Professor Serelah Delekin is accustomed to uncovering the secrets of alien artifacts. But when one of her co-workers is killed while researching their latest find, she soon realizes that this particular artifact is protecting far more than ancient secrets—it harbors a conspiracy that will soon put her own life at risk.
First published in the anthology ‘The Alien Chronicles’, this novelette is longer than a short story, but shorter than a novella.
Seralah swore and slammed a hand against the table. The cup to her left wobbled, and the thick green tandry that had been keeping her awake all these hours oozed over the edge and dripped onto the desk. She looked around at the two stunned technicians at other workstations before quickly apologizing for her outburst.
“I just can’t decipher this alphabet, if that’s even what it is,” she added, turning and looking back at the console with exasperation. “Almost two months with these formulas and I still can’t grasp even the simplest sequence.”
“Have you tried using the core’s basic language algorithms?”
“Of course I have,” she replied quickly, glancing at the man with her dark hazel eyes.
“I thought you might have just gone straight to the advanced analytical software,” he assuaged quickly, removing himself from her gaze and focusing on his own work.
“I did at first,” Seralah said, putting a hand to her cheek and scratching the dark and downy fur that covered her face. It matched her eyes, though she was sure a few early silver streaks were appearing. “The analytics didn’t find anything, so I rolled it back to the basic codes in the hope something would be recognized. Seems this language is so old, even our ancient programming can’t decipher it.”
She reached for her cup and took a much-needed gulp of tandry. It was sweet on her tongue before she felt its heat at the back of her throat. Life had been so much easier when she was in the shaft with her tools, her team, and only the rocks to deal with. She enjoyed that aspect of archaeology: finding something new and taking care, precision, and time to dig it out. The research aspect of it was okay, but she didn’t like being away from the field for too long. And now? Sitting at a terminal, hour after hour, trying to crack one of the shortest alphabet sequences she’d ever seen? That was enough to send her over the edge. It was not at all why she’d embarked on this profession. She’d never had much time for technology. Give her a shuttle, a laser, and a set of coordinates to head to—that’s what she liked. She’d land and be digging around in the dirt happily for years on end.
“I’m going to run it through another decryption process,” she said. “Do not, under any circumstances, touch my console.”
She drained her cup, welcoming the awakening burn in her throat, threw her ocular enhancer to the desk, and left the lab through the airlock.
Free from the atmospherically controlled environment of the lab, Seralah stood for a moment, enjoying the rush of cold air against her fur. She could see no reason why the EACS (Enhanced Ambient Cooling System) couldn’t be run in the tech lab. Chemical, biological, and archaeological departments? Of course it needed to be shut off there. The constant rush of air would make working conditions and anti-contamination procedures impossible. But a good airflow by her workstation would affect nothing but the good nature of the technicians trying to work.
She’d had this argument time and time again. Probably one too many times, she thought, crossing the corridor and leaning against the metal railing. Her memos on the matter had almost certainly been automatically diverted to the recycling bin.
She looked out the long thin window that ran along the side of the building—a transparent snaking picture frame to the stars. The large moon the entire station orbited was enjoying the start of its day; she could see the light from the system’s star creeping along the ground and breaking dawn for the colony. Actually, it wasn’t really a colony anymore. With forty-five percent of the surface covered in either mining operations or the Navreem star system’s famed Academy of the Sciences, it was a thriving world. The mining corps had already laid claim to so much of the remaining surface, however, that the academy had forgone lengthy paperwork and developed the orbital station instead. It seemed a shame, Seralah thought as she gazed down upon the creeping edge of light; if only her superiors had been quicker, she could have had her feet upon the rocks right now, instead of this floating space station.
Floating. The thought made her queasy, so she left her spot by the handrail and strode toward the shuttle terminals, the EACS system ruffling her fur as she went.
It didn’t take long for her to be moon-bound. There wasn’t much call for those on the space station to visit the moon, or vice versa, especially during peak lab hours. Most of her colleagues, herself included, had sleeping holes near their workplaces. Hers was relatively small and without an outside window, but she didn’t mind that; she was happy not to be constantly reminded where she was. She had cooking utensils and appliances, a workstation to revisit her day’s progress, a social nook (not that she ever had visitors), and her bed, which she’d wriggle herself into through the small tunnel before curling up among the cushions and quilts inside. Her father would scold her if ever he saw it, for there wasn’t a strand of hessian, natural or not, in sight. But she was a scientist! She was most definitely not one of the homeworld traditionalists. There was no time, nor need, to be dusting herself off every morning. Still, that wouldn’t convince her family.
