The Gods in Their Galleries
by Rick Kennett
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4
Cy opened her eyes to daylight. Her first thought was that she’d slipped and fallen, because she was now lying on her side. But that didn’t explain the shadows of late morning stretching across the empty clearing. She sat up, trying to remember what she’d been doing. She’d been running and immensely happy about something.
Memory slowly returned. She looked about, but there was nothing now in the clearing. No fungal replica and no Lazarus. Where she’d seen the tomb hatch flung wide there was now only a circle of purple grass somewhat paler than the rest.
She began a search, calling to the spider. She called and searched until an emptiness opened within her and she sagged to the ground, dully aware the air was warm again.
There were long indentations in the grass, showing where the vine sprouting her duplicate had slithered.
Zhores was lying beside the arc light, stretched out full length on his left side, head resting on a thickness of grass. She knelt beside him. His breathing was regular and he seemed simply asleep. The arc light had been switched off, she saw, and she stared for a confused moment at a hamburger flip sitting neatly on the barbecue’s work surface.
Danny was lying on his side beside the tailgate of the truck where he’d evidently fallen while warning those inside. Like Zhores, his head rested on a pillow of grass. Cy stepped over him, looked into the truck and found everyone lying on their sides in their sleeping bags. Someone was snoring.
Cautiously she moved to the transport ship parked on the shore, its forward hatch open. But a low moan from the clearing made her return to Zhores. He’d rolled onto his back, one leg bent, the other splayed out. He rubbed his eyes, his head half-raised as if undecided whether to sit up.
Cy smiled as a line from her psych clinic play, The Importance of Being Earnest, came suddenly to mind. In an imperious voice she intoned, “Arise, sir, from this semi-recumbent posture. It is most indecorous.” She wasn’t sure what “indecorous” meant, but Zhores’ ungainly sprawl was bound to be close.
He looked blankly up at her as if struggling to remember who this young woman in purple-stained military fatigues was. Then his face animated with returning memory and he said, “You did play Lady Bracknell.”
Cy gave a concise description of what she’d found and the condition of Danny and the others in the back of the truck. “Sleeping like babies. But you’ve woken and I’ve woken. They should be waking soon, too.” A glance in the direction of the truck showed Danny beginning to stir.
Zhores smiled and said, “Funny that we should be all lying on our left sides.”
“Is it?” said Cy. “Remember your first aid? It’s the safest way to position an unconscious person. And those grass pillows under our heads didn’t just happen to be where we fell.”
“Someone’s looking out for us.”
“More likely gently brushing us aside while they get on with more important business.”
“If their business was obliterating the cryogenic chamber, then what have they done with the Xenoid?” He looked quickly about in alarm. “Could they have reanimated it and let it lose?”
“And have it run about till it starves to death? No, Zhores, that wouldn’t be right...” She broke off, surprised. Had she just expressed sympathy for the enemy? “My guess is they moved it to some other cryogenic crypt.”
They crossed to Danny as he got to his feet. He looked about himself with a puzzled expression, first at the daylight then at Zhores. Sounding uncertain he said, “Are we still lifting?”
“No, Danny. False alarm. It was just a mushroom going for a walk.”
They embraced. Cy, not wanting to intrude upon their moment, looked away as they kissed, busying herself examining the vine’s slithered impressions in the grass. It had slid this way, passing the truck and on toward the transport. With an odd foreboding, she followed the marks along.
No, the vine hadn’t entered the transport, which was something to be thankful for. The marks veered away onto a sandy beach.
There she found the vine, bare now of any outgrowths, tangled in the mushroom jungle. The replica of herself, now detached, lay at the water’s edge, shapeless, deflated, almost flat.
Parts of the mushroom jungle nearby were flecked in white. She guessed the bud had gone through its pollination cycle, jetting spores high into the air before collapsing, just as she’d witnessed two years before when other buds, replicating the actions of aliens carrying their dead, had pollinated the jungle of the neighbouring island.
