The blue ceramic shard glinted in the light of Me’Auk’s sun. Absently turning the piece around in his unusually long fingers, Rick surveyed the dig from which he retrieved it. The humid meadow was a checkerboard of tall grass and black earth where the topsoil had been stripped away. Hundreds of his people died here. Perhaps thousands. Those unable to board overcrowded ships chose poison. Death was preferred over capture by humans avenging the slaughter of their own colonists. So why did Jamie and I get left behind? came the same worn thought.
Returning the artifact to its grave, Rick stood up and brushed clumps of moist dirt from his jeans. He wore an old brown short-sleeve shirt, an improvement over the business suit he endured at the airport earlier that morning. During the press conference that marked his arrival on Me’Auk, the media hounds kept asking how it felt to be back home. Some joke. Rick drew in the wet smell of green plants and turned soil. Neither offered a sense of belonging here. He had been raised in New Texas on Corven, Earth’s former colony. Even had a slight drawl to prove it. He was Me’Aukin, but what did that really mean? Sure, he could speak his people’s formalized and often poetic language fluently, but so could several of the humans he would be working with. Anybody could pick it up from records left behind by the failed attempt of two races to share one world. His heritage either rotted away or disappeared into the stars long ago. Leaving him with human clothes. Human upbringing. Human name.
Trouble was, he did not look human, not that his kind were physically much different. Skin the color of olives, and jet-black hair, suggested his early ancestors relied on natural camouflage to survive. Longer fingers and toes furthered the theory of a tree-born species. He had to have custom shoes, and shopping for clothes was an exercise in humility thanks to his four-foot-three frame. He was always going to be a poor fit with his adopted race. Being around Jamie was not any better. The doctors may have been fascinated by their empathic relationship, but the aggravation of each other’s nearness drove them apart years ago.
Rick stared up the hillside across from the meadow. Crumbled spires poked tantalizingly through the forest canopy. Midday mists twisted through Clan Maedan’s crumbled walls and buildings like foraging spirits. This was where his and Jamie’s frozen embryos had been found. What better place to start than at the beginning?
The discovery of their cryogenic tank had waited three hundred years while Earth’s attention turned to the colonization of Corven instead. Simple economics kept Me’Auk fallow – no insurance company would underwrite anything involving a massacre. Especially with the clans still out there...somewhere. It was Corven, no longer Earth’s colony, who finally took up the challenge.
Rick caught the growl of electric motors and smiled. He still made some good friends in spite of himself. The yellow six-wheeled rover emerged from the tree line, bouncing over a serpentine coil of roots. Its driver was casually dressed in a faded red plaid shirt she favored while working. The freckled archeologist was cute in a farm girl sort of way, although the big-boned young woman had been raised among fisheries instead of fields. Andrea Gibbs was a half-head taller than he, but their close association as college classmates erased most of the physical differences separating them. Her brunette hair was clipped short and business-like – a change from the longer style he last saw her with two years earlier at the university.
“Thought I’d take my time getting the rover out of the flyer,” Andrea said, waving at him. “Give you a little quality time.” She brought the rover to a halt beside him. “I know how long you’ve waited for this.”
“Twenty-seven years,” he answered with a wan smile. “Give or take a few centuries in cryogenic stasis.”
“By the way, Jamie sends her congratulations on your new job.”
“Happy to hear it,” he replied with a nod. There was no reason to begrudge his Me’Aukin counterpart a pleasantry or two, provided Jamie kept her distance. “How’s she doing these days? Not stealing any more freighters in hopes of finding the clans, I trust?”
“Colonel Jay buried that little fiasco under a pile of money,” Andrea said with a chuckle. “It helps having Me’Auk’s first governor as your foster father.”
“Well, we each have our own way of finding our past.”
“As Colonial Curator, you’ll at least be doing it legally,” Andrea snickered. She reached back to the rear seats of the rover and grabbed two white helmets. Andrea handed him one. “Company rules.”
Rick worked the straps until it fit tighter. He glanced at the blue letters across the front of her helmet. “Digger?”
“That’s what Steve nick-named me,” she said, setting her helmet firmly over a myriad of curls. “It sort of stuck with everyone on my excavation team.”
Both of them glanced up as a high-pitched whine grew from the south. Three black daggers slashed across the sky in close formation, disappearing again over the forested ridges.
“Speak of the devil,” Andrea murmured. She tapped at her helmet, her tone sweetly annoyed. “Morning, Steve. Everything’s safe as usual.”
