THE TRILISK RUINS
Telisa stood in front of the mirror in the transport station bathroom. The reflection showed a fit woman in her early twenties with straight black hair and a clear complexion. She wore a black business suit, a one-piece garment with a fake button-up front that showed off the contrast between her slender waist and athletic shoulders. Her link picked up a service for an appearance evaluation from a microcomputer embedded in the mirror, and she considered running it. She had to look right for her interview, but she decided against running the service. She could keep her own counsel on her looks.
Still, she felt anxious. Her interview would be in person, instead of the virtual link interviews she had already had. It should not make any difference, but some trace of instinct in her felt more nervous about a real face to face.
It’s not that unusual, she told herself. With the government ever encroaching on communications, probing the data streams with snooper programs designed to flag suspicious messages, more and more businesses were starting to protect themselves by conducting important meetings incarnate. It was an odd reversal back to old traditions, the rejuvenation of the real office.
One of the nightmares of the real office was the commute. Having to appear physically for a meeting proved time consuming and expensive. Already Telisa had spent a good fraction of an Earth Standard Credit, all charged through her link for public transportation.
Telisa found her way out of the station, buffeted by bodies moving in all directions. She inhaled the Colorado air. It smelled the same to her as on the coast, although it felt colder. She ordered an electric cab through her link and walked up to the curb. She looked over the sprawling buildings across the way. They looked pristine with an expanse of perfect grass. A cat sauntered out from behind a tree and dared to approach the concrete.
“Don’t do it,” Telisa warned playfully. The cat looked at her, then darted across the street.
Telisa raised an eyebrow. If the cat had a link, it would have been turned away from the street, but apparently it was feral.
“Never mind,” she called after the receding feline in a singsong voice. A low hum announced the arrival of her cab. Impatient, she walked toward it as it slowed and moved to the curb. She slipped into the compact one-person contrivance and sent it a map pointer from her link. The engine whirred back to life and accelerated her back onto the street. Telisa thumped her foot and fidgeted during the ride. The streets seemed a little rougher here than in California. Perhaps a byproduct of the weather, she thought.
Finally the cab deposited her at Parker Interstellar Travels and charged her account. She dismissed it and walked up to a metal gate. Evergreens lined the road, hiding a low wall.
The estate looked sharp. A well-trimmed lawn bordered the house and the office, which were joined by a second-story walkway. She wondered if the grass was real. If so, it was wintergrass, since it had doubtless already snowed a couple of times up this high.
The gate opened for her and offered her link a map to her interview. She saw the pathway in her mind, marked by a red line on a bird’s-eye map. Kind of old fashioned, she thought. Most location finders these days just superimposed red arrows over a person’s regular perspective view. Less chance of getting mixed up that way.
She followed the map through the front yard and into the building. She stepped through a sparsely decorated atrium and towards the office that was highlighted in her mind. A man in a suit met her at the open doorway.
“Come on in, Ms. Relachik.”
“Thanks. I appreciate you calling me in for this interview, Mr. Parker,” Telisa smiled and followed the man into the office. He looked about forty, with short, straight brown hair. She thought his face looked a little rough and too thick set, but his smile softened it a bit. Telisa thought she detected a confidence in dealing with people.
“Please, call me Jack,” he said. “Would you like a drink?”
“No thanks, Jack. Telisa. Call me Telisa, I mean,” she said nervously.
“Okay. Just relax,” he told her. “I can see why one might be a bit nervous for an interview like this. Hard times, I hear, for xenoarchaeologists,” he said. “Please don’t take that wrong. I’m not commenting on your current state, just the way things stand in general.”
“That’s true enough,” she replied. “You must be interviewing many people.” Telisa made the comment to probe about her competition.
“No, actually you’re the only one,” he said, smiling widely and leaning back in his chair.
Telisa raised her eyebrow at him. “The only one? Why’s that?”
“I’ve checked you out,” Jack told her. “I read your stuff. I was impressed by what you had to say, and I think you’re just what we’re looking for.”
Telisa just looked at him for a moment. “That’s incredible,” she replied, somewhat stunned. “I didn’t know that my papers were being read by potential employers, unless I gave them out myself.”
