THE LOST CITY OF ZANTHOS 3
Book 1 of the AI Alien Chronicles
Ronald J. Watkins
Death is the only pure, beautiful conclusion of a great passion.
– D. H. Lawrence
Graham Roderick eased into his crafted wooden deckchair, well-polished from years of use, then lit his favorite long-stem pipe. He drew his first puff of tobacco that day with a sigh of contentment. Reaching to the rustic table beside him, he lifted the glass and took a sip of irek, the home brew he preferred to the local versions of beer and ale.
The sun had just dipped below the azure tinted mountains, casting the rugged land about in a waning tranquil luminescence. The soft cooing of the endor, a dove-like bird, floated from the nearby woods. It was his favorite time of day and as often as he could he ended it here in this place with these things, sights and sounds.
Moira came quietly out, curled at his feet then leaned against his leg, silent as always for she was mute. Graham lightly touched her thin blond hair, patting her affectionately. She all but purred.
There had been a gentle shower that afternoon, common this time of year with spring well underway. The air sparkled, the sweet scent of vegetation a pleasant aroma against the satisfying fragrance of tobacco. It was, Graham thought, as perfect a moment as life ever allowed. For several minutes he sat in contentment and waited patiently for what promised to be a glorious sunset.
He heard the hover car’s familiar hum before seeing it. So much for paradise, he thought. Moira tensed. A moment later the mud splattered official blue vehicle came into view through the tree line, turned off the narrow track that wound its way north and headed directly for the house. Moira rose and rushed inside.
The car stopped a respectful distance away, then settled onto the ground as Townsend Bloxham killed the engine. He stepped out with a warm smile, waving lightly. Of average height he had short chestnut colored hair, a weathered brow and open manner. He was what passed for a government representative on the thinly governed planet. A combination park ranger and sheriff, fixer of all disputes, he was well regarded except for those living outside the law. He was dressed in his official shirt, a faded green with the equally faded sunburst of the Empire over his heart. Otherwise he wore hiking boots and a floppy tan hat.
From the side of the car emerged a couple, a small framed woman, the man considerably taller. They wore khaki outdoor clothes such as you might see at a costume ball or on safari. Well, Zanthos 3 had a way of bringing out the adventurer in visitors, if only in their apparel.
As they approached, walking three abreast, Graham observed how lovely the woman was. For the duration of her visit she’d be the most attractive female on the planet, not that there were that many. The man smiled, taking in the exotic site of the thatched roof house with its spacious veranda, its cozy position nestled amid oversized boulders with a scattering of hearty plants.
“Hello Graham,” Townsend said removing his beaten hat. “You’re looking comfortable.”
“I am indeed. Please come up.”
The veranda extended from the house some six meters, running along the wall facing west and the roadway. Made of wooden blanks it was fitted with comfortable furniture crafted by Xolasa, Graham’s headman. The three visitors stepped up and Townsend said, “Graham, allow me to present the Lady Ariana Strickland and her assistant, Hedwig Paxton.”
Graham rose in place. The woman nodded while Paxton extended his hand. “Have a seat,” Graham said. “The accommodations are primitive but I find them comfortable. Would you care for a drink?”
“That would be nice,” Paxton said. “It was a long trip from Freetown.”
Graham called out something in the local dialect as they all took a seat. “You have a lovely place,” Paxton commented amiably.
“Thank you. I was lucky to get it. It’s not much but its home.”
“You’ve lived here long, Mr. Roderick?” the woman asked.
“Over ten years now.”
“You don’t find it remote?”
“It is remote, intentionally so. I enjoy the quiet.”
They chatted for a few minutes until Xolasa came from the open doorway with a burnished metal tray bearing drinks. Slender and well-muscled, he wore light trousers stopping at mid-calf, was barefoot and a bare chested. About his neck was a heavy bronze chain with an attached fetish. His skin was a light mahogany, darkened by the sun from a lifetime spent outdoors.
“We have irek, which is the local concoction,” Graham said. “If you’ve not yet tried it I recommend this version. It’s not as strong and bit smoother than the usual variety. I see we have water if you prefer. If you like I’ve got a bottle of Myonian brandy and some purple Heladian wine. I’m fresh out of beer so that’s it I’m afraid.”
