A small asteroid swerved in a most un-asteroid-like way and pierced the hull of the archivist’s ship, as though it was determined to drive her away. But she was just getting started. She slammed the emergency foam release button, holding her breath even though the leak sealed faster than she could gasp. The belt of ice and stone surrounding the planet designated Marin Nine was known to be unpredictable. She didn’t have a large telemetry window to work within. The smugglers who got her this far had warned her an Andaman, galaxy-class war cruiser known as the Sentinel patrolled the Parallax Belt to ensure its protected planets were left alone. No one was to transgress their space. The Andaman terminated violators of the quarantine zone with extreme prejudice. She dedicated her attention to avoiding the Sentinel’s detection systems while navigating the asteroid field. She hoped her shuttle would be lost in the field’s unconventional gravimetric waves, appearing only to the cruiser as one more randomly veering rock on its way to planetfall.
Her shuttle’s instruments collected as much data as they could. Merely making the trek to Marin Nine would yield a king’s ransom in data alone, but if she made contact . . .
Not that she had taken this assignment for anything as crass as capital gain. Still, information was currency.
Her ship rattled again, this time a series of asteroid collisions. The archivist’s guidance system was next to useless. Even auto-adjusting the course to the asteroids’ trajectories, the system couldn’t account for the sudden directional changes of so many rocks. They targeted her thrusters as if some unseen hand flicked them at her. The archivist disengaged the autopilot. The only way to land the ship was to disable the ship’s safety protocols and reroute power, allowing her to employ some of her more unorthodox piloting tricks.
Fine with her. Reaching the unreachable was how professional archivists earned their high bonuses.
Archivist Journal : Louise Chau : Mission 369 : Day 18
[[A hand pulls away from a camera lens revealing a confident woman. Her dark hair, carefully braided and looped back on itself, is secured over her scalp for the zero-gravity environment. Cosmetics enhance her pale skin, concealer and contouring counteract the effect of zero-G puffiness. Her well-tailored black flight suit is unfastened at the neck, slightly unzipped in violation of the Intergalactic Cultural Council’s regulations.
Chau continues to work at her console, not looking into the lens as she makes her log entry. She appears out of breath, but she keeps smiling, though a sheen of perspiration dapples her forehead. Behind her, out of focus, sparks fly from behind a bulkhead panel, quickly followed by white automatic suppressant spray.]]
Shit, that was close. Systems check, nominal. Life support, operational. Any landing you can walk away from and all that. The ship managed to reseal itself and begin auto-repairs. The system indicates at least five days before it will be in any condition to take off again. Five days. Five weeks. Five months. It doesn’t matter as long as I use my time for the mission collecting as much information as I can. None of the laboratory areas were breached. I can still perform decontamination protocols. You’d think the ICC would have more sway with its member planets, but the Andaman System remains violently committed to a non-contact policy within this part of its territory.
I’m here to follow a rumor—passed to the ICC by a high-ranking official within Andaman—that the population on Marin Nine has dwindled to near extinction. That makes their archival a priority one mission—and must be why those empty suits brought me in rather than one of their licensed cultural attachés. No matter our fraught history, they know I get the job done.
• • • •
It wouldn’t do her reputation much good for her to record her fears. How her heart pounded in her chest during the crash landing. The ragged gash torn along her thigh from where her console had erupted. Or how the ship’s crumpled workings had twisted into a spike that, half a meter to the left, would have pierced her heart through.
Not an auspicious start, but it would take more than that to shake her off her mission.
The core of her shuttle remained intact. Lab, storage, decontamination chamber. Server room. The docking mechanism had taken a direct hit, but that hardly mattered with her already on the ground.
Her impulse control pathways permanently burned out of her gray matter, the archivist always played up her bravado for her journals. They would be widely circulated in academic communities, studied, and discussed.
Her former editor had reached out to tap her for this mission. How that must have galled her. The archivist had found sinister delight in every minute of the request and briefing.
