Another world, another collection of ruins overrun by vegetation.
“It’s beautiful,” Catherine said. She saw the footprint of destruction as art, as the poetic expression of the gods. I saw it differently: as money, as paying off my debts.
“Better take a wander around, then,” I said.
“Yes.” She had that expression, the one where she tried to capture an image in her mind for the rest of time. Why not take a picture, I used to ask. But my Catherine didn’t think like most people. That was what made her so magnificent.
“Do we have to suit up, Jerome?” Catherine hated suiting up.
“Yep. Got to err on the side of caution. You know that.”
She poked her tongue out and crossed her eyes, but diligently got into her gear, checked all the seals, tested all the peripherals and followed me out of the lock.
Walking about in a place like this always made the hair on my arms bristle. It was the lack of sound where the mind said there should be some that did it. The silence never bothered Catherine. She just walked where she pleased, touched what took her fancy, picked up anything small enough to be held.
Nature had done most of the leveling here, but not all. Every city we visited followed the same pattern. Our imagery showed five evenly spaced, flattened areas that’d obviously been artificially and systematically reduced to pieces of not much. Singular structures, I reckoned. But the rest of the city, if nature hadn’t been allowed to reclaim its ancestral lands, would’ve stood patiently waiting for us, no different to the day those five buildings were sacrificed.
I shook my head. All that happened millennia ago. Now was now. Too many creditors demanded my skin for me to be interested in anything other than the present.
“Come look at this, Jerome!” Catherine stood in an open room, the walls mostly covered in vines. From outside, it looked tottery and I hoped she hadn’t wrenched something that might end up being load-bearing loose.
But she only cradled a vase-like object lovingly in both hands. “Isn’t it amazing?”
It just looked like a simple ornament to me but Catherine had a knack. If she said something was amazing it usually meant people who had plenty of money would think the same.
“Good find,” I said and wrapped the thing up. “And so quickly, too.”
But she’d already moved on to admiring something else and didn’t hear me.
Within two hours we’d finished scouring the place, a few more items loaded into the shuttle. I took some video and pictures as well. Universities always bought them. For cheap, of course, but money was money.
“Do you think you’ll paint this place?” I said after we’d de-suited. The visual arts weren’t really my thing but Catherine loved them so I tried to as well.
“Maybe.” She bundled her suit into a ball and stepped out of the airlock. “I’ll see how I remember it in the morning.”
I watched her recede down the hallway towards the laundry. What a woman.
Our haul netted top dollar. A museum in Sol System – yep, the big Sol – won a fierce auction for the piece that Catherine especially loved and were so enamored with it they offered to fund another expedition to that planet.
At first, I didn’t see the point in going back. Been there, done that, took pictures, swiped artifacts. But sure money was better than no money, and when I told Catherine she wiped blond hair from her eyes and clapped her hands and kissed me lavishly. Later, while we lay holding each other tight, I wondered how I’d ever survived without her.
The museum sent along three experts. From Mars, a skinny man with an impressively deep voice named Marcus; Sarai, from Luna, tall, stocky and with a face covered in tribal tattoos; and Bindle, a short, petite woman from Io who had a perpetual squint.
My fears that the three-week outward trip would devolve into geek fights and cabin fever dissolved within two days. They’d all had experience on expeditions like this before, apparently, and knew how to make the best use of the limited space and abundant time.
A week and a half into the journey, just after Catherine sauntered through the common area covered in a rainbow array of paint spatters, having come from the corner of the cargo deck set aside as her art studio, Marcus asked, “Where is she from, Jerome?”
“I’m not sure,” I said, my attention squarely on the chess board in between us. I was winning, of course, but Marcus wasn’t as terrible a player as some.
“How did you meet her, then?”
“Bought her in a bar.”
Marcus let out a rumbling, “Huh?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Not even sure what made me do it. I was possibly drunk.”
“I see. Well, you certainly don’t treat her like a slave.”
“Oh no. Of course not. Can’t abide slavery. Just happened to be there and drinking and she appeared and before you know it I was outbidding everybody else with money I didn’t have. Lucky I won a few chess matches that night and scraped up enough to pay for her.”
Marcus moved a knight to threaten my rook and rubbed his chin. “Y’know, she seems almost… too perfect, if you get my drift.”
