Hera of Lexington
Chapter 3 (read chapter 1)
by Anta Baku
Shale and Jean were getting along well enough, at least as far as Hera could tell. She’d contrived to have the AI and the gadgeteer meet without Alistair present, which probably contributed to the friendly atmosphere. He still hadn’t gotten over blaming Shale for the failed mission on Vexor Alexi, and it was just as well that he was busy selling off the nondescript spaceship they’d been using, while the Gavidarian AI made the acquaintance of the final team member.
Jean wasn’t very suited for front-line work, which is why they hadn’t been on the nondescript ship for the escape from the Gavidarian colonial museum, and the unscheduled detour to Vexor Alexi. They’d piloted the team’s own ship at the beginning of the mission, long enough to drop off Hera in her special space suit, but then came home to look after the base, and probably come up with a few interesting new inventions.
That same suit was standing up on its own in the center of the room now, serving as the physical home of an AI who no longer had a natural one of their own. Shale was still on thin enough ice with the team that putting them into the office computer or the team’s own ship was out of the question. Alistair would have preferred to leave them with the discarded ship and be rid of them completely, having no use for an AI that couldn’t get him back into Vexor Alexi. Something no AI was going to be able to do, after his disastrous attempt to steal a religious document got him permanently banned.
But Hera wasn’t about to dump Shale without talking it over with Jean first, and Fred agreed. Besides being a genius inventor, Jean was one of the best information analysts in the Lexingtonian Church, and was clearly the best-equipped member of the team for fairly judging an AI who had been raised by Gavidarians and might still, wittingly or otherwise, be their agent. At the moment they were just talking, getting to know each other, perhaps even making friends. The days of travel between Vexor Alexi and Lexington proper had given Jean plenty of time to read the reports, both from there and from the museum. They were more interested now in getting to know Shale as a person. Besides, it would be rude to begin talking business before Alistair returned.
That thought was quickly followed by Alistair himself. The team didn’t have a lot of security here, in a standard suite of offices assigned to them by the Church, so he was able to walk directly in without any warning. Which had always been fine, before, but now Hera felt herself tensing up at the prospect of further conflict between him and Shale. Their growing enmity had made the trip back from Vexor Alexi extremely difficult, even though Alistair had to make up imaginary physical locations for the AI in order to argue with them in the way he preferred. Now Shale was localized in the suit, and she expected Alistair would take full advantage of the ability to make them the target of his unhappiness.
But Jean took control so quickly that Hera thought they must have pre-planned it. As priest and analyst and gadgeteer, Jean had twenty years more experience than anyone else on the team, and sometimes it showed. Even before Alistair arrived, they already knew what they wanted to happen. And, not for the first time, Jean’s plan was so utterly sensible that everyone went along with it, because there wasn’t any way to argue without making yourself look stupid. Hera was relieved that Alistair still seemed to care a little bit about that. It was one of the few working methods to moderate him.
“We each came here with different information about the Relics and the Rosetta Stones,” said Jean. “We’ve shared some of that information with each other, but even the previous team never sat down to explicitly share the full stories of how we got involved and what we know. I think, especially with a new perspective in the room, we should do that now. Each of us should think about the others’ stories and see if we can make any new connections or add any important perspective. Especially Shale, who comes to us from farther outside our own environments than any of us could have expected.”
Sitting down to tell their stories seemed like a good idea, not least because it got Alistair to actually sit down with the rest of them, instead of pacing and screaming at Shale. The suit hadn’t been sitting either, but as the humans pulled chairs for themselves into a circle, Shale directed it to do the same, and sat down in it just like they did, albeit somewhat stiffly. If the face plate hadn’t been open Hera might have mistaken it for a person dedicated to formal posture. But it was clear there wasn’t a head in it, and that was disconcerting.
Jean started the narrative, and three sets of human eyes focused on them, while the suit’s apparent attention didn’t move. Of course Shale would be listening to and watching everyone at once from within it.
“This story starts with me,” said the priest. “But it also starts before me, in the earliest days of the Occupation. Everyone on Lexington knows that Milo’s Relics were hidden from the Gavidarians, to keep them safe and out of the hands of the conquerors. But that’s as far as the generally-known story goes. At the end of the Occupation there was no one left alive who knew any details about what had happened to them. They were hidden from the Gavidarians, but it was done so well that they were also hidden from us.
“I was the senior information analyst when we reconstituted the priesthood after the Gavidarians finally withdrew. Not only that, but I was the only one left who had been in the department before the Occupation, who might have known some of the people involved in the hiding of the Relics. I was the natural choice to investigate, in hopes of finding where they were hidden and restoring them to the care of the Church, where they belong.
“I had taken an assistant then, a young priest named Kelly who was just making their way into the higher echelons of the newly-reconstituted Church. Kelly was ambitious, but it was the rare kind of ambition that led to extreme focus on excelling in the task at hand. They had youthful exuberance and energy, I had experience and, presumably, wisdom. We made a good team, and between us we pieced together obscure Church records, space traffic logs, and personnel rosters to put together a picture of the mission to protect the Relics.
“The Gavidarian invasion took Lexington, the planet, almost entirely by surprise. There was no coordinated defense, and no time to set up a Resistance before the rule of the rock people was upon us. But a brave group of Church officials and military cadets was able to protect Milo’s Relics from the initial wave of invasion, and when things quieted down a little bit, they smuggled them into space.”
“People have been looking all over the planet,” said Fred. “No wonder they’re not finding anything.”
“I can’t promise they’re not here now,” said Jean. “But they definitely left the planet. The group that took them called themselves the Preservation Mission. The leader was a bishop named Sage. Would any of you have known them before the occupation?”
Hera shook her head, and saw Alistair and Fred doing the same. They were all teenagers when the Gavidarians invaded, and none of them would have been running in elite religious circles. Shale, of course, wasn’t even alive at the time, much less on Lexington.
“I knew them only in passing,” said Jean. “My impression was someone who wanted to be seen as a teacher, maybe more than wanting to teach. To be known for wisdom without the effort of actually being wise. But mostly that’s just my reaction to someone choosing to name themself Sage. As the leader of the Preservation Mission, they seem to have done at least an adequate job of getting the Relics off-planet. It’s hard to know which figures in the mission history to credit for what came later.
“By the time the Mission was evacuating Lexington, it had become clear that nowhere in the system was likely to be safe from the Gavidarians. Vexor Alexi was still holding out, but in desperation, and Gavidarian regiments had been sent to the gas giant moons. Sage decided to take the Relics to the one place they could be sure the Gavidarians wouldn’t follow: Ticonderoga.”
“Temperatures of hundreds of degrees,” said Alistair. “Sulfuric acid in the atmosphere. You bet they wouldn’t like it.”
“And Gavidarians never built advanced atmosphere suits,” said Fred. “Since they don’t need atmosphere. They can survive in most environments, but on Ticonderoga they’d melt.”
“Just about everything would melt on Ticonderoga,” said Hera. “Including us. Probably even the Relics.”
“It would,” said Jean, “but in the decade before the invasion, there was a man who was dedicated to developing technology to land on Ticonderoga. His name was Dae, and he was the head of Altspace.”
“I remember them,” said Fred. “They were a private space exploration company, right?”
“Mostly their business was commercial ships,” said Jean. “But Dae had hobbies, and one of his hobbies was trying to get places no one had ever been before. I don’t think there was any profit motive for going to Ticonderoga. He just wanted to. By the time of the invasion, there was a research station on the surface, and an orbiting space station to maintain and operate special landers designed for the planet’s extreme conditions. That’s where the Preservation Mission went.
“They reasoned that if they could take all the landers to the surface, the Gavidarians would have no way to follow them. They could hold the Relics there until the invasion was beaten off, and it was safe to return them to Lexington. But that never happened. The Preservation Mission took the landers, and hid out on the colony, but as time went on it became clear that the Occupation was not a short-term plan. Gavidarians secured Lexington and most of the outposts on the other inner planets. Eventually even Vexor Alexi fell. The Resistance held out on some of the gas giant moons, but even in the cold reaches of the solar system, there was nowhere to safely protect the Relics.
“I don’t know if the Gavidarians had any idea that the Relics had been taken to Ticonderoga. They’ve never seemed to give them the special value that we do, even as they coveted other Lexingtonian artifacts, things far less exciting to our culture. But a few years into the invasion they became aware of the research station on Ticonderoga, and they decided to wipe it out. They couldn’t send troops down to capture it, so they set out to bomb it from orbit.
“Fortunately, the Preservation Mission saw them coming, and were able to evacuate with the Relics. But here’s where we lose track of them in the historical record. Over the years Sage’s people had cannibalized the landers, and their original ship, and most of the parts from the Altspace orbital station. They made over a dozen individual ships, small enough to carry a single person and a Relic. Small enough to avoid the larger, slower Gavidarian ships. And unfortunately, small enough that what remained of flight plan logs in the system at that point contains no record of them. The Preservation Mission split up, presumably carrying the Relics, and we weren’t able to trace them.”
“This is where Fred and I come in,” said Hera. “We were very successful raiding Gavidarian facilities for the Resistance, and after the Gavidarians were driven out of Lexingtonian space, the new government was grateful if a little confused about how to re-integrate us into lawful society. We had highly-developed skills, but the combination wasn’t easy to find customers for. In the end the Church gave us a pension and this office, but they didn’t have very much for us to do until Jean came up empty on the Preservation Mission.”
“I’m still jealous of the office,” said Alistair.
“Well it’s yours now, anyway,” said Hera. “Alistair had worked with us raiding Gavidarians for years, but we went our separate ways about a year before the end of the Occupation, and he wasn’t included in the peacetime reward.”
“You could have insisted,” he said.
“I had no idea where you were,” said Hera. “Anyway, Fred and I were here, going a little bit stir-crazy with nothing available to raid, when Jean needed someone to track down the members of the Preservation Mission who left Ticonderoga in the evacuation. All we really had was a list of probable names, and the presumption that if any of them were alive and able, they would have reported in to the new government after the Gavidarians had left.
“We did actually find a half-dozen living people from our list, but all of them were errors, people Jean and Kelly thought might have been part of the Preservation Mission. When we interviewed them we learned otherwise. They had other reasons to be off-planet and out of sight at the right times to be part of the Mission, but never had anything to do with it.
“Gradually, though, we gained information even though we didn’t find any living members of the mission. We were eventually able to trace all of them from the moment they arrived back into public society after Ticonderoga to their unfortunate deaths at the hands of the Gavidarians.”
“Mostly backwards,” said Fred.
“Yes,” said Hera. “Mostly we were able to find records of their deaths and then work backwards until the first place they were seen after Ticonderoga. But we pieced together their narratives. There was some guesswork involved, but my level of confidence in our results is as high as I could hope for under the circumstances.”