“I’ll try the irek,” Paxton said lifting a glass. He was the largest of the three men, a bit over 30 in appearance though his actual age was difficult to establish. He was fit and moved with a certain cat-like grace that suggested he knew how to take care of himself. He was a handsome man though with that slightly inbred look common to the Inner Worlds with a fair complexion though his gray eyes were set perhaps a bit too close and his lips rested with a slightly petulant expression.
“Water for me,” the woman said, then waited for Xolasa to place it before her.
Townsend took a glass of irek without comment. Once he’d taken a sip he said directly, “We’ve come to see if you’d be interested in guiding an expedition into the bubble.”
Graham shook his head. “No. Those days are over I think. It’s time to enjoy what’s left of life.”
“We understand you’re the best hunter on the planet. You are also widely regarded as the finest guide,” Paxton said.
Graham laughed softly. “People say things like that mostly because I’ve lasted the longest. There aren’t many old guides. I’ve been lucky.”
“Still,” the woman said, “we’d like to hire you.”
“There are others. I can recommend two to you I know to be excellent.”
“We want you,” she said. The Lady Strickland was in her late 20s, though when it came to the well off from the Inner Worlds Graham had no confidence in such a judgment. Genetic modifications, enhancements and modern cosmetics made accuracy impossible if the woman had enough money and a commitment to her appearance. She struck him as a slightly undersized version of a grown adult with delicate features, blond hair and pale blue eyes.
“As I said, I’m moving into retirement these days. I’m not interested.”
“I’ll pay you well,” the woman said forcefully. “At least double your usual rate.”
Graham took a sip before speaking. “Why do you want to go into the bubble? Neither of you look like hunters, certainly not the usual type who hire me.”
Neither answered then Townsend spoke. “You recall Thornton’s last safari? It was a year ago.”
“Out of Newcastle?” Graham asked. “Yes. He was a good man. Has there been any word?”
“None,” Paxton said a bit aggressively. “That’s why we’re here.”
When Graham said nothing the woman added, “Mr. Thornton was hired by my husband. I’m here to find him.”
Graham leaned back in his chair and drew on the pipe. It was out. He set it down then took a slow drink before speaking. “Lord Strickland, of course. I should have made the connection immediately. My condolences.”
The woman flushed. “That’s exactly why we are here, Mr. Roderick. My husband may well not be dead. But if he is, I need proof, not just assumptions.”
Townsend shifted awkwardly in place. Graham lifted his pipe. “May I?”
She nodded ascent. “My father and husband both indulged. I have no objection here in the open.”
Graham lit the pipe carefully, drawing several puffs before speaking. “Lady Strickland, the typical safari duration is 10 days, some have gone in for 30. I once took one into the bubble for 43 days; it’s the longest on record. The longest, I might add, that returned. Guy Thornton and your husband have been missing nearly a year. If memory serves correctly this was a large expedition, something like 70 bearers. Even in the worst of circumstances someone should have returned with word, a request for help. No one has.”
“Precisely,” Ariana said. “No one has. And it is illogical to believe that everyone on such a large safari could have been killed. I know for a fact they were well armed and my husband is an excellent marksman. Some, perhaps all of them, must still be alive.”
Graham shook his head lightly. “We would have heard. And what would they be doing inside the bubble so long? I assure you, it is not a hospitable land. There is no civilized presence there.”
“I don’t have answers. Perhaps they are not able to come out. It is your area of expertise. You could speculate with more confidence than I can. There have been no proper search parties. I am not prepared to take the word of others, absent any evidence, that my husband is dead.”
Townsend cleared his throat. “Lady Strickland, search parties are simply too dangerous. They are as well expensive and the government doesn’t have the funds. Those who enter the bubble do so at their own risk.”
“What do you mean by ‘they are not able to come out’?” Graham asked.
“You tell me.”
