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January 27, 2023
An Antiquated Astronaut
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Finding the Way
A Sidereal Saga

The sculpture was made of beautifully spun glass and showed an ancient slipship drifting through the clouds, the finsakes of Wireburn rising up from the helium seas below to greet it. As a work of art it was impressive. The spun threads that made up the clouds and wires connecting the ship to the rigid gasbag that kept it aloft were almost too fine to see with the naked eye. The ship's name, Shellar, was carefully written on the side in blue glass. The flags on top almost seemed to wave in the wind, even though a strong push was more likely to break them right off the sculpture. Against the backdrop of the high, vaulted ceiling of the museum's statuary gallery it made a pretty picture.

As a historical record it was terrible. The Shellar was one of the first slipships to eschew a traditional sailship hull for a more aerodynamic one, a necessity for the skies of windy planets like Wireburn. The artist had also chosen to remove all the weapons ports and defensive netting. Whether that was because they were hard to sculpt or just because so many artists seemed to take offense at such tools of violence these days was something Lloyd Carter wasn't qualified to comment on. Art wasn't his strong point. Art that was hundreds of years old even less so.

But he was a Wayfinder and that made him more than qualified to probe at the sculpture with his slipsense and realize it didn't actually fill the space it seemed to. What looked like glass was actually a very high quality illusion. Lloyd glanced at the museum curator and said, “This is a photosculpt.”

“Yes.” Patrick Trelane was short but very broad, looking like the proverbial ox in a pottery barn, but he moved with a delicate reverence among the artifacts he cared for. Reaching past Lloyd he passed a hand through the place the sculpture should be. Light bent and scattered around his hand, causing the illusory sculpture to sparkle out of existence until he took his hand away. “I noticed it when I was going through the exhibit this morning. The sun through the skylight washed out the photosculpting enough that it became partially transparent.”

Lloyd nodded. “Good timing, I suppose. Any idea how long the original sculpture has been missing?”

“It was definitely in the case two weeks ago when we had it open for the monthly cleaning,” the curator replied. “But I pass through here about that time the First and Fourthday of every week and I didn't notice it last Firstday.”

“You would definitely have noticed the change three days ago?” The question earned Lloyd a withering look. He did his best to hide his exasperation at it. “These questions are a part of my job, Sir Trelane.”

His mood relented. “Of course they are, Wayfinder. Forgive me, it's been a stressful couple of hours since we confirmed the theft.”

“When you say confirmed, I take it to mean you checked to see that it wasn't out for some kind of unscheduled preservation work or because something was wrong with display?” Lloyd looked down at the base of the display cabinet, which stood about waist high. He didn't see any signs of tampering.

“Correct. No one on staff admits to moving the Shellar's Arrival for any reason relating to museum business. Furthermore,” he reached down and tapped the flat top of the display podium. “While we do use a photosculpt to stand in for the original when we have it out on loan or for some kind of retouching the projector is always visible here with a notice on it making it clear that people aren't looking at the original.”

Lloyd cocked his head to one side, surprised that the photosculpt wasn't disrupted by Trelane's action. “Where is that being projected from?”

“Over there.” The curator pointed at a corner of the room about ten feet away where a barely visible dot of light indicated the source of the illusion in front of them. “They were probably forced to put it over there to make the substitution harder to catch. It's a remarkably small thing, really. About the size of my thumb.”

“That can't have been cheap,” Lloyd mused. “Why go to all the expense of making a thing like that to steal a six hundred year old glass sculpture? There's got to be dozens of things in here worth more. Isn't that bust over there carved Martian marble? It's got to be a thousand years old at least and it comes from the Sol System, to boot.”

“Well spotted.” There was a distinct condescending tone to Trelane's voice. Lloyd wasn't sure if the curator was annoyed because he though the fact should be obvious or because he realized Lloyd was just repeating what he'd read off the placard by the sculpture on the way in. “That's Red Invictus, one of only two Sol System works in our entire collection, insured by Halliston's Insurance Agency for half a billion lira. But trying to sell that without getting caught would be impossible unless you got it off planet.”

Trelane waved at a four foot tall bronze statue of a nude woman holding a strange, funnel like basket overflowing with fruits and grain comically arranged to preserve her modesty. “Demeter's Bounty is an early work by Setsuna Higarashi and is insured for 20 million lira, it's something a thief could liquidate pretty easily. By contrast, Shellar's Arrival is valued at 1.2 million lira. A good amount of money, certainly, but nothing life changing. These days a million lira will hardly last you five years and that's if you're careful.”

“Not to mention it's glass, so hard to move without damaging it. So why would someone steal it?” Lloyd mused.

“That's the other bit that's interesting,” Trelane said, handing him a flimsyscreen. “It turns out that Gerald Reed, who sculpted it, is at the heart of a couple of minor conspiracy theories. We've had a number of people ask questions about it over the years, some relating to those theories and some not.”

Lloyd took the flimsy and studied the pictures scrolling over the folding display. There were a total of five people pictured along with brief transcriptions of conversations with museum staff. “Did you ever meet any of these people?”

“Two of the most persistent drew my attention, yes,” Trelane said, indicating two pictures in particular. “This young lady visited sixteen times over the past three years, trying to convince us there was a data crystal built into the sculpture somewhere which is, of course, impossible.”

When he started in the Wayfinders Lloyd traveled to some of the most remote parts of Wireburn and saw a lot of strange stuff. Mixing crystals with glass struck him as entirely possible. “You're sure?”

“All our physical art pieces are scanned annually, both for preservation and insurance purposes and I can assure you, Shellar's Arrival is 100% glass. No part of it could interface with a coral grid. It doesn't have the right chemical markers.”

Lloyd studied the woman's picture. The angle was from above, looking down at her so he couldn't guess her height but her long, dark hair was well kept and her face was pretty and intelligent. She stood with a hand on one hip as she argued with Trelane about something. She wore a conservative, high waisted skirt and unremarkable white blouse with no makeup to speak of and a simple black coat under one arm. Her skin was an unblemished coffee color and her figure was a classical hourglass. Otherwise she was so painfully, deliberately normal it made him suspicious. “Did she say what information she thought the sculpture had on it?”

“A dead reckoning course to Earth.”

His head snapped up from the page. “I'm sorry?”

Trelane laughed. “That was my reaction when I heard her say it but she obviously believes its true. Ever since the Sol System beacons went dark people have come up with all kinds of fanciful ideas for how we could get back there but this is one of the most far fetched I've ever heard. Supposedly Reed was part of the group that destroyed the beacons in the first place. They've then ruled the human diaspora from the shadows for the last fifteen hundred years and hidden all the history of their rule in works of art across a hundred worlds.”

“I'm almost afraid to ask what the other one thought about the sculpture.”

“It's almost mundane by comparison. He thought the sculpture was alive.”

This man's picture was a stark contrast to the woman's in that he was dressed like a wealthy man, wearing a tunic of silvery fabric with the flowing sleeves currently in fashion with people who cared for such things. A bright red vest over top of it confirmed that he was a very style conscious individual. His hair, mustache and thin beard were a dark green and he wore the silver torc of a Shift Scholar. “Was this... Malaki Strazinski a University representative?”

“No. Although he claimed to be from Vanor University when we followed up on that they said no one by that name was on their roles.” Trelane shrugged with equal parts amusement and resignation. “He could be a former student he'd also hardly be the first impostor I've seen just in the six years I worked for the Ashland Prominence Museum. I'm afraid that the art world is full of charlatans, shams and scam artists and, to make matters worse, who is a fake and who is authentic can switch places from day to day. But his claim that the sculpture is alive is just as obviously false as the claim that it's a data crystal. It's been in the museum collection for over eighty years and never shown any signs of life.”