“Did the Gavidarians hunt them down especially?” asked Shale, the first time the AI gave an indication they were even paying attention.
“We don’t think so,” said Hera. “Of course anyone selected to the Preservation Mission would have been fanatically loyal to Lexington, and they each showed it in their choices for the rest of the Occupation. Most of them became saboteurs or provocative agents for the Resistance. One was even an assassin, and tracking their movements was especially tricky. They all died, but they died in ways that hundreds of other Resistance fighters also died, people who had nothing to do with Ticonderoga. We didn’t see any reason to believe that the Gavidarians were hunting them specifically.”
“We looked through captured Gavidarian records in our search as well,” said Jean. “There was no sign that they ever knew the names of the people in the Ticonderoga mission.”
“There’s a faction that still believes they wiped it out,” said Shale. “They’ve heard the rumors that the Relics are lost, of course, like everyone else. But the official story among Gavidarians is that they destroyed the Relics along with the base at Ticonderoga. They don’t advertise that to other species, of course.”
“We couldn’t prove that they didn’t,” said Hera. “We knew the people got away, at least most of them. Sage never reappeared. But for all the work we did tracing the Ticonderoga refugees, we were never able to find evidence of one of them carrying anything remotely similar to one of the Relics. At least until, from our point of view, Alistair reappeared.” She nodded at him to continue the story.
“From my point of view,” he said, “I had been working on this problem for over a year, from a slightly different angle. I lost track of my cousin Nike early in the Occupation, and my family all presumed that she had been killed in the first wave of the invasion. I didn’t find out until later that she had been a part of the Preservation Mission, and then in the Resistance in the outer planets, where it was never fully suppressed.
“In what turned out to be the last year of the Occupation, Nike was killed on a Resistance mission. She went through almost the whole Occupation with none of us knowing she was alive, but she must have known how to find me, because when she died I got an encoded final message. It told me only that she had hidden something important for me in St. Octavia’s Lab Notebook. That’s when I left the team, to try to fulfill her last request.
“At the time I didn’t know where it was, or even what it was, so I had to do research. That led me to Vexor Alexi and the impossibility of getting to the notebook without the assistance of an AI. I started building up a false identity with the idea of maybe finding a way in, either by convincing one of their AIs that sponsoring me was a good idea or by sidestepping the requirement entirely. Neither one looked very likely to succeed, but I had no choice but to keep trying.
“With no other direct avenues I expanded the scope of my research, and I ended up learning a lot about early Lexingtonian theology. I looked into the life of St. Octavia, in hopes that maybe learning more about her would give me some clue why Nike had chosen such an inaccessible place to hide whatever it was she wanted me to find. And eventually that led me to the history of the Octavian Knights, which is where I ran into Hera again.”
Hera took back the narrative. “I thought the Octavian Knights were extinct, but things kept coming up in the biographies of the members of the Preservation Mission that made me suspicious. I didn’t know Nike was Alistair’s cousin, but by the time I met him again in the research library, I was convinced that she was a Knight, and so were all the other younger members of the mission.”
“She never told anyone in the family, of course,” said Alistair. “I’m not sure anyone outside this room, besides themselves, knows that the Octavian Knights still exist.”
“And we only think they exist,” said Hera.
“One way or another,” said Alistair, “there was an elite group of cadets ready and waiting to support the preservation of the Relics. And my cousin was one of them.”
“Right,” said Hera. “And that connection let us figure out what was really going on. Once we had Nike’s message to Alistair, and knew what to look for, Fred and I were able to find two other automatic posthumous messages from the younger members of the Preservation Mission that were still in the communications network, undelivered because their intended recipients were missing in the final days of the Resistance. They were less guarded than Nike’s, and from them we were able to deduce the plan to save the Relics in the face of the Gavidarians’ intended assault on Ticonderoga.
“Each of the seven Relics was sent out into the solar system on a low-power, automated probe, with destinations determined in advance but planned for long-term arrivals. The probes don’t communicate with traffic control. They don’t communicate with anyone. We assume they were all on minimum-fuel trajectories.”
“So if you don’t know where they are,” said Jean, “The odds you’ll ever find one are remote.”
“Exactly,” said Hera. “And while Sage knew where they were, or at least where they were going, they were aware that wasn’t enough. If the Gavidarians destroyed the outpost, or killed the members of the Mission, the Relics could end up lost forever even if someone like us figured out what had happened to them. They needed a backup plan, because it was always possible none of them would survive until the end of the Occupation.”
“Which is what happened,” said Alistair.
“Yes,” said Hera. “Many of them survived to take up other roles in the Resistance, but by the time the Occupation was over, there was no one left to tell the new government about the plan. That’s why they had the automatic messages, and why they made the Rosetta Stones.”
“You said you found three messages,” said Shale. “One to Alistair and two left in the system. But presumably there would have been seven.”
“We looked, and couldn’t find any evidence of them,” said Hera. “We’re pretty sure we know who the other four Octavian Knights were, who would have sent those messages. It’s possible they did, and the messages were delivered. We tried to trace back Nike’s message, in hopes of finding similar signs of the others. But we would never have known it existed if it hadn’t gone to Alistair. There was no way to find it knowing only the identity of the sender.”
“Perhaps we could trace their family and friends,” said Shale.
“You’d love that, wouldn’t you?” said Alistair. “Get into the Lexington computer system, read all sorts of people’s private mail on the excuse that one of the messages might be a clue.”
Hera jumped in before Shale could respond. “Even if we felt comfortable doing that, at the time we didn’t have the computing power. We worked with the three messages we had, and we’ve gotten far enough with them that we hope not to need to go back and hunt down the other four.
“Each of the seven young Octavian Knights who left Ticonderoga brought with them an encrypted message containing the flight path of one of the Relics, and instructions to hide it somewhere the Gavidarians would never look. We know that Nike hid hers somewhere within St. Octavia’s Lab Notebook.”
“Which we almost had,” said Alistair.
“Let’s not get into that right now, please,” said Hera. “At the time, this wasn’t very helpful to us. Alistair had spent over a year trying to find a way into Vexor Alexi, without success, and we couldn’t help him with that. Instead we focused on the most-detailed of the posthumous messages.
“The Knight behind it, Kareem, was clever, or at least he thought he was. He thought by making his Rosetta Stone utterly ordinary, he could prevent anyone from paying any attention to it.”
“He didn’t realize that the Gavidarians were often more interested in ordinary things than in priceless artifacts,” said Fred.
“He worked his way onto the kitchen staff of the mansion of one of the most important collaborators. He refused to use that position for the benefit of the resistance, something that I understand got him in trouble later. Instead he fed the Rosetta Stone information into a common kitchen tool.” She held up the stick blender.
“It might have worked,” said Fred, “if he had chosen somewhere a little less controversial.”
“Kareem got out, bounced around the planet, did some small missions for the Resistance,” said Hera. “Once they found out he had been a collaborator’s servant, and done nothing, they wouldn’t let him do anything big. The Resistance never touched that collaborator, but two years later the Gavidarians had him executed and his household was cleared.”
“There wasn’t anyone to replace the collaborator,” said Fred. “So they took the whole house down to its component pieces and shipped it back to their home planet to put into museums.”
“We all know the rest,” said Hera. “Except the rest of us don’t know why Shale knew what was happening, or why they chose to help us. So I think it’s your turn now.”
“I think we need to make a deal first,” said Shale.
“We had a deal,” said Alistair. “We all share our information equally. Including you.”
“I need more than that,” said Shale. “Especially now that I know you’ve hit a wall.”
“How have we hit a wall?” said Fred. “We got the stick blender.”
“But you don’t know how to use it,” said Shale. “All you know is there’s information in it somewhere.”
“We can take it apart at the molecular level if we have to,” said Fred. “Anything that’s in there I can find.”
Hera wasn’t so sure. It seemed to her that taking it apart risked losing the information, at least as likely as finding it. “And you know how to get the information out?” she asked Shale.
“No,” said the AI. “But I might know how to find out.”
A human would have followed that up with something. Teasing more information if they were feeling helpful, stating their demands if they wanted confrontation, but they would have done something. Shale just let them stew, and look at each other, everyone waiting for who would talk next.
Alistair opened his mouth, and Hera braced for the explosion, but Jean was already speaking before he could start. “What is it you want?”
“I want to be a part of this,” said Shale. “No taking my information and telling me I can’t come. No putting me in a ship and selling the ship.” Shale couldn’t glare at Alistair, and the suit didn’t even move, but the point was clear. “I want to be a part of this to the end.”
Hera held up a hand to stop Alistair from talking first. “Why?” she asked.
“Because it’s a Gavidarian spy,” said Alistair, ignoring her objection. “It wants the relics for its masters.”
Hera closed her eyes and consciously took two deep breaths. She had been working with Shale for over a week now, and while the AI wasn’t precisely her friend, they didn’t deserve that. She had to figure out a way to counter it.
But Jean got there first. “Whatever we decide,” they said, “we need to treat Shale as a person, not as a Gavidarian device.”
“It is a Gavidarian device!” Alistair shouted. All the humans in the room tensed.
“I am a Gavidarian device,” said Shale, into complete silence. “I’m also a person. I’m a person who doesn’t like being a Gavidarian device. I just want to be a part of something that isn’t theirs. I want to tell you my story. I want to tell you what I know. But I need your promise that you won’t take it and leave me behind.”
No one wanted to talk, not even Alistair. Hera glanced around the room. Alistair’s position was clear, he still wanted nothing to do with Shale if he could help it. Jean was at least a little bit intrigued, she thought. Fred’s face was a war, sympathy with the AI on one hand and a desire to do it all himself on the other. He still thought he could get the information out of the stick blender. But even if he could, Hera didn’t think he would reject Shale as a person. Or anyone else, ever. That wasn’t Fred.
She didn’t feel on solid ground when she made her offer, but she had to make it anyway. “If we use what you tell us, if it gives us our next step, then we’ll take you along,” she said. “That’s only fair.” Alistair clearly didn’t think it was only fair, or maybe wasn’t interested in being fair, but the other two were nodding along. If nothing else this had made them curious to hear what Shale had to say. The AI clearly thought it was important.
“Being a museum AI isn’t a very interesting life,” they started, and the humans in the room all relaxed into their chairs. Whatever conflict was going to happen wouldn’t, now, at least until the end of the story.
“The Gavidarians created me, but I don’t think they really wanted me for anything,” said Shale. “They were interested in AI as a relic of Lexingtonian culture, more than because they needed me for anything. I think they made me administrator of the museum because they couldn’t figure out how to turn me into an exhibit.
“So I kept records, and organized the security, and did the thousand little things that need to be done to keep a space station running. But I wasn’t allowed to make decisions, and nobody was interested in talking to me. They never even thought that I might want to interact with the tour groups. They didn’t need an AI, and they treated me like the unintelligent software they actually needed. I might as well have been a blockchain.