“It’s a raw land, one with many dangers even to a well-organized and armed safari under able leadership. Forgive me if I tell you things you already know but I want you to understand my position in this. The bubble, as we call it, has been determined to be a nearly perfect sphere. It extends well into Zanthos 3. This is the only known planet with this phenomenon. The upper portion of the sphere, the bubble, covers more than a third of the planet which is 93% the size of Earth. Included within it are oceans, mountains, vast savannas, deserts, jungle, forest, all of it untamed. There is no permanent civilized presence within the bubble. When the settlers arrived 84 years ago they found a planet rich in wildlife but with little arable land. There are no minerals here in a concentration to profitably mine with the distances involved in export. Big game hunting on a primitive planet, and those few businesses needed to support it, was about all that was available. The settlers were a hearty group, mostly men wanting to escape the restraints of the Empire, a few women looking for adventure and a fresh start. For the last 50 years Zanthos 3 has attracted other adventurers from across the Empire. Rules are lax and the hunting, until recent years, has been prime.
“You likely also know that there is no indigenous sentient life on this planet. What the settlers did find, however, were tens of thousands of human savages. Over three hundred years ago there was a riot on a prison ship. The prisoners seized control and forced the crew to bring them here. Zanthos 3 had only just been discovered by a robot explorer on the outer edge of the Empire, really beyond it. They reasoned that it was going to be a very long time, if ever, before others came here. The prisoners believed they’d be safe for their lifetimes and that’s how it worked out.
“But being criminals they were incapable of organizing themselves into a proper society, at least that’s what the historians and anthropologists tell us. And even stripping their ship they had insufficient technology on which to build. The broke into groups that set about slaughtering each other. The survivors of the carnage descended into a state of savagery. That’s how the settlers found them, organized into generally hostile tribes. Most of the first generation, FirstGens as we call them, were soon subdued. They were no match for modern weapons. They also wanted what the settlers offered but they preferred their own tribal structure to assimilation. There were also plenty who wanted no part of the new order. These vanished into the bubble. We don’t have any problems with the FirstGens today. They serve as expedition bearers, sometimes as handymen, but for the most part they stick to themselves. Those on the inside are another story.”
Paxton cleared his throat. “What you’ve saying is you believe the Thornton expedition was overcome by these primitives.”
“That or they were attacked by a pride of satars. The survivors would have been easy pickings for the others.”
The woman sat erect and perfectly still.
After a moment Townsend said, “Lady Strickland wonders, if perhaps the FirstGens within the bubble might have taken her husband prisoner, perhaps as a slave.”
“I’ve never heard of such an occurrence.” Graham eyed the woman evenly. “Forgive my frankness, but in my experience they always kill. They are lightly organized into hunting groups. A prisoner would have to be fed. They might take a woman I suppose but I can’t imagine them seizing a man.”
“You’ve had many encounters with these… people,” Paxton asked.
“Just two. We beat them off both times. I’m basing my opinion largely on what the other guides have told me.”
“Still,” the woman said after a moment, “I’m prepared to take the risk if there is any chance at all my husband is still alive.”
“Lady Strickland, there are just four points at which safaris enter the bubble. Your typical expedition goes no more than 50 kilometers from the outer wall, a handful have gone as far as 100. The vast interior which makes up nearly all of the bubble has never been explored, it has never even been mapped. It cannot be seen from without and, as I’m sure you know, absolutely nothing electronic works within it. It is terra incognita as the ancients used to say. There is no hope of finding your husband, even if what you assert is true. An expedition would simply flounder about until it ran out of resources and was forced to return. Unless it was slaughtered first.”
“I accept that logically my husband is lost. I’m not a fool. But if there is a chance everyone is mistaken, if there is any chance at all, I must pursue it. What will it take to convince you to lead this expedition?”
“Understand Graham,” Paxton said using his name for the first time, “we are going, with or without you. Townsend tells us our chances are best with you so here we are. If you really turn us away we’ll hire someone else.”
“But I mean to have you,” the woman said.
Graham smiled. “And why is that?”
“Because you don’t want to do it. Mr. Bloxham cautioned me. I want you because you are the most experienced. Because…” she paused as if considering her next words then said, “… you are old. You have this.” She gestured at his modest home. “And you will be careful. Life is more precious the closer to the end we come. I mean to come back alive and my best chance, for finding my husband and returning, is with you.”
“Why must you go? You can hire any number of guides to led search parties into the bubble. There is no reason for you to risk yourself like this.”
“I must do this personally. I have relied on others until now and it has got me nowhere. The people on whom I depend mislead me routinely. I must do it myself because that is the only way I will know for certain.”
Graham eased back in his chair. His pipe was out again. “You wouldn’t mind if I spoke with Townsend in private?” The woman shook her head. “Xolasa will see to your needs. I won’t be long.”
