. I hopped forwards and my open palm struck Nbutu in the breast. Behind her mask I saw her mouth and eyes widen in surprise. She flew backwards, landing hard and gasping for breath.

I’m sorry, I had whimpered to her, but I’m not me. My free arm scrabbled at the bracer fixed to the other, but only weakly. Conflicting signals in my brain were fighting for supremacy, and with each piece of the armour I wore I grew weaker.

By the time Nbutu stood again I was wearing most of the alien armour. I had tried to detonate my remaining EMP bomblets, to burn off the armour with lasers, and even to dump my power cells through the exterior of my manmade suit. Nothing worked. I watched Nbutu as she looked at me and raised her arms, pointing her weapons at me.

– Hostile.

Tendrils exploded from my new skin, arcing through the air towards Nbutu. Scores of the thick black whips homed in on her. She tried to move but was too slow. The tendrils drilled into her suit and her weapons and pulled them to pieces.

I stood motionless in terror as a hundred tiny worms stretched from my body to hers and stripped first the suit from her skin and then the skin from her flesh. She screamed as the barbs ferried away her protection. I squeezed my eyes shut as her muscles failed and her bowels voided, but a part of me was still watching. In horror, the part of me that was me blacked out.

When I recovered, none of the suit still lay on the ground. A spreading slick of blood and filth ebbed out from around Nbutu’s remains. I found that I could move my hands again, and started probing myself, desperately searching for weaknesses. I discovered that my mouth and chin, but not my neck, were uncovered. I tried to tug at the helmet and found that my fingers would not obey that order.

The voices were still whispering to me, nonsensical and seductive. Soon, they told me, I would make my way out of this place to fight the enemy. The voices made reference to names and places and events I did not understand. I tried to query the combat applications programmed into my brain but found that most of their functions had been disabled.

I pressed my face into my hands–the contact provided no comfort as alien substances touched–and suppressed my terror until it was mere fear. Something had taken control of me. I tried to understand what it was. An alien suit of armour that babbled about a war and an enemy: It was clearly a weapon. I guessed that it tended to outlast its occupants, and so had been designed to find a new one. I shuddered. The suit suppressed it into a gentle shiver.

This takes us to where I am now. I am talking to myself, but it is out of desperation, not madness. The damned voices grow louder and more insistent each minute that passes. They want me to go somewhere. They know I came in a ship and they want me to take it. I fear for my friends who are still aboard.

I am recording my story into my personal black box, an artificial tooth. Then I will place it on Sam’s person, kissing it under her tongue. She is still unconscious, perhaps dead, but hopefully someone will find my tooth when they find her.

Perhaps they will find me, too, though I doubt it. The voices are becoming harder to ignore. Some of them seem to sound like me, now. They tell me that it is time to go.

[‘Claimjumper’, Shaun Green, 2006. Cover image from Google Image Search.]

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