Poking a mysterious alien technology - updated after 2 reviewers feedback
|Word Count 1998
The grizzled supply ship captain waved his beer mug high in the air until a bar android rolled over and refilled it. “A man could die of thirst waiting for these antiques to notice him,” he said before taking a deep swig. “You’re still buying, right?”
Athena Peters smiled. “Yes, Captain.” Both she and her twin brother, Ares, enjoyed the old scoundrel’s periodic visits to her home world Prosperity. They were too infrequent in her opinion. Despite the supply ship doing runs between only the Sol system and Prosperity’s, it still took years to perform the route.
“Ah, yes, as I was saying, your father was an amazing archeologist - your mother too. They made quite a team. I loved working on their digs back in the day.”
Ares played with a ring of water on the table surface. “Tell us about our father’s dig on Rotorua.”
The captain frowned. “Rotorua, now there was a mysterious civilization. It was your father’s last dig, you know.”
Ares nodded his head.
“Just a pile of rubble really,” the captain said. “But your parents, despite their continuous bickering, performed magic together. They excavated and preserved artifacts of amazing technical complexity and beauty.” He took another gulp of ale. “It devastated your mother, when he was killed there.”
Athena’s head came up sharply. “No, he fell walking along a cliff here on Prosperity.”
He shook his head, “No child, your father was murdered on Rotorua. His killer was never found.”
Athena placed her hand on his forearm, “Mom would know, don’t you think?”
The old man looked confused. He opened his mouth to say more, hesitated, and finally gave his head a nod. Putting his hand upon hers, he gave it a pat, “yes, of course. My old brain gets addled now and then. Drink doesn’t help,” he said with a wink. “Anyway, I’m sorry you two were just babes when he passed. He loved you so.”
Several days later, Athena and Ares lunched with their mother. Perched high on a steep mountainside, their childhood home offered magnificent views from its patio of both their mountain group and the valley dotted with verdant meadows. Athena loved dining out here.
The family’s original android set Athena’s favorite melon dessert before her. Ares’ fork tugged the side of his lava cake until hot pudding oozed out. Their mother as usual was content with just tea.
“Mom, do you remember Captain Martin.” Athena stabbed a melon ball.
“Captain Martin?” her mother repeated. “Doug Martin. No, that’s not right.” Slowly recognition brought a smile. “Digger, Digger Doug–he’s part of my expeditionary team.”
Their mother suffered increasing dementia. Ares recently bought two androids to focus on assisting with her care.
“Captain Martin, I mean Digger, said you and father found alien artifacts on Rotorua,” Aries said.
At the word Rotorua, Athena saw concern cross her mother’s face. Or was that fear? Why fear? Her mother had worked on dozens of alien world digs. She had enchanted Ares and her with bedtime stories of ancient marvels not fear.
Ares was unaware of his mother’s emotional transformation. Focused on his dessert he asked, “Why haven’t we seen any of your Rotorua artifacts? Do you keep any around here?”
“No! No artifacts. No, no, no.” Her mother became instantly agitated. What was going on? “I told him no. We can’t touch it.”
Ares leapt to her side. “Mom, please. It’s okay. We don’t want to see the artifacts.”
She looked at Ares and then grabbed the front of his shirt. “Dean, stop! Believe me! Believe the glyphs!”
Athena realized her mother was reliving a past event when she pleaded with their father, Dean.
One of the new androids spoke, “Let us sedate your mother. She should nap now.”
Athena nodded. It saddened her to see her mother this way. She had always been so intuitive, so charismatic. During her lucid moments, Athena could still see the brilliant linguist. Her study, filled with honors, attested to the celebrity she had known among her alien-archeology peers. Athena watched wrinkled hands batting at the two androids that gently lifted her from her chair.
“No, let me go.” She wept in frustration as they ushered her from the porch. “They destroyed everything.” Her last discernible words were, “Oh, Dean, I'm so sorry, but we can’t tell anyone.”
“Nice job,” Athena said.
“How was I supposed to know?” he snapped back.
Feeling too annoyed to remain seated, she moved to the porch railing. Ares joined her.
“What is it with you and Rotorua?” Athena demanded. “First you interrogate Captain Martin - now Mom.”
Before he could respond, their family android spoke, “Please, come.”
“Where?” asked Ares in irritation.
“You must take ownership of your mother’s work.” It exited through the patio door. Athena and Ares frowned at each other and followed it.
Athena looked around her mother’s richly decorated study. Two walls were shelves containing alien art, plaques, and unclassifiable objects. The other walls displayed a career’s worth of photographs, awards, and degrees.
“Mom’s not dead. What ownership are you talking about?” Ares asked.
Quietly a wall of framed photographs and certificates slid aside opening their current room to three times its original size.
Ares approached a table centered inside the new space. After flipping through a stack of papers, he picked up an electronic tablet. “It’s just alien linguistic stuff.”
As Athena progressed along the blank walls, sections lit up to display an assortment of interactive star maps. One she recognized as her own planetary system and another as the Sol system.
The android said, “As your mother’s mental abilities declined, she wanted to enlist you both to continue her work.”
“Even if we wanted to help, what are we supposed to do?” Ares said holding up the tablet. “This is gibberish.”
“She instructed me to say, ‘they are coming.’”
