The cleaning drone was busted again, so I was wiping down the bar by hand. We had a pretty good crowd, for a Saturday. Mostly humans, which was to be expected, but a few clusters of Krell were packed around Table Three way in the back, and a half-dozen Zoannoth and Thek were chatting gregariously with Ghrororooghuun the neophant about philosophy. They had got through Zen Buddhism and were just about to start on the Thek ascetic principles of Nevoa'sshen when a silvery, oblong shape floated into the bar. It was vaguely egg-shaped, about five feet long and three across, and tapered slightly at both ends. I could see the vaguely-purplish glow of grav lifters blinking around its circumference. The whole thing was not-quite-opaque, and I could definitely make out what looked like water sloshing inside of it, and something big in the water.
It floated over to the bar. The artificial intelligence managing the place helpfully scooted a few barstools aside. I kept wiping down the bar as the silver egg-thing just floated there. A few minutes passed as I made absolutely sure that all the debris from lunchtime's peanut-eating contest was clear before I reached for the spraycan of sanitizer. Then the egg-thing went transparent.
When I say "transparent," I mean that it suddenly looked as though there were several dozen gallons of water suddenly floating in midair with absolutely nothing to support them. Inside of that water was quite possibly the ugliest thing I've ever seen.
You see, I've got this thing about eels. I'm originally from Earth. Not New Earth, Terra Nova, Third Earth, Best Earth, Eeyarth...Just Earth. The Homeworld. I was born and raised right above the Great Barrier Reef Nature Preserve, in one of the floating ranger outposts. I learned how to swim before I could walk, and whenever I didn't have homework or chores, I was exploring.
So one day, I'm underwater, admiring some iridescent coral when I see this metallic glimmering thing in a cranny under a rock. I'm about eight years old, so I'm a moron. I swim closer and stick my face in the hole so I can get a better look at it. Before the night-vision goggles can kick in in my swimsuit, this fricking huge moray eel latches itself onto my face. It couldn't get through the faceplate on my swimsuit, but it freaked me out all the same. Even moreso because I had got my head stuck in the rocks. So there I am, flailing around like I'm on fire, screaming bloody murder, and this very startled eel is trying to defend its territory but all I can think of is ohmygodI'mgonnageteatenbyaneel over and over and over again...
Like I said, I have this...thing about eels. Especially moray eels. So when I saw that the alien floating in the water looked like nothing so much as a somewhat-translucent, twelve-foot moray eel with saber-tooth fangs, I jumped. The thing cocked its head to the side and squealed out of what looked like a blowhole in-between its eyes. It took a few seconds for the bar's translation program to sort out what it had said from the noise in the bar.
"Forgive self startling you. Meant self reveal appearance gradually, reveal suddenly intended not. Name self Iqhogleeekeek, call you self Ick. Reveal self business proposition to you."
"Eerrgghk," I said, ever the very model of intelligent discourse. I vainly groped for the blaster under the counter, then remembered that Cheryl had it taken away after the fourth shift bartender got a little trigger-happy two weeks ago, during that Zoannoth birthday party. The eel...Ick...was still staring at me with that creepy smile that every sort of anguilloid lifeform seemed to have. Well, it was very obviously a sentient being, and not some sort of nightmare beast come to eat me alive, even if I couldn't identify the species. Still...it gave me the willies. I closed my eyes, exhaled slowly and mentally counted to ten, hoping that it wold go away. When I opened my eyes again, Ick was still there, patiently awaiting a response. I cleared my throat, hung up the washrag, and said, "What, er...What kind of business proposition?"
Another torrent of clicks and squeals was eventually translated into: "Find self did a derelict in neutral territory. Valuable derelict is, compounded rare derelict is. Belonging formerly derelict did to Terran Combined Fleet."
That last part didn't surprise me in the slightest. The Terran Dominion lost hundreds of ships in the last war with the Ki'dai, about 40 years ago. Their wrecked hulks were scattered across the Lagoon Sector and mostly just left there. Over the years, official and unofficial salvage teams have pretty much picked them all clean. Stories of lost treasure hidden on dead warships were a TU a dozen.
Ick obviously recognized how skeptical I was. It twitched its tail--which, I saw, was actually a cluster of long, sinuous tentacles wrapped around each other--and a hologram formed in front of the egg. The color balance was off, but the image quality was absolutely fantastic. I could make out every grain of space dust, every scrap of laser-scorched durasteel, and every little micrometeorite crater on what could only be a late-2300s model Claymore-class battlecruiser. I could just barely make out the name that had been laser-etched into its side...
My jaw dropped. Ick made a modulated, low-pitched squeal that I hoped was laughter.
"The Siberia..." I said, before nostalgia made me trail off. The Siberia was the baddest ass in the Combined Fleet, in its day. Growing up, we heard the stories of Captain Otieno and his crew of war heroes: The Battle of Baden Gate, the boarding of the Starfall, and of course the mighty ship's final battle with the Ki'dai fleet over Hwarnia. When we learned that the Siberia had been destroyed by a hyperdrive malfunction instead of by seventy alien warships pouring plasma and missiles into it, it took some of the magic out of the world. Of course, that didn't make any of the other stories any less fun to hear...
"Recognize you do name derelict has/had? Good. Heard self did from trustworthy source, to be found great treasure is within, compounded famous derelict salvage value," said Ick.
I was starting to picture the news headlines: "TDS SIBERIA FOUND! WEALTH AND GLORY SHOWERED UPON HUMBLE BARTENDER!" Then reality crashed back in on me, and I remembered that nobody had found anything truly valuable on any of those old wrecks in at least twenty years. I snorted in laughter and tried not to chuckle at the alien that was looking at me with what I guessed was a hopeful expression. I cleared my throat and said, "Sorry, Ick. If there's anything valuable in that hulk, it was picked clean long ago."
Ick blinked sideways at me, and tilted its head in the other direction.
"Recognize self does noise laughter is. Believe you self tells truth. Tells cousin of self does of item of great meaning to Galaxy. Retrieve Siberia did upon last mission. Zirku artifact is."
I didn't even twitch. The Zirku are myths with a grain of truth behind them. All we know of them is that they were among the first species in the Galaxy to discover space travel, that they were advanced enough to basically be living gods, and that they've been extinct for around ten million years. We've found Zirku ruins on hundreds of worlds across the, and every single one is either completely empty or guarded by ancient defensive systems powerful enough to crack an Aridisani Warbase in half.Legends of "Library Worlds," planet-sized supercomputers with the collected knowledge and experience of the entire Zirku race, abound in sectors with lots of Zirku ruins.
Such as this one. I sighed and picked the can of sanitizer back up. Ick was still giving me that look.
"Ick, everybody on this stupid hunk of rock knows about where a 'Zirku artifact' is. Most of the time, they're just worthless junk. No, wait, every time they're just worthless junk. Hell, you can walk down the street and get hassled by eight guys hawking what they'll assure you are 'genuine Zirku data crystals'," I scoffed, spraying the bar down with antimicrobial foam. Ick clicked twice, loudly, and snapped its jaws open and shut in time with the noises. It seemed annoyed at me.
Then a thought crossed my mind: "Wait a tick, why did you come to me? And did you even know my name?" I asked
Ick blinked again, and splayed its tentacle-tails. The translator added in a layer of annoyance into what it said next: "You Ethel Gao not? Doctor of Xenoarchaeology, Archaeolinguistics, Xeno Art History, Astrogation--" I waved a hand to cut it off.
"I know how many degrees I have. They're all useless out here," I said, remembering with no small amount of dread the millions I owed in student loans.
You heard me right. Millions.
There was a time when I loved learning for learning's sake. I grew up with tales of ancient alien artifacts, and abandoned tombs dripping with treasure and the forgotten knowledge of ages. I got a full ride scholarship to the University of New Amsterdam, then went on to Mars, Ganymede, and then Herakles. It was hard, but I loved it.
After my third doctorate, the bank cut off my student loans. So I turned to a loan shark. The Zorba Vanvo was more than willing to finance my education. Then when I was 35, I finally got out of school and applied to twenty-four different exploration firms, both within Terran space and without.
Every single goddamn one of them turned me down. Bastards. Nobody wanted an archaeologist with so little experience, especially not any of the alien firms. Hell, even my fall-back degree, astrogation was out of the picture after the Mark 7 Navicomputers got released in 2438. I wound up on this stupid little white planet circling a stupid little white star, working minimum wage at this stupid little bar.
"I don't go in for pipe dreams, Ick. Ask me again ten years ago," I snapped, slamming the can of sanitizer down on the counter. Ick blinked at me again, and warbled slightly. Might have been a sigh. I didn't care. Ick flicked a tentacle, and my handcomp chimed.
"Very well. Reconsider you do, call self do you. Remain self upon planet one more week. Deep Inquiry, ship is. Docked ship is in Bay Six. May you find air swiftly, Ethel Gao," grumbled Ick, turning its egg opaque again. The egg rotated swiftly and floated out. I wiped the sanitizer off of the door and put away the can.
Ten minutes later, I realized I was cursing under my breath. Goddamn it, I was intrigued! The Siberia! This is what I lived for, not so long ago!
I was lost in both the possibilities and my own private frustrations until Cheryl manifested a hologram and said, "That Siwuybac female has a point, Mister Gao."
I grunted something obscene. Cheryl's holo-avatar crossed her arms and gave me a look. "You currently owe eight point eight million Dominion trade units to one Rrota M'meh, of Atha Zor. Shall I replay the last death threat for all the bar to hear?"
Stupid artificial intelligences being always right...
"Look, Cheryl, I've got some money coming," I began, before the hologram's withering gaze silenced me.
"Really? From where? I know that our employer hasn't authorized me to pay you nearly enough to pay back your debts. Nowhere else on this planet will hire you, save for the mining firms, and they pay even less than I do," growled Cheryl.
"Guess that answers the raise question..." I groaned, pinching the bridge of my nose.
"Sorry, Ethel, but my hands are tied. If that fat bastard was a little less stingy, then maybe I could help, but..." she trailed off, suddenly having to devote most of her processor cycles to dampening the noise coming from the increasingly-raucous philosophical discussion.
My handcomp chimed again. I sighed and pulled it out of my pocket. Ick had left...her...contact information. Bay Six, just like she'd said. What the hell ever. I still wasn't interested, no matter what my subconscious tried to tell me. The second message was from an old friend of mine:
It read, "Gao, get your hairless simian ass over here with my money right nerxing now or I'm gonna send my mother over there so she can break your ribs one by one with her bare paws. I'm not kidding this time, Gao. Be over here with my fucking money or you are a dead ape. DEAD. D-E-A-D.