“It is with regret that we, the Ganymedian Scientific Council, report that the data retrieved from the sole surviving android from the expedition reveals evidence contrary to what the scientific community has hoped for. Lucifer, the planet formerly known as Earth, former home of the Cole and Fitzgerald Dynasties, remains uninhabitable. A drone security line has been set up by the Outer Imperial Fleet and all access to the planet, and its satellite, Luna, is restricted. We thank the fine people of the Ulysses Group for providing us with this valuable evidence even after losing their entire expeditionary team in the attempt to gain this knowledge.”
– Address to Outer Imperial scientific community, Manz Allen, Chairman, Ganymedian Scientific Council.
The wind and sun met on her back as a biting weight, pressing her forward over him. She continued to struggle to find a comfortable spot next to him as she worked to bring him towards release. Sweat beaded on her body, rolling down her face in dirty rivulets toward her nose where it would collect and fall in drops like tears to crash upon him.
She sat up to catch her breath, moving her jaw side to side and twisting her neck to keep them loose. The sun and wind changed the direction of their attack to meet her face. She tied up her hair tighter and prepared to commence the real work, wiping her face with a sandy rag. She considered taking off her shirt, but the brutal assault of the elements discouraged her.
Taking a deep breath, she straddled him and began to move rhythmically, never letting her full weight down, positioning to use her body as the tool. She didn’t picture him as the man he was beneath her, but as a fierce, rock-muscled warrior – a granite block of a man with sharp features and the stench of blood on him. She imagined a ferocious mouth tearing into her throat like a tiger’s, his vise-like grip squeezing the life out of her as if she were prey. She could smell his sweat; she could feel his heat burning her more than the sun itself. She bit her lip and winced in pain at the unexpected sharpness of her own teeth.
For a moment, she lost the rhythm and this dance with him became a chore. She cursed to herself and readjusted her position over him, taking a moment to look around her. Her holster and the antique revolver she carried in it were digging into her hip, and she slid them around to lie against her lower back.
The wind churned up a small cloud of sand and dust around her. The horizon was empty of life, of movement and sound. There was only the wind, the sun, the woman, and the man … and the dance.
She lived for this moment. She detested the courting, the foreplay. She hated the time it took to find a man like this, searching endlessly through an ocean for that one glass of water that is more special than the rest. She craved the final buildup, the intensity coupled with the velocity of it – those last few seconds when the reversal becomes impossible. She had reached this same point in the dance with many men, and less often with women. Many times she had been disappointed with the climax, and many more times she had ruined and broken the men and women she had danced with.
And then she felt it, a change in the vibrations – a slight groan beneath her. She felt those tiny vibrations radiate out and encompass his whole body exponentially. She found a counter-rhythm and pressed even further, seeking to pull him upwards into that sweet release. Her whole body began to vibrate with his and she recognized this feeling as the point of no return. He was coming whether she wanted him to or not.
She inched her hands behind him and pulled upwards, she had stopped breathing and bit her lip until it bled. Suddenly, she felt the release as it happened. He rose from the ground, the sand pouring off his back and rolling off his sides in waterfalls. A sudden odor assaulted her and she breathed it in as a smile of triumph creased her sunworn and sandbeaten face.
Then, his skull came off.
Unfortunately, the slope they were on wasn’t a friendly one and the skull began to pick up speed as it rolled away from her. She used the well-developed muscles in her thighs to propel herself off his body and onto her feet. She dived for the head and missed, sprawling painfully against the rock and sand as her excavation tools scattered away from her. The skull continued to pick up speed and she bolted upright into a sprint, the rubble of the mountainside tumbling around her in rivers. She lost her footing and fell back, caught in the rockslide. She could still see the skull rolling away ahead of her and struggled to regain her footing but found it impossible.
