The Age of Scorpio

1

A Long Time After the Loss

The deep-space salvage tug looked like it was made of hundreds of years of patched-together scrap parts. The original parts of the ship were buried underneath layers of barely functioning detritus. It was a scavenger ship, a space-going parasite that fed on the misfortunes of others. Just like everything else in Known Space.

Forward was Command and Control, the crew area, workshops and a small internal hold, but much of the rest of the craft was exposed to vacuum. The massive towing apparatus, tools for use in vacuum, rolls of high-tensile net to carry externally salvaged cargo, detachable boosters to attach to towed hulks and hangars for the various drones, including Nulty’s own hangar. The rest of the crew had long since given up trying to guess Nulty’s original race and gender. A long time ago Nulty had uploaded himself into a deep-space salvage drone and chosen to live in a machine body in the vacuum.

The tug was called the Black Swan. Few names could have been less fitting. None of its current crew knew what a swan was and none of them had the inclination to find out.

The oversized engines, used for towing hulks many times larger than the Black Swan, were on heavy-duty manoeuvrable pontoons that looked like muscular arms reaching out from the tug. The engines were old and didn’t function optimally, like everything else on the Black Swan. Only the bridge drive was new. This was because of all the captains based out of Arclight, only Eldon Sloper was desperate enough to agree to a salvage job in Red Space.

‘Where are we?’ The question irritated Eldon. Most things had for many years now. It was the irritability of your life not working out the way you wanted it to. He hadn’t asked for much, he thought, just a thriving salvage business, but that had been too much apparently.

‘Space,’ the small weasel-looking man with the pockmarked face and thinning hair answered. Eden had often wondered why someone who looked like that hadn’t had themself extensively redesigned a long time ago. Nulty, during one of his rare fallings-out with his captain, had suggested that Eldon had been sculpted, but his personality had bled out and turned him back to his original form.

Eldon didn’t have to look at Eden to know his sarcastic answer to her question had irritated her. It had been designed to. After all, she’d had neunonic access to the co-ordinates since they’d left Arclight.

The tug was old enough to still have manual displays and controls, though it was, like nearly all spacecraft in Known Space, piloted via neunonic interface. The pilot and co-pilot/navigator’s seats were raised to give a better view of the subjective front of the tug, which the hull’s smart matter had rendered transparent, providing them with a panoramic view of outside. Information cascaded down the vista of black and pinpricks of light. The view was repeated in the minds of each of the crew along with pertinent information for their specific job roles.

‘We’re not quite off the charts but this is pretty much the edge of Known Space. Much further and I expect we’d have to explain ourselves to the Church.’ The cheerfulness, implying as it did that Brett felt this was some kind of adventure, further irritated Eldon. It was symptomatic of his overall irritation with the handsome younger man – life hadn’t ground the hopes and dreams out of him yet. Well that and the way that Melia looked at him.

‘Eden, wake up Melia,’ Eldon said.

‘Oh, is kitty going to do some work for a change?’ Eden