About twelve hundred parsecs away from Natius and nearly two thousand years later in the global timeline, a Jolatrin research vessel set out from its homeworld with Verthani Seltra onboard — the most celebrated xenoarchaeologist in the entire Relshaad Sector.
A true Jolatrin, Verthani bore the stamp of her evolutionary ancestors: a species similar to the terrestrial honeybee. Her wide compound eyes glistened with intellect and her roughly conical body tapered down nearly to a point. Flexible limbs grew out from her torso in a roughly humanoid configuration, with legs ending in sturdy feet and arms leading straight into dexterous hands.
At first glance, a planet-bound human who’d never ventured out past the first ring of colony planets might even have thought her hands were robotic. Like most of her peers, she stood no more than one and a half meters tall. Swathed in a loose-fitting suit of blue satin and topped by a matching hooded cloak, she looked every inch a typical Jolatrin academic.
Atypical however, was Verthani’s interstellar fame, based on an impressive string of thrilling archaeological finds that spanned the last fifteen years. Most recently, she’d located the ruins of Yeltrex-Drobai, long thought to be no more than a mythical city. Of course, she hadn’t done it alone — and there were some who said the real credit went to Athcarone Halphor, her Chief Linguist.
“The textual evidence is too dense to be ignored,” Athcarone had said.
The fact that Athcarone’s second-fiddle status had an air of inevitability was a sorry reflection on Jolatrin society. The same state of mind that made him a master of forensic linguistics also made him as sullen, retiring and modest as Verthani was outgoing, flamboyant and self-promoting. Not helping matters was the designated color of his specialty’s academic robes. Swathed in dull Linguistics gray, he was harder to spot in a crowd. Besides, as was typical of most sentient societies in the settled universe, the Jolatrins prized brash assertiveness over quiet contemplation.
All the same, Athcarone had unearthed the evidence that justified Verthani’s latest expedition. While studying the remnants of an abandoned world, he unearthed a previously unknown book of epic poetry. The book purported to be a history of a vanished civilization and its capital city. The poem described a visit from the “Ghilostri, godly masters of the heavens.” Ultimately, it was the poem’s repeated reference to visible constellations that cracked the case. Using computer simulation, Athcarone created a map of the ancient night sky into which his newly discovered poet had gazed with wonder. The map brought several passages of the poem into sharper focus as:
Beneath the starry rider, high
Astride a bright aurora’s bands
In winter’s inky crystal sky
‘Tis there a shining city stands.
The “starry rider” was a constellation associated with the sky god Kolatrix, who was always depicted riding a long-legged beast. This expansive constellation rested above a glowing, wispy nebula that resembled a narrow road. Directly beneath them both was Ghilos 4, bathed in their combined glow.
Considering the age of the manuscript, as established by radiocarbon dating, Athcarone knew it must be indigenous. Because it originated before the advent of interstellar flight in that sector of the Cosmos by a thousand years, the book could not have arrived through interstellar trade routes. Besides, Athcarone concluded, this juxtaposition of the constellation and the nebula would have been visible only from the planet where the poem was discovered. From there, identifying the coordinates of the fabled city was a simple matter of geometry.
Credit where credit is due. At the same time, no one in the academic community, besides Verthani. could have persuaded Director Balithron of the Jolatrin Institute of Science to authorize such a far-flung mission. In retrospect, some Jolatrin officials concluded that the argument she used to make her case was unethical.
In Verthani’s mind, however, advancing scientific knowledge trumped every nicety of pedestrian society. Besides, the position she took wasn’t entirely implausible. Still, it required every ounce of her personal and professional wiles to bring the Director on board. As it stood, Verthani’s proposed expedition clashed violently with Balithron’s by-the-book approach to his duties.
As always, when Verthani entered his office, she noticed the symbols of power woven into its décor. Balithron’s desk, broad, deep and inlaid with rare woods, conferred gravitas on its owner by default. Behind the desk was a high-backed chair, which was upholstered in opalescent relshinon leather. Owing to its graceful, ovoid back, the chair created the impression that its occupant was surrounded by a mysterious aura.
On the wall behind the chair, hung a magnificent ancient tapestry encased in glass. It depicted the god Jolatrinaar crowning the first king of Jolatra, then merely one of several large nation states that dotted the planet. This, of course, was aside from a glittery collection of commemorative plaques, awards and framed honorary degrees that populated the office’s other walls. Together, these artifacts laid out the very alphabet of intimidation.
What Balithron didn’t count on, was Verthani’s abject rejection of any force, social, political, personal or natural, that would stand in the way of her research. In contrast to most of the Director’s guests, she strode into his office and sat down in one of his side chairs without missing a beat, let alone asking permission.
“Good morning, Director,” she said. “I know you’re busy, so I won’t waste time with formalities. I’ll simply ask you to fund my latest research project immediately.”
Feeling the need to put Verthani in her place, Balithron did not mince words.
“Professor Seltra,” he said. “Your reputation is impeccable. This mission plan, however, lacks the attributes that have made your previous expeditions so outstanding. I refer to facts, Professor. I don’t see a single one that would justify such an enormous outlay of resources.”
Balithron was startled to see his stern comments met with a gracious smile.
“Yes, Director,” said Verthani. “I can see how a superficial reading of my proposal might give you that impression. And I understand that your tight schedule may have prevented you from making a thorough analysis of the situation on Ghilos 4. Let me explain. As we know, records detailing the exploits of the Ghilostri date far into the past, and lead right up through the dawn of the Interstellar Era.”
