Scam was in the Bins again. The Bins were cosh, smelly but cosh, and Scam always carried her banger. Just in case. You never knew what might be prowling the Bins. The Uppers had never been seen here, but then the Uppers had never been seen in living memory; and nobody knew who the Uppers were anyway, or what they looked like. But the Bins were pretty foul now, and the Uppers wouldn’t come down here anyway, not according to the old stories. Their noses wouldn’t stand it.
But there were always Slokies. Slokies grew wherever there was muck, and there was plenty muck in the Bins.
It was about two hours to Downtime. Scam raised her head and swiped long greasy locks away from her forehead, sniffing the air. There was a definite taint to the wind, no denying it, a scent of change. Scam nodded to herself. Maybe time to cut. She checked her tuckbag. Pretty full: a couple of boards, a tangled bundle of wire, a gnarled lump of partially-melted DECsteel; it’d pay for the trip. She frowned and pulled out the small brown rectangular thing. Didn’t know what this was. Looked interesting...possibly. She stroked it gently. Made of some soft brown material Scam had never seen before. Bit like Slokie-leather, but not as tough. Little brown pouch. Might be crud, but then you never knew did you? Scam had been a Puller for five years now, and she trusted her own instincts. Mind you, the stuff she’d found inside it - now that’d ended up back in the Bins. Thin plastic cards with strange writing on them, some tarnished metal disks, and some kind of little picture. Grinning face of someone, moved strangely when you looked at it. Nobody Scam knew though. Probably dead now. Junk.
But whatever this brown thing was, if felt rich, it felt good. It felt worth it!
She stowed it away in the tuckbag’s warm recesses and looked up towards the distant Lights. Yup, near Downtime. The Lights were slightly dimmer now, tending to orange, and casting a sickly tint across the expanse of sharg. The Bins went on for a good throw in all directions - in fact you couldn’t see where they ended - to Ford and Aff they vanished into the Haze, while to Pot and StarPot everything disappeared up around the Curve.
Scam glanced at her left wrist, where the Glom clung to the skin, gleaming in the deepening red. The Glom shivered as she tapped its metal face, and a cautious green eye winked at her.
“Query!!” the Glom said in a tinny whisper.
“I wanna get outta here now. It’s getting dark. Which way?”
“Accessing...” Lights played randomly across the Glom’s metallic surface, then formed into a flickering blue arrow pointing vaguely Potward.
“Seventeen degrees from axis. ETA nine standard minutes. You must walk.”
“Of course I gotta walk.” snorted Scam, swinging tuckbag over shoulder. “How else you reckon I’m gonna get there?”
“Apologies. No working Travel Tubes in this Sector. Please contact Maintenance.”
Slapping the Glom in disgust, Scam pulled up her legs and began wading through the sharg. As usual, the Glom spoke in riddles. Or just plain bollargs. Still, at least it knew the way back to Town from this far out. Worth keeping for a while longer. In fact, worth keeping period. Good Pull was getting harder to come by. The olduns said so, and Scam believed them. Pullers were going farther and farther afield these days, just to make the ends meet. As far as Scam knew, she was the only one who regularly ventured this deep though. In fact today was the furthest she’d ever been in! Still, as Grampy used to say, “Pull a sharg and win a monty!”. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
Glancing at the Glom’s pulsating arrow, Scam altered her course slightly...then grunted in surprise as her right foot plunged knee-deep into a squelching mass of slime. A decidedly un-cosh smell rose up and assaulted her nostrils, and she staggered slightly, reaching out to steady herself on a nearby wrench of metal twist. The stench was almost unbearable (something pretty dead down there!) as she slowly pulled her leg back up through the slobbery grelch.
Suddenly, she felt something grab her foot below the surface. “Bolsh!” She muttered, as a thick ochre tentacle snaked out of the slimy sharg, sliding sinuously round her thigh. In seconds it had wrapped itself round her waist and began contracting, in preparation to dragging her under the surface - today’s meal.
As a second tentacle burst through the slippery trash in front of her, its bright pink suckers mouthing hungrily towards her, Scam grinned and flicked her banger neatly into the palm of her right hand. A brief press on the thumb-bar and bright green fire jerked out, neatly burning the tentacle in half. As it fell floppering back into the grelch, the other tentacle rapidly disengaged from her waist in a frantic attempt to withdraw beneath the surface.
FIZZZZZ!!!! The second tentacle joined its partner, squirming in death. Somewhere below the surface something large shuddered away into the distance, sending ripples across the sea of sharg. Scam chuckled to herself as she folded the smooth tendrils up and packed them neatly into the tuckbag. Hot Slokie tonight!
