(If you are new to this story you can find Part One here!)
It was much warmer in the orchard, and though the wiry frames of the cherry trees offered little shade, the breeze upon the Swordsman’s back was as welcome as it was refreshing. Such heat was to be expected. It was the natural climate of the place, and at this time of year he could have expected little else.
Certainly, he had travelled through worse. The vast and grassy steppes, where there was no wind, no shade, and no cover from bandits or predators. Before even that, the Gobi, an eternity of sand and nothing else.
There had been times, too many to note the exact number, where the thought had occurred to him that he might surely die there, his body stripped of liquid by the cruel heat, lungs dry and filled with sand.
By day, the Gobi had been a delirious hellscape, stretching eternally into the distance. It had taunted the Swordsman with the promise of escape, beyond every dune would lie civilisation, or at the very least water, sustenance, and the possibility of freedom. In haste he would scale the dunes, and then the maddening reality would take hold once more. When the sun set, the nightmare took on a different form entirely, but it was no less terrible, and no less cruel.
In time the Swordsman realised why the desert mocked him so. Its illusions and falsehoods were designed to tire him, and then, when in desperation, he finally admitted he could take no more, it would break him so that the sands might feast upon his corpse. It would happen to him as it had happened to countless others who naively believed they could cross the desert alone. The Gobi’s hunger was insatiable, and it never let its prey go free.
Such thoughts gave birth to anger in the Swordsman’s heart. Anger at the land for its cruelty, anger at himself for his weakness, and an anger most powerful of all, that he might die here, his task incomplete. He roared unto the heavens, screaming with such ferocity that God himself might have shook in terror. The flames of wrath engulfed the Swordsman’s heart that day, and filled his body with the furious energy of their dread purpose.
That night he was reborn. Determination renewed, he marched long into the night and much of the next day, allowing the flames to fuel him. Hunger and thirst became immaterial, sleep, irrelevant. It was the power inside that drove him now, and would ultimately take him from that terrible place, to pass through grassy steppes to a blossom-filled valley, and an orchard in its midst.
The interior of the Smithsonian was brighter than Captain Thrace had expected it to be. It was still shrouded in shadows where auxiliary lighting systems had failed to come back online, but the illumination from those that had was more than enough to see by. All the same he felt uncomfortably exposed to those few shadows that lingered.
‘Won’t be able to use the infraspex in here,’ Grundig had muttered glumly. ‘One wrong turn and you’ll blind yourself.’
‘It’s not that bad,’ Thrace has said, though he knew his sergeant’s complaints weren’t really about the lighting at all. There was something about the craft that had made them all uneasy the second they had set foot inside. Perhaps it was just the shadows, or maybe it was the thought of that giant thing that might well be lurking in them even now.
Amos had dropped down into the ship first. He was nervous from the start, that much was obvious. What he had seen had spooked him, and it had left him even more jittery than before. After a few deep breaths to build up his confidence he had leapt, more than climbed, down the funnel, landing with a painfully loud clatter at the bottom.
It had taken all of Thrace’s control to keep from shouting a reprimand, but the damage was done, and besides the private was frightened enough as it was. Though, he didn’t stop Sergeant Grundig clipping the boy on the side of his helmet.
The brightness had been the first thing to hit them, causing their infraspex visors to immediately deactivate, a safety protocol to prevent amplified light from damaging the wearer’s retinas. When his natural eyes readjusted he was greeted by an array of flashing lights and the soft hum of a dozen computer banks that lined the walls of the craft in a circle. Steps on either side led down to the computer banks, and two large terminals with integrated seats sat opposite them. It seemed pretty standard for a science vessel, though the scale was twice that which Thrace had expected. It seemed as though it had been designed with someone much taller, and larger in bulk than a standard human being.
‘I’m not getting a good feeling from this,’ said Grundig. ‘Big ship, but where’s the crew? Crash this size there should be bodies, or signs of bodies. Where’s the blood?’
Amos gave his sergeant an anxious look. ‘Perhaps they got out.’
‘Not likely,’ said Thrace. ‘You saw that hatch. It was still pressure locked, and besides, the power’s only just come back online. If there was ever anyone on this craft, they’re still here.’
‘That’s a point,’ said Grundig. ‘Why has the power only just come back online?’
Thrace considered the question for the moment, but it was Amos who broke the silence. He was standing next to one of the terminals, peering up at the readout. ‘Because all the power was diverted to something else, sir.’
Both Thrace and Grundig turned at once, and joined the private at the terminal. Code that neither of them could understand was flickering in and out of existence, but there was one line that stood out in the sea of gibberish: SARCOPHAGUS: ACTIVE. RE-ROUTING POWER TO SECONDARY SYSTEMS.
Grundig frowned. ‘Sarco-what?’
‘Sarcophagus, sir,’ corrected Amos. ‘It comes from an old tradition of burying the dead in cases, normally wooden or carved from stone.’
