Dr. Robert B. Marcus Jr. - Author

 

 

 

 

Memories

~~~~~~~

Memories can be very valuable,

if you can remember them.

~~~~~~~

I was within a thousand meters of the large building in the middle of the ruins when the Lateon fighter appeared over the short horizon, weapons blasting. In front of me, the remnants of the two million year-old building collapsed, thirty stories of metal and stone dropping quietly to the ground in the soundless vacuum. Chunks of rubble flew through the pale, ghostly light cast by the planet’s two suns, thousand-ton missiles hurtling through the sky and house-sized boulders bouncing across the surface.

And they all seemed to be headed in my direction.

In my rush to dodge the missiles and boulders on my scooter, I had forgotten that the Lateon fighter was still trying to disperse my body into subatomic particles. Luckily, a man on a darting scooter is a much more difficult target than an immobile thirty-story alien ruin, and as the oblong-shaped fighter flashed overhead I breathed a sigh of relief that I had evaded my apparent destiny.

Where had the Lateon fighter come from and why was it attacking me? My first trip to the surface two hours ago had been uneventful, but this time I was about halfway to the center of the ruins he ruins when the peacefulness of this world vanished.

Now the fighter was swinging back for another run. Could I survive a second attack? For sure, I couldn’t survive a third or a fourth.

But there was always Plan B. I hoped Jance Relids was high in orbit and safe on the bridge of the Morning Light watching me run for cover. If Jance wasn’t safe, Plan B was a waste of time.

From overhearing the communications of the archs before they left, we had known about the possible presence of a large Lateon ship when we dropped into orbit around the planet, though we hoped it was several light-years away. Nonetheless, I had taken a few precautions when I landed in the shuttle. Neither the shuttle nor the Morning Light was a fighter, but not even a small explorer wandered this far from human space completely unarmed. I had a chance if I could get to the edge of the ruins…and if my timing was perfect.

The scooter floated on a weak repulsion field guided by small rockets. As such it was fast enough to traverse a straight course in plenty of time. But a straight course wasn’t possible, not with debris from the shattered building still bouncing around. It would be close.

Dim light from the white dwarf glinted off the wing of the Lateon fighter as another volley of blasts destroyed a small building half a kilometer ahead. The beams twisted away as the fighter flashed overhead, banking for another run. Sweat flowed from my pores faster than my vacuum suit could absorb it, and the stink of fear was beginning to accumulate in the thick atmosphere I was breathing. Worse yet, some of the sweat was dripping into my eyes, making it hard to see. I couldn’t possibly survive another run by the fighter.

But maybe I wouldn’t have to.

I aimed the scooter toward the outer layers of the ruins along the clearest path I could find. No time for finesse now. The bouncing debris was finally thinning out but there was always a chance one last boulder would obliterate me. I buried the thought.

A couple of small pebbles glanced against the side of my scooter, but none hit me directly as I streaked through the perimeter zone of the ruins onto the barren, rocky terrain outside. I felt the presence of the fighter closing in on me.

I pushed a jury-rigged button on the control panel of the scooter. In the absence of sound I had to turn to discover the results. My suit visor suddenly dimmed in reaction to the bright burst of light as the Lateon fighter rushed through the invisible spray of the antimatter grenade, rendering the spray no longer invisible. A billion tiny explosions detonated both on the surface and within the fighter, though the chance of any of the antimatter penetrating deeply into the fighter and killing the pilot was small. The fighter immediately wobbled in flight, then began dragging a tail of smoke. I stopped the scooter and watched the ship dip closer and closer to the rocky ground before it vanished over the far horizon.

“What the hell is going on down there?” Jance spat into my helmet.

“Just a dead Lateon fighter,” I replied.

“Well there may be more of them,” Jance said. “I’m getting readings of a small gravitational anomaly on the far side of the planet.”

“Keep me informed.” I told him. I was curious about the gravitation anomaly, but didn’t have time think about it or even to savor my success against the Lateon. I turned my scooter back to the ruins.