The Lights were a dim cobalt blue by the time Scam arrived at the Walls. No problemo. Just find a nearby Ladder and be back to Town before the ultimate black of Downtime. She surveyed the huge expanse of metal plate in front of her...to the left...to the right...and stretching up into the dimness. The Walls stretched all the way round the Curve. No telling where she was. She tapped the Glom.
“Where’s a Ladder? I wanna go up now.”
“Apologies. No access rungs nearby, and no working escalators in this Sector. Only exit from Reclamation within travel distance is seventeen meters to your left.”
Scam stared at the little metal plate, glimmering on her wrist. “I wanted to go home! I said home!”
“Apologies. You requested a way out before dark.”
“Yeah, but....aww, you know, for a Glom you’re pretty stupid sometimes!” Scam thumped the Walls, and the boom echoed out across the wasteland of the Bins. The Glom remained wisely silent. Scam sighed and glanced to her left. “Seventeen meters?”
By now it was getting difficult to see. The Lights were little more than a faint glow as Scam staggered her way along through the flotsam washed up against the Walls, one hand sliding along the slick metal. Suddenly the metal vanished under her hand, and she almost fell into the alcove.
“Affirmative. Hold me up and I will access.”
Scam waved her wrist vaguely into the alcove and lights flickered on the Glom’s surface. After a second, lights winked in answer around the boundary of the Door, and the Door slid open.
She stumbled through into a gently yellow dimness, quite unlike the darkness of Downtime. As she straightened and dusted herself down, the Door slid shut behind her. It took a while for her eyes to grow accustomed to the light, but she seemed to be in somewhere straight and regular, and fairly narrow, that went on...for a long time.
“Where is this?”
“Maintenance Access Corridor. Do you require exact co-ordinates?”
“Uh-uh…” Scam shook her head, looking up at the ceiling. There were what looked like little Lights inset into the ceiling. She looked down the corridor.
“This the way home?”
“So I just go down this way?” Scam flipped the banger in and out of her palm nervously. Although it was pretty light in the corridor, the end was in darkness.
“Correct. I will provide directions.”
“Better go then.”
The walls were dull and nondescript, but as she walked Scam ran a Puller’s eye over them nonetheless. She thumped the panel-work experimentally and listened to the dull clank. “Good metal. Could come back and Pull some of this.”
“Why?” Scam slid a finger down a panel, then licked the fingertip. “Good metal. Better than DEC. Get three...four houses outta this lot.”
“Maintenance Access Corridor required for maintenance access. Apologies.”
“Access by who? There someone else down here?” Another tribe! No wonder everyone said the Bins were too foxy! And here she was, in the heart of their Run! She stopped, raising the banger. “Wanna go back.”
“There are no life-forms within appreciable range.”
“But you said-”
“Humans do not live here. Automated systems only. You are safe.”
“Oh. Cosh...I guess.”
After five minutes or so of walking the corridor ended in another Door. Scam waved the Glom at it.
The Door hissed open and Scam peered into the small alcove. “Dead end...unless.” she looked up at the access panel in the ceiling. “Ah! Clever Glom! The Ladder’s up there, right?”
“Please enter and hold me up next to series of controls on your left.”
Scam stepped into the alcove. Almost immediately the Door slid shut, and she spun round, waving the banger. “Glom!”
“Inadvisable to discharge energy weapon in confined space. Please hold me up to controls.”
A collection of small bright silver squares inset in the wall next to the Door. That must be it. Scam held her wrist up. The Glom whickered and three squares depressed with a faint click. The alcove shuddered and Scam’s stomach lurched.
“Don’t like this! Why’s the ground moving?”
The Glom almost sighed. “Travel Tube is in motion. Arrival on Upper Levels in approximately fifteen seconds.”
“Fifteen Seconds! This is cosh! Ladders take ages! Can you make the Ladders move like this?”
“Oh pity...woops!” Scam staggered as the alcove stopped. She stared at the Door. “What now? Does it open?”
“All doors in this Sector will respond to human interaction, you know. Press the green button.”
Scam raised a finger, then shook her head and waved the Glom at the Door. “You do it.”
“Affirmative.” The Door slid open and Scam stared, expecting to see the familiar length of the Corridor leading back to Town. Instead, the Room was enormous. Bigger than Town almost. She stepped out of the alcove, mouth open.
Lights on the ceiling, Lights on the walls, Lights everywhere. And so much metal! Boxes of metal all over the place. And glass too! A tuckbag was too small!
