Chapter 3: You’ve Got Yourself a Deal

The next moments were a whirl of limbs and hard surfaces as the pair of them rolled away from the ramp, and oddly enough the first coherent observation that emerged in Saffron’s mind was that the old man was wearing some kind of armor beneath his ragged duster.

Then she was on her back with him kneeling over her. Saffron clawed for her gun, an awkward effort since she was half-lying on it; the few seconds it took her to get it out and pointed at her assailant would have been fatal, had he actually meant her any harm.

On the contrary, Elliot wasn’t even looking at her, crouched on one knee at her side with both his own heavy pistols in hand and warily surveying the depot.

“You okay?” he asked. “Didn’t sting ya, did it?”

“What?” she blurted, her revolver wavering where she had it aimed at his chest barely three decimeters away.

He didn’t seem perturbed by that, either. Elliot paused in his perusal of their surroundings to jerk his head toward the Triple Bee, then resumed scanning. “Stun net. Ain’t usually good for a real takedown ‘less it snares ya good an’ proper, but even if y’just get grazed, them prongs sting like a bastard.”

Saffron twisted to look where he indicated, finding a confusing tangle of spikes and wires strewn across the plascrete near the Triple Bee’s ramp, spitting intermittent sparks. No, she realized, it was indeed a metal net. An aggressively electrified net, by the look of it.

“What the hell?” She wiggled away from him and scrambled awkwardly to her feet.

“Down!” Elliot ordered. “You don’t wanna be the tallest piece a’ scenery when some damn fool is shootin’.”

“That thing has to be illegal!” Saffron spluttered even as she dropped to a crouch. Down or no, they were both awfully exposed in this wide open space.

“Yeah, I’m mighty curious what possessed somebody to even bring ordnance like that onto Union turf, much less fire it off. You got outstanding debts or somethin’?”

“Surely you don’t think that was aimed at me.”

“Lady, I saw it aimed at you. An’ I notably do not see where it came from, so I recommend headin’ to some kind of cover.”

She was already inching back toward the ramp. The Triple Bee had set down on the commercial landing pads, deliberately separate from the other vessels nearby, leaving them inconveniently isolated. Beyond that there was, indeed, cover; a resource barge had set down in the middle of the government landing zone and was midway through the process of being unloaded. Syre Liara got most of its raw materials from expeditions of miners, loggers, fishers, and whatever else dispatched to wherever on Terminus such resources could be found. Which was all fine and dandy most of the time, but the for-rent private docks where she had parked her own ship were on the other side of the government strip, so now she was isolated with a net-throwing lunatic in the commercial sector with a maze of cranes, tugs, and giant crates of who-knew-what between her and the relative safety of the Overdue.

Elliot shifted and she turned in response, again following his sightline to, this time, a shape emerging from behind the heavy landing gear of a cruiser berthed some fifty meters away.

“Easy now,” the old man murmured. “Could be—”

And then the obscure blob of a figure fired some kind of rocket at them.

A rather slow-moving projectile, relatively speaking; it took almost two seconds to cross the distance to them, seconds Saffron spent gaping in panic. Elliot, meanwhile, dropped both his pistols, whipped the rifle off his back, and shot the missile right out of the air scarcely five meters from them. The resulting destruction was a spray of sparks and a few pieces of twisted metal that indicated the lack of an explosive payload.

It also, since no human could have made such a shot, indicated that plasma rifle had a highly illegal auto-targeting mod.

“How’s about you scamper off behind somethin’ an’ call the cops while I have me a little chat with this here character?” Elliot suggested, smoothly returning the long gun to its position on his back and kneeling to pick up his pistols without taking his eyes off the last place their assailant had been visible.

Saffron whirled and dashed toward the maze of shipping crates without another word, while he strode purposefully toward the source of danger. Better him than her.

She raised her wristpad to her face while running, tapping the screen to open the civil emergency channel. “Shots fired at Pileon Depot! We need police out here quickly!”

“Understood,” replied a woman’s voice from the screen, her tone firm but calm. “Are you in any danger?”

“Yes—no—I don’t know. Someone fired some kind of electrified net at me, and then a rocket!”

“Do you require medical attention?”

