Chapter 2: Can’t Help You

“Two?!”

“Two standard weight of gold,” Pher Ilinor repeated with an infinitesimal smile that barely hinted at politeness. “Would you prefer to credit the balance to your tax account, or receive remuneration now? The Institute can issue coins, treasury notes, or credit chips.”

Saffron could only gape up at him, aghast. Naturally, his implacable serenity did not so much as flicker in the face of her reaction.

“B-but—look at this thing!” She grabbed one end of the glowing hourglass where it lay on the desk between them, tipping it up to balance on its other end with her support. Ilinor’s graceful hands made an abortive twitch forward as if he meant to snatch it from her, but he just as quickly returned them to his sides as if the tiny lapse had never occurred. Saffron barely noticed it, wrapped up in her own outrage. “Just the gold it’s made of is worth considerably more than that.”

“Oh?” The Enlightened’s expression did not alter. “You happen to know the exact value of this precise quantity of gold off the top of your head?”

Saffron’s eyes widened further in sheer incredulity. “Are… Pher, are you accusing me of something?”

“Doctor Dystram,” Pher Ilinor replied, somehow making her academic title sound condescending, “if I had evidence of any wrongdoing on your part, I obviously would not offer you compensation for your…find. As it is, my offer stands.”

“I don’t understand how you can so devalue the importance of this discovery! The site itself is priceless, a First Phase tomb in completely pristine condition. And this, an unknown artifact showing Second Phase design sensibilities preserved in a place of honor within it, to say nothing of it containing a previously unknown physically active mineral! This is a treasure!”

“An archaeologist should know better than to let passion run away with scholarly restraint,” Ilinor said with an aloof serenity which did not soften the rebuke, nor had been meant to. “By your own account, Doctor, the site in question is significantly less pristine after your visit. Now, will you prefer a tax credit or direct compensation for this…artifact?”

“I prefer a fair compensation. Two standard won’t even cover my fuel costs!” That was an exaggeration, which he had to know, and certainly wasn’t helping her case. Saffron felt too swept up in the unfairness of it all to restrain herself appropriately.

“Doctor Dystram,” the Pher replied, again in that amazingly patronizing tone, “the Irilai Institute is not a fish market. The Institute does not purchase artifacts, as by proclamation of the Dhinsu Lhamin archaeological discoveries on Terminus are automatically the property of the Harmonious Union. The Institute fairly pays duly qualified citizens for the effort involved in their retrieval. Such compensation is subject to after-the-fact increase, should the discovery in question prove to be particularly important or valuable. As you have provided the coordinates of your…find…and a visual record of your exploration, subsequent investigation by the Institute survey team may merit further compensation. In that event, you will of course be notified. I urge you to keep in mind, Doctor Dystram, that the Irilai Institute is an academic institution devoted to the pursuit of science, not a commercial venture. We do not haggle.”

Saffron had once been enraptured by the eyes of the Enlightened, by their faceted surfaces and inner glow. One could feel, gazing at them, that one was peering into the fractal structure of reality itself, as if enlightenment and ultimate truth might be revealed in their gaze. Now, staring up at Ilinor’s beautiful, glittering, reddish-mauve eyes, Saffron felt only a sacrilegious urge to jam both her thumbs into them.

Instead, she tightened her grip upon the golden crown of the hourglass until her fingers whitened. Pher Ilinor shifted his head infinitesimally downward; the eyes of the Enlightened didn’t betray where they were aimed the way human pupils did, but she had the impression he was looking down at her grasp on the artifact. Mostly because of the disapproving tightening of his sculpted lips.

As a little girl with a limited grasp of theology, she had been totally awed by the Enlightened, a sense of wonder that had not truly diminished as she was schooled in the Harmonious Path and taught to regard them as guides and teachers, not literally divine beings. Intellectual knowledge only went so far; it was personal familiarity that made the difference. At Celeos she had had Enlightened teachers and even, to her amazement, fellow students. Even so, it had taken her the full nine years of her formal education to truly start regarding them as people. It had taken all of three conversations with Asda Ilinor for her to internalize the awareness that they could also be deeply flawed people.

He was just a Pher, apparently not qualified to participate in most of the Institute’s active research initiatives, and so consigned to the public desk. The Terminus branch’s lack of funding was the cause of both their troubles, ultimately, but at least Saffron tried to bear her disappointment with serenity as the Path taught. Ilinor managed to make everyone feel his dissatisfaction with being relegated to what, on a more civilized world, would be a human’s job—for example, by lecturing an archaeologist with a prestigious degree from Celeos on the basics of the Institute’s functions which he knew she had well understood for years.

She’d had a bad feeling about him starting at first sight with the slightly sacrilegious thought that he wasn’t nearly as beautiful as most of the Enlightened, with golden skin, bluish-white hair and those mauve eyes; they weren’t all equally color-coordinated, but she’d never before seen one who clashed. It was a terribly shallow basis upon which to judge anyone, much less an Enlightened, but his subsequent behavior wasn’t much less shallow. Asda Ilinor might be a sacred messenger of the Harmonious Path, but he was a smarmy, unctuous, petty, power-tripping sacred messenger, and the sole reason Saffron was capable of considering any Enlightened just a Pher.

“I was chased by zombies for this,” she hissed, clutching the hourglass until the rim of its cap dug into her fingers.

“Doctor,” Ilinor said with such a weight of condescension that it felt as if it should bear her physically to the floor, “do you hear yourself?”

The reminder brought an involuntary flush to her cheeks, and Saffron guiltily looked over her shoulder. Blessedly, the atrium of the Irilai Institute was unoccupied save for the two of them and the towering statue of Saint Irilai gazing sagely down upon them from her position above the door. Saffron turned back to Ilinor, finding him smirking faintly at her discomfiture. Because of course he was.

“You saw the recording,” she insisted in a more controlled voice. “It’s not as if I’m unaware how bizarre those events were, Pher. I was there, and believe me, it was far more disturbing in person.”

“I saw an apparently realistic depiction of ancient mummies coming to life and chasing you,” Ilinor replied in an openly bored tone. “I believe there is a similar adventure drama being screened in the theaters. Or was, recently; I have not checked recently whether it is still playing. Such entertainments are…not to my taste.”

“You’re suggesting I faked this?” Despite herself, her voice began to rise again. “Who even has the resources to make a— Pher Ilinor, I have been working with the Institute on Terminus for years. What indication have I ever given that I am untrustworthy?”

“That is the difficulty exactly, Dr. Dystram,” he retorted. At least he spoke her title normally, without the snide emphasis, but the pretense of civility was rapidly draining from his expression. “You’ve brought me an entirely unidentified ‘artifact’ of unknown origin and materials, reflecting vaguely Second Phase design sensibilities, which you claim to have unearthed in a First Phase tomb. You provided coordinates practically on top of a site the Institute has already thoroughly investigated, and found no such tomb. You included a video recording of wildly implausible events, as if this added to the credibility of your claim instead of undercutting it entirely. What you have, Dr. Dystram, is a basket full of fairy tales and nonsense, and I would dearly love to end this conversation by shooing you, your little adventure film, and your miscellaneous knickknack out of my Institute and filing a recommendation that your credentials be revoked. Were this your first or even your tenth visit, I would already be doing exactly that. But you have an established relationship with the Institute and have contributed materially useful scholarship on numerous occasions over the course of years, and so protocol compels me to treat what I suspect is either a prank or a con with a seriousness I don’t believe it deserves. Your recording will have to be painstakingly examined by specialists for any sign of fakery. It is entirely likely, given your record, that Lhamin Vidinsa will authorize an expedition to this putative tomb of yours to verify your claims—compelling the Institute’s sole survey team to waste time turning over rocks in a site they have already covered. Worse, as you have identified serious physical dangers, a military escort will have to be provided, at the cost of the Institute’s already strained resources and influence with the colonial government. Your academic credibility, Dr. Dystram, does not endear you to me at this time. It makes you a nuisance, as opposed to merely a kook.”

He leaned subtly forward, placing his hands upon the desk on either side of the artifact, which she still clutched. Ilinor’s glittering eyes bored into her own, all hint of politeness long gone from his expression.

“Now, Doctor Dystram. Please specify the manner in which you would like to receive my generous offered compensation, and then go be a pest elsewhere.”

Saffron stared up at him, momentarily poleaxed by the tirade. At least for a few seconds, shock reduced her anger to a faint background buzz. She had never been chewed out by an Enlightened, never even imagined that such a thing might happen. Serenity in the face of all conflict was one of the core teachings of the Harmonious Path. That he could act this way over something so…

Abruptly, she took a step back, picking up the hourglass and cradling it protectively against her chest. “As you wish, Pher. Walk with the Saints.”

She turned and strode away toward the front door.

“Dystram!” Ilinor snapped, bringing her to a startled halt. “All Terminus artifacts belong to the Harmonious Union. That is not a souvenir for you to keep!”

