March 21st 2013
The airlock inside Nagia’s hummed as it began to pressurize. Tonya got a good look at wreckage of the other airlock, the one he tried to use to board the Beacon II.
The Beacon II … she looked out the small porthole to the two halves of her ship hanging in the void. She was going to have to start thinking about a Beacon III.
A panel by the inner airlock door pinged and slid open, revealing Nagia, a henchman and a pair of laser guns aimed at her.
“Ain’t this a joy,” Tonya said as she put her hands up. “I’m a little disappointed, Nagia, jump-stalking seems beneath even you.” The henchman slapped the cuffs on her without taking the suit off. She glanced over her shoulder at the henchman. “You mind switching my air supply over to the filter? Stuff ain’t cheap.”
The henchman glared at her for a moment.
“I don’t think you’re funny,” the henchman said finally. He dragged her to a chair and snagged her cuffs to a hook in the wall.
“Your guys don’t seem to like me too much,” Tonya replied to Nagia.
“Lem’s just enthusiastic.” Nagia slipped into the pilot’s chair and resumed control. “Turov wanted a word before we ghosted you.”
The henchman, Lem, kept his weapon charged and watched her.
Tonya settled back in the seat, trying to get comfortable. It was going to be a long flight.
* * * *
The other thugs on Nagia’s payroll fell into a loose formation behind his ship on the way toward Kallis IX.
The system was buzzing with activity. Surveying teams and deep-orbit scan ships circled the eight other planets. Senzen Turov must have really been impressed by the primitive paintings on Oso to pull this many resources into the system. Tonya had no idea where Senzen could have gotten an orbital mining laser but there it was, surgically boring holes through the clouds of the small planet. She would love to see how Senzen could possibly explain this to any authorities who weren’t under his sway. Like Oso, this was a developing system and technically off-limits to any kind of surveying and mining activity. He must be counting on the fact that the discovery of the Artemis would make any politician happily look the other way.
Nagia dove through the atmosphere and emerged into a blizzard. The ship rocked as it sliced through tumultuous clouds. When they finally parted, giving the first glimpse on the planet’s surface, it was icy tundra as far as the eye could see. Along the horizon, cryovolcanoes pumped massive plumes of freezing magma into the air.
The ship began to descend, passing between conflicting wind patterns that even battered Nagia’s sturdy ship around like a toy. She could see small teams of miners were positioned at each of the holes burrowed into the ice from the laser. They set up scanner buoys on anti-grav beds and dropped them down the shafts.
“Any chance Senzen could come onboard to gloat? I hate the cold.”
Nagia laughed. Lem stuck to his earlier sentiment and just stared at her.
Finally, they were on the ground. Nagia and Lem suited up and loaded Tonya into the airlock. The outer door hissed open, letting a swirl of snow and ice into the antechamber. The HUD on her suit displayed the atmosphere, some oxygen, mostly ammonia, before helpfully advising her not to attempt to take off her suit.
With a quick prod of the barrel, they all stepped outside. Lem separated and drilled holes in the ice for support hooks, keeping the ship from sliding. Any hope of overpowering Nagia on his own vanished as the rest of his crew emerged from the whiteout and surrounded her. On the plus side, they took off her cuffs.
Nagia constantly checked his scanner for directions as they trudged through the snow. Tonya could see light from distant laser shots bloom in the clouds. That was all she could really see anymore; the snow had built to a relentless pitch as gale winds howled. She had to turn down her external microphones.
Then it stopped. Tonya, Nagia, and the rest of the thugs paused and exchanged baffled glances. Nagia shrugged and kept walking.
Now that the snow had cleared, Nagia’s Glas was leading them to a small mining team ahead, prepping a scan into a recently cut shaft.
“Turov!” Nagia yelled. Senzen turned as they approached. He punched some commands into his MobiGlas before looking up. The scanners began to descend on their anti-grav platform.
“Hey, Tonya,” Senzen greeted her, almost disappointed. “I’m a little surprised you managed to escape the UEE so quickly.”
“Thanks for calling them, by the way.”
