The Gods in Their Galleries
by Rick Kennett
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4
Cy slept that night in the deck-house aft.
It was comfortable enough, but sleep was fragmented by starting awake, staring into darkness. In one of these moments, she saw a figure by the porthole. It wore black fatigues, ragged and bloodied, and appeared to be gazing out onto the plain.
The apparition half-turned, a tear in each eye. And as Cy watched, all the feelings she’d felt back then returned: doubt, confusion, the need for escape; friends and lovers were dead, and war’s violence had nearly killed her twice over. She remembered that when she had stood by that porthole two years before she’d seriously considered remaining lost, abandoning everything she’d been created for, even even if it meant starving to death on an alien world.
The image melted away and Cy fell back to sleep.
* * *
Cy woke to the rising sun and padded out on deck to watch the wrecks loom out of the dawn, pushing long shadows along the plain. Then as she stood there, she smelt something at once unknown and extremely appetising.
Following her nose up to the bridge, she found the crew busy at breakfast. A few faces turned her way, making her wonder if they were still perturbed by their ship’s ghost now in the flesh among them, despite formal introductions all round at dinner the night before.
“I put a request through to corporation management over in the Electra B system last night,” Zhores said as he ladled steaming yellow lumps onto Cy’s plate. “We’re cleared for a trip to your island in the west with its fungi funerals and cryogenic tomb.”
Peering with suspicion at what was before her, she barely heard. Though it smelt wonderful, the yellow chunks reminded her of something regurgitated by those unaccustomed to zero G.
“I also talked to some of your people,” Zhores continued. “Well, the Terran navy anyway. I quizzed them on the status of the wreckage orbiting here at Electra A. They say they can’t find it.”
She looked up from the yellow chunks. “What?”
“Using data from the surviving ship, Moreton Bay, the orbits of each wreck were precisely calculated. But a vessel sent to highlight them with beacons couldn’t find them. Not a nut, not a bolt, not a vacuum-frozen body.”
Cy winced at the image that last conjured to mind. “Has to be a miscalculation of their projected orbits,” she said. “Four starship hulks don’t just vanish.”
“I also asked about the wrecks orbiting Electra B. Guess what they said.”
Cy’s mind whirled at the thought of the scattered remnants of those clashing armadas likewise disappearing, then relaxed as his sly lurking smile gave her confidence. “They said it’s all still there,” she said.
“The whole mess. Just where you and your colleagues left it.”
“Me, my colleagues and the Gloops.” She nodded to her plate. “Are those eggs?”
“Mars,” Naomi said. “Yes. Scrambled eggs. Full of cholesterol. You’ll love ‘em.” Then, frowning she added, “Wait a minute. Aren’t Martians vegetarians? You were vegetarian enough last night at dinner.”
“Only because you cooked lentil ragout,” said Cy, arming herself with a spoon. “Martian vegetarianism is based on pragmatism, not ethics. Raising animals for consumption is impractical on a planet still in the early stages of terraforming. To tell the truth, we’re all frustrated carnivores.”
“Probably explains why your military’s so feared, small though it is,” said Zhores.
“It’s what crawls out of our genetics labs that’s so feared,” said Cy, shovelling. “It certainly scares me.”
After breakfast they trucked out to the landing pad, driving aboard the transport that had brought Cy the day before. The vessel purred into the sky and curved into the west.
* * *
Cy pointed to the middle of a patch of purple fungus grass amid a small forest of spindly mushroom trees. She turned about to take in the surroundings, remembering.
A warm and sunny day, though an intense and unnatural cold hangs about this end of the island. The grass and the trees sparkle with frost. Lazarus the spider atop her head grips her scalp lightly with its eight legs. She approaches a shallow crater in which is an upraised hatch, hinged to a silver rim...
Zhores, Naomi and two work-experience interns, Keiko and Sten, followed her into the centre of the clearing. The holograms of the engineers and technicians who’d gone to the other island a few hundred metres away, moved beside them, examining mushroom tree trunks, looking for an alien crash site and for fungi that imitated funerals.
Presently the holo of a heavy-set man with a florid face approached Zhores. “No trace of a crash or mobile plant life over here.”
“All right, Danny. Rejoin us.” He collapsed the image and turned to the two interns walking scanners across the clearing. “How’s it coming?”
“Nothing’s showing,” said Sten.
“Likewise,” said Keiko as they passed each other walking in opposite directions.
Cy said, “If they’ve removed evidence of their presence from the other island, it’s possible they’ve removed the cryogenic chamber too, always assuming it existed in the first place. I believe the dead aliens I saw in it died in a crash during construction work on their art piece back on the plain and that they were being kept against a time when the artists would be passing this way again and have the means to revive them. It looks like they have passed this way again.”
“Keeping them to revive later from death is a big assumption,” said Zhores, watching the interns continue to criss-cross the clearing.
“It seemed a logical assumption at the time,” said Cy. “It still does. These aliens don’t seem to believe in death. At least not permanently — Oh my god! Lazarus!”
