If the gravity on Oso II weren’t so crushing, Tonya would have been doing some crushing of her own. On Senzen. With a rock or heavy stick. Instead, she was barely staying upright. Her environment suit hummed as it recycled the streams of sweat into her drinking pouch.
“What are you doing here?” Senzen inquired as he trudged through the underbrush toward her.
“How’d you find me? Was it Nagia?” She felt the early pulse of a rage-induced migraine coming on. “Did he plant a tracker on my ship? What?”
“Calm down, Tonya. You’ll pass out.” He reached out to pat her heavily on the shoulder as he lumbered past. She swatted his hand away and followed.
“What, I couldn’t have found this place on my own?”
Senzen turned to look at her. Deeply saddened.
“That hurts my feelings.” A grin crept across his face. She wasn’t laughing. Senzen slumped down on a plant stump to take a breather before continuing. He brought up a scanner and played a file. It was silence at first, then a burst of digital distortion, disparate sounds and clicks of an audio reconstruction. Tonya instinctively leaned forward to hear — there was something buried in the chaotic signal, the static parting for fragments of moments to reveal words.
“….. damage ……. further ……. necessary ……… located ……… 2456.432.1234”
Senzen stopped the playback. Tonya looked at him, her rage suddenly displaced by curiosity.
“What was that?’
“That, Tonya, was Janus.” Senzen sat back, a satisfied smirk on his face. “Impressed yet?” She glared at him. “Part of his directive programming was to send status updates on both radio and FSO back to Earth. True, none of them ever made it, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t reach somewhere.”
“So how did you get it?”
“It’s very complicated, I wouldn’t want to bore you.”
“Senzen, I’m going to beat you to death.”
“Fine, fine.” Senzen laughed and threw up his hands in surrender. “The short answer, the FSO of that era beamed comms packets in infrared, so I started looking for dense patches of cryogenic gases between Earth and the path from Stanton to the Artemis’ original destination.”
“Cryogenic gases can slow infrared beams,” Tonya ran with the chain of logic. “But not for hundreds of years.”
“Apparently if it’s a dense enough concentration, it can. And by that, I mean after massive digital reconstruction and two frozen ships.”
As much as she would absolutely never admit it, Tonya had to give it to Senzen. It was quite a discovery.
“So, your turn.” Senzen sipped from his water supply.
“My turn for what?”
“How’d you get here?”
“Oh.” Tonya stood and started shambling away. “I guessed.”
Senzen hurried up beside her. Tonya stopped in frustration and looked at him.
“Where do you think you’re going?”
“Call me crazy, but I’ll bet our scanners are locked on the same thing. Unless you’re guessing on that too.”
She didn’t say anything, which he took as agreement.
“Good. So I’ll just come out and say it. I’m tired and walking around this planet is killing me.” Senzen slumped back against a tree trunk. “I’ll assume you had some crazy awesome way of figuring out to come here, so since we’re on even ground, I’m gonna call for a truce.”
Tonya eyed him suspiciously as she considered it. While she still wouldn’t trust him for a second, she had to admit it would be nice to at least alleviate her paranoia for a short time. He was right though, she desperately wanted off this planet. Besides, maybe she could find a good opportunity to sell him out. It was his turn, after all.
“You’ve made a friend.” Tonya turned and started walking.
“Great. Thanks, Tonya. You’re a gem.”
“I wasn’t talking about me.”
Senzen felt something tap on the top of his helmet. He twisted around. What he initially thought was a massive root, coiled along the trunk of the tree, was actually a worm-like creature. Around sixteen feet long, it had a hardened carapace perfectly camouflaged with the tree. The carapace could separate to allow a mass of tendrils to presumably snatch any unfortunate creatures who landed on its surface. It was now feeling out Senzen’s suit, probably to see if it was edible.
Senzen stepped away from the tree and hustled to catch up with Tonya. The massive creature tested the air for a few moments then disappeared back under the carapace.
* * * *
Even under the canopy of trees, any sign of the rain had vanished in the punishing heat. A cacophony of strange chirps and calls echoed through the massive forest. Tonya and Senzen walked in silence, saving their breath. She checked her scanner to make sure they were still headed in the right direction.
“Tonya!” Senzen whispered. She looked to see Senzen crouching in the foliage, motioning for her to do the same.
Tonya dropped without hesitation. After the plants settled around her, she slowly sat up for a peek. Initially, she couldn’t see anything through the dangling vines and winding trunks. Then she heard something snap, along with the whoosh of movement through leaves.
It was an Osoian. That was the working name as far as the UEE was concerned. By far the most evolved species on the planet, the Senate and scientific community were waiting with bated breath to see what they called themselves. Covered in a coarse spiky fur to catch water, the Osoian stood almost five feet tall. To counteract the gravity, its powerful legs were the species’ largest appendage. They connected to the body at what would be the shoulder on a human. Four arms extended from the torso, the top two much more developed than the lower pair.
The six eyes of varying sizes on the almost bug-like head scanned the woods. The exposed skin on the creature’s forehead pulsed a dull yellow as it clutched curved stone blades in its prime hands.
Tonya and Senzen glanced at each other. Senzen grinned like a kid and gave her an enthusiastic thumbs-up.
After a few more moments of surveillance, the yellow glow on the Osoian’s forehead shifted to a neutral blue. It turned back to sifting through the plants to gather specific leaves.