“No, I—not yet. They missed.”

“All right, can you get behind cover?”

“That’s what I’m—bugger!” Saffron just reached the edge of one of the hulking crates when a volley of plasma shots ripped past, two burning welts into the crate’s surface. She skittered around the corner, placing the thing’s bulk between herself and the direction from which they’d come—where she’d last seen Elliot—and pressed her back against it. “I’m under fire! Plasma shells now!”

“I see you on a drone cam, Dr. Dystram,” the operator replied, still brisk and soothing all at once. They were well-trained at keeping people calm through disastrous circumstances. “This is Dr. Saffron Dystram, correct?”

“Yes, it’s me, this is my pad,” she babbled. “Saints, where are those lancers?”

“Officers are en route, Dr. Dystram. You’re in a good position, you have the crate between you and both armed parties. I’ll direct you toward safety. Try to head—”

“Wait, both?”

“I see two individuals carrying weapons and exchanging small arms fire, doctor. A male human and a male warex.”

“A warex? No, wait, the human. An old man in a long coat? With a rifle and two pistols?”

“Yes, do you know him?”

“No, but he’s not the criminal here, he saved me from the net and the missile.”

“Duly noted, doctor. I have ID’d both individuals; they’re known bounty hunters.”

“Bloody brilliant,” Saffron muttered. Then she winced, instinctively ducking lower as more plasma bursts flashed past the side of her container. Their shells were rated for deep space hauling, and unless this barge had been harvesting petrochemicals for some reason nothing in them should be volatile. In theory, the crates ought to stand up to small arms fire.

Rockets, though…

“If you’re unhurt, doctor, I need you to move away from the firefight. Head to your left toward the other end of that crate.”

“Right. I’m moving.” In truth, this wasn’t the first time she’d been shot at and she didn’t need her hand held. It was reassuring, though, to be dealing with this in Union territory and knowing there were lancers on the way and an emergency operator online to talk her through it. Saffron crept rapidly to the other end of the crate and carefully peeked around the edge. She could hear plasma shells being discharged in the near distance, but from this angle couldn’t see anything.

“You’re a reasonable distance from the combatants now and have the bulk of that crate between you and them,” the comforting voice of the operator said. “I see that your ship, the Overdue, is on the private docks on the other side of the government strip. We’re going to get you back to her so you can evacuate the area, Dr. Dystram. Ahead and to your right is a stack of two shipping containers with blue markings, do you see them?”

“I do.” They were a good fifteen meters away across open pavement, she noted uneasily. But if Elliot and the warex were way back behind her, there might not be a better chance…

“Okay, you’re all clear,” said the operator, clearly agreeing with her unvoiced thought. “Please get across the open area and get behind them, doctor. You should be able to see the mnemindae craftship Triple Bee; the combatants are in that area, so that’s your landmark. Try to get and keep as many obstructions between yourself and that ship as possible. Understand?”

“Got it,” she said tersely. “I’m going.”

She set out at a run, and as if to punish her temerity there came a volley of plasma shots from something clearly much heavier than a pistol, several grazing the crates behind which she had just taken temporary shelter and more flashing past into the sky. Saffron hunched down as she ran but did not slow, skittering around behind the double stack of crates, where she found to her alarm that this was the last easy cover to be seen. Ahead was a wide clear area with a couple of hovering tugs heading lazily back toward the barge, their bot pilots clearly unperturbed by the nearby firefight.

“Good, you’re making good progress.” Under any other circumstances Saffron would have resented being spoken to like a nervous toddler but right now she was just grateful not to be alone in the middle of this, which made the next development even worse. “I n… you…keep …ing, Dr. Dys… -ain calm, but…”

“Hello?” Saffron shouted, raising the wristpad right to her face. “You’re breaking up! Hello? Can you read me? Remain calm but what?!”

Nothing answered her. No static, just nothing. She pressed herself back against the shipping crate, concentrating for a moment on her breathing. Breath guided the body and nourished the brain. Calm breathing, calm mind, as the Exercises taught. So long as she kept panic away, she could think. Observation and deduction would get her through this, not animal instinct.

For example, the deduction that the mysterious warex had a signal jammer.