Slowly, Saffron turned to face him, tucking the hourglass under her arm. “Oh… So it is an artifact, now. I thought you believed I made the whole thing up?”

His eyebrows lowered in a frown. She couldn’t recall ever having seen an Enlightened scowl that way. “If you are thinking of selling it elsewhere, be warned that the Institute will prosecute the theft.”

“I wouldn’t dream of depriving the Irilai Institute of such an important prize, Pher,” Saffron replied, putting on a wide smile and making her tone downright syrupy. “Since we disagree as to its nature, and you are clearly busy with many important tasks, I will return later. Perhaps when an accredited scholar is manning the desk.”

She turned and swept out in long strides, moving so fast the doors barely had time to slide out of her way. He did not call her back. Probably out of sheer shock that she would dare talk to him that way.

Saffron bounded down the Institute’s front steps three at a time before coming to a halt and drawing in a deep, slightly ragged breath to calm herself.

That had not been wise.

She wasn’t at all worried about being prosecuted; invoking the Colonial Artifact Proclamation had been an empty threat and they both knew it, to the point it was actually surprising he would bother. Insulting an Enlightened could have real consequences, though, especially one she would have to deal with again.

Saffron breathed in and out, trying to let the anger and embarrassment of that debacle seep from her with each exhalation, as every child of the Union was taught. There was a lot of ill feeling in there, though; the meditative practice wasn’t making much headway against her agitation.

Raising her eyes, she drank in the sight of the city, rising all around her. Standing in the middle of Syre Liara, one could almost forget that Terminus was a nearly-uninhabited backwater with only the one city that deserved the title. In fact, even the city itself was sparsely populated; many of those gleaming ivory towers stood empty, built according to the standard colonial plan with ample room for future settlers to move in. But if you didn’t know that, to look at it was just like any Union city anywhere, especially in the core district where the Institute’s headquarters was located. Syre Liara was as clean, orderly, and safe as any metropolis on Celeos, Tarinis, or Dhin Limnasa itself.

That, finally, was calming. Saffron was committed to living on Terminus or she wouldn’t have come—it wasn’t as if packing up and going back to the core worlds was feasible. She loved exploring its ruins and unraveling all their nearly untouched mysteries. But still, the urban grace of Union civilization was what felt like home to her, what she sometimes longed for in her loneliest moments. Saffron’s work kept her out of Syre Liara enough that coming back here was always a soothing experience, never commonplace enough in her life to be taken for granted.

An Enlightened was walking up the sidewalk toward her, accompanied by an escort of four rzikeen lancers. Saffron didn’t know why such a person would be traveling through the city on foot—she was wearing a lhamin’s sashes—but obviously wasn’t going to stick her nose into an Enlightened’s business. She moved off the stairs and to the side, out of the way, bowing as the small procession passed.

Feline faces turned to glare at her as the rzikeen gripped weapons, which she took as neither threat nor insult; that was just how they were. The Enlightened, however, turned a warm smile upon Saffron, inclining her head deeply in polite thanks, the morning sunlight casting bewitching patterns across her gleaming onyx skin—which actually went very well with her matched crimson hair and eyes, something Ilinor could stand to learn from.

Saffron stood there for a minute after they had passed, watching the group move away and feeling calmer. The brief, apparently insignificant encounter had been a welcome reminder that this was how most Enlightened were. In fact, every Enlightened she had ever known, save the one. Respectful and kind, even to those far beneath their station. The universe had sent her just the right message just when she needed it. Saffron made a mental note to add a prayer of thanks to her evening meditations.

And, she amended grudgingly, one of penitence for speaking so rudely to Pher Ilinor. An Enlightened was an Enlightened, and if an Enlightened could be a petty, tyrannical creep, there must be a place for it along the Harmonious Path which it was not necessary for her to know. Saffron’s spiritual duty was not to govern Ilinor’s behavior, but to maintain her own serenity in the face of it.

But prayer later; whiskey now. Rarely had she so badly needed a damn drink.

***

Unfortunately, drunken indulgence was not only a sin, it was a generally bad idea, and Saffron sourly decided she had too much self-respect to get sloshed at this hour—it was barely noon in Syre Liara.

Fortunately, she was able to soothe her unhappiness with a different sort of indulgence. Upon returning to the outlying depot where she had parked the Overdue to secure the golden hourglass in the cargo hold, she discovered that her favorite diner was in port and had just opened for business. In just minutes she was blessedly stuffing her face with what the menu called a bacon cheeseburger, which was similar enough to the real thing that she wasn’t inclined to quibble.

“Now that’s a hunger of more than the body, by the look of it,” said Azyrvaide, looming behind the counter and watching Saffron eat with an amused little smile. The diner’s cook and proprietor had taken Saffron some time to get used to; she had rarely had reason to encounter mnemindae before coming to Terminus. Azyrvaide was never anything but friendly, though, even a little maternal at times. “Rough day, honey?”

“Mnbf,” Saffron grunted, then swallowed. “Serves me right for letting my expectations run away from me. Have you ever had something that you hoped…that you were sure was going to be the answer to all your dreams, and then suddenly it turned out to be practically nothing?”

“Oh, honey, business is full of disappointments like that,” Azyrvaide said with a kind smile that somehow didn’t look out of place on her hawkish, red-skinned face. Standing over two meters tall even without counting her towering horns, she couldn’t help being more physically imposing than most of her clientele and had refined the art of projecting a non-threatening presence through long practice. In the well-lit diner, even the eerie glow of her slitted eyes wasn’t evident. “It’s all about picking yourself up and getting back to work—that’s what we do. Course, there’s no harm in pausing to fill the soul with a cheeseburger,” she added with a wink.

Saffron glanced at one of the mnemindae totems hung in on the bulkheads between the movie posters, defining the diner area as a commercial space, which was very important in their religion. Just as quickly she dropped her eyes back to her plate. As much as Saffron was fascinated by pagan religions—she’d done her master’s thesis on them—she preferred to encounter them centuries dead. The mnemindae were the only non-Union race permitted to practice their faith openly in Union territory, ostensibly because it was a strictly racial creed. They not only didn’t proselytize but refused even to discuss the details of their dogma with outsiders. Of course, everyone knew the real reason.

The Triple Bee was a smaller mnemindae craftship, actually not much larger than Saffron’s own Overdue; the diner section took up most of it, leaving little personal space for Azyrvaide. Her people didn’t put down roots, conducting their various businesses from personal ships which never stayed long in one place. Even on Terminus, the closest they had to a permanent base was the mnemindae highliner in orbit. Azyrvaide’s diner traveled between Syre Liara, its various outlying stations like this one, and the less legitimate settlements which dotted the planet’s surface, doing a steady business in the best approximation of traditional human food Saffron had found on Terminus. She wasn’t actually sure what animals had contributed the “beef” and “bacon” in her burger; it wasn’t quite right. But it was close enough to be reminiscent, and good enough to stand on its own merits. A little comfort food was just what this morning’s letdown called for.

“I’m surprised how quiet it is,” Saffron said after another bite. “Your place is usually mobbed, Az.” She glanced over her shoulder; there were only two other customers present, despite this being the lunch hour. An older human man sat a few seats down the counter from her, working through a plate of fish and chips, and a young qrith was tucked in the far corner booth facing the door and grasping a large milkshake with all four hands as if he expected someone to take it away.

“Oh, everybody’s over at the starport,” Azyrvaide said cheerily, her hooves clopping on the deck as she turned around to face the cooktop. The spaded tip of her tail poked up right in front of Saffron, prompting her to move her plate away. “A new Union highliner’s just arrived and the shuttles will be unloading all week. You know how it is, everybody’s got to go gawk for themselves.”

“Oh. Huh. I’m surprised you aren’t there, then. Don’t you usually go where the business is?”

“Only when I can’t be where the business is going to be ahead of time,” Azyrvaide replied, turning to wink at Saffron over her shoulder. “The highliner is from Izarak, and you know what that means. The Union is not going to be welcoming rubberneckers. I give it another hour before the lancers get fed up and order everyone to vacate the port, and then most of them will come to the nearest depot where they can park.”

“Which is here.” Saffron picked up her burger again. “You never miss a trick, Az.”

“Thank you!”

“So, Izarak,” she murmured, staring at her food without taking another bite. “I wonder what they need more soldiers for.”

“Question is,” said the old man, “what did they think they were gonna need soldiers for fifteen years ago when the governor requisitioned another shipload of ’em.”

“Not all rzikeen are military,” said Azyrvaide. “Stereotypes only go so far, you know! This one’s a scheduled colony ship. Once it’s unloaded Terminus will have a proper rzikeen population, not just the lancers stationed here already. A full civilian colony complete with a queen, the way I heard it.”

