The Sexton: Free Fiction for Fyretober October 12, 2023
by Emil Varden
Originally published in Trans Lunar Injection #67
Myra paced around her cell, fuming with every step and plotting her escape.
Officially it wasn’t a cell. Oh, no, it was The Office of the Archaeological Liaison for Project Gnat. And officially Myra was that liaison, the senior and most powerful archaeologist in the entire Wotan system as well as all the space within two parsecs. She had final say in every archaeological decision.
But who would she say it to? The first thing the military had done after arriving in system was to declare a communications embargo for all personnel in and around Wotan. They had enforced that one that by physically removing the ansible from the station, storing the pieces in one of there ships. Without the ansible, communications was limited to light speed and inverse r-squared power. Messages would take 600 years to reach Earth and be undetectable when they arrived.
The second thing the troopers did was to imprison seventy percent of Myra’s archaeology team. Oh, they had a euphemism for that, too: Protective Quarantine and Relocation. PQR. The scientists had been politely escorted – at gunpoint if they put up a fuss – into ships which promptly left the system for a destination unknown. Lieutenant Carstairs had assured her that they were safe, comfortable, and well fed; but their location was classified, and they were to remain in custody for the duration of the crisis.
At least Carstairs had been honest in that brief moment. He had called the situation a crisis. In formal discussions, he was generally referred to it only as Project Gnat.
There was a name chosen by a bureaucrat: something with no connection to Wotan, Cemetery World, the Tomb Builders, or archaeology. If somehow the project came up in some bureaucratic debate, the name would reveal nothing at all.
That gave Myra a small chuckle. Just like a gnat. All but invisible, all but silent.
That left Myra and a skeleton crew of archaeologists who were allowed to continue their work, but not to publish it. All they could do was report it to Lieutenant Carstairs.
Support staff had been among the first to be replaced by Fleet personnel. That had been the first step in their occupation of her station. The Fleet hadn’t even announced their presence, they had just docked, overrode the security codes, boarded, and started the polite evacuations. When Carstairs explained it, Myra saw that it made sense to a certain sort of mind. It was station operations which had been infiltrated by Cardell, the saboteur, so operations was presumed to be the most vulnerable – and possibly the most compromised.
But Myra saw another explanation, one she never voiced because she didn’t want Carstairs to think she was a troublemaker. Once the Fleet had control of operations and environmental systems, it would be that much harder for anybody to resist the evacuation. People got really compliant when you turned off their air and gravity.
The door chimed, and Myra said, “Who is it?”
She knew the answer before the date door AI said, “Lieutenant Carstairs.”
Myra sat down in the big chair behind her desk. At least they had left her the trappings of authority. “Let him in.”
The door slid open, and Lieutenant Carstairs strode in, as stiffly formal as ever in his navy blue uniform. “Doctor Collins.” His tone was neutral, as usual. She had never heard the man raise his voice; but then, he had never had to. The occupation of Myra’s station had happened so quickly, there had been no time for anyone to give the troopers any trouble.
Myra leaned back in her chair, as casually as she could. Maybe Carstairs had to march around like a toy soldier, but she chose to stage a mini protest by being relaxed. What were they going to do? Arrest her for slouching?
“What can I do for you, Lieutenant? Have you found any gnats?”
She gestured toward the guest chair, but Carstairs stood stiff and straight as if he never noticed. “No, Doctor, but perhaps something just a significant.”
Despite herself, Myra sat up straighter. “Oh? What is it?”
Carstairs shook his head. “Need to know, and you don’t. Not yet.”
“Not yet? What does that mean?”
“I told you, not yet. There’s been a discovery on Wotan-7, and I need your professional assessment. But until you get down there –”
Wait a minute, down there? Survey has declared that surface expeditions to Wotan-7 are off-limits except under the strictest protocol and supervised by survey council members.”
“The survey division isn’t in charge here anymore, Doctor. You’re smart enough to know that. The Fleet is in charge now, so we set the policies. And we – I – need your expertise on the surface.”