“I also know that you were rejected by the UNSF patrol, and that you’ve been speaking against their policies rather strongly.” As Telisa bristled, he held up a hand and continued. “Please don’t take offense at my probing of your personal business, Telisa. But you must understand my position. I can’t afford to hire someone with connections to the space force. As a private collector of alien artifacts, you must know that I’m sometimes... at odds with the government.”
“You’re a smuggler.” It was a statement, not a question. If true, Telisa realized that meant Jack operated against the tight controls set out by the United Nations Space Force.
“I investigate alien cultures. I collect artifacts. If I do that without the government’s permission, and you feel that makes me a smuggler, then you may call me that. But you’re like me, in that you place your fascination of things alien above all else. That’s why I know I’m safe in extending an invitation for you to join my team. This may be your only chance to get your hands on real artifacts, do real work, without being in the UNSF.”
“That explains a lot,” she said. “Like why a guide business is interested in hiring someone in my line of study. And why the real face-to-face interview.” Telisa had checked the official disposition of the company before showing up. Parker Interstellar Travels was supposed to be an agency providing guides for hunting and tourism expeditions to undeveloped planets, as well as providing freelance mapping of faraway places for potential property buyers and planet information directories.
“Well, I think the job is a perfect fit. And I don’t think you’ll find a better opportunity anytime soon because of the shutdown on harvesting new artifacts,” Jack said. “Officially, we have a side business of trading artifacts that were found in past years, all registered and found to be harmless by UNSF inspectors, of course. On the record, your expertise is needed to help us avoid the rampant fraud by identifying real items from fake ones.”
“Looks like you make a good living at it,” she said, pointedly taking a look around the room. The office was lavishly furnished, and there were a few artifacts in the room sitting on the desk and the bookshelves. “I assume I’m supposed to point out that this Talosian on your desk is fake?”
Jack smiled. “I was hoping that you might notice that, yes. How could you tell, without even picking it up?”
Telisa grabbed the fake and squeezed it in her slender hands. “Talosian stuff is always concave. They made everything thinner in the middle of the piece than at the top, unless that would make the item functionally useless.”
“Ah yes, of course. That’s very observant of you. The job I have to offer, though, is considerably more exciting than merely identifying fake artifacts in our offices.”
“Is the money good?”
“The money can be good, if you know what you’re doing. But I’m not trying to lure you with money, Telisa. I’m guessing that the chance to get your hands on real Trilisk artifacts is more of an incentive.”
“Trilisk artifacts! How could you—”
“I can. A lot of them, and ruins that no one has been to yet. You’d be breaking new ground, and who knows what we can find? Get back to me and let me know your decision, but make it quick. I can’t sit on this for long, and the expedition is going out very soon.”
“I’m interested. But I’ll need more details to make my decision,” Telisa said.
Jack nodded. “If you link in, I have an information package ready for you.”
Telisa activated her link just by thinking about it. The device in her head connected with the office computer and received the file that Jack had referenced so that she could look it over later.
“The position starts at 4200 ESC per year,” he told her. “And your duties, outlined in here, are as I’ve already mentioned.”
Jack paused for a second, then continued.
“Your real duties, however, include advising my team on the probable function and value of artifacts we find, as well as helping us identify and navigate alien facilities. We have limited cargo space, and so I have to be choosy about what to bring back. Also included is a small personal cargo allotment for anything you might want to recover for yourself.”
“How shall I contact you?” Telisa asked, somewhat overwhelmed by the suddenness and enormity of what he offered.
“Voice is fine, my numbers are in the brief,” he said simply. “If you have additional questions of a mundane nature, just send them along and I’ll answer them quickly. If you have more delicate questions, about your actual role, then please just come back in, no appointment necessary, and I’ll answer them before you give us your final decision.”
“Thank you, Jack. I’ll get back to you tomorrow. I trust that’s not too late?” she smiled, half joking.
“That’d be fine, Telisa. If you decide to come on, we can meet again and discuss our first expedition.”
“That sounds great. Thank you.”
Jack escorted her to the door, and they shook hands again. Telisa left on a high of new ideas and possibilities.