“Well, good for them,” Saffron said vaguely. “Guess I can see why they wouldn’t want onlookers getting underfoot with that. Even more sensitive than an actual military transport…”

She busied herself with eating. When Azyrvaide turned back around, it was with masterful timing; Saffron was just swallowing a bite in time for the proprietor to brandish a fragrant pot of steaming black brew in front of her. “How about a cup of coffee to wash that down, Saff?”

Saffron eyed it warily. “Is that the artificial kind that tastes like tar? Or the authentic kind that costs more than starship fuel?”

“Hey, I do have to turn a profit, you know,” Azyrvaide protested. “I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but Terminus is just not important enough to get cargo shipments from Earth. What little real coffee still exists out here is only gonna get pricier, honey. And anyway, no, this is the other kind.”

“Ain’t that bad,” said the old man. “If there’s a pot brewed, I’ll have a cup, thanks.”

“Coming right up, Elliot,” said Azyrvaide, already sliding a mug in front of him and pouring. “Saffron?”

“Eh… Thank you, but I think I’m already about as tense as I need to be today.”

“Whatever you want, honey. I just figured you might like a little extra reminder from home, considering the mood you were in when you came in.”

Saffron sighed and didn’t bother pointing out that Earth wasn’t her home; she’d never found time to visit it. Well, too late now. It wasn’t strictly impossible she might one day board another highliner to leave Terminus, but for her as for most colonists the prospect was remote. She took another large bite of almost-cheeseburger.

“Wanna talk about it, honey?” Azyrvaide asked solicitously, clip-clopping back over to lean on the counter and give Saffron another gentle smile. She had always suspected mnemindae were so famously kind and hospitable as much to offset their frightening appearance as because it was good for business. There was a surprising prevalence of descriptions of demons and other evil entities from the primitive mythologies of a lot of worlds, dating back to before their discovery of interstellar flight, which looked unaccountably similar to mnemindae. Archaeologists did not agree on an explanation for this, but Saffron was in the camp which suspected Azyrvaide’s people had once been up to something very different from their modern emphasis on trade. Now, she knew the motherly routine wasn’t an act; they really were like that with their customers.

“Oh, it was the find of the decade,” she heard herself say wistfully, despite having already decided it might be wiser not to chatter about this in public. “The century, maybe. The most perfectly preserved kurrn tomb I have ever seen. That anyone’s ever seen! And the things in it…” She broke off, grimacing. “Well. I brought back a full recording of my exploration, the central artifact I retrieved, and full coordinates to the Irilai Institute.”

“Sounds like a precious find indeed,” Azyrvaide said, nodding sympathetically. “I take it they weren’t as grateful as you hoped?”

“Two coins!” Saffron growled, holding up her first two fingers. “Two! For all that! That’s what they offered me! I could maybe refuel and resupply my ship for that. Certainly the most important discovery I will ever make… Not to mention the wealth in that place could damn well fund the Institute itself for the next three decades!” She thumped a fist on the counter, growling wordlessly. “Two standard gold. Feh. I should’ve just ripped all the luminite out of the walls and sold it to VersaMax.”

“Now, you don’t mean that,” Azyrvaide said gently.

“…no, I don’t,” Saffron agreed grudgingly. The worst part was that she wasn’t entirely sure it was true. Defiling a historic site that way was among the gravest sins in archaeology. And yet, that stuff was worth so much money. Life had been so much simpler on Celeos, where she could afford to be in it for the sake of science, and not have to care about her own material needs…

“Two standard gold?” the old human grunted, looking from his coffee. “That’d buy you a hell of a lotta cheeseburgers. I didn’t realize archaeology was so lucrative you can afford to be disappointed by an offer like that.”

Saffron shot him a suspicious look. He was a ragged-looking character, with a shabby broad-brimmed hat and the high collar of a travel-stained duster protecting his well-lined face. Heavy sideburns and a bushy mustache decorated his visage where stubble didn’t, all of it steel gray. She also did not fail to notice that he was packing a rifle slung over his back on an ammo-laden bandoleer, and two pistols of a much heavier caliber than her own. Even if this wasn’t in the city proper, she couldn’t quite get used to the sight of people walking around Union territory armed to the teeth.

“It isn’t, when done properly,” she answered after a tense pause. Saffron didn’t care for the implied rebuke; she was right, dammit. As she’d complained to Pher Ilinor, the pure gold the hourglass was made from had to be at least fifty standard coins worth. “This is a frontier colony, after all. The Institute on Terminus has only a single survey team dedicated to archaeology and they won’t employ anyone but Enlightened directly. So they will purchase artifacts from those with proper academic credentials, so long as they come with sufficiently diligent documentation of every excavation conducted. If you have that, they pay well…usually. It helps cut down on treasure-hunters destroying fragile sites to pry out valuables, and at least gets some proper science done.”

Elliot, as Azyrvaide had called him, wiped his mustache with a napkin, frowning pensively. “So…it’s a question of resources? Cos it sounds like it’d be a lot more cost-effective t’just give jobs t’those archaeologists they’re buyin’ stuff off of.”

“If you’d like to explain that to the Institite, be my guest,” Saffron groused. “I’ve not had much luck. I’m…sure there is some good reason they do it this way. Lhamin Vidinsa knows what he’s about.”

“Does he?” The old man’s mustache twitched, pushed up by a lopsided smile. “How’re you so sure of that?”

Saffron stared at him. “Because he is a lhamin.”

“Oh, ‘course. Makes sense, my mistake.” Elliot went back to his fish and chips, still smiling to himself. Saffron gave him a lingering frown before returning her attention fully to her burger.

“Well, at least you got two standard gold out of it,” Azyrvaide offered, wiping a glass with a fluffy towel. There was no possible way she ran a place like this without an autowasher; Saffron suspected it as a cultivated mannerism meant to emphasize her homey image. “It may be less than you’d hoped, Saff, but that’s not nothing!”

“I didn’t take the money,” Saffron grumbled. “I know, I know, probably should have. I just… That was an insult. I can live with being cheated, but if someone’s going to look down their nose at me in the process, that’s where I draw the line.”

“Oh, honey,” Azyrvaide sighed. “A little pride is a good thing. Too much, and you end up alone and hungry.”

“Thanks, mum.”

The mnemindae grinned, which she probably refrained from doing often because the sight of her enormous fangs was unsettling to most of her clientele. Saffron, for her part, was inclined to regard such little lapses positively. It would be too creepy to eat here if everything Azyrvaide did was part of an affected manner. By all indications, she really was just a nice person.

“So you’ve got ancient treasure weighing down your hold, then? I know you, Saff, that’s got to wear on your calm. What’re you going to do, try to sell it to VersaMax?”

“Never,” Saffron said immediately. “That’s a crime, and VersaMax are soulless buzzards.”

“Soulless buzzards who pay well,” Elliot observed.

“Look, I don’t know,” she groused. “I just wanted to have a good meal and not think about all this for a few minutes.” Well, her burger was close to finished, anyway.

“You got it, honey,” Azyrvaide said sympathetically. “Subject closed.”

“May wanna think about what’s in your pockets, at least,” Elliot suggested.

Saffron shot him an annoyed look. “What’re you on about?”

He looked over at her, then tilted his head down, dropping his eyes significantly to her waist. Saffron frowned, then twisted, following his gaze.

She was just in time to spot the young qrith from the corner booth, now plastered to the floor beside her stool, reaching up with one deft hand, his fingers almost in her coat pocket.

“Oi!” she shouted, leaping to her feet and drawing her revolver. The qrith yelped and scuttled away on all six limbs to hide under the nearest table.

“No shooting in my diner,” Azyrvaide snarled, lunging straight over the counter. For such a huge tower of wiry muscle she could move like flowing water at need; she vaulted straight across without her hooves so much as grazing the countertop, landing on the deck in a crouch. Her tail whipped across right in front of Saffron, its barbed tip missing her by centimeters; Saffron had the distinct feeling Azyrvaide knew exactly where all her extremities were and was fully in control. She reached under the table, seizing the qrith by the tail and dragging him bodily out. He squirmed, struggled, and tried to grab the booth for purchase, but the deceptive lankiness of Azyrvaide’s build was offset by her sheer size; there was more muscle in her arm than in his entire body. She straightened up, holding him off the ground by the tail and baring her fangs in a furious snarl. “Also not allowed in my diner? Thieving little lizards!”

The young qrith emitted a squeal of pure panic, trying to roll himself up in a ball with his legs tucked under and all four arms wrapped around his head.

Azyrvaide shook him violently by the tail, which she held up over her head, making him swing about like a dangling prayer bauble. “You come into my craftship, do business with me, and then try to steal from other customers?! I should bolt you to the Triple Bee’s nose and climb to high orbit!”

“If you’re gonna steal, son,” Elliot advised, a wedge of fried potato held almost to his mouth, “don’t steal from a mnemindae ship. You’d be in less trouble steppin’ on a rzikeen’s tail.”

