By Barbara Krasnoff
WHAT THE HELL IS IT? thought Gracie, staring, horrified, at the shiny—thing—that lay in her lap. That wasn’t what she said, of course. Out loud, she enthused, “Oh, thank you! It’s lovely.”
“What is it, dear?” asked her mother.
“Um ...” She lifted the stainless-steel object from its wrapping and exhibited it to the assembled women, who dutifully oohed and aahed. The thingamabob was flat and shaped in a stylized figure eight. Was it a wall decoration? Gracie wondered. A religious symbol? A torture device?
“Pull it out,” said Linda. “Like an accordion.”
Gracie obediently pulled on the two parts of the eight, and they stretched out into something resembling a slim infinity symbol.
“How interesting. It’s a ... it’s something called a ...” Gracie turned it upside down, and squinted at the tiny lettering on the underside. “A topfundyseltzer?”
“Topfuntersetzer,” said Linda, who was at the refreshments table, piling a third helping of potato salad onto her plate. “It’s German. It means a trivet. It stretches out to fit any size pot.” She smiled brightly. “I saw it and thought immediately of you.”
“A German trivet. That’s so sweet,” Gracie murmured. She smiled brightly at Linda, and aimed a kiss in her direction, holding her pose while Gracie’s father took a couple of pictures. “I’ll treasure this always.”
She pushed the thing back into its original configuration, and put it carefully to one side while the rest of the women politely applauded. Her mother, who was carefully keeping track of each present in a small loose-leaf notebook, pursed her lips for a moment, and then wrote in neat block letters, “From Linda Graham. A German trivet.”
“What an ugly piece of junk,” whispered Gracie to her mother as she reached for the next package. “What on Earth should I do with it?”
Her mother shrugged. “Hide it away somewhere in the basement,” she whispered back as Gracie pulled a silver tea tray out of its wrappings. “Then give it to somebody else in a couple of years. Then they can worry about it.”
“Alert.” The small seek/find sent a signal to the geosat’s automatic monitor. “Metallic object detected. Assigned designation: UO45637. Initial determination of composition: Iron 64.84 percent, Nickel 12 percent, Chromium 20 percent, Carbon .08 percent, Manganese 2 percent, Silicon 1 percent, Phosphorus .05 percent, Sulfur .03 percent. Possible age: Indeterminate. Associated debris: Miscellaneous pieces of metallic and plastic remains, no categorization available. Surrounding layers currently being analyzed. Please note image and advise on action.”
In the geosat’s living quarters, high above the remains of the Earth, Jeorg read the report while he floated slowly around the cabin. As the current reigning star of the human archeological community, Jeorg had maneuvered himself into a sweet little position as the caretaker of Ark Inc.’s main investigative satellite. Associated perks included the latest equipment, the leisure to choose his own projects with little to no oversight, and a great deal of funding.
Jeorg’s first thought when the report came in was to simply order the robots to begin excavation. However, academic politics being what it was, he had to make at least some show of consulting his colleagues (especially when something as possibly sexy as an ancient alloy artifact turned up) or questions might be asked.
“Assignment,” Jeorge announced to the console. “Broadcast report concerning UO45637 to colleague list. Request immediately response. Deadline: 2300 GMT. Set alarm.” That gave whoever might be interested about two hours to respond. Jeorg anchored himself to a nearby wall to grab a quick nap.
“You have two responses,” his console told him when he woke. “Dr. Jain Mnesti and Dr. Melic Shavir have agreed on an informal meeting at 2400 GMT. You have confirmed.”
Jeorg pulled up a mirror image and spun it around to check that his bodysuit was still painted on properly—it was his favorite pattern, one which hopefully Melic (who wasn’t bad looking) would approve of. Not bad, he thought. A nice combination of artistic boldness with just a dash of intellectual carelessness. He shut down the mirror, sat back in his chair, and assumed an attitude of polite interest.
“Doctors Mnesti and Shavir have joined us,” announced the console.
Somebody cleared their throat. Jeorg looked up.
The images of his two colleagues floated at the other end of the craft. Jain, a tall bald woman of indeterminate age, sat decorously behind an antique workstation, obviously using her surroundings to indicate his status. Melic, a plump, fashionably tattooed duo-gender, was pacing restlessly, a habit that Jeorg found irritating, since it meant s/he flickered each time s/he hit the edge of the projection space. He tried to ignore the effect by staring vaguely at a point in between the two figures.
“Greetings,” he said formally. “Thank you for participating. Refer to my report on UO45637. What think you? Dig?”
“Absolutely,” Melic said. S/he stopped for a moment and flashed a smile his way. Calculated, certainly—s/he obviously returned Jeorg’s interest— but welcome nonetheless. “Old era, maybe. Certainly, composition indicates strong possibility. Graceful lines, probable art work.”
Jain shook her head so violently that her chinbraid whipped behind her. “Impossible to tell without surrounding evidence,” she hissed. “Otherwise, could be part of mechanical device, or children’s toy. Art value probably less than ten percent. More research on surrounding strata needed.”