Jack watched Telisa leave with a hop in her step. He could tell that she would have to digest this for a while to absorb all the implications. She would be full of questions tomorrow.
Thomas was in Jack’s office as he walked back in. His friend was taller and thinner, wearing a worn leather jacket in contrast to Jack’s impeccable business suit.
“Damn, Jack, you have balls. I can’t believe you just told her all that. The daughter of a UNSF captain.”
“I know what she thinks about the patrol already. She never talks to her father, the whole family has been permanently fragmented. It’s so obvious that it couldn’t be a trap. The UNSF would never select someone so obviously connected to the military to be a spy. Besides, I didn’t admit to doing anything illegal, just alluded to it.”
“Well, I hope you know what you’re doing. Don’t let her good looks cloud your judgment.”
“I won’t. But she does look even better incarnate than her pics on the net,” Jack replied. Telisa had surprised him with her long black hair and slim figure. She had smooth, almost perfect facial features and a good smile.
“Shall we take precautions anyway?” Thomas asked.
“Everything looks good, but let’s stay in practice. Follow her and keep monitoring her link.”
“You better pack your bags in case this all goes wrong.”
“It won’t come to that. She’s one of us. I know what I’m doing.”
Telisa spent a sleepless night in contemplation of her opportunity. She needed a job. So far she had spent her adult life as a parasite, producing nothing for herself, her family, or society. And now someone had approached her offering the very thing she sought. And in her field.
But Jack had been very straightforward about the fact that what he was doing wasn’t quite on the level. How could he trust her? How could she trust him, knowing that he was into illegal trading of artifacts?
Artifacts that she desperately wanted to find and investigate for herself. What did the stupid UNSF think it was doing, anyway, trying to keep her from the legacy left by dead races for the whole universe? She hated the space force, hated her father, and didn’t give a rat’s ass about their oppressive laws. But she could end up in trouble, handling illegal artifacts, even helping to bring them to Earth or other developed planets.
In the end it was the Trilisk artifacts that convinced her. Or so she told herself. She wouldn’t do something crazy just out of sheer boredom, would she? The lure of adventure was strong to Telisa, who had led a sheltered, purely academic life. But mostly it was the Trilisk artifacts.
The Trilisk were advanced almost beyond human understanding, and the few artifacts from that race that were in human hands were enigmas of the highest order. If Telisa could get her hands on enough Trilisk items to achieve some kind of critical mass of understanding, she could become the foremost human authority on the lost race. Understanding such an advanced race would surely have an impact on the way future humans would live.
She wanted to be a part of that discovery, bringing about those changes by unraveling the mysteries of the Trilisks, or other alien cultures for that matter. What could be more fascinating than the devices left behind by dead races, beings that didn’t share anything with humans except intellect and the ability to create tools?
She contacted Jack in the morning and told him that she was interested in joining his group. He seemed very pleased and told her that she could come over to his house and meet the rest of the team after lunch. When she arrived at the estate, she was greeted at the gate by a tall, dark-haired man in an old leather jacket.
“I’m Thomas. Come on in.”
“Are you a part of the expedition team?”
“Yes. I’m the pilot, also a business partner of Jack’s. We’ve been working together for several years now.”
“So you’ve been on a lot of expeditions?”
“Smaller stuff, here and there.”
Telisa thought that was a suitably elusive answer for a smuggler. For a moment she wondered if she had gotten involved in something she shouldn’t have, until she thought of the Trilisk artifacts again. Telisa was so absorbed by the wonder of superior alien technology that she’d take some risks to study it.
Thomas looked better than Jack, she decided. It wasn’t only his height, but his face looked smoother, thinner, and yet his dark eyes were mysterious. The classic tall, dark, and handsome. Telisa didn’t generally go for older guys, but if she did then she’d pick one like this, she thought.
The two walked to a meeting room on the first floor of the large house. They were met there by another man with blond hair and a strong build. He looked handsome despite a roughness of his facial features. His physical presence was intimidating, although his hazel eyes seemed friendly. He wore some kind of armored one-piece garment in black and red.
“Telisa, this is Magnus. He handles our...” Thomas trailed off.
“I’m a military advisor to the team,” Magnus explained calmly.