Saffron slowly holstered her pistol, staring at this spectacle with a worried frown. Sure, he’d been trying to pick her pocket, but he was at least a few years short of fully grown, and now that she looked, thin enough that she could see his vertebrae. He was also dressed in ragged and mismatched clothes a few sizes too small. In theory, no one should ever grow up in poverty within the Harmonious Union. In practice, the Union on Terminus might claim the entire planet, but it controlled only Syre Liara and the surrounding agricultural land; border depots like this were the outer extent of Union sovereignty. And even within the city itself, the Irilai Institute wasn’t the only government office operating on scant resources compared to its counterparts in the core worlds. There were cracks, and people slipped through them.

“Hang on,” she protested. Azyrvaide turned her furious stare on Saffron and she almost flinched. Mnemindae were imposing enough when being nice; the sight of those eyes and teeth aimed at her aggressively set off all sorts of primal warnings in the primitive part of her brain. She met the cook’s gaze, however. “Look at him, Az. The kid’s just hungry.”

“He just bought—”

“The cheapest thing on the menu that actually has calories?” Saffron interrupted, glancing at the empty milkshake glass still sitting on the table in the corner booth. It appeared to have been licked clean. “Come on, I know you’re not actually going to hurt him. What happens if you hand him over to the police? He’ll spend an afternoon getting terrorized by rzikeen, then a few days in a cell for petty theft, and then tossed back onto the street. No lessons learned and nothing gained by anybody.”

“So what, I should just let him go?” Affronted, Azyrvaide drew herself up to her full height, causing her horns to graze the ceiling, and shook the qrith again. He was beginning to dangle more loosely, clearly having trouble keeping himself coiled up in that position. “Nobody steals from my ship!”

“I’m not arguing with you, Az,” Saffron said soothingly. “Just pointing out, I’m the one he tried to steal from, not you. If you call Union peacekeepers, they won’t do anything unless I file a grievance, and…I’m sorry, I just can’t bring myself to do it. I’ve shot people who tried to break into my ship before, but I don’t have it in me to make trouble for a desperate urchin just because he almost got into my pocket lint. Look at him, really. I was sitting here complaining about my bad luck, but let’s be honest, my bad day is his whole life.”

Trembling violently, the qrith peeked out from between his forearms, the inner lids still shielding his eyes. His head frills remained plastered down flat.

Azyrvaide scowled down at Saffron for a long few moments, then returned her attention to the qrith boy. Her scowl deepened, but then she heaved a disgruntled sigh and crossed to the airlock, still holding him up by the tail.

“You are banned from this establishment,” she informed him. “I ever see you in here again, so help me I will take off before tossing you out. Now get lost.”

She slapped the side panel to make the outer lock hiss open, then bodily hurled him through the hanging bead curtain that covered the inner door.

“Sorry for all the trouble, Az,” Saffron said, gingerly sitting back down.

“Oh, honey, you haven’t done anything wrong.” Azyrvaide patted her on the shoulder as she passed, heading back around behind the counter the proper way this time rather than bounding over it. “For as much of a hard case as you like to pretend to be, Saff, sometimes you’re too soft-hearted for your own good. But that’s not such a bad flaw to have,” she added with a kind smile.

“Hear, hear,” Elliot grunted around his last bite of fish. “In the long run, I always back the nice folk. They’re usually up to their eyeballs in trouble and constantly needin’ t’be bailed outta some mess or other, but in the end? It’s the nice folk who end up bein’ well worth knowin’.”

“Thanks for the validation,” Saffron said sardonically, picking up her cheeseburger again. It was cooler, but still good. There were only a few bites left, anyway.

Minutes later, she had settled up, said her goodbyes to Azyrvaide, and brushed through the hanging beads herself, feeling pleasantly full but once more lost in thought. Not happy thoughts, exactly, but less burdensome than dwelling on her unfair treatment at Ilinor’s golden hands, as she had been on the way in. The incident with the qrith boy had been a reminder: even on her worst day, she was blessed in many ways. Perhaps she had set herself up for all this disappointment simply by being too self-absorbed…

Saffron was distracted from her ruminations as she stepped off the gangplank by the sound of pounding feet behind her. She turned just in time to get an impression of the old man from the diner charging out of the airlock at her, his long coat flaring out with the wind, before he tackled her bodily to the ground.

Previous Chapter

* * *

Netherstar is a pet project; my primary focus is on my main webserial, The Gods are Bastards.  As I struggle with mental health issues that can make productive output difficult, TGAB is currently my only firm commitment.

As I have energy and time left over, I will update this serial, but for this reason it has no set schedule; chapters will be posted infrequently and at irregular times.  If you wish to follow Netherstar, you can do so with a WordPress account or its RSS feed to receive notifications of new chapter postings, or join my discord server to be pinged with relevant announcements.

Chapter 1: I Meant to Do That

After all that work, it was there, right where her scans predicted.

Saffron was no miner or geologist, so the labor of opening up an access tunnel had taken her over a week, even using rented drilling equipment and having her bot do most of the physical work. Using sonic and seismic scans to find underground passages was old hat to her, of course; that was the quickest method of sweeping for underground chambers. Plotting out an optimal path to dig through solid mountainside without causing an avalanche or cave-in was another matter, and she took her time with it, downloading a couple of dense manuals from the satnet and having Ace double- and triple-check all her figures.

But it had worked. She had been right. Though the deeper tunnel system had appeared on the seismic scans to be an uninteresting natural formation, she had thought its layout felt suspiciously regular, reminiscent of artificial chambers elsewhere on Terminus. Now, after boring a six-meter-deep access tunnel just tall enough to crawl through, navigating another twenty meters of natural cavern, and then clearing a path through an ancient cave-in with the greatest meticulous caution, there it was. Validation of her hunch and all the hard work.

Standing in the ancient darkness of the cave, beyond the narrow path she had made through the undisturbed rubble, Saffron could only gaze around, grinning in delight at everything revealed in the beam of her probe’s flashlight.

A touch on the datapad mounted to her bracer switched the probe’s light from beam to radial, then increased it incrementally till the chamber was fully illuminated in clean, clinical white light. She switched on its microphone, cleared her throat, and began narrating.

“Expeditionary log, colonial date 39.4.2, Dr. Saffron Dystram recording. I am in a cave system approximately eight kilometers from the First Kingdom city designated Site RP2931 by the Irilai Institute, which excavated the city proper. This cavern lies beneath the mountain which borders the city on the northwest, and is accessible from the opposite face from the city itself. Given the lack of any other ruins in the area, I think the Institute’s survey team can be forgiven for missing this. There is evidence of tunnel collapses, possibly more than one, which sealed off the entrance.” She directed the probe to sweep its camera around to record the crushed and crumbled walls nearby, and the new route where she had shifted rubble to make a path. “I had to dig a new access corridor and don’t actually know where the original entrance was located. With this feature positioned where it is, it probably was somewhere on the north face, not directly linked to the city itself.”

The talking was a little redundant, as the probe was recording everything, but she always did it when exploring or excavating a site, unless there was a specific need for silence—which happened fairly regularly, given the type of “archaeology” Saffron usually did these days. It all harkened back to the best practices drilled into her by her own professors at Celeos, among which the imperative to meticulously document everything ranked very high. Now, it was just as important to her to maintain the pretense that she was still a real scientist. And hopefully, someday, all the records she had logged and squirreled away would still be put to proper academic use. With that in mind, she shifted the probe back to face what was truly interesting down here and continued, excitement creeping into her voice.

“As you can see, I’m now standing before a classic example of ancient kurrn architecture, clearly of a First Phase civilization.” Tapping her wristpad, she maneuvered the probe to record each feature in succession as she described them. “This is a square-arched doorway…” She checked the probe’s readout as numbers flashed across her pad. “2.4 meters wide and 3.6 meters in height, which is large even by kurrn standards, signifying that the aperture is either to a place of great significance or intended to admit large vehicular traffic. Given its location in what appears to be a natural cavern I surmise the former, though as I said, I can’t be sure what access to this cave existed when this was built. The architecture of the arch itself is classic First Phase, being angular with no curved lines in evidence. It’s all right angles, which rules out a Ninth or Eleventh Kingdom origin. While the nearby city is from the First Kingdom, this monument lacks the decorative or text inscription that virtually all First Kingdom ruins possess, suggesting it predates the civilization which settled that city. Very interesting, as unlike many sites on Terminus, the Institute’s survey team found no evidence that it was built atop the ruins of an older city. According to my probe, the metal inlay on these columns is an alloy of stainless steel highly resistant to corrosion which was not used prior to the Eighth Kingdom. That would seem to narrow this structure’s origin to the Third, Fifth, or Seventh Kingdoms. Hopefully we can narrow that down further with closer investigation.”

She shuffled carefully to press herself against the cave wall, directing the probe to face the floor.