Myra nodded. The researcher in her was intrigued as well as excited: intrigued at what they might’ve found, and excited as she was for any chance to investigate a site with their own eyes.
But a smaller, more rebellious part of her mind contemplated what sort of leverage this might give her. “And if I choose not to go?”
Carstairs nodded”. You have that right. You’re not a prisoner, you’re a volunteer.”
“Volunteer my ass…”
“I wouldn’t know about your ass, but we won’t compel you to do this. If you choose not to, we’ll select another researcher. Not as experienced as yourself. We don’t have that many to choose from. But we’ll get by, and you’ll get a new assignment.”
Myra knew what that meant: PQR to a quarantine world somewhere far from where the action was. She stared at Carstairs. If he’d worn a smug smile, that would’ve made her feel better. It would’ve given her a hint that the nan had some smidgen of more humanity, that he wasn’t some sort of robot. But his face was as impassive as ever.
Myra said, “All right. When are we going?”
The shuttle was like nothing Myra had ever ridden in before. It was larger than survey vessels, yet more crowded. All that extra space seemed to be jammed with sensors, operators, and troopers. And probably weapons, though Myra never got to see the exterior to confirm.
The troopers were packed in, but they gave Myra the luxury of an entire bench seat to herself. This was typical of the Fleet troopers, especially Carstairs: They bent over backwards to make the scientists feel like honored guests, not prisoners. Her team could go about their work and their leisure in any way they wanted, as long as they complied with inspections, stayed out of the way, and kept out of areas declared to be classified. Classified, on Myra’s own station…
Here in the shuttle, an entire bench seat was as much luxury as they could spare. Myra strapped in for departure, and soon she felt gravity shifts slightly as the shuttle disengaged from the station and polarized its own gravitic plates. The pilot’s voice came over the open comm: “We have station separation. Prepare for 0.2 G broke boost in five… four… three… two… one… boost…”
Myra barely noticed the boost. 0.2 G was mild, and the artificial gravity was more than sufficient to compensate for it. The star field through the small port to her left didn’t register any movement, not this early in the trip.
But she felt the departure in the mood of the troopers. The ten troopers seated behind her relaxed, as if someone had called At ease. They were strapped in just like she was, but they no longer held themselves stiffly in their seats.
Then Carstairs made his way back from the command cabin and sat beside Myra. So much for a bench to herself…
“You’re not strapping in, Lieutenant?” she asked.
Carstairs shook his head. “Not for 0.2. That’s tamer than a roller coaster.”
Myra chuckled at the thought of Carstairs sitting stiffly in an ancient roller coaster, arms across his chest through all the hills and curves. “You like roller coasters, Lieutenant?”
For the first time, Myra saw a flicker of humanity in his face. The corners of his mouth turning up into a smile. “I did as a kid, Doctor. Now… Well, I’ve seen loops and turns that no coaster could ever match, and with enemies firing upon us as we flew.”
Myra wasn’t sure how to respond. She didn’t even know where the Fleet might’ve engaged in battles like that. She was a scientist. She didn’t pay attention to the feuds and skirmishes between worlds. The only battles that interested her had been settled centuries ago.
While Myra was still trying to figure out how to respond, Carstairs changed the subject. “We’re off the station now, Doctor, and this shuttle contains only troopers whom I have personally vetted. My top team has searched it for surveillance devices. If we are not secure here now, we won’t be anywhere.”
“So that means you can tell me why we’re going down Wotan-7?”
“I can. But it might be faster to show you.” He handed her a hologram helmet. “It’s already programmed. Just put it on and say play when you’re ready.”
Myra nodded, donned the headset, and said play.
The wantage was that of a trooper at least four inches taller than Myra, judging from where her viewpoint was above the ground. The location was recognizably the surface of Wotan-7, with all its red and yellow and orange foliage. She saw that the playback had a menu of commands she could speak: pause, rewind, forward, slow mo, inquiry, and sensor bands. The last had a submenu: human visual, IR, false color IR, blend, and radar. She whistled. The display froze in the middle of the videographer’s step, and a computer voice said, “Command not understood.”
Reflexively, Myra shook her head, a meaningless gesture inside the helmet. “Cancel command,” she said. The playback resumed, and she marveled at the capabilities of the Fleet scanning gear. She was more than a little envious. Survey had nothing like this.
As if inhabiting the trooper’s body, Myra saw arms and legs just at the edge of her vision as the trooper walked. She wasn’t restricted just to where the trooper looked: she had nearly thirty degrees of play to look around her. At first she looked down, and she cursed the unnamed trooper for their carelessness. This ground had the same thick leaf color cover that Myra had found on her one and only visit to Wotan-7; but unlike her, the trooper wasn’t carefully lifting their boots and checking radar before setting them down to avoid stepping on and breaking any artifact, or even tripping. This trooper just shuffled their feet, heedless of what might be under the leaves. “Your people aren’t very bright, Carstairs.”
The image paused automatically when she spoke. From outside the helmet came Carstairs’s voice. “What do you mean?”
“They’re walking without paying the slightest attention to what’s beneath their feet. Isn’t that against some sort of military training? Shouldn’t they be looking for tripwires?”
“Wait a minute…” There was a long pause, and then Carstairs continued, “Damn. You’re right, Doctor. I have at least one trooper who’s due for some remedial training. And when there’s one, there’s probably more.”
“They probably don’t think there’s any threat here, Lieutenant. They’re not thinking like archaeologists.”
“Damn it, that doesn’t matter!” His vehemence surprised Myra. That was a chink in the man’s armor. “Until we know what’s going on, this is a hot zone. They’re supposed to treat it like there could be hostiles.”
“Oh, I don’t think there’s hostiles…”
“You’re not here to think, Doctor, not when it comes to security. The Admiralty says to treat this as a hot zone until we have proof to the contrary. Friendly creatures don’t infiltrate and sneak around like they did. Whoever they are…”
Everything kept coming back to that. Myra had been furious that Cardell had played her. When she thought back to that, she felt every bit as paranoid as the Lieutenant seemed. But she kept forgetting her paranoia in the face of all this military madness.
“You’re right, Lieutenant,” Myra said, trying to sound cooperative, not difficult. “And we both agree: your troopers need to be more cautious.”
Then Myra heard Carstairs actually make a small chuckle. “Yes and no, Doctor. I’m going to do some chewing of some asses, but as it happens their mistakes led to the discovery.”
“Just keep watching.”
Myra resumed the playback. This looked like a methodical search by at least two dozen Fleet troopers in heavy armor with sensors and guns. Two dozen… Was that a squad? A platoon? She’d never been up on the definitions of military units. They were arrayed out in three rows, spaced out eight feet between them, as they policed an area that Myra didn’t recognize. It wasn’t like she had spent long on the planet to survey very many places, but she had seen lots of territory in orbital scan. This wasn’t an area she’d seen. A planet’s a pretty big place, after all. “Where is –”
But before Myra could finish the question, the trooper ahead and to her left dropped from sight. “Playback one-third speed,” Myra said. The recording jumped back a few seconds. It was disorienting to see her the world drop back five feet, but Myra didn’t care. She kept all her attention on the trooper ahead, and she watched a time crept forward. It took nearly eight seconds of her time for the trooper to start to drop, hands in the air as if grasping for something. The man disappeared into the ground cover.
“What happened to him?”
Carstairs said, “Montez is all right. Now. But it took a lot of work to rescue him. Other than his voice calling for help, we couldn’t find him. It was as if he wasn’t there.” Myra nodded. She understood. “Or as if he was there, but we simply didn’t notice him.”
As the shuttle landed near the site of the strange disappearance, Myra kept her suspicions to herself. No sense bringing them up to Carstairs yet, not until she had more proof. All she had at this point were coincidences. The common theme in all the incidents was suddenly finding or losing things that were right under your nose. Take Cardell, for example. When he participated in meetings, people were aware of him; but as you might say, out of sight, out of mind. When he wasn’t directly in someone’s focus, they seemed to forget about him.
And the Tombs, the big stone disks that seemed to appear out of nowhere. Myra had begun to suspect that perhaps they hadn’t “appeared,” they had been there all along, simply unnoticed. Until for some reason, expedition members became aware of all of them at once.
After Cardell had disappeared and before the Fleet had arrived, Myra had ordered a thorough inspection of every system on the station. Her engineers had found no evidence of tampering with any system. Whatever had rendered Cardell the equivalent of invisible didn’t seem to be a physical or electronic phenomena. It was neurological and psychological, that was Myra’s guess. And if so, they had lacked the personnel to diagnose it.
Carstairs hadn’t brought a neuroscience team, either. Nor a a psychologist. The closest thing they had to a psych expert was Myra herself. Archaeologists learned a little psychology to process the behavior of ancient and alien cultures.
Myra suspected some pervasive neurological effect. The Tombs could’ve been there all along, and researchers could have simply ignored them. That seemed implausible, save that that was what had happened with Cardell. And the trooper who had fallen into the hole in the ground had never seen the hole. His fellow troopers had marched all around it, hearing his voice but not finding him. They’d finally thrown down a line to help them out. Even then, they could barely make out the contours of the hole. Another trooper half fell before they would were done, though she had caught herself before plunging to the bottom.
Now Myra stood with Carstairs just outside the holographic perimeter that marked out where the hole had to be. Myra tried, seriously tried to stare at the ground within, but her focus kept drifting. She got the impression that there was something there; but was that because she perceived it, or because she expected it? She was more than half convinced that it was the latter.
Carstairs looked away. “It’s… disturbing. Knowing that you can’t trust your own eyes.”
Myra shook her head. “It’s not our eyes we can’t trust, it’s our brains. We’re lying to ourselves for some reason.”
“That’s even worse. Like some sort of mind control?”
“I’d rather not guess. There’s too much we don’t know yet.” Myra took a step closer, right up to the holographic fence line. “When you sent people down, what did they report?”
“Ask them yourselves.” He turned to one of the nearby troopers. “Briggs, tell the Doctor what it was like down there.”
The trooper marched over. Myra grinned a bit when she saw him taking cautious high steps and waiting for the radar. Carstairs had taught them their lesson.
The man was broad shouldered, built like a football player under all that armor. “Yes, Lieutenant. Doctor. This… This cloaking… It’s surface. I went down on a line after we got Montez out. The fall was too long, it overloaded his armors suspension system, so he twisted a knee. But on a line, it was a simple drop. Down below, you can see everything. The walls, some sort of shaped rock, were clear in my suit light. The roof overhead looked like it had collapsed. I could see the sky up there; but even if I stood right in the sunlight and waved my arms for all I was worth, no one up there could see me. And there were tunnels in three directions, marked with strange writing.”
Myra’s eyes grew wide. “You took pictures, right?”
“We did, Doctor, though we didn’t go very far. Our orders said to guard against any lifeforms down there, not to explore.”
Carstairs added, “Not until you got here, Doctor. We need your expertise. Archaeology is your specialty. We understand that. We’re not trying to interfere with your studies, we just have to make sure that you and the entirety of Coalition Space is safe from these… invisible invaders. You’re the closest thing we have to an expert on whatever’s down there.”
“You… You read strange languages and stuff, right?”
“Unless you happen to have a handy Rosetta Stone, no. Translating alien languages… We’ve found only five remnants of alien cultures. The two that we have translated, we had Rosetta Stones of a sort. A mathematical trade language that one race had developed and the other had adopted. Even there, we can mostly only translate simple astronomical phenomena and the sciences, things that are truly universal.”
“Well, Doctor, I need you to do your best.”
“We’re going down there. Somebody get the Doctor a harness.”
