- Story Listed as: Fiction For Adults
- Theme: Science Fiction
- Subject: Science Fiction
- Published: 10/22/2016
The Galaxy's Best PickersBorn 1968, M, from Washington, United States
“We've made the big time my brother!” Edward tossed the letter on his brother's desk. That a company sent an actual letter on hemp paper was a sign of a legitimate Big Deal these days.
Edward and Charles could not have been more thrilled when their small company won an exclusive contract to search for artifacts in a ruined alien city. Their business was creaking along, The antique store was beginning to stem the flow of energy credits from their reprocessing business. As the antique processing equipment only worked in the loosest sense of the word, it was just as well they had a new business model. And then this opportunity comes along, at the best possible time.
Ed read the letter again, looking over Chuck's shoulder. The ruins of several settlements, two of them city-sized, had been discovered over the course of a few years. The whole set of discoveries had only been reported on Earth a few weeks ago. Even with the cost and time involved in interstellar travel, there was the expected level of interest in this discovery, the first concrete proof that star-faring aliens had once existed. How did anyone know this wasn’t the aliens’ home world? Maybe someone wasn’t saying. The conspiracy theory side of the World Wide Web insisted that there were still aliens on the planet, indeed, that the aliens had enslaved or perhaps eaten the human colonists, or the humans had been sold by the Man.
The letter concluded by noting that a representative of Jovian Omnimedia would be in touch to discuss the offer at length. Then they could all sign a contract. A call came, just as promised. Ed and Chuck had a few questions, but they made up a few more just to keep the attractive Asian lady on video. She promised to stop by two days later, to go over the paperwork and sign things.
It was a normal day at Antique Corral (“More Antiques Than You Can Imagine”) when a young Asian woman strolled through the front door. She was dressed in neo-noir style, adapted for the cold Seattle winter. Ed nodded in silent greeting. Charles poked his head around the corner.
“Are you Mr. Edward Drumm?” She had a terminal strapped to one wrist, probably connected to the wraparound VR goggles. Ed didn’t look much like his promotional picture anymore, but neither did Charles. Not that anyone seemed to notice.
“Indeed I am. And you are?” Jessica approaches and they shake. She removes her glasses. “And you must be Charles Drumm? Charles nods. He just replaced his photo, on account of having hair now.
“I’m Jessica Chang, with Jupiter Omnimedia.” Ed just then noticed the messenger bag that Jessica carried. “I have your contracts right here.
They lead Jessica back to the “manager’s office” - a nook with a small table and one injection-molded plastic chair.
Ed offers Jessica the chair, which she takes. Before you can say “Let’s make some money!” the two contracts were out, and two real ink pens. He noticed there was a third copy of the document, but Jessica stuffed those documents back in her bag. Ed liked the feel of the old ink pen; generally speaking, he liked doing things the old way.
The show would be called “Ancient Aliens Recovered” and would feature, well, the obvious. Ed and Charles would be the stars of this sponsored scavenging trip, with every detail filmed and shared in a number of ways, at the sole discretion of Jupiter Omnimedia.
“So, our presence there is a programming thing for you guys?” He wasn’t sure if that should be a question or a statement of the obvious, but it came out sounding like a question.
Jessica nodded. “You’ve got it.”
Charles and Ed both skim the contracts. Ed notices that one detail seems to be missing. Chuck's puzzled look, focused on the same part of the contract, shows Ed that he's not wrong. “Wasn’t compensation supposed to be included in the contract?”
“We assigned you the right to sell anything interesting you can scavenge. The other compensation would be in the form of free advertising and the merchandising rights would be yours as well. “ She points helpfully at a clause near the top of the page that Ed was on.
“Well, I seem to recall compensation being discussed.” Ed looks over at Chuck, who nods knowingly – yep, we were expecting money to be mentioned.
“No. I distinctly remember us mentioned the forms of compensation that you would receive, namely the right to sell anything you found, purchase cost covered by the company, and the cost of passage to Gliese 163b2, an expen63se of about…” she pauses and looks up at the ceiling for a moment “440,000 energy credits for each of you.”
“They’ll regret not charging you for food, eating machine.” Charles chuckles.
