HER SCALES SHINE LIKE MUSIC
Deep space scouting missions are always a shot in the vasty dark.
Even the immense Skyscreen Array can only
Skyscreen has cataloged many auspicious planets, yet few corporations can afford to investigate them. So Research and Exploration Inc., RE for short, emitter of my paychecks, bid low and won. No miracle, considering that only RE had insider info. Thus, my bosses landed a four-solar-month exclusive to send lackeys to poke around G90703.
First poke was us, a compact team for quick overview and resource mapping: a primary pilot, six scientists with twistship operations training, and two bodyguards (including me), with similar training. If enough gold panned out, RE would dispatch a heavier poke: multiple ships with large crews and serious equipment to investigate areas we’d believed worthy. By Global Council laws, no company could claim much of this Promising Land, but RE would get first crack at the ten thousand most promising adjacent acres.
Artist reported four kinds of results: expected, pleasantly surprising, disappointing, and bizarre.
As the bribed analyst predicted, even at the equator, temperatures remained somewhat below human comfort level, and gravity didn’t have quite Earth’s tug. Artist beamed during his next revelation. Praise the Lord, the atmosphere
One anomaly registered. Slightly north of the equator—“north” being an assigned direction—Artist had pinpointed a tiny area of highly refined metals. Hardly a spectacular find, but worthy of a close-up. A science team headed by Cards, High Priest of Geology, flew
I remember the way we joked as we spiraled down. Any number of natural events could’ve resulted in a minuscule patch of pure metals, none of which amounted to anything profitable by RE standards.
But instead of discovering a pool or two of shiny congealed irrelevance, we found the incredible.
Six days later, something far more incredible found me.
We stopped several meters from it, and spread out into a fog-exhaling semicircle. For a full minute, no one said a word. Finding this evidence would’ve had Cards—even-tempered only by being perpetually peeved—screaming obscenities at the pearly sky, poorly aimed at whichever corporation had mounted an unauthorized expedition here. But the collection of incomprehensible artifacts strewn around had clearly not been made by or for humans. Weaver, our tactile sensor specialist, finally broke our joint stunned silence.
“Anyone doubt that intelligent ETs left all this?” She glanced around at us. Even her Kenyan face appeared somewhat bleached by more than the cold. “Yeah. Me neither. But here’s a little trivia for your consideration, children. They scrambled so recently that my sensors can pick up a touch of residual heat.”
Quite the aftershock. We looked in each other’s eyes and I’m sure everyone had the same two thoughts.
Cards wondered out loud for all of us. “You mean we just missed them? Christ! You don’t suppose they took off so suddenly
Weaver didn’t quite roll her eyes. “By ‘recently’ I meant sometime in the last few local days. You people do know how sensitive my equipment is?” By her tone, we’d have to study hard to attain the level of ignoramus.
Cards made a firing-back sort of target, but he got distracted.
“Hey, you! Archer! Don’t you take another step. We so much as touch that, uh, equipment right now, we could be out millions.”
No one spoke, but I saw a brightness dawning in everyone else’s face. Yes. We’d landed the jackpot of jackpots. A discovery like this would be worth more than a dozen rare earth or precious jewel mines. We’d each be getting astronomical bonuses! I could quit RE, go back to school, and see if my Tara was still foolish enough to marry a—
I noticed all eyes turning toward me.
Oh. Everyone else had already thought it through. Part of me still floated, buoyed by visions of a brilliant future. Another part sank as I worked it out for myself, a three-step process.
One: Before reaping our unjust rewards, we had to stake this claim, an immediate priority with a discovery of this magnitude. Otherwise, RE specialists might lack time enough to squeeze maximum value from the artifacts before… other interests arrive.
Two: Global Council policy demanded a “Vigilant,” a person constantly remaining within seven hundred meters of a find until a title was officially registered. Some legal cheating by one of RE’s competitors, the Finnish-Japanese conglomerate Draaki Oyj, inspired this recent rule change. Draaki had exploited the original radio beacon dibs-on-this statute by burying inactivated beacons, thousands, on newly opened worlds wherever sites held a shred of financial promise. They’d let other companies do the actual work to find any goodies, and then activate the buried beacons to finalize a claim. This stunt had also inspired the adjacent-acres rider.
Three, where our lightning stroke of mutual luck carried an edge of personal discomfort: