Above the Cemetery World: Free Fiction for Fyretober October 7, 2023
Above the Cemetery World
by Emil Varden
Originally published in Trans Lunar Injection #66
Myra leaned back in her chair, almost falling over in the process. The gravity had shifted again. “Carlin!”
“I’m on it, Myra,” the station engineer called from below.
“I don’t want you ‘on it,’ I want it fixed!”
That’s literally what she did, gripping the console and wrapping her feet around the footrest. The survey division had picked up this station on the discount market, and it showed. Systems constantly broke down, and Carlin was constantly repairing it. How much had it really saved them?
Suddenly the artificial gravity normalized, and she settled to her seat. “About damn time, Carlin…” Then she leaned back over her console and put her eyes to the viewing box. She dialed in new settings – and suddenly she watched the Cemetery World as if she hovered three meters over Tomb Alpha.
The Cemetery World. That’s what everyone called it, even though the official designation was Wotan-7, ever since Myra had discovered the secret of the Tombs, stone memorials buried just below the surface if three of the five major continents as well as two large islands. Once those had been discovered, survey had ordered nearly all personnel off the planet. For the time being, they were restricted to orbital archaeology only. Survey wanted nothing disturbed.
Myra zoomed in on Tomb Alpha, the one she had discovered. It was a carved stone disk that had lain buried in the grass for time uncounted. The survey dating team said at least fifteen thousand years. That made them impressive, in that the technology still worked after all that time without maintenance. (If only the station worked that well.) If an intelligent being approached one of the Tombs, the center of the disk would telescope up, and it would display a holographic life story of the creature enTombed within.
No one could explain why the Tombs worked that way. There was no intelligent life on Wotan-7, barely any animal life at all. It was mostly a world of red-orange foliage, particularly tall tree-analogues that grew around most of the Tombs. Before the evacuation order, survey had found buried remnants of a primitive society, but no bodies of any kind. Certainly they had found no evidence of an advanced people capable of leaving the planet.
And the Tomb Builders had left. At least that was the currently popular theory in survey. There was no way for a species to leave so little evidence of their existence unless they went elsewhere.
But a less popular theory – Myra’s personal favorite – was that the Builders weren’t native to Wotan-7 at all. They had come here to bury their dead, and then they had left.
Myra had no evidence for that, of course. If she’d had even a hint, she would already have a paper circulating on it. The chief frustration in archaeology today was how scarce any new information about Wotan-7 was. There’d been no new breaks since Myra’s discovery three-and-a-half years ago. That had done her a lot of good, had gotten her this lead researcher position on the satellite team; but she wasn’t going anywhere from there, not unless she found some significant new discovery. Already she knew that behind her back, people whispered: Myra the Fluke.
Myra tried not to think about her reputation. Sometimes she even succeeded. She couldn’t fool herself: She was too young for a post like this, and she’d only gotten there by luck. But she was determined that next time, she would have more than luck on her side. That was why the constant system failures on the satellite frustrated her so. She didn’t like what it was doing to her, but the project seemed out of control.
It was precisely the lack of evidence that had led Myra to her hypothesis, Lack of evidence since the her discovery, and lack of evidence before. The survey division had made over three years of deep radar scans of the surface Wotan-7 before approving larger expeditions to the planet. Not one of those scans had found even the slightest hint of the Tombs, or of anything more significant than fragments of walls and tools from a long dead ancient civilization.
Yet now those exact same scanning radars showed the subsurface outlines of giant stone cylinders, the Tombs. These weren’t sensor ghosts. Wherever tree cover was thin enough, optical telescopes confirmed the stone discs where the deep radar said they were. The Tombs were not imaginary… and they had shown up on no scan before three-and-a-half years ago.
Fooling the sensors was proof of advanced technology. In quiet moments, scientists conceded that the technology was more advanced than humanity’s, at least in that one way: No one knew of a way to hide that many subsurface structures from deep radar. The Tomb Builders had that over humans.
So in Myra’s hypothesis – it didn’t qualify as a theory yet, Myra was always precise in her usage – the Tomb Builders had left no evidence of removing their advanced civilization from Wotan-7 because it was never there. There was nothing to remove. For reasons of their own, they had landed on the planet, created the Tombs, buried their dead, and left. If Myra could prove that, she would earn this position… and her place in history.