“Until it disappeared,” Lloyd noted.

“The museum has state of the art security, Wayfinder, but I'm sure you could bypass it in a couple of minutes of work. We're a small institution without University backing. There's no way we could afford a resonator to lock the whole building off from the sidereal so anyone with a strong enough slipsense could theoretically turn sidereal just long enough to bypass any physical barriers. We do employ smaller resonators on our most valuable pieces, like Red Invictus, and all our displays have contact sensors in the display base and on the bottom of the piece.” Trelane carefully lifted a small vase on a nearby display to show two small round disks on the bottom. “If the sensors are separated an alarm should go off immediately.”

Lloyd cocked his head to one side. “I don't hear anything.”

“That's just it. The alarms in this room have been bypassed by installing a spoofer in the alarm control circuit that blocks the signal from reaching the security station.”

“Let me guess.” Lloyd pointed up at the corner where the photosculpt projector sat. “The circuit in question runs right under that section of the wall.”

“Got it in one.”

Lloyd folded the flimsyscreen twice and stuck it in the pocket of his leather Wayfinder's jacket. “Would you excuse me for just a moment?”

The curator took two steps back, saying, “Of course.”

Just to be safe Lloyd took one step in the other direction then turned sidereal, pivoting away from material Wireburn and into the sidereal. The planet seemed to fade out of existence, leaving him standing on a dimly glowing ball of light that was Wireburn's presence in the sidereal. Surrounding him was a sea of stars. Of course, the distant lights weren't truly stars but powerful beacons installed at regular intervals over the surface of the planet – and some points above it – to help people with the slipsense navigate. All he would need to do was borrow a little power from the gas giant below him and he'd be able to extend his slipsense to any one of those beacons then slip through the space between them, arriving there instantly. Of course Lloyd had no intention of leaving where he so he ignored them.

Instead he carefully paced about in a tight circle, looking for signs that another person had passed through that part of the sidereal recently. It wasn't an exact science. The sidereal wasn't a physical location but rather a sort of hyperreality that ran alongside everything else and functioned in ways still not entirely understood. So while there were general approaches to turning sidereal, tapping the power there or slipping through space, in practice everyone who could do it did so a little differently. Still, any time a person turned sidereal or material physical space and sidereal space were briefly connected. That left certain signs, at least for a little while.

Lloyd rested his hands on the glassy 's father had taught him that the key to understanding the sidereal was through the hands. A trained touch could tell you a lot about a thing. A loose door would rattle if you pushed it so. A worn jacket would feel thin and threadbare under the hands. Recent changes to the sidereal left peaks and eddies one could find very quickly if they were present. Problem was they weren't. The only thing he could sense was the distant thrum of Wireburn's rotation and the surging power the planet steadily expelled into the sidereal.

So Lloyd checked the physical space he'd just occupied to ensure it was still clear with his slipsense then turned material. He'd been gone maybe five minutes. Trelane's eyes snapped over to him and the curator nodded. “Welcome back, Wayfinder. Find anything interesting?”

“No. But the traces I'm familiar with fade after about twelve hours so that doesn't mean Shellar's Arrival wasn't stolen by someone moving through the sidereal, just that they didn't do it in the last half a day.” Lloyd crossed the room to the photosculpt projector and turned sidereal again. This time he did find something. Not just a trace of recent contact but an active, current connection between sidereal and material created by a very skilled hand. He probed at it with his fingerss for a minute, long enough to determine that it was some kind of sidereal to physical bonding, then left it alone.

He pivoted back to the material and approached Trelane again. The curator gave the projector a curious look as he asked, “Is there something to gather from that device?”

“Possibly, although I'm not familiar enough with sliptech to tell you much about it myself. I suspected it was tied into your system on the sidereal side of things as doing it any other way would have taken a lot of time and that's exactly what it looks like they did. So we are definitely looking for a thief with the sense.” He studied the photosculpted image again. It really was an impressive bit of work, so detailed and high resolution that Lloyd couldn't tell it wasn't a solid object even when he put his face right next to it. “Shame the alarm spoofer and the projector are tied together. It's a beautiful bit of photosculpting and probably just as nice as the original but you don't want to leave it in place.”

“Of course,” Trelane said. “I'll contact someone from the Slipknot Guild to have a look at it and assess how much removing it will cost. Do you think you can locate the thief?”

Lloyd unrolled the flimsyscreen and stared at it while he mulled over his answer. The Museum clearly wanted this handled with discretion otherwise they would have gone straight to the Courts and called in the Lawmen. However they also didn't know who had done it for sure or they'd have called the Theiftaker's Hall. Instead they'd offered a contract to the Wayfinder's Alliance since going strange places and puzzling things out was part and parcel of the Wayfinder's Path even if they did it in very different fashion these days. Slipsense was a prerequisite for membership, which was a nice bonus given the nature of the crime.

The problem was Lloyd wasn't exactly well read. He didn't know much about art and he'd never even seen Shellar's Arrival in person, in sculpt or on screen before his dispatcher sent him to the Museum. There were lots of layers to all this that he could easily miss. “Let me ask you a couple of other things, first. Other than the two we discussed, have any of these people visited the museum in the last year?”


“You say all five of these three had theories about the sculpture. What did these other three think was odd about it?”

“Not odd theories in all cases, just that they asked questions about it.” The curator paused to think for a moment. “I believe one of them also thought it was part of a record Green put together on lost human history. One thought it was a forgery. One was convinced that he could prove it was made out of spun sugar rather than glass.”

Lloyd glanced up from the screen. “Really?”

“No. Both claiming forgery and outlandish claims about what an art piece is made out of are common opening gambits by thieves, believe it or not. After we turned them away we never heard from them again.”

Back to the screen. “Which one also thought Shellar's Arrival was hidden history?”

“Sir Tyrel Nance.”

Lloyd pulled a stylus from his pocket and added a note by the appropriate person on the screen. “I see dates for visits from Sir Strazinski and Madame Brahman here. These are their most recent visits?”


“Is there someone here at the Museum I can call on as a resource in case I need an expert on the art world to consult while I try to locate your stolen property?”

In response Trelane held out his contact card, a thumb sized sheet of plastic and semiconductors that would automatically route a call to his personal voicecaster. Lloyd took it and slid it into the retrieval slot on his own VC and put on his best business smile. “Thank you, Sir Trelane, I'll be in touch.”


For the sake of thoroughness Lloyd followed up with the other three people on the Museum's list first. Other than Tyrel Nance the information the Museum had on file for them proved bogus. The home address for one of them was a dilapidated electronics store the other was a proper apartment building but none of the staff there had ever heard of the person in question. Lloyd was happy to write them off as scammers who ran off once Trelane rebuffed their efforts.

Nance was a different matter. He supposedly lived on the grounds of Onieda University, Ashland Campus and Lloyd expected to have a lot of difficulty getting anything out of them. After all, the Universities were interstellar organizations able to hold up noble sounding ideas like learning and knowledge as shields. Oneida alone boasted tens of millions of scholars on hundreds of planets. By contrast, the Wayfinder's Alliance had thousands of members across Wireburn and its moon, Coldstone. That was the extent of their reach.

