Imperial Supply Depot 7-359.9-900, Ophidia Sola System. 209 AS
Alex wiped the dust from his goggles, breathing heavily into the respirator mask. Everything was dusty. They'd just spent months excavating the Old Empire supply depot from under a mountain of sand and dust. With all the other galaxies vanishing from the sky when he was just a kid, there was a lucrative market for people like him. Finding the relics of the Old Empire and selling them to people to reverse-engineer kept his family fed and the voidship flying.
His sister had been aces with deciphering some of the ship logs they'd uncovered in the remains of that interdiction voidship, out near the system rim. Jules was next to him, working away at the door's enigmatic control panel. It had been a long day and the thickly insulated air-harness weighed heavy against his chest. A few of their cousins were around, making sure the tunnel supports wouldn't collapse. Alex shuddered at the thought of dying under hundreds of thousands of pounds of sand and dust.
He heard his stomach growl, reminding him just how long of a day it'd been.
"You almost done there, Jules?" He asked hopefully. Family meals were rare but nice.
"Look Alex, if you're scared of dying down here, just go back to the ship. I'm trying to focus. Old Empire locks don't break when you look at them funny." Yeah, Jules wasn't happy with him.
Alex sighed. "Nah, it's not that. I'm headed back up to get some food, want me to heat something up for you?"
Jules spared her brother a look. "I'll take a break in a few. Some of Auntie Elise's casserole from last night sounds great." She turned her attention back to the door's lock. It was opened, the heavy gold-tinted steelish face-plate leaned against the bulkhead next to her. The crystals composing the lock had deliberate imperfections in them, patterns grown into them by the Old Empire's artificers to echo the symbolism of both the Gods' Knot and the Labyrinth of the Mind. They glittered strangely in the lantern's light, almost as if they were taunting Jules.
Of course, the answer to the Gods' Knot was a sword and the Labyrinth's answer was the written word, but that gave no clue as to what key was. Theoretically it was... Jules slapped her forehead and pressed the keys to spell out 'sword and key' in the same Old Empire cipher she'd used to decode the ship logs. Naturally it'd end up being such a simple answer after many hours of hammering away at the problem.
There was a clunk and hiss as the door cycled its lock, then it squealed as it tried to slide open. The mechanism caught and ground to a halt on the sand that had managed to worm into the door. It was only open a whole six inches or so. Jules sighed as she realized the cousins would have to apply some elbow grease and prybars to open it completely, but she took her lantern and shone it through the opening, peering at what she could see beyond.
Jules saw some kind of entryway, with empty alcoves where one would normally store aegis armor for any counter-assault armigers that were lying in wait for attacking forces. The interior looked immaculate except for the fine dust that covered everything. There was just enough space for Jules to squeeze through.
The interior simply looked abandoned, not damaged or ruined by the passage of years. Jules kept her face mask on, the fine dust gushing up in choking clouds where she stepped, scattering the lantern light as though it were fog. She shouldn't be in here, she should have waited for the rest of her family in case of active defenses. But curiosity had always been Jules' greatest strength as well as her greatest weakness, and she pressed on through the eerie scene, footsteps muffled to murmurs by the omnipresent dust. There were signs that anything that had been portable had taken. None of the usual personal effects or small sundries she had come to expect when a facility was left suddenly or suffered calamity. The supply depot had been deliberately left fallow.
She saw signs to an 'armory' marked in Old Empire, and followed them on the theory that an intact armory would be very valuable indeed. The armory doors looked very sturdy indeed, though they had been left open by whomever was last here. Which wasn't a good sign since that meant the weapons within would be missing. It was worth a shot, Jules figured.
Inside, the lantern revealed a very large warehouse-like arrangement of racks, shelves, and metal crates that reminded Jules more than a little bit of coffins because of their size. Jules wondered why the Old Empire would abandon this place and leave sealed crates, so she examined one of them. The lettering read, on the dusty metal container, 'Valkyrie Unit 0'. And the next one was another one, one higher than the last, and so on. There were hundreds of them, Jules saw. She shuddered as she remembered a dank mausoleum they had once found.
Undaunted, Jules pried one of the crates open, revealing an artificial humanoid form with mechanical parts, clearly designed to look feminine. The skin was a bright white by the lantern's light, with fine seams here and there. Jules felt sick seeing the unliving green eyes staring out from the face, like some life-sized doll small children played with. There was no hair on its head, just a helm with translucent visor flipped up out of the way. The design reminded her a little bit of a bird of prey, like this was something that could take to the skies and hunt. The breastplate had lettering that echoed the labeling on the container.
Jules realized that they had uncovered an entire battalion of war machines. They might just be autonomous machines, or they may be much more valuable thinking machines. The thought took Jules' breath away.