“Hey, I was worried what those Osoians might do to you. I thought I was helping.”
“I’ll bet you did.”
Senzen sighed and looked at her for a few moments.
“I don’t know what we’re going to do with you,” he said, shaking his head. “I’d really prefer not to kill you but you’re making it awfully difficult.” He paused and thought for a few more seconds. “We could put you in a stasis boot for a couple months, I guess.”
“You said —” Nagia started to protest.
“I told you killing her was negotiable,” Senzen cut him off. “Relax, you’ll get paid either way.”
Nagia shut up and stewed. Senzen turned back to Tonya and thought more. Finally he shrugged and threw his hands up.
“Sorry, Tonya, I got nothing.” He turned to Nagia. “She’s all yours.”
That was not good. Nagia grinned. One of the thugs grabbed her arm.
“Wait, if you kill me, you lose your best way to find the next piece of the Artemis.” Tonya wrenched herself free from the thug. He lunched forward to grab her but Senzen held him with a wave of the hand. Tonya kept going. “You’ve got to be curious how I found my way to Oso.”
Tonya could tell he was. She wasn’t positive that Janus had survived Nagia’s attack, but it was her only card. Since it proved itself during her escape from the UEE military platform, maybe Janus had a bright idea how to get her out of this one.
“Talk,” Senzen finally said. She knew she had piqued his curiosity, now for the final nail in the coffin.
“I’ve got Janus.”
“How?” he asked after a few moments. He couldn’t hide the burning curiosity in his voice.
“Got a copy of the original program, then raised it through a simulation of the Artemis flight. It wasn’t an exact copy but led me to Oso. We’ve already discussed what the crew would have been doing on Kallis …” Tonya was making that part up but she knew that —
Tonya stuttered for a second.
“No, Tonya,” Senzen repeated. “Even if it’s true, you’re using it to angle for something else. Maybe in the past, I would’ve entertained the notion, assuming that I would be able to anticipate your inevitable double-cross. But not this time, I’m not biting.”
Tonya was quiet. This was really bad. Her mind raced, scrambling for some alternative.
“You’ll regret this, Senzen,” was all she could come up with, and that stumbled out of her mouth like a bad VidStar line-reading.
“Yeah, maybe, but I’ll trust my scans,” Senzen tapped the MobiGlas, nodded to Nagia and turned away. The pirate took a step toward her, drawing his gun. Tonya grabbed Senzen and turned him around as a shield.
Nagia and the other thugs started laughing.
“Tonya, really,” Senzen said. “What is this going to do?”
“You should listen to him, T.” Nagia charged his gun. The rest of the thugs spread out to cut off any escape. “You got no weapon and nowhere to go.”
They were wrong, there was somewhere to go.
Tonya grabbed Senzen’s MobiGlas, shoved him toward Nagia and jumped into the shaft.
She tumbled through free-fall for several seconds before slamming into one of the Scanner’s Anti-Grav beds. Her hands scrambled for something to hold onto as her body slid off the edge.
Her fingers locked around a handle a nanosecond before she fell. Tonya looked up. She could see forms gathered around the edge looking down. Even over the wind, she could hear Senzen yelling.
The platform kept descending, auto-compensators adjusted for the new mass. She pulled herself up and looked around. Flashes from the scanners echoed off into the layers upon layers of ice. She could see a network of gaps, cross-crossing off into the distance.
A laser shot zipped past her. Tonya could see forms start rappelling down the shaft, complaining along the way.
Another shot hit the platform itself. The whole thing lurched to the side and struggled to rebalance itself. Tonya could see one of the gaps in the wall a few meters below, wide enough to squeeze through. She checked Senzen’s MobiGlas. It still had the controls for the AG platform open.
She slowed the platform and jumped into the gap moments before another volley of shots punched through the platform. The system finally gave up and clattered down, disappearing into the darkness.
Tonya squeezed her way through the narrow fissure in the ice. A little further ahead, she could see it intersect with a larger cave system. A yelp echoed through the gap behind her. Someone swung past the opening, cursing.