Grundig scowled. ‘I know what a sarcophagus is, private. What I don’t understand is why some dead body is hogging all the ship’s power.’
‘Because it’s not dead,’ said Thrace, suddenly understanding what he was looking at. ‘And it’s not that kind of sarcophagus. It’s a life-pod. The crew must have activated the pods when a crash was inevitable. They had no way of telling how long it would take before a rescue party arrived.’
‘Maybe,’ said Grundig, ‘but then why is there only one? It doesn’t say sarcophaguses.’
‘Sarcophagi,’ muttered Amos. He looked down as Grundig gave him a murderous look.
Thrace backed away from the terminal, following the line of flashing computer banks until he found a gap. He had noticed the blackness when they first descended into the craft, but had disregarded it. Now it seemed a lot more significant. He slowly wandered towards, raising his wrist-light with one hand and his spit-gun in the other.
As he approached he breathed a sigh of relief and lowered the weapon. There was another hatch, not entirely unlike the one they had just climbed down from, but this one served a different purpose.
‘Form up,’ he said. ‘I’ve found the way into the lower decks.’
Obediently the two soldiers did as he said. Amos pulled his spit-gun and aimed it at the hatch, ready to shoot if anything unpleasant poked its head out. Grundig, the strongest of the three, reached down and pulled at the manual release. It took all his strength, but eventually he was able to wrench it free, bringing the hatch’s lid up with a high-pitched whine.
‘Never seen one locked so tight,’ he gasped.
Tight for us, thought Thrace. He was growing increasingly unsure that the vessel had ever been designed for humans at all.
A series of rungs ran the depth of the ship, and with every metre they descended the darkness grew, until it became too dark to see and only by the guidance of infraspex could they hope to carry on further. It was becoming apparent that the ship was a lot bigger even than Thrace had initially thought. On their way down they passed whole levels filled with scientific apparatus the likes of which he had never seen. Lines of test-tubes, filled with luminescent liquids housed strange and twisted looking organisms that defied description, and made him feel increasingly nauseous.
Quick scans of these levels told them that there was nothing alive amongst the twisted forms, so they continued their descent, mindful that every level brought them closer and closer to the heart of the ship.
With some surprise Thrace discovered that he could go no further. Instead of finding another rung, his foot impacted with a solid metal surface, and he carefully and silently backed away from the tunnel, signalling to the others before doing so, that they had reached the bottom. Then he turned his attention to his surroundings. Unlike the other levels that had seemed a mess of equipment, scattered by the crash, this level seemed almost entirely untouched, and almost empty. A large system of cables ran beneath a grated floor, emerging at the centre of the room where they congregated with a multitude of other cables and wires before disappearing into a large coffin shaped object.
‘So this is the tomb?’ whispered Grundig who had just stepped out behind him. ‘Not exactly fit for a king now is it?’
‘Or a queen, sir,’ said Amos.
Thrace ignored them and stepped forward, cautiously at first, then quicker as it became clear that there were no traps or hidden defence turrets. Such things were non-standard on civilian ships, but there was little that could be described as standard about the Smithsonian.
Stepping carefully over the wires he rounded on the sarcophagus. It was pitch black. Even through his infraspex he could not make out any of the details on its surface. Behind him Amos and Grundig looked around for some way to illuminate the room. The private was looking decidedly queasy, until he stumbled over a thick cable, falling forward and hitting a panel with an outstretched hand. No sooner had his palm touched the panel than the whole room was flooded with blinding white light.
Thrace screwed up his eyes as the infraspex deactivated and then slowly opened them again. As if in response, the lights had dimmed considerably, leaving all but the sarcophagus in a hazy gloom. Lines of green neon that he hadn’t even noticed before, sparkled along the cabling. Once more his eyes were drawn to the massive coffin-like shape, its surface now lit up so brightly that it took a moment for him to adjust to its intensity.
A glass surface covered the sarcophagus, housed in a cradle of obsidian. The glass was clouded by a smoky gaseous substance that was not quite frost, but not quite steam, that danced around its length, constantly obscuring the device’s inhabitant. He peered forward, placing a hand upon the glass as though he could wipe away the smoke and reveal what lay within.
‘Gaw-ramn it,’ said Grundig. ‘This is what we were sent here to retrieve? This is why command wants the ship so badly?’
‘Seems like it,’ said Thrace, still peering into the murky depths. He narrowed his eyes as a wisp of smoke shifted momentarily, exposing something far below. He gasped and backed away, dropping his spit-gun and almost tripping over a cable.
‘What?’ asked Grundig. He raised his weapon and aimed it squarely at the sarcophagus. ‘What’s in there?’ At his side Amos was backing away too, his eyes wide, and his mouth agape. ‘What the hell’s got into you two?’
Then he saw it too.
‘Old Earth,’ he gasped. ‘That’s a bloody Prefect!’