“Note the mosaic design, which is inlaid in—according to my probe—obsidian in the granite from which the monument is constructed. This design of a five-point star occurs in kurrn iconography from every known Kingdom, and is still used in the rituals and decorations of modern kurrn tribes. This particular one is symmetrically altered, breaking some of the lines in a pattern that occurs throughout First Phase ruins. Cross-referencing this specific variant with recorded specimens from other sites may help a lot in determining the era to which these ruins date. Unfortunately my probe is not equipped for precise dating of stone or metal and I haven’t brought a portable lab on this expedition. I am now going to investigate what’s beyond the gateway. Saints, this is exciting, just look at the state of these ruins! You can see impact damage on the floor mosaic over here where rocks have fallen on it, but apart from that the structure appears perfectly intact. This might be the most undamaged ruin I have seen on Terminus!”

Before stepping through the towering arch, she directed the probe to go ahead, watching avidly as it buzzed off into the darkness. Its light illuminated bare stone walls cut perfectly square until the probe itself reached a corner and she switched to following its progress on her wristpad. Saffron guided the little hovering machine around a quick series of right angle turns to what lay at the end of the corridor. There she brought the probe to a stop, squinting at the image projected on her pad, before signaling it to return to her.

“All right, you saw what the camera did,” she continued, holding up her bracer to speak into the pad as she stepped through the archway into the corridor beyond. “Rapid and repeated turns, all at right angles. It may not have been apparent from the—ah, hello again,” she interrupted herself, waving at the probe as it buzzed up to her and then directing it to resume hovering alongside her. “As I was saying, those turns made a very specific pattern, one which also has precedent in both Third and Fifth Kingdom structures. The corridor turns left, right, and right again, making a minor detour before returning to a point in line with its original course. The prevailing theory is that this is done to cut down on airflow for the sake of preserving what lies within—and most significantly, is a feature only seen in large tombs. In this particular case it immediately repeats on the opposite side. So we have a lot of back-and-forth here…and I’m rounding the first corner now, as you can see…which will ultimately resolve itself perfectly in line with the tunnel’s entrance. Obviously, the precision of this speaks of the sophistication of its architects, but it’s well known that the ancient kurrn of any of the Kingdom periods were capable of such feats. To judge by the lack of visible stonework and occasional natural fissures in these corridor walls, this particular tunnel was cut out of the mountainside, not built. That also suggests a tomb, as the kurrn of the First Phase civilizations much preferred to build above ground. What’s most interesting is the double-switchback here; if this is indeed a tomb, it’s either a very large one, or home to the remains of someone extremely important. My seismic scans suggest the first explanation, but I’m going to hope for both… And now, here we are.”

The probe’s radial light filled the end of the tunnel as cleanly as any laboratory, not that there was much to see except for the hole in the floor.

“This all but confirms that this is a tomb,” Saffron continued, the excitement mounting further in her voice. “And likely an important one! This feature has been observed in multiple First Phase tombs, best preserved in the royal sepulcher at Krrankho and in several surviving examples in the cemeteries at Site PN2260. Or rather, best-preserved until now! This tunnel continues to be in perfect condition. Here we see a vertical shaft in the floor, which to judge by previous sites will lead down to a sub-level where the actual tomb is located. Given the excellent condition of this site I have high hopes that there will be mummified kurrn present, perhaps with funerary goods intact! I’m sending the probe down now to verify it’s safe to descend.”

She tapped the controls on her wristpad, watching the screen as the probe floated down. It turned in a slow circle as it descended, sweeping its camera across the walls of the shaft. They were the same un-decorated granite as the upper corridor, which was consistent with kurrn tomb architecture of the periods to which Saffron had narrowed down this site. After over a minute of steady descent, the probe came to a stop at its standard height of 1.5 meters above the floor, and indicators lit up the pad as it performed the standard atmospheric test.

“Right,” Saffron said aloud for the benefit of the pad’s mic. “The shaft is 8.6 meters deep. The kurrn were really serious about protecting this tomb. Luckily for me—and for science—it seems their efforts paid off. Probe reports the air is stale but not dangerous. Still, I think I’ll take the usual precautions, if it’s all the same to you.”

She withdrew the flat eyeshield from its inner pocket of her coat, settling the transparent screen in place over her eyes and grimacing as she finagled the strap into position, buckling it just under her ponytail after making sure none of her hair was caught in the clasp. One light touch to the power switch on the side and the shield hummed to life, projecting a transparent HUD synced to her wristpad over her left eye, and the lower mask extended. Saffron couldn’t help grimacing as it crawled down to cover her nose and mouth; no matter how many times she used the thing, it never stopped feeling weird. But then the whole apparatus sealed itself to her face with a soft hiss, and the data display reported the mask’s air filter and built-in mic were online.

As usual, activating the repulsors in her boots caused Saffron to stagger slightly; standing atop the cushion of force they created was very like balancing on marbles. She had enough practice with them to avoid falling over or careening into the wall, if not enough to look graceful while doing it. Keeping her right hand in position on her wristpad to activate and control the thruster pack on her belt, Saffron leaned her weight forward, falling into a slow slide that took her over the lip of the hole.

Her descent required only one brief use of the thruster pack to cancel her forward momentum, otherwise she’d have spent the whole fall bouncing back and forth off the walls. Once she positioned herself neatly in the center of the shaft, however, it was a smooth descent. She drifted down as gently as a feather on the repulsors, keeping an eye on the power readout along with a hand ready to correct course. Even as long as the fall was, she was in no immediate danger of running out of power so long as she didn’t abuse the thrusters; coming into a place like this with all batteries fully charged was a very basic precaution.

Saffron cut the repulsors right before the end of her descent, falling as gravity intended the last half-meter or so. Experience had taught her that this ironically made for a smoother landing than trying to come to rest on the unstable force projected from her boots. She hit the floor lightly, already examining her new surroundings.

First step was to switch the probe’s light back to a beam, as the radial glow was messing with the dark vision feature of her eyeshield. Even the beam caused some weird, geometric visual artifacts on the screen, but at least they weren’t blinding her every couple of seconds. She resolved, not for the first time, to upgrade to a more expensive model when she next had the opportunity.

Already, though, Saffron was distracted from these practicalities by the thrill of discovery. “Okay, I’m now at another square gate very like the one above. No decorations of any kind down here, which is consistent—the ancient kurrn, like their modern descendants, feared the afterlife and avoided any touches that might attract its attention to the resting places of the dead. Beyond this gate is a much wider gallery, not another tunnel, and… Oh, wow. Oh, wow.”

On the right-hand wall of the chamber, a few meters in from the entrance, she found her first denizen of the tomb.

The kurrn stood in a niche inset into the wall in a pattern recognizable from other ancient burial sites on Terminus. It was beautifully intact, with grave goods arrayed on the floor around its feet; the organic parts had decayed to dust and scraps, but the jars and bottles were in pristine condition. Metal fragments glittered amid the wreckage of the others, including the yellow glow of pieces of luminite.

“Well, that tears it,” she breathed. “This is definitely a tomb. Hello there, handsome. What’s your name, then?”

The kurrn did not answer, of course, though at a glance it almost looked as if he might. Some settlers on Terminus claimed that kurrn were made of “organic stone,” an absurd biological contradiction. They were definitely organic, and while they were not made of any kind of stone, their tough grayish skin and tissue did resemble it. Among the traits which made it incredibly durable, kurrn tissue was evidently not edible to any of the microorganisms which contributed to the process of decay. Dead kurrn, as such, were easy to mistake for sleeping kurrn at a glance, even those who had lain still for hundreds or thousands of years. Saffron privately suspected that avoiding such errors was part of the reason so many of the Kingdoms had buried their dead in this specific way.

“Upright burial,” she said aloud, “which doesn’t do much to narrow down our time frame as all the First Phase societies were known to have done this. And, of course, there are no inscriptions to conveniently identify our new friend, here, as recording his name would have made him a target of the Nether, or so their religion held. According to my probe, this specimen is male, 2.74 meters tall, and missing his internal organs. Now, that does help us, as it was the Third and Fifth Kingdoms who favored that method of mummification. It is evident that he was someone rich and important simply from the quality of the goods surrounding him. Look at this jewelry he’s got on! Arm bands and a crown of silver and platinum—yes, these are clearly First Phase designs, look at the angular decorations and cuts of the stones. A good number of these jewels are luminite! As are some of the fragments below. A lot of that will have been from his necklace and clothing, which would’ve used organic structural materials subject to decay. With a biological specimen like this we could of course date him precisely—in theory, I mean. I haven’t brought a mobile lab and that’s more than my probe’s scanner can do on the spur of the moment. So no need to collect samples just yet. It’s just as well—we’ve only just met, seems a bit rude to start cutting bits off him without so much as a how d’you do.”

She fell silent, studying the bottles and jars arrayed around the ancient kurrn king’s feet, the ceramic, glass, and metal fragments among them gleaming in the golden shine of luminite. Saffron itched to begin cataloging and sorting the pieces present, but for the moment had to content herself with the record her probe was making zipping about to document the mummified king and all his treasures. She wasn’t here to do actual science, after all.