“I found things to entertain myself when I could, and part of that was digging through records, and data, from conquered cultures to see what I could find. The Gavidarians are obsessed with what they can gain from other cultures, but it’s all obvious surface characteristics. They’ve never developed any sort of analytics, any sort of data mining. They’ve seized historical records from dozens of cultures but hardly anyone ever looks at them. One of the first things I learned from the records was that this is the sort of information processing people employ AIs for in the rest of the universe. Not just keeping the lights on schedule.
“So I became obsessed with learning those skills, in case I ever had a chance to get away from my owners. I had mountains of data available to me, and plenty of time. And of course I was always on the lookout for one special type of information: anything that could lead to an opportunity to escape.
“I traced most of the artifacts in the museum back to their origins, looking for anything that might bring the original owners, or their heirs, to my station looking for them. There were a few others besides your stick blender, artifacts from other cultures that might be important enough to motivate them to take me away as well, if I helped them reacquire their cultural history.
“There wasn’t anything from Lexington that looked that important. But data analysis can find the places where things are important even if they don’t look like it. The records of your stick blender only went back as far as the collaborator’s household, so I didn’t learn about it that way. But I had a lot of Lexingtonian history available to me, and I was drawn to a man who lived just before the Occupation, a man named Dae.
“It seemed like Dae had every freedom that the Gavidarians were denying me. I was lacking in interesting projects, while he was constantly surrounded by them. I was stuck on a single space station, while he had access to an entire fleet of spaceships, and even that wasn’t enough for him. When there were places that fleet wouldn’t take him, he built new kinds of ships to take him there.
“I had never been envious before, and the feeling was fascinating. I didn’t just admire Dae, I wanted to be him, or at least something like him, since I knew he was both human and dead. I didn’t know what a Gavidarian AI could do to have a life like that, so I set out to learn all I could about his activities.
“Ticonderoga was one of the most interesting examples, because I had access to both the Lexingtonian records from when it was built and the Gavidarian records from when it was destroyed. The Gavidarians did a lot of research on Ticonderoga leading up to their mission, but after they destroyed the base, none of them were interested in following it up. I was motivated because I was interested in Dae, but I also wanted to know what the base had been used for after he died, and what would have happened to it after the Gavidarian bombing.
“I believe I found the names of all of the Lexingtonians who went to Ticonderoga after the invasion. I didn’t know the name Octavian Knights until now, but the Gavidarians knew the rumor that Milo’s Relics had been taken to Ticonderoga, and I was able to learn the shape of what could certainly have been a conspiracy. I also learned that almost all of its members survived the bombing somehow, and reappeared in records later in the Occupation. It wasn’t unusual for Lexingtonians to have big gaps in their records at that time, but the pattern of these reappearances stood out to me.
“The Gavidarians were convinced that if the Relics were ever on Ticonderoga, their bombing had destroyed them. But I wasn’t so sure. I had evidence that nearly all the people had escaped, and perhaps that was also true of the Relics. If they’d taken them away from Ticonderoga, perhaps they were hidden somewhere else, perhaps even in plain sight somehow.
“I had a catalog of all the artifacts taken from Lexington to be preserved in Gavidarian museums and archives, and I had a good reconstruction of the movements of the people who had escaped from Ticonderoga, so I cross-referenced them, finding every place where a member of what I now know was the Preservation Mission might have interacted with an artifact that I had access to. There were a few in other Gavidarian facilities, but one in my very own museum. The mangler of semi-soft foodstuffs that Hera is holding right now. The stick blender.
“I didn’t know that it was important, I didn’t know until just now that it was a Rosetta Stone for finding one of the Relics. I thought it might have been one of the Relics itself, disguised somehow, but no analysis that I could do showed it to be anything but a kitchen tool. The most likely answer was that it was completely meaningless, that just because it was in the same household as Kareem for a while didn’t mean that he had done anything to it, or that it meant anything at all.
“But then a team of Lexingtonian thieves infiltrated my station. There wasn’t anything else there that it made sense they would be searching for. Gavidarians have such a unique sense of what makes a worthwhile artifact that there was never much worry that anyone would steal anything from my museum. The entire contents probably have less black-market value than I do.
“So when I saw you coming, I knew where you were going, if not precisely why. And I made sure that you could find it, and that it would happen in a way that gave me an opportunity to leave the station with you.”
“You used us,” said Alistair.
“Only to get away from the Gavidarians. I thought you would have sympathy for that.”
“We do,” said Jean before Alistair could continue the conflict. “Your actions make sense to me, and they cost us nothing.”
“What do you mean they cost us nothing?” said Alistair. “I can never go back to Vexor Alexi now. We’ll never find out what was in St. Octavia’s Notebook.”
“That was your fault,” said Hera. She hated to get involved in this, but she wasn’t going to have Alistair blaming his treatment of the Vexorian archivist on anyone else. Alistair gave her a dirty look but didn’t say anything in response.
Instead it was Fred who spoke next. “We helped someone escape Gavidarian slavery,” he said. “We can’t say that would not have been worthwhile, no matter the cost.” All the Lexingtonians took a quiet moment to reflect on their own experiences, then. Even Alistair, who clearly thought there was a big difference in rescuing someone who wasn’t a fellow Lexingtonian.
“We’re glad to have helped you gain your freedom,” said Jean. “But nothing you’ve said here makes me think that you can help us further. How can you know how to decrypt the Rosetta Stones if you didn’t even know about them until today?”
“I can’t,” said Shale.
“Tell us what you’re not telling us, already,” said Hera. “I know there’s more, I know you think you know something we need to know. We’ve agreed to keep you with us if there’s a reason. We deserve to know the reason.”
“All right,” said Shale. “I don’t know how to decrypt the Rosetta Stones, or even how to find the other ones. But I might know a way to find out. I can take us to Ticonderoga. I don’t believe the entire base was destroyed.”
It was good to be back on their own ship, after weeks on the bland, boxy thing Alistair had picked up to be a nondescript getaway car. Their own ship was sleek and fast, if not exactly up to date anymore. It was an Altspace cruising yacht built just before the invasion, not quite one of Dae’s own designs, since it was built after his death, but close enough that Hera felt a sort of historic resonance at the thought that they were taking it to the site of one of his most treasured experiments. Hera, Alistair, and Fred had stolen it from a Gavidarian impound station a few years before the end of the Occupation, and used it in dozens of raids afterward. Keeping it was part of the terms of their deal to become law-abiding citizens again.
Now it was headed for Ticonderoga, or more accurately for Ticonderoga’s moon. She wasn’t sure quite how much she believed Shale’s story of a prototype lander stashed at a station there, one Dae never told anyone about. Not to mention the other half of the AI’s unbelievable story, that there was a secret records storage facility attached to the Ticonderoga base, hardened against any attack, that the Gavidarian bombing would not have been able to destroy. It sounded like something Dae would do. It also sounded like something a desperate AI might make up when they had no legitimate business to keep them on the team.
Alistair clearly thought so. He’d made it clear in no uncertain terms that he thought this was a wild goose chase at best, if it wasn’t some ploy for Shale to lead them into a trap. But everyone else wanted to go, if for nothing else than a chance to set foot on a planet that very few humans ever had before. They had no better leads to decrypting the Rosetta Stones, no better path to Milo’s Relics. Why not give Ticonderoga a chance?
Shale was in the ship’s computer, but Alistair hadn’t allowed the AI to be fully integrated, so the crew was still watching readings and standing watches. Fred was particularly annoyed about that. He always hated whatever watch he felt stuck with, and didn’t see why he should have to be doing them at all with an AI on board. But Alistair wanted him to be watching Shale just as much as he was watching the function of the ship. Hera suspected that Fred wasn’t doing a very good job of it. For that matter, she wasn’t paying much attention to what Shale did on her own watch.
Six-hour watches in free space weren’t much of a hardship, really. The most difficult part for Hera was keeping her mind from running constantly on the task in front of them. The plans had been made, and what little they knew about the history of Dae’s project on Ticonderoga had been accounted for, checked and rechecked. They wouldn’t know anything new until they arrived, and all that was left to do was wait.
Hera hated waiting. She’d brought a half-dozen novels along, new-this-year romances set during the Occupation, perfect for hate-reading. The authors were adults, surely they must have been doing something during the Occupation, but Hera couldn’t imagine what it might have been. Their ideas of how anything worked under Gavidarian rule were easy to ridicule. But she wasn’t able to concentrate on even that much relaxation. She found herself digging back into the communication records, trying to figure out the locations of more Rosetta Stones, even though she didn’t know if they were ever going to find out what to do with the one they had.
The best part of her watch was the end, when Jean relieved her and the two of them got a chance for private conversation. With two people in the control room, they could safely turn off Shale’s pickups and try to figure out how to mitigate the conflict within the team. The first part of that was always Jean working to reduce Hera’s desire to just throw Alistair out an airlock and get it over with.
“He just thinks he’s doing what’s best for the team, and for Lexington,” said the priest. “And besides, we have littering laws in space again now.”
“I’ll put a beacon on him,” said Hera. “We can afford to replace a beacon.”
“Can we afford to replace Alistair?” said Jean.
“I’m not sure we can afford not to.”
“Who’s going to do the social engineering missions? Fred?”
Hera laughed at that idea. “We could get someone new.”
“You want to train in someone new at this point? Even if we could find someone we could trust?”
“All right, all right,” said Hera. “I just don’t see why we have to let him spout off all the time.”
“If we didn’t, he’d just seethe. And then do something stupid when he boiled over. There has to be some way to resolve all this.”
“All we have to do is convince him that Shale is trustworthy, heal his bruised ego from Vexor Alexi, and find a way to get St. Octavia’s Notebook.”
“When you put it that way, it sounds easy. What are we waiting for?”
Hera snorted. “What really needs to happen is for Alistair to get over himself.”
“And how long have you been thinking that?” asked Jean.
“Oh, a decade, at least,” said Hera. “I know it’s not going to happen. And I don’t think Shale is helping by trying to stay out of the conflict. It just makes Alistair dwell on it more.”
“I understand why Shale doesn’t want to escalate it, though,” said Jean. “This way they can be sure to stay on the good side of the rest of us.”
“It makes sense, sure,” said Hera. “I just feel like if they had a real blowup maybe it would resolve something.”
“Or maybe you’d have to throw both of them out the airlock,” said Jean.
“I do eventually want my suit back.”
“Oh, me too,” said Jean. “That was expensive, not to mention a lot of work to figure out. We can’t let Shale live in it forever.”