“They should charge you a weight penalty.”
“Hey. This is mostly muscle!”
They both go back to signing.
“Oh! Wow!” Ed looks up at the other two. The aliens have to be involved somehow don't they? We'll be wheeling and dealing with them won't we?”
Jessica seems to think about this for a moment, a long moment.
“Yes. Of course they're on board. There are 550 still living there, apparently squatting in the ruins. Kind of strange. Anyway, neither they nor their parent civilization seem to object to this project, so there are no worries.”
Charles and Ed showed up at the spaceport near San Diego with time to spare. They went over management with their assistant Dana, a neo-Goth body piercing fanatic who was great with customers and could sell just about anything to just about anyone. Ed guessed that she new what was expected while they were away, but another briefing couldn't hurt. It also helped pass the time on the three hour drive from their office just south of downtown Los Angeles. It was a Saturday so traffic was lighter than expected.
“Oh, what is that?” Charles points at an old prefab building with some rusting machine parts outside. The sign on the building is to faded they can only make out some of the letters, not enough to even make a guess about what it used to be.
Ed looks closely. He can see the corner of a vehicle of some type. The rusty chain-link fence does nothing to conceal the interior. “I saw an old car in the corner. I bet it has a gas engine in it!”
Dana types something on her wrist terminal. “I made a note guys.”
“Your the best Dana” Charles nods in agreement and reaches for a cigar.
“No smoking in the car dude.” The car passes a sign indicating that the San Diego Spaceport is only 10 kilometers ahead on the right. Not enough time for a proper smoke anyway.
The ride to space was uneventful. Being in zero-gravity was a new experience for both men. Ed knew Charles would lose one of his cigars. It was a thing; every opportunity to lose one of those cheap cigars seemed to result in a cigar falling in the dirt, or something worse.
Amazingly, it didn't happen. Until the docked with the slowly rotating space station known as Clarkesville. There Charles dropped the cigar he was trying to light. In a display of luck, or speed, Charles managed to get it before it touched the ground.
“You thought I would lose a cigar didn't you?”
“Well you did drop it.”
“No, It never touched the ground so that doesn't really count.”
“Oh, when did that rule come into effect?”
“That's always been a rule.”
“You only caught it because the gravity here is 60% as strong as it is on Earth.”
Charles seemed to reflect on this bit of physics trivia for a moment.
They reached the passenger reception area. It was crowded, mostly because of being small and holding pub tables and vending machines, in addition to dozens of people getting off shuttles or waiting to greet passengers. Two dour-looking Asian-American guys where there. This was the Jupiter Omnimedia production team who would film and edit the footage. The files would be shot back to Earth via hyperspace radio once a week.
Charles speaks first. “Good afternoon. You must be our guys.”
The four exchange pleasantries. The older, thinner guy is Dylan Cho, an experienced freelance producer. The younger guy is Ping Lu, fresh out of the Multimedia program at Shenzhen Technical University. Ed wasn't expecting to get their A-team, and was not disappointed.
“How long do we have before the ship leaves?” Ed wanted to double check, in case there was time to have a look around the space station. He and Charles might also have time to post some business cards here and there. Why not?
Ping checked his fabulously retro gold watch. “Almost two hours. Why?”
“Charles and I wanted to look around, and pass out some business cards.” He holds one up for emphasis. The cheap hemp-based paper looked pretty damned good with a glossy finish on it.
The Stellar Tramp departed right on time amidst a shit-ton of media attention, in the form of drones, real camera operators, and a few commercial satellites positioned to record the departure. On this trip the Stellar Tramp carried over 200 technicians and management types, to work on the terraforming project.
During the 21-day passage gave Ed and Charles plenty of time to get to know the other passengers and to fantasize about how they would use their new-found fame.
They even had time for one quick message to (assistant). The message asked her to do various routine marketing things to play up the trip. They also sent a video of the station and the ship, to put on the company's Web site. The video had no real content, did perhaps succeed in portraying Charles and Ed as two regular guys. Never mind the exotic trip through interstellar space to an alien city – though that was worth mentioning. Also worth mentioning – that they would be able to bring stuff back. Alien stuff obviously, because the colonists' antiques were mentioned in the contract.