It was undoubtedly pointless, but just to cover the options, Saffron switched channels on her pad. “Ace, do you read me?”

“Loud and clear, doctor! What can I do for you?”

She froze for a second, baffled. How was he jamming official channels but letting short-range transmissions through? But that was a detail to be worried about later.

“I’m under fire here! Prep the ship for launch, I want to get out of here at full burn the second I’m aboard! And make sure the shields are charged up!”

“Can do will do, boss! Powering on and initiating pre-flight. Be safe, and I’ll see you in two shakes!”

There were some moments, like this one, when she regretted having set Ace’s speech to be relentlessly cheerful at all times.

Another fusillade of plasma shells shrieked past far to her right, scoring burns against several shipping crates and causing one of the tugs to veer as its horizontal thruster was clipped. The gunfire wasn’t close enough to present an immediate threat to Saffron, but the angle revealed that whoever was shooting was now both closer to her and circling around to the right. Evidently, the Triple Bee was no longer her landmark.

Where the hell were those lancers?

The straightest path toward the Overdue was across a mostly wide space in front of the barge’s open cargo hold, with not much in the way of cover save the odd tug passing through. Saffron opted to go the long way, ducking her head and dashing to the left toward another stack of crates. The unloaded cargo was being sorted into several stacks which made a roughly U-shaped maze at one end of the landing strip; it looked like it would provide both ample cover and small paths through that would take her to the docks beyond.

At least, so she hoped, being now committed to this path. A single streak of blue ripped past, the plasma shot not coming near Saffron but striking a crate not far from the point she was headed for. She cringed, but did not slow, and in just seconds was skittering through a gap between two shipping containers, pausing to recover her breath with one between her and the general area from which the shots were coming.

There came a roar from behind her and she instinctively ducked. That wasn’t a weapon, though. In fact, after an embarrassing second she recognized the extremely familiar sound of engines.

And indeed, just seconds later the silvery teardrop shape of the Triple Bee passed overhead, already accelerating as she soared away to the east, deliberately not gaining altitude but getting away from the depot and Syre Liara with all haste. Evidently Azyrvaide didn’t think the business opportunities offered by her chosen spot were worth being parked in the middle of a firefight. Saffron didn’t blame her a bit.

The sounds of plasma fire were still intermittent, but still far too close. And getting closer, to judge by the volume. Despite what Elliot had thought, she couldn’t think of a single reason a warex bounty hunter might be after her, but it still seemed that the firefight was trending in this direction. As she considered this, something explosive hit the very crate she was crouched behind with enough force to push it a few centimeters toward her.

Saffron took this as a hint that break time was over.

She set off through the maze of shipping containers, instinctively keeping herself crouched low even though they were at least a meter taller than she and mostly stacked two or three high. Progress was irregular as she had to duck into cramped little alleys between them, and frequently divert herself to find a gap where a whole row had been stacked too close to slip through. It made it a little difficult to keep her bearings; she tried to remain more or less in the middle of wherever the crates were concentrated. At one point she emerged from a narrow gap and almost plowed face-first into the side of a tug proceeding about its business in auto-task mode. Whatever personnel were supposed to be supervising the unloading appeared not to have shut down the tugs before taking cover from the shoot-out.

The sounds of weapons fire remained steady but intermittent, and worse, the metal canyons between shipping containers created such a mess of echoes that she could no longer gauge with any accuracy how close or in what direction the shooting was. She could also no longer see plasma shots, which hopefully meant she was in less danger of being hit by one. There were heavier weapons now, though, apparently more of the same kind of ordnance that had rocked the crate she was crouched behind moments ago. Whatever it was made the occasional percussive thump, and at one point a crate at the end of a row down which Saffron was scurrying was rocked by an explosion which clipped its far end, the burst of fire and smoke visible to her. She put on another burst of speed, skittering to her right and ducking between two more shipping containers to emerge into a slightly wider lane than most.

“This you?”

Saffron yelled and brought up her pistol.

“Shh,” Elliot urged, once again apparently calm despite having a gun trained on him point-blank. “He’s just pepperin’ the whole place, now, tryin’ to smoke us out. Try not to give away our position.” Another volley of plasma shells and then an explosion punctuated his point.