The curve of her exosuit helmet eclipsed her view, and her ears popped as her artificial atmosphere engaged. For a brief moment, she had enough remaining sense of self-preservation to hesitate, her hand on the seal release of her shuttle. Then the career-enhancing subroutines spiked her endorphins. She popped the hatch, stepping out into searing sunlight.
• • • •
Detailed terrain mapping scans displayed tens of thousands of structures. No space went to waste. The M-niners had built defense works. Houses. Buildings. Fortresses. Huge agricultural fields. Pyramid-like structures. The population in this lowland may have once numbered nearly ten million people, but dwindling numbers had not stopped them from their work. There was evidence of advanced irrigation infrastructure. They tamed the terrain and left the wilds as a barrier to protect themselves. They were survivors. The archivist respected that.
The sand was free of all tracks save her own, and even the wind teased those away while she watched. According to the readings, the arid landscape stretched for miles. At the crest of a hill, the crumbling skeleton of a building—sunbaked clay walls reinforced with sand-polished wooden beams—overlooked a village.
Millenia after Old Earth took to the stars, they lost contact with many of their civilizations. Those in the 10/40 zone, whose celestial coordinates formed what some called “the Parallax Belt,” wished to remain isolated. But their sites still shared the expected hallmarks of their origins.
This ruined structure, for example, was possibly a temple of some sort. Beneath it, along the escarpment, the village spread out. Pepper-pot shaped buildings appeared to be granaries for storing this planet’s version of millet—built atop stones to keep burrowing vermin from plundering their stores. Plots of the village were marked out for dwellings, but they were only foundation now. Much like a desert, the region’s temperatures soared by day and plunged to extreme lows at night. The residential structures must have been portable, easy to dismantle. She looked to the horizon, imagining nomadic families moving across the terrain by caravan.
There, silhouetted against the sun, a lone figure approached.
The archivist’s heart pounded with anticipation. A first contact opportunity with one of these wayward children of Old Earth would set her fortunes for several lifetimes and ensure her legacy for at least as long.
Possibilities danced in her head. Being welcomed, if not exalted, by the native and their peoples. Spending the next five years immersed in their society and gaining trust to learn their most closely kept secrets. Fulfilling her obligation to preserve their culture in perpetuity. Returning in triumph to the ICC, having done the impossible. The lecture circuit. The interviews she would conduct. She never realized how much the idea of being welcomed back to the ICC pleased her.
The figure moved with sober intent. An indigo-dyed raiment gave it the appearance of a blue ghost wandering the desert. As it neared, details of its disturbingly large head resolved. It wore a mask carved into twin beasts with an elongated mouth, framed on either side by snarling teeth. Zig-zagging lines adorned the planes of the mask. The figure removed the mask with a hiss of rushing air. A broken seal—a bio-containment suit of some sort. The face beneath was deep, rich mahogany. The zig-zag pattern of the mask repeated—though more cruciform—in scarification along her neck.
“My name is . . .” The archivist hesitated as if reaching for a complicated instrument she hadn’t used in a while. “Louise Chau. I come on behalf of the Intergalactic Cultural Council. We know your people are dying. They have sent me to immortalize the memory of your existence in their state-of-the-art libraries and archives.” She smiled, but the woman stared back with blank, gray eyes and expressionless countenance. Under the weight of the woman’s steady, unyielding gaze, the archivist wanted to shrink back. The sensation reminded her of the shy Louise she had been when she first joined the ICC, not the accomplished archivist who laughed as they kicked her out, years later. “How may I address you?”
“The British are coming.” The woman’s lips didn’t move.
The archivist cataloged and preserved information. That was who she was. To that end, she spoke nineteen human languages before enhancement. Still, the translation matrix skewed the meaning. The woman’s words somehow emanated—transmitted, by-passing the universal Earth-origin translators—their intent coalescing in the archivist’s mind, received deep within her being on a level she didn’t understand.
The woman walked past the archivist, taking a few steps in the direction from which she’d come. Her movements reminded the archivist of a security drone, locked into a specific circuit, occasionally attempting to move straight through walls until it finally registered the obstacle and moved around. Still, the way the woman stopped and stared seemed heavy with intent, as though she was reaching out with her mind. Probing. Investigating. Assessing.