“Does she?” I shrugged. “She’s beautiful and makes me laugh and doesn’t care whether I shave or not. Actually, come to think of it, maybe she is the perfect woman.”
“Yes. The stereotypical ideal fantasy. Beautiful body, beautiful face, loves life, artistic, always happy.”
“She can’t cook.”
“Does anybody fantasize about a woman who can cook?”
I grinned and moved my queen to check his king and endanger a bishop. “Check.”
Marcus leaned forward to study the board, a sure tell that he knew he was in trouble.
Catherine wandered back past, carrying two pottles, yellow paint and red. So intent was Marcus on finding a way to save his position he didn’t even notice.
Fifteen turns more and I’d won, easily. I would’ve won quicker if Marcus’ comments hadn’t got me thinking. Catherine always managed to change the subject as soon as it got anywhere near her past. Some basics I knew but they could’ve been tales told by anybody. Grew up in a small settlement on a backwater planet, left to see the galaxy, did odd jobs, fell into hard times, ended up selling herself to traders and then I bought her and I knew the rest of the story since then. Hell, it sounded a lot like my life, except for the whole sold into slavery section. Though, if I really considered it, my creditors did own me. That last haul earned enough to pay off half my debts but with the damned interest rates they charged and the time expeditions like this took the balance would probably be back above what it had been by the time I returned to colonized space.
But what was Marcus actually inferring? That Catherine was a robot? If so, a damned impressive one that never set off any alarms at any customs checkpoints. What else then? Possibilities swirled through my mind. Was she somehow telepathic or empathic? Every empath in every sci-fi novel I’d read loved the arts and was uninhibited…
For the rest of the trip I mulled this over, coming up with all sorts of weird hypotheses. I should’ve gone into movies instead of space.
While I didn’t press Marcus for more information, I did watch him closer. He was a geologist, apparently, but he never added much to the animated scientific discussions Sarai and Bindle had. Maybe they weren’t discussing his science. All their conversation did meld into one after a while. Sarai was a xenobiologist and Bindle an archaeologist. And they sure loved to talk about their work. I just left them to it. Catherine did too, though she whipped up some amusing caricatures of them crowded around the galley table nattering.
When we finally arrived at the planet it looked exactly the same as we’d left it. What do planets empty of intelligent life do when no-one watches? Maybe they reverse direction around the sun, or play bumper-cars across the solar system.
Bindle pointed at a spot near the equator we hadn’t checked last time. “Shouldn’t we head over there?”
“There?” I was skeptical. “Isn’t that just desert?”
“Yes,” she said. “And it looks exactly consistent to where significant ruins of the nature we’re after have been found before.”
“You mean the ruins we brought the last set of artifacts back from weren’t significant enough?”
She smiled. “Oh, they were good, but I have a hunch what’s under this desert will make those look like a tiny village.”
I narrowed my eyes. She was far too certain of herself. “Is there something you haven’t told us?”
Sarai cleared her throat from the other side of the room. “Did you read the mission brief the museum directors gave you?”
“I skimmed through what I thought were the important bits.” The brief was thicker than an armored hull-plate. “I read the cover and the section where it told me how much I was getting paid.”
“I see.” Sarai laughed. “Well, if you had read the whole thing, you’d know that we do have info indicating there’s a significant site at those coordinates. That data vessel you brought back was very helpful in determining this, thank you.”
“We think,” Bindle said, “that this planet may have been the capital for the entire empire. Well, I think loosely aligned planet-states is a more accurate description, but we won’t go there.”
The thought of asking how they could extract information from a vase with no obvious markings on it crossed my mind but I held my tongue. The brief probably explained that too. However, if their data indicated this was the place to be then I might be able to cash in and clear all my debts in one go. I nodded and said, “The brief stated I would be paid fifty percent of the estimated value of each artifact recovered, on top of the agreed wage. That still stands, right?”
“Yes, it still stands,” Marcus said with a mock sigh.
“Good.” I rubbed my hands together because that was the response they expected. “Now, about that desert.”
There were ruins beneath the sand. Fortunately – or they already suspected – the top sand layer was only shallow, and they had a plan involving one of the shuttles and some super-sized fans they’d brought along to uncover the ruins with minimum physical effort. When I cocked my eyebrows Bindle smiled patiently and explained the science to me in great detail. What I got from her explanation was that it’d take three to five days to get done and involved a lot of wind.