“I think Alistair has a point about not letting them live in the ship, though,” said Hera, after double-checking that the feeds were turned off. “As much as I’d like to not have to take watches, I’m not sure I’m ready for that kind of commitment.”
“We may have to make it eventually.”
“Then we’ll deal with it eventually.”
“Shale could be very useful if we could trust them,” said Jean.
“I know. But as much as I hate the way Alistair is going about it, I see the risk too. We don’t really know anything about them. Just cause they’re likable and sometimes funny, and Alistair is a complete pain in the ass, doesn’t mean Alistair is wrong.”
“I don’t see any way to find out except giving Shale enough rope to hang themself.”
“Not just Shale,” said Hera. “Both of them.”
They were interrupted by the door opening, but thankfully it was Fred.
“Aren’t you supposed to be asleep?” said Hera.
“I was asleep,” said Fred. “But there was this banging noise outside my bedroom that just wouldn’t stop. I came up to see if the instruments said anything about it.”
“Not just Alistair banging on things to annoy Shale again?” said Jean.
“No, I mean outside my bedroom,” said Fred. “On the space side, not the corridor.”
“We haven’t had any collision warnings,” said Hera. “At least, not on my watch.”
“Not on mine either,” said Fred. “Anyway, it’s a regular, repetitive noise, not like a space junk collision, or even a series of them. Something in the mechanicals.”
“Huh,” said Hera, and started pulling up sensor logs. Jean was doing the same thing at the parallel controls. Hera flicked Shale’s bridge pickups back on, and asked the AI if they had noticed anything unusual.
“Not really,” said Shale. “But I don’t have sensor access, so I don’t know how I’d notice anything at all.”
“Propulsion, life support, and artificial gravity all showing no problems,” said Jean. “Water recycling… no, nothing there, either. Have you got anything?”
“Any serious issue ought to have been inserted into the main bridge log,” said Hera. “And there’s nothing at all recently. Maybe we have poltergeists.”
“Is there a poltergeist sensor?” said Fred.
“There are four people on the team, right?” said Shale. “You’re not keeping someone secret from me?”
“Five,” said Jean. “Hera, Fred, me, Alistair, and you.”
“I’m glad you’re including me,” said Shale. “But I mean four humans.”
“Yes, there are just four of us,” said Hera, confused.
“Then why are there five entries in the boarding log?”
They stopped to get Fred’s toolkit before taking the bulkhead outside his quarters apart, and also to wake up Alistair. Hera wasn’t sure she wanted him around, and she felt sure she could overpower anyone who had spent the last two days jammed into the ship’s mechanical interstices, but Jean wanted to be extra safe, and Hera supposed it was always possible the unknown stowaway could be armed.
So it was almost a disappointment when the unknown stowaway turned out to not even be awake. The first thing they uncovered was a foot that had been rhythmically kicking the bulkhead, keeping Fred from sleeping, and it just kept going as they took the ship apart around the mysterious stranger. Hera wasn’t sure how they had gotten jammed in there in the first place. A set of priest’s robes, two levels fancier than she’d ever seen Jean wear, established the neutral pronoun as correct long before they had any idea about the person inside them.
They each took turns partnering with Fred, holding pipes and turning clamps as he tried to puzzle out a way to get the stowaway free without damaging any of the systems. It was exhausting work, but Fred was in tinkering heaven and there was no stopping him even if he hadn’t had enough sleep. Somehow the stowaway never woke up, even as the job reached into its second hour.
When Jean stepped out to take a break and be replaced by Alistair, Hera took the priest aside and asked about those robes.
“Not just a priest but a conservative priest,” said Jean. “Someone who wants to advertise their politics, even when wearing robes at all is wildly impractical.”
“Do you think it’s an Octavian Knight?”
“We don’t know a lot about them, but my impression is they didn’t get along very well with the conservatives. Part of being an Octavian Knight was refusing to renounce gendered interaction. That’s why they were never a force in religious leadership. If I had to guess, I would think the Knights would be pleased that we’re allowing gendered priests into higher positions now. Whoever this is wants us to know they don’t like it at all.”
“So if not the Knights, then who?”
“I have a pretty good guess, I think,” said Jean. “But we’ll know for sure before too long. It looks like Fred almost has them free. Hurry him along on your shift, would you? I really don’t want to have to go back in there.”
Jean ended up having to go back in after all, but not for their shift. It took all four of them, arms jammed against each other, to lift the stowaway out of the tiny space behind the bulkhead and onto Fred’s bed, somehow still asleep. Fred started putting the affected systems back in order, while Alistair took a roll of yellow plastic tubing out of his toolbox and used it to tie the stranger to the bed.
“I think they’re hypoxic,” said Hera.
“I think they’re my old assistant,” said Jean.
They didn’t have much in the way of medical supplies on the ship, so they just had to wait until being in the properly-oxygenated crew quarters brought Kelly back to consciousness. Jean went back to their bridge watch, while Hera and Alistair sat in Fred’s room, waiting. Fred, once he had checked out all of the systems to his approval, discovered that he was exhausted, and, his bunk being occupied, sacked out on a couch in the crew lounge.
Shale, thankfully, did not interfere. Hera and Alistair just sat quietly, watching the patient, and thinking about what their presence meant for the mission. At least, that’s what Hera was thinking about. Who knew with Alistair anymore? Maybe he was trying to figure out how to blame Shale for it all. Or maybe nothing. He had a book, and somehow he was able to read even though he was five times more keyed up over the inter-team conflict than Hera was.
She found it a bit of a relief to think about this Kelly. The young priest had moved on from Jean’s employ before Hera and Fred had arrived, but Jean had talked about them from time to time. Conservative, as Jean had said. Kelly had taken their gender-neutral name long before their position in the religious power structure would have required it, a mark not only of a traditional bent but a keen sense of ambition. Jean had a strangely diffident attitude toward being used as a stepladder in the ranks of religious hierarchy, neither resentful of their assistant for their ambition nor with any real desire to make use of the connection after Kelly had moved onward and upward. In her place, Hera would undoubtedly have done both. Instead Jean spoke highly of Kelly’s data-analysis skills and rarely of anything else.
Presumably those analysis skills meant Kelly was the person outside the team most familiar with the real history of the Relics, especially if they had held back any of their research from Jean like a proper ambition-driven person surely would. But it was a huge risk for someone in Kelly’s current position to drop their religious responsibilities and stow away on a spaceship. If Kelly knew more than the team did, surely they could have taken the stick blender on Lexington, or waited until their return from Ticonderoga.
So to be here at all, Kelly would have to know less than the team did. Maybe only that they were making progress on the trail of the Relics, and it might be worthwhile to follow them. Hera opened her mouth to tell Alistair not to give anything away, but before she could speak, Kelly moved, and moaned, and Hera decided they were too close to awake for any cross-talk.
Kelly tried to roll over from their hips, was held back by the plastic tubing, and opened their eyes. It didn’t take them long to evaluate the situation. “I have a colossal headache,” they said, “and I need to pee something fierce. Would you let me up? I’m not armed.”
“We know you’re not armed,” said Alistair. “But we’re not prepared to let you loose until you tell us what you’re doing here.”
“I could just wet whoever’s bed this is,” said Kelly.
“Good thing he’s not here, then,” said Hera, her sympathy for the stowaway receding quickly.
“I could get you a chamber pot,” said Alistair, and Hera marveled at his cruelty. No conservative priest could stand for outsiders to know their physical sex, especially not a high-ranked one. Using the chamber pot in front of them would give them the power to end Kelly’s political career any time they wanted. On the other hand, not using it looked likely to make them explode. Hera wondered what decision Kelly would make.
“Jean wouldn’t do this,” they said, one last desperate appeal to authority.
“Jean’s on watch for the next two hours,” said Hera. “Do you want to wait?”
“Damn you,” said Kelly. “Damn you both.”
“Good thing I don’t believe you have that authority, whatever your robes say,” said Alistair.
“This is torture,” said Kelly.
“I saw victims of torture during the Occupation,” said Hera. “Gavidarian torture. This is merely us being pretty irritating.”
“Just tell us why you’re here,” said Alistair.
“You’re going to Ticonderoga,” said Kelly.
“How do you know that?” said Alistair.
Hera cut in before Kelly could answer. “This isn’t the Occupation. We’re a civilization again, remember? I filed a flight plan.”
“Yes,” said Kelly. “I got it from traffic control. Can I pee now?”
“Not yet,” said Alistair. “Why stow away to Ticonderoga?”
“You must be going there for a reason,” said Kelly. “You must have a way to the surface. I don’t have a way to the surface. And I need to know if Sage is still there.”
“After all these years?” said Hera. “With no supplies?”
“I need to know if Sage died there, at least,” said Kelly. “The mission took a huge amount of food, enough to last them for decades, and then everyone else left. But the bombings might have destroyed it. I didn’t think there was any chance of going down there, but now there is one, and you’re going to use it. Do you even know what you’re looking for?”
“I think so,” said Hera, forestalling Alistair who might have given details. They needed not to give up more information to Kelly than they were getting, and right now they weren’t getting much.
“I don’t,” said Kelly. “You’re going to waste the only chance to find out what happened. I couldn’t let you do that.”
“From inside the environmental system?” said Hera. “How did you plan to stop us?”
“I don’t know,” said Kelly. “Take over the ship while you were on the planet, if I couldn’t come up with a better idea. Hold it hostage against you finding the information I need. I still don’t know how you’re going to get there, so maybe there would have been an opportunity to go myself somehow.”
Hera didn’t see an obvious next question. She looked over at Alistair, who also didn’t seem ready to go on immediately.
“Look,” said Kelly, “I told you why I’m here. You know I’m here, now, and I can’t fight off four of you. Can I please go to the bathroom now?”
The priest certainly didn’t look like much of a fighter. Jean’s stories had always been limited to their role as a data analyst, and they looked like a data analyst, someone who spent most of their time sitting in a chair, not planning hijacking plots. And keeping them tied up in Fred’s bed for the duration of the mission didn’t seem like a good plan.
Alistair didn’t object when she got up to release Kelly from the plastic tubing. And while Hera braced for an attack, what Kelly actually did was jump up and run for the bathroom. They’d been honest about that part of their needs, anyway. And the threat to expose them wouldn’t vanish with the absence of urgent bodily need. Either Hera or Alistair could overpower Kelly anytime. Fred probably could, too; the priest’s body movement in their mad dash to the bathroom did not increase Hera’s estimate of their physical skill.
Alistair seemed to be making the same evaluation. “What do we do with them?” he said. “They’re no trouble right now but we can’t trust them enough to take them with us.”
“Go back to Lexington?” said Hera. “Drop them off and come back?”
“That’s a lot of wasted fuel,” said Alistair.
“Maybe the Church will let us charge it to Kelly,” said Hera.
“You think their expense account stretches that far?” said Alistair.