The transition through the hole, controlled by a winch, was slow enough that Myra could pay close attention. At the point where her eyes crossed below the surface, there was a flickering in her peripheral vision, something she couldn’t quite see. And just like that she was underground, looking up at the troopers running the winch as she slid down after Carstairs.
Then she looked around. The walls around her were a good seven to eight meters away. This was a chamber of some sort. Briggs had called it an intersection, and she saw large tunnels running off. Looking down, she saw a loose earth on the ground. The roof had caved in, and something had shielded the new hole from their sight. Some system was still running after all these centuries or millennia. Or longer.
Myra alighted on the stone floor and unstrapped from her harness. Carstairs was already there, along with an escort of four troopers. A fifth trooper recorded everything. This would be an even bigger archaeological find than the Tombs themselves.
If Myra was ever allowed to report it.
Then she giggled when she realized she’d have to share publication credit with the troopers, with Montez as the discoverer. She wondered how many troopers ever got published in archaeological journals.
Carstairs waved his arm around. “This looks like an intersection in a small complex.”
“Don’t assume small, Lieutenant,” Myra answered. “Perhaps these people built an entire city down here. Don’t draw conclusions from your first impression. Or your second, or your tenth. Maybe from your hundredth. It takes a lot of data to understand a culture.”
“Then let’s start gathering some. Which way should we go, Doctor?”
Myra consulted the map in her wrist computer, and she pointed toward the rightmost tunnel. “That’s in the direction of a cluster of nearly a dozen Tombs. If there’s any connection between these this tunnel system and those, I want to see it.”
“All right,” Carstairs said. “Nelson! Take point. Let’s go.”
Myra’s hunch paid off. She wasn’t too surprised. Coincidence was always a possibility; but really, what were the odds that a subsurface installation was not related to the Tomb Builders, two separate yet momentous finds? It would strain credibility to find that they weren’t not related.
What they found was a large room full of stone pedestals, each roughly between 100 and 130 centimeters from the smooth stone floor. Unlike the Tombs, which showed some small degree of weathering, these pedestals were pristine. Shiny. They were carved with intricate lettering in the same circular pattern as the disks. The Tomb Builders did not write in lines, they wrote in rings.
Myra had the videographer record everything in as much detail as possible. “But don’t touch anything,” she added. Touching a disk had set off its holographic projector. These pillars might look like stone, but they could be control consoles of some kind.
The videographer said, “Doctor, IR shows these are warm.”
“Warmer than the air, warmer than the floor around us. There’s a heat source. Doctor, those things on the surface are machines, right?” Myra nodded. “My guess is these are, too. And they’re running.”
Running. Was someone here to operate them? Or were they completely automatic for millennia?
Myra turned around, staring at all the different pedestals. Part of her had an overwhelming urge to touch them, to see what would happen. But she wasn’t that foolish. She couldn’t guess what these machines did, nor what would be the dangers.
Carstairs walked up to her and said in a low voice, “What do you think, Doctor?”
What did she think? Here were all these astonishing secrets, right under their noses all along. Hidden in their own way just as much as Cardell had been.
It all came back to that. Hidden. How? If the cloak was neurological, was there a way around it? It was so effective, she didn’t know what could be around her even now. Maybe right next to her.
Neurological. Perception. Operating on what the brain took in, maybe on what it expected to take in. And the brain could be fooled.
Myra remembered an old show business line: They do it with mirrors…
Mirrors… Did she still have one? She dug into her purse for something she never needed except when attending virtual conferences (and those were off limits now). At the bottom she found the polished blue metal compact. She opened the lid, held it up in front of her face, and looked over her own shoulder with it.
Cardell stood there, looking back at her. “Doctor,” he said.
Myra looked at Carstairs and the troopers. None of them had responded to the to the voice she heard. “Cardell?”
That got Carstairs’s attention, and the troopers were well-trained. Immediately they drew their sidearms and looked around for targets. “Who are you talking to, Doctor?” Carstairs asked.