“Fine,” I said. “How about you ladies set that up and Marcus and I go take a gander at the tiny set of ruins ten klicks north-northeast of here?”
“Are you sure that’s wise?” Marcus said. “Shouldn’t we stick around to make sure there aren’t any problems?”
“Catherine can take care of the ship and pilot that shuttle, and Bindle and Sarai can look after the other stuff. Can’t see any reason it needs all five of us. And we might find something at those ruins that will help us at these ruins, mightn’t we?” I strode off authoritatively before he could object further.
Our site was in prime real-estate territory. Catherine would’ve been enraptured. On one side flowed a shallow river, on the other side stood grassy hills full of spring blooms.
“Where should we put down?” I said.
Marcus surveyed the scans and pointed at a flat patch just west of the river. “How about there?”
I considered. “No, I think I’ll try that open area just south of the village.”
As soon as we landed I turned to Marcus. “Who are you? Really?”
“What do you mean?” His quizzical expression was almost perfect.
“You’re not a geologist. If you were you would’ve realized the only safe place to put down is right where we’ve done so. The spot you suggested is a sinkhole covered by a thin layer of grass. We’d get back and find the shuttle half-buried in mud.”
Marcus regarded me with a furrowed brow. “Is that why you brought me out here? You could’ve asked me onboard the ship.”
“And what would I have had to back up my suspicions?”
“True enough.” He wiped his upper lip with the side of a forefinger. “You’re right. I’m not really a geologist. But I am here with the blessing of the Sol Alliance. I’m a special agent.”
I didn’t bother pretending to be surprised. “So why the secrecy?”
“Necessary security procedure.”
“Do Bindle and Sarai know?”
“And you’re able to fool two scientists into thinking you’re a scientist, but not me?”
“My personnel file, which their superiors would’ve shared with them, says I’m reserved and tend not to get conversationally involved.”
I leaned forward and reached for my ankle to see what sort of reaction I’d get. Marcus didn’t move but he did smirk. I scratched my calf and said, “So you’re here because?”
“You’re not authorized for that information, sorry, Jerome.”
“Right.” I barked out my best sarcastic laugh. “Well in that case I see this going two ways. You don’t tell me and I rat you out as soon as we get back to the others. Or, now that you know I’ll do that, you test out one of the ways I’m sure you’ve been taught to kill a man and explain to everybody else why the ship’s captain has gone missing.”
“Those are the two options, are they?”
“Yep.” I stood, brushed past him and made for the lock. “And neither of them will work well for you. Especially killing me. That would benefit you less than me ratting you out.”
I began checking over my usual suit.
“Fine.” Marcus maneuvered his way to where I stood. “I’ll level with you, but you won’t like where this is headed.”
“You might be surprised,” I replied. I was pretty sure he was right but I much preferred being contrary.
Marcus stretched one of the other suits out and, perhaps to prove he was who he said he was, or just so he could beat me at something – his chess record was nearly one-hundred losses and zero wins – weaved it on in fractionally less time than I did mine. After doing the usual checks, he swaggered to the lock hatch and waited, hands on hips.
Outside, we met bright sunshine and a breeze strong enough to be felt through our suits.
“So,” I said, “are you going to tell me what the deal is or are you setting me up for a nasty accident in an unstable building?”
“Have you ever heard of the legend of Orion’s Belt?”
“There’s lots of legends about Orion’s Belt.”
“The one about the physical belt?”
I gave him a ‘what are you running hot on’ look. He couldn’t have seen its full complexity through my helmet but I’m sure he understood the intent.
“Well, we don’t know if they called it a belt or even wore it, but the most prized treasure of the extinct races was a thing that looked like a belt.”
“Okay.” We entered the village and, even though the ruins were completely overgrown and collapsed, the businessman in me struggled not to begin foraging.
“Orion’s Belt was a starmap. Apparently not many beings in this empire were allowed starmaps. Only leaders, and then usually only maps of the territory they owned.”
“People owned more than one planet?”
“More than one star sometimes, too. But Orion’s Belt was something more again. It was a map of all known space. And there was only one of it, added to over time.”
“Why only one?”
“Whoever possessed Orion’s Belt was either indisputably the most powerful ruler, or had just taken it from the most powerful ruler. Wars were fought over this Belt, planets ravaged, mighty nations exterminated.”