The archivist could almost taste their fabled magic, could see invisible tendrils of power stretching across the sand. Could hear the silent incantations in her empty mouth.
Though the woman behaved as if she were detached from reality, she knew the archivist was there. At the touch of the archivist’s hand on her brittle shoulder, the woman—for some reason, the archivist now thought of her as the Lantern Woman—stopped whatever meditative practice had engaged her and turned those dull gray eyes upon the archivist.
But the Lantern Woman would not speak to her again.
The archivist returned to her basecamp, frustrated and disappointed with her first contact. She sought refuge in her vids and readings, but the cameras and microphones had picked up none of it. They just made her look like a fool, staring at a wall for hours, reaching a hand out to touch nothing. She didn’t know how the Lantern Woman masked herself from even the low band analog video. The best the archivist could manage to record was a shadow. Perhaps this was part of what gave rise to the tales of their magic use.
The archivist sneezed.
Archivist Journal : Louise Chau : Mission 369 : Day 20
[[Chau’s face comes into focus slowly, in lower resolution than the previous log. Behind her, a starlit expanse of desert stretches back out of the camera’s focal length. The two layers of her borosilicate helmet reflect the camera’s built-in light, obscuring her left eye. She wears a snug hood over her hair, with an earpiece and ocular display unit over the right half of her face. Her cheeks flush. Her movements are quick and impulsive.]]
The data coming back is fascinating. The ICC sent me in with little more expectation than to pick up potshards and death masks from a lost civilization. But the planet’s isolation didn’t kill these people off. An entire culture flourishes. Small pockets, less than a tenth of the original reported populations. But after all this time, without imports and ICC support? It’s the most successful terraform-and-colonize operation I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen hundreds (though you won’t find most of them in the public records—good luck getting security clearance for the rest).
I’ve got something else, too. Going to confirm it’s what I think it is before I waste anyone’s time getting ahead of myself. But if it is, get ready to rewrite the textbooks.
• • • •
The ICC had paid handsomely to refit and supply her old shuttle—shame it would need a month in dry dock again once she got back—and she’d negotiated a generous bankroll out of them as well. She was armed with five years’ worth of expense report data chips. The shuttle’s hold contained crates of local and exotic currencies as well as simple bars of precious metals, a stipend to cover upfront and under-the-table expenses. They understood how these things worked. These days, she was an under-the-table expense for the ICC, herself.
If she wanted, she could waltz back into the ICC’s good graces after this mission. The reward for the initial data scans alone would set her up for a lifetime. Attaché suits would spend years going over this data trove, speculating and debating each brick’s significance. And that didn’t even include the topographical data.
Anyone else might have been satisfied with this initial survey. Would have retreated under threat from the Sentinel. Would not have dared the forbidden worlds. But not this archivist. That was not who she was.
Rumors had swirled about the inhabitants of Marin Nine long predating her time in the ICC. That their religious practice fell along the lines of magic use, some sort of proto-animism. A form of ancestor worship that traced back to an Ancient Mother. A development that wasn’t remotely unique within the experience of space-colonizing humanity, except that their summonings were successful.
The ICC had entrusted Chau with this mission because they knew she wouldn’t stop until she uncovered all of Marin Nine’s secrets. Or debunked the myths about them.
They were right. And now she had something better to show them: there were still people down there. She hadn’t seen the woman again and there had been no response to her hails, but they were there, skulking about the darkened tracts of land. Nowhere near the population that the structures could support. What had decimated them? It was a mystery she could both present and solve for the ICC.
Her console pinged with an incoming message. Her breath caught for a moment as the thoughts she’d been entertaining tangled with the present moment. But no, the call originated off-planet.
• • • •
On-screen, the archivist watched transparent forms twist and wave their cilia as if caught in a tide. Within them, flashes of light sparked, as though each membrane contained a small lightning storm. “That’s it? Doesn’t look so bad.”
“It’s quite infectious and nearly impossible to eradicate. It mimics a portion of the host’s DNA and invades the mitochondria, replicating with them until no trace of the original remains.”