However, when Lloyd inquired at the Visitor's Office they ran a quick check and informed him Tyrel Nance died of liver failure fifteen months ago after years of chronic drinking issues. Lloyd marked the man off his screen and headed for his next destination.

Lavanya Brahman didn't live on Ashland Prominence, at least according to the information she gave to the Museum. Given her sixteen visits to the Museum in three years, that suggested she was either independently wealthy or she had the slipsense and could hop between prominences via the sidereal. Either way, Lloyd decided he would visit her last.

That left Malaki Strazinski, a resident of Ashland's lower east side neighborhood known as Dynetown. A quick consultation with his map told him how many beacons he'd have to move and in what directions. Then Lloyd turned sidereal and gratefully left the University behind, slipping through the sidereal from beacon to beacon until he turned material again near the bottom of the prominence. It was his first time visiting the lower reaches of eastern Ashland and he found it quite beautiful.

Wireburn's many prominences were towering mixes of helium, methane and mineral vines. The strange mix of metal and plant life stretched far down into the murky oceans of the Jovian planet's depths and held their structure by virtue of the heavy metals within supported by the buoyant gasses they trapped. Dynetown looked out over a storm front where helium and methane seas clashed creating a constant, slowly moving orange and tan waves from which the region took its name. The bright light of Wireburn's blue sun dispersed in the gasses and took on a warm glow.

Unlike the upper regions, which reinforced the thin branches of mineral vine with liquid granite to hold the weight of the structures built there, Dynetown was built directly on the vines. Instead of the gray-white swirl of most roads above the ground here was an oily mix of blue and orange. The buildings were smaller than the upper levels. Most were only a single story high, clinging close to the ground to avoid the vine branches overhead. Unlike the Museum or University buildings there were no graceful arches and buttresses adorning the structures. Dynetown was a jumble of residences and small workshops. The buildings were a mix of small, walled compounds with colonnades and high, thin windows and blocky, purposeful boxes with fluted sides to add a touch of decoration.

The people were dressed much better than Lloyd was. Most people were dressed in a variation of Strazinski's clothes from the museum picture, silvery metallic fabrics made of threads extracted from mineral vines cut in three piece suits, double breasted jackets or smart, high waisted dresses full of ruffles and lace. The look of most people was somewhere between the University square and the high flying towers of the upper crust.

In contrast the red leather Wayfinder jacket and boots he wore screamed of a life on the outskirts. There was a time the Wayfinder was a prestigious role. Lloyd remembered looking up to the men in red as figures of adventure and exploration only a decade ago, when he was a teenager. But even then their status was slipping away. At one time Wayfinders went to the uncharted sections of Wireburn and set up beacons there; then helped ferry in new settlers via the sidereal. On a planet the size of a Jovian world it was the kind of work you could expect to last centuries.

The discovery of the Great Jellies living in the helium seas effectively ended the purpose of Wayfinders the year Lloyd was born. At least the huge, sentient creatures that called the lower regions of Wireburn home weren't hostile. However they were so friendly they'd gladly shared all they knew about the planet with humanity in exchange for an education in sidereal technology from the Slipknot Guild. With the Jellies' maps to work from the Wayfinders were abruptly out of work about the time Lloyd joined up.

He'd spent a few years setting up beacons on far flung prominences before coming home to Ashland. Now, like all the other Wayfinders, he worked more as an oddjobs man taking any commission that called for the slipsense. There were a few odd looks from other pedestrians as Lloyd searched for Strazinski's house. He ignored them to the best of his ability.

On the bright side, self-consciousness was not a failing of the Carter family but in an unfamiliar place surrounded by people very different from himself Lloyd found his mind turning a bit paranoid. He did his best to shed that mindset. Out in the wilds, with no breathable atmosphere or pressure barriers to keep Wireburn's gravity and skies from crushing you, letting panic or dread seize hold was just as dangerous as recklessness. In the years since he first took an investigative commission from the Alliance he'd found the same was true of interviews. He needed to be at his best when Strazinski answered his door.

After ten minutes walking from the Dynetown beacon Lloyd arrived at Malaki Strazinski's home. It was one of the rare two story houses in the neighborhood with a colonnade running along the front of the building's first floor. The second floor jutted out over the colonnade, tall windows looking out over the street like curious eyes. Lloyd took a minute to adjust the display of his flimsyscreen so it only showed the information relevant to his subject then folded it back up and put it away. Straightened his jacket, checked his belt, smoothed his hair. Then put on his public face, relaxed shoulders and a half smile, and walked up to the house to ring the bell.

In his experience an answer between thirty and sixty seconds after the bell rang was not suspicious. Anything faster meant he was expected. Anything slower suggested someone inside had taken the time to hide something or someone before answering. Lloyd suspected that houses with staff would throw off that assessment but he'd never visited one of those. Nor was he about to start.

Malaki Strazinski answered the door fifty two counts after Lloyd rang. He was dressed in a coppery colored tunic that hung around his thighs and he had his sleeves rolled up. With no belt or shoes on he looked very much like he'd been relaxing at home until just seconds ago. He raised one eyebrow and said, “Can I help you, sir?”

“Hello, I'm Wayfinder Lloyd Carter.” To emphasize his statement Lloyd indicated the Alliance badge sewn over the left breast of his jacket that included the compass points emblem of the Wayfinders and Lloyd's personal membership number. “I am here on behalf of the Ashland Prominence Museum of Fine Art in accordance with the Ashland Public Order Act of 944. Are you able to answer a few questions?”

Strazinski gave him a cool look. “What about?”

“The Museum is looking into some information you provided about one of their art pieces,” Lloyd said. The half lie sat poorly with him, even though he knew it was technically true and would hopefully catch the other man's interest enough to get his foot in the door. These kind of gambits made him uncomfortable but they were a part of this kind of job. “I'm obliged to remind you that no Court on Wireburn compels your cooperation with this investigation but your response here may influence future decisions by the Wayfinder Alliance and Theiftaker's Halls if you attempt to hire them in the future.”

Strazinski turned from cool to sour. “Yes, so I've heard. All right, come in then.”

He yanked the door wide open and ushered Lloyd into a spacious room. It was something of a great hall, open to both levels of the home with the towering windows overhead filling the room with natural light. Most of the room was a step lower than the entrance, although a pathway ran along the side of the room into other parts of the house. In the sunken part of the room there was a padded bench along the windows that looked out towards the street and a selection of comfortable looking furniture arranged to facilitate conversation. A large coffee table sat at the center of the room.

However Strazinsky didn't offer Lloyd a seat, instead leading him along the walkway into the kitchen, which was immediately behind the great room. This was a more normal arrangement of cabinets and appliances with an island at the center. The beginnings of a finsnake roast were scattered around the island and the pleasing scent of spices was evident before they even crossed the threshold. As he spoke Strazinski grabbed a knife and started slicing tubers. “I'm always surprised when I hear Wayfinders are doing Theiftaker work,” he said, the blade clack-clack-clacking on his wooden cutting board. “You boys used to make the sightcasters for finding new things or saving people in danger on the helium tides.”

“Now we find old things,” Lloyd admitted. “Sometimes that puts people in danger, although I can't say they don't always deserve it. What makes you think I'm here on Theiftaker work, though?”

“You mentioned the Public Order Act. That's the one prompted them to open the Theiftaker's Hall, isn't it?”

The Public Order Act was a lot more complicated than that but Lloyd only knew that because he didn't understand the act at all. “Why did you tell the Museum you were a member of Vanor University? You have to know they'd check on that.”