We paused next to what might’ve been a fountain in the town’s heyday but was now a circular collection of stones covered by a vine that twitched at our approach.
I said, “And how do you know any of this?”
“Don’t you follow the news, Jerome?”
“In case you haven’t noticed, newsfeeds don’t carry this far out.”
“And when you’re in port?”
“I’m usually only docked for as long as it takes to sell what I’ve found, pay off some bills and get back out. Planets with people on them make me nervous.”
Marcus extended a gloved hand towards the vine. It recoiled. “Well, Jerome the unenlightened, in the last ten years a lot of progress has been made in the scientific fields that deal with these dead alien civilizations.” He swiveled to stare at me. “I really am surprised you don’t know any of this.”
“Because almost all the artifacts you bring back and sell, whether it be in Sol or Centauri or elsewhere, are some form of data recording device.”
I raised eyebrows within my helmet. “Really?”
“Really. That one the Sol museum bought off you, from this planet? The most comprehensive source of data yet found, and if you’d come across it three years ago nothing could’ve been extracted from it. But thanks to progress its contents were deciphered within hours.”
“Damn. I should’ve held out for more money.”
Marcus sighed. “And to think some people back home think you’re a living legend.”
“So anyway, what does this have to do with you being onboard my ship and not being a geologist?”
“The myth of Orion’s Belt has been around for a long time, but only recently confirmed by our studies. The question has become: where did the myth spring from initially? It’s not human, yet somehow it’s been circulating amongst our colonies long before we had the science to discover it.”
“Maybe another solar system had the science to discover it.”
“That’s possible, but improbable.” Marcus started weaving his hand about in front of the vine. It echoed his movements but stayed well out of reach. “No other place has the research facilities that Sol does, not even in the closest, most-established systems. And I really doubt that any colony could’ve sat on their triumph as long as this rumor’s been circulating.”
“And how long’s that?”
“At least twelve years. How long have you been out on the fringes scrabbling for riches?”
“About that. Maybe longer, maybe shorter. Time flies when you’re travelling faster than light.”
“You said something very interesting at that auction back in Sol.”
“Some flubbering reporter asked how you always managed to make such amazing finds. Do you remember what you said?”
I shook my head. A reporter had accosted me on my way back from the auction but I couldn’t remember any of the conversation. Which was kind of worrying, really. Who knows what I’d come out with.
“You said that all the credit should go to Catherine, because she’s the one who ‘always picks out the good stuff.’”
“Well, it’s true. She does.”
“Yes. And that, given the context, is very interesting indeed.”
“So you’re trying to tell me Catherine is an alien disguised as a human?”
“No,” Marcus said. “But that was our initial leap, too. We now think she killed an alien and escaped by selling herself into slavery to you.”
I laughed. Not just laughed. I guffawed. My belly shook. My visor fogged up. I thought perhaps it might shatter.
Once I’d recovered sufficient sensibilities to talk, I said, “I told you not to spin me any lines, Marcus. That’s the most absurd thing I’ve ever heard.”
He lifted his head fractionally. Poking his chin at me inside the helmet, no doubt. “And why is that?”
“If Catherine had killed an alien from a lost civilization – disguised as a human or not, and who must be so old I can’t even imagine – perhaps possibly maybe wouldn’t the other aliens come a-looking for her? They’re from a superior race. They could probably track her down and kill her with their minds.”
“What if she killed the last one?”
“What if I grew wings just now and flew to this sun and returned with arms full of candy?”
“I’m dead serious, Jerome.”
I chortled some more and strolled over to a nearby building. Marcus didn’t follow. I gestured expansively. “Whether you believe your tale or not, it’s pretty fantastic, isn’t it? If this legend about Orion’s Belt has been circulating for as long as you say it has then surely I would’ve heard about it. I may not follow the news channels but I sure follow the rumor mill.”
“Why do you think your creditors have been willing to give you so much slack?”
“Because I always bring in pretty things from unexplored planets that sell for monies?”
“Now you’re playing dumb.”
What Marcus said was interesting but not enthralling. While I hadn’t heard this exact tale before I’d heard plenty of similar ones over the years. To be honest, it was kind of surprising this one hadn’t been doing the rounds for longer. With there being three prominent stars popularly referred to as Orion’s Belt a legend involving an actual belt just seemed like a natural outcome. And a government had fallen for it, too. Priceless.