The voice that came from Rick’s helmet possessed a thick accent. Rick recalled Andrea saying that her ex-fiancé was Earth Australian by birth before emigrating to Corven.
“Don’t let him stub a toe up there, Digger, or I’ll be filling out reports for days. Company’s got him and his sister down as bloody national treasures.”
“Jamie’s not his biological sister,” she replied with a droll expression toward Rick. “How many times do I have to tell you that?” Giving an exasperated breath, she looked west where the three fighters decelerated into a turn, white vapor sweeping over their wings. “Can’t you do your flying elsewhere? You know as well as I do that this place hasn’t had any mine activity.”
Rick interrupted their conversation with an apologetic grin. “Your caution is appreciated, Major Keller. I’ll try and watch my toes.”
“I’ve got a company of EC marines ready with bandages and beer if you don’t, Doctor. Welcome to Me’Auk. Keller out.”
“You two are still on speaking terms, aren’t you?” Rick asked Andrea.
“As long as he doesn’t try and blow up any more sites,” she grumbled. “I can’t look at him without seeing what they did to the only intact Me’Aukin city we had. That pretty much tore the bottom out of our getting married.” Andrea shook her head. “Still, I can’t really blame him or the Colonel.”
“I know,” Rick finished. “Clan Weth was where Katherine, was killed.”
“Colonel Jay still walks away from most conversations involving his wife. The first anniversary of the attack is in two months, but it might as well have happened yesterday.”
“Which is probably why Colonel Brinwall didn’t meet me at the airport today. Bringing me here was Katherine’s idea, you know.”
“He’s determined to honor her wishes, so don’t worry.” Andrea gestured across the field. “I think you know this place from your simulations.”
“If not from its infamy.”
Leaning forward, Andrea rested her elbows on the rover dashboard and pointed along the adjacent trench. “I pulled two intact reunion cups from here, and a few more that had to be glued back together. Bones have long since decayed, but based on calcium traces and jewelry I’d say you’re looking at twenty-four bodies in this plot alone. My best estimate is somewhere around eight hundred Me’Aukins poisoned themselves here.”
“Everyone who couldn’t jump into a ship,” Rick said, shaking his head. “I heard that some of the Exploratory Corps marines were taking cups as souvenirs. You finally put a stop to that?”
“Steve took care of that for me,” she replied, her freckled face darkening. “With Opening Day only eight months away, we’ll have our hands full keeping colonists out of these places.” Her expression brightened. “So where do you want to go first?”
Hopping into the seat beside her, Rick gestured to where the hilltop poked above the trees. Walls of an old rotunda beckoned through the shimmer of heat and distance.
She laughed. “Figured you’d head to the Circle Hall first.”
The rover tires dug into the soft earth. It did not take long for the forest to engulf them. The lazy song of insects countered the rover’s surging hum. Andrea carefully negotiated the root-buckled cement pavement of an old Me’Aukin road. Ahead, lichen-encrusted walls rose beneath the green twilight of overhanging trees.
“The North Valley Gate,” Rick said in admiration as they passed beneath the heavy arch. He studied this place more than any other, spending hours in simulated exploration a world away on Corven. “Hold up.”
Swinging out of the seat, Rick walked over to the left support column and cleared bits of entwining brush from its base. No simulation could replicate the abrasive feel of wooden stems, nor the smell of sun-warmed dirt.
“Careful of pepper worms,” Andrea cautioned, joining him. “They’ll give you a nasty rash.”
Rick nodded and carefully uncovered a white ceramic square engraved with a male and female Me’Aukin standing side by side. They held each other’s hands in a lover’s clasp. Their outer arms were stylized into spread wings. They can only fly when bound together, Rick mused, appreciating the metaphor that best symbolized the Me’Aukin reverence for marriage. “Ashon Co’Ashin of Clan Temble” he said. “Have you found any gate posts that didn’t have the founder’s totem on it?”
“Not a one.” She pointed out the ring of green ceramic blocks above it. “There’s one-hundred-and-six embracing birds. They’re probably the families who first founded Clan Maedan.” Andrea gave a good-natured sigh. “You know, we’re never going to get more than three feet inside at this pace, and you do have a dinner reception at the Brinwall estate tonight.”
Laughing, Rick returned to the rover. “Sorry. Honestly, as Colonial Curator I don’t know if I should leave this place as is, or try and restore it. Over three centuries old and it’s still beautiful. The walls look like they were grown there.” He pointed to the vine-encrusted buildings lining the hill’s first terrace. “You can still see traces of paint. Lots of blues.”
