“Everything will be all right.”
Tommy thought he heard those words, anyway; a soothing alto whispering in his ear. A lie, he was pretty sure. He tied to open his eyes, but he couldn’t, and he became aware that his head was wrapped tightly.
But as he emerged from his sleep he wanted to go right back. He was aware, distantly and intellectually, that half his body was on fire, but it was the other half, the parts he couldn’t feel at all that frightened him.
He had been flying, dodging, cursing, ducking between hulks of weird alien… things, sending the Feds crashing into each other while Mags did what she could with their little popgun, extracting every possible cost to those trying to kill them, but knowing, all along, that there were just too many of the bastards. Knowing all along that he was going to die.
He jerked in the restraints that held him now as he remembered the last hit his little ship had taken, reliving the moment his craft had been vented and Mags had gone cartwheeling into the void.
“Please try to remain still,” the voice said. “I am currently testing your mental function, then you will sleep again. Everything will be all right.”
His mouth was not bound. He worked his jaw, tried to force words through a throat that would not respond.
“The next time you are conscious, you will be able to speak,” the voice said.
He felt sleep return, but now he feared his dreams.
“Do not be afraid. Everything will be all right.”
The second time up the well, it was a slower climb. The pain was closer now, but still he was shielded from the worst. Out there somewhere his left arm was in agony as it slowly repaired itself. The right arm felt… odd. But it didn’t hurt. Tommy was pretty sure that was worse.
He could feel himself breathing now, he could feel the air passing over scorched and raw tissue in his throat and lungs. He could feel his heart beat. The top of his face was still wrapped tightly, but he could sense the room around him now. He was surrounded by almost-silent machines, machines that no doubt were keeping him alive.
A simple fact: shitbags like him did not get this sort of medical care. Ever.
The voice again, so soothing, but tinged with concern. “Are you able to speak?”
He opened his mouth, closed it, tried again, moving air through his abused throat until noises started coming out. “Huh..hii… is… everything going to be all right?”
She didn’t laugh but her voice sounded like it was colored by a smile when she said, “I believe so, yes.”
“Where am I?”
“You are in a medical bay, undergoing repairs.”
The million-dollar question: “Why?”
Did he hear that smile again? “I like the way you fly. Now sleep. You are safe for now.”
He felt sleep coming to him unbidden, and knew it was sedatives in his bloodstream. “For now?” he whispered.
He was sure he heard a chuckle as he drifted back into the blackness. “As safe as any of us are.”
Somehow he was all right with that.
Tommy might have been dreaming while he was under, but as his mind was released from the drugs this time the memories came.
Scavengers all lived for the big score; most of them died for it as well. When word filtered down about a new find of Old Tech, probably Gamma, it flashed through his little circle like a supernova. Someone who knew someone said that some of the Old Tech was fully intact. Even if that was an exaggeration, they were talking about El Dorado.
There are two kinds of people in the universe; those who stupidly believe Old Tech is valuable, and those who sell the shit to the first group. The equivalent of selling tunnel drives to cavemen. But some of those cavemen had serious cash, and dreams that they would be the ones to decipher the Old Tech and rule the universe.
Three kinds of people if you count the Feds, but they’re not actually people so much as cogs in a machine that understands that the devices are a source of power, but like cavemen they just hit the things with rocks to see what happens. They are organized cavemen, and what they have that the other cavemen don’t is a navy, and they will to use it to keep all the shiny objects they will never understand to themselves.
This interfered with the desire of the scavengers to sell the Old Tech to stupid rich people.
The ageless artifacts came in distinctive styles, which were named using the Greek alphabet in the order they were identified. Gamma sold the best. “Experts” at hitting mysteries with rocks said Gamma was the most advanced, as if they had any hope of actually understanding any of it. Gamma was bank, but most of it had been thoroughly demolished by weapons of power beyond comprehension. Intact Gamma tech was the Big Score all the scavengers dreamed of.
It was late when the three of them got together to discuss the news. They were drinking, and Mags wanted that loot. She leaned in towards him, her crazy blonde hair flying in every direction as she skewered him with her perceptive squint. “My friends say it’s incredible. Tons of fully intact… stuff.” Stuff. A supercomputer, maybe, or perhaps a sex toy or a recipe book. Ask again in a thousand years. “People will pay out thier dicks for this shit.”
Aggie kicked Tommy under the table to get his attention. She was like the Cheshire Cat in a way; once you saw her eyes, brown and clear and endless, you didn’t see anything else. She could rob a person of their soul with those eyes, and she had stolen Tommy’s, more than once. “We got an image from the site. Big things, small things, in a cluster, orbiting a red giant. Spread out over time, though, so there’s a good chance some of the shit has been knocked out of its original orbit. We find a piece like that, no one is ever the wiser.”
“Counterpoint:” said Mags, “Rather than spend months looking over our shoulders for patrols while we hope to find a stray widget that will fit in our hold, we go in hot, grab something choice, and get the fuck out of there. If anyone can do it, Tommy can.”
Ultimately, as always, Mags got her way. And the Feds got theirs.
He was awake now, almost as much as he was asleep. The pain gradually crept closer and closer to his mind, until his entire left side was a constant throbbing ache. The right side was a collection of sharp pains here and there, but otherwise nothing.
“My right arm’s gone, isn’t it?” he asked his caretaker.
“It is. I am fashioning a replacement.”
“Do not be too discouraged; the replacements will in some ways be superior to the originals.”
“You said you are fashioning replacements.”
The soft voice paused, as if she knew what the next question would be. “That is correct.”
“You used the singular.”
“That is correct.”
“Are you the only one here?”
“No,” she said. “You are here, too.”
“You’re not with the Feds.”
“I am not.”
“Who are you?”
“I am waiting for a name. But your people call me ‘Gamma’.”