She dropped into the tunnel and looked around. A few thousand meters away, a beam from the orbital laser burned through the surface and illuminated the entire area.
Tonya checked Senzen’s Glas. Beyond the control screen for the dead AG platform, a program was creating a composite from the multiple scans going on around the planet. Anomalies in the ice were being isolated and catalogued, but it also gave a rough map of the tunnel systems that had formed under the ice.
She knew the map would be invaluable, but Nagia had found Senzen through the Glas so she had to assume they could do it still. So she had a choice, use the map but allow Nagia to track her or go blind and maybe wander into a sinkhole.
The sound of scrambling from the hole in the ceiling expedited her decision. She kept it on and took off running.
She heard someone slip through the hole in the ceiling and slam into the tunnel.
“Tonya!” Senzen yelled, angrier than she’d ever heard him. He snapped off a shot. It went wide and melted a hole in the wall.
The underground went dark as the orbital laser’s shot faded away. Tonya flipped on her headlights and kept running. She checked the Glas to make sure she wasn’t about to run off a chasm.
She ran and skidded through the warped corridors. Senzen’s footfalls echoed behind her.
Tonya glanced back; from the bouncing lights on his head Senzen was about thirty meters back and she could vaguely see the flickers of light from Nagia’s crew through the ice walls. They were having a tougher time adjusting to the slick floors.
Senzen’s Glas began to hum softly. She checked it while she ran. One of the anomalies isolated by the scans was coming up. That’s when she hit a wall.
The impact took her clean off her feet. She slammed into the ground and skidded for a few meters. Her vision blurred momentarily. The Glas slid further down the passage. By the time she got her bearings, Senzen was already standing over her.
“Dammit, Tonya …” he gasped, trying to catch his breath. He raised the gun.
The orbital laser punched another hole in the surface and seared its way down, bathing the mirrored tunnel in light. That’s when Tonya saw it, locked in the ice behind Senzen.
Senzen could see the awe in her face. He was hesitant at first but took a step back and turned to see what she was looking at.
It was a body. Fixed in the ice, mid-motion. Bathed in the reflected laser-light, it looked surreal. Whatever it was, it looked like it was flash-frozen, maybe caught in one of the cryovolcano eruptions. But whatever the situation, from its posture and closed eyes, it looked like it was waiting, expecting it.
Tonya stood, completely forgetting the threat of Senzen, and crossed over to it. It was human or human-ish. Anatomically, there was a head, two arms, two legs. The skin was a light grey, almost marble-like pallor. A dark, almost black, network of lines ran under the skin. They almost looked like paths of circuitry, running in tandem with the nervous system. They could have been tattoos. Tonya didn’t know.
She had no idea what she was looking at.
Senzen stepped up beside her, slack-jawed as well.
“Look at the clothes,” he murmured with a nod of his head.
Tonya leaned in close. In the dark frayed remnants of the shirt, a word was faintly stenciled.
Tonya’s heart skipped a beat. She could have cried in amazement. Almost seven hundred years later, she was looking at a crewmember of the Artemis.
Suddenly, a seismic charge surged through the tunnel, shaking it violently. Tonya and Senzen slid around, trying to keep their balance. Just as quickly, it stopped. They looked at each other. Another tremor hit, more violent than the last.
“That’s not good,” Senzen said quietly.
“You think blasting holes in the planet with an orbital laser might not have been the best idea?”
“We’ve got to get this out of here.” Senzen jumped on his comms. “Nagia, where are you?” Silence. “Nagia!”
Tonya tried to keep herself upright. She watched massive seams crack and spread throughout the ice. Blocks started to shift and collapse further down the tunnel.
“This whole place is coming down,” Tonya said. A laser blast went off.
Senzen wasn’t paying attention. He was shooting around Kenlo’s body, trying to blast him free. It wasn’t working.
“Don’t just stand there, help me.”
“We need to get out of here.” Tonya could barely believe what she was saying. Everything she had worked for. An unparalleled achievement was only meters away. It was glory, a legacy frozen in ice. But really, it was death. They couldn’t get to it, couldn’t carry it. It would only take them with it. She was starting to see that.