On the video transmission, the archivist’s editor was draped in a full-body containment unit. Only her eyes showed through the bubble dome in the ridiculous precautionary suit. The lab work the archivist had sent back was only data, not a biological sample—she could negotiate settlement rights for her blood later—but her editor had none of the archivist’s courage-enhancing mods.
The archivist shook her head to dismiss the concerns. “I’m hardly going to pass up this chance because of germs. There are germs everywhere! This is why we have vaccines, our suits have filters, and our airlocks have bioscreens.”
“This is exactly the sort of behavior that forced me to . . .” Her editor raised her hands as if in surrender, catching herself before she said too much. The ICC had its rules, but it also had its needs, and desire trumped safety concerns. Unofficially.
The woman triggered a very long legal waiver to appear on the archivist’s display, for official purposes.
The archivist scrolled through it in a blur then, reaching the end of the document, inserted her finger next to the display for the DNA confirmation to seal it. No hesitation. This was the interview of a lifetime.
Archivist Journal : Louise Chau : Mission 369 : Day 36
[[The log video feed is zoomed in tighter on Chau than usual. Dark strands of hair stick to the sweat at her temples. A smudge mars her makeup at the corner of her left eye. Her breathing erupts in rapid pants. Capillaries along her cheeks have ruptured in a series of starbursts.]]
Referring to my previous log, I have confirmed my suspicions. It is my great pleasure to report that I have made contact with a survivor of Marin Nine. Initial conversations hint that they may suffer a form of dementia or other cognitive decline. I will try to get a more thorough medical analysis to see the degree to which they are infected with the indigenous pathogen, or if their affliction has more to do with isolation and malnutrition.
I haven’t eaten in about 33 hours, myself. A seal gave out when I left the shuttle day before yesterday, and the damaged decontamination systems can’t scrub the air. I have to stay in the suit. I failed to reload nutritional packs before this happened. To be honest, I’m not hungry. Physically fatigued, but there is so much work to be done here.
[[As the video ends, Chau’s nose begins to bleed.]]
• • • •
The people of Marin Nine were infected with the virus. This wasn’t unexpected. Loads of planetary settlers contracted the microbes of the planets they chose.
Even the virus was data, an opportunity to study. One she’d make the ICC pay for before she handed over her server payload. Her own initial tests hinted at the virus’s insidious nature. It didn’t kill its host or cause infertility. Instead, it caused severe apathy and antisocial behavior in people and spread so quickly that by the time it was identified as an epidemic, no one on the planet would have cared if there was a cure. Beyond a bit of synaptic and hormone alteration, though, it seemed content with a symbiotic relationship.
If she was worried about infection, the archivist could return home, her mission complete. But all her expensive personality modifications over the years made sure she left “no stone unturned,” as the phrase from Old Earth went. And being the first archivist to secure an interview with a settler from Marin Nine just might ensure her legacy. The next dozen generations of humanity would study her logs. Maybe someone would tell her story in one of the wildly inaccurate historical vids. They’d never get the details correct, but she’d live on even longer as a folk tale hero.
Archivist Journal : Louise Chau : Mission 369 : Day 59
[[Chau appears on the view, her helmet and hood removed. Her ocular display hangs off her shoulder. Her soaked hair clings to her forehead.]]
Napoleon pushes west. Agents of summer fluctuate, but the pages are loose.
[[There is a long pause while Chau looks at something off-screen. She scratches at a spot on her neck, raising a red welt. Her fingers are dark with dried blood.]]
• • • •
The archivist’s body slowly betrayed her. The sounds were a jumbled mess to her ear. Confused, unintelligible, random words and phrases with a meaning she didn’t recognize yet profoundly understood. Something worked its way through her system. The medical scans didn’t detect any abnormalities. She screamed at them. Couldn’t they see something was wrong? She knew her body better than technology. She could feel it inside her. Something. On the edges of her mind. Broadening . . . distorting . . . her awareness. The virus? Maybe it had some relationship with the M-niners. Did something to them. Connected them. Or simply laid dormant in them. Or perhaps the Lantern Woman had buried some part of her mind in the archivist’s own? To watch her? To drive her beyond the point of sanity? She hated the powerlessness that came with not being able to fix it.
