Here is the new opening chapter.
-------- Being dead had to be easier, Tanis imagines.
As it is, he still can’t feel his fingers or toes. His mouth tastes like the inside of a waste regenerator, and his mind – what there is of it – is still half asleep. Worse yet, he smells as if he’s been covered in chokemold on some Essentia-forsaken dustworld.
“Okay, Anandrus!” he calls out to his lone companion nevertheless as, with some effort, he forces himself from the compartment. “Let’s see what we have here.”
As prearranged, the exterior is displayed whenever he so desires along with the blue numerals around him that record time [which are collectively known as ‘the dit’.]
They tell him it has been precisely 001:424 since his ship - the SAVR - has touched down, a little less than that since he has been reanimated via the age-old remolecularization transmutation process known as trituratization, a method he has sworn by for many rotes now but is regarded with some wariness by most other space jockeys.
He considers the mounds of debris and rubble outside for a moment, looking for any object that might be worth something.
“Now what in the void could possibly be in all that creted junk?” he swears to himself.
Sounding close to delighted, his inhuman assistant responds in kind anyway.
“Would you please specify which junk you wish to have analyzed?”
“Sure. How about those things?” he says, waving at the unending rows of alabaster rectangles, all of which are of a simple construction and uniformly shaped.
“Limestone,” Anandrus says. “With a surface of aluminum silicate beneath.”
“Worthless,” Tanis mutters, shaking his head, now wondering what in The Octopus ever possessed him to trust that rural Mulian merchant and invest in this so-called ancient ‘Treasure Tracker’ of his in the first place.
“Have any idea as to what they might have been used for?” he asks, regardless.
Anandrus is silent for a moment.
“Corpses,” it then tells him.
“You mean those are gravesites?” Tanis says, drawing closer. As he scans, several bodies become visible. But they are different somehow.
“The fingers are much shorter and thicker than those of your own species,” Anandrus points out as if reading his mind
“Maybe it was part of the particular makeup in a human subspecies,” Tanis submits. “Like those transexed Chatkens on Queles, for example.”
“In addition, their thumbs - though clearly prehensile - are not nearly as adept,” Anandrus adds, totally disregarding his inference.
“Meaning they didn’t have very good dexterity,” Tanis says, amazed to find that the thumbs on each specimen are incapable of bending all the way back to the wrist as are his own.
“Though humanoid they aren’t quite human,” Anandrus as such concludes.
With that, Tanis turns his attention to the sanded-over vessel which lies across from the gravesites. Oddly, the metal looks brand new, leaving the false impression that it had only recently become disabled.
“I’m going out, Anandrus,” he says as a skinover falls down over his head, the material from there covering the rest of his physique. “In the meantime, tell me what you can about our long-lost ship here.”
“Which one?” it says, probably in need of a check up again.
He waits until his outergear has been properly oxygenated and pressurized.
“What do you mean ‘which one’?” he then asks. “Why, Anandrus? Is there another ship on the other side of the moon?”
The artificial manifestation is mute at first.
“There is no moon,” it says this time, supporting his suspicions.
“There is no moon,” he repeats, growing agitated. “Come on, Anandrus! What do you mean there is no moon?”
“That is the smaller one crashed whereas the larger one became inoperative much later,” it then says.
“All right. I’m game,” he says, bracing his back near the exit. “What larger one?”
Once more, his ship’s controller hesitates before it says: “The one we have landed on, of course.”
From behind Tanis, a burst of air jettisons him out onto the surface. There, as he notes the bright gleaming pockets beneath the sand and dirt which lie before the craft, he also realizes what Anandrus had been trying to tell him.
This moon was a ship!
Even more incredibly, he soon discovers, it is very, very old - perhaps as old as humanity, itself.
“Anandrus, could these ships have possibly been built somehow by the ancient Sandaseopians?” he wonders, nonetheless, while he marvels at the uncommon smoothness and unmarked brilliance of the silvery metal that overlies them both.
“Not hardly,” it says.
That did not particularly surprise him for the early Sandaseopians were known to have been reluctant to venture out from their own world even though they had long had that capability.
“Their outer hulls, Anandrus,” he says, perusing the smaller ship now. “Are they penetrable?”
“The exteriors of both contain several laminae of pure allotropes of carbon as well as another of an unknown substance,” Anandrus responds.
Tanis drops to one knee.
“Diamond,” he says, pushing some sand aside and looking down at the telltale crystalline arrangements. “And what I wonder?”