Graham gestured for Townsend to follow him off the veranda. The man finished his drink in a gulp and followed. Near the tree line Graham kicked at a stone. “Who are these people?” he asked.
“Lady Strickland is the only child of Lord Bernard Thacker. In case you’ve lost touch, he owns, or controls, a large part of the Empire’s interplanetary shipping. He’s a life peer on the Privy Council. And he is regarded as one of the 100 richest men in the realm. Her husband, Robert, came from titled lands and old money. He was a bit of a playboy when they met. From all accounts he was quite taken by here and settled down to win her hand. Paxton is an aide to Lord Thacker. As I understand it, her father could not prevent this expedition so insisted Paxton come along.”
“This is nonsense. The man is dead. And if this Lord Thacker is as rich and powerful as you say then he is in a position to stop her.”
Townsend smiled indulgently. “I can tell you have a son and not a daughter. The man can deny her nothing. Trust me in this.”
“You’re right. I don’t understand. This Paxton I take it is a bodyguard.”
“After a fashion, but much more. He has Lord Thacker’s confidence. He’s here to protect her, to make sure she’s not taken advantage off and to talk common sense to her, if possible. She can be very strong willed. It was the best her father could get her to agree to.” He paused, then asked, “Are you going to do it?”
“I’m thinking. I have every reason to say no. Frankly, to conduct even a rudimentary search could take months. I don’t like our chances of surviving so long in the bubble. It’s become more and more dangerous these last years.”
“As I thought. So why consider it at all?”
“My son.” Graham paused. “I’m 56 and I’m reaching the end of my life, certainly of my productive years. This is likely my last chance to leave him something.” He gazed back towards the couple. “Let’s go back.”
As they reached the house Moira was just vanishing through the open doorway.
“I see you have an Arethian,” Paxton said, with more than a bit of envy.
“Moira, yes. She’s been here since she was a child.”
The Arethians were a sentient race from Ashur. Virtually identical to humans there had once been a thriving industry in their export. They’d not been slaves, not exactly, but their tendency to form a fixed attachment to whoever they lived with made the distinction irrelevant. The woman were universally lovely creatures with golden skin, oddly colored azure eyes, short thin fair hair, and small ears nearly pinned back to their head. There was a male version but few in the Empire had ever seen one. It was the women who had been in demand, for obvious reasons. They disliked clothing and slipped it off at every opportunity. They were naturally affectionate, like a cat or loyal dog, and that affection had been misunderstood by men who wanted to misunderstand it. Their dependency had made them highly desirable bedmates. The two races could not breed so for lonely men on distant planets where few human women ventured and for perverts in the Inner Worlds they had been ideal. Possession of an Arethian in the Empire was now outlawed, though it was rumored some illegally still existed. Here on the Outer Worlds they were uncommon but not unknown.
Twilight had turned to night. Graham glanced westward, regretting the sunset he’d missed. On the veranda he remained standing as he spoke to the woman. “I’d like to think this over tonight. I’ll give you an answer tomorrow. If I chose to do this it will be my last expedition and I will want a substantial fee for it. And there is this Lady Strickland. I want you to give what I say your most serious consideration. This isn’t a lark. It’s easy to say you’ll do anything to find your husband. The reality inside the bubble is very different. I’ve seen rugged men, men in whom I had every confidence, crack and become small children. I could take you to the nearby FirstGen camp and show you such broken creatures, men once as brave as any who ever existed, who quake at the mere mention of the bubble. You’re are right to think I’ll be cautious but you will still be placing yourself in great danger. I will contact Townsend with my answer. In the meanwhile, I urge you to reconsider.”
They met the next day for an early lunch at the Sportsman Club in Freetown. The dining room was unoccupied, while a few old timers sat at the bar in the adjoining room, swapping lies, drinks in their fist, tobacco smoke lingering in the air. Graham had provided a list of his conditions to Townsend late the previous night and a lawyer had been drawing up the contract since earlier that day. For now it was just Paxton and Graham. Each had a glass of Zanthos ale as they waited.
“Townsend tells me that part of your job is to try and talk Lady Strickland out of this lunacy,” Graham said.