Ares’ hand flew up in a stop gesture. “That’s ridiculous. It’s part of her dementia.”
“Your mother returned from Rotorua believing a malevolent civilization became aware of humans through something your father did,” said the android. “She spent decades here in this room trying to learn about them.”
“What’s with all the secrecy?” Athena asked.
“To hide the location of human space,” said the android “After your parent’s aborted archeological expedition left Rotorua, no one ever went back. They left all the artifacts there and scrubbed the planet of any human presence.”
“Well, Athena,” Ares said, “have at it. I’m not interested,” and he walked out.
Six months later, Athena waited for Ares to float through the airlock.
“What a drag”, he said as he flew past her in zero gravity. Using hand grips lining the corridor, he left her to fend for herself.
Well, she didn’t need Mr. Chuckles’ help anyway. Fastening her spacesuit helmet in place, she cycled through the airlock. Her visor dimmed to prevent her being dazzled by the solar reflection off the asteroid surface.
There hadn’t been enough gravity to land, so they’d flown in close, and harpooned a tethered bolt into the asteroid’s surface anchoring their ship. They used a second thinner tether to travel between the airlock and the rock surface.
Clamping her lifeline onto the thin tether, she pushed off. Closing fast, she grabbed and released the tether to jerk her feet around. She preferred landing on them instead of her head.
Once down, she leap-stepped carefully over to her search area. Ripping open her suit on a sharp rock would be bad. Even worse would be a leap right off the asteroid into her own orbit around the sun. Ares might refuse to rescue her for a while. Even so, she felt pressured to leap into 50 foot arcs over the jagged, pock-marked surface to cover greater distances. As she drifted slowly down, she panned a searchlight in a grid pattern across the surface illuminating the inky holes below. So far this tedious work had not revealed a Rotorua artifact.
She knew he was sitting in the pilot’s couch monitoring the radar and ready to aid her if needed.
“Why did you ask Captain Martin about Rotorua?” Athena asked.
“Rotorua artifacts were showing up on the black market. If Mom and Dad’s expedition had left everything behind, and kept the location secret, who else but good, old Digger Doug knew where to go?”
“But it was so far out of human settled space,” Athena said. “It would have cost him a fortune.”
“And a fortune is what he made,” countered Ares. “How do you think he purchased a cargo hauler on a digger’s pay? He probably got some shady investors to stake his return there.”
Ares accusation of their beloved family friend dismayed Athena. “I don’t believe you,“ she said; but she did. “Why would he remain so close to us all these years?”
“If I were to guess, I’d say guilt. Or maybe he was watching Mom. Hoping she never learned of the thefts. So long as the artifacts stayed in private collections, he probably felt safe,” Ares speculated.
Athena landed awkwardly, but recovered her balance. A horrible idea sprang into her mind. “Do you think he killed our father?”
Ares was silent. She leapt off the surface again. “I don’t know,” he finally said. “Maybe father’s death was an accident, and Captain Martin’s robbery was just an opportunity he couldn’t pass up.”
Her light passed over a deep hole and Athena saw a glint. “Ares, I’ve found something. Mark my position.” Upon landing, Ares helped her navigate her hops back to the pit. Fastened inside was a metal luggage case.
"Got it. I’m coming in.”
Gripped in a clamp to keep the case from floating away, Ares entered a combination into the case’s lock.
“Wait!” Athena said. “Would Mom have booby trapped it?" Athena asked. She considered her mother's desperate words all those months ago. "She’d have left a warning in her data safe, right?”
Once Athena had won the legal battle to open their mother’s secure data safe, she’d found a map location in an empty region of space inside a distant uninhabited system along with a lock combination. Ares’ curiosity about the location allowed her to persuade him to accompany her on this trip.
Ares lifted the lid. “Nope, no booby trap.”
“You're such an ass. I was going to suggest we scan the interior,” Athena said.
Inside the case was an object covered in glyphs. A small disk was spinning. “Father must have activated it despite Mom’s warnings,” Ares said.
“Do you think Mom was correct? That this device is calling some danger toward us?” Athena worried.
“Maybe, how should I know?” Ares’ eyes watched the disk spin. “What I think is Mom put this thing way out here far from human settled space to draw a potential enemy away.”
“Let's drop it into this system’s sun,” Athena suggested. “Maybe they won’t come if it stops calling to them.”
“Or maybe Mom misunderstood the glyphs. I suggest we take it to a university,” Ares said. “We need to know if humanity is in danger.”
Athena understood her mother’s dread. “We must put it back,” she stated. “Humanity is safe at the moment.”
“We have no idea if we’re safe," said Ares.
In horror Athena realized who had killed her father. Now she had to stop Ares.
“Perhaps,” said Athena, “there’s a third option. As a civilization we have enormous resources.”
“I’m listening,” he said.
“Let’s broadcast a detailed warning message to all our worlds and include photos and scans of the artifact with its glyphs. We request a commission be established to study it. Then we reveal the artifact location. Until then the artifact goes back into its pit.”
“If you really hand it over,” said Ares, “they might bring it into human space. If the bug-eyed monsters come, we get exterminated.”
“A detail to negotiate,” Athena retorted. “Do you and I have a plan?”
“We do. I’ll get the scanner, and we can start saving humanity.”