Strazinski snorted. “Because I studied art there but the administration refused to give me my degree. I'm not a scholar, true, but I did study there and I refuse to pretend I didn't just because they struck me from the rolls for arguing with a Professor who wasn't even in my department. Now why are you here, Wayfinder. The Museum wouldn't hire you just to come and ask me questions about something they could find out in thirty seconds on a voicecaster.”

He'd have to be more direct, then. Subtle interrogation techniques were something he'd tried to learn but never been very good at. “What do you know about a sculpture called Shellar's Arrival?”

“It was supposedly made of glass about six hundred years ago by a man who doesn't exist,” Strazinski said, scooping his tubers into a pot. “The Reed Group created a series of computer protocols intended to create a general artificial intelligence that was embedded into the glass via Slipknot techniques.”

“General artificial intelligence isn't real. People have been trying to make them for thousands of years and no one has ever succeeded. The closest we've gotten is zombie programs that emulate the behavior of dead people.”

Strazinski took a long, two pronged fork and skewered his roast then started carving a crosshatched pattern onto the top of it. “Still. All the evidence points to it.”

Lloyd resisted the urge to laugh at him. All the evidence pointed to the Wayfinders as a meaningful career fifteen years ago. Evidence wasn't as meaningful as University people tended to think it was. “Were you aware it was stolen yesterday?”

“It's alive, so I suppose I'd say it's kidnapped.” The other man offered the response with a mechanical detachment that suggested Strazinski was thinking about something other than what he was saying. He set his knife and fork down and leveled an even look at Lloyd. “So does the Museum think I took it?”

“You've approached them about it repeatedly,” Lloyd said. “It's a natural question to ask, isn't it? Did you steal Shellar's Arrival?”

“No. Because that's categorically impossible, as I've been saying for quite some time.”

It wasn't why he was there but at this point Lloyd's curiosity was starting to get the better of him. “Sir Strazinski, why are you so convinced the sculpture is alive? What purpose would that serve?”

“I told you, I'm an artist. Glass isn't my medium of choice but I respect it all the same.”

“What is your medium? Photosculpts?”

The other man's right eye twitched almost imperceptibly. “Among other things. I also work in paint. You could consider food a medium of its own and I hold a couple of patents for visioncaster components. I dabbled quite a bit in University, actually, another reason I can't believe they struck me from the rolls. I don't just study broadly, though, I do study in depth as well. I know most of the works created by Wireburn natives and believe me, without going into the details of our artistic lineages, Shellar's Arrival doesn't show any signs of those traditions. But there's more than that.” He folded both his hands and pressed them flat against the counter top. “I've studied almost every picture and photosculpt of that piece ever taken and I promise you this, the sculpture changes over time.”

“The Museum scans it every year,” Lloyd protested. “They say it hasn't.”

Strazinski raised his hands, index fingers held parallel like he was framing a picture. “I know. I know, they told me the same thing and I've gotten confirmation from the insurance company. I haven't figured out how that's faked yet but it is. I can show you.”

This was starting to sound very far fetched. Mentally Lloyd crossed Malaki Strazinski off his list, convinced that someone willing to wander so far into pure conjecture would never marshal the wherewithal to rob a museum on his own. “Very interesting, Sir Strazinski, but ultimately it doesn't explain why someone would go to all the trouble to make and hide this living sculpture you describe, much less tell me where Shellar's Arrival is now.”

“Wouldn't just making the thing be a triumph in itself?” Strazinski asked with the pure hearted sincerity of a true idealist. “It would be worth it just for that.”

“And if that wasn't enough it's also the perfect caretaker for humanity's greatest secret.”

A cold spike drove between Lloyd's shoulder blades when he heard the woman's clear, pleasant contralto join the conversation. Before he even turned to look he suspected who he'd find. So when he backed away from the kitchen's island and turned to look back into the great room he also pivoted halfway into the sidereal. Sure enough, there was Lavanya Brahman, watching him from the other side of the kitchen door.

The world around him rippled as Lavanya also pivoted halfway into the sidereal. Where Lloyd had bladed his body to present both her and Strazinski with as small a target as possible Lavanya adjusted her stance to put her front fully towards him as she tapped power from the planet's reserves. Her hair, pinned back by two long, copper sticks, flooded with sidereal light and whipped free and around her body like a veil.

That was a manifestation he'd never encountered. Still, while it was exotic it wasn't particularly powerful compared to some of the guys he'd sparred against in the Wayfinder and Theiftaker circles. Lloyd tapped the planet himself and let the Wireburn's strength focus in his hands.

Over at the kitchen counter Strazinski put his knife down with a long suffering noise. “Is this really necessary?”

Then, to Lloyd's disappointment, the artist also pivoted into the sidereal. For a brief moment Lloyd had hoped only one of the two had a slipsense. One on one he was confident he could take most people outside professional warriors. Two on one it was another matter entirely. Or at least that was his calculation before Strazinski reached up to touch his fingertips to his temples and tapped power to manifest his sidereal aspect.

Strings of numbers, half formed sentences and partially rendered sketches exploded out of the man's head in wheels of glowing concepts that swelled beyond the confines of the physical room. A planet like Wireburn threw enough energy into the sidereal for trillions of people to tap without ever running out. How much of that power a single person could tap essentially came down to the capacity of their slipsense. Based on what he was seeing Lloyd estimated Strazinski to have the third or forth largest capacity of anyone he'd ever met. Even one on one he was pretty sure the artist could beat him.

Time for a change in tactics. “It's not necessary, Sir Strazinski,” Lloyd said. “Not so long as you tell me where the sculpture is. And don't bother pretending you don't have it any more, the only reason for the two of you to act this way is if you have it.”

“Which is why I told you to remain upstairs,” Strazinski said, his attention briefly resting on Lavanya. “I told you I could send him away.”

“I agree that would have been the best outcome.” There was a brief ripple from within her veil of hair as Lavanya slipped something from elsewhere in the sidereal to the spot where she stood. “However after listening to your conversation Oliver insisted he speak to Sir Carter.”

“You've got a third person in on this?” Lloyd asked. “Next you're going to tell me Tyrel Nance didn't drink himself to death.”

“Almost certainly murdered,” Strazinski said.

Lloyd resisted the urge to roll his eyes, focusing instead on the object Lavanya held out to him. He was expecting a voicecaster. Perhaps even a sightcaster or one of those very new photocasters, the two of them looked like they could afford that kind of thing. Instead she presented him with a set of three clear crystal pyramids connected to an orb. Well, one of the pyramids was anchored by its base to the orb with the point of the shape facing down. The other two pyramids extended from adjacent faces of the first pyramid in an upwards direction. Art wasn't Lloyd's strongest point but he found himself thinking of it as a very simplified representation of an angel.

In the sidereal the structure glowed from within, almost as if it, too, could created power like a planet or a star would. The crystal structure rose into the air of its own volition, tilted so the 'face' of the orb was towards Lloyd and said, “Greetings, Wayfinder Carter. I am O-14312, called by my creator 'Oliver,' a name I find many humans prefer. I ask that for the moment, you refrain from violence for the services of a trained navigator are something I will soon require.”

They say that the first Wayfinder to discover a Great Jelly floating in the depths of the helium seas didn't even hesitate when the Jelly spoke in his mind. The story goes that he was so prepared for the unexpected he accepted the creature's friendly overtures at once. Lloyd was not quite so resilient. He stared blankly at Oliver for a full five seconds before he recovered. As soon as he did little details clicked in place. The creature was about two feet tall and its 'wings' were about four feet wide and if you adjusted the proportions of it... If he'd guessed wrong and it was made of glass and not crystal... “You're the Shellar's Arrival. I'll be damned. It really was a living record of lost history. How is that possible?”