So she spent all the time that she could running every imaginable scanner they could run from orbit, since the survey division had confined them there. Someday survey might approve large expeditions to the planet again, but it wouldn’t be soon. Too much of the public was frightened by the discoveries of the Tombs, and too many politicians saw no benefit in funding something that the public might turn against in the next election cycle. So here they orbited over the most exciting archaeological find since Troy, and Myra could do nothing but run the same scans and collect the same data.
And run the same meetings. A chime from her ear chip told her it was time for yet another status meeting were no status would be reported. Myra would’ve skipped such a colossal waste of time, but she still didn’t have that authority. She might now be a senior researcher, but Dr. Grennell was still lead for the entire Wotan project – even if he was still back on Earth while Myra did the grunt work. He expected reports from these meetings, even if nothing significant had come from them in more than two years.
The station gravity failed twice more on Myra’s way to the briefing room. The first time had been a localized failure: there were three meters of passageway where the floor was the ceiling and the ceiling the floor. That failure led Myra to crash into the ceiling, but it had been otherwise inconsequential.
But the second failure… The briefing room itself was in freefall. “Carlin’s working on it,” Nina Hartley said, raising her hand as if to calm Myra. The woman had a frustrated scowl on her face. “It turned off just as I was setting out the coffee. First there was a reverse surge, so I apologize for the coffee stains on the ceiling, Dr. Collins.”
Myra looked around at the gathered scholars. Hartley a tall, strong Earth woman with short black hair and a serious look. She was older, more experienced than the rest of them. More experienced than Myra, truth to tell. By rights she deserved the senior researcher position, she just hadn’t been in the right place at the right time. Sometimes she bristled at Myra’s instructions. Myra understood why, but she was still getting sick of it.
Joel Brockman was a young, eager graduate student out from the Compass colony. His skin was ruddy to match his hair. His teeth were crooked, in a way that surely would’ve been fixed on Earth, but Compass was still a subsistence colony. Brockman was bright, and teachable; but he was so damned eager to please everyone that Myra couldn’t take it. Myra wished once in a while he’d get drunk and give himself a break, rather than always volunteering for new work. So little real work happened around the station, and his constant inquiries only emphasized that.
Then there was Cardell, who kept to himself outside of his duties. He was so quiet and nondescript, Myra sometimes forgot he was aboard.
Aside from Carlin, these were the department heads. Once Carlin had shown up for every status meeting. After a while, he had taken to sending representatives from his team, none of whom bothered to conceal their boredom. They weren’t academics, they were engineers. They didn’t know how to play the game Eventually Carlin’s team had simply stopped showing up for the meetings. After several confrontations, Myra had decided it wasn’t worth arguing about. There would be no one from there team here.
So Myra decided. “Let’s keep this short. We can run the meeting here in the passage.” She looked at her tablet. “I see that everyone has received the weekly survey results and approved them already. Anything unusual?”
Hartley shook her head. “Surface mapping has given us the most accurate maps yet. Unless there’s something still hiding from us, we can pinpoint every near-surface feature and some subterranean features within milliseconds, affirmed with every scanning system we have.”
“All right, anything new?”
Hartley shrugged. No particular change from a week ago, Doctor. There was minor shifting and settling, but we knew Wotan-7 was still geologically active. Plate tectonics at work, thermal shifting, hydrological activity… The readings vary, but well within expected margins of seismic and tectonic shifts.”
Eager as ever, Brockman jumped in. “Similar results with atmospheric analysis, Dr. Collins. There are constant small variations that are well within the tolerance of the atmospheric model, but not large enough to trigger more extensive scans. My team have stopped getting their hopes up about every little bit of unexpected trace gases. We see changes, just enough to keep us from getting bored, but not enough to trigger any action.”
Myra turned to Cardell, who had faded back into a corner and was leaning against a wall. “And you?”
“Nothing from signals and radiometrics, Doctor.”
Myra shook her head. “That’s it? Nothing? Hartley and Brockman are at least trying, Cardell. Don’t you have more to say?”
“No, Doctor. Nothing worth reporting.”
The man’s face was blank, almost empty. He wasn’t defiant, he was simply bland. Myra thought about pushing him for more answers, but he wasn’t worth the bother. She had to go chew out Carlin. Maybe that was a problem where she could actually accomplish something.
Engineering was in the center of the station, inside big ring. The station design dated back to pre-artificial gravity days, when space stations spun for centrifugal gravity. For reasons Myra couldn’t guess, the design was still frequently in use today: a giant ring with spokes leading to a central core. Myra didn’t understand space architecture, so she couldn’t guess why this design had persisted for more than a century and a half.