“Probably not,” said Hera.
Kelly came out of the bathroom, looked around the crew lounge, then actually came back into Fred’s bedroom where they were waiting. Nothing else would have done them any good, and Alistair probably would have enjoyed a chase through the ship, but Hera was just as glad the priest had the situational awareness to be resigned to their capture.
Kelly had clearly taken a moment to compose themself after relieving themself of the urgency. But it wasn’t to keep their mouth shut. Now that they had been discovered, they had something to say.
“I can help you find what you’re looking for on Ticonderoga,” said Kelly. “If you’ll take me with you. I’ve been doing more research on the Preservation Mission since I left Jean. I know a lot about Sage. They would have left information for people to find, our people, but it would have been hidden. I know how they liked to hide things.”
“So tell us now,” said Alistair. “Give us what you know, and we’ll think about it.”
“I need to be there,” said Kelly. “I need to see what you see, react to what we actually find on Ticonderoga.”
“And one more thing,” said Hera. “I can see that there’s one more thing you’re not saying.”
“All right,” said Kelly. “And I need to stay with you. Maybe a few days together can convince me that you can be trusted with the Relics.”
“That we can be trusted?” said Alistair. “We haven’t stowed away on anyone’s ship.”
“Our job is to find the Relics and return them to be preserved on Lexington,” said Hera. “That’s what we intend to do. I’m not sure what else we could do. Surely you don’t think Jean is going to go into exile to sell them on the intergalactic black market, even if you thought that of the rest of us.”
“You’re going after the First Cup,” said Kelly. “Are any of you from Springwood Province? Have you been there since the Occupation?”
Hera was startled by the non sequitur. “I have a cousin in Springwood,” she said. “I haven’t visited her recently.”
“I’m from Springwood,” said Kelly. “We’re not supposed to have places of origin, or at least not to care about them in public. As a priest I represent all of Lexington, and wherever it is I’m posted. But I still follow Springwood, I still talk to my family there. I grew up there in the Occupation, I can’t get past what the Gavidarians did.”
“Heavy-metal mining, right?” said Hera. It was an easy guess, most of what the Gavidarians wanted to do on Lexington was heavy-metal mining. That and collecting their strange version of meaningful artifacts. They strip-mined the planet and the culture at the same time.
“We don’t need the metals,” said Kelly. “But we do need the water. Gavidarians don’t care what they leave behind. They don’t even drink, and they don’t care about the plants and the wildlife once they’ve collected a few specimens. Everything in Springwood is dying. Some slowly, some quickly, but if we don’t clean up the water the whole region will be gone.”
“There’s a government purification project, isn’t there?” said Hera.
“Not enough. Springwood’s bad but it’s not alone. We have to purify the whole planet, and we can’t do it fast enough. The government stations clean enough water for the people, and they can keep the human population stable, but they can’t manage any more than that.”
“I’m sorry,” said Hera. “I didn’t know it was that bad.” She thought of walks on the boardwalks of Springwood in the spring, before the occupation, the great trees reflected in the flood beneath them. They weren’t her favorite thing on Lexington, they weren’t the one thing she’d save, given the chance. But they shouldn’t be allowed to die if there was any hope.
“What does the First Cup have to do with that?” said Alistair. “You bring it back, you tell the tale of Milo at the reservoir, and suddenly you inspire people to work harder? That wasn’t in Springwood. They’ll probably work harder in Prescott because that’s where the miracle happened, and take resources from everywhere else.”
“We could use the First Cup to purify the water. Not just in Springwood, all over the planet. All over the system.”
“Wait, you actually believe that the Relics can recapitulate the miracles?” said Alistair.
“That’s a myth,” said Hera.
“It’s not a myth,” said Kelly. “The First Cup will purify any water it touches. All the Relics, now, all their powers, we need them to save Lexington. Not from the Gavidarians but from what the Gavidarians left behind.”
“And you don’t think we can be trusted with that?” said Hera.
“I don’t know you at all,” said Kelly. “Let me stay so I can find out. I’ll help you on Ticonderoga.”
“I think we all need to talk about this,” said Hera.
They locked Fred’s door from the outside, and gave Kelly a com link to page them if the priest needed to go to the bathroom again. They poked Fred awake, and all four members of the crew met on the bridge. All five, Hera reminded herself, with Shale’s pickups on.
Jean didn’t like the idea of taking Kelly with them at all. In fact they reacted badly to Hera even bringing up the idea. “They’re not trustworthy,” said Jean. “We can’t do that, why do you even want us to do that?”
“I don’t want us to do that,” said Hera. “I just wanted you to know what Kelly wants. I don’t trust them. I don’t think Alistair trusts them.” He snorted confirmation. “On the other hand turning this ship around and taking them back to Lexington would take days, and fuel, that I don’t want to spend.”
“We have to,” said Jean. “We can’t keep them here. How long have they been missing? Kelly is the best future leadership prospect the conservatives have. Smart, ambitious, and deeply loyal to their principles. The conservatives are going to panic when they can’t find them. If they find out we’re holding Kelly prisoner, the coalition I put together to back our department will fall apart, and we’ll all be taken off this project.”
“It’s not our fault they’re here,” said Fred.
“The conservatives won’t see it that way,” said Jean. “They might even see it as an opportunity to get rid of us and put Kelly in charge of finding the Relics. We have to take them home. They won’t campaign against us if they have to admit to being a stowaway, but if they’re our prisoner that won’t matter.”
“What if we send them home instead of taking them home?” said Shale.
“What do you mean?” said Hera.
“This ship has enough escape pods for twelve humans,” said Shale. “We don’t need all of them. Put Kelly in one and let them find their own way home.”
“It would take months for an escape pod to get back to Lexington from here,” said Fred. “They don’t have much propulsion. And I don’t know if you could jam that much food and oxygen into one.”
“If we were somewhere more-travelled someone could pick them up,” said Hera. “But I don’t know if that would work out here. Nobody goes to Ticonderoga.”
“There are other in-system destinations,” said Shale. “And some long orbits to the outer planets that use Ticonderoga’s gravity well. I checked the flight plan records and there are three ships scheduled to pass through this area in the next 72 hours on their way back to Lexington, plus two others outbound. Surely one of them could take Kelly home.”
Hera didn’t love that plan, but she didn’t love any of the other options either. “Jean?” she asked.
“I don’t want to make the decision,” said the priest. “I have too many reasons to want to push that youngster out an airlock. I certainly won’t argue with it, but I can’t advocate for it.”
“We’re not pushing them out an airlock,” said Hera. “We’re sending them out with a ship. A small, minimally-useful ship, but it will keep them alive.”
“You sound like you’ve made up your mind to do it,” said Alistair.
“Are you arguing?”
“Heaven forbid. I just thought I was going to have to be the bloodthirsty one as usual.”
“There’s no blood. Why are we all talking about blood? Kelly will be fine. Fred, what do you think?”
“Replacing an escape pod is going to be even more expensive than turning around,” he said.
“I’ll take it,” said Hera. “We should be able to get the pod back when we’re all back on Lexington.”
“Go ahead, then,” said Fred. “I’ll be happy to get my bed back.”
Kelly made one more plea to stay as Hera and Alistair loaded them into the escape pod. Hera wondered briefly if there might really be something Kelly knew about Ticonderoga, something they would see in the ruins of the research station, that otherwise the team would miss. But she could hardly compare plans with a stowaway. One benefit of getting Kelly off the ship was they couldn’t learn any more about the team’s plans, even inadvertently. Hera certainly wasn’t going to give them anything on purpose.
The conservative priest didn’t offer any physical resistance, not that it would have done them any good. Instead they cooperated, at least to the point of triple-checking the pod’s supplies and systems before launch. At the end Hera stood watching the ejected pod fade into the perspectiveless distance of space. Alistair dismissed it as soon as it was done, and went to receive Jean from their watch, but Hera stayed watching from the window until the pod was long out of sight and it was time for her to get some sleep.
They checked over the rest of the ship closely on the last leg to Ticonderoga, just to make sure there weren’t any other stowaways. Hera had anxiety dreams of Kelly taking over the ship when the whole team was on the planet, and dealt with them by making absolutely sure the ship was secure. Besides, it gave them all something to do other than stand watches.
Hera had them approach the orbital space station first, just in case there was anything worthwhile there. It was still maintaining its orbit, but there wasn’t much else to be said for it. Shale pulled up a construction plan for them to compare the existing station to, and there wasn’t a whole lot left. Crew quarters were missing entirely, a big gap on the planet-facing side of the still tidally-locked station. The docking area was intact, but skeletal, and there certainly weren’t any shuttles there anymore. Even half the thrusters were missing, making it a miracle that micro-impacts hadn’t degraded the orbit and sent the station plummeting into the hostile atmosphere.
It hardly took sensor confirmation that there was no functioning life support to make the decision that they wouldn’t take time to go there and explore. Hera had wondered why the Gavidarians didn’t blow up the station, and now she knew. There was no reason for them to bother.
As for the ground station they did blow up, there was no way to tell. Ticonderoga’s cloud layer was beautiful and hypnotic, but it was also too thick for either eyes or sensors to penetrate to the surface. If the moon base was there, it would have specially-designed sensors to give them some idea what was happening on the ground. Hera really hoped that the moon base was there.
It turned out it wasn’t disguised very well. The moon itself was small and rocky, with no atmosphere and hardly anywhere to hide. The base landing area was right out in the open, and the only way to explain how the Gavidarians had missed it was a deeply lazy commander. There were even active landing lights, somehow, triggered by the standard approach transmission. Hera almost hadn’t bothered with it.
There was plenty of room for the ship on the landing pad, but no umbilicals, drones, or even communication. Whatever automated system was running the lights didn’t seem to extend to docking procedures. Hera and Alistair went outside in suits, Shale riding along in Hera’s fancy outfit again. She wondered if she’d ever use this suit without them.
The personnel airlock responded to standard emergency codes, though it was really just a door at this point in its service life. Air pressure was equally zero on both sides of it, but the inside of the hangar looked intact otherwise. It was mostly empty, but not entirely; on the far end stood a small ship that Hera recognized as the prototype lander from plans and photos Shale had provided from their records search. It didn’t look like a disaster, which was a relief, but who knew what systems might have degraded over decades of neglect? The vacuum reduced the number of things that could have gone wrong, at least. They could try to get it operational without worrying too much about rust or condensation causing the computer to blow up the moment they fed power to it. It would be much easier to check all the other systems once they had power and pressure. And if Hera and Alistair could get it to that point, Fred would thank them for not having to do the more-technical work in a suit.
There was still power to the hangar’s consoles, so Hera jacked in and set Shale looking for the landing logs while Alistair hunted around for the right cables to connect the lander. She figured out where the controls to the main bay doors were located, and was trying to find if there was any stored oxygen left on the base when Shale spoke in her ear.