“Assuming I had the knowledge to explain them to you – which I do not – the details of my creation would take years of theoretical and practical education for most people to understand,” Oliver replied. It's shape seemed to melt and shift for a few seconds then it floated in the air, a perfect replica of the sculpture. Or, in this case, a perfect original of it. “As you say, I hid my physical vessel among the works of a somewhat famous sculpture when I went dormant. My sidereal essence I buried in the seas of Wireburn. But the time has come for me to revitalize myself and so, although I know many value my vessel as a thing of beauty, I can no longer remain as such. Please allow my friends to continue assisting me unimpeded.”

“Well, I don't think there's really anything in Ashland law that covers this particular possibility,” Lloyd said, letting his sidereal power slip away into the planet and turning physical once more. To his surprise Oliver's appearance changed very little when he did. The odd glass creature looked much the same to both his eyes and slipsense, which was unusual. “It'll take a while to explain all this to the Museum and the Alliance, though.”

“Actually, I was rather hoping you wouldn't,” Oliver said.

“Why not?”

“For starters, they won't believe you,” Strazinski said as he and Lavanya also turned fully away from the sidereal. “Trust me, I know that from personal experience. And even if they did, don't think that they won't try and keep ahold of Oliver just for the sake of clinging to something they think is theirs. I know the midset of these kinds of people.”

“And we don't have the time to be sitting around waiting for all of them to grow tired of arguing about it,” Lavanya added. “Do that and you'll still be waiting when the universe grows cold and dark.”

“That is less than ideal,” Oliver agreed. “I have much that needs doing after such a long dormant period.”

“And what exactly are these things that need doing?” Lloyd asked, questioning whether he could just ignore such a major discovery as the one he'd just made. He could see not telling the Museum. Trelane struck him as the type to hang on to Oliver, living creature or no, just because he hated having an empty display area. But not telling anyone about a new kind of creature cut against his Wayfinder instincts. That was the kind of discovery he'd signed up for. Not to mention he wasn't sure Oliver was a safe, friendly kind of a thing.

Before they'd given up on making artificial life mankind's stories were full of the dangers such things presented after all.

“I have many preparations for travel to make, not least of which include securing a slipship and a navigator to help me travel the stars,” Oliver said. “There are also other constructs like myself I may attempt to find. But ultimately, although there are no beacons and the way is long since lost, I must make my way back to Earth and for that I need your skills.”

“You said Wayfinders find old things now, instead of new,” Lavanya said. “This is your chance to do a little of both.”

To his surprise, Lloyd realized his mind was made up before the words were out of her mouth. “I accept.”

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February 21, 2023
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Dancing Flame
A Tale of Nerona's Bravos

Among the many mercenary companies of Nerona's condottieri there were many strange tales and legendary names. The Carrion Drunkard, a manlike thing they said appeared on battlefields offering drink to wounded soldiers, only to reveal its wineskin was full of blood rather than the fruit of the vine. The Conte Vemici, who held Paloma Bridge against an army of a thousands. For Tiberius Twice the one that loomed largest in his mind was his own captain, Caesar Shieldbreaker, who had led his condottieri to victory in dozens of conflicts for nearly fifteen years.

The one most spoken of as a frustration and a trial was Benicio Gale. With his green right arm and gift to command the winds as his own breath, Benicio cut a gallant figure wherever he turned up. Which was almost always some small village or out of the way estate. Over the last four years he'd come from nowhere and built himself an ever growing reputation as the frustration of regular soldiers and mercenaries alike, blowing whole companies of men off of mountainsides or into rivers whenever they happened to threaten his current employer. He tended to work alone or with one or two other bravos.

Worst of all, he was cheap. A man with his talents could command a prince's fortune for his services but Benicio avoided the castles and city squares of Nerona in favor of selling his services to provincial mayors and town councils at a fraction of their worth. All of which made it a surreal experience to clamber through the ruins of Troas with him. Tiberius found himself watching Benicio as they picked their way through an alley between two ruined houses that had long since collapsed in on themselves, leaving chest high walls looking over small piles of rubble and dust that might have once been furniture or people.

The bravo was surprisingly normal, strange arm aside. About five foot eight inches tall, dark, curly hair, hard brown eyes like a rock that had been kicked back and forth across cobbled streets for its whole life, Benicio looked much like the average Neronan peasant. However, to Tiberius' trained eye, the way he moved through the ruins told a different story. Romanticists talked about bravos as stalkers, predators, creatures on the prowl for profit and fame, but Benicio was none of those things. He was a lookout. Measured movements, designed to give him a solid view of his surroundings, interspersed with small but precise advancements that brought him to the limit of his vigilance before he stopped to reconnoiter things again.

“There.” Benicio paused and pointed towards a sinkhole fifty or sixty feet ahead of them, in the middle of a small square. Tiberius was no expert but he guessed the sinkhole was originally a well back when Troas was an inhabited city. Before the Gulf of Lum drowned half of it.

It was very early in the morning, shortly after daybreak, and the hard shadows left in the wake of the King of Dawn made it so Tiberius had to squint to figure out what Benicio was pointing at. Finally he determined that several scorch marks ringed the sinkhole. “You think your compatriot left those?” He asked. “I suppose his gift was a Flame Hand or Flame Heart?”

“She is a Flame Heart,” Benicio said, loosening his rapier in its sheath.

“Well, in either case you can go down after her first so she doesn't just incinerate us when we look over the edge,” Tiberius said mildly. “Unless you plan to just stab her?”

Benicio gave him a disturbed look. “Why would I do that?”

“I don't know, you're the one with your hand on your sword.”

“Because the only reason for that kind of scorching is because she was fighting with something when she went down that hole.”

Tiberius laughed. “Are you sure about that? I heard you blew her off the battlefield back there yourself and she went laughing. Maybe she just likes burning things.”

“If you're not here to help you didn't have to come.”

He turned serious immediately. “No. The Prince of Torrence pays our captain and you are on the Prince's land under arms without permission. We're being kind enough to let you find your friend. But Caesar isn't going to let you or the Blacklegs with you run around on your own. We'd loose our commission.”

“Can't have you not getting your blood money,” Benicio muttered.

“Spoken like a true bravo.” Tiberius grinned. “If you were ever a condottieri you would know the best commissions are those where the fighting never starts. Although given your reputation I'm surprised you'd object. I'd wager you've killed more people in the last year than I have and you've done it for far less pay than us. You do realize that cheap murder is going to be more common that the expensive variety?”

Benicio gave him a sly look. “Of course. Why do you think I've spent so much of my time making it so expensive for you to fight wars in the countryside?”

“Touche.” Honestly, Tiberius had never thought of the matter that way. Most condottieri believed bravos did what they did because they weren't able to get along with others and so had to make their way by using their powers of annoyance for their employers. Apparently one, at least, had deeper reasons for what he did. “So who is your friend?”

“Belladonna is not exactly a friend,” Benicio said as they approached the sinkhole. “She's just someone our employer hired to help with this job. I think she was a failsafe, since she can't be burned to death or torn to pieces she's guaranteed to be able to report our failure and the ultimate fate of our objective.”

“Did either of you know it was a dragon's egg?”