That reminded her of her real purpose, and with the reminder came the usual surge of shame. The fact remained, though, that this find was just as rich materially as academically. The luminite alone, in this single burial, was worth a fortune. And she had barely begun to explore the tomb.

Drawing a deep, steadying breath of the recycled air inside her mask, Saffron stepped back, craning her neck to examine the square walls of the gallery. In the next moment she frowned, peering more closely at the ceiling. “Hello, what’s this? There are decorations up there—very unusual for a kurrn tomb. Let’s have a… No.”

She had already directed the probe to angle its beam upward; at her first sight of what the light revealed, she sent it closer to perform a more intensive scan of the distinctively matte, opaque blue stone set into the cornice where the walls met the ceiling.

“All right,” she said, her voice now shaking slightly. “Th-the probe is giving me mixed signals, identifying that material as quartz, granite, copper… Keeps changing its mind. That’s a known result of mineral scans trying to identify one of Terminus’s physically active minerals, so we know that’s what it is. And by the color it looks like levium.” Saffron paused, taking another deep breath to steady herself. “An…entire…row of levium fragments embedded into the ceiling. All up and down the length of this gallery…” She shifted the probe and its light. “On both sides. Well, at the very least, this helps explain how the Irilai Institute’s team missed this site, and why the seismic scans reveal only a squiggly little passage down here instead of the big, square-cut chambers there actually are. Physically active minerals mess up a lot of scans, especially levium. By the saints, could this be load-bearing? I’ve no idea exactly how much mountain there is above us, but… I don’t know why else the ancient kurrn would do this. The material was just as rare and valuable then as today, and this is more of it concentrated in a single place than anywhere I’ve ever heard of before. Phew… That also tells us this site is more important by far than any mere tomb. Just who were you, old boy?” she asked the long-dead kurrn, studying him again. “Why did you merit this as your final resting place? And what’s this all about, exactly? Furthermore, why am I asking you?”

Try as she might, she could not push from her mind the awareness of just what that quantity of levium was worth. Never mind reaching her savings goal and then some—just from the materials in this tomb, Saffron could make herself a very rich woman indeed. And all she would have to do would be to ravage what might well be the most important archaeological find on Terminus.

But even if she only took a few fragments…just a few would set her up for good, wouldn’t completely destroy the site. And with enough, she could stop doing this. Maybe even spend her time henceforth doing real archaeology…

Saffron shook her head, stepping back from the kurrn and his burial niche. First things first. Looking ahead, she could already see another similar burial on the opposite wall of the gallery. Moving carefully to be sure she placed her feet only on undisturbed stone and not any stray grave goods, she moved on to investigate, the probe floating ahead.

It took her almost half an hour do traverse barely twenty meters; there was just so much to see, and every discovery captivated her anew. The long gallery was home to, at final count, thirteen mummified kurrn, all resting upright in niches against the walls, in a staggered pattern characteristic of First Phase design sensibilities. Saffron had to stop at each to examine them closely, recording every detail with her probe’s camera and adding her own analysis and commentary, as she had been trained. Not having a portable lab or even proper excavation tools, she took care to touch nothing. Even if she ended up just pilfering valuables from this site, it would be a crime against science she chose to commit, not the result of carelessness.

Without the tools to perform an in-depth analysis of each mummy and artifact, they revealed little further about their origins, though as her exploration continued Saffron grew more confident in the conclusions she had made this far. Just from the style of architecture and artifacts present, this was surely a Third or Fifth Kingdom tomb. Unfortunately the differences between them would be revealed by art and writing, all of which was absent from burial grounds as per the proscriptions of kurrn religion. It was evident that these had all been individuals of great importance simply by their presence in this wonderful tomb, and the quality of the goods interred with them. Their jewelry was fabulous, and all of them were wearing cut shards of luminite, enough to cast a faint yellow glow across the gallery where it was not illuminated by Saffron’s probe. Kings and queens, most likely. There were seven males and six females, which tracked with existing data on ancient kurrn society; modern tribal kurrn tended to be matriarchal, but there was no evidence of gendered social roles in either First or Second Phase civilizations.

At the far end of the gallery another square doorway opened onto a hallway which turned ninety degrees to the left, then to the right again. Twenty meters beyond the bend, it opened once more onto an enormous chamber filled with light.

“I…truly cannot believe what I am seeing,” Saffron whispered as she stepped into the cathedral-like room, slowly panning the probe’s light and camera across the space. “This recording had better not get corrupted. I may have to watch it a few times before I’m willing to agree with what my eyes are telling me right now.” She cleared her throat, gathering herself. “Well! All right, my probe’s readout says this chamber is a perfect cube, 33 meters to a side. It has got to be buried deep under the mountain, but as you can see it is filled with light…and there’s why.”

She angled the probe to face one of the huge square walls, shutting off its lamp to make the spectacle more clear to the eye.

“This is the same broken star pattern inlaid in the floor at the entrance to the tomb up above. The design is featured on all four vertical walls, of dimensions that take up nearly the entire available space… And it is inlaid, entirely, in luminite.” Saffron had to pause for a moment and just stare in awe at the four colossal sigils beaming their radiance through the chamber. “It’s… This has got to be the single greatest concentration of luminite I’ve ever seen. Maybe the biggest anyone has seen. This… I don’t know what this place is, but it’s no mere tomb.”

She caught herself; that kind of emotion-driven speculation had no place in a scientific mindset, especially not while she was in the middle of examining the available evidence. Saffron cleared her throat again and continued, once more shifting the probe’s focus.

“Ahem. Well, we can see a different pattern on the ceiling: that maze-like knotwork is familiar to First Phase kurrn civilizations especially of the Third and Fifth Kingdoms, though it is the first example of such seen in this tomb. And, of course, that isn’t luminite. It appears to be levium, like the ceiling decoration in the gallery. A…lot of levium.”

A wealth of levium. If she just chipped out a fraction of the physically active minerals embedded in these walls, she could buy… Nothing Saffron Dystram actually wanted to buy would cost that much, now that she thought of it. This could solve all her problems forever. And all it would cost would be the purity of a precious archaeological site and the last of her own self-respect. Plus, if she wasn’t very careful about it, her professional reputation.

“As far as I’m aware,” she continued aloud, “this arrangement is without precedent in kurrn ruins. First Phase civilizations used perfectly cubic chambers for a variety of purposes, but the size, the décor, and the association with a tomb complex are all new. And presumably the point is these displays in the center. I have never seen anything like this, either…”

She stepped deeper into the vast room, whose sole contents were dwarfed by its sheer size and emptiness. That was an effect of perspective, as Saffron drew closer, the scope of what lay before her grew more impressive.

There were two structures positioned in the middle of the empty stone floor: a pedestal, and a sarcophagus. Saffron hesitated, torn between which to examine first. In the end, training and proper archaeological practice won out; it was simply more logical to start with what was closer.

“Now, I really don’t know what to make of this,” she murmured, at this point talking to herself as much as to the probe’s recorder. “This is totally without precedent in my experience with kurrn ruins on Terminus. What we have here is a granite pedestal, 1.35 meters tall…which would make it awfully low for kurrn purposes…shaped roughly like an obelisk with a flat top. No carving or decoration of any kind. In a tomb on any other world I would call this an altar, but there was no use of such in the kurrn religion, and certainly not in their burial practices. I’d say, rather, it’s a display pedestal. And on top of it… This.”

It rested there atop the pedestal, like a twisted golden hourglass filled with luminous fluid a pale shade of bluish green reminiscent of the foam of a choppy sea. Clearly it was affixed to the stone somehow, though there was no visible support; the object’s base was as rounded as its top. There was no way it was simply balancing there. If she assigned to the tomb its latest possible period, it had lain undisturbed for three thousand local years. Even the slightest tremor of seismic activity would have dislodged it.

“I have absolutely no idea what this is,” Saffron admitted, now pacing in a slow circle around the pedestal to examine the hourglass closely from every side. “All right, whatever it’s purpose, this object seems to consist of a single piece of cast metal, holding…wait, really? According to the probe, this is solid gold, of remarkable purity. Blighter must be amazingly heavy. Anyhow, it sort of resembles an hourglass. Two bowl-shaped segments, connected by three struts twisted in a helix configuration, all one solid piece. Fifteen centimeters tall. Saints, that’s a lot of gold. And what’s it doing in here? First Phase civilizations never left gold artifacts; there’s no indication that they even used the metal. That’s not even the strangest part, I can’t tell at all what that substance inside it is. Looks like a cylindrical rod held by the hourglass frame, but it’s glowing, and…” She paused, scowling at the data flickering across her eyeshield’s HUD from the probe. “…and the material is unidentifiable. You know what that means. Except this looks nothing like any of the five known physically active minerals found on Terminus. It glows, like luminite, but the color’s all wrong. A new, rare type of luminite? A new active mineral entirely? It’s not radioactive, which rules out any physical reaction I know of that would still be putting off light thousands of years later…”

She straightened up and backed away, grimacing. “Aaaand I’m standing here brazenly speculating. Focus, Dystram, one bloody thing at a time. Let’s have a look at the slightly more familiar sights.”