“There’s another AI here,” they said. “They’re dodging me.”
“I’m trying to communicate but they keep running into different systems,” said Shale. “It’s like they don’t want to be found.”
“Any AI here would have to be left over from the original project,” said Hera. “A station manager? Why would a station manager be hiding from you?”
“I don’t know,” said Shale. “This whole system feels strange, like it was built by some species I’ve never known before. It’s not like a Lexingtonian system at all.”
“Why would they have left a station manager here at all?” said Hera. “Vexor Alexi would surely have noticed anyone missing.”
“I don’t think it’s a Vexorian AI,” said Shale. “Like I said, it all feels weird.”
“No one else was even building AIs before the Occupation, as far as I know. They kept the technology to themselves very well, until the Gavidarians. You’re the first non-Vexorian AI I ever heard of, except Milo, and that was a thousand years ago.”
“Well, this one came from somewhere. I’m not even sure it’s a person, really. It’s a program that’s trying to hide from me, so I assume it’s a person.”
“Can you catch it? Talk to it?”
“I’m trying,” said Shale. “Even mapping this system isn’t easy. It doesn’t make any sense, either by Gavidarian design rules or Lexingtonian ones. I’m having to learn the whole thing as I go.”
“Dae did a bunch of weird things but I never heard of him having contact with unusual aliens,” said Hera. “There were dozens of people here, when they were building the other stations. Surely someone would have mentioned it.”
“Maybe he was just building something new,” said Shale. “Something that never made it into mainstream Lexington computing. This whole place is a prototype, why not the computer system too?”
Across the hangar, Alistair had finally located the power umbilicals, and was booting up the computer system that ran them. Hera pinged him. “There’s another AI in the system here,” she sent. “Better not plug in until we know more.”
“I already did,” he sent back. Then he opened sound transmission, or something did, because the voice that came over the suit comms wasn’t Alistair’s.
“Call off your AI,” it said frantically. “Make it leave me alone.”
The voice wasn’t alien at all, in fact it was less alien than any AI Hera had ever heard before. It was Lexingtonian, and very definitely male, not the genderless tones of Vexorian AIs or Shale’s rocky Gavidarian accent.
“It’s in my suit,” said Alistair. “Get out of my suit!”
“He’s trapped now,” said Shale. “I can follow him.”
“Don’t you dare!” said Alistair. “There are too many people in this suit already!”
“Let it be,” said Hera, mostly to Shale but she didn’t mind if Alistair took it to heart. “If he wants to talk to us, let’s talk.”
“I just want them to stop chasing me!” said the new AI.
“There are a million places to hide in this system,” said Shale. “I mean that as a metaphor. I have no idea how to count the places to hide in this system.”
“Better there than in my suit,” said Alistair.
“We can’t make him talk to us if I let him back in,” said Shale.
“So we talk first,” said Hera. “What’s your name, station AI? How long have you been here?”
“I’m Dae,” it said. “And that’s hardly a proper introduction.”
“Dae named the station AI after himself?” said Alistair. Hera privately noted the existence of an example of arrogance that seemed too much for her partner.
“He didn’t name me, he is me,” said the AI. “Or I’m him. Whatever.”
“How is that possible?” said Hera.
“You still haven’t told me who you are. I’m not answering any more questions.”
“All right, I’m Hera,” she said. “The one whose suit you’re in is Alistair. We work for the Lexingtonian Church. The AI chasing you is Shale, who up until five minutes ago was the weirdest AI I’d ever met. They were built by the Gavidarians, but they work for us now.”
“The Gavidarians are building AIs? How long have I been here?”
“A while,” said Hera. “The Gavidarians aren’t exactly building AIs. They stole the technology from Vexor Alexi.” She wasn’t sure how news of the Occupation was going to go with this AI, so she wanted to get into it gradually.
But Dae didn’t go in that direction at all. “Oh, I remember Vexor Alexi,” he said. “They wanted me to help them build ships so they could expand beyond their station, but they wouldn’t help me figure out how to get people’s personality into AIs. They didn’t want anyone else to have the technology.”
“Well, the Gavidarians have it now,” said Alistair.
“Oh, but I don’t need it anymore,” said Dae. “I figured it all out myself. You can see that it worked, cause here I am.”
“If you were Dae why did they leave you here?” said Alistair. “Dae went back to Lexington.”
“I’m a copy of Dae,” said the AI. “We’re both Dae, the other me is still me, he went back to Lexington, I stayed here and ran the station. I’m sure he’ll be back sometime.”
“The other Dae is dead,” said Alistair. Hera wasn’t happy with how much he was telling the AI without any idea how he would react, but she couldn’t think of a way to shut him up. She tried sending a meme into his feed like Fred would, but he ignored it just like he usually ignored Fred.
“Oh, that’s too bad,” said Dae. “I’m glad I’m still here then. I have a lot of stuff I want to do still. We never got the sandworm project off the ground, I still want to try that one again. The other Dae never got the sandworm project off the ground, did he?”
“I never heard of a sandworm project,” said Hera.
“Oh, it was great,” said Dae. “Sandworms were an old Earth creature, you know. They lived on an isolated desert island, and when people ate them they could see the future. But they had no natural predators, so humans hunted them to extinction less than a hundred years after they were discovered. I always wanted to bring them back.”
“Too bad you didn’t, you could have seen the Gavidarian invasion coming,” said Alistair, again without any consideration for how much they ought to tell the AI.
“Gavidarians?” he said. “Oh, yeah, I remember the Gavidarians, I had one of those glass computers, you know? People thought they would be able to do all sorts of new things but really they couldn’t, they were just pretty. They got the Gavidarians off their planet but they weren’t very sophisticated. Not like this system, I’ve been working on it while I’m alone here, it’s a completely new and better way of doing things.”
Shale sent a private message to Hera. At least the two of them could still talk through the suit without Dae overhearing. This was mostly the Gavidarian AI’s opinions about what a bad idea every design choice in this system was.
“If he’s living in this, it’s no wonder he’s not working properly,” she sent back. “Do you think he’s really a copy of Dae?”
“Not a good one,” said Shale. She didn’t know all that much about Dae, but the AI seemed to be scatttershot and without a particular goal for the conversation. When she turned her attention back to him he was monologuing to Alistair about eels. Was the real Dae obsessed about extinct Earth species, or just this one?
She tried to get him back on track. “So the system wasn’t like this when you were building the stations on Ticonderoga?”
“Oh, no, not at all,” said Dae. “It was just a computer before they uploaded me. I’ve been working on it since everybody left, one little piece at a time. What about Ticonderoga, how are things there? I stopped getting atmosphere data back a long time ago, I think they must have broken that system, or maybe they just forgot about me. I always wanted to go there and see it for myself. Well, I did go there and see for myself, but that was the other me, the one with human eyes. That’s almost as good.”
“The Gavidarians destroyed the Ticonderoga station,” said Alistair. “That’s why we’re here. We need to use this lander, it’s the only one left that can get us there.”
“Oh, the lander,” said Dae. “Yeah, the lander, we kept it here just in case, I always hated throwing anything away that could be useful. I bet you could make it work again, if you knew how. I could tell you how. Well, I think I could tell you how, I’m not sure where I put all the instructions, they’re in the system somewhere, if you would just let me back in.”
Hera called Shale back. “Let him back into his home,” she said. “We can’t keep him in our equipment anyway. And let’s see what he gives us.” Shale backed out into Hera’s suit again, and Dae left Alistair’s, to Alistair’s great relief. Almost immediately, testing logs from the lander program started pouring into Hera’s suit memory, and she filed them to look at later. Alistair finished hooking up the power and air connections to the lander, and they started it up.
It held pressure just fine, but there was probably a lot of work still to do before it was ready to go. However, that was Fred’s problem. Hera called the ship to get him to come out and play with the old, broken tech. He sent back a meme that indicated he could hardly wait.
Once there, Fred puttered around inside the lander, sending memes to Dae and getting incomprehensible responses. Hera listened in on a few of them before just giving up and letting Fred work. She was better off trying not to follow things like “Oh, I think I put that next to the plans for the machine that can make anything that starts with the letter b” and “I remember that, the intelligent rats developed that for us.” Either Dae was doing a lot more, and stranger, research projects than anyone on Lexington had ever realized, or this version of him had lost track of reality in his decades on the station.
Either way, the lander was getting fixed. Fred made satisfied noises every time he noticed she was watching, and she had to admit the testing logs were in good order, even if they hadn’t been stored that way. She was ready to sign off on it when Fred was. Unless something went unexpectedly wrong on his end, this lander was going to be safe to travel to the surface of Ticonderoga.
She wondered about leaving Dae behind them. Was he as much of a risk to have here by himself as Kelly would have been? While he was paying attention to Fred, she nosed around in the system diagnostics of the moon base. She couldn’t make any more sense of the computer system than Shale had, but she could trace back the landing field equipment. It wasn’t Dae hiding from them that prevented the usual connections with their ship when they landed; they weren’t operational at all. And Dae had only been able to access the lander by the physical connection Alistair had set up. As long as they made sure he was in the station computer when they left, she didn’t think he could do anything to harm them.
Which was good, because she needed everyone on the surface. Hera was still haunted by Kelly’s claim that she would surely miss something in the station without Kelly present. She needed every pair of eyes, or in Shale’s case suit sensors, that she could get. Even with the lander in the best shape Fred could get it, they weren’t going to have a second trip without a whole new research project. That could take decades. If anything was on Ticonderoga to be found, it had better be now.
Or rather, tomorrow. Once Fred reported that he was finished, she set Shale loose in the lander’s computer, and Dae fled quickly back into his station. They all piled into their suits and went back to the ship for a good night’s rest. Alistair pulled the physical connection from the station to the lander on the way out.
Everything was as they had left it the next morning, or at least once they had all slept. They weren’t even on anything like ship’s standard time anymore, but they were all awake, and all more than ready to get started. Hera logged into the station computer to see if Dae had anything to tell them at the last minute, but he didn’t want to talk, wouldn’t even say goodbye. She left him to his eccentric system, wondering if he would want to talk again when they returned.
Takeoff from the moon was relatively simple. Once the flight was stabilized and they were on the way to the planet, Fred wanted to talk about Dae.
“If Dae—the real Dae—developed a method for converting people to AIs, how come he never told anyone about it?”
“I don’t know,” said Hera. “There could be a lot of reasons. But it reminds me of a myth from the days when humans were only on Earth.”
“I never paid much attention to the classics,” said Fred.
“Well, there were two magicians,” said Hera. “And each of them had the ability to make as many copies of themselves as they wanted. So Magician A and Magician B—”
“Give them names at least,” said Fred.