“I didn't. She might have.” Benicio offered an eloquent shrug. “With her, I never know for sure. All women are an exquisitely crafted puzzle but she is exceptional in both appearance and bafflement. I'll be glad to send her back with news of our failure and be done with it. This whole job has been more trouble than its worth.”

“I suppose you won't tell us who is paying your fee? The Prince will probably pay us a bonus if we can tell him. I'm sure Captain Caesar would split it with you if you were willing.”

“No. Bravos do not change sides as easily as your lot, for one, and for another I don't know how long I would live after I betrayed this particular patron.” Benicio casually waved his hand in a dismissive way. “It is what it is.”

The two of them crouched down and looked over the sinkhole. It was pretty much what you would expect. About a quarter of the opening was still lined with worked stone, just like you would expect to see around a well. The rest was a rough edged tunnel that vanished into the dark about eight or nine feet down. Benicio dug into a pack he had brought with him and pulled out a rag and a small clay bottle with a cork stopper. He doused the rag in a strong smelling oil, wrapped it around a branch and lit it, then tossed it down the hole.

The makeshift torch landed about twelve feet down on a rough stone surface. From their viewpoint at the top it was difficult to see more than twenty or thirty square feet around where the torch landed but it all looked the same. Fairly dry stones piled randomly after the sinkhole collapsed in. The two men exchanged a quick glance then Tiberius offered the other a sweeping gesture, as if to say after you. Benicio took a deep breath and jumped straight down.

As his feet passed through the sinkhole he breathed out with the force of a hurricane, the tempestuous blast from his mouth slowing his fall to the speed of a downy feather dropping from a passing bird. It would've been impressive to see if the wind hadn't blown the torch out and left the chamber below in darkness. Or at least that's what it looked like at first. After a few seconds Tiberius' eyes adjusted to the change of lighting and he realized he could see a dim glow coming from off to the left of the sinkhole. Peering over the ledge he called, “What do you see, Gale?”

The only response was a barely audible, “Shh!”

That probably wasn't a good sign. Looking around he spotted an old stone trough sitting on stout stone legs and quickly passed a rope around it as an anchor. Then he went back to the sink hole, laid a cloth over the edge for the rope to run across so it wouldn't get damaged and let himself down. Benicio made his descent easier by slowing it down. Tiberius planned to get down by doing just the opposite.

He wasn't sure where the Gift called Twice at Once got it's name but it – both Gift and name – had proven very difficult for him when he was young. He was never sure why playing games with other kids left him so tired. He also didn't understand why catching things, running footraces and winning stick fights was so difficult for the others. The fact that simple tasks like these were so simple for him but he had no apparent Gift made him a target of both loathing and envy in his home town.

It wasn't until he met Caesar Shieldbreaker a decade ago that he met someone who understood it. That was how he started his time as a condottieri. He's learned fencing, campaigning and the mastery of his Gift, seen Caesar go from a well known captain to the foremost captain in the nation. But most of all he'd learned to live two seconds in one.

As Tiberius gently let himself down the rope he breathed deep and focused, watching the small pebbles that slid off the lip of the sinkhole with him slow their descent. By the time he reached the bottom they had only fallen half the distance. He quickly slid off to one side of the hole, his head swiveling about as his eyes adjusted to the darkness. He caught sight of Benicio a few steps ahead but there wasn't much else around them. The rocky ground around them gave way to a pool of water off to the west and a tunnel that led and inland roughly north northeast.

Tiberius let his focus slip and caught his breath. Barely ten seconds had passed for the rest of the world and he had lived twenty but it exhausted him like he had spent a full minute running. Benicio glanced over his shoulder. “Are you alright?”

“For now. Did you find any more signs of your friend?”

“Scorch marks leading off that way,” Benicio said, pointing off to the northeast, “but more than that, listen.”

Tiberius cocked his head, wondering what he was on about, but as his heartbeat slowed he understood. The faint strains of lute and violin were drifting through the cavern. His heart sank into his boots as Tiberius realized he'd stumbled on yet another tall tale from the darkest parts of Nerona. “The Fair Folk.”

“Either that or pirates are using the ruins as a shelter, they're equally likely options.”

“How many pirate crews do you know that could contain a Flame Heart?”

“Okay. Probably the Fair Folk.” Benicio pinched the bridge of his nose between his fingers. “Zalt. She had to go and find the only nest of Fair Folk in a hundred miles of the Gulf.”

“They're playing music.” Tiberius shook his head. “Have you heard what they do to people who interrupt their music? They'll find our skeletons here a hundred years from now!”

“I have to bring her back.”

“I don't know who your patron is, Benicio Gale, but he or she is not as likely to leave you dead as the Fair Folk when you intrude on their revelry.”

Benicio started grimly towards the sound of music. “Her mind isn't well, Tiberius Twice, and I promised I would help it heal. I can't leave her to the tender mercies of these people. I don't care how 'fair' they think they are. I promised. You don't have to come.”

For a long moment Tiberius hesitated, looking back to the rope and then towards Benicio over and over again. Ultimately, the condottieri was wrong. His captain had given him an order and, for Tiberius, that meant he did have to come. So he steeled himself and followed reluctantly after Benicio.

Halfway down the tunnel Tiberius' ears popped and the rough tunnel under his feet transformed into a paved brick hall with torches in sconces along the walls. They'd crossed a portal to the lands of the Folk. No turning back now. The brick opened up into a huge hall full of the strange, near-human creatures that the people of Nerona called Fair.

Not because they were beautiful, however. The doorway they passed through was flanked by two eight foot tall creatures who's legs were longer than Tiberius was tall, who's bodies were barely present and who's hands barely came down past their hips but had fingers that hung to their knees. A small bump on top of their round torsos sported huge, bushy eyebrows nearly covering small, beady eyes. The music was coming from creatures with round bodies wearing ladybug cloaks. Black, clattering claws plucked at lute strings and pulled bows across odd, misshapen violins.

All up and down the hall waltzed equally strange creatures. They were a riot of misproportioned limbs, insect wings, bushy fur, extra eyes and any number of other wild and outrageous elements. Only one of them was human. It was hard for Tiberius to tell much about her since she was made entirely of living fire and throwing off waves of heat as she danced and writhed to the tune of the music. The Fair Folk clustered around her, approaching her one at a time to try and dance. However Belladonna showed no concern for any of them, her own bizarre dance leading her across the floor in unpredictable patterns that forced most of them to pull away or get burned.

One of the towering guard Folk peered down at Benicio and Tiberius, speaking in a surprisingly booming voice. “Ho, there, mortal men and welcome to the celebration.”

Tiberius froze, unsure of what to do in response. The Fair Folk supposedly had their own inviolable rules of culture and propriety but no one was quite sure what they were or when they applied. The few mortal men who had cracked one of the Folk's rules rarely shared it. Benicio reached up and removed his feathered hat and straightened his doublet. “Forgive our intrusion, Fair one. We meant no offense, only to come and retrieve our friend there. May we?”

“No, no, mortal man.” The guard creature swung its body back and forth in a motion Tiberius chose to interpret as shaking its head in denial. “It is not fair for one to leave the floor before their dance is done! You must let her dance.”

“And how long must she dance?” Benicio asked. Tiberius was sure that the same stories running through his mind was running through the other man's. Stories about endless dances, enchanted shoes and any other number of bizarre things that had befallen people who stumbled across the revels of the Fair Folk.

“Until the steps are done!” The strange creature laughed. “But alas she is mortal woman and the tunes of the Fair are not known to her, they drive her to strange steps we do not know! Who can dance the whole dance with her? Not I! Perhaps not anyone! Will you?”