Ed asked Ping if it was really okay to bring back alien artifacts that might be of real cultural value/ The response was telling, on more than one level. “If you want make money on this trip you'll need to bring stuff back and sell it. The really important cultural finds have been marked and some have even been removed by the eggheads. The pickings should still be great. Don't lose sleep over it.”
A requirement of the contract had to be met too. About a day out from Gliese 163, Ed and Charles recorded a commercial. They were in a small passenger lounge, closed off for this purpose. The production team seemed a bit nervous and eager to take care of business. Ed guessed their use of the lounge wasn't authorized. Oh well. There was food and coffee.
So, Ed and Charles sat in chairs and talked about the planet and their company. Charles held a little plastic model of the planet and pointed to what he thought would be their rough location. Ed ate a bagel with tofurkey and soy cheese.
Then, it got a little bit complicated. “Remember the part where you agreed to work with the production crew composing shots and delivering monologues and so forth?”
Charles chimed in, “Like the little spot we just did.”
“And when we talk to viewers directly, from in the shop.”
“Well,” Ping sighed and took a seat, “there is more too it than that. Jupiter Omnimedia has a huge investment in this special series and wants to do a few extra things.”
Charles and Ed exchange confused looks.
“Let me give you more details on the city and surroundings.”
“Yes, why don't you do that.” Ed grumbles as he gets up to grab a hunk of soy cheese and get some more tea.
Charles clears his throat. “So, how come there are still aliens living there?”
Dylan shrugs. “They are there. Some of the them can speak English, through translation devices of course. It should be no trouble to get some good footage. More of the locals should have English or another common language in their translators before we have to wrap.”
Ping taps the screen on his tablet. He rotates the screen so the two guys can get a better look at the image, of an alien. The creature standing in the dust looks like a cross between a skeletal mammal, with six pairs of limbs and four eyes. The forelimbs have four digits two being opposable like thumbs.
“But how do we bargain with them? They won't care about money will they?”
Ping nods. “They want credits of some sort, to engage in trade with the human colonists. They also want goods to trade with their own kind.”
“Yeah, there must be others. Where are they?”
“We don't know. The aliens haven't exactly volunteered information. Anyway, the important thing is they are willing to do business.”
“I think the important thing is there are freaking aliens on a planet and they're as smart as humans.”
“We'll have our first real production meeting here at 0900 tomorrow. I'll arrange for refreshments.
Ping opens the door. No one is out there. He leaves the door open.
They didn't. The Stellar Tramp arrived at the orbital transfer facility right on time. No one bothered to ask if this trip might be in any way dangerous.
The city turned out to be nice in a way. The two meetings on the trip over had cast a bit of a gray cloud over everything, to Ed. Charles didn't seem affected. He was more interested in the the architecture and other scenery.
“This place has a real early Ikea vibe doesn't it?”
“I suppose it does.” Many of the buildings looked like they were built from prefab modules, many finished in muted pastels with light gray trim. The hotel was an exception, but the attempt at combining Brutalism and Zen-inspired modernism was less than fully successful in Ed's unrefined opinion.
The ship told them that the colony of New Bronfils had grown from 1,506 people to over 55,000 in about 40 years. As a nod to tradition, the city was named for the astronomer who found planets in the system, way back when.
The two hosts had the day off. Their production team was scouting the old temporary settlement, for places to film and people to meet. Of course as many meetings as possible would be pre-arranged then play out on camera. It was much too time-consuming
The first trip would be out there, in two days. They would go out two days in a row to get some footage of the landscape and the old settlement. The short trip there and back would give time to capture some witty banter in the van. Fans loved that stuff.
In four or five days' time it would get real interesting. They would be able to wheel and deal with real aliens.
A few minutes under the blazing sun was enough for Ed. He turned back, intended to go right back the way they had come, only three city blocks north and one block west. Charles trailed behind, seeming more tired.
“Hotter than Arizona in July out here.”
“It might be so.” Ed points at a thermometer below a neon sign – a real neon sign advertising cold beer!- which indicated a temperature of 39 Celsius.