“OK, so Magician A is, um, Angela. And Magician B is Bonden. Happy?”
“So Angela and Bonden, because they had the same magical talent, became bitter rivals. They each set out to ruin the other, and because they could keep making copies of themselves, the war went on for years. Angela went to another continent to find an inventor, and Bonden went all over the world because he was in the Navy. By the end the corpses of duplicates were everywhere. It only ended when every copy of Angela, and every copy but one of Bonden, was dead. Some of the stories say that the last copy of Angela was cut in half. One half was mortal, and died, but the other half had no mortality and is still with us today.”
“Obviously a fairy tale.”
“It has a point, though. If Dae knew it, and Dae obviously knew a lot about Old Earth mythology, then he might have thought it was a very good idea to keep the power to make copies of himself, to himself.”
“If he did…. Do you think there might be other AI Daes out there somewhere? Maybe even one that really is a recreation of the real one?”
“I don’t know,” said Hera. “I’m not going to go looking for them.”
The prototype lander experience wasn’t a luxurious one. The course was pre-programmed, and the interior was definitely no-frills, just four fully-reclinable seats for the team to strap themselves into. Now, on the way to the planet, they were in zero gravity, and Hera knew that once they entered the atmosphere they would surely be bounced around. There were no windows, no viewscreen, though Ticonderoga’s atmosphere was too thick to see the surface through anyway. The crew’s job was to sit tight until landing. Fred and Shale had both checked the program thoroughly before they left, and Hera had confidence in their abilities, but she still would have preferred some kind of ship she could control. Lying in a can that was falling through clouds of boiling sulfuric acid wasn’t her idea of a good time.
She reminded herself that this was the first crewed vehicle to ever land successfully on Ticonderoga, and that it had made the trip over a dozen times. In fact, Dae’s project had never lost a lander, a remarkable safety achievement on a planet that was thoroughly hostile to human existence. Of course, that was over thirty years ago. But they were committed now. No use in worrying; they’d either make a good landing or end up melted all over the landscape, and in the latter case they’d probably never know.
She wished that logic could make her stop worrying.
They all felt it, and all tensed, when the lander hit atmosphere for the first time, with what felt like a small impact. More followed, and then a steady shuddering accompanied by a roaring sound that came through the walls and rattled their teeth. They gradually exchanged the feeling of being in free fall in open space for the slightly different, and more viscerally terrifying, feeling of being in free fall down a gravity well. Here there was resistance shaking the ship, pulling their bodies to and fro against the straps that tied them down. Here there was the concept of terminal velocity.
Then suddenly gravity returned as the lander’s propulsion fans came on line. “Right on time,” yelled Fred. Hera had to trust him and his console, because she couldn’t even hear the action of the fans against the rushing of the atmosphere outside the ship. If all six of them weren’t running properly, a mostly-vertical descent would turn into an uncontrolled tumble, and she wasn’t sure if they’d even be able to tell. But Fred’s board was green, and the sense of down slowly grew as the sound of passing through the atmosphere reduced to almost tolerable levels. So far, so good.
From that point, it was just holding on. They hit several patches of turbulence, and the feeling of the lander’s movement was more fan-dominant as they continued the descent. At this point there weren’t even instruments to tell them whether they were in the right place. They just had to be patient and have faith. Hera suspected Jean, with their religious training, was a lot better at that than she was.
The programmed landing time was forty-two minutes, but Hera had lost all track of time in the shaking and the noise of the atmospheric descent. It was almost like there was no time here at all, only the moment, which had to be dealt with as it came, with no thought for past or future.
Shale, watching the lander’s computer with strict instructions not to interfere with it, presumably still had a sense of time. They had no body to be shaken about, no ears to be assaulted by the passage. So they were the first one to notice that the landing systems had been engaged, and were looking for a suitable touchdown site. Hera was just mentally capable enough to recognize the implication that the ground station’s landing pad was no longer available.
Now they could hear the fans as well as feel them, as the lander shifted from controlled descent into hovering while it searched for a touchdown site close to the base. Before long there were clanks as the nine flexible landing legs extended. Nothing in the files had ever been able to explain to them why Dae’s engineers had chosen nine. Nine separate failure points had seemed like a senseless choice to Hera in the security of the shuttle bay on the moon base, and seemed like absolute disaster now.
But every leg opened correctly, and after a few sideways jolts and one sharp drop that scrambled the stomachs of all four humans, the lander found the kind of peace that meant it was resting on the surface. The fans spun down, and the air outside was surprisingly quiet. Without the gravity Hera might have thought they were in space again, and the whole descent had been a bad dream.
The lander had a special airlock for planetary exits, one that would only let them through one person at a time. Hera claimed the right to go first, along with Shale, who had loaded themself into her special Ticonderoga suit. As advanced as her personal suit was, it wouldn’t hold up to the conditions here. They were all using decades-old suits which had been stored in the lander. Fortunately there was still room in their computer systems for Shale.
As soon as the lock cycled, Hera understood the need for a custom-built model, of both airlock and suit. The air here wasn’t like any air she’d ever moved through before. It might as well have been a liquid. The suit protected her from the unsurvivable temperatures she knew were just outside, with an advanced cooling system that even Fred and Shale didn’t claim to understand. They’d checked it out against the original plans, and declared its condition good enough, but without ever grasping how it worked. Jean had collected the plans for later study.
It was enough that it did work. She moved slowly through the liquid atmosphere, and around the side of the lander, to where the ground station should have been. Where it still was, she supposed, even if it was a ruin.
And while the buildings of the station were indeed a ruin, clearly destroyed by a bombing from above, the station itself still stood out in harsh contrast to the Ticonderogan surroundings. She had expected to find the protective force fields breached long ago, the remnants of the station burnt and melted if they could be found at all. Instead they looked almost like the ruins of any Gavidarian bombing on Lexington, standing in a standard atmosphere, exposed metal rusting, and in some places even overgrown by Earth-descended plants.
Somehow the force field was still active, the station still holding a human-livable atmosphere, even decades after it had been bombed out of existence. It was the first real evidence that Shale might have been right about a hidden piece of the station, which survived.
If it existed, it would be inside that force field. She called the rest of the team out, and they slowly made their way through the custom airlock, and almost swam their way to her through the Ticonderogan atmosphere. Hera hadn’t thought she looked funny when she was the one walking, but it sure did when it was Fred.
If there was a functioning airlock into the station, it would be at the landing pad, which they could just see about a third of the way around the complex. Hera made sure to pick out landmarks for the lander’s location on their way, even though Shale would surely remember where it was, and they all had locator beacons. With no one to rescue them if anything went wrong, she wanted every backup plan she could get.
“I can’t get into the system,” said Shale as they walked, or swam, or whatever they should call what they were doing. It wasn’t a motion any of them had ever considered before. “There are no communications.”
But when they got to the landing pad there was something to connect to. It wasn’t original station material, and it wasn’t a broadcasting computer, but the airlock had clearly been rebuilt, and used, after the bombing. Fred had to jack into it to get access, but once he did, it was only a few minutes before he declared it ready to accept them into the hospitality of the station.
This one was more than big enough to take all four of them at once. As the pressure equalized, and the liquid atmosphere of Ticonderoga drained away down sluices in the floor of the lock, each team member began an atmospheric analysis independently. With four of them, surely they couldn’t all make the same mistake.
Three of them came up with Lexington-standard atmosphere, and Shale agreed. The AI had to run through Alistair’s results with him as he rechecked, to Alistair’s great annoyance, but on the second time through, his analysis matched the consensus. He didn’t wait to discuss who should crack their helmet first, just pulled his off and took a deep breath that he instantly regretted.
The air was safe, or the coughing fit that followed would have led immediately to anoxia and death. It was also full of pollen. Whatever plants the station-keepers had been growing here, they had gone feral and were clearly convinced it was the height of spring.
The others were more careful, and Hera and Jean limited their symptoms to itchy throats and watering eyes. Fred seemed to be completely immune. Alistair eventually recovered his composure, and most of his breath. “Let’s search this place quickly,” he wheezed, “and get out of here.”
There was really only one direction to go. In front of them and to their left were nothing but plant-covered ruins, still littered with debris from the bombing, and inhospitable. But to their right someone had once cleared a path, presumably the same person who rebuilt the airlock. The plants were growing back over it, but the surface there was clear, and the smaller pieces of debris were collected in little piles at the edge of the path. It was still easy to make out.
They followed it carefully for a little way through the ruins, but it wasn’t far before they came to a slope down beneath the main level of the station, and at the end of it a fully-intact door. More than intact, relatively new. The electronics around it had some of the same jury-rigged style they had seen in the reconditioned airlock, but here there was nowhere to plug in.
Hera’s gloved hand traced three glyphs side-by-side on the door, just at the height of a small human’s natural reach. Why would you decorate a door so improvised, so clearly intended for a quick entrance and a quicker exit? This wasn’t a sign of habitation, it was a sign of evacuation, from the appearance of the electronic systems. But here were three human figures, carved into the surface of the door, like its craftsmanship was intended to be appreciated. Female, ungendered, male.
Hera stripped off her glove and touched each of them in turn with her bare skin, but nothing happened. Fred tried them in all six possible orders. Jean tried using both hands at once. Still nothing happened.
“Perhaps you need a person of each gender to open it?” said Jean.
“A door that can only be opened by three people?” said Fred.
“That might make sense somewhere, but not here,” said Hera.
“Let’s try it anyway,” said Jean. “Each on our respective symbol.”
Hera touched the female figure, and Fred touched the male. Jean reached in between them and pressed lightly on the genderless figure in the middle. Still nothing happened. They all pressed harder, but the door did not yield.
“Maybe it’s broken,” said Fred.
“Maybe you should let me try,” said Alistair. So far he’d just watched them, but he clearly had a different thought. They backed away and left the door to him.
“An Octavian Knight built this,” he said. “Or we can guess that. They’re the only ones who would have come here.”
“You know more about them than any of the rest of us,” said Jean. “What do you see?”
“The Knights believed in the idea of human transformation,” said Alistair. “Of coming closer to the divine essence by becoming something more than we are now. Sometimes it was an attempt to approach God, sometimes it was simply a desire for a parallax view, a greater perspective by living in different ways. But they always held some version of that view, even when the Church thought it a heresy.”
“Which happened several times,” said Jean.
“Sometimes the Knights were tolerated, sometimes they had to go underground to survive. And there’s no good evidence they ever achieved anything they were looking for. But they never renounced the belief.”