“A military advisor,” Telisa said neutrally, trying to hide her surprise. It was as if this group was straight out of the action VRs. Magnus seemed very reserved, calm, and he regarded her openly. She felt her heart beating in her chest under his scrutiny.
“Did you see action in the Torn rebellion?” she asked suddenly, then bit her tongue for being so brash.
“Yes. The 137th. I was an ECM engineer in infantry units.”
“Didn’t the UNSF use the robotic units for most of the fighting there?” she asked, emboldened by the response. Magnus seemed stolid, unaffected.
“The robotic units were first in, first out. The human units were used to garrison the conquests and rebuild the areas retaken by the UNSF. But the UED was fighting a hit-and-run battle, so the garrisons got hit all the time.”
“Well, if you survived all that you must be good.”
“Not really,” Magnus replied. “It just means I was lucky. We were just sitting ducks. There wasn’t a lot we could do about it, so skill didn’t enter into the equation very often.”
“Why were you sitting ducks? I take it you mean you never knew when an attack was coming, right?”
“The UED used precision laser strikes from high orbit. I served in garrisons on three moons with thin atmospheres. They could take us out a man at a time with ship-mounted weapons until one of our own ships could drive them back. They played at hit and run the whole time, since they couldn’t afford a direct confrontation in space without risking losing it all.”
“A spaceship weapon used against individuals? Was there any way to defend against that from the ground?”
Magnus shook his head. “Only by getting into a bunker, or staying hidden by scrambling their scans. The UNSF didn’t provide our units with sufficient countermeasures. The robotics are the heavy hitters; when it comes right down to it, the infantry is cheap and expendable.”
Telisa had been following along with an encyclopedia link as Magnus related his story. She was trying to brush up on the Torn conflict without looking ignorant. What Magnus had said so far was checking out. She decided to learn more and have another conversation about it later.
Thomas snorted. “Don’t believe all those war stories of his. That’s just stuff he uses to impress women,” he said. He said it with a semi-scorn in his voice so that Telisa couldn’t tell if he was joking or not.
“Well, Thomas, what is it that you tell women to impress them?”
“I tell them that I fly a spaceship, make a five-digit salary, and vacation in Brazil,” he paused, then added, “Someone once said if you have to tell a lie, sandwich it between two truths.”
Telisa chuckled. “Sounds like a good strategy to me.”
The door opened and Jack arrived hurriedly. “Sorry I’m late,” he said, “it couldn’t be helped.”
Jack joined them at the table and looked at everyone momentarily. “I trust you have all had a chance to get to know one another a little?”
“Yes, a little,” Telisa said, trying to sound positive. She wanted Jack to know that there were no personality problems emerging, at least not on her end.
The meeting started quickly, as Jack ran over the government forms required to prepare a mock expedition that would cover for their real activities. Telisa would have to spend some time putting information into the company computer so that Jack could get her employment squared away. Jack assigned Thomas to help Telisa outfit for the trip, and he would get her in touch with their usual equipment suppliers so that she could buy everything she needed quickly. He gave her an access code to a financial account to purchase her gear.
During the meeting Telisa could see that Jack and Thomas were both very involved with the business side of things, while Magnus seemed uninterested in those aspects, almost withdrawn.
“Let’s get down to the real stuff,” Jack said, and looked at Thomas. Thomas accessed the home computer.
“Link in, if you please,” he said. Everyone at the table linked into the computer just by thinking about it. Telisa received the images to which Thomas referred. Telisa closed her eyes to make it easier to view the mental star chart.
“This is the target planet,” Thomas began. “No real name, just the second major orbiting body in the Thespera Narres System. Just call it T2. The UNSF just started laying into it two weeks ago. We know there are many sites on planet and the ruins are definitely Trilisk in origin.”
Telisa thought that this information was amazing to have if the UNSF only started two weeks ago. She wondered if the group spied on the UNSF or if they knew people on the inside. She also hoped that they had friends in the government, because it was surely dangerous to eavesdrop on the space force. Anyone caught at such an activity could be put away for a long time. Once again she found herself pushing back a tinge of fear at what she was doing.
“Since operations have just started up here, and because it’s on the fringe of explored space, we know there is a good chance we can get in and out undetected.”