Paxton nodded. “I spent three months aboard ship trying to do just that with no success. Now that we are here and see how primitive it all is I’m hoping common sense will assert itself. I’ve told her I can go in her place, or in the alternative she can hire a number of deep penetration search parties. She’ll be right here to see that they do it right.”
“No success. I’ll keep trying.”
“The bubble is no place for a woman, certainly not a lady.”
“I agree. Certainly it is no place for Ariana. Have you guided women previously?”
“Just the one time. They are generally considered bad luck and the FirstGens don’t like them coming.”
“How did it go?”
“She was with her husband. She complained a lot and was difficult to get along with but nothing I’ve not encountered with men.” Graham sipped his drink then said, “You knew Sir Robert?”
“Oh yes. I worked for him with Ariana’s father. Not that he did all that much. A job was a condition of the marriage you see. In fact, you could say I did his job.”
“What kind of man was he?”
Paxton’s face assumed a mask. Finally he spoke. “That’s an awkward question.”
“It will help if I’m to find him. If he was a risk taker then that could lead me one direction, if not then another. If he was pragmatic, I can form a certain conclusion. If he was a dreamer, then another. You understand? The trail will be very cold and I need all the help I can get.”
Paxton was immersed in thought for a long minute then said, “You understand what I say must be in confidence. Should you speak of it to others it will not only ruin my career but could have far reaching consequences. Lord Thacker loves his only child but in the business world he is utterly ruthless. You understand?”
“I do. You will have no trouble from me. I need your help.”
“You think we can find him?”
“No. It is all but impossible I’d say. We have a remote chance of learning what happened as it was such a large expedition and will have left a trail and have been observed by the FirstGens inside. To find an answer I think is the best we can expect.”
“As I thought. So… Sir Robert. He’s from a wealthy family, of course. He’d always been a ladies man, as they say, though there is nothing unusual in that for men of his standing.”
“Lady Strickland is a lovely woman from a respected and wealthy family herself.”
“Yes, of course. What that meant though was that her choices were really rather limited. And they were not all that different from Sir Robert. But in the end she married him because her father wanted her to.”
“Lord Thacker wished to merge the two family businesses. In so doing he increased his percentage of interplanetary transport and obtained several lucrative monopolies.”
“I see. And beyond the obvious, what kind of man was he?”
“How can I say this? I’ve never spoken of him aloud you see. He was a pleasant man, amiable. He always seemed weak to me but then as with Ariana he had a very domineering father so it’s to be expected. He was a bit of a risk taker. I don’t know if he’d have been that way inside the bubble but I often saw it working with him.” He paused. “To understand this let me say that, to my surprise and I think to him, he came to love Ariana. That explains everything actually.”
To Graham it explained nothing but it was clear that Paxton had finished with the subject, for now at least. To change the subject Graham asked, “So how do you find our lovely planet?”
“Fascinating. I’ve never visited any place like it. Of course, I’d read up on it before coming, watched the vids and took a few sim trips, but nothing really prepared me for the original. It isn’t a bit civilized, is it?”
Graham laughed. “Not much, no. A wise observation. There are about 25,000 inhabitants now, not counting the FirstGens. We estimate them at a couple hundred thousand.”
“Your servant, he’s a FirstGen I take it?”
“Xolasa, yes. He’s hardly a servant though. We were boyhood friends. He’s been my headman since I started out as a guide. For years he lived near me with his own family but his surviving children are all grown now with lives of their own and his wife died a few years ago. He just started spending more time with me and now sleeps out back in a small hut he built.”
“He’s not much of a talker is he?”
“None of the FirstGens are with strangers.”
“What is the dialect you spoke?”
“Their descendants were from different planets and races. After the first bout of butchery they broke into tribes based on ethnicity and language. Over the centuries, with all the wife stealing, they’ve melded a bit racially but still speak five distinct dialects. I grew up with the major one, Burak, and over the years have picked up three others.”
“And your woman?” There was just the trace of envy in his question.
“If you want to get crossways with me I can think of no easier path for you.” Graham eyed the man steadily before continuing. “Moira was my daughter’s name. I can’t pronounce this Moira’s real name. Her mother was imported by a local trader. I never knew the man. She was already pregnant it turned out. He was violent and cruel I’m told. When Moira was a child she watched him beat her mother to death. She fled into the bush. A few weeks later she showed up at my place. She’s been with me ever since. You should consider that I gave her my late daughter’s name.”