For an hour, Tonya and Senzen watched it forage. Finally, it packed all the leaves in a bag made of some strange weave and slipped into the trees away from them.
The faint signal on the scanners was in the same direction as the Osoian. Tonya and Senzen gave it a few minutes head-start before moving forward. More rocks protruded through the underbrush as the dense forest gradually transformed into wooded canyon.
Senzen motioned for Tonya to follow him as he scaled the rocks to the top of the canyon wall. They kept low and crept along the brink. Finally they stopped, stunned at what lay ahead.
The narrow canyon expanded into a circular cul-de-sac. Nestled among the curved rocks was a village. Osoians of all sizes moved between the fifteen or so structures hewn from a combination of rock and wood.
Tonya double-checked the signal. Her scanner placed the next Artemis piece somewhere on the other side of the village. Senzen glanced over her shoulder at the screen.
“Good, that’s what my scan says, too. We can go around.” He started to move. She stopped him.
“Wait,” she said and ran some more filter passes on it. “I don’t think it’s on the surface.”
Tonya looked beyond the village. She pointed. On the far side, a tunnel seemed to lead into the canyon wall.
“That’s why the signal’s so weak. It’s being muffled by the rock.”
“Great.” Senzen slumped back and got comfortable behind the rocks as he sipped some water. “Any idea if the Osoians have decent night vision?”
“No clue.” Tonya moved to a good vantage point of the village and settled in. She double-checked the time. The autoconfig adjusted her Glas’ clock to early afternoon SET. The seconds seemed interminably long compared to the standard Earth second.
Tonya passed the time observing the Osoians. She generally preferred history to the present, but she couldn’t deny how fascinating it was to see the primitive aliens go through their daily routines. She began to pick out the rough family structures. One of the Osoians was covered in small, hand-made trinkets. She assumed it must be either the chief or some kind of shaman.
“It’s pretty incredible, right?” Senzen finally said.
“Yeah, they are,” Tonya murmured quietly.
“No, not them. Well, I guess partially them. I meant all of this.” Senzen had relaxed against the rocks, leaving the observing to her. “I mean, did you ever think you’d really be on the threshold of discovering the Artemis?”
“I haven’t found it yet.”
“Yeah, but we’re closer than anyone’s ever been in the last seven hundred years. Don’t tell me you can’t feel that in your soul.”
Tonya looked at him. It was strange hearing him sound this hopeful, this optimistic.
“Don’t tell me you’ve got a soul now,” she retorted with a smirk.
“Always had one, hon. I just save it for special occasions.”
* * * *
Night finally fell. The forest seemed to swell to life now that the sun had disappeared. Heavy wings flapped overhead beyond the canopy.
A few of the larger aliens seemed to guard the entrance to the village through the canyon, but otherwise the Osoian village was quiet.
Tonya and Senzen circled the village along the ridge of the canyon and carefully scaled down the walls toward the tunnel.
On closer inspection, its walls looked like they had been carved. Perhaps the tunnel was originally a cave that the Osoians simply expanded. It was a little over a meter wide and two meters tall. Light flickered from around a corner ahead.
The signal on her scanner grew stronger as they stepped inside. Senzen kept an eye behind them as Tonya moved forward. She cautiously approached the turn and the flickering light.
She eased her head around. The tunnel expanded into a large antechamber. The walls were covered in intricate carvings and paintings. Even the stone floor had been cut, into levels of concentric circles descending to the center.
In the center, a worn obelisk protruded from the ground. The sides had been covered in paint and markings. So much so, that it took Tonya a moment to realize what it really was.
This wasn’t some Osoian monolith. It was a thruster from the Artemis. She turned back to see Senzen staring slack-jawed at it. He shoved past her to get a closer look at it.
Tonya meanwhile started looking at the crude carvings on the wall. They were clearly pictographs. She started laughing.
“What’s so funny?” Senzen turned to join her. It was a story of gods appearing on the planet to fix their chariot or something. Senzen shook his head, confused. “What about it?”
“Recognize the suits?” Tonya pointed out one in particular. The ‘god’ was wearing an environment suit. It was one of the Artemis crew, one of twelve according to the pictogram.
They moved down the row of pictures. In the last one, before the gods left, they pointed to a red star above the triple mountain. Tonya and Senzen both stopped.
“They told the Osoians where they were going.” Senzen murmured.
“A red star. Either a dying one …” Tonya started.
“Or a new one,” Senzen finished.
“Kallis.” They spoke at the same time.
Tonya started grabbing pictures of the pictograms, the thruster, everything.
“Come on, let’s go.” Senzen hustled out the tunnel.
Tonya couldn’t tear herself away. One of the carvings showed the gods bestowing fire onto the Osoians. Upon closer inspection, the painted carving even included a word on the god’s suit.
Arthur Kenlo, the Artemis’ chief engineer.
“Unbelievable.” Tonya chuckled to herself and snapped that too. She looked around to show Senzen but realized he’d left. Tonya took a handful more on her way out the tunnel.
She stepped out of the tunnel to find a curved stone blade aimed at her faceplate.
The chief/shaman and the whole village of Osoians surrounded her with bare weapons. Their expressive foreheads all pulsed a churning purple.
A quick glance upward and she saw Senzen back atop the canyon wall. He threw his hands up in a ‘what can I do’ gesture before disappearing. Tonya turned back to the angry Osoians.
. . . to be continued
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