She called again for Lazarus, down the beach and into the mushroom trees. But nothing scuttled up in answer. She made her way back to the transport, guessing that those aboard should now be awake.
* * *
She almost collided with Naomi hurrying out of the hatch.
Naomi blinked at Cy and frowned. “What time is it? What’s happened?”
“Looks like we’ve been knocked out for a while, maybe eight or nine hours at a guess. The tomb’s been taken away.”
“The tomb’s been taken away?” Naomi repeated. “What do you mean?”
Cy recounted what happened on the clearing the night before, leaving out only the reappearance of her beloved spider in deference to Naomi’s arachnophobia, going on to what had been found on wakening.
Unnerved by what had occurred, Zhores and his crew were all for returning at once to the wrecks on the yellow plain. Even Cy quietly admitted to herself she’d be happier out of there.
So they lifted from the beach. But, as they gained altitude, they saw the far side of the island and what now lay there on rising ground beyond the mushroom trees.
At first glance it looked like random broken things scattered across fields of odd pattern enclosed on a large, levelled plateau, perfectly square and perhaps ten kilometres on a side. Metallic bulks, rounded, jagged, chunky, angular, crumpled and elongated, lay prone, lay heaped, jutted from the ground. Black and grey and shining silver, poised in attitudes, spacings and juxtapositions that suggested meaning if only it could be grasped.
The Terran civilians gathered about the scanner in awe and wonder. Cy, though, viewed the incredible spectacle with growing horror as recognition dawned, and she struggled to reconcile the sight of familiar objects in a shockingly unfamiliar setting.
“Another artwork?” said Danny, straining to comprehend. “More land-locked steamships?”
“More than that,” said Cy, unaware she was whispering.
They circled back to better view this outré gallery in all its majestic entirety.
The plateau expanded out in perspective as they approached. On it were the hull fragments of the missing Terran cruiser McMurdo Sound and the three Xenoid ships, arranged like so many garden ornaments.
They landed and filed out onto this plateau of broken hulls positioned as slanting towers, as angled planes, as equally spaced pyramids of debris.
“Unheimlich,” Zhores said.
“Pardon?” said Naomi.
“A Freudian term describing the unease created by the commonplace projected into the bizarre — the recognizable contrasting with the weird.”
“Like the land-locked ships.”
Drones were sent flitting across the plateau and into the wrecks.
* * *
The humans, dwarfed as they approached the nearest spills of cosmic metal, divided their attention between the hulks physically before them and the holographic-bubble images of the interiors transmitted by the drones. The non-Euclidean perspectives from inside the Xenoid ships where nothing could be comprehended by the human mind were disconcerting enough. Cy averted her eyes from these, watching the gliding images from within the Terran wreck while a cold expectancy tightened her stomach. Any rounding of a twisted corridor, any cresting of a folded bulkhead might reveal human remains, littered, crushed and smeared.
Here a passage leading to a gaping rent; here a deck ravaged by fire-virus; here was fire-control... at least she thought it was, so shattered and disjointed. The never-ending chaos spoke of unimaginable brute force, yet so clean, so sanitary. Where was the blood she’d seen forming like red clouds in the sudden loss of gravity all that chaotic time ago? Where were the rendered body parts that had slapped against her as she’d struggled to escape?
Then she reminded herself that they were dealing with a race that apparently disbelieved in the permanence of death. With some relief and some alarm she felt a growing surety there’d be no biological remains to be seen. These were not the graves of humans and Xenoids. Their graves, she felt sure now, lay elsewhere.
There was a raised area, suggestively empty and flat, on the far side of the plateau...
“You thinking what I’m thinking?” said Zhores, noticing her speculative gaze.
“That there’s another cryogenic tomb here?” Cy nodded. “It would explain why they closed the one in the clearing. But who’s to say it’s on this plateau? Who’s to say it’s on this planet at all?”