He scans the interior. Within it, he can see a veritable maze of chambers, all of which he finds contain something he had not quite anticipated.
More bodies, all of which are still intact as if their owners had only died a short while ago. Something else also catches his eye, another distinction from his own species.
Their skins are of different pigmentations, a few radically different in that some sport black or brown complexions while others a dull pink. A certain number also have either a reddish tinge in their upper epidermal layers or a slight yellowing. Not only that but, upon closer inspection, he realizes their hands come in different sizes, too, as do their heads, not to mention their entire physical morphologies.
Subsequently, he feels it can only mean one thing.
And to think it was he - Tanis Bac - who had been the first to discover them.
“Aliens, Anandrus! Proof at last that we are not alone!” he shouts, leaping up and then simply floating there for a moment while he gazes off into the star-sprinkled horizon, imagining that he might well be looking back at where their kind had once flourished in some unknown period of time long ago. “I mean what else could they be? These ultramodern vessels, their physiques. Why, for the sake of the Essentia Supremus, they were somehow able to create an entire moon!”
“Whatever they were,” Anandrus tells him. “they made certain they would all become collectively inanimate.”
Tanis swings his legs down until he is standing back on the ground.
“You don’t mean to tell me with such advanced technology they all -”
“A few victims did afford resistance, it would appear.”
He decides not to pursue that for the time being but, rather, reconsiders the hull. Across it, he notices that a series of symbols have been etched into it.
“I guess my only question, Anandrus, is - why?”
As such, he indicates a collection of dots and rectangles that are impressed into the smaller ship, instead.
“Okay, so how about those things?”
“Those are coordinates which refer to a far-off intergalactic location.”
“A solar system?” he says. He has to catch his breath for a moment. “As in one that provided for intelligent alien life?”
“That particular location contains only a white dwarf at present,” Anandrus cautions.
“You mean a dead star,” Tanis says. He wipes away more sand anyway, hoping to uncover any additional markings.
“Whereas for the second set of symbols -”
“Second set? Where? I don’t see anything.”
“On the larger vessel,” Anandrus says before it haughtily adds: “You know - the one you had thought was a moon?”
Ignoring that remark, Tanis almost immediately locates a number of impressions of the same design. They denote these aliens apparently, each of which is represented by an outline of a stick-like being, one who is either trapped or secluded within some sort of protective circle. Both of its handless arms and footless legs, he notices, seem to be reaching out though for what is unclear.
He speculates on that and says: “Maybe these aliens were dying off for some reason and were trying to get help from our Sandaseopian ancestors, Anandrus, but didn’t know they were incapable of space travel - or maybe they were simply exploring space and something unexpected happened to them.”
Anandrus is quiet again for a moment.
“Or maybe there was another reason they committed mass suicide.”
An answer to the enigma of the stickman symbols and these aliens was later forthcoming on a minor planetesimal just off the Main Run of Worlds, one so diminutive in fact that most moons and even some comets in the same system surpassed it in size.
For there, while conducting business, he was approached by an odd group of men, each of whom wore simple loose clothing together with strapped-down footgear which was uncovered on top.
But that was not all because attached to every one of their necks were these silvery amulets, all of which - he soon realized - had that same stickman symbol impressed into them.
The symbol, he was told, referred to an ancient item, a venerated object that was alleged to harbor the most elusive and perhaps greatest mystery of all - the secret to human immortality.
What specifically that might be, however, was not known although the artifact was said to have once been the property of an obscure race of primitive humans and generally referred to as ‘The Silver Shield’. It was now believed, though, by most to have been lost after some warring peoples had all but annihilated one another in a series of tremendous battles, ones which were never affirmed but whose tales of horrifying depravity had been passed on from generation to generation.
With respect to those stickman symbols, moreover, he was advised they were thought to signify either how humankind had forever lost the way to paradise or was destined to learn how to overcome its own failings at some future point in time in order to finally achieve its promised eternal existence.
Whereas for the whereabouts of this Silver Shield relic, none of these strangers would so much as begin to bargain with him, not even for some of his most precious cargo. Instead, they only procured a few essentials - some nutrient enhancers, fluid makers and epidermal rejuvenizers - before they retired altogether.
Still, if there was one thing Tanis had learned throughout his spans of trading and taking, it was that human nature was basically the same everywhere.
Although, he had to admit, it seemed to have come unexpectedly cheap this time.
Cost him only twelve embryos of a primitive bovine species, in fact, for a set of possible coordinates.
NEXT IN LINE: CHAPTER #5 – II PROSEQUI