Saturday Special from the Vaults: Picking the Bones

This is an unpublished and, as far as I know, never-submitted short-short I rediscovered in my files. I think I may have written it at Banff during the Writing With Style workshop on writing science fiction with Robert J. Sawyer, the same workshop out of which came Marseguro.

The landing pod settled in the middle of the alien battlefield in an expanding cloud of copper-colored dust, its antigrav moaning away to nothing and its liftjets sighing into silence.

Vultor Caruso watched the pod’s descent through binoculars from the ancient camouflaged pillbox buried in the nearest hill, his lips set in a thin, tight sneer. “Damn claim-jumpers,” he muttered; after years of working on his own, he talked to himself. He thumbed the magnification control to max so he could read the registration markings on the pod’s side. “Oh, that’s clever,” he snarled. “Too bloody damn clever. ‘Interstellar Red Cross’ my ass.” He squinted through the binoculars. What was that smaller text underneath…? “‘Retrieval and Rescue,’” he read, and jerked the binoculars down so hard the strap cut into the back of his neck. “As if any of us coyotes would ever need to be retrieved. As if we’d let them.”

Something whined in his ear like a demented mosquito; he slapped a control on the harness of his multisuit and the sound died. The emergency call signal—he should’ve seen that coming. They’d play this ‘Interstellar Red Cross’ crap to the hilt, try to talk him into coming down to the pod, then grab him, lock him up, and strip-mine the site. He’d bet there was a full-sized digship waiting in orbit for the all-clear once they had him.

But they weren’t going to get him. And they couldn’t do a thing here until they did, because like any coyote worth his gravjuice, he’d seeded the whole battlefield perimeter with alarms and nanocameras. Anybody but him set foot in it, his ship would take their pictures, ID them, and squawk-burst it straight to the Patrol through one of the four quantamitters he’d left tucked in orbit—two t be found, and two for redundancy.

They had to grab him and his multisuit so they could deactivate that stuff, or else they might as well get the hell off. And there was no way they were going to grab him, not someone who’d spent the last twenty subjective Earth years salvaging alien materials and technology from the battlefields of some ancient interstellar war.

He saw movement, and raised the binoculars again. Two people emerged from the pod in white multisuits, and he ducked down quickly when he realized they had their own binox. He didn’t need to see them, anyway. He knew what they’d do. They’d set down right where he’d stuck his dummyship, shouting out an ID signal identical to the one his real ship would have been sending out, if he’d been stupid enough to leave it on. They’d poke around, scan the horizon, maybe even yell if they were desperate enough—and right on cue, he heard a faint cry of “Mr. Caruso! Vultor Caruso!”

Idiots, he thought, and stayed put for the next three hours, never looking out. It’d taken him two days to find the hidden entrance to this pillbox. There was no way these clowns would find it before dark.

He was mildly surprised when he heard the rising howl of antigravs winding up, but kept his head down in case it was another trick. Only when the liftjets roared did he poke his eyes back up to the level of the weapons slit.

The pod was gone, leaving behind only another cloud of coppery dust.

Vultor crawled out of the pillbox and brushed off his multisuit. He spat on the ground, the spot of moisture turning the alien dust as bright-red as freshly spilled blood. Damn claim-jumpers had eaten up the best part of his day. He’d be lucky to get back to his ship by nightfall.

Damn stupid claim-jumpers, he amended to himself as he clambered down the back side of the hill. He surveyed the vast battlefield with satisfaction. Littered with the decayed remnants of ships, the crumbling exoskeletons of the long-dead aliens, and anonymous dust-covered mounds that might hold anything, it was the richest site he’d ever found. No wonder the claim-jumpers came after it, but to think a wily old wolf like him would come crawling out like a whipped puppy just because they pretended to be some kind of rescue team…rescue from what? Monsters? Nothing bigger than a rat lived on this dump of planet. He snorted, and set off across the battlefield.

He was halfway home, and the planet’s tiny, brilliant star had just slipped behind the horizon, when he heard the moan of antigravs again. “Dammit, can’t you take a hint?” he roared, and turned around, expecting to see the landing pod descending behind him.

For a long moment, nothing made sense. Lights wove through the stars in an intricate pattern, throwing off eye-searing flashes like fireworks. Antigravs moaned, rockets shrieked, explosions thundered the air.

It wasn’t until the hulking ships thudded heavily down two hundred metres away and the insectoids swarmed out that he really understood.

The war had returned. And as the aliens raised their weapons in unison, as though driven by a single mind, Voltor had time for only one last thought:

What scavengers, he wondered, would pick his bones clean?


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