Elliot was holding out his left arm, the sleeve of his duster pulled back to expose his own wristpad, a heavy industrial model that appeared to be made from starship armor and was still scarred as if it had been through worse firefights than this. Above it was projected a holo of her own head, accompanied by her name and a number.

“What—” Remembering his warning, she lowered her voice to a hiss. “What is that about?”

He glanced at her, then at the holo, then grunted and switched it off. “Yep, that’s you all right. Congrats, doc, you got a price on your head. Three hundred, standard gold.”

Saffron gaped at him, forgetting to lower her voice. “Why?”

“Little quieter, please,” he said, wincing. “An’ hell if I know. Anybody keyed into this here network knows better’n to ask, an’ most won’t care. Easy, now,” he added when she raised her pistol to point at his face, her whole arm shaking. “If I was lookin’ to collect, I’d get the drop on ya ‘stead of talkin’. Let’s keep our cool, now, an’ think about—”

A roar swelled rapidly and terminated in a huge thump which shook the very plascrete they were standing on. There followed a rhythmic series of grinding and clanking noises, accompanying more heavy thuds that sounded for all the world like titanic stomping feet.

“Aww, hell,” Elliot spat, pushing unceremoniously past Saffron to crouch against the side of the shipping container between her and the general direction of the noises. “He brought Gertrude.”

“Who?” she demanded. “Brought who?”

And then Gertrude stomped into view.

It was a mechanical walker, bipedal and at least seven meters tall, squat in shape with thick limbs, and positively bristling with obvious weapons. Rather than a “head” it had some kind of cannon assembly, with the obvious cockpit positioned in the front of its torso. The thing was clearly designed for war, and would have looked a lot more menacing were it not so tacky. Painted vivid orange all over with highly-polished golden chrome accents, its arms and legs were decorated with neon green flames. A cartoon smiley face with bloody fangs was scrawled over the cockpit window in translucent paint.

Saffron almost forgot to be terrified. “Are you having me on?”

Gertrude’s upper body swiveled atop her hips, and she raised one flame-painted gold-trimmed orange arm to point down the lane at them. A panel in the mech’s forearm retracted and a large and unnecessarily complicated-looking gun emerged.

“Move!” Elliot barked, redundantly as Saffron was already moving. The two of them piled back into the gap between crates through which she had emerged moments before. Behind them came a roar, a flash of light, and a surge of static electricity that made their hair try to stand upright.

Saffron, naturally, kept running, but Elliot grabbed the collar of her coat, hauling her backward right as she tried to emerge into the next lane. Gertrude was already stomping to re-position herself, and Saffron barely managed to avoid being hit by the next shot which roared down that lane. Of course; there was only one place they could have emerged.

The mech fired a spray of metal projectiles which bounced off crate walls to litter the ground, and irregular lines of light snapped into place between them, putting off sparks and the sharp smell of ozone. The entire floor was covered by a makeshift electric net. Both stretches of ground outside their narrow hiding place were, leaving them nowhere to run.

“Bollocks,” Saffron said feelingly. “Now what?”

“Hang tight,” Elliot grunted. “I got an idea. Put your gun away, that peashooter ain’t gonna do jack to that mech, an’ the drone cams are watchin’. You’ll look better to the lancers if y’don’t contribute t’the violence, even in self-defence. Come on,” he added in a lower tone.

Saffron did not sheathe her pistol, but she did turn to squeeze in next to him and peer over his head at whatever he was watching. The other lane was likewise covered with a maze of electric arcs; it was also toward this one that Gertrude was now stomping. From the other direction was coming another of those hovering tugs.

“Oh, I see,” Saffron said, trying to breathe evenly to steady herself. “If we get onto that—”

“We’d be sittin’ ducks,” Elliot interrupted, pulling a small metal object from inside his coat and again baring his wristpad. “Hold on, now…”

As soon as the tug had come close enough he gently tossed the thing he was holding underhand. It hit the tug and immediately affixed itself without bouncing. A red light appeared upon its surface, flashed twice, and turned green, and Elliot began tapping icons on his wristpad.

The tug came to a stop, hovering over the electric net, then veered sideways.

“W—are you hacking that?” Saffron demanded. “That is government property! Do you know how illegal that is?”