I had only eleven hours left.

~~~~~~~

Dealing in alien artifacts could be extremely profitable, and was legal, if you followed the rules. Legally independent dealers could only go into a sanctioned ruin if everyone higher in the food chain had departed. Unfortunately, that meant Jance and I were at the absolute bottom. And why would everyone depart unless the ruins were worthless, depleted or too dangerous? They might be in Lateon territory, like this one—or, also like this one, the celestial body on which the ruins abided might have a limited life expectancy.

Two million years ago these ruins were inhabited by a vibrant, thriving civilization which had spread to at least forty sites in over twenty star systems about 1,500 light-years from Earth. No one knew what the beings looked like; no one knew the cause of their demise. All that was left was a few ruins. Two million years is a long time for buildings created by mortal creatures to last; the winds and tides and movements of the crust of a living planet tended to wiped clean all traces of civilization, burying the remnants far below the surface. An orbital scan could pick out artificial patterns but landings produced few artifacts without extensive excavations. Only two of the forty identified sites of this particular civilization were productive at all; the best was on this airless, barren planet, where a single domed city had been built. The dome was long gone, but many of buildings were relatively intact.

All of those intact buildings were about to fall into a black hole. In seventeen hours.

I stared at the sky above me. Once upon a time, perhaps 200,000,000 years ago, a yellow sun the size of Earth’s Sun departed from the main sequence. Its hydrogen fuel tanks were almost empty, so it started its journey toward oblivion. From an average star to a red giant, not once, but twice…then the complete extinction of the core nuclear fires…accompanied by the inevitable gravitational collapse. All that was left was a fiercely white star smaller than Earth but much hotter than the Sun. The luminosity of the star faded with time, until now only heat provided the light. The light it cast on this planet was pale, but cold and real, in contrast to that of its companion. I followed a trail of hot gases, the matter-transfer stream, spewing from the white dwarf across the void until it merged with a yellowish-white disc of gases that filled the central half of the sky, like creamy icing swirled over the black darkness of space. The hole the sky was directly above me, angled slightly toward the horizon on my left, a dark, writhing, evil nothingness surrounded by a white-hot bulging in the disc. A geyser of bluish-white matter was exploding from the center of the disc, flashing within a 100,000 kilometers of this planet. Even if I couldn’t see the black hole, I could feel its dark presence, eager and ready to swallow this 11,000 kilometer rock. In eleven hours the planet would drop too close to the black hole for us to escape. We would be stuck here forever, for after we fell deep down the gravity chute and were torn apart by the tidal forces, what was left of our bodies would eventually tumble beyond the event horizon and disappear from this Universe.

I had wanted to spend most of my time exploring the large central building, but what had survived two million years had been turned into rubble by the Lateon fighter in seconds. Now I was forced to explore smaller buildings.

The buildings contained a rabbit’s warren of tunnels and chambers, weaving their way through the entire city. The walls of the chambers were smooth and ebony, glistening in the light of my torch. Geometrical shapes hid on the floor and lurked in my path—cubes, spheres, pyramids primarily, but a few more irregular shapes. They were of the same ebony construction and completely immobile, cold and smooth. Once in a while, in no particular pattern, I came across niches in the wall, some tiny, others large enough to hide an elephant. Nestled in the niches were things, mostly unrecognizable things, exactly what I wanted, since many were small enough to carry.

I collected odds and ends in the basket behind my scooter, hardly bothering to look at them. Each appeared to be worth the cost of the trip out here. I twisted one small sphere into two pieces and a tiny thunderstorm was released. I put the two pieces back together, then pulled it apart again. Another thunderstorm, six centimeters across, with centimeter-inch long bolts of lightning. Just art? I put it in the basket with the other trinkets and started to move on, when I saw the small ebony figure on the floor.

I picked it up and stared. Was that what they looked like? I grabbed it and put it in my pocket.

I only had eight hours of collecting left.

~~~~~~~

My memories begin nine years ago when I woke up in a hospital on Danyon, the second planet orbiting Sigma Draconis, about eighteen light-years from Earth. I had been found wandering the streets of Amber, the capital city, completely confused and unresponsive, with no identification and no memories. They removed the tumor along with my left cerebral hemisphere, my dominant one, and genetically convinced my body to grow a replacement. But my memories never returned.

The authorities tried to trace me from retinal scans and a DNA analysis, but I had no recorded past. Assuming I was a criminal, they tried to imprison me when I physically healed. Since they couldn’t prove I was guilty of anything they let me go and I found Jance, who also had no past, at least none he would ever talk about. We were a good match. Who in his right mind would travel a thousand light years into Lateon space to a dying planet to retrieve a few artifacts from an essentially unknown civilization? The archs had come and gone, probably protected by the Terran Navy. But we were alone. The odds of surviving were small, which was why no other dealers were competing with us. But if we did survive, the memories would be intense. And I valued memories.

“Did you find anything valuable?” Jance asked in my earphones as I quickly stowed my treasure trove into the small cargo bay of my shuttle. I didn’t have much room in the shuttle, so small objects were the key. Usually on an exploration I would make several shuttle runs from orbit to the surface, but not on this one. This would be my last landing.

“Maybe an image of the builders,” I replied

“Any weapons?”

“Not unless you count a tiny thunderstorm.”

“That isn’t going to help.”

“Against what?”

“I can explain the gravitational anomaly.”

“Did you find the Lateon mother ship?”

“The Lateons aren’t the problem.”

“The archs?”

“Not exactly.”

“What’s that mean?”

“It means the source of the gravitational anomaly is an Einstein class battle cruiser, not an archeology vessel.”

I stopped putting away my treasure trove. “What’s a battle cruiser doing here?” I whispered.

“Protecting the archs?” Jance suggested.

“Why would they need more than a small destroyer?”

“Maybe to investigate the Lateons?”

“We didn’t expect to find them here—why should the Terran Navy?”

“I don’t know, but it’s close enough to swallow the Morning Light.”

“Roger. Let me know if it pulls closer.”

“It can’t get any closer without swallowing the Morning Light. Why don’t you bring what you have and come home?”

“Because we have an expensive trip to pay for. I’ll be in touch.”

What the hell was a battle cruiser doing here so close to the end of this planet’s life? 

I refilled my suit’s air tanks, then made sure the memory links were operating between my suit and the Morning Light in orbit high above. If anything happened to me I wanted Jance to know how and why. Theoretically, the memory logs were for your family—if you had one. I didn’t. Just Jance. At least he was all I could remember.

(End of Sample Excerpt)

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Copyright © 2013 by Robert B. Marcus Jr. All Rights Reserved.