Then she remembered the cliff ahead. It wasn’t a high cliff, but if she were to fall from its edge, she would definitely break her legs or her arms or her back, all depending on how she landed. The skull careened off a stationary boulder and changed direction, angling towards her. She was about even with it, and still gaining speed towards the cliff’s edge when she spotted a rocky outcropping that could save her. Gritting her teeth, she dug her heel into the ground and winced as the pain radiated up her leg. The adjustment was enough to have changed her trajectory, and she prepared herself for the impact.
At the last second she reached out to grab the outcropping. Her grip was true, but the velocity of her fall caused her to swing wildly from the cliff’s edge. Her elbow popped and she screamed, but out of the corner of her eye she saw the head. Desperately she reached out and made a miraculous save in mid-air by hooking the skull in the eye socket with her finger.
Loose rock poured over her for several seconds as she hung there. Her ankle was radiating pain, her elbow was numb, and the voice above her was sarcastic.
“Boy, the shit you do to save the skull of a man that’s been dead for three centuries.”
Anya grunted and tossed the skull up to her partner.
“If you’d have been helping me instead of masturbating over the marble architecture back there, we might have just pulled a perfect specimen out of the ground,” she spat at him.
“Hey, that’s some seriously gorgeous craftsmanship you’re badmouthing,” he replied. “And let me tell you, if I weren’t an android, I probably would masturbate over it.”
He pulled her up and handed the skull back to her. “It’s mongoloid.”
Anya scoffed at him, but then looked at a few features of the skull she hadn’t noticed before and knew he was right.
“And I just ruined him, Aarin,” she said, stomping off in disgust.
The walk back to the dig site was taken in silence. As she approached the mummified torso, she realized that in her haste and panic she had ripped the body in half, and it lay in a crumpled heap. In exasperation, she ran a hand over her face and sighed.
“Fuck!” she exclaimed.
Aarin walked past her and reached down into the cavity the torso had left in the clay.
“Hey hey, what’s this?” he asked.
She walked over to see what the pseudo-man was talking about. He held in his hand a small metal box with a padlock holding it shut.
A rumble shook the ground beneath them, tossing the mummy in a gyrating dance in its hole.
“Did I do that just now?” the android asked.
“Don’t be stupid.”
“Well it doesn’t sound good,” Aarin remarked, bracing himself and allowing Anya to lean against him. “Sounds like its rolling in from the ruins.”
In the distance, the sudden peal of an alarm wailed over the tumult of the wind.
Anya snatched the metal box from him and began to sprint towards the main camp and the ruins the rest of the team was excavating.
In the seconds before Commander Wilkes met his demise, he noticed two things and had his life-flashing-before-his-eyes moment cancelled by the overwhelming feeling of shock and anger at the truth he had discovered.
Firstly, the ten androids that had been assigned to help him measure and catalog what he had dubbed “The Courtyard” were not running for their lives as the three massive walls that remained enclosing the courtyard fell with sickening slowness on top of them. This failure to attempt to save their lives was against their programming.
Secondly, as he looked down at his dirty and rock-torn pants, a circle of wetness spread from between his legs, accompanying a final whisper of warmth – the last he would ever feel.
If he had time to utter a final statement, it would have been a curse.
The wall crushed him and would never be moved from its position as his grave marker for as long as that star system existed.
Anya let the sigh roll out of her as Aarin pulled away and covered himself with a towel. It was the first time she had allowed an android to satisfy her in nearly a decade. The sex was quick and impersonal. There was no gasping for breath, no elevated heart rates. Just a steady rhythm and a long drawn out sigh. It was more than she expected, but only served to alleviate a primal urge. She had never been with a real man, and neither had any woman from this expedition. Apparently, the female androids were built quite realistically.
“I got you in on the debriefing,” Aarin said to her as he exited her quarters. “You should probably get up there before they adjourn.”
The sigh finally ran out, and Anya began to clothe herself.
The remainder of the expedition formerly headed by Commander Wilkes stood huddled in a small briefing room listening to the reports of several team members that were at “The Courtyard” when the accident occurred.
One of the technicians, a man named Dawes, was addressing the question of why none of the andies had survived.