Seralah began daydreaming of her eight sisters, and within no time, her tiny two-person shuttle was automatically gliding onto the moon. She could have navigated it herself—in fact, she was quite an accomplished pilot, considering her distaste for space—but why fly when she could sit back and relax?
“Seralah, could you sign off on these lab passes?”
She was bombarded the minute she left the shuttle. She gave a fleeting glance to the list launched in her direction by the Academy of Sciences moon dock receptionist, then passed her handprint across it.
“Professor Delekin! Professor? Wait!”
Professor. No one who knew her called her that. She turned quickly to see three technicians scrambling down the corridor toward her.
“No time,” she called, before speeding over to the transport and opening the door with a scan of her fingers. Thank god. The transport was here.
“But wait! We’d just like your thoughts on our latest findings…”
“No time,” she called again with a gracious smile, turning to see the lift doors glide to a close across their dark-furred and eager young faces.
Perhaps she’d been mean, too quick to scurry away, but if she stopped for everyone she’d never have a moment to herself. Why they’d laid the title of professor upon her she didn’t know—she damn well hadn’t earned it. She was far too young, and it had only been an accidental discovery that had led to the major and successful drug trial to treat Lapso Disease, a condition where pups were born without fur. Five of her sisters had lived with the disease for years, so she knew the social difficulties it brought. However, her professorship? She was sure the Academy had only used it as a lure to get her off world, to get her to the Navreem system. They needn’t have bothered; she had never intended on staying in biomechanics. Her calling was archaeology, and this finding was far too exciting to give up to anyone else.
It only took a few short minutes to navigate the descending levels of elevators and tunnels, and soon she was at the bio-coded entrance of her destination. Seralah shook off her momentary nerves. Why did she still get that rush of anticipation? There was something intensely exciting about excavating an ancient artefact and discovering secrets that had been hidden for hundreds of years.
She placed her face against the scanner then pushed her hand into the awaiting slot so her bio-implant could be read. She’d resisted that requirement at first, not wanting to turn herself into a walking computer. But she’d been assured the chips couldn’t sustain themselves without feeding off the body’s natural energy, thereby removing the concern that she might be abducted and have her hand removed. So eventually she’d agreed.
Having assured itself of her identity, the bio-lock clicked quietly and allowed her to step through. The door swung shut quickly behind her, and she heard the mechanism instantly imprison her.
The EACS was off, and the air was incredibly hot and stuffy. Seralah began to pant, and she berated herself for not taking the time to gather a breathing mask and cylinder. But she wasn’t going to take long; she could get by with the uncomfortable environment for a little while at least.
Allowing a long sigh to escape her lips, then quickly panting again to regain her breath, Seralah started off down the descending tunnel. They hadn’t managed to fully excavate the find from its resting place. They could have simply laser-cut the entire thing from the moon’s surface, but she was glad they’d left it in situ. It was so delicate, so degraded, she feared even the slightest movement might cause it to crumble in on itself.
She made her way along the slope carefully, using the hand ruts placed in the wall to steady herself and ensure a gracious, if slow, approach. Why was the EACS off? The artifact, the vessel, was protected behind an energy shield. There was no reason for the cooling system to have been shut down. Unless…
Seralah let go of the hand grip and hurried forward as fast as she could without falling over herself. Her heart began to race, and she peered into the darkness below. It was only dimly lit, but the low levels of illumination were nothing her eyesight couldn’t handle. Did she hear something off in the distance? Her ears pricked as she heightened her senses and tried to determine whether there was danger below.
“Hello?” she called out, then immediately fell silent and listened to her words as they echoed down the chute. There was no reply, but she was almost there now. The floor was leveling off, and she could see where metal joined rock, where the science station gave way to the moon’s natural elements.
“Hello?” she called again. “Is anyone down here?”
There was a clatter ahead, the sound of an unseen object rolling across the hard floor, and every strand of hair stood on end as her ears rotated toward the sound, gathering the noise up like a satellite dish receiving a signal. A shadow formed across the entrance of the tunnel, and her heart beat faster. Every instinct told her to flee. But she wouldn’t—she couldn’t. There was too much at stake. She wasn’t about to allow her work to be ruined.
The shadow grew larger, and she couldn’t help but shrink toward the wall with fear as sweat ran down her back. She cursed the EACS—it made her unable to hold her breath, and she gasped for air.
The figure appeared around the corner so quickly it took her by surprise, and she let out an uncontrollable squeak of fear.