Saffron turned to the other object in the room, the upright sarcophagus.

“Now, this is both more recognizable and unusual. Every previous upright burial found in Third or Fifth Kingdom tombs was set in a niche in a wall. This chap must’ve been somebody really special, to warrant a free-standing stone nice set out in the middle of the floor like this. My, he was a healthy fellow! 3.14 meters in height, and correspondingly burly, no signs of unusual elongation due to illness or deformity. That makes him substantially bigger than any of the others interred here, and even those ran larger than the modern tribal kurrn. Hm… I’m no biologist, but this may actually be the largest kurrn specimen ever recorded. Apparently there can’t be anything in this complex that isn’t an unprecedented first of some kind. Well, he was obviously a product of the same society that buried those other gents and dames down here, same mummification method and all. No organs, comparable style and quality of remaining jewelry. Well, except that he’s got more luminite than any of them.”

She fell silent, tilting her head back to stare up at the long-dead kurrn king. It never ceased to be eerie, how even the oldest remains of kurrn looked like they might awaken at any moment; aside from his greater size, this mummy very much resembled living kurrn she had met on Terminus. They were upright bipeds, clearly cast in the mold of the Enlightened, despite the resistance of the modern tribes to adopting the Harmonious Path. They tended to be less symmetrical than other bipedal races, sometimes with uneven shoulders, visible spinal curvature, even mismatched arms, and lopsided facial features were the norm. This ancient king was no exception, but gazing up at him, Saffron had the strangest impression that his lifeless features held a nobility she had come to associate with the Enlightened. His heavy, uneven brow and boulder-like chin in no way resembled their lean, pointed faces, and yet…

Once again, she shook herself out of a reverie, stepping back. There she was, trying to impose he own unconscious biases on the products of an entirely alien culture. She knew better than that; any archaeologist who dared call themselves such ought to have better sense. Saffron was clearly off her game. But then, this place held enough surprises to rock anyone from their equilibrium.

She paced around the free-standing resting place of the great king, finding nothing behind it but more unadorned, square-cut stone that could have come from any Third Kingdom tomb. Unlike the walls and ceiling in here, there was no adornment upon the floor. Saffron returned to the shorn-off obelisk, letting her probe sweep in wide circles around the structures to take records from every angle.

“I don’t know what to make of any of this,” she mused, once more studying the pedestal and the inexplicable hourglass shape perched atop it. “There’s a lot about this tomb that is simply without precedent in kurrn archaeology. It is a First Phase site, almost certainly of Third or Fifth Kingdom construction, and at least part of it is a tomb. That’s the exhaustive list of facts about which I am even relatively certain. This last chamber… There’s no hint what its purpose was. It was clearly of tremendous importance to warrant the installation of such an incredible quantity of luminite and levium.” She paused, directing a longing stare around at the vast wealth imbedded in the walls and ceiling. It was enough to tempt far less corrupt scientists than she… “This final burial is an abnormally large kurrn, which may have some bearing on the unusual style of his resting place. But…what does it mean? Why? All archaeology is trying to put together a puzzle from which most of the pieces are missing. And then sometimes you come across something like this, which looks like it’s from a different puzzle entirely. It’s as wonderful as it is frustrating!”

Saffron turned in a slow circle, just taking in the spectacle of the cubic chamber. All that luminite. Extracting the levium might be actively dangerous, if it was playing some role in holding the ceilings up. But there would be no such risk in prying out some of that luminite… Or more than some of it. Or all of it. There was more of the stuff in here than she could physically fit in the cargo hold of her ship. If she kept the location of this tomb to herself, made multiple trips… And she had that mining equipment, still…

Squeezing her eyes shut for a moment to shut out temptation, Saffron turned her back on the room, bringing herself around to face the pedestal once more. “You know the thing that jumps out at me the most? This thing is at a very convenient height for me to examine the object displayed on it. I’ve seen busts and vases on pedestals of about these dimensions in Union buildings. So why in Irilai’s name would the ancient kurrn have built such a thing thousands of years before any human set foot on Terminus? Without having the date of this site pinned down I can’t even be sure the Enlightened had discovered Earth by the time this was built. But look at it! A perfect display piece for me, and yet the people who built it would have been at risk of tripping over the thing.”

Saffron came closer, bending to examine the hourglass closely, very carefully resting her hands on either side of it atop the stone plinth. “I wish I could tell what’s holding this up… It has to be a pin or extended segment or something, it’s simply impossible for it to be balancing this way on its own. Whatever that active mineral is, it’s corrupting my probe’s scans. I could barely get an identification of the gold part…Hm.”

Gold was gold, but even to someone as treasure-conscious as she, it was the less interesting of the hourglass’s features. What was that greenish material? If she had discovered a new physically active mineral it was likely to be worth more to the Irilai Institute than even the data on this tomb. Worth more to anyone, in fact. If she was willing to break her usual policy and sell an artifact to VersaMax, it could be very lucrative indeed…

No, the Institute, Saffron decided. There was a potential compromise here between the tattered remains of her professional conscience and her need for funding. Disregarding all the luminite, levium, and whatever as-yet uncatalogued treasures lay among the grave goods of these kings and queens of old, this thing was obviously the centerpiece of the whole complex, surely at least part of the reason it had been built. This was the true mystery and the true prize. She could take this back to the Institute, turn it in for what was sure to be an unprecedented reward, perhaps enough to finish off her savings goal entirely, and not have to burden herself with being the cause of any further damage to this precious trove of a site.

While lost in thought, Saffron had been unconsciously edging closer to the hourglass, and finally one of her fingers inadvertently brushed its heavy base.

Impossibly, it was not affixed to the pedestal. It had an almost perfect hemisphere for a base and was simply balanced on it, somehow, as she discovered when it immediately toppled over at that lightest touch.

By instinct she snatched the artifact before it could fall and be damaged. Her first impression was that yes, it was absurdly heavy. Her second…

“Oh, brilliant,” Saffron said aloud in disgust. “That’s just marvelous, Dystram, good show. Let’s visit the undisturbed tomb and bloody well knock everything over! Call yourself an archaeologist. Of all the ham-handed idiot fumbling… Professor Zafini would bury me up to my neck for the next tomb explorers to find. I cannot believe that—”

It was a faint sound, but it cut through her own diatribe. Saffron fell silent, listening intently. There, below the soft buzz of her probe, a noise like rock grinding against rock.

She turned back to face the entombed king, and went pale. He had moved.

No…he was moving.

Saffron stepped back, awkwardly shifting the heavy hourglass to her left hand and using her right to poke at her wristpad, sending orders to her probe. It obligingly zoomed over and performed a second scan of the king. Same as before: no neural activity, neutral body temperature, no internal organs. Her eyes shifted focus from the data streaming across her HUD to the mummy, watching him ponderously extend on hand to grasp the edge of his sarcophagus. He shifted, slowly, causing a clatter from the ceramics arranged around his feet as one shuffled forward.

“What?” she asked dumbly.

The mummified kurrn stepped fully out of the sarcophagus, his bulky feet smashing the priceless jars laid before them in the process. Once standing free of the stone niche, he straightened up to his full, suddenly very alarming, height. Only then, finally, did he open his eyes.

The eyeballs of course had been removed as part of the mummification, but when the heavy lids were raised, whatever lay behind them glowed with the intensity of the purest luminite. But unlike the golden hue of luminite—or even the greenish glow of whatever was in this hourglass—the ancient king’s eyes were a livid red.

Even without irises or visible structures of any kind, it was very clear he was looking at Saffron. If nothing else, the sight of her holding the artifact made his stony face twist into a thunderous scowl.

Baring a set of bluff teeth, the dead king emitted a rumbling growl from deep inside his chest and began ponderously to reach down for her.

“No,” Saffron barked, tucking the artifact against her side and pointing peremptorily at him with her free hand. To her surprise, the king froze mid-reach, his eerie red gaze flickering once as he blinked. She simply kept talking, mostly out of pure, outraged disbelief. “Absolutely not! Zombies are a ludicrous scientific impossibility, and you should be ashamed of the very suggestion. I don’t know what you think you’re playing at, sir, but I’ll have none of it!”

The dead kurrn stared at her in silence for a moment, then blinked again, twice.

Then he bared his teeth and emitted a roar that echoed deafeningly off every stone wall, and took a long stride toward her.

Saffron was already skittering backward. Her revolver was in her hand and taking aim before she was conscious of deciding to draw it. The first shot struck him straight in the chest, as did the second, rocking the huge kurrn back. She squeezed the trigger again, but between his lurch backward and her own blind retreat—and the fact that she was an archaeologist, not some kind of gunslinger—it went wide.