“Maybe you were mistaken,” he said to one of the archaeologists. “Perhaps they were all at the same spot as Wilkes. They may be faster than a human, but from that location it would be near impossible to make it out alive.”
The archaeologist responded with “I know what I saw. They were spread out. They could have made it. They malfunctioned, face it.”
A few people looked at the Project Lead to see his reaction, but the man did not elevate his gaze to them.
“We need to start thinking about how to get them out,” someone suggested.
“Impossible,” stated Dawes. “We don’t have the equipment or the time.”
Anya slipped into the room and the Assistant to the Project Lead cleared his throat, indicating their next agenda item had just presented itself. Aarin followed her in and disappeared into a crowd of technicians as Anya approached the table where their new leader was sitting, head down.
“We’re not opening it,” was the frank declaration from the Project Lead. His name was Darren Walls and his eyebrows spoke threats worse than words – their hairy prominence was rivaled only by the thick fury of his yellowed-white beard. The top rims of his thick eyeglasses pressed against the thick hair of his unibrow, making the white hairs seem like frost creeping down the lenses. When he removed his eyeglasses, one felt as if the ferocious unibrow would be unleashed to undulate forth and strangle, like the tentacles of some elder god.
Walls had a fierce power over his people and they listened to him, and followed him without question. Technically, Anya was not one of his people.
“I’m opening it,” she stated flatly. “I found it. It’s my discovery. I’m opening it.”
Aarin shifted with a look of discomfort on his face and tried to press further into the wall of the observation station’s briefing room.
Walls reached a hand up to remove his eyeglasses and it seemed that the diameter of the circle of archaeologists, geologists, and various other team members grew in anticipation of the release of the unibrow, like mortals before the Kraken unleashed.
Anya stood her ground and cut him off before he even started. “Aarin did not spend hours freeing the body from the ground. I did. I don’t give a damn if he put his hands on it first. The work was completed by my hands, the sweat was mine, and this-” she said, holding up her arm and the sling that held it, “-is what I paid for it. Now give me the box, and the hammer. I should have just opened it there.”
Walls stopped short of his eyeglasses and instead stroked his beard. It almost looked like defeat, but to those that knew him better, this indicated maneuvering.
Tad Jenkins, the resident biologist, acknowledged his call to the floor and cleared his throat tentatively.
“He’s right,” he stammered out. “There’s no telling what might be inside. From our preliminary studies of the box, it appears to be airtight and has held its seal. Any number of biological or chemical hazards could lurk inside. Ancient diseases, deadly bacteria, poisonous gases …”
“Anya, I don’t care if the fifteenth reincarnation of sweet and sunny Jesus is in there waiting to be freed to shit rainbows and peace on the galaxy. We’re not opening that box,” Walls stated gruffly.
“Let one of the andies open it.”
The voice was an unfamiliar one to the group, as it had never been heard in the briefing room before. The assembled members of the expedition looked around for the source before realizing it had been spoken over the room’s communications unit.
“Who is that?” demanded Walls. “This is a private conference. If you’re not present in this room, you’re not authorized to be listening to these proceedings.”
“This is Chief Communications Officer Taggart, and I’m authorized to listen to anything I desire to hear on this station,” came the reply.
Walls chewed his mustache in controlled fury at being put in his place.
“If you would rather make this a larger issue, I can have your financiers on the hotline in just a few seconds,” continued the silky voice of Taggart. “I would advise against it though. While I share your fears about the dangers of opening the box, I know for a fact that its contents – if valuable – and whatever fortune and glory may accompany them will be surrendered to the Ulysses Group.”
Walls lowered his head in thought and he missed the smirk wrinkling its way across Anya’s face.
“The clean room isn’t equipped for this,” Jenkins interjected. “Suppose something bad is inside. The android will be contaminated, and the clean room would be unusable for the rest of our time here. It’s meant to keep specimens from being contaminated, not keeping specimens from contaminating the clean room. We’ve got four months left before the Ulysses transport comes back this way. That’s a lot of wasted time.”