Elliot spared her a sardonic look, and she flushed.

Then he returned his focus to his wristpad, and suddenly the tug shot straight down the lane at Gertrude. For a moment Saffron thought he meant to ram the mech, which would have been totally ineffectual. He sent it zipping around, though, leaning precariously around the corner to see as he flanked the great stomping vehicle. It had nearly reached the nearest crates; it didn’t look narrow enough to squeeze into that aisle, but on the other hand, it didn’t look like pushing the shipping containers out of the way would be difficult.

“Tell me that thing’s not bot-piloted,” Saffron said, fascinated in spite of herself.

“Nope. Bebop’s in there at the controls.”


“Goldurn warex,” he grunted, and brought the tug forward abruptly. It slipped in right under Gertrude’s upraised left foot as the mech took another step. The huge machine’s weight nearly pounded the tug right into the ground, but Elliot ramped up its repulsors even as he activated the magnetic clamp, leaving Gertrude half-standing on an erratic floating platform.

A few more jabs of his fingertip set the tug to pulling randomly in all directions, its repulsors at full blast and guidance system changing its mind every half-second. The little thing’s engines were not powerful enough to yank the towering mech off its feet entirely, but they sufficed to keep it off-balance and halt its advance.

“There,” he said in satisfaction, “that buys us a couple seconds. C’mon.” The old man pushed past her again through the narrow gap, back to the other lane which did not have a struggling neon-painted mech at one end of it, again reaching into an inner pocket of his coat. “May wanna cover your eyes for a sec, doc.”

Before she could reply he had tossed what he was holding to the ground. Saffron opted not to cover her eyes, but did have to squint against the flash of light when ensued, accompanied by a shrill whine followed by a series of sharp little explosions. Blinking, she leaned past his shoulder to observe that most of the little net hubs had gone dead, several emitting smoke. A few survived beyond the radius of the EMP grenade he had thrown, but the ground right outside their little gap was now safe to step in.

Elliot immediately did so, drawing one of his pistols and deftly shooting each of the four remaining net hubs that barred their escape up the aisle in the opposite direction from Gertrude.

“How many weapons are you carrying, exactly?” Saffron demanded.

“Many as it takes t’get the job done,” he said, turning back to her with a wink. “C’mon, that tug won’t hold Bebop for long. We gotta get some distance. You got a ship nearby?”

Saffron hesitated, again raising her gun, though this time not high enough to threaten him directly. “I don’t… You’re a bounty hunter. Why would I ever trust you?”

“Five gold,” he said evenly. “My standard rate.”

“Standard— What?”

“For five standard gold plus essential expenses,” Elliot said patiently, “you can hire me to get you outta this mess. I got connections in the bounty hunting field, and I been doin’ this longer’n it looks like you’ve been alive, doc. I know how hunters work, an’ I know how to track through the network to whoever put the price on your head. For five standard gold plus whatever it costs me in tools an’ ammo an’ such, I will get that price removed, an’ keep you alive an’ free fer as long as that takes in the meantime.”

“…why?” she demanded, more quietly. “Why under the stars would you settle for a five gold payout when you could get three hundred?”

“You’re wanted alive, possessions intact,” he explained. “Means whoever put out that bounty wants somethin’ you have, an’ to have you explain how you got it. That makes this my two least favorite ways o’ doin’ business: piracy, and outsourcing.” He grinned, reaching up to run a hand over his luxuriant gray mustache. “To maintain a set o’ whiskers this mighty, a fella’s gotta be able t’face himself in the mirror.”

Saffron stared pure suspicion at him. It went without saying that this could be a ploy to get her to drop her guard. On the other hand, he had now managed to ambush her twice, and both times used the opportunity to protect her when he could have just as easily knocked her out. On the first hand again…

At that point in her ruminations, Bebop and Gertrude helpfully reminded Saffron of her lack of options by blasting the offending tug to shrapnel with the beam cannon on top of the mech’s cockpit and then punching the nearest shipping container in an outburst of sheer temper. Whatever was in that crate, the mech’s strength was enough to send it flying across the aisle into the next row, where it began a domino collapse.

“You’re hired,” Saffron decided. “Let’s go!”

