Author: David Barber
Rumour had it that Mother would soon order them to quit the planet, so Six rose early, trying not to wake her sisters as she donned her mask and breather.
Outside, dust swirled around remotes abandoned the previous day by her siblings, who gloved these metal figures from the comfort of the ship.
Alone of her sisters, Six doubted that instruments, no matter how ingenious, could make sense of what happened here. She believed only her human presence, her intuition, might do that. She even removed her mask once to taste the atmosphere, odorous and acrid from a careless past.
So far she had found nothing of note, but she worked urgently and about mid-afternoon was rewarded with an enigmatic find.
Following ruined walls into an area assigned to Twelve, she uncovered a container. She smuggled the tin back to her own diggings before prising it open.
Caution served her well. The silvered ghost inside was a photograph, of a couple arm in arm, squinting into the sun’s brightness. A precious moment from a time before these ancients squandered their planet.
Six brushed the picture with a trembling finger. Of all her siblings, only she had wept at the frail bubbles of glass they sometimes discovered, totems hung in every room, not trusting the dark.
She wondered if this woman loved, or had been loved—
A metal figure loomed over her. Despite being an inferior, Ten was the nearest Six had to an ally amongst her siblings. Still, Six instinctively concealed the find in its tin.
“Mother says we are leaving tomorrow. The remotes are being called in. She said to tell you.”
“But what of our work?” cried Six.
“No time. Mother believes more barbarians are coming.”
“They would not dare!” But the notion that Mother might be wrong was both difficult and dangerous to say. “The Empress would not allow it,” Six added lamely.
After a moment, Ten’s remote shrugged, then turned to follow others plodding back to the ship.
Two had boldly seated herself beside Mother. She had discovered a broken metal blade inscribed with ancient script: STAINLESS, with its notions of purity and innocence, and ST, a shorthand for Saint. Two was convinced the site was the ruin of a church.
Six waited in silence until Mother beckoned her forward.
She didn’t need to point out the photograph contradicted Two’s notions.
“Note the ocean behind them,” Six began. “From the Age of Water, which suggests a date…”
Two interrupted, without Mother reprimanding her.
“The taller one is male. These two are primitives from before the Exodus. I am no prude, but their display of bare limbs is why this distasteful item was concealed.”
Six ploughed on. “Surely we cannot leave without knowing what happened here?”
They had been a rich and privileged folk, a superpower of their own time, yet history had engulfed them just the same. “Finds such as this—”
As she struggled to explain, Ten shoved Twelve forward, her voice triumphant. “A find I saw you thieve from your own sister!”
As the siblings fell to squabbling, Two patted Mother’s arm reassuringly.
“We already know what happened to this world. Their empire fell because of men.”
But Mother only knew that time was short, that enemies circled, and the distant Empress held her precarious title in name only.
“We have nothing to fear,” Two shrugged. “Though perhaps we should move on.”
She glanced slyly at Mother’s tired face.
“Leave everything to me.”