“I don’t like it,” barked Walls. “I’m not endangering our mission for a mystery box that can be opened under better circumstances at a later time.”
Aarin stepped forward and stood before Walls.
“I’ll do it. We can use the airlock.”
“Explain how that’s going to be any different,” said Jenkins.
“Since I can interface with the scanning equipment remotely, I can open the box in the airlock. If you get an alarm, blow the airlock.”
“I’m not losing another android,” said Dawes. “We’ve got too few as it is.”
“You’ve lost andies because you’re incompetent!” shouted Anya. “Why should your own failures affect the ability of the rest of us to make decisions in line with our objective on this planet? I didn’t get chosen to join this expedition because I’d run from danger.”
“You were chosen –“ began Walls.
“I was chosen because I would open the damned box!”
The tension in the room thickened with the increase of volume. The communications unit audibly clicked off in the heavy silence that followed.
“I am not an employee of the Ulysses Group, and I do not fall under the boundaries of your tyranny like the rest of these apes. Commander Wilkes would have –“
“Commander Wilkes is dead!” roared Walls. His eyeglasses were off and his face was purple with rage. “This is my expedition, it is my decision. The box stays unopened and if I decide to chuck it out to deep space, I’ll damn well do it. Wilkes is dead because of careless stunts like this. It should be you under twenty tons of rock on the surface with those andies. I want you off my damned station immediately!”
“You can’t do that,” Anya protested.
“Jenkins, get security up here and send this miscreant back down to the surface,” Walls barked as he pushed through the crowd of people in the briefing room. “You can live in a god damned tent and starve for all I care. The box stays locked up, closed, and quarantined, and this meeting is adjourned.”
When the security team arrived, Anya shook off their grip and walked to the shuttle dock in silence.
“What I’m saying is the geological signature is not indicative of an asteroid impact.”
Kaizu was the Chief Geologist for the expedition – short in stature and, with an extensive vocabulary of geological terms, not exactly the most accessible man.
“From what we’ve seen so far, there are multiple points of maximum impact, and the different levels of exposure to radiation we’ve found in the many urban areas we’ve collected data from don’t match with what we’ve been told to expect. The spot near the mountain where you found your man and your box was the least affected area on the planet, not including the ruins where Wilkes died, and we cannot explain how that is possible considering how many maximum impact sites are in this vicinity.”
“What do you expect?” queried Anya. She stood over the latest survey by Kaizu’s team and studied it against a simulation being played out on a handheld screen. The dust whipped around them as they stood together under a makeshift canvas canopy. “This disaster happened three hundred years ago. This area had all but been completely abandoned, and most of the population lived in the two massive capitals. Even this simulation reeks of researchers that just don’t care what the truth is.”
Aarin approached them and tossed an apple to Anya.
“You look pale,” he said.
“Thanks,” she said in reply. “You could get shut down for this, you know. I’m grounded, remember?”
Aarin shrugged and smiled. He took a place between Kaizu and Anya over the survey and studied it without speaking.
“It just doesn’t add up,” said Kaizu with a sigh.
“Maybe we’re not considering all the possible scenarios,” Anya offered. “I mean, forget what we’ve been told happened here. Forget that you’ve seen the data from the unmanned expeditionary teams. What if we’re not looking at an asteroid impact event?”
“I don’t see what else it could be. This much destruction is indicative of a major collision. According to the testimonies of what happened here, there were probably two asteroids sent on collision courses.”
“But how do you explain the readings from the areas of the planet outside the maximum range?”
“The dynasties had a way to break up the objects. Research shows the whole battle was ground-based lasers versus asteroids. But maybe they did hit this one and succeeded in showering pieces of it across the entire planet.”
“How impossibly huge would that asteroid have to be to have made impact points this devastating across the entire planet, even if there were two?” Anya asked. “There’s no way the dynasties would have had the technology to be able to break up an asteroid that big.”