“Let's duck in here and a cold drink”
Ed already has his hand on the door handle.
At 8:45 Ed and Charles head outside to meet the guys, and see the vehicle they would be using. There were two, a tiny city car thing, in yellow and green, and a white delivery van. The tack-on metallic sign looked like a hand-written sign for their company. Ed guessed this was supposed to be cute. He did like that the van seemed roughly similar inside to the one they used back in good-ole California.
Dylan and Ping were there waiting by the little city car, or whatever it was. “Hello! Early for a change.” Technical people have a way of stating the obvious, Ed thought. Must be genetic.
“You're a sharp one aren't you?”
Charles starts to walk around the van.
Ping is recording, with his little hand-held camera.
“I want to drive first.”
“Where exactly are we going?” He was supposed to study the area map last night but forgot to do that.
“Never mind. The old colonial settlement is just 10 kilometers away. The roads are all going to be about like this, I'm told.” The road was just dun-colored gravel. The sidewalk they stood on was poured concrete though.
“We'll lead the way, as soon as Ping fits the remote camera.” He points at Ping and the little box-like camera he holds.
While Ping works on that Charles climbs in the van and has a look. At the same time Ed waits patiently for Ping to get out of the way. They're both sweating. The newsfeed in their room suggested a high of 39 with moderate silica dust concentration. Whatever that meant. Dust didn't bother him; a virtual job requirement in this line of work of course.
Dylan and 2 go back to the little car.
Ed climbs in and immediately takes a look at the back. Empty, with plastic shelving built in. This really is quite close to being a copy of their trusty junkmobile.
Charles starts the motors. Of course the van is fuel-cell powered and electric.
The production guys hum on by and stop in the street. There is almost no vehicular traffic to disrupt. Charles accelerates slowly away from the curb and the production crew drives on.
The other city blocks are pretty much the same as the ones he and Charles saw the night before. The roads also seem to be gravel. Amusing. You really never see gravel roads in the United States or Canada anymore.
Fifteen minutes of leisurely driving brought them to the center of the old settlement. This is where the original colonists, basically just a construction crew, stayed while they built the first real town here. One small building had some LED lighting on the outside turned on. The rest of the place looked abandoned, and sort of picked over; someone had taken away doors, windows, and sections of fences.
The production crew pulled over and stopped across the street from the LED-lit building. Ed pulled in directly behind. From that position Ed could see Ping filming something ahead. Probably just B-roll footage. You could look right out of the city from here into the dusty mountains. The alien city was just over the mountains at the southwest corner.
Charles indicates a section of intact plastic fence next to a big metal-sided building. “I bet there's something interesting in there.”
Ed shrugs. “Yeah, but we can't officially take it unless we can talk to the former owner.” He kicks at a fresh tire tracks in the dirt driveway.
Everyone dismounted after a minute. Dylan led the way to the store, or whatever it was. Charles hangs back long enough to take a look over the fence. Ed can see this is what he's doing but decides to let him go.
Dylan and Ping wait near the building on the sidewalk.
Charles joins them a moment later.
Ed and Charles look around for a moment. “This looks like a promising place. Lots of old buildings.”
Charles nods in agreement. “Sure does. I hope Mr. Sung is in a selling mood.”
“Just use your super bargaining power on him and we'll be fine.”
Ed knocks on the door.
After a moment the door opens. A guarded, but not unfriendly looking old Chinese man opens the door. He wears slacks and a button-up white shirt. Retro clothing appears to be a thing here, even with the older crowd Ed observes to himself.
“Hell Mr. Sung. I'm Ed and this is my brother Charles.”
“Oh yes. My niece told me you would be here about now.” His English is terrible, probably he doesn't know that. “Come in.”
“What sort of things are you gentlemen looking for?” They could only understand half of the question.
“We collect antique electronics, art objects, machines, that sort of stuff.”
Dylan and Ping follow, cameras on.
Mr. Sung seems to consider this description for a second. “So, what you want buy.” He seems to try harder.
A door opens behind them. “Can I help uncle?”
Ed and Charles look over their shoulders. This must be the niece, Sunny. She is smoking hot half-Chinese and half something else, probably Indian based on where many of the colonists came from, but dressed in a conservative blue dress that looks like a cross between modern sundress and traditional Chinese.
