The Arrow of Time
Adult SciFi - The Indiana Jones of space
Noodles and a film – could anyone ask for more? He had a passion for archaic things. He’d just shifted into that comfortable non-thinking place to watch a pre-Imperium movie when the hologram buzzed. Worse than being interrupted, he couldn’t find the holo-remote. Had to stop the film, stop eating, and get up to find out who the hell was calling him at ten-thirty in the evening.
He scrambled through the opening in the ship’s bulkhead, leaned over the pilot’s crumpled leather seat and pressed the green button. The screen came to life and displayed the date as Tuesday, 23rd May 6512 – Earth sector.
‘Accept,’ he instructed the hologram. The caller appeared to be hidden in shadow. Swivelling his head, he still couldn’t see who it was.
‘Yes?’ he said sitting down in his seat. Whoever it was had arranged everything just right. Besides the vague shadow of something in a high-backed chair, all he could make out was yellow drapes as a backdrop. He couldn’t see anything that would give him a clue as to location, gender, race, or construction. It could have been an android in a box for all he knew.
‘Doctor Digby Dalrymple?’
He hated the name Digby, but Dig went very nicely thank you with the love of his life, intergalactic archaeology – or to be more precise – making money from doing what he loved to do. What had his parents been thinking of putting Digby with Dalrymple? He wished he’d been able to ask them, but remained eternally grateful that no one knew his middle name.
‘Dig will do. Who are you?’
‘I’m the person who transferred ten thousand credits into your account today.’
He couldn’t make out whether the voice belonged to a man or woman, human or alien, biological or artificial. It was being channelled through a synthesiser. He had a succession of thoughts. First, he wondered why the person felt it necessary to hide their face and disguise their voice, but it wasn’t the first time a dig had come from an unreliable source. Then, he asked himself how this stranger had obtained his account details, but the ease with which financial controls could be circumvented was indicative of a corrupt administration on a dying planet. Lastly, he began making a mental list of how he was going to spend the money, and each item on his list involved alcohol and women.
‘That’s very generous of you, Mister uh…?’ he fished.
‘I have a job for you.’ Behind the warped vocalised composite, the voice sounded measured, detached, and emotionless. Was it an android? There were certainly enough of them in positions of power spread throughout the universe. His instinct told him the voice belonged to a human, and he was rarely wrong that was why he was still alive.
‘Why should I work, I’ve got ten thousand credits in the bank?’
‘You’ll need a sense of humour for this job, Doctor Dalrymple.’
He wished that whoever it was would drop the formal salutation and simply call him Dig. ‘What’s the job?’
‘I’d like you to find an artefact for me.’
He leaned back in the chair, swivelled sideways and put his feet up. ‘That’s what I do, I find artefacts. It must be something special if you’re willing to pay me ten thousand for it.’
‘Upon delivery, you’ll receive another million.’
His mouth dropped open like the loading bay door of an Imperial freighter. Sweat broke out on the hairline at the back of his neck and began to snake down his spine. A million credits! It would take him two lifetimes to earn that amount of money. His mind raced. This was serious. At last he would be able to finance his own digs anywhere in the universe.
Earning a million credits would not be easy he was sure. ‘What’s the catch?’
‘I imagine you will have great difficulty in locating the artefact.’
‘That’s nothing unusual.’ His digs were usually littered with all manner of ghosts in the machinery.
‘Your life will be in considerable danger because others appear to want what I want, and are prepared to kill to acquire it.’
The degree of difficulty reflected a good dig. He was used to his life being in danger. ‘Do I get expenses?’
‘Money is no object.’
‘What if I refuse?’ He wasn’t going to refuse. Who was he trying to fool?
‘You won’t refuse, Doctor. This is what you’ve been waiting all your life for.’
The person had obviously done a thorough background check on him. Seemed to know not only his bank details, but also what made him tick. ‘You’d better tell me what you want me to find.’
‘Do you agree to carry out the dig?’
‘Is that a pre-condition of you telling me what the artefact is?’
He didn’t need to think too long about it. Money was his main motivation, but he also had an enduring curiosity about alien artefacts. ‘I accept.’
‘Excellent. I want you to find a manuscript written in an unknown alien language.’
He felt something twist in his stomach, as if a parasite had taken up residence in the inhospitable environment. There hadn’t been a new alien language discovered in at least a hundred thousand years. All the races in the universe had been identified and catalogued. Where had this race come from? ‘I’ve heard nothing about a new manuscript.’
‘It has only recently come to my attention.’
‘I would expect to be one of the first people to hear. Who are you anyway?’
‘You are one of the first to hear, Doctor. And who I am is not something you need to know at this time.’
The person had gone to great lengths to maintain his anonymity, and this made Dig nervous. It wouldn’t prevent him from taking the dig, but he knew he had to be wary. He would analyse the recording of this conversation when he had time, try to filter out the synthesiser and lighten up the picture.