Either way, we were wasting our time here. These ruins were far too overgrown and unstable to search, and I figured Marcus had run out of worthwhile information.
“Let’s get going,” I said. “That’ll give me time to think your ridiculous tale through.”
“Sure.” Marcus turned and headed for the shuttle. I gestured rudely at his back. Why couldn’t things be simple for once?
We didn’t exchange a word on the return trip. It looked like Marcus was sleeping but I knew better. Damn government agents and their silly governments.
The long-range scans weren’t showing any activity over the desert. Bindle and Sarai should’ve at least partially set up their contraption by now.
But as soon as I finished de-suiting and stepped through the lock into the ship proper I knew why nothing was happening outside.
Sarai greeted us in a very un-scientific fashion – feet apart, knees slightly bent, gun in one hand extended towards me, the other hand holding a shuttle remote.
I turned my head. “I thought you said neither of the others were in on this.”
“What?” said Marcus, behind me. He saw Sarai, growled an expletive and ducked back inside.
“Oh,” I said, “so she’s playing her own game. Lovely.”
She clicked the remote and the shuttle let off the little bing that signified it was now locked and would remain so until someone pressed the right button again. With an expression that wasn’t really an expression, more a slab of slate, she said, “Shut up, put your hands behind your ears and go where I tell you or I’ll shoot your lips off. And believe me, I’m a very good shot.”
There was no point losing my head over the situation, so I complied. It was very hard not to grumble, though.
Her gun – how had she smuggled that onboard? – jammed into my spine, she ushered me into the common room, where Bindle stood guard over a manacled Catherine. Adroitly, Sarai tripped me and I sprawled onto the floor. In less than thirty seconds Bindle had me shackled too.
“You all right?” I whispered to Catherine.
She nodded, no anxiety whatsoever on her face.
“I suppose,” Sarai said, “you’re wondering what this is all about?”
“My lips are safe?” I asked.
“Wouldn’t have anything to do with a Belt, would it?”
Her cheek twitched momentarily. “So you just pretend to be dopey and uninformed, then?”
The ship shuddered.
“Ah,” I said, “Marcus has discovered the spare shuttle key in the cockpit. I wondered how long it’d take him to spot it.”
Sarai waved her gun at me. “What?”
“Marcus has gone for a fly in the shuttle we just came back in. You really should’ve found some way to herd him out when we first arrived.”
“Meh.” She shrugged. “What can one geologist do?”
“He’s not a geologist. Apparently he’s a Sol Alliance special agent.”
Her expression changed from slate to stone. She tossed the remote to Bindle and barked some words I recognized as Centauri. Bindle nodded once and disappeared out of the room.
“And you’re not from Sol System at all,” I said, more to keep a dialogue going than because it was an earth-shattering revelation.
“Hmm.” Sarai took a few steps closer, ran her fingers over her tattoos. “Doesn’t matter anyway. Nothing Marcus can accomplish outside.”
“Who says he left?”
“Still doesn’t matter. Nothing he can do inside either. If he barges in here he’ll get himself killed. If he tampers with the controls of the ship he’ll get knocked out for a few hours. Bindle knows what she’s doing. She’ll scan for life signs onboard the shuttle before she pursues.”
I changed tack. “So, you really think this fantastical Belt is on this planet?”
“No? Then what’s the big kerfuffle about? We bring three scientists on this jaunt and they all turn out to be spies. And all three are after some legendary Belt. If it’s not here then what’s the point?” I turned to Catherine. “Oh, and Marcus even threw out a theory that you’d killed the last existing alien from these ancient civilizations and know where the Belt is.”
“Really?” Catherine said.
“We think so too.” Sarai moved her gun in Catherine’s direction.
It was like I was stuck in some bungling comic caper movie. I shook my head. “You’re all insane.”
“No,” Catherine said. “They’re all deadly lucid. And it’s true.”
“It’s true. I killed the last remaining alien after I… convinced it to tell me where the Belt was.”
Sarai looked like how I imagined a fox that’d just cornered a rabbit might look.
“What’s so damned important about this Belt anyway?” I said. “It’s a starmap. Whoopty-flip.”