“Unless they used nuclear weapons,” Aarin said.
“Nobody has nuclear weapons anymore,” countered Kaizu. “Even here the dynasties forbade their use, fearing it would destroy the planet if the feud every escalated.”
“Yeah, but three hundred years ago the Outer Empire and some colonies in the Inner Wild still did,” said Anya as she turned and walked out into the wind and sun.
“What do they call this planet now?” she asked from outside.
“Most of the citizens of the Outer Empire call it Lucifer,” replied Aarin. “There are still groups in the Inner Wild that call it Earth.”
Millions of miles away from Lucifer and the expedition crawling upon its surface like ants, a transport ship, bearing the Ulysses Group symbol of the Eye in the Sun, diverted from its assigned course to pick up the expeditionary force on the planet and instead returned to the Outer Empire.
The shuttle door slid open and Anya stepped out timidly, looking left and right. Taggart reached his hand up to help her down, but she ignored him. The communications officer was a large man, but his girth belied the power underneath the uniform. Having spent his entire career as a security officer with the Ulysses Group, Taggart was not a man to be trifled with. He had suppressed colonial uprisings in a number of. Why he was a lowly communications officer now, no one knew.
“You’ve got about forty-five minutes before Walls comes back from his survey on the surface,” he said to her. “And you had better hope he doesn’t go looking for you there.”
“I’ll only need five,” she said. Aarin followed her out of the shuttle and the trio made their way to the laboratory in silence. Taggart used his security clearance to open the laboratory and then the vault where the box was being quarantined.
“I hope you’ve made your peace, andie,” Taggart said as he removed the box.
Aarin solemnly took it from him and pulled a small hammer and chisel from his coveralls. They made their way through the silent halls of the station until they reached the nearest airlock.
“How many people are left on board?” Anya asked Taggart.
“Twenty or so,” he replied, beginning the sequence to pressurize the airlock. “Walls took most of the elite to the surface. Apparently they found a complex deep beneath the surface – right where Wilkes and those andies met their demise.”
The door to the airlock hissed open and Aarin stepped in.
“If I see so much as a flicker on any of the alarms,” Taggart said as he left to man the control room, “I’m blowing the hatch.”
Anya smiled at Aarin as she shut the door and switched on her communicator.
“Thanks, Aarin. I really appreciate you doing this.”
“Hey, just because I’m not human, doesn’t mean I’m not built to be just as curious as you are.”
Aarin flashed his perfect smile and bent down, placing the box on the floor.
“Are we ready?” Anya asked.
“Waiting for the test readings from Aarin,” was the reply from the control room.
A few seconds passed before Taggart came back with, “We’re good to go.”
Aarin calmly placed the chisel against the square portion of the lock and began to hammer on it with force. It took a total of fifteen strikes before the lock broke in half and fell to the floor. Anya and Taggart were holding their breath as Aarin reached down and slowly lifted the lid.
Aarin waited several seconds to let any foreign bodies register on the scanners if they happened to be present. He then nodded to himself and opened the box completely.
“It’s just some paper,” he described to them, “written in Common, though the letters seem a bit strange.”
“Hey, Taggart,” Anya said into her communicator, “you can let him out now. Anything in there would have registered already.”
There was silence and the door to the airlock remained shut.
Aarin started to read what was on the paper, while Anya left to go to the control room, she could still hear him over her communicator.
“My name is Xia Yan, a proud scientist of the Fitzgerald Dynasty. The events of the last three days will not be recorded on video or by audio recording devices. In order to power the shield that protects this beautiful island of Japan, all other electronic devices are rendered useless. I write this now with pencil and paper, near the slopes of the giant, in the hopes that one day someone will find it and read my words and know what has happened here.”
When Anya reached the door leading out of the room directly connected to the airlock, it did not open automatically.
“Taggart, open the door!” shouted Anya. She typed in her personal code but the screen only flashed: ACCESS DENIED.
