Most Ancient

It was late in the evening on the ship repair station. At first, the only noticeable movement came from the semiautomated cleaning and safety checking of the walkers, massive ambulatory robots that looked like detached cranes' legs.

One figure moved slowly through the place. Most Ancient, or Jonathan Vesper as he was known to the employment records and nobody else, was doing his very last rounds. Today was the last day of a very long career; tomorrow he would retire.

He was a scrawny white-haired man with a long beard and a calm manner. His speech was measured at all times, and his actions stemmed from a deep confidence in himself and his place in the world. He was meticulous to the point of obsession when it came to cleanliness and order - simplification was his spoken motto - and while he was always a willing teacher, he was also a frustrating one, harping on old theories and unwilling to accept diverging points of view. It was this combination of didacticism and senescence that had earned him his nickname.

His pride and joy was the Row of Wings: A series of ship parts, most of them flat or somehow wing-shaped, on permanent display throughout the repair station. They were set up in a row that snaked its way through the station's main section, and ranged in size from the height of a short man up to the height of a two-story building. He cleaned it every week, without fail, walking through these darkened halls in solitude.

In past times these parts had been used for education, both as reference pieces for rookies and as test housings for new module variations. Each ship part was held in a frame that consisted of a pair of massive clamps on the floor and a wire strung between the part and the nearest wall. When someone wanted to retrieve a part for inspection and experiments, they'd have a walker come over and clasp the selected part with massive robot arms. Then, one of the desk jockeys would flip a switch on an old, outsized control board, the clamps holding the part in place would loosen, the wire would drop from the wall, and the walker would be able to carry the part wherever it was needed.

Those times were drawing to a close, and the parts were now due to be removed. They were part of a fading age where the mechanics had gone in for a more hands-on approach, whereas these days everyone seemed to favor simulations that were long on error margins but short on the human feel for design. When Most Ancient left, the Row of Wings would retire with him.

He didn't mind. People thought he was attached to the Row, and there had been some half-hearted attempts from the older members of the crew to get it turned into a permanent installation, but he had begged off.

He had never told anyone, but what he really was attached to was closure. The end of a lesson; the ordering of a toolbox; the completion of a module; the final moment where a used part was taken in for the last time and turned into scraps; all of these gave him far more satisfaction than indefinite memorials. His greatest joy in life's unspoken poem was placing the period on the end of its line, one sharp swipe of the pen to complete its intricate pattern. The Row was the culmination of years' worth of work and effort, not just a monument to his longevity but a reminder of where he'd come from and what he'd gone through to get there. A warning, as much as a celebration. Looking at it and imagining that it would be there forever, frankly unnerved him.

Everyone else had now left the garage, but he was still there, ordering his things and preparing for tomorrow's sad celebration. Every now and then he fancied he heard something creak in the distance, but he chalked it up to his old ears and to the walkers finishing off their checks.

Like so many mechanics, Most Ancient kept a bunch of small mechanical items in his drawers, both for future reference and remembrance of things past. Many of these items were solid enough that they could be stood up on end. As he pulled open the largest drawer, he heard a click, and was faced with a strange setup: Someone had carefully arranged everything inside in a domino fashion. They stood up one against the other, precariously balanced, and the instant he'd opened the drawer, they toppled, cascading over one another.

There was nothing else in the drawer, no note, no extraneous item, nothing to indicate the who or why.

Most Ancient closed the drawer, carefully put away the rest of his things, and looked around. There was nobody to be seen.

Again, he thought he heard something creaking. He couldn't pinpoint it, but felt that the sound had come from the approximate location of his Row of Wings.

People often thought of him as simple, he knew, and he couldn't disagree. But his simplicity had been earned through years of experience both good and bad. It wasn't the result of being too stupid to understand complexity, he felt, but of being smart or insightful enough to understand it so well that he could simplify it. As a result, he knew what was important and what wasn't, and led his life accordingly. He also knew how people functioned, and how far they would go to do evil things.

Not everyone agreed with his world view, or with his authority. There had been clashes, particularly with some of the younger workers. Recently these clashes had grown more frequent, and more bitter; it was quite clear that certain individuals had started to resent him and the role he played in this company. But as they were too young and immature to truly stand up against him, they attacked him circuitously, like little dogs nipping at the heels of larger prey. They made snide remarks. They laughed. They left trash near his desk; they disordered his things when he wasn't around. One man in particular, Zian, had started acting quite belligerently towards him, and now that Most Ancient thought about it, he realized that Zian had been very vocal about the retirement day, in particular on what a momentous occasion it would be.

What Zian and the rest of them apparently didn't realize was that he'd been young once, too.

And now he was sure that the creaks he'd heard earlier had come from the fastenings that held the Row of Parts in place.

You could say this for the young folks: They knew their equipment. Those endless simulations they liked so much could be used to calculate, to unbelievably small margins of error, the stress necessary to break an item. So if you, say, snuck into a repair shop and borrowed one of the automated Straker saws for a while - those pinpoint precision metal saws with the wafer-thin blades - you could, if you fed it the right data, make it saw into a piece of metal with such accuracy that you could in fact determine ahead of time when and with what kind of pressure the metal would break.