“A labeled mechanical device?” Melic queried haughtily. “Doubtful. Late English lettering. Etched into alloy. Germanic inference. Meaning,” and s/he paused, checking the reference, “Pot under sitter. High probability is art reference to symbolic abstraction.”
Jain, obviously annoyed at being contradicted by a younger colleague, waved her hands furiously. “Idiotic. Check era references. First term reference to popular recreational foodstuff, occasionally proscribed by legal authorities. Artifact most likely farming implement.”
Melic shrugged. “Farming? With those graceful curves? And surrounding terrain not indicative of long-term cultivation.”
Jeorg let them argue for a few more minutes, while he watched Melic out of the corner of his eye and calculated the odds of a personal visit. Melic hated Jain, and wouldn’t hesitate to side with Jeorg just to piss off the old woman. But Jain had considerable standing in the community, and could make trouble if she got too angry.
It was time to intervene. “One moment,” Jeorg said, closing his eyes and scowling intensely. The other two waited politely. Finally, he looked up. “Artifact found alone,” he stated. “No evidence of other supporting objects. Will pass over and refer to historical specialists.”
Melic’s eyebrows drew down and s/he started pacing again while Jain applauded. “Done,” she exulted. “Right, as usual!” She made a rude gesture at Melic and disappeared.
Melic frowned at Jeorg. “Don’t understand,” s/he said, somewhat petulantly. “Obviously art work. Why decision?”
“Worry none,” Jeorg grinned. “Could change mind. Could change mind very soon.” He waved his hand around the geostat. “Perhaps with a personal visit? Could discuss matter. Between two close friends?”
Melic regarded him thoughtfully, gazing deliberately down his carefully shaved torso. “Sure,” s/he finally said. “What the hell. Could use a break. Transmit schedule.”
“Will do,” Jeorg agreed, and made the gesture that broke the connection. He told the console to coordinate the visit with Melic, sent the codes that would signal the robot to begin excavation procedures, and relaxed with a small sigh.
It had been a good day’s work. The artifact could be a real find, but if it turned out to be worthless, he could always hand it off to Melic or one of his other colleagues. Somebody was sure to want it.
“It is a collection of some kind,” said Lead Female. Said in the sense that she relayed the appropriate visual symbols via the colors rippling down her length.
“We believe so,” answered the Secondary Male immediately, eager to prove his worth. The current Lead Male had a distinct aversion to exploration outside the Family’s ship, and had decided to stay with the brood this trip. Second Male was covertly collecting examples of this weakness in order to promote his own next attempt at primacy.
The Family had encountered the strange craft halfway into their journey; having sensed the presence of obviously manufactured objects, they decided to investigate. Once they found a way in, however, they found no indication of sentient life—only a variety of separate floating items. Below each item was a small ball which, when approached, turned into an alien face whose moving orifice obviously expressed some kind of information. Not having any experience of sound, except as an exotic theory postulated by a few scientific experts, the Family ignored them.
However, the objects themselves were a different matter. Lead Female indicated strong interest and curiosity. She reached out and touched the nearest floating item. “It reflects light in a strange way,” she observed, “even though it is of static hue.”
“It resembles an adolescent at play,” said Secondary Male thoughtfully. “Look how it bends and turns and then meets itself. It is, perhaps, a portrait.” First Heir, who had been allowed to accompany them, pushed in to see what the adults were discussing, but when the adolescent reached forward to touch the object, it was immediately pushed back by Lead Female.
“A portrait with no perceivable third dimension?” she asked, with a distinctly cynical coloration. “See how flat it is? And it has a label etched into it, which most sentients would find painful.”
First Heir actually found the idea of etching a pattern into its skin somewhat intriguing. It stored the thought for later examination.
Secondary Male pulled himself around to the back of the floating item, examining the weird etched symbols. “It is an interesting design,” he said tentatively, hoping to regain favor.
Lead Female regarded the object with waning attention. “It does look like a label,” she told him. “Perhaps indicating the artist, or the title of the piece. Or its function.” Her colors dulled further, indicating boredom. “It is enough. Leave it. We will mark it for the next exploratory Family who comes by. Let them decide whether this is worth taking. For now, we will leave the collection alone.” She turned to regard some of the other objects.
Secondary Male followed quickly. He didn’t notice the adolescent lagging behind, flashing yellow tints of desire and intent. First Heir waited until the adults were a safe distance away and then quickly swallowed the gleaming object before hurrying after them.
It could disgorge the object later, when all the adults were asleep. One of the other adolescents, or maybe even one of the children, would be sure to admire the thing. And if they didn’t want it, another Family might accept it as a gift.
The assemblage regarded the artifact solemnly. “It was found in the ancient wreckage,” intoned the Assembly Speaker, its words/meanings/images reflected in the mind of each of the gathered representatives. “Because there were no indications of accident/problems/unlucky happenstances/god attacks, and no findings of historical influence/attacks/hatefulness, then we can only focus on this as a possible cause. It could be a weapon.”