Part of the hologram began to swirl and pulsate.
“Priority call coming through,” said Naomi. “Probably management wanting to know what we’re doing. The situation report I sent before we left the beach won’t reach them for hours yet.”
“They’re probably getting impatient,” said Zhores. “Naomi, if you would...”
She nodded and jogged back to the transport.
“I suppose we should scan that empty area just to say it’s been done,” said Zhores, more to himself than to anyone else. “But I’ve got a feeling searching for their new tomb will be like looking for the legendary needle in the haystack, and unproductive if we did find it. I mean, what would we do?” He paused then added thoughtfully, “And yet...”
“And yet what?” asked Cy who had no idea what a haystack was.
“Death is a great leveller, Lieutenant. Somewhere our people and the Xenoids lie together, waiting to be returned to life. What if we did find this place? What if it was used as a meeting point for our two races? A common ground serving as the first stepping stone to peace.”
With the Xenoids? Cy thought. In your dreams, baby! In my nightmares!
Naomi returned carrying a data wafer. Zhores held out his hand, but she instead gave it to Cy. “It’s from Terran Command, Electra B,” she explained.
Cy took it, curiosity mixed with disquiet. Priority despatches from Command, she knew, nearly always meant bad news. She read it through, read it again, appeared about to laugh, then sobered. “Looks like any exploring out here will have to be postponed,” she said as the others gathered round. “I’m to return to my ship ‘with all despatch’ which is military-speak for Get Your Ass Over Here Now. To do this I’ve been authorised to commandeer any civilian vessel.” She glanced meaningfully back at the transport. “I’m sorry,” she said to all with genuine regret.
“You’re sorry?” Zhores said, studying the message. “Wait... it doesn’t say why you’re being recalled.”
“Telling me why won’t get me there any faster. Would you like to guess?”
He made to speak, caught his breath, then in a hoarse whisper said, “The wrecks! The wrecks at Electra B have disappeared!”
“Don’t jump to conclusions. It might be the Xenoids are swarming in again. Too bad we haven’t found that common ground yet, eh?”
He looked at her sharply. “What you expect to do if the wrecks have disappeared is beyond me. Humanity is hardly in a position to engage a race that can do all this for the sake of art.”
“If the wrecks have disappeared,” said Cy, “what we’ll do is wait for them to turn up as pretty artworks and know the dead of both sides have been tucked away nice and neat and cold. We’ll wait until we’re smart enough to cure death or at least stop inventing things like me. What else can we do? Not just because they’re so godlike, but because they have such a reverence for all life. Who are we to pick a fight with beings like that?”
Zhores, raising his voice, addressed his people. “This detour to Electra B will take about a day. Would anyone be willing to stay here and set up camp and do preliminary scans of that empty space over there until we return? It would minimise the delay to our examination of this site, and there could be a bonus involved.” He looked squarely at Keiko and Sten. “It would look very impressive on your employment records.”
The two interns glanced at each other and shrugged, knowing Zhores had not as much made a suggestion as given a direction. Of the others only Naomi seemed to trust the promise of a possible bonus, and volunteered.
* * *
Twilight was upon them and the stars were coming out by the time they’d unloaded the truck and enough supplies to keep three people a week. Cy, recognising Electra B brightening in the east, wondered what was happening there now. Were the Xenoids attempting to invade that system again, necessitating a need for her peculiar talents? Or were the gods gathering more materials for their galleries, creating havoc among immature humanity? Although she wanted it to be the latter, she couldn’t help hoping it was the former. In her head, she heard the martial beat of drums. She felt that wonderful, almost sensual thrill of anticipation, and it made her sick.
Just before they were due to lift, large spiders sporting claws and eye stalks appeared spontaneously among the wrecks as the artwork’s guardians and curators. Cy lingered a moment to delight among them. Naomi fled for the ship, leaving interns Keiko and Sten in sole possession of the new exhibit.
Copyright © 2020 by Rick Kennett