The rest of the pick went better. Mr. Sung wasn't too involved, possibly realizing how bad his English was. The niece, Sunny, translated a few things for him and followed the group around. In typical Chinese fashion, the store was attached to a little museum, where everything was also for sale.
Ed asked about some of the items, and asked if there was anything else in the back. There wasn't really. Just inventory for the little convenience store and their pantry. He lived upstairs with Sunny, who helped customers in store and museum.
Mr. Sung did have an ancient electric dune buggy contraption in fenced yard out back. It still worked, but was in terrible shape. They didn't have space for a vehicle anyway.
Ed had to do one more thing before they left. “Sunny, if you or your father know of anyone who has things to sell, would you let us know?”
She nods. “So, are you going out to the alien city? I heard that you might.”
“Are you buying or selling?”
“We'll be there to buy stuff, we hope. What would we sell them?”
She shrugs. “I've heard of people selling them arts and crafts.”
The big day. There trip out to the alien city. There was some sort of permit required for this, but Dylan had taken care of it. The team set off in their two vehicles by 9 AM. It would take almost three hours to get there. To pass the time, Ed and Charles decided to argue over whether to go back and pick the old town again.
“I bet those metal parts are valuable.”
“We should go back and get Mr. Sung to part with some of the things in his museum.”
“Most of the stuff was a little bit boring.”
“But I think a few of the things came from Earth, so we can get those bring them back, and charge 100 times the original price.”
Ed hadn't thought of that angle. “You know, that isn't a bad idea.”
“I'm full of great ideas.” He glances over at Ed. “Don't say it!”
“You're quick this morning my friend. I do want a snack.”
Charles helpfully offers him the snack bag. Ed fishes out some crackers in a foil pack. The crackers are supposed to be venison-flavored, but as Ed never tasted venison and guesses the makers haven't either, there is just no way to know.
While Ed digs into his deer crackers, they head up into the mountains on a gravel road. This section gets a bit rough. The thermometer on the dash gives an outside temperature of 33 degrees at 1100 hours GMT. Not bad considered the oven-like temps the past two days.
“I hope their English is better than Mr. Sungs”
“If not I hope they have a translator as hot as Sunny. You know, we should manufacture some excuse to go back there and talk to Mr. Sung. Maybe another visit is in order.”
“Cool it tiger. She probably doesn't go for middle-aged junk dealers anyway.”
Ed looks at the camera mounted in the van. “Don't put that in the show!”
After a brief lull in conversation, a break that gives Charles time to grab a drink and a snack, they reach the high point of the mountain pass – more of a big hill pass in reality – and descend toward the badlands where the alien city is.
The “city” was even less impressive than Ed imagined it would be. He and Charles had talked about looking up some images, but never got around to it. The briefing only included a photograph taken from orbit and a simple map that marked key points.
The can reached the crest of a low hill. “Oh, look at that!” Charles was pointing either at a tall radio antennae or a small building that seemed to be made out of granite blocks.
“Is that one of their buildings?” The thing is really far away. Before he can squint and get a better look they've gone down off the hilltop and lost sight of the building.
“That antennae looked just like a mobile phone antennae from back home. I wonder why?”
Charles didn't seem to have anything to add. Anyway, the little city car with Dylan and Ping in it was slowing down. Someone's motorcycle was parked on the left. Odd. Even more odd, Ed could see the cylinder block and exhaust pipe. Why would anyone even have a gas-burning old bike way the hell out here? “Take a look at that old motorcycle Chuck!”
He nods. “Wonder if someone beat us out here?” He seems to realize that's a wild guess.
“Maybe we can pick that? It'll be worth a fortune back on earth”
Ed pulls in next to the production team's car.
Dylan pulled over near two boulders that seemed to have been cut into wide columns standing with about 2 meters between them. Everything around was just hills, rocky outcroppings and boulders.
Dylan and Ping get out and look around. Ed couldn't tell if they were excited or nervous.
Ed pulls up next to them.