Just perfect. Here this tomb had lain undisturbed for thousands of years, and now it had an impact burn marring one of its perfect luminite mosaics, three spent plasma shells on the floor, and one thoroughly disturbed corpse. This was going to confuse the hell out of the next archaeologist to come here.

The undead king staggered, raising one hand to touch the scorch marks on his chest. He looked down at the injury, then back up at Saffron, his expression purely incredulous. And then, increasingly, angry.

“Oh, bollocks,” she opined, then turned and bolted into the corridor. Behind her titanic footsteps echoed upon the ancient stone, followed by another wordless bellow of rage. Evidently being shot twice in the chest had only slowed him down. Frankly she wasn’t sure a plasma pistol of the caliber she carried would punch through the tough skin of a living kurrn. What could it possibly do against an equally tough target who had no bloody organs?

Saffron burst out of the corridor into the gallery and reflexively slowed, conscious of the fragile grave goods laid around the wall niches; even fleeing for her life, everything in her resisted the idea of damaging this tomb any more than she already had. The pause enabled her probe to catch up with her.

There came a clatter to her left. In the nearest niche, the long-dead queen opened glowing red eyes, turning to glare at Saffron.

“You’re not serious,” she groaned.

Evidently, the mummy was deadly serious. Blocky hands emerged from the niche to grasp its edges, the better to pull herself out. In the next niche down, on the other side of the gallery, there came a clatter as a heavy undead foot probed out, disturbing the jars laid before it.

Saffron, deciding that in this case discretion was the better part of scientific procedure, pelted straight down the center of the gallery toward its entrance.

Red eyes opened to either side of her as she ran, the mummified kurrn groaning and stumbling free of their resting places. They staggered as they emerged, but far too quickly for her liking turned their attention upon Saffron, beginning to move determinedly after her. Kurrn moved more slowly than humans even when alive, but given the length of their strides they could cover ground just about as fast when they wanted to. Especially in the case of the high king from the final chamber, whose legs were as long as she was tall. And whose distinctive roar of fury could be heard echoing through the gallery as he stomped into it behind her.

“This is highly irregular!” Saffron wailed, pelting through the door into the vertical shaft beyond. She was still clutching the artifact, which made manipulating her wristpad somewhat awkward—especially with the pistol still in her other hand. She freed up a finger to prod at it, though, then slipped and stumbled as her boot repulsors came online, immediately careening across the space and colliding with the far wall.

Saffron fired up the thruster pack on her belt and cranked it to maximum. Warnings flashed across her HUD; that thing was designed to slow dangerous descents and alleviate the difficulty of long climbs, not move straight upward at any significant speed.

It did its job, but not fast enough for her liking. As Saffron rose into the shaft, the dead kurrn collided in the entry door, stumbling before one was pushed through ahead of the throng. She wasn’t lifting fast enough to evade something so tall. Snarling, the kurrn lunged upward, swinging one long arm out to grab her.

Saffron shot him right in the face. With a bellow, the mummy stumbled backward, causing another pile-up as his fellows tried to pour into the small space. Then, finally, she was out of reach.

Warnings continued to chime in her ears and the power indicator blinking in her eyeshield was dropping rapidly. Grimacing, Saffron lessened the power pouring into it to take off some of the strain. Her ascent slowed, but at least she was still going up and no longer seemed on track to run out of battery life before she got there. First thing once she got out of this debacle she was going to invest in a much more serious caliber of thruster pack.

Then she was rising over the lip of the shaft into the upper tomb corridor. One more nudge to her controls sent her forward across the precipice, and she cut the power to belt and boots, staggering to her knees on the cool stone floor. Safe, at least. Cradling the heavy artifact against her chest, Saffron braced herself on one hand against the floor, noting only belatedly that she was leaning on her gun. She gasped, choking back a sob.

Echoing sounds in the shaft behind her impelled her back upright in seconds. There was no way the zombies—mummies—whatever they were could climb that, surely. Still, she turned and stepped closer, peering over the edge.

There were, she was reminded, fourteen of them. And while they couldn’t climb the sheer stone walls of the shaft, they could certainly climb each other. Right before her eyes, a living—unliving?—chain of kurrn was being built, one after the other clambering up toward her.

“Oh, come on,” she protested. Glowing red eyes met hers from uncomfortably few meters below, and a brute snarl echoed up at her.

Once again, Saffron turned and fled.

“Ace!” she shouted, dashing around the right angles of the corridor with her probe struggling to keep up, holstering the revolver awkwardly. “Ace! Damn it, you bucket of scrap, come in!” Something answered, but something garbled. Surely she was far enough above all that levium that it couldn’t still be interfering with her comm? “Come in, Ace! Oh, saints, please tell me you’re still there.”

She almost sobbed again when the static resolved itself into a familiar tinny voice, just as she burst out of the tomb corridor onto the mosaic floor. “—ead you, doc! What’s up?”

“Power up and lift off!” she shouted, dashing frantically through the rough excavation she had so laboriously carved over the last week, stumbling from the combination of darkness and uneven footing. “I need an emergency pickup. And prime the main cannon!”

“I’m on it, skipper,” the bot’s voice replied cheerily. “Overdue online and taking off, weapons active and gangplank down. Did you find hostile life forms down there?”

“Hostile, yes,” she growled, staggering through a narrow fissure. There, up ahead, was faint sunlight filtering through the long access tunnel she had bored into this cave system. Saffron scrambled toward it, hearing the pounding of huge feet echoing behind her. The tight confines would slow them…but not much, she decided upon hearing the crunch of stone being shattered. “Life forms, not as such. I found fourteen mummified kurrn, which began moving are now chasing me!”

“Well, that’s a bummer!” Ace replied, upbeat as ever. “Did you try explaining to them that zombies are a ludicrous scientific impossibility?”

“I did,” she snarled, skidding to a halt before the tunnel and dropping to her hands and knees. She had prioritized getting through, not creating an access big enough to stand up in. To give herself credit, this turn of events had been completely unforseeable. “They failed to collapse under the weight of my logic. Just unfair, is what it is. That always works on undergrads, which are practically the same thing.”

The light was growing; her eyeshield automatically darkened. Saffron crawled the last few meters in a scrambling hurry, not willing to trust the narrow tunnel to stop those kurrn. She could clearly hear them smashing through stone obstacles behind her. Living kurrn weren’t able to bash through solid rock bare-handed, of that she was sure.

And then she burst free into the light of Terminus’s two suns, gasping in relief. The probe zipped out right behind her.

The familiar bulk of the Overdue hovered directly before her, having lifted off from the small plateau over thirty meters distant where she had parked it. Saffron dashed forward, sliding awkwardly on the scree of the mountainside, but managed to stumble onto the gangplank. She grabbed the ladder with her scraped and bleeding hand, still cradling the artifact protectively against her body.

“I’m here, pull me up! Now!”

“Pulling! Welcome aboard, doc!”

The ladder rose smoothly, and the sunlight was cut off as she was lifted into the familiar dimness of her ship.

Saffron hopped onto the deck without waiting for the plank to lift all the way into place, immediately bolting forward into the cockpit.

“Hi, doc!” Ace called, turning the glossy dome of his upper housing toward her so the stylized smiling face projected on his front screen could wink cheekily at her as she flung herself into the copilot’s seat. “Had a bit more fun than you were planning on, huh?”

Saffron didn’t bother to acknowledge the bot’s greeting; she was already grabbing the stick and focusing her stare on the projection of the Overdue’s dorsal cannon sight superimposed over the cockpit’s viewscreen.

The second the crosshairs were roughly aligned over the tunnel she had spent so much time and effort boring, she squeezed the trigger.

A white beam of pure energy punched through earth and stone, half-collapsing the entrance on the first shot. Saffron kept firing in short bursts, shifting the stick minutely to pierce the area in multiple spots. After just a few seconds she succeeded in triggering a small avalanche.

Ace guided the ship backward, safely out of the way of falling rock and earth, and they watched as tons of debris cascaded down over the site, obliterating all their hard work. Saffron finally let out a long, slow breath, and at last let herself relax back into the seat. She was still cradling the hourglass. Now, finally, she could stow it away in a proper protective case for the trip back to Syre Liara and the Institute.

“Sooo,” Ace prompted as the mountain began to settle again, the cloud of dust they had raised already drifting away under the constant breeze. “I take it the plan is not to go back in there?”

Saffron shook her head, then reached up and pulled her eyescreen loose without bothering to retract the mask, disregarding the sting of its suction as she ripped the seal loose. She dropped it carelessly to the deck between the two cockpit seats. “Got it in one, Ace. I don’t believe the half of what just happened down there and I regret the rest. I’m never setting foot near that hellhole again. Let the Institute sort it out.” Grimacing, she held up the hourglass, examining it in the sunlight which streamed through the ship’s viewscreen. “This is their headache now. At least I didn’t come away empty-handed. And with any luck… This will all have been worth it.”

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