“It’s all right, Lieutenant,” Myra answered. “We’re not alone, but he doesn’t seem to be threatening us. Are you, Cardell?”
The troopers grew agitated, scanning the room for something to shoot. Mostly they looked toward Myra. “Put those damn guns down!” she said. “You’re going to shoot me!”
“That would be unfortunate, Doctor,” Cardell said. “Perhaps you should stand somewhere else?”
“I’m not going to stand somewhere else. Cardell, show yourself to them.”
Again she looked in the mirror. The man looked just as before, right down to the black pants, light blue shirt, and nondescript features. Again she had an urge to look away whenever she tried to focus on his face; but she knew his voice, and she was certain that it was Cardell. “If you don’t show yourself, these folks with the big guns are going to get very nervous. Maybe do something stupid.”
Carstairs looked at his troopers. “Guns down before you hurt someone. But stand ready.”
Myra looked at the reflection of Cardell. “There. Do you trust him now?”
Cardell shook his head. “I can’t take that chance. I don’t want to have to hurt anyone, but they might leave me no choice.”
“You’re pretty confident, aren’t you?”
“I think I’m justified in that. You’ve seen what we can build, and this was seven thousand of your years ago. We’ve learned since then. If I were trapped… You have an old saying about cornered rats. Imagine a cornered rat who knows technologies that you won’t discover for a thousand years or more. But I’d rather not have to take action.”
“Then what are you here for?”
“You know the answer, Doctor. The basics, at least. This world is where we inter our honored dead. We wish them left in peace.”
“I’ve seen the holograms. The Tomb Builders aren’t human. They don’t look anything like you.”
“You think that what you see is what I look like? It’s more complicated than that. I look as you expect me to look, not as I am.”
Myra nodded. It all fit with what little she knew. But… “Something went wrong, didn’t it? We weren’t supposed to see anything.”
“You weren’t. But thousands of years take a toll even on our technology. And truthfully, we didn’t know you had reached this far. We’ve been observing you from a distance, but we had no idea you’d come here. Systems that hadn’t been maintained in centuries weren’t ready for an influx of visitors. Mourners usually come in ones and twos, or small family groups. You brought more than the system was prepared for.”
“Why do you –”
“Enough questions, Doctor. Your friends will get nervous. And my superiors… We’re a very patient species, unless we are forced to act. They have decided: this intrusion must end.”
Myra’s eyes widened. “You’re going to…”
“No, Doctor, we have no need to kill you. Not as long you cooperate. You already know our methods, We just need to implement them on a larger scale.”
“Meaning that once you and these troopers and your scientists in orbit leave the system – and you will leave the system, or we’ll be forced to take more drastic actions – then we shall cloak Wotan. And none of you shall ever notice the star and its worlds again.”
Myra and Lieutenant Carstairs watched the viewscreen as the transport ship left orbit around Wotan-7. “I can almost see it disappearing,” Carstairs said. “How is this possible?”
“You can see it,” Myra answered. “Look closely. The planet is already becoming indistinct. And the star, I can barely find it.”
Carstairs stared, open-mouthed. “To make an entire star invisible. That’s… That’s amazing power. I’m going to recommend that we avoid everything within ten parsecs of the star. That kind of power is a threat we would do better to avoid.”
Myra nodded, and she turned away from the screen. Carstairs was brighter than she’d given him credit for at first, but he still wasn’t a scientist. He still didn’t really understood what she had told him.
It wasn’t invisibility, it was psychological manipulation. And Myra just couldn’t imagine a way that that could operate at interstellar or even just interplanetary distances. She didn’t reach for her compact. She might never again be comfortable looking in mirrors. Cordell might be there, making sure she didn’t notice what she wasn’t supposed to notice.
The good folks at Fyrecon have declared this to be Fyretober: a month of creative prompts, encouraging writers, poets, and artists to share their explorations. Today’s prompt: Space dwarves.
In case it’s not clear: Emil Varden is a fictitious author, and Trans Lunar Injection is a fictitious magazine.
Or are they…?