Dylan approaches the van. “So, this is obviously as close as we can get.” (As I go back through this I need to include clues to suggest this might be a kind of setup.)
“So, do we wait here or just go inside?” Charles is out the door already. Ed gets out of the van then.
“We'll just go in. Our alien friend should be waiting for us, or else he will be here soon.”
Dylan seems to be distracted by something out in the badlands, somewhere.
Ed wonders what he can see. Nothing obvious, not even the top of the radio antennae.
Ping films the three of them.
“Let's get a shot of you guys studying the runes on those columns.” He points.
Charles. “Yeah, I noticed these on the way in. Their alphabet looks like viking runes.” Indeed, the column Charles has gone ahead to study features a faint vertical line of scratches, organized enough to make it pretty clear that this is some form of writing.
Ed joins Charles. “We should make an impression of this writing. I wish I had thought to bring something.” He shrugs – what can you do?
Charles peeks through the entrance. There is no sign of movement. Some paths appear to be paved in blacktop and a few of the boulders look too big and too regular to be entirely natural. There is an obvious door in one of the rock faces, painted to match the gray rock. No aliens though.
Ed leads the way inside, with Charles just a couple of steps behind.
Nothing much to see, except the open door to one side. It was obscured by the left-hand column until you got just inside.
A dark shaped moves inside the door.
Ed looks over his shoulder at Dylan and Ping. They are just in the entryway, Ping recording the community and Ping recording them.
One of the aliens shambles out. It wears what looks like a dust mask, one of the deals with the little filter on each side, which may well be what they are.
Ping clears his throat. “This is Mr. Thrifty.”
Charles. “Great name!”
Mr. Thrifty stops two meters away. He is a bit taller than Charles and the same height as Ed. “Greetings.”
Dylan and Ping both record the meeting from different angles. Neither one has stepped across the invisible boundary that the rock gateway seems to create.
Mr. Thrifty. “Are you here to buy and sell?”
“I'm Ed and this my business partner Charles.”
“We are interested in selling too.”
Ed thinks this is a bit awkward. He might have been overly optimistic about how stimulating it would be to communicate with an alien.
Ed is distracted when Dylan takes a quick step back. Dylan screams at the same time!
Charles and Ed look that way, so they don't see Mr. Thrifty and two other aliens come out them, one from behind a nearby building.
“Don't fight. It will not help.”
Ed and Charles are helpless, held tight by the powerful forelimbs of these aliens.
Mr. Thrifty looks over at Dylan and Ping. The scream again. This time they don't look or sound terrified at all.
“What in the world?”
“We don't know anything. Sorry!”
Mr. Thrifty looks at Dylan and shakes his head, as if trying to get rid of a biting fly. “I apologize for the rough handling, but we can't let you run away. This was too hard to set up.
“What are you doing?”
Charles squirms enough to get a hand lose and reaches in his pocket for his radio.
“Didn't they tell you? You're going to be in a show!”
A fourth alien joins and helps herd them along, deeper into the alien city. As he passes one of the buildings Ed can see it is fake, a prop held up by plastic tubing.
“We'll give you back when your contract is up, in three weeks.”
“This is insane! You can't kidnap us. We have a contract.”
“So do we and you were in it. Dylan should have explained things.
They are being shuffled along at a brisk pace, past a few more buildings, at least one of which is visibly fake. At first glance they all look like outcroppings of granite. A couple of aliens watch the unhappy humans being herded past.
“Well, what if we don't play along?” Ed is feeling tough now, or just pissed off, maybe both.
“That would make for great television, so we don't care. And you will be paid for your time of course.”
With one big push for each the two men are forced through a door into a dark room. One of the aliens aims a camera at them in the final seconds before the door slams shut.
Dylan and Ping retreat up the road. Dylan looks over his shoulder. “The damn radio!”
He stops but Ping doesn't.
Dylan starts toward their car.
Two aliens run through the gate toward him. Before he has time to do more than scream he is in the machine-like grip of the creature's forearms. Dylan looks over his shoulder in time to see Ping grabbed by the other alien.
He looks back at the creature carrying him. It wears a metal headband with a little metal cylinder attached to one side. The end of the cylinder looks kind of like a camera lens.