“You said it,” he agreed. “You at the private docks?”

“Yes, this way!”

She took off up the aisle now that it was cleared of traps. At some point they were going to have to cut back across the other open lane between crates, simply because getting to the docks demanded going in that direction, but Saffron opted to put some distance between them and their pursuer first. The next gap between containers she dashed right past, but the one after she ducked inside, emerging quickly into the other aisle—still with the snapping electric net all over the ground in the near distance and the warex bounty hunter’s mech swiveling about farther away, still looking for them.

Saffron and Elliot dashed across the open lane into another gap beyond, and back into the maze of containers, not pausing to check whether their pursuer had spotted them again.

“Can he not track us in that thing?” she panted, ducking around a corner.

“You know warex,” Elliot replied, not sounding out of breath despite his apparent age. “Gertrude’s overloaded with weapons and that paint job, no budget or room left for utilities. That’d be why he pounced on foot at first. Bebop don’t call her in ‘less he’s good an’ pissed off.”

“Doesn’t seem like that takes much!”

“Yeah, she gets called in every time,” he chuckled, the pair of them pausing against the short end of a shipping container so Saffron could peek around the corner to check if the mech was visible; they could hear it stomping around in the near distance. “I’m still surprised, though. This here’s Union territory an’ he’s askin’ fer a whole world o’ trouble with that thing. Where the hell are them lancers, anyway?”

“That’s what I’d love to know,” Saffron muttered, and darted across the next gap.

The entire row of shipping containers trembled as the mech petulantly smacked one at the end, sending it flying. Saffron started to freeze, but Elliot seized her by the collar again and dragged her across another gap to the next row; in the one they’d just passed through, another stack of crates alarmingly close rocked as if it might topple.

An explosion sounded from behind them as Gertrude fired a missile of some kind into the maze, followed by another bang that sounded like a shipping container being punched again, slightly more distant.

“He’s lookin’ for us back the other way,” Elliot said. “Make tracks, doc!”

She didn’t need to be told twice, dashing forward once more. They’d already circled most of the way; up ahead was the other end of this cargo platform from where they’d started. Already she could see the upper fins of parked spacecraft in the commercial docks beyond.

“MACE!” The voice, though distant, was projected powerfully from external speakers on the mech. Cheap speakers, in fact, giving a tinny quality to the already squeaky voice of a warex which would have been downright comical in other circumstances. “You stay out of this, old man, I saw her first! No one steals a bounty from Bebop Bonaparte Khan!”

“Aw, cram it under yer fluffy tail,” Elliot grunted.

“Ugh,” Saffron added in the same tone. “Warex and their bloody names.”

“Heh. Yeah, I can see how that’d irritate a historian.”

“Archaeologist,” she corrected.

“Historian-adjacent, then. I reckon some o’ the same rules apply. Hold up.” They had come to the last row in the arc of shipping crates laid out in front of the unloading barge; stopping against one final container they could plainly see docked vessels in the commercial berths beyond, including the Overdue. There was another area closer to the docks piled with more crates with a currently silent magnetic crane looming over them, which could provide them some cover. Heading either toward that or the docks themselves would leave them dashing across open space, however.

“Who’s Mace?” Saffron asked.

He turned back to her and tipped his hat. “Elliot Mace. Glad t’know ya, doc. Aright, you see our dilemma, here?”

She pointed. “That’s my ship, the VMX-920 with the gray hull paint and the beam cannon on top.”

“Added a weapon, good,” he grunted in approval. “Looks like her running lights are on, too.”

“I had my bot get her ready for launch,” Saffron said, raising her wristpad. “Ace, how’s it looking?”

“Ship is prepped and ready to go, Dr. Dystram!” Ace reported. “Good to hear your voice, I’ve been seeing all kinds of weapons fire in the depot. And is that a battlemech?”

“We’re close,” Saffron stated. “Lower the plank, but watch for a warex approaching. Don’t let him aboard.”

“Understood, boss!”

“Dystram out.”