Myra was less than thirty meters from the hub when suddenly gravity became omnidirectional. That was the best way she could describe it: her feet were pulled one way, her head another, and her stomach stretched in between. She felt stretched on a rack.
Then the whole experience flipped, with gravity seeming to originate from her stomach, pulling arms and legs and head into an involuntary fetal position. “Carlin!” she shouted again, this time with anger.
Suddenly the black, curly-haired head of Samuel Carlin appeared at the end of the passage. “Hold on, Doctor. I’m shutting down the shaft.” He pulled into the passage, tethered himself to a wall grip, and opened a panel in the wall. He reached inside and twisted something, and suddenly there was no gravity in the passage at all. Myra could extend her arms and legs again.
“What hell was that, Carlin?”
“I still don’t know, Dr. Collins.”
“What will it take for you to know?”
“Get off my case, lady!”
Sometimes Carlin’s bluntness was refreshing, but this wasn’t one of those times. “Mr. Carlin, I am in charge of this expedition.”
“And I’m the guy who keeps the physics on track. Or tries to. Something’s going on here, and I don’t know what it is. I think the safest thing you can do right now is to order a general quarters lockdown. Get everybody in their bunks so they can ride this out until I can make sense of it.”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“Whatever’s going on is widespread, Doctor. I don’t think it’s safe for people to be running around when gravity might switch on them at any moment.”
Despite her temper, Myra saw the sense in that. She tapped her ear to open the all-station channel. “This is Dr. Collins. All nonessential personnel to your cabins.” She paused the call all and said to Carlin, “Strapped down?” He nodded, and she added, “Strap in for variable acceleration. I’ll let you know when it’s clear. Collins out.”
Carlin, meanwhile, was scanning the gravitic plates in the passage with his omnitool. “Damn! Same as the others.”
“Same as the others how?”
“Every place where we had a gravity shift, the gravitic plates have had their polarities scrambled. Every one of them needs recalibration.”
“That sounds like something that takes a long time.”
“Damn right it does. It’s faster to just turn the plates off and go freefall until it’s done, or just replace the plates if we have spares.”
“We did when we started, but now…”
“You’re telling me we could lose artificial gravity completely?”
“It’s possible. Plates are failing faster than we can recalibrate.”
“But how is this possible?” Carlin opened his mouth, but Myra held up a hand. “Not the techno-speak, I wouldn’t follow it. I trust you to handle the math and science, just give me the high level view.”
Carlin nodded. “The only time I’ve seen anything like this has been when a ship with gravitic drive flew past another ship I was on without giving us a flight plot.”
“Nonsense! Don’t know most ships in service use gravitic drives?”
“Yeah, but like I said, it’s about the flight plan. If we know that a gravitic drive is operating in the area, we can compensate for it, pulse the fields as it passes by so the incidental gravitons are deflected away and don’t affect the plates.”
“So you’re saying a gravitic ship came by? Nonsense! We would have detected it.”
“Not one, Doctor, multiple according to what I’m finding in these panels. There are signs of different incident graviton waves at different times.”
“Well, there’s no way in hell we would miss multiple ships.”
“That’s what I thought. You should pick them up on the telescopes, and certainly on the radiometric scanners. Have there been any anomalies?”
“No, there –” But suddenly Myra remembered how definitive Cardell had been. Where Hartley and Brockman had hedged their bets, Cardell had insisted there had been absolutely nothing detected. He had just shut the conversation down. as if he didn’t want anyone thinking about the radiometrics at all.
Myra tapped her chip. “Cardell… Cardell!… Doctor Cardell, answer immediately!”
But he never did. He never could. Cardell was nowhere to be found on the station. More than that, as Myra looked for him, no one could quite remember him. Even withing his in his own department, personnel had forgotten who their department head was. Myra checked personnel records to find anything that might explain his strange behavior and his disappearance. But there was no record of a Cardell assigned to the station at all. It was as if the man had never existed.
Myra got a shiver, and she couldn’t shake her conviction about the starships that had passed unseen in the darkness of space. The Tomb Builders were back.
The good folks at Fyrecon have declared this tobe Fyretober: a month of creative prompts, encouraging writers, poets, and artists to share their explorations. Today’s prompt: Soace visitor.
Meanwhile, at the Dorr Township Library writing group, we had another writing prompt for a writing exercise: Haunted by the living.
And readers who have been following from the beginning will remember Myra and the Cemetery World from Slow Answers. I put those together to end up with a new Cemetery World story. I suspect it won’t be the last… Keep watching this space!