Senzen’s gun chimed at full charge. Another massive jolt of the planet unleashed jets of gas and steam into the tunnel.
Tonya staggered around trying to keep her balance and stepped in a puddle. The place was thawing.
“The laser tapped the core, we gotta go now!” She grabbed his arm and tried pulling him away. Senzen flung Tonya off him. She hit the ground, skidding.
“What’s the matter with you, Tonya?” he said, almost maniacally. Senzen kept firing until the gun needed to pause for a recharge. “This is the discovery of the century. This is everything. I would be a moron to let it slip away.”
“You gotta let it go.”
“Let it go?!” He shook his head. “LET IT GO?” He was consumed, hammering at the ice with the butt of the gun and ripping away chunks with his hands.
The floor cracked suddenly and gave way. Senzen disappeared in a flash of steam down in the dark abyss of the planet.
Tonya stared at the void, momentarily stunned. When she looked up, she realized that the last quake also cracked Kenlo’s body from its icy tomb. It lay thawing on its side.
Maybe she could get it. She might be able to carry it to the surface. Those thoughts tumbled past her rational reasoning and paraded the visions of glory and legacy in front of her again. All she had to do was jump across the chasm that claimed Senzen …
Tonya realized that Kenlo was looking at her. His eyes, a pale shade of blue, were focused directly on her. He looked surprised, amazed. The same way she must have looked when she first saw him. His lips weakly formed a single word.
His eyes closed. The body settled.
Leaving him behind, Tonya ran.
Tonya almost ran on autopilot through the collapsing tunnels and shifting fissures. Her mind was numb to what she had just experienced. She barely remembered climbing onto the surface and flagging down one of the miner transports.
It wasn’t until the transport had lifted off Kallis IX, watching the tumultuous clouds churn and shift from space, that she even tried to comprehend what had happened.
For once, she had no clue.
* * * *
Earth, Sol System
2 months later SET
Melvin Hartley, Jr. shuffled eagerly through the lobby of the museum. Duster and mop in hand, he was on the hunt for any speck of dirt or dust that had escaped his vigorous cleaning.
A clock chimed. Hartley cleared his throat and gave the room one last appraising look. He put the cleaning instruments in the closet and checked his suit in the nearby mirror.
“Very fine, indeed,” he said, flashing his trademark showman smile. He wheeled and strode proudly to the front door. His shoes squeaked on the marble floor.
He pressed a button by the entrance. A banner automatically unfurled just inside the entrance reading, “The Artemis; A New Discovery. Presented by Shubin Interstellar.”
He smiled as he read for the thousandth time, then unlocked the doors.
A mob waited outside. Adults, children, reporters, members of the scientific community waited eagerly to press through the entrance and file to the ticket window.
Tonya watched Hartley sell tickets. She had worked out an arrangement with Gavin Arlington to display the Artemis artifact from Stanton at Hartley’s museum.
Hartley saw her in the crowd. His eyes welled with tears. He nodded to her.
Tonya smiled and nodded back.
* * * *
2 weeks later SET
The two halves of the Beacon II floated in space. Tonya watched the wreckage from the cockpit of the Beacon III, thankfully covered through her liberal insurance policy.
The trail was dead. She had gone back to Kallis IX to scan for Kenlo or any other sign of the Artemis, but came up empty. When she gave her final report to Arlington, she didn’t even mention the body. He wouldn’t believe her. No one would. She hardly believed it, herself.
It just meant that she’d have to be creative, keep searching for any other clues. They had to be out there and she wasn’t going to stop looking.
A message popped up on one of her screens. Transfer complete. Tonya sat back in the chair and waited.
“Hello Tonya,” Janus said over the speakers.
“Thank you.” Pause. “Do you have a course in mind?”
“Sure do.” Tonya plotted it in the NavDrive.
“Understood.” Janus said. The systems started to activate, then paused. “Would you like to fly?”
Tonya thought for a moment.
“Nah, you go ahead.”