“Well, at least have the Circle Hall brought back to its original condition,” Andrea said. “So far, the only restoration we’ve done is with a couple of the escalators. Practical stuff.”
He nodded. Unfortunately, he could not breathe any more life into this site than she already found for herself. Probably even less. “Okay, let’s head to the top.”
A wide trail was all that was left of the avenue extending between the shells of once great buildings. Narrow towers begged freedom from the gnarled cords seeking to pull them down. The rustle of animals in the growth was punctuated by the flutter of bright yellow wings. The bird songs were muted, hushed in reverence to the ghosts left behind. Ghosts such as himself.
The trail widened further at the steep base of the hill, becoming part of an overgrown plaza roughly fifty yards square. Foundation walls marked the boundaries of what once had been an open market. Rick glanced down side streets that were too narrow to allow much more than pedestrian traffic. The clan’s designers restricted vehicles to wider thoroughfares radiating from the lowest ring of the city. He gestured to one of the statues carved into a wall niche above a ramp leading to the next terrace. Two granite figures gazed out at them. The male wore a loose shirt and billowing pants. His female companion favored a similarly casual dress with short sleeves and a more form-fitting bodice. “No doubt a mated pair,” Rick said as they continued their drive up the ramp.
Andrea nodded. “According to history, the Me’Aukins wouldn’t even talk to our contact teams until a married couple could be found.” She grinned. “Two anthropologists got hitched on the spot, so the story goes.” Her expression sobered. “Over eight thousand human colonists wiped out by radiation missiles. Maybe, when the main continents are opened for unlimited research, we can find out why it started.”
“Among other things,” Rick added, chilled at the thought of tracing his own parents’ footsteps here.
The rover arrived at the hilltop and bumped its way across another smaller plaza, braced on either side by scored and blackened concrete foundations. Rubble lay scattered across the pavement, small mounds of debris hidden beneath a mix of grass and brush. There also were large misshapen blocks of mottled blue-and-green material, some of the building remnants easily twice Rick’s height.
“We walk from here,” Andrea said, bringing the vehicle to a halt. “This place got blasted bad in retaliatory strikes, though most missiles were lured away from the main rotunda.” Swinging out of her seat, she pointed to the right. “You can see what remains of meeting chambers. Around the back of the rotunda and down a terrace is what we call the totemic tower. It’s covered with clan patterns. You can still get up the stairs. The view of the valleys is phenomenal from there.”
“The view here’s overwhelming enough,” he replied. Rick handed her a backpack and got out of the rover. The Circle Hall’s rotunda was the size of a small exhibition center, with a capacity to host over a thousand people. Its partially domed ceiling shone like old brass in the rising sun. He knew that such Circle Halls were both a municipal and spiritual meeting place. It was thought that extensive genealogical records were kept here as well. For those of his profession, it was a potential treasure-trove. For him personally, it would be salvation from a hell of unanswered questions. “Did you ever find anything at all that might have suggested a Calling Place in there?”
She shook her head. “I’ve spent five years scouring Me’Auk for one of those rumored libraries. The first human colonists kept talking about Calling Places, but never were allowed near one.” Andrea gave him a resolute look. “Such a find could explain why your people went from sharing this world to burying us on it instead.”
“Not to mention shedding some light on where the clans fled to,” he added, shouldering his backpack. “Let’s go in.”
“You know they’ve long since ripped all the cryogenic stuff out of there,” Andrea softly reminded as they continued across the overgrown plaza. “It’s just a hole now, Rick.”
“It’s also a place to start,” he countered, following a path through stalks of high grass.
“And I thought Steve could be stubborn. Working for you is going to be a treat.”
“With me,” he corrected, stopping by a shattered section of wall. “The field work here is all yours. So would the position of Curator be if it wasn’t for the politics.”
“Only because they wouldn’t let you back here until it was safe.” Andrea gave a reasoning smile. “Having a real Me’Aukin running the show attracts all the right money, Rick. Don’t forget that. Besides, while you’re shaking hands, I get to be out here digging. Don’t be so sure you got the better deal.”
“If you hadn’t raised all that hell back on Corven those many years ago, Jamie and I would still be little more than prize lab rats.” He laughed. “Human rights for aliens. You’re damn lucky nobody figured out who was behind those signs that crowd carried outside the Institute. Wouldn’t have done your career much good.”
She shrugged. “It got the press interested. Must admit, I haven’t had much opportunity here to save society from itself. Just another Interstar corporate drone trying to pry secrets from that Stone material the Me’Aukins relied on so much.” Her grin was genuine. “It’s good to have you here, Rick. Partners, ok?”