‘So what’s the manuscript about then?’
‘I have no idea.’
‘Then why do you want it?’
‘As a collector of artefacts it has piqued my interest. You know as well as I do, Doctor that the discovery of a new alien language and possibly a new race will be of major archaeological significance throughout the universe.’
Dig knew the person was lying. There was a lot more to this dig than an ancient shopping list written by an unknown race. ‘OK, I’ll ask around.’
‘That would not be a wise move, Doctor Dalrymple.’
‘You will probably end up dead.’
‘You obviously know more than you’re telling me. Do you want me to find this manuscript for you, or not?’
‘All I know is that someone is willing to kill to keep it a secret, which suggests that they know what it says and who wrote it. I acquired a fragment of the original and have sent you a copy.’
The terminal spewed out a piece of paper. He grabbed the printout and stared at the scrap of text, which appeared to represent the upper right-hand corner of a page of alien text. His heart began flailing about. He’d seen every alien language, but he didn’t recognise this one. Maybe it was new, he thought.
(Here would be a scrap of alien text that looked esoteric and wonderful)
‘Where’s the rest of the text?’
‘That is all I was able to acquire, which is why I have hired you – to find the complete original manuscript.’
‘Have you had the text deciphered?’
‘Unfortunately, the young lady I commissioned to work on it is now dead, and the original fragment I purchased is missing. As far as I am aware she made no progress in deciphering it.’
He guessed the young lady in question was Rangar Mishnee. Damned shame, she’d been good looking and a friend. He had hoped to have a relationship with her sometime in the not too distant future. There would be no future for her now. He’d used her on and off for the mundane decryption, but for the more difficult alien languages he had sought out Silvertongue, a Dagon wordmaster. ‘Why didn’t you protect Miss Mishnee?’
‘I know you two were close, I’m sorry. I did protect her, Doctor, she was working in one of my laboratories. Three of my men also died in the attack.'
‘It’s unfortunate,’ Dig said rubbing the stubble on his chin. ‘Unfortunate and sloppy.’
‘My eagerness to find out what the text said got the better of me, I’m sure you know what it’s like?’
Yes, he knew the consequences of being overeager. He had an eighteen-inch knife scar on his back as a testament to his impatience.
‘This is the security hologram of what took place,’ the voice said.
The view on the screen switched to a laboratory with white sterile walls and self-cleaning steel furniture. The time-date stamp displayed nine-fifty last night. Rangar Mishnee sat at a table wearing a gossamer filtration mask and second-skin gloves sprayed over her hands. The fragment of parchment lay on a square of glass in front of her. She moved her hand towards the scrap of paper, but it had gone. Her eyes glazed over, and a trickle of blood seeped through the mask as she slumped forward.
Dig didn’t need to ask who, he was familiar with the work of Deacon’s Pilgrims. The hired killers were throwbacks to a time when wars raged in different galaxies across the universe. An entrepreneur called Owen Deacon had seen an opportunity and created an organisation that trained and hired out the very best mercenaries. There were powerful individuals and organisations within the universe that were happy to pay the extortionate fees for these professionals who gave killing a bad name.
‘You now know everything I know,’ the voice said.
If someone had hired the Pilgrims, life just got a whole lot more complicated. ‘I’ll get on to deciphering the text first thing in the morning. Who did you buy it from?’
‘My attempts to find and identify the seller remain fruitless.’
Dig shook his head slowly as he realised the person hiring him was a rank amateur. ‘So let me see if I’ve got this right. You don’t know who sold it to you, where it came from, what it says, and who took it. No wonder you need my help. How do I contact you?’
‘You don’t, I will be in touch with you.’
‘Fine by me.’ He reached forward to sever the connection.
‘One last thing, Doctor,’ the voice said.
‘I want you to take someone with you.’
‘I work alone.’
‘It is not a request, Doctor.’
Pacing up and down on the landing pad with his hands rammed in his jumpsuit pockets, he swore under his breath. He’d been ready to lift off half-an-hour ago and still he waited for the mystery guest. The stranger hadn’t told him who would join him, merely that they would be here this morning. He’d had a quick wash and thrown some water on his mop of brown hair, but it still looked like a mop. He needed a haircut and a shave, but decent barbers were hard to find on a desolate planet in a backwater of the universe.
Earth a backwater! This was where it had all started – the space travel, the colonisation, mankind staking their claim on the universe planet by planet, galaxy by galaxy until an Imperium had been forged, humanity the dominant species. Now, the centre of the universe, the nucleus of the Imperium resided in another galaxy, Earth forgotten and soon to become uninhabitable – at least on the surface.