“Lazarus?” said Naomi, looking about nervously. “You mean the spider?”
Cy pointed to the ground. “I left it in the tomb.”
“Because it was dead.”
“You said it could regenerate.”
“There were limits. Lazarus didn’t regenerate when the Xenoid killed it for the final time.”
Zhores stared at her. “Xenoid? You didn’t tell us there was a Xenoid out here.”
Cy returned his wide-eyed shock with a bland gaze. “It’s dead. I killed it out near the supply cairn further to the west. It was the pilot of the podship that caused me to crash here; it crashed, too. On this island it tried to trap me in the tomb. That crazy bug Lazarus attacked it and was killed, but it saved my life.” She looked with bewilderment at the disconcerted faces around her. “The Gloop’s dead.”
An exclamation from Keiko staring at her scanner in the middle of the clearing pushed the dead Xenoid from their thoughts.
* * *
By the time Danny’s group had trucked back to rejoin them, fungus grass and soil had been shovelled away, revealing a hatch hinged to a silver rim.
Zhores jumped into the pit, finding the hatch cold to the touch. Cy jumped in with him.
“If I recall,” she said, “there should be...” Stretching her right sleeve down it reformed into a glove over her hand. Opposite the hinge, she inserted two fingers into a recess clearly made for something smaller than the human appendage. She pulled. It didn’t budge. “Vacuum,” she muttered. Casting about, she found a small lever protruding from the rim ninety degrees from the recess and nudged it with a boot tip.
The hatch jolted. A shrilly whistling wind tugged at those about the pit, gradually easing to a breeze, dying to a silence.
The hatch swung up easily and polar cold rushed out in a freezing wave. It stung their faces, fogged their breath. It spread its chill across the clearing, and frost began to paint the purple grass all around.
As Cy stood looking down into that hollow darkness running into the ground, for an instant she was again seventeen and alone on this planet, standing amid frosted grass, an alien spider perched on her head.
She caught herself reaching up to feel for the creature, and gloved the end of her left sleeve. Her clothing automatically adjusted to the drop in temperature, compressing against the skin in places, puffing in others to trap layers of air. Fabric crackled in concert as the clothing of the rest likewise reacted.
“I guess,” said Naomi, “this proves that what you saw on that other island was real, despite it not being there now.”
“Glad I’m not completely mad,” said Cy. “That the cold still operates shows the two corpses are still down there.”
A camera was clipped to a cable played out from the truck’s forward winch and inched down the hole, sending back close-ups of small handholds, metre after metre. Eventually it dropped into an oblong chamber. Watching the images coming from below, Cy saw again the tomb she had known before, its bare walls beginning to whiten with frost as air from above met the cold within. At one end a long box, frosted opaque on all sides.
“Cryogenic coffin,” said Cy. The view began a slow swivel, showing a wall, a corner, another frosted box... She braced herself against the emotional shock of seeing again the mutilated remains of her long lost friend, Lazarus the spider.
The passing view showed only the long, flat lid of the coffin.
“Stop rotation!” she said. “Close up on it!”
Florid-faced Danny, at the winch and cameras controls, zoomed the image, showing only frost atop the box.
“Rotate one-eighty. Close up on the other box.”
The image rotated and approached another flat, frosting coffin top.
“I left the spider on top of one of them,” she said. “Those damn aliens have cleared it away!”
Danny, also studying the image, said, “There is something there. Can you see it? Pushed up against the wall.”
Cy saw now what she’d missed a moment ago: something lying flat within the frost but with curled edges. “The note!” she said. “That’s the note!”
“What note?” said Zhores.
“The one I wrote asking the aliens to resurrect Lazarus! I gotta get down there. Haul up the camera!”
Danny glanced uncertainly at Zhores who was looking sternly at Cy.
“Out of the question, Lieutenant. The situation needs further evaluation before I can—”
“You’re not responsible for me. I wasn’t designed to do sane things, so you can send me without any qualms. And if you won’t lower me, I’ll climb down by myself. I’ve done it before. I was sent to to this planet to help you find the tomb. Well, I’ve done that, and now you need to put people down there. Who better than me?”
A few minutes later, Cy was hooking herself onto the cable and being lowered into the narrow hole, silently cursing the genetically ingrained insanity that made her love doing the things she hated, be it the ecstasy of battle or venturing into a cold and claustrophobic place holding only bad memories.
And those memories returned, unbidden. Not so much of the descent she’d made two years before, but the later mad, scrambling ascent: the grating of a rock sliding across the entrance above; the darkening hole; the whistle-howl of the Xenoid echoing from above; a detached spider claw dropping and hitting her shoulder as she frantically climbed.
All this made her want to close her eyes to the seemingly never-ending rungs glinting in the light of the plasma arc shining directly down the hole; but she knew darkness was worse in this tight, cold place. This thought and the occasional word from Zhores in her earpiece made it tolerable.
* * *
Copyright © 2020 by Rick Kennett