Benicio scowled and folded his arms, green over normal, saying, “Dance with her like that? I'd get burned to a crisp. How long will the dance go if no one can match her?”

“How long?” The creatures voice turned confused and one of its spidery, misshapen hands reached up to scratch between its eyebrows. “As I said, until it is done, one way or the other! Nothing else would be fair to her.”

“Zalt!” Benicio spat the word, drawing disapproving looks from the surrounding Folk. “Well, I'll have to try, I suppose. I can get a little singed if it means-”

“No, mortal man!” The guard creature shook its body once again. “For her own amusement does she dance and we dance to share in it! If you are burned in such a thing how could it be fair? If you are harmed you are not fit to dance with her and must stand aside for a suitable partner.”

Benicio turned incredulous. “What do you mean I can't get burned? Have you seen her? She's a Flame Heart in full burn, there's no way I can keep up with her drunken dancing-”

Tiberius put a hand on his shoulder. “Peace, Benicio. If it will get us out of this hall alive I'll take care of it.”

With that Tiberius began to shoulder his way through the assembled throng of Fair Folk, doing his best to ignore the strange skins and shells he brushed against, the insectile eyes that turned to him and the strange, unsettling voices that called to him. Finally he reached the dance floor and watched, trying to guess how he took his turn. The Fair Folk seemed to have some kind of method of choosing who would go next but Tiberius watched three dancers go out, get burned and return to the crowd without figuring out what it was. Then one of the Folk next to him nudged him with an fur covered hand. “Go, mortal man,” the creature chirped. “It is time you danced your turn!”

Well, it didn't make sense but nothing else did so there was nothing to do but give it his best. As he stepped out, Tiberius realized he probably should have watched Belladonna rather than the Folk that danced with her. There was a strange grace to the movements of the woman on fire. When the flickering of the flame mixed with the sensuous movements of a woman's body and the enchanting strains of the music it was hard to focus. But Tiberius' whole life was built on focus.

So focus he did, pushing aside the strange creatures, the threat of fire and the potential consequences of failure. He focused and lived twice at once. The flicker of flames slowed, the strains of music slowed to mud and the erotic promise of womankind was blunted as its natural sway distorted. Tiberius slid close to the woman called Belladonna and allowed himself to slip into something like a dance. He matched her step for step. He leaned back when she thrust forward, he swayed to counter her dip and he never let himself touch her flame.

Blood rushed through his veins and his heart pounded. But all he had to do was focus. His arms and legs began to burn as the strain of moving them through all that extra time took its toll. Focus kept them moving. The muddy sound of the music swelled then was swallowed by some deeper avalanche of sound. Focus rode above it.

Focus could only last so long. Tiberius sharpened his mind to its utmost and his focus lasted for a count of forty-five. Then fifty. He knew the exact count of the time because he always did. His Gift made it so. The dance continued on. A seventy count, then a hundred went past and still the dance dragged on. Belladonna continued to swing and sway. His arms grew heavier and heavier, his feet refused to move quite like he wanted. Around the edges of his vision the world went out of focus.

Tiberius was not going to last much longer.

Then, just as he stepped forward to match her step back Tiberius felt his focus snap. The swelling music, the cheering crowd, Belladonna's wild dancing all snapped back to full speed and Tiberius felt his knees shaking as he struggled to control his momentum. Belladonna swung around, shifting her weight forward unexpectedly. With a panicked flailing Tiberius jerked back and tried to keep his balance. Just when he though the woman was going to swipe an arm across his chest and set his doublet alight Belladonna faltered, her body returning to that of a normal woman, and she slumped down.

Tiberius tried to grab her but he didn't have the strength for it and they both collapsed on the ground. The music hit its last crescendo and the crowd exploded in cheers. Bewildered, Tiberius sat there and cradled his dance partner wondering how he was going to get out of the Folk's realm if he couldn't even get his breath and stand. Then the cheering, the music, the dance hall and all it's Folk vanished. Tiberius and Belladonna were left seated on rough stone with Benicio watching from some fifteen feet away, the echoes of the revel still ringing in their ears.

Tiberius let out a sigh. “We made it.”

The other man approached, his eyebrows raised in recognition of the accomplishment. “That you did. Congratulations, Tiberius Twice, I think you've made a name for yourself with that. Not many can say they danced with the Folk and lived to tell about it.”

Tiberius let himself slump down flat on his back. “If this is all it takes to make a name I don't understand how anyone ever managed it. I feel like a fool. Never let me try a stunt like that again.”

“Oh, I won't. As I said, Belladonna is my responsibility and I'm in your debt for your help here. I will repay it but I'd rather not owe you anything more.”

“Agreed. I have enough of a name to last a lifetime.”

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January 29, 2023
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Lost Words

We've been working on decoding the information on the artifact for the last sixteen years, since we pulled it out of Saturn's rings. We're not sure how long it was sitting there, playing dead among the debris and we may never know for sure. Frankly, it's a miracle it's still in one piece.

What we do know for sure is that it is electronic and has something like an onboard computer although we haven't been able to make much of it. Here's what we've got, along with notes from the researchers.







The data retrieval and file repairs are things referenced in the artifact's onboard memory, not something we did when we got it back to Earth. We find it unlikely we will ever be able to repair or replace any of the data lost.


REPORTIN[G OFFI]CER: Te[data lost]

STAR SYSTEM: [data lost] 5 Phase 2 Star

Coordinates: 322.[data lost] off Galactic Plane


Typology: Nickle-Iron Core

Oxygen-Ni[trogen] Atmosphere

2/1 Ocean/Landmass Ratio

Satellites: [data lost]

It's unclear what kind of coordinate system the artifact uses, or what kind of Galactic Plane they're referencing. Based on the information available, the logical conclusion is that they're referring to Earth although we find that eventuality unlikely for reasons that will become clear.


Chronomark – 928.4482.4

Multiple settlements confirmed on each continent. Civilization's power distribution network consistent with a Type 2 Industrial society. Multiple orbi[tal structures] detected, suggesting the native population has been making [data lost] for some time. Survey of outlying planets did not reveal signs of permanent settlements on outward planets. Conditions on [inward pl]anets do not appear hospitable to life. Further information in fu[ture surveys.]

We conclude that the native species is most likely confined to this planet at this time.

[data lost]

The onboard records suggest that the bulk of the lost data in the artifact's files were lost here. Roughly 40% of the data the artifact was trying to receive was from this chunk of lost files, which suggests that they spent a lot of time surveying the planet. What's particularly interesting is that the context around the missing data suggests the missing information was entirely about the population and civilization on the planet's surface.

Unclear how many sapient species are native to the planet. Initial scans show no signs of coherent architectural [themes] computer analysis cannot determine if differences are wide enough to suggest a differences in species. Communications [data lost] have not yet been deciphered.

Planet shows typical biodiversity for a Type 2 or Type 3 Industrial society. Standard sapience development studies show they should have larger settlements in the oceans suggesting the entire population may be mildly thassalophobic. Further details will [require closing to] close orbit.

The idea that a civilization is thassalophobic just because they don't settle their oceans is interesting, particularly given things we will see later.

Chronomark – 928.4482.6

I have submitted a request to remain in high orbit. The stories about first contact with Type 2 and Type 3 societies are nightmares. [data lost]

It would be nice to know what kinds of things the Sphere commander was worried about but whatever it was seems lost to time.