“Of course, I meant no offense. It’s just…”
“Yes, I know.”
Just then the Lady Strickland entered the room. Women were not permitted in the bar no matter what the Imperial parliament said about equality but could join a member in the dining room. Graham and Paxton rose. “No need for formality gentlemen,” she said as she sat. “This is, after all, the frontier. I’m starving. What do you recommend Mr. Roderick?”
Graham suggested a local delicacy, the closet thing the planet had to beef. The Lady Strickland stared intently at it when the plate was placed before her. “I must live rugged I suppose.”
“Have you had meat before, Lady?” Graham asked.
“Once, on a dare. You certainly drive a hard bargain, Mr. Roderick. My lawyers will be shocked when they receive my transmission. I’ve signed your contract without alteration. Congratulations. You are now a modestly rich man.”
“Not me. My son. As you know, the money goes into his account on Primas 2. He’s in boarding school there. He’ll soon graduate and begin study for a profession. I’m placing the money in trust and he will receive it only as he needs to support himself. He’ll receive the balance when he’s 35 and able to make mature decisions about it.”
“Wise. Forgive me if I ask something inopportune but I know little about your life and we are about to embark on an adventure. You were married then?”
“Yes, late in life. My wife Esther came here with her immigrant parents. She died when my son, Jason, was six. I was forced to place him in boarding school as there was nowhere suitable on Zanthos 3. He’s 17 now. I’ve seen him twice in 10 years.”
“A hard life, Graham,” Paxton said. “Even with Lady Strickland’s yacht we were three months reaching here. I’m told the usual transit time is four to six months with at least two layovers. Just four ships a year arrive at Zanthos 3. Amazing.”
“It is remote. You get used to it. Most of the time few of us consider ourselves subjects of the Empire. As for the other, I never expected to marry. I saw few happy ones – my parents were an exception – but most were overcome with difficulties and early death. But once I’d taken the step there was no turning back.”
“I live on Primus 2,” Lady Strickland said. “Perhaps when I get back I can be of assistance to your son.”
“Thank you but I prefer he make his own way in the world. Too much privilege is as destructive as too little.”
Before anyone could respond they were served. Lady Strickland carved a piece, eyed it skeptically, then cautiously chewed it. “My, very nice, isn’t it?”
Paxton ate without hesitation. He paused between bites and said, “Zanthos 3 doesn’t appear to be thriving, Mr. Roderick.”
“No. Regulation of hunting proved impossible. The big game was shot out more than 15 years ago. Hunters all want the bubble now. A lot of game migrated through the wall and, of course, at first no one hunted there anyway. There was no reason. But now it’s all that’s left and the number of hunters isn’t enough to support the planet. Everybody is pretty much just scraping by, an odd job here or there, a small subsistence plot, a patch of tobacco, a bit of mining hoping to strike something rich enough to justify export.”
“Do you think the planet can survive?” the Lady Strickland asked.
“Zanthos 3 will do just fine, better without us. But I can see the day when the trading ships stop coming. People will be forced to leave. We’ll be down to an annual subsidized ship bringing what supplies we can pay for and a few hunters. That will only support a population of a 1,000 or so. It’s been the fate of other Outer Worlds and it will be ours. The FirstGens will be back in their glory, slaughtering one another. Fortunately it will happen after I’m long gone.”
“Tell us more about the bubble,” Paxton asked. “I suspect it’s like Zanthos itself, you can watch the vids and take part in the sims but they don’t really prepare you for the reality.”
“You saw the wall to your left as you drove out to my place yesterday.”
“Yes,” the Lady Strickland said. “It was a sort of shimmering blue. It seemed transparent but I couldn’t make anything out inside. And it appeared to vanish into the sky.”
“That’s about it. As the wall rises it retreats towards the top of the sphere so it appears, from the ground, to just vanish. The wall itself is two kilometers thick. It’s like passing through a heavy mist.”
“Is there any sensation?” she asked.
“A very mild prickling, like static electricity. It discourages wildlife from casually moving into or out of the bubble. I’m so used to the sensation I hardly notice but newcomers invariably comment on it.”
“And inside?” Paxton asked.