Her frustrated last hope was that she could get the translators to work. She discarded the remains of her containment suit in favor of full dexterity and attempted to activate the settlement’s neglected systems. The ruined power couplings were replaced with parts from her shuttle, the damaged pathways rerouted to intact ones. Life support systems scavenged to eke out a few more joules to get the job done. She knew she was on the cusp of a breakthrough. Dried blood streaked the back of her hand. It was irritating to feel that damned tickle on her upper lip as she worked.
The archivist powered up the system from the console of her shuttle. The translators came online as each section ran through its checks. As she uploaded her most recent cache of data, her long-range detection blared an urgent alert. The Sentinel had locked onto her signal.
The war cruiser changed course to investigate her position. She shut down all but the passive systems, but too late. The Sentinel maintained its direct approach. Once it neared, a detailed scan would reveal her ship’s technology as anomalous to the planet. Such proximity would risk violating the M-nine space. Just to ferret her out. And eliminate her.
Not knowing what else to do, she ran from her ship toward the shrine.
The Lantern Woman stood at the temple gate.
The archivist fell to her knees in the sand before her.
The Lantern Woman raised her arms. “I am the bridge between the living world and our ancestors. I am the wall to the outside.”
Her formless words reverberated through the archivist’s skull. Tangible power rippled out from the woman. It rushed through the archivist’s mind like a radio transmission cranked to too high a volume. She covered her ears but couldn’t block out the pain. Her body felt as though it would disintegrate against the onslaught.
Voices called from the surrounding boulders. From the shuttle. From empty windows. From naked foundations. As if the woman tapped invisible power couplings of her own, energy lines, like spiritual pathways, through the archivist, through the temple—no, the shrine to the Ancient Mother, the archivist understood—into the earth. Into the sky. Into the atmosphere. Walls of pale green and lavender. Curtains of light, almost like radiation. The archivist could feel it connect with the planet below her. She reached out a dirty hand and a jolt thrilled her. She could see everything, the skin and bones, the cells and the spaces between. Blocks of RNA shuddered, molecules burst and reassembled, flares lit up her vagus nerve. A universe all within her. In Louise.
The Lantern Woman sifted the bones of the Ancient Mother, flinging orbiting asteroids at the Sentinel. Frozen, Louise watched asteroids change course, first blocking the Sentinel’s approach, then slamming into it when it persisted. The Lantern Woman wanted the ship to leave, Louise knew, could taste it, could smell it. The Lantern Woman wanted to protect her.
The Lantern Woman turned her flat gaze toward Louise as if she could hear her struggle to understand. The eyes now sparkled with knowledge, plumbing the depths of her soul.
The Lantern Woman’s spirit ignited before her, there and not-there. Louise could see it and let it draw her in. She joined her mind to the woman’s. There was another mission, larger than the ICC’s. The Lantern Woman’s focus, like a black hole, drew Louise’s consciousness into its event horizon, stretching her, distorting her, rearranging her. Images collided in her mind. Glimpses of the woman’s civilization, not the Earth-origin site but the true one, beneath the ground. The structures on the surface were meaningless. Inconsequential relics masking the true discovery. She was drawn deeper into the woman’s awareness, joining her along the lines of power. The tangle unwound before her. The energy was luminous. Beautiful. Life coursed through her as it had never done.
“Become one with the ley line.”
A part of Louise’s mind hoped her ship recorded all of this before she discarded the remains of the archivist once and for all.
• • • •
[[Chau, unaware of the blood dripping from her chin, steps into the curtain.]]
Heaven’s missionaries will sing the ancient out of the dark. I’m not done here. It is their Manifest Destiny. I’m not . . .
[[She wanders off, leaving the camera rolling. The lens autofocuses every so often on a flickering light in the distance, until all goes still long enough that it powers down to preserve its battery.]]