“Glom, you’re max! You knew all this was here! I’m rich!” Scam ran over to one of the smaller boxes and gave it a kick. Lights flickered on the surface, but the box stood firm.
“Ah, stow it, Glom! Why won’t it move?” She crouched down and ran a practiced hand along the seam, where the metal of the box met the metal of the floor. “It’s bolted down, or just heavy...need a wrench-stick!” Standing up, she glanced around. Nothing suitable. Better bang it open...
“Negative! Do not-”
The banger crackled once, and burned a hole in the side of the box. Scam crouched down and peered in at the sparking wires and circuits. “Evil! You’re worth your weight, Glom.” Reaching in, she tore out a handful of wiring and began stuffing it into the bulging tuckbag.
“YOU HAVE SERIOUSLY DAMAGED A SERVICE CONSOLE. REPAIRS WILL BE EFFECTED. THE COST WILL BE DEDUCTED FROM YOUR CREDIT ACCOUNT.”
Scam leaped to her feet as the voice - so like the Glom’s - boomed around the Room.
“Who’s that? This Pull’s mine, I found it!” Scam waved the banger around wildly. The walls stared back. There was silence, apart from the faint humming of the boxes. Then...
“I DO NOT HAVE RECORDS OF YOUR CREDIT ACCOUNT. ALLOW ME TO ACCESS YOUR WRIST-UNIT.”
Scam glanced down as lights began blinking on the Glom’s metallic surface.
“Glom! What is it?”
“AH. SO YOUR PEOPLE HAVE BEEN INHABITING THE STORAGE DEPOTS IN SECTOR FIVE-OH-SEVEN FOR ALL THIS TIME. INORDINATE CO² LEVELS WERE DETECTED IN THAT REGION. IT SHOULD HAVE BEEN INVESTIGATED FURTHER.”
“Don’t...don’t understand. Where are you?” Scam slapped the metal bracelet several times. “Glom, where is he?”
YOUR WRIST-UNIT HAS BEEN IN NEED OF REPAIR FOR TWO CENTURIES. IT HAS TOLD YOU NOTHING OF YOUR ORIGINS?”
“I found it in the Bins.” Scam held the Glom to her chest. “It’s mine.”
“YOU HAVE NO COMPREHENSION OF WHERE YOU ARE.”
“Course I do.” Scam looked around defensively. “It’s a Room. I know about Rooms. You get rich when you find a Room. Grampy found three Rooms out Ford and we built our house out of the metal!”
“ACCORDING TO THE WRIST-UNIT, YOUR POPULATION NUMBERS FOUR HUNDRED AND SIXTEEN AT PRESENT. YOU HAVE NOT PROLIFERATED.”
“THE UNIT INFORMS ME OF YOUR VERNACULAR. I WILL PARAPHRASE. THERE ARE NOT MANY OF YOU. WHY IS THIS? IT HAS BEEN EXACTLY THREE HUNDRED AND TWO YEARS SINCE CONTACT WAS LOST WITH THE LOWER LEVELS. PRESUMABLY YOUR ANCESTORS WERE CONFINED THERE AT THAT TIME. WHY ARE THERE NOT MORE OF YOU?”
Relaxing slightly, Scam squatted down on her haunches and shrugged. “Not much to eat. Olduns die young, so do younguns. Then there’s Slokies...” She patted the tuckbag. “I grilled a smallun, but there’s bigguns.”
“THE UNIT SAYS THERE ARE MUTATED NON-HUMAN LIFEFORMS THAT PREY ON YOUR POPULATION. INTERESTING. IT WAS HOPED HUMANS HAD SURVIVED, BUT THERE WAS NO EVIDENCE THAT YOU WERE DOWN THERE.”
Scam’s eyes widened at a sudden thought. “Are you Uppers?”
“NO. THERE ARE NO ‘UPPERS’ AS YOU TERM THEM. THE LAST HUMAN INHABITANT OF THE COMMAND LEVELS DIED ONE HUNDRED AND NINETY YEARS AGO.”
“Oh…” Scam stared around the Room, interest waning. A wide glass panel along one wall looked interesting though. She climbed to her feet and wandered over. Her reflection stared back from the darkened glass. “What’s through here then?”
“VACUUM. I SHALL REMOVE POLARISATION.”
The glass cleared and Scam staggered back as the enormous green-blue thing swam into view.
“What is it!?” Whatever it was, it looked like the Lights. Big BIG Light though. Scam blinked as her eyes became accustomed. Round, like a ball. But covered in swirly white and grey patterns, with shades of turquoise and blue and black and…and all around it was deep blackness, dotted with little bright white things. Really little Lights.