“The wall doesn’t stop weather but it tends to inhibit it, so wind, rain and such are not as violent as they can be on the outside though there are significant storms. There is, for example, no lightening within the bubble. Sunshine is diminished by about 8% I’m told but your eyes adjust quickly and you don’t notice the difference. It’s hard to get a sun burn so that’s a plus. The nights are quite different but I’ll let you experience that for yourself. Some trees and brush don’t thrive inside, others do so it has a different look. There is wildlife in the bubble we’ve never seen out here and a lot of big, and dangerous, game we used to hunt here that migrated in to escape us. Generally, its rugged country with all that implies; it’s vast with mountains and rivers, but there are tranquil places, lush with grass and well-branched trees, lakes, sparkling streams. But as I told you yesterday, I’ve only seen the smallest part of it and no one has ever been much beyond the wall. We have no idea what is in the interior and it is big enough for almost anything.”
“I assume it’s been studied?” Paxton asked.
“Not as much as you’d expected given how unusual it is. In my lifetime just three teams have come but they were limited to direct observation inside the bubble as noting requiring power works. Outside they can measure and test all they want but nothing penetrates. One of the teams placed a synchronous orbiting satellite to study it long term but nothing came of it. I don’t think science knows much more about it then the first settlers determined some 80 years ago.”
“What have they concluded?” Lady Strickland said. “Is it artificial or natural?”
“They don’t know. The general assumption is that it’s a natural phenomenon. There are those who disagree but to accept that it is an artificial creation raises too many questions. So far, at least, it’s the only one known to exist. And it’s good we have it.”
“Why is that?” she asked.
“The natural tendency of a planet is to wobble on its axis. This creates extremes in weather, making many planets uninhabitable. There are, if memory serves me correctly, something like 250 inhabitable planets in the Inner Worlds yet only 33 have any human presence to speak of because of this effect. They have at least one substantial moon like the Earth has to serve as a counterweight and stabilize the planet’s rotation.”
“You’re quite the scientist, Mr. Roderick.”
“Not really. I just have a lot of time on my hands. My point is that scientists believe the bubble has the same effect on Zanthos 3 as the planet has no significant moon.”
“What about legends, Mr. Roderick?” Lady Strickland asked. “I read a few.”
Graham smiled. “You can’t have somewhere as remote and mysterious as the interior of the bubble without stories. The settlers made up plenty of their own when they first arrived and were trying to understand it – mountains of pure gold, stream beds of diamonds, lost cities, remnants of the Olenos, that sort of thing. Not a shred of evidence you understand, just stories. Once the FirstGens went inside there were more stories. From time-to-time one comes out. I suspect they get crossways with their group or perhaps are just curious. Of course, they tell wonderful stories, but that’s human nature.”
“Which brings to mind a question I’ve been meaning to ask. Is there any evidence of the Olenos on Zanthos 3?”
The explosive expansion of humanity into space had been unanticipated. In the mid-21st century it seemed that a weary and exhausted Earth had no future beyond self-annihilation. But there continued to be steady progress in space exploration into the solar system, primarily motivated by mining companies and nations interesting in acquiring minerals now rare on Earth. Not long after ships were developed for these deep space solar system probes, the hyper drive had been developed. Manned interstellar exploration was initially determined to be too costly so robot exploration vessels were dispatched, programmed to seek out specific objectives. Within a half century more than a dozen habitable worlds had been identified along with numerous other planets and asteroids suitable for profitable mining. By this time manufacturing ships to utilize the hyper drive had proven no more difficult than manufacturing those for use within the solar system as the duration of the voyages had been nearly the same. The result was the rapid spread of humanity into this sector of the galaxy.
Planets were initially settled by nations, religious groups seeking isolation and by mining concerns. It was chaotic and dangerous. Fortunes were made but mostly they were lost. There was no order or governing body. Into this hegemony stepped a British visionary who persuaded the U.K. Parliament to grant colonial charters to certain planets. Within decades the stability and cooperation this system brought made the British colonies the most prosperous. Five hundred years earlier a duke on Primus 2 had constructed warships on a scale not previous seen. With this fleet he took control of most of the heavily populated planets and declared himself king then later emperor, styling himself Edward I. What followed was the steady consolidation of the Empire and increased expansion to habitable worlds. The constant struggle for control between parliament and the emperor resulted in three civil wars but for the last two centuries the contending parties had at last seemed to agree on a division of power.