Issued: 4th Fleet [data lost]

Recipient: [data lost]

Chronomark – 928.4484.3


Your objections to further surveillance are n[oted and show a comm]endable consideration for your crew and ship. We hereby override them. Deploy a communications relay and keep it updated in accordance with Hazardous Contact Protocols then approach to a [data lost]

You're out there to detect potential threats to the Commonwealth, Commander. Do you job.

It's interesting that whatever Observational Command was, they had protocol for these kinds of situations but still managed to lose the artifact – which appears to be a communications relay based on what we've learned – in spite of the protocols they put in place. What happened here was apparently well outside their expectations.


Chronomark – 928.4484.5

Our sphere has begun braking orbit, we are [data lost] and proceeding under Hazardous Contact Protocols. Our attempts to break the native communication codec is still [underway]. Fortunately we've discovered a series of analog broad[casts that appear to be unfiltered] audio and we're working on translating the language. So far it seems we've avoided detection by the natives.

Several of the major structures have been firmly identified as orbital telescopes.

[data lost]

This is another major section of lost data – it represents about 12% of the lost data and presumably describes more of the planet's orbital technology.

We believe the largest to be some kind of orbital space station, although what purpose the station serves is unclear. It's not attached to a space elevator nor do we see large space vessels under [construction.] We're adjusting our approach to avoid visual dete[ction by these install]ations.

So far we only have one new significant piece of information. Our analysis of the audio from the planet suggests only a single species lives there as the phonemes we're detecting are all similar enough to come from a single type of [vocalization organ.] Based on what we know of the galaxy, that suggests a single sapient species is producing them.

[data lost]

At this point most of the missing data is accounted for. From the corrupted data on hand my analysts suggest at least part of the analog audio the drop sphere recorded was stored here. It's possible we can still make something out of that and learn something.

[Chronomark] – 928.4484.6

[data lost] approaching standard orbit, two tanks compromised.

Definitely not a space station. What we thought were [just] telescopes do double duty as gathering arrays that focus [data lost].

The station then serves as a focal point for the weapon. Primary habitation module was compromised. Casualty list is attached:

[data lost]

- and I doubt our hull will stand up to the strain. Against the better judgment of my officers, I'm ordering us to abandon ship. We'll keep in touch with the comm relay in accordance with Hazardous [Contact Protocols] but [data lost]

May heaven have mercy on us.

The reference to heaven is heavily debated by the translators. Most of them think we're projecting our own culture on the aliens and worry we're dumping a lot of cultural baggage onto this part of the records where it's inappropriate. I've chosen to leave it in place for reasons you'll see shortly.

Chronomark – 928[data lost]

Drop Sphere 3 has been abandoned. Find rest in the silence of space, old friend.

We've launched both of the sphere's life pods and are making for the [data lost]

Current crew compliment of this pod [data lost] for a total of five survivors.

Five survivors in one pod led to a lot of speculation on the sphere's original crew count. Since it's a very small data point to draw any kind of conclusion on I eventually stepped in to end the discussion and removed that debate. Interested parties can pull the detailed files from the project archive if they're really dedicated to reopening the issue.

Chronomark – 928.4486.1

In spite of maneuvering at minimal thrust for the past thirty hours [data lost]

The telescope is im[possible to] shake. We've raised our acceleration to the maximum safe rate and are maneuvering towards the system's fifth planet, a gas giant with [data lost]. Hopefully the [local sapiens] conclude we're trying to shelter there. In truth, I just hope we distract them from [data lost]

We're not sure what the sphere commander was hoping to distract them from but our consensus supposition is they were trying to keep the planet's telescopes from picking up their communication relay.

Chronomark – 928.4486.4

It seems [data lost] and salvaged some of the data we'd collected before our Drop Sphere was destroyed. I've assigned my team to work on analyzing it to keep them busy while [data lost.] I've told them maybe we'll learn something that will help us survive, although privately I'm not optimistic on that front.

Pretty industrious people in that pod.

Chronomark – 928.4487.3

They scrambled a pursuit ship incredibly quickly. As near as we can tell it's a [chemically pro]pelled ballistic ship, which is shockingly primitive compared to [data lost]. Even so, it's closing fast enough to be here in three days. Things have been tense. Morale is dropping quickly and I have to admit that I don't think we have any way to avoid [capture].

Given how vicious the [data lost] avoided at all costs. We will continue to report what we learn from our scanning and analysis.

Chemically propelled ballistic ships are shockingly primitive compared to their drop sphere but somehow they still managed to destroy it. I'm not sure what bothers me more. That they think our level of technology is primitive, or that they still got destroyed somehow.

We're still not sure what the artifact's Chronomarking system means, but given the pretty clear timeline laid out in these last few entries we're optimistic we can crack them eventually.

Chronomark – 928.4487.8

A potential breakthrough, although [data lost].

The value of that analytical method is questionable but I'm operating on the premise the results are reliable. It's the only thing with the potential to improve our sit[uation] anyway. [data lost]

We're monitoring their communications now. We hoped that would help us evade pursuit but the new codec isn't helping us since we still haven't translated their language. [data lost] … understanding of basic machine commands based on what we're seeing but that's it for now.

We're not sure how they cracked a communication codec without knowing the language it contained. Perhaps in one of the lost data sets they translated an analog audio segment and used it as confirmation. We don't know.

Chronomark – 928.4488.6

We're testing the new codec against their voice transmissions. It's interesting because, even though we can't understand them, we're all able to mimic all the sounds we're hearing. I'm starting to think that [data lost]

I think at this point the people in that pod were starting to suspect. That's why they're testing all the language they were hearing.

Chronomark – 928.4489.1

The alien ship is getting very close, close enough that we can make visual contact with it. We expect it to match velocity with us in four hours. After some debate, I've issued sidearms to all survivors on board. There's already joking about saving a bullet for ourselves, which is an accurate reflection on the current state of our morale.

[data lost] and transmitted it. If the alien ship has any idea what we said or that we were talking to them they haven't given any sign of it.

Too bad we don't have the other ship's records to tell us how they reacted to this.

Chronomark – 928.4489.4

The alien ship has launched some kind of grapplers and drawn us into contact. I will try and record as much of our encounter with them [data lost]

… some kind of diamond tipped drill to pierce the hull before establishing a seal and moving their personnel over. We're bracing for their entry.

[data lost]

… fallen back and are regrouping. I don't think they were expecting resistance. Frankly I'm surprised, too. We're scientists here, not fighters, but [data lost]

We've got just enough time to pull the helmet off one and – my god, they're human. They're human just like us. That's not possible. If anyone reads these logs [data lost]


When we reached this point we were extremely confused. The translators went over this dozens of times, we're almost 100% certain whoever created this log found creatures like themselves on a planet they were totally unfamiliar with. Whether they were actually a human civilization that discovered another human civilization where they shouldn't have is open for debate.

Did the artifact arrive here through some method of time travel? Is it a very elaborate, very expensive hoax created by one of the billionaires playing with space flight? Did the artifact just drift into the solar system after it was lost countless eons ago? We don't know.

I would love to be able to confirm one of those theories. It would remove the possibility that some other human civilization on Earth rose up, took to space and had an encounter with an even older, more advanced human civilization from far flung stars only to vanish for reasons unknown. What does that say about what's waiting for us out there, if it's true? And what will we do about it?

For now, I'm proposing we head back out to Saturn immediately and begin looking for other pieces of technology comparable to the artifact. Hopefully we can learn more before it's too late.

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