“Not just any starmap,” Sarai said. “One of all known space. It has a list of every star, planet, moon and asteroid and every resource they contain. Whoever owns this owns the galaxy.”
“Yes,” said Catherine.
“Does it have handy little indicators showing where the nasty greeblies who destroyed this civilization are?” I asked.
The ship shuddered again. Bindle must have taken off too. I made a show of wriggling, as if I were trying to loosen my manacles. Not that I could, but hopefully it would work as attention bait.
It did. Sarai swung her gun towards me, shot a foot forward to place it on my chest. Except Catherine had already whipped her legs out, wrapped them around Sarai’s ample calf and heaved upwards. Then, quicker than I could think ‘ouch,’ she leaped up, kicked Sarai’s gun from her hand and pinned her knee between Sarai’s shoulder blades.
“Where’re the manacle keys?” Catherine said, in as threatening a voice as could come out of her perfect mouth.
After a moment of straining Sarai gasped for breath and pointed at her left pocket. I pulled myself to my feet and fished around in said pocket – awkwardly, both hands touching at the wrist as they were – until I found the two keys. Pushed the button of the first with my thumb, felt my manacles release, pushed the second, picked up Sarai’s gun, checked to make sure it was loaded and the safety was off and then stared down at our new captive. I didn’t much like guns but sometimes they had their uses.
“Catherine, can you please get some anesthetic from the infirmary?” I said. “Oh, and thank you. I love you very much, my queen.”
She poked her tongue out. “I think you’ll need to buy me some new paint brushes for this. Or maybe a better easel. Actually, I spotted some really nice canvas last time we were in port.”
“Whatever you want, beautiful. You’re worth all the paint in the universe.”
Catherine giggled and bounded out of the room.
I sighed. “Now, Sarai, what are we going to do with you and Bindle? And Marcus when he gets back?”
She glowered. “You haven’t won, Jerome.”
“Well, I guess it’s not technically checkmate yet. There’s a slim chance you could stalemate us, but that’d require you and Marcus to be working together, and I think that’s one too many convolutions.”
“If you kill me that’ll bring my government down on you like a hammer on a cockroach.”
“Who said I was going to kill you?”
“I know that Catherine knows where the Belt is.”
“Right,” I said. “Because you believed Catherine when she said she’d murdered an alien. I don’t mean to be rude but government agents are getting stupider with every batch.”
“What?” She made to sit up. I waggled the gun and she retreated back to prone.
“Do you know how many times we’ve had some half-assed agents from this or that government pull stunts like yours? Obviously we can’t just be prospectors with a good eye. Obviously we must be something else. Usually it’s the little governments looking for a leg up who act on these mad theories. This is the first time we’ve had anyone from a large government onboard. And when we do we get agents from two large governments. Special us. I think I’ll turn you and Bindle over to the Sol Alliance and Marcus, well, maybe I’ll turn him over to Centauri and then your bosses can figure out a trade. If they think you’re worth it.”
“I don’t believe you. Perhaps you’re the alien and you and Catherine are working together.”
Give her top marks for zeal. I pinched the bridge of my nose. “Tell me this: if we knew the location of this prized Belt, don’t you think we’d have it in our dirty little hands by now and be exploring all the places it maps out with carefree abandon, rather than limp-racing other prospectors around the edges of known space?”
She blinked. “Well—”
At that moment Catherine arrived and stabbed Sarai in the neck with a very long needle, and with far more enthusiasm than was required. Sarai got that betrayed look people who’ve just been drugged get and then passed out.
“What should we do about the others?” I said.
“We’ll need to go pick them up,” Catherine replied. “You know what these agents are like. They’ll find some way to kill each other if we don’t do something soon.”
“Yeah. We’d go through less knock-out drops that way, though. And it’d save a whole lot of money to leave them to it, because I doubt the Sol Alliance will pay us what we’re owed for this botch-up.”
“Always about the money, isn’t it, Jerome?” She put on her puppy-dog face. I grinned. Couldn’t help grinning.
I said, “How much more of this will we have to go through before we can retire to some green, verdant, uninhabited planet nobody else knows about and live the good life?”
She kissed my forehead and whispered, “At least now we know what we need to find to make it happen.”
(featured image courtesy of M.B. Lewis on Unsplash)Recommend0 Simily SnapsPublished in