“The sheer quantity of nukes detonated along with the impact of the asteroid was enough to flash ignite the surface of the planet. We struggled initially to minimize the impact on the sea floor, and in doing so, our losses due to flooding caused by tsunamis was kept at a low sixteen percent death rate. From this position, we could see the planet boil around us. Typhoons lashed around the shield and lightning crackled along its surface. No one outside could have survived, not here, and not elsewhere in the world. They wanted us to believe that the Cole asteroid was the cause – a sudden lapse of reason that led to a fatal accident – but with our one satellite still in orbit and able to transmit through the shield, we have discovered the truth. The Ulysses Group had infiltrators on the surface of the planet with nuclear weaponry set to detonate at the same time the asteroid hit. We intercepted their communications and found they had agents in both dynasties. Despite our best efforts to prevent the disaster, we weren’t fast enough to do anything about it. Our shield was good, but not eternal. In twenty-four hours it will collapse and we will be exposed to massive amounts of literal Hell on Earth. I only wish to say this to whoever may find this in the future. The Ulysses Group has murdered an entire –“
The airlock hatch blew and Aarin disappeared with the box. Likewise across the surfaces of the orbiting station, similar hatches blew and every person still onboard was cast out to a cold and silent journey into the void. Seconds later, in a section of the station that no one had paid attention to during the expedition, sixteen nuclear rockets launched toward their targets at the sixteen different excavation sites across the planet formerly known as Earth.
Taggart watched the last massive mushroom cloud form with a blank expression. His mission was accomplished. In four weeks, much sooner than was related to the rest of the expedition team, a Ulysses craft would pick him up and take him back to his home in the Ganymedian Sector.
“I knew you were too eager to open that box for it to be just curiosity,” said a voice behind him.
He spun around and there was Anya, a plasma-bolt rifle leveled at him.
“I had already planned to open the box on my own, so I stole Walls’s Security Clearance codes,” she said to him. “I guess you didn’t consider me ambitious enough to go this far, huh?”
Taggart was silent.
“I don’t care about the dynasties you destroyed – the feud you ended. Don’t think I didn’t know the truth of what happened on this planet. Do you know who I am?”
Taggart was still silent, his face a study in granite.
“I’m a Solarian Acolyte, do you know what that is?”
Taggart grunted, but did not take his eyes off her. “Solarians are just myths and legends. And anyone who worships them is just delusional.”
“I came for the truth,” she said, and held up the memory card from her communicator. “And now I have it. The Ulysses Group has just lost its pristine reputation. After I show my people this, the remaining Solarians will return and will be coming for you. So it is written. For too long the Inner Wild has been a place of evil. You have no idea what justice awaits you and all the rest of the –“
There was a loud crack that echoed through the control room. Anya’s eyes dilated for a moment and blood spattered her lips as she tried to breathe. She collapsed to her knees, and then slumped over to the ground. From her position on the floor she bore witness to her murderer’s final acts.
Aarin lowered the antique revolver Anya always carried with her as a good luck charm. It was the first archaeological find she’d made, and she’d spent a fortune to have it restored to working order. The bullets alone cost her three times the grant money she’d received for her first five expeditions.
“You ass! Why’d you have to let her go on like that?” Taggart yelled. “She could have fucking shot me at any second!”
Aarin stared quietly down at the female archaeologist who only had seconds left to live.
“This is the last god damned time I sign up to work with an andie. No retirement is worth this, not Acrutia, not the Tolaar Falls, not Titan.”
Taggart spun back around and began to systematically shut all the airlocks on the station, checking also for signs of life still aboard.
“You know, I’ve a good mind to just shut you the hell off for that shit – a fucking plasma-bolt rifle aimed at me and you –“
The loud crack was heard again and Taggart fell heavily against the controls.
Aarin quietly walked over and pushed the communications officer out of the chair. With a few quick keystrokes he set the station on a collision course with the former planet Earth.
An hour later, the last mushroom cloud that would ever be seen on the planet grew angrily from its surface.