Telisa decided to be bold and ask questions at this stage. “Isn’t it true that the exploration vessels have better detection equipment than most? Won’t they have a good chance of noticing our ship?”
“Yes, they might notice us, if they’re there at all,” Magnus answered.
Thomas nodded. “There is that risk, but I believe the initial survey vessel will have already left the system. It will have left a lot of probes behind, but usually those probes are highly specialized to gather different types of planetary data and we can deal with them.”
Thomas changed the display to a generated image of a planet with two landing sites marked on it in blinking white letters.
“Our information is too sketchy at this point to plan a landing site ahead of time,” Thomas explained. “We’ll have to pick a spot, obviously avoiding these known UNSF bases, when we arrive in system.”
“We’ll have plenty of time to form some goals on the way there,” Jack put in, “since we’ll be in transit for two weeks at least. We should come up with a plan for what to look for in a landing site and what to go after once we’re there. So everyone try and put some thought into that the next few days, and we’ll get back to it on the ship.”
“What kind of ship are we taking?” Telisa asked.
“That’s a good question, I tell you what, I’m going to have Thomas fill you in on the ship after you get your stuff.” Jack looked at Thomas and said, “Why don’t you go over to the Iridar with her tomorrow afternoon?”
“Sure thing,” Thomas said. He seemed genuinely pleased to get the assignment.
“Just for a brief curiosity dampener,” Jack told her, “It’s an ex-UED scoutship. A little old in some ways, but we keep it updated as best we can. Magnus has some contacts that we make use of, just to make sure we have some tricks up our sleeve,” he said. “So we can be hard to detect if we work at it, but of course our cargo space is very limited.”
“What about robots?” Telisa asked.
“For now, we do things the old-fashioned way,” Thomas said.
“Robots are nice, but they’re a big overhead on this kind of mission,” Jack added. “The government has tough requirements that are expensive to circumvent, both in terms of time and money. The law requires frequent inspection of any robotic units we own. Unlike the privacy we enjoy for our links, robot logs are property of the government.”
Telisa thought about what that would mean to the smugglers. If they used robots, the automatic logs that recorded everything the robot sensed would have to be carefully doctored to eliminate all evidence of illegal activity.
“I guess they left our rights to bear robotics out of the constitution,” Telisa grumbled. “What about the ship logs?”
“Takes a lot of work, but we’re getting pretty good at it,” Thomas said.
“Actually, we have an idea for using a robot that I can tell you about on the trip. But it won’t be this mission,” Magnus told her.
“Okay,” she said. Telisa knew the government feared robots in the hands of civilians, because of their tremendous potential for misuse. Only the most fragile of household robots were commonly owned by individuals.
Jack broke up the meeting and left the room with Magnus. Telisa got up with Thomas, assuming that they would be buying equipment.
“So what kind of stuff should I purchase?”
“I can tell you the things that we all carry, but obviously I’m not qualified to advise you on any gear that you might want regarding the analysis of artifacts or their value.”
“He gave me more money than I would need, I think,” she said in a worried voice.
“I wouldn’t sweat it if you have money left over,” Thomas said. “Just make sure that you have everything you need.”
Thomas presented her with a wide array of items to purchase, including an assortment of survival gear for all types of environments. They placed a large order with directions to deposit the items at the business the next day. The equipment ranged from medical supplies to climbing gear. Telisa was not an experienced climber, but Jack said that it was “just in case”.
“You may want to get a stunner too,” Thomas suggested.
“A stunner?” she asked, and then felt foolish. “Well, what make do you recommend?”
“I would get a good PSG stunner, with a large energy reserve,” he said. “I have only had to use mine once, just to avoid being mugged in a scummy backport alley, but if you need it once your whole life that’s enough to warrant getting one.”
He was talking about a nonlethal sonic weapon. Telisa had heard of Personal Security Gear, and she knew that they were top of the line.
“Okay, I’ll pick one up,” she said.
“Then that should do it. I’ll see you tomorrow afternoon, and we’ll leave the day after that.”
The Trilisk Ruins is available for Kindle at Amazon, Nook at B&N, Apple iOS at iBookstore, and many miscellaneous formats at Smashwords.
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