So if you knew, say, that this piece of metal held up an item of a specific weight - say, for instance, an old ship wing - and if you had a strong inkling it would be put under the pressure of an old, wrinkled hand at a certain time of night, cleaning it for the last and final time, you could saw at its fastenings just enough to make the wing topple over at the touch.

Now that he concentrated, as hard as he could, Most Ancient fashioned he could hear tiny, tiny creaks from other support parts as well.

Dominoes. Falling down.

He grinned.

As inconspicuously as he could, he scanned the ceilings. There were security cameras set in every corner, as per standard regulations. Some of them had wider-focus lenses that covered entire sections of the shop, while others autofocused on differing types of movement. There were a couple focused on him now, as they should be, but the instant that a smaller object moved, a subsection of the movement-sensitive cameras should follow it.

He picked up a wrench and held it in his hand as he walked. After a couple of steps he pretended to stumble, and dropped the wrench out of his hand, throwing it in front of him apace. Most of the smaller movement-sensitive cameras immediately followed the wrench, but he noticed two that remained firmly on him. Someone was watching.

Most Ancient picked up the wrench and swiftly walked out of the repair shop and into the armory section, where all the unused equipment was located. Earlier in the day he'd noticed someone depositing an armor rig can - full of tarry liquid necessary for the installation and testing of the rig pumps - and headed directly for it, holding up the wrench. Once he got to the rig cabinet, he again pretended to stumble, falling onto his feet in front of the cabinet and grabbing on to its shelves for support. As he pulled himself up, he snuck a small can of rigging fluid into his pocket, then visibly and shakily deposited the wrench onto the pile of equipment on top of the cabinet. His audience, he was sure, was having a right laugh at the tottering old fool.

They could laugh all they liked, as far as he was concerned. If he couldn't have his simplicity, he would have his closure.

Next he headed over to the desk of Zian, who he knew, without a shadow of a doubt, was one of the people responsible for this whole thing. Aside from being incredibly full of himself, mouthy and impolite to everyone, Zian was quite a bauble collector. His desk was his pride and joy, decorated with a mass of tiny certificates, a bunch of collectibles and art pieces, and all manner of other strange and emotionally valuable things. Most of them were firmly fastened onto the desk in some manner; their owner was so paranoid that he assumed everyone must be interested in stealing his possessions.

Most Ancient didn't intend to steal a thing. If anything, he wanted to keep the man's work environment safe. And since they clearly thought he was a stupid old man, he might as well play the role to the full.

He reached into his pocket and uncapped the armor rig container, turned so that the cameras wouldn't pick up what he was doing, then pulled out the bottle and let it drop to the floor. There was a clank, at which he immediately said, "What's that?" He allowed himself to look around a few times, just to let the bottle empty itself properly. Then he looked down, said loudly, "Oh my gosh, a puddle of armor rigging right by this desk! I'd better clean it up."

He knelt, stared at the puddle for a bit, then stood again and added in the same loud voice, "But I can't, not when it's under this desk. I have to move the darn thing first. The puddle's not going anywhere."

He stalked back into the repair shop, over to the walker section. One of his past accomplishments was a decade spent in the metal saddle, and he'd kept up with the advances in walker technology. He got into one, started it up, and walked back to the desk section. The section was separated from the main garage area by a removable partition; way too heavy for a man, but easy for a walker to pick up and put aside. He reached in, picked up Zian's desk, and carried it out of the desk section. Once it was out, he didn't put it down; instead, he walked over to the final ship wing in the sequence, the biggest on, and put the desk down right beside it.

As late sleepers had found out time and again, the distance between the station's living quarters and the repair shop was deceptively long. Even at a mad run, you had no hope of making it from one point to another in less than ten minutes. Especially if you had been, say, relaxing at home, eating snacks and drinking booze and laughing at some silly old coot bumbling around in the shop.

Most Ancient took the walker back to its storage place, powered it down and got out. Then he added, loudly, "First things first. Before I clean the puddle, I better make sure my old row of ship wings is clean. Otherwise I might forget, old man like me."

He walked over to the cafeteria, noting with much amusement that some of the parts holding up the row of wings were definitely creaking. Clearly, the persons responsible had timed this well.

Once he got to the first part, the small wing standing in the cafeteria, he looked around him for the last time. He noticed that one of the motion-sensitive cameras, one of the ones that had followed him even when he dropped the wrench, was now swiveling back and forth, focusing between the desk and him, the desk and him, in increasingly desperate motions.

He pulled a piece of cloth out of his pocket and began to wipe off the ship part. As he did so, he leaned on the wing just a tad.

There was a crack.

Most Ancient thought of closure, of that one sharp swipe.

He leaned a little harder, and with a screech of breaking metal, the ship wing toppled. It fell onto the next part, whose support parts also gave way from the impact of several tons, and fell onto the next part, which gave way too, until the entire row was cascading down like monstrous dominoes. Most Ancient heard twanging noises that he knew were from support wires snapping, and as he heard the final utter and demolishing crash, as if from a ten-ton ship part utterly disintegrating a prized wooden desk along with everything on it, he fashioned that he could also hear a faint scream in the distance, slowly Dopplering closer.

He closed his eyes and smiled.