“There was some indication of disease,” clicked the tiny parasite that rode on the Speaker’s head and was privy to all its thoughts. “However, we have examined the object closely, and it no longer seems dangerous.”
There was a short silence as the entire group regarded the item. “Can’t look!” screamed a binary creature, their sensitive eye stalks hiding quickly among their feathers. “Too bright! Must have caused problem.”
“Moron,” flashed its neighbor, radiating its message into the ceiling using the Code of Contention. “Colors and shine ratio indicate religious symbol. Offering of peace, perhaps.”
“Or threat of war.” A gasbag floated above the crowd, spitting its opinions down in a fine rain of information. Sixteen other voices/colors/minds chimed in, and the meeting turned, as it too often did, into a chaotic battle of opinions, wits, and plain hostility.
The Assembly Speaker regarded the near-riot with consternation. Already, three of the more overexcitable representatives had blasted their neighbors apart, and retribution wouldn’t be long in coming. The last time this had happened, the resulting warfare had destroyed five planets, two civilizations, and a couple of very valuable historic sites. Something had to be done.
While it pretended to join the fray, the Speaker analyzed the properties of the artifact, tested it for sentience (as a precaution, merely; there was that unfortunate incident with the wandering asteroid that was still cited each time the Speaker came up for re-election), and did a search for the nearest Space/Time hole. It wouldn’t be enough, the Speaker decided, to simply send the artifact hurtling toward another galaxy; there was the infinitesimal chance that the thing had, indeed, caused the demise of the craft’s occupants, and so it could not be allowed to imperil any other current species. However, sent through Space/Time, there was little chance of harm.
“What of Causality?” its parasite whispered. “What if the weapon affects our past?” The Speaker paused for a moment, and then casually swatted the tiny insect. A replacement immediately scurried up from beneath the Speaker’s wings.
“I’m an atheist,” the Speaker told its new parasite. “I don’t believe in Causality. Species of other times, dimensions, and flavors can look out for themselves.”
While the five surviving representatives flew/stalked/floated/disintegrated from the room in disgust, the Speaker sent the artifact with its weird shine, its strange writing, and its hypnotic shape out of the assembly chamber and through the Space/Time hole. Perhaps somebody at the other end would want it.
“Hurry it up,” Rick yelled from the first floor. “I don’t have all day.”
“You have as long as it’ll take, you bastard,” Linda bellowed back. “I’m not leaving this house until I have all my stuff.” She turned back, and continued to cram clothing into the large plastic trash bag. As Rick came stomping up the stairs, she paused and regarded the tee shirt that she had just picked off the bed. Was it hers or his? Never mind, she thought, and threw it in with the rest.
“What the hell are you doing?” Rick demanded. Linda stopped and stared defiantly at her now ex-boyfriend, who stood bristling in the doorway of the bedroom. “That’s my tee shirt,” he continued. “It isn’t enough that you’ve tried to take my self-esteem, you’re stealing my clothes as well?”
”Your self-esteem,” she hissed back. “What about mine? You think I enjoy getting dissed at by your loving mama every time she sees my tattoos?”
Rick, who had the bad habit of pulling his own hair when agitated, grabbed a fistful and tugged. “You keep your filthy mouth shut about my mother,” he yelled. “If you could keep a civil tongue in your mouth for one lousy hour ...”
Linda grabbed the tee shirt out of her bag and threw it at him. “Here,” she screamed. “Take your lousy shirt. Take it all!” and she followed the tee with most of the contents of the trash bag. Clothes flew around the room.
They glared at each other. After a minute, Rick took a breath, pulled a pair of stockings off his head and threw them to the floor. “Keep the damn tee,” he said in a grim monotone. “Keep everything, if you want. I don’t care. Just get out.” He stalked out of the room.
“I will!” Linda yelled at his back. She grabbed the bag and starting stuffing things into it again, muttered various imprecations as she went. “Bastard,” she repeated, not having much imagination in the way of epithets. “Stupid, dirty, lousy, bas ... ow!”
She dropped the sweater that she had just pulled off the floor. There had been something hard inside it, with an edge that had bitten into her hand. The something clattered loudly to the floor. Linda stared at it balefully.
It was flat, metallic, and shiny, fashioned into a partially extended figure eight. Some kind of kitchen utensil, she guessed, although what it was doing in Rick’s bedroom was anyone’s guess. She picked it up, and turned it around in her hands until she noticed the writing on the underside.
Linda shrugged, and tossed the object into her bag. Rick probably didn’t need it—not that she cared if he did or not—and she could probably find some use for it. Hey, Gracie was getting married next month, wasn’t she? And Linda hadn’t had a chance to shop.
What the hell. She’d pass it on. Maybe Gracie would want it.
Barbara Krasnoff has had stories published in “Space and Time,” “Apex,” “Cosmos,” “Amazing Stories,” and more. She has also contributed to several anthologies, including “Memories and Visions: Women's Fantasy and Science Fiction.”