The once steady expansion of the empire had ended even before Graham was born. The distances involved were so vast that control at the outer edges was uncertain. Until the next development of an improved hyper drive it appeared the empire would remain in stasis.
As mankind settled habitable planets the remnants of an ancient civilization known as the Oleno were discovered. More than 50,000 years old, the remains, uncovered from growth or overfill, held their secrets close. Little was understood about the Oleno except that they had been humanoid, highly civilized, and that they had vanished without a trace.
“Are there any legends you think might be true?” Lady Strickland asked.
“None that come to mind. Do have a reason for asking?”
“The night before Robert left he sent me his final transmission. He’d apparently talked with one of these FirstGens from inside the bubble. He was very taken with a story of a distant lost city, streets of gold, secret powers, crystals, like Atlantis of ancient Earth or Zendario of Myonia, that sort of thing. He was going inside to hunt but said if he heard of this lost city he would pursue it. That’s why I ask.”
“You think perhaps that’s where he is then?”
“I know it’s foolish. There is no lost city. I’m just saying he had another objective when he entered. And if he’d found signs that supported its existence or received word he might very well have given up the hunt and gone after it. I know, it’s all foolishness. I’ve been laughed at enough for it all. But of such stories comes uncertainty.”
Graham said nothing. What could he say to such nonsense?
“What about the FirstGens who live inside?” Paxton asked, changing the subject.
“Savages. But to be fair they tend to leave us alone. The two times I was attacked I was guiding small parties and they felt the risk was worth it. From the bodies I examined afterward they looked pretty hungry. It can be a hard life inside without modern weapons.”
“Which brings us to the big question,” Paxton said. “What can we take inside?” He licked his lips in anticipation.
“Prepare yourselves for culture shock. No communication devices of any kind, nothing requiring an energy source. Devices you rely on without thought are worthless. Don’t take them. Nothing associated with our time will function within the bubble. Our weapons are primitive; no blasters. They are modeled after weapons from the 19th and 20th centuries on Earth. Rifles and handguns firing solid projectiles, driven by chemical combustion. I’ve tried rocket projectiles but the dampening field doesn’t like them much and I gave them up.”
“Will the bearers be armed?” he asked.
“The bearers will carry a bladed weapon called an umbopa, like an ancient machete. There are places where they are handy and there have been times when I’ve needed them to fight with them. We will carry the main weapons, along with Xolasa and his key men.”
“That seems pretty light,” Paxton said.
“It is. The bearers can’t shoot with any accuracy. I’ve tried arming them in the past but it reduces how much they can carry and when two of my men were shot by others I gave it up. I take it you can both shoot?” The upper classes of the Inner Worlds had maintained the English custom of hunting.
“Yes,” the Lady Strickland said. “We also set up a sim range on my ship. My experience with the real thing is limited but I became proficient with the program.”
“I’m an avid hunter and an excellent shot,” Paxton said.
“We have some time before leaving. You’ll both have plenty of opportunity to practice with the weapons we’ll be using. I suggest you do some hunting as well.”
“If you insist,” she said.
“I do. This is no time to be squeamish. You are about to enter a violent world.”
That night Graham told Xolasa they’d be leaving on a final expedition in 10 days. The man grinned. “Good hunting I think, Inyati.”
“Yes, but we will not be there to hunt. We are searching for the Thornton Expedition.”
“They are dead.”
“Yes, of course. But the woman wants to find her husband, or at least know for certain he is dead.”
“Does she inherit much money if she can prove he is dead?”
“I don’t know. She has her own money so I don’t think that’s it.”
Xolasa’s forehead wrinkled in thought. “Then there is another reason.”
“Love. Perhaps she loves him.”
Xolasa laughed in a great roar. “You are funny, Inyati, a funny man.”
TO BE CONTINUED
If you enjoyed the beginning of The Lost City of Zanthos 3 then help me with the story. What should happen next? What will Roderick and the others discover when, or if, they find the Lost City? What role does AI play in the story? How should the book end? Only you will know if your ideas are used but this is a great opportunity to be part of the creative process of an amazing new book. Send your thoughts from Contact Me on the home page. Then check back as the story unfolds. Writing a book takes time so be patient. Look forward to hearing from you.