It was nine-thirty. Even at this time of the morning the sun had burnt away any remnants of mist, and he began to feel uncomfortably hot. Earth now resembled some of the dead and dying planets he had undertaken digs on. People had abandoned the scorched surface and moved underground to survive, or left. Maybe he should move somewhere else in the universe. There were thirty million planets to choose from, but Earth was his home even if it was dying. Home – that was a strange word for someone who moved from planet to planet spending months or years on a dig. It was somewhere he always seemed to come back to. He wondered why, because apart from his mostly empty bank account which could be accessed anywhere in the universe, some creditors he owed money to, and the decaying house his parents had left him that he hadn’t lived in since they had disappeared, there was nothing here for him. His ship was more of a home.
The spaceport, which used to be one of the busiest in this sector of the galaxy, lay desolate and unused. The thousands of officials and workers who scurried about dealing with the ships arriving and departing to and from exotic places in the universe long gone. Now, packs of wild dogs and other animals took shelter from the heat in the empty hangars and buildings, weeds grew in the cracks on the landing pad. Earth had become an undesirable place to live, a largely forgotten planet.
He looked up as a transporter screeched round the corner of a hangar and onto the landing pad. Whoever was driving had the accelerator pressed to the floor. The vehicle appeared to be aimed directly at him. It looked as though this could be the first attempt on his life.
Attempting to save himself from certain death, he scrambled up the metal steps leading to his ship. He put a comforting hand on the pistol strapped to his thigh, which hadn’t been used or charged in months, and prepared himself physically and psychologically for battle.
The transporter swerved at the last moment and came to a death-defying stop beneath him.
The door opened. A young woman with short spiked blonde hair, wearing trousers and a low-cut sweater bounded out smiling.
‘Are you trying to kill me?’ he asked her.
‘I’m hoping that won’t be necessary.’ She gave him half a smile. ‘Doctor Digby Dwodger Dalrymple, I presume?’
‘What…?’ How in hell did she know his middle name? His parents had obviously hated him, wanted him to suffer a lifetime of indignity by giving him a name they must have found in a list of ridiculous names on the Uninet. No wonder they’d left him with his mother’s parents to go on a dig in some God-forsaken part of the universe, and then promptly disappeared.
‘Are you going to stand there with your mouth open all day, or help a lady in with her bags?’
‘Are we expecting someone else?’
‘The Guardian said you had a pathetic sense of humour.’
He hated her already. Ridiculing a man’s sense of humour was beyond the pale. The Guardian must be the person he spoke to last night – strange title.
She marched past him up the steps and into the body of the ship.
‘I’ll get your luggage should I?’ he mumbled to himself.
‘I thought that was self-evident,’ her voice slithered through the opening.
There was no way she could have heard him, he thought. She must have enhanced hearing, or maybe she’s an android. He’d never seen a hot android before, if that’s what she was. Maybe they could have uncomplicated sex. That would be good. He hadn’t been with a woman for... God, was it really eighteen months? He’d have to correct that, and damned quick. People might begin to talk.
He opened the storage compartment of the transporter. It was packed solid with enough baggage for a family of ten. He’d have to make at least three trips.
‘The Guardian didn’t say you’d be moving in with me,’ he shouted as he struggled up the steps with four bags. ‘I hope there’s going to be some perks, if you know what I mean?’
As he bundled in through the doorway, he noticed that she had made herself at home in his seat, fiddling with the knobs and dials, rummaging through his navigational papers and star charts.
He felt his anger rising, but before he could vent it she said, ‘This looks like it’s held together by rubber bands and twine. Why didn’t you get the Guardian to buy you a new one? We’ll never make it in this old thing. No, there will be any perks, if you know what I mean?’
‘Is nothing sacred to you? First you attack my sense of humour, then you sit in my seat, and now you’re an expert on intergalactic spacecraft. Get out of my seat, and don’t touch my things, or you’ll be going back to where you came from with your perks between your legs, if you know what I mean?’
She stood up.
He dropped the bags and realised that he definitely fancied her. She was probably about five years younger than his thirty-one with perfect skin. Her eyes were a bluish-green, and as she ducked through the bulkhead, he couldn’t help but gawk at the firm swell of her breasts.
‘I’m Mori,’ she said. ‘Sorry if I overstepped the boundaries. Sometimes I do that.’ She squeezed his arm, and her fragrance made his head swim.
His heartbeat increased. He noticed that her voice had changed from unbreakable to fragile as she played him like a balalaika.
Swallowing with difficulty he said, ‘I’ll get the rest of your luggage. You move these into the bunk at the far left of the ship, unless you want to share?’ He gave a childish grin to indicate he was joking.
Leaning down to pick up one of the bags, she fell against him. He unconsciously put out his hands to catch her, and accidentally touched her left breast. Her hair brushed his face. She pressed herself into him and said, ‘Maybe after we get to know each other.’
Feeling like he’d just come out of stasis, he turned and stumbled back down the steps. He knew he was in trouble. Where women were concerned, he was like jelly in their clutches, malleable and spineless.