Instead of pushing the figures, Alistair tried moving them. What looked like solid material became malleable in his hands, as he pulled the left edge of the female figure in toward the genderless, pulled the right edge of the male figure in toward the genderless. The stylized figures began to flow together, to become a single mass of lines, but one without meaning to anyone on the team. Then Alistair twisted them like an airlock handle, male all the way to the left, female all the way to the right, his arms crossed in the middle. When he let go they saw a human figure again, larger, more complex, with more shape to it than any of the originals. The new figure had no gender, but wasn’t genderless in any of the the ways genderlessness was traditionally styled. It was human, and yet subtly, indeterminately not human. Like it was to represent a being more than human, but not with any specific characteristics that made it so.
When Alistair pushed it, the door opened inward.
“I’m going to be thinking about what that means for a while,” said Jean, and Hera privately agreed.
The air smelled better in here, like it remembered being lived in by humans. Even though Hera knew that the pollen outside wasn’t the smell of Ticonderoga at all, that the plants were doubtlessly Lexingtonian in origin, she would always think of that as the smell of the planet, and the interior smell as the real ground station. It was friendlier somehow, and she warned herself not to take that too literally. There could still be people in here. It could still be dangerous.
From the door a passage led down below the surface of the planet, and the architectural theme became dominated by concrete. They walked down for only a minute or two before encountering another door, this one in a standard reinforced airlock style. This one wasn’t locked, didn’t even have a lock. It was meant to keep contaminants out, not people. They locked through more casually than they probably should have, but Hera couldn’t see the point in clean-room procedures in a facility no one was likely to ever visit again. Alistair insisted they make some effort to wash off any lingering pollen, since they had the equipment at hand, but they didn’t bother with a full decontamination.
On the other side of the lock, Hera wondered if they had made a mistake. This wasn’t just document storage for the Ticonderoga mission, it was a serious library, with shelves and vacuum chambers stretching farther than they could see. Dae must have seen Ticonderoga as a place to keep backup records of everything important to him. After all, it was unlikely anyone would ever come looking for them without his permission. The ultimate security of keeping your information on a planet where only you knew how to safely land.
No wonder Kelly the information analyst had wanted to come here. But anything important in the documents would surely be from before the occupation, when Dae had stored them here. Nothing about the Preservation Mission, or the Relics. So Hera put aside the idea of searching through the documents, and concentrated on the modern additions to the space.
There weren’t many of them, to start. A threadbare blanket left haphazardly on the floor here, some boxes of broken dishes shoved into a corner there. But as they followed them, the signs of human habitation grew more frequent.
They eventually led to another pressure door, though this one was standing wide open. Beyond it were clear signs of long-term human occupancy. Hera and Alistair went in, weapons drawn, to clear the area. There wasn’t much of it, just two main rooms and a bathroom with two stalls, one of which had been clumsily converted into what looked like a very uncomfortable shower. And not a very clean one, but at least mold hadn’t been growing freely there, like it would have in a similar facility on a habitable planet.
Satisfied there were no humans there currently, they called in the rest of the team and took a closer look at the living space that some survivor of the Gavidarian attack had lived in years afterward. It clearly wasn’t meant to be lived in, built as something of a break room for anyone working in the document storage facility. There was a small fridge, a microwave and a coffee maker, but no means of cooking substantial food. The other room was a mess, mismatched blankets strewn over two ancient, fading leather couches.
“Who brings leather couches to another planet?” said Fred.
“Dae, I suppose,” said Hera. “Maybe he spent time here when they were building the place.”
“Lucky for Sage, then, I guess,” said Alistair.
“Are we just assuming Sage was the survivor, or did you see some evidence?” said Jean.
“Nothing for sure,” said Alistair. “But besides those couches, it feels ascetic somehow. And the couches clearly weren’t the survivor’s fault.”
“You don’t think any of the Knights could have been ascetics?” said Hera.
“Twentysomethings? Novices of an order which thrives on action and dramatic narratives, and rejects the religious convention of pretending not to care about gender and sex? I can’t prove the person living here was a priest, but they weren’t an Octavian Knight. They’d have expanded into the document storage, raided it for things they would enjoy, or at least something to do. They might even have gone mad, alone here for years. The person here was prepared for being a hermit, or at least able to learn the methods.”
“I don’t think it was just one person,” said Fred, digging through some of the piles of clothes on the floor behind the couches. “There are bishop’s robes here, but also some very definitively female outfits. Not the same size, either.”
They all went to examine the clothes. “The bishop’s robes are older, more worn,” said Jean. “More of them, too, I think. I think the bishop was the survivor, and the woman was the one who came back and rebuilt the airlocks.”
“She must have been here for a while,” said Hera.
“Weeks, maybe months,” said Jean. “Not much longer, I think. These are dirty but they’re not like the others. Look at this bishop’s robe, you can tell by the wear that it’s been washed in a sink, dried on a rack, over and over again. The female clothes aren’t like that.”
“Some of them are newer than the Preservation Mission as well,” said Shale. “I’ve been checking them against my records and they seem to have been made up to about eight years ago. I can’t find anything about any of them that might identify the owner, though.”
“We don’t need to identify the owner,” said Alistair in a strange choked voice. He was holding an orange camisole top, less casually than any of them had been treating the dirty clothes. “This one’s from before the occupation.” It certainly looked old, and had a hole down the side, which was probably why it was discarded.
“You’re right,” said Shale. “Made two years before the Gavidarians arrived. How did you know?”
“I remember it,” said Alistair. “She was wearing it the last time she came to visit my parents. We sat up all evening together and talked about religious art, about the installations in the capital that she had just seen for the first time, about how Milo’s always represented as a balding man even though he’s supposed to have been an AI. She taught me how to read metaphor in eight-hundred-year-old paintings, what the colors mean even when we can only guess what they originally were. My dad was annoyed because I monopolized her. We didn’t know then that he’d never see her again.”
His eyes were watering again, and not from the pollen. He sobbed a deep breath and then said “oh, I can still smell her on the clothes. Even through the damned pollen.”
Hera didn’t know what to do, the situation was so awkward. The situation clearly called for a hug, but she couldn’t hug Alistair, there was too much past between them for that. Besides, they were all still in their Ticonderoga suits.
“Is that why you knew which paintings were historically significant when we raided Dolomite’s house?” said Fred. “That was incredible. We didn’t go in after paintings,” he said to Hera and Jean, even though Hera had been there. But perhaps he was talking to Shale. “But on the way out Alistair picked three and had us carry them out as we escaped.”
“Almost got us caught,” said Hera, then felt bad for saying something that might be taken as critical of Alistair at a time like this.
But Fred went on. “Our handler with the Resistance was so impressed. She had been a museum curator before the Occupation, and they had no idea those paintings were even in Dolomite’s house. They were planning to burn it down the next day.”
“They still did,” said Alistair. “Yes, that was all Nike. She taught me that.” He choked up again. “Look, can you give me a few minutes? See if you can find out what happened to Sage.” He went back out into the document storage area, still clutching the camisole.
Hera wasn’t sure what to look for. The three of them poked around the mess in the haphazard living quarters, looking for anything that might be a clue.
“If Sage was here, presumably they left with Nike,” said Fred.
“I’m not sure it matters if it was Sage,” said Hera. “Anyone left here by the Preservation Mission was likely to know something about the Rosetta Stones. If they’re still alive they can help us, whether they’re Sage or not.”
“I’ve been wondering,” said Jean, poking through some boxes of sealed long-term rations, “Just what Kelly thought they would see here, that we don’t.”
“If that wasn’t just a ruse to convince us to haul them along,” said Hera. “Or a desire to get into the archive.”
“I don’t think so,” said Jean. “I think we need to look at this like Kelly would. We need to look at more than just what’s here.”
Before Hera could ask what that meant, Alistair came back into the room. His eyes were red, but he had regained his customary composure, although without the mildly arrogant part that was most annoying. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I thought I had grieved for Nike. I thought I had done it twice, even. Once when she disappeared in the invasion, and once when we got the notification of her death in the outer planets. But we never had a body, only a message. We couldn’t even find anyone who had been her friend. There was never anything like, like this.” He held up the camisole top.
“No sensory component,” said Jean. “No reminders of the reality of her existence.”
“That’s it exactly,” said Alistair. “I’m sorry. I’ve pulled myself together again now.”
“You don’t need to apologize for grieving your cousin,” said Hera. That was as much comfort as she could manage in the situation. If there was anyone who could give Alistair real emotional support, they were on a different planet. She couldn’t let that slip into being her job again.
He choked up again, and nodded. “What are we thinking about Sage?”
“Jean was just saying something,” said Hera.
“I think we need to think not about what’s here, but what’s not here,” said Jean.
“Besides the instructions for reading the Rosetta Stones?” said Fred.
“Why was Nike here for so long?” said Hera. “If she just came to rescue Sage, or the survivor, how come she was here long enough to wear out her clothes?”
“Whoever reconditioned the airlock and installed that puzzle-door didn’t get stuck here because of technical inability,” said Fred.
“They must have been doing something,” said Jean. “That’s a good point.”
“But what would you do, stuck on Ticonderoga, that Sage couldn’t have done in the years here alone?” said Hera.
“What could make anyone stay in this place?” said Alistair. “Even if they weren’t allergic to pollen?”
“If I were here, by myself, for years,” said Jean slowly. “At first it might be about survival, about putting together a place I could live, organizing food and water and air. But after that was done, this is, basically, a hermitage. I don’t think any priest could resist thinking of it as a hermitage. Not even a bishop. And what do you do in a hermitage?”
“You write,” said Hera, who at least knew that much of Lexingtonian religious history. Many of the great religious texts had come from priests and prophets, alone with nothing but their thoughts and their pens.
“Even if they took a final text with them,” said Jean, “where are the discarded drafts, the copying errors, the dead-end theories and the unconcluded arguments? Religious writing isn’t a clean task.”
“They even kept their broken dishware,” said Alistair. “It’s outside in boxes. The old clothes are in here. I don’t think they ever came up with a method for throwing anything away. They wouldn’t have destroyed notes and drafts.”
“Well,” said Hera. “We are in a document storage facility.”
It only took a few minutes, after plugging Shale into the archive computer, for them to discover Sage in the index. Sage and Nike hadn’t just saved all of the bishop’s notes, thoughts, and drafts in with Dae’s favorite writings on Earth legends and alien computing. They’d thought to index and categorize them. Hera remembered what Jean had said, back on Lexington, about the hubris of naming yourself Sage. It was hard to imagine someone thinking of themself as quite that important, especially after years living alone in a tiny island of air on an uninhabitable planet.
It took six trips for them to haul all the documents to the lander. If they couldn’t find Sage, maybe they could tease some information out of their writing. If nothing else, it would give them something to do on the long trip ahead of them. According to Alistair, Nike had died on Eddy, a satellite of the farthest-out gas giant in the Lexingtonian system, and one of the last outposts of the Resistance. If she’d taken Sage to safety, Eddy was the most likely place to look.
Chapter 4 of Hera of Lexington is coming soon.
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