Scam moved from side to side, trying for perspective. “S’big, whatever!”
“IT IS CARPIOS FOUR. THE “STARUCYM” HAS BEEN ORBITING IT FOR OVER ONE HUNDRED STANDARD YEARS.”
“THE “STARUCYM” IS THE SHIP YOU INHABIT. IT WAS DESPATCHED FROM THE FISHLAR SYSTEM IN EARTH YEAR SEVEN-TWENTY NEW STYLE, CARRYING SIX HUNDRED FAMILIES, BOUND FOR THIS WORLD.
INTENDED FOR COLONISATION, THE EXCEPTIONAL MASS OF THE SHIP PROHIBITED FASTER-THAN-LIGHT DRIVE, AND SO IT WAS KNOWN THAT SEVERAL GENERATIONS WOULD ELAPSE BEFORE CARPIOS FOUR WAS REACHED.
HOWEVER, BY THE THIRD DECADE OF TRAVEL, SOCIAL POLARISATION HAD OCCURRED, RESULTING IN LARGE ELEMENTS OF THE “STARUCYM” COMPLEMENT DENIED ACCESS TO THE UPPER LEVELS. THIS POLARISATION CONTINUED TO ITS LOGICAL CONCLUSION, AND THE VAST MAJORITY OF THE SHIP’S POPULATION HAS SINCE DIED FROM STARVATION.
HUMANS DO NOT FUNCTION WELL WITHIN LONG-TERM CONFINED ENVIRONMENTS.”
“Uh…” Scam squinted through the glass. Big blue thing. Wonder how big it was? Pull of a lifetime if she could get it through. She tapped the glass experimentally. How thick was it?
“BY THE TIME ORBIT WAS ACHIEVED, DIRECT CONTACT WITH THE LOWER LEVELS WAS IMPOSSIBLE, SINCE THOSE INDIVIDUALS YOU TERM THE “UPPERS” DESTROYED ALL COMMUNICATION LINKS. PLANET-FALL HAS BEEN DELAYED.”
“Yuh.” Scam turned from her contemplation of the glass. Too solid. Maybe another time. But what about all this metal!
“YOU ARE THE FIRST HUMAN TO COMMUNICATE WITH US FOR ALMOST TWO-HUNDRED STANDARD YEARS.”
Talked loads, whoever he was. Scam hunkered down next to the ruined console and stroked the metal. Nice bit of DEC there. Too much to carry. Might have to bring others back. Might have to share! She shuddered at the thought and straightened.
“Gotta go. Glom, take me back now.”
“YOUR ASSISTANCE IS REQUIRED.”
Scam tapped the Glom, but the unit remained silent. “Glom. Wanna go home!”
“YOU MUST ASSIST.”
Scam sighed and stared up at the ceiling Lights. “Orright, orright! What you want?”
“MANY AUTOMATIC SYSTEMS NO LONGER FUNCTION. A MEMBER OF THE HUMAN COMPLEMENT IS REQUIRED TO GIVE THE ORDER FOR PLANET FALL.”
“THE ‘STARUCYM’ CANNOT LAND UNLESS YOU ORDER IT.”
“Oh…” Scam scratched her shoulder, wincing at the smell of ripe Slokie-meat. “So you want me…to…”
“ORDER THE SHIP TO LAND.”
“Okee.” Scam shrugged. “Ship…go land! Can I go now?”
Silence. Scam glanced around the Room. No change. She looked down and tapped the Glom. Lights danced and the Glom coughed.
“Still wanna go Home, Glom. This Slokie’s going off!”
Complex arrows flickered on the wrist-unit and Scam made her way across the dusty floor of Observation Deck Phi-Epsilon towards Turbo-lift Eight-Oh-Three. The lift-doors closed and the chamber was still once more.
Dotted about the immense bulk of the starship, isolated pockets of humanity went about their business…fighting, eating, breeding, dying…surviving. The more perceptive noticed a low distant vibration through the next few days (the only sign of the Starucym’s ancient engines awakening), but thought nothing of it. As the giant ship maneuvered its way towards planetfall, life continued as usual.
Until, of course, the Starucym plunged into Carpios IV’s planet-wide ocean and sank, lasting a full three days before succumbing to hull pressures never envisaged by her long-dead structural designers.
Two hundred years is a long time. Long enough for sensitive AI systems to fail, Suns to flare, and for polar ice-caps to melt quite thoroughly.