“I’m gonna recommend headin’ straight across,” Elliot murmured, studying the situation. “We could make for the other loadin’ zone, but best case, that’d spit us out still needin’ to make a long run. If we swing wide the other way, Bebop might not see us ’round these here containers. But that’s a gamble. It’s bettin’ on him still thinkin’ we’re hidin’ in the thicket back there an’ not steppin’ in this direction. I give that even odds.” He turned to look expectantly at her. “Either way, we spend an uncomfortably long few seconds wide open an’ exposed.”

Breathe in, breathe out. All steps along the Path were serene. “Right. Well, you’re the expert. I guess if we get killed I don’t have to pay you.”

“That’s the spirit!” he grinned.

“I can have Ace bring the ship…”

“Better try to avoid his attention if we can. That ship’s a much bigger target’n we are, an’ Gertrude’s packin’ more’n enough ordnance to ground ‘er permanently. Then we’re good an’ stuck. Try not to let ‘im see which one we’re headin’ for till the last second.”

“Right,” she winced at the thought. “Good point.”

“Let’s move ’em out, doc. Time’s a-wastin’!”

They set off at a run, swinging wide to the left, both periodically glancing back over their shoulders to double-check that they were keeping the bulk of of the stacked shipping crates between them and Gertrude. With each step, that became more of a gamble; long before they actually crossed into the private docks they would be in plain view of the area in front of the barge, and therefore of the warex bounty hunter. And even from that point, it was another twenty meters easily to the Overdue’s boarding plank.

Both of them had a pistol in hand. Not that handguns were going to do anything against Gertrude, but it was something. They would clearly have to deal with that disaster when they came to it, any moment now.

“Oh, saints be honored,” Saffron panted in gratitude at the first sign of luck since Elliot had rescued her. The crane parked at the edge of the next unloading zone had hummed to life, turned, and begun lumbering toward them on massive treads. It wasn’t a speedy vehicle, but at its sheer size even its modest pace was bringing it closer at a respectable rate, especially when the both of them diverted to head toward it. That thing would provide very good cover indeed. Saffron was too relieved to wonder overmuch at what the driver was trying to do exactly; if they wanted to get away from the aggressive mech, it was a little late to be starting, not to mention that they could probably go faster on foot.

“Hang in there,” Elliot rasped, finally beginning to sound a little winded. “If we can get around before he sees…”

“There you are!” Bebop’s shrill voice rang out behind them, immediately followed by the rapidly approaching stomp of Gertrude’s huge feet.

“Figures,” Saffron snarled, turning and taking aim with her little pistol.

“Keep movin’!” Elliot barked. “Git ’round behind the crane!”

He was right, she realized; they were still out of luck as far as getting to the Overdue, but at least they could manage a bit longer in the short term by putting the towering crane between them and Gertrude. The main body of the thing was even taller than the mech, its cockpit positioned almost three stories off the ground, and its three huge grasping arms and single enormous boom rising like a miniature skyscraper. It wasn’t a long-term solution, but it would buy them a few more seconds.

To her surprise, the crane stopped its advance as they approached it, the upper platform swiveling about on its giant wheeled base even as the two of them ducked behind the great treads. From that angle they couldn’t see what happened next, but a moment later there came an enormous, slightly muffled clang, followed by the sound of rapid plasma fire and Bebop screeching incoherently over the mech’s external speakers.

The upper body of the crane continued to swivel, and to Saffron’s amazement, its rotation brought Gertrude into view—affixed to the crane’s primary magnetic clamp and being swung through the air, the grip mashing its upper cannon down where it was unable to assuming a firing position. Two of the secondary gripping arms had seized both of the mech’s, keeping them—and all their attached weapons—pointed harmlessly at the sky.

That didn’t stop Bebop from fruitlessly spraying plasma bolts into the air, keeping up a tirade of curses over his loudspeaker and sending spent shells showering in all directions.

“As I live an’ breathe,” Elliot marveled.

The crane cockpit’s door burst open and a slender shape skittered out, clambering head-first down the side of the crane itself with only occasional attention to the attached ladder.

“I don’t believe it,” said Elliot. “Is that…?”

The diminutive qrith reached the base of the movable section just as its ongoing rotation started to carry him back out of view. Being out of position to reach the ladder which arched over the side of the treads, he was forced to either wait on another full revolution or jump.