“Generally true,” said Balithron. “I don’t see.…”
“It is also known that Ghilos 4, the Ghilostri homeworld, was once the indispensable hub for interstellar commerce and the epicenter of technological advancement in all fields. Yeltrex-Drobai, the capital of the Ghilostri homeworld, was a renowned center of culture and scholarship across several galaxies.”
“Also reputed to be true,” said the Director, “still….”
“Irrefutably true,” said Verthani, “are two related facts. There, you see? Facts. One: Yeltrex-Drobai broke contact with the rest of the settled universe about two thousand cycles ago. Two: Ghilos 4 itself disappeared from all star maps a generation later. Pilots who attempted to find the planet by dead reckoning, based on older star maps, were never heard from again.”
“And you claim to have found both the planet and the city,” said Balithron. “Congratulations. Still, to me, this sounds like an utterly routine expedition — to be carried out by mobile platforms, Beta-level androids and a supervising AI.”
“Yes, you would say that,” said Verthani. “In fact, it’s your job to say that. Now consider this: The unanswered question is ‘Why?’ Why did the Ghilostri, the undisputed forebears of interstellar civilization, abandon their world and, apparently, create a nearly foolproof way to shield it from view?”
“An epidemic of mental illness,” said the Director. “Similar cases, though rare, aren’t unheard of, especially with inbreeding.”
Verthani smiled again.
“Inbreeding, Director?” she asked. “In such an advanced culture? Of course, anything is possible. From what we know of historical records, I’d sooner have expected the Ghilostri to have escaped to a parallel universe.”
“Speculation is easy,” said the Director.
“What’s not speculation,” said Verthani, “is that the Ghilostri left everything behind. No advance notice, no parting statement. They walked away. That’s it. Except, what if they didn’t walk? What if they fled? What if they were fleeing a deadly predator?”
“What?” asked Balithron. “I’ve already stipulated the need for fact-based inquiry. How can we even consider….”
“Can we afford not to consider the existence of a dangerous predator?” asked Verthani. “How many abandoned worlds have we found in the last thirty cycles alone? I’ll tell you, because I’ve investigated all of them. The number is in the hundreds. Each one is in the sector that contains Ghilos 4. Each one, and my proposal makes this clear, looks as if the inhabitants picked up and left for no reason. They left food in refrigerators and clothing in closets. The ones that kept lower lifeforms as pets. — as hard as that is to believe — left them to die of starvation. Again, I’m forced to ask: What were they fleeing?”
Verthani’s superior pushed his chair back and walked over to the large view screen on the far wall of his office. After entering commands into a nearby console, the screen image swirled until it displayed the sector of the Cosmos that contained Ghilos 4. He entered a second command string and the view zoomed in. Now, toward the center of the screen, each of the abandoned planets that Verthani had just mentioned were circled in red.
“I don’t see a pattern,” he said. “Don’t predators have telltale habits?”
Verthani walked over to the screen and stood uncomfortably close to him.
“I’m not competent to judge,” she said. “And neither are you. Besides, you assume that our predator is sentient. It may not be. A wild creature….”
Balithron’s fists clenched.
“A wild creature that can travel the space lanes?” he asked. “On what … it’s tail?”
“Obviously not,” said Verthani. “All the same, a symbiotic parasite, infiltrating the mind of an interstellar traveler, could wreck havoc, once the traveler’s ship docked at a local spaceport. Imagine if it could jump from host to host or multiply like a virus. There might even be such a parasite among us now. I think it’s in everyone’s interest to learn everything we can about it.”
“Intriguing idea,” said the Director. “If rather fanciful. How many others have you shared this hypothesis with?”
“My hypothesis is central to my proposal,” said Verthani. “So naturally, it has been shared with every appropriate party.”
“Every.…” said Balithron. “So I’m given the choice of greenlighting your project or seeming indifferent to the spread of a parasite that is capable of destroying interstellar civilization.”
“Not sure I would put it exactly that way,” said Verthani. “I’m concerned with the scientific value of the expedition. That’s it. I have no interest in politics.”
The Director sighed. Someone this determined, he realized, would worm her way around any official roadblock. At least, by approving her project, he might eventually claim credit for stopping a perilous threat. From that moment forward, Verthani had a free hand. Her staff made the necessary arrangements, filled out the required forms and she watched, slyly, as Balithron made a formal presentation on her behalf to Jolatra’s highest governing body, the so-called Ring of Three.
That had been six months earlier, and now the Jolatrin research vessel Dohlfaleer was ready for its first space-folding leap. Emblazoned on its side was the logo of the Jolatrin Space Fleet: A stylized orange honeycomb, whose two vertical facets were filled with an equally stylized red star and blue moon. At the spaceport before her departure, Verthani had been surprised by an encrypted vidcom from Balithron
“I have one request, Professor,” he said. “Before giving her consent, Ring Holder Drethune made me promise that you’d save one piece of Ghilostri jewelry from your mission for her personal use.”
“And if I find no jewelry?” asked Verthani. “Never mind, I can always flag down a Silgrathin trading vessel on my way home. I’m sure they have plenty of gaudy baubles that would please the Ring Holder. Time to go.”
A broad smile later, followed by a traditional calming mantra, and the greatest xenoarchaeologist of her generation stepped into the Dohlfaleer, oblivious to the momentous step she was actually taking.
To be continued…. Read the next episode here.
A new Episode of Anomaly appears every other Monday.
Mark Laporta is the author of Probability Shadow and Entropy Refraction, the first two novels in the science fiction series, Against the Glare of Darkness, which are available at a bookstore near you, on Amazon and at Barnes & Noble. He is also the author of Orbitals: Journeys to Future Worlds, a collection of short science fiction, which is available as an ebook.