Saffron, impelled by pure instinct, was already moving as the young qrith gathered himself to spring. Jamming her revolver back into its holster as she ran, she barely managed to get underneath him as he came down, squealing and flailing all six limbs, and then she was driven to the plascrete by the impact of a body for the second time in the last few minutes.

“Hey, you’re okay!” the qrith said brightly, his reptilian eyes blinking at her from centimeters away. She had ended up flat on her back this time, with the youth planted atop her torso. It was him—the same one who’d tried to pick her pocket in the Triple Bee and been thrown out.

“Ain’t every day y’see a qrith runnin’ into danger, ‘stead of away,” Elliot remarked.

Immediately, the qrith raised his head, flatting his frills back and hissing at the old man. “Hey, don’t act like you know me just cos—”

“Thanks for the help,” Saffron grunted. “Now could you get off, please?”

“Oh! Right, sorry.”

“That was quick thinkin’, son,” Elliot added, “but that ain’t gonna hold ‘im fer long. You okay, there, doc?”

“I’ll do,” she grunted, rolling to her feet. “C’mon, we’re almost to the ship.”

They set off again, leaving behind the momentarily incapacitated mech, Saffron limping slightly. This time, the qrith boy came skittering across the ground on all sixes right beside her.

“I’m Pfezz!” he said brightly. “Thanks for sticking up for me back there, lady! Nobody’s ever done that before.”

She didn’t even know where to start with that, and so stuck to the immediate practicalities. “I’m Saffron, and you’d better get aboard. Something tells me that warex isn’t going to be happy with you, either. He tends to shoot when he’s unhappy.”

“There’s a warex in that thing? I didn’t know there were any on Terminus!”

“Ace!” she shouted into her wristpad as they pounded the last few meters toward the Overdue’s plank. “Three boarding! Bring the engines up and lift off the second the hatch is closed. I want to be on the way to orbit by the time I reach the cockpit!”

“Consider it done, doctor,” her bot replied, cheery as ever. As the Overdue loomed large before them, her thrusters roared to life, fins flaring outward and a haze of heat wreathing the ship’s exhaust ports.

Another explosion burst out behind them; this time Saffron didn’t stop to check, even as more followed. They made it the last few meters, all three panting for breath, and Pfezz zipped up the ladder before the other two even reached the plank. Elliot arrived next, clambering up as rapidly as he could, and she paused with her feet on the gangplank and one hand gripping the ladder, finally turning to look back at their pursuer.

Bebop had managed to land a hit on the crane’s boom with one of his missile launchers, causing it to collapse and freeing Gertrude from the magnetic clamp. That also freed his beam cannon, which she was just in time to see him use to punch a hole straight through the body of the crane and into the plascrete beyond. Then Ace was retracting the ladder she clung to, the plank rising into place beneath her, while the Overdue herself rose from the dock. Her last glimpse was of the mech tearing into the crane with a fusillade of plasma fire.

This, Saffron reflected as she clambered up to the main deck, was the second time in as many days she had boarded her ship in exactly this ridiculous fashion. It boded ill for the immediate future.

By the time she reached the cockpit, Elliot had helped himself to the copilot’s seat, with Pfezz clinging to the back of it and gazing avidly over his shoulder at the rapidly sky. The Overdue shot straight upward, the muddy teal arc of Terminus’s rings growing larger and crisper as they rose through the atmosphere at such a furious burn that streaks of flame were visible around the cockpit from atmospheric friction even with the ablative shields fully raised.

Saffron slumped against the bulkhead, reaching out to rest one hand on top of Ace’s shiny chassis where the bot rested in the pilot’s seat. “Thank the saints that’s over.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure, doctor!” Ace replied, his incessant good cheer more inappropriate than ever. “You may wanna have a look at this!”

He activated the holo, projecting an image to hover above the idol of Saint Irilai she had affixed to the dash. It was a rear view from the Overdue’s external camera, showing the surface receding behind them, and the garish bulk of Gertrude shooting straight upward on a dual column of rocket fire blasting from her huge legs, straight after them.

“Yep,” Elliot said fatalistically. “Job ain’t done yet, folks. Hold onto yer butts, I’m afraid this here is the fun part.”

* * *

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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