A tear ran down the mother’s cheek as she kissed the forehead of her daughter. Her turquoise eyes darted across the room, taking in every soft toy, each toy strayed across the room, the school uniform from her first day that still fitted her. She bit her lip as she tucked a piece of paper under the pillow, whispering thanks to God that her daughter had not stirred.
She turned around to see her husband standing in the doorway, and her hands transformed into fists. Years ago she barely noticed the scars that littered his cheeks, now it was all she saw. He took two strides forward towards her, and she took one to the side. She had no control over her tears anymore as she watched him remove her letter from under her daughter’s pillow and ripped it up into their relationship.
She cursed under her breath as he left the bedroom and into the kitchen, where she could hear him pouring a glass of whiskey. She cursed when she felt the sting as her palm wiped away her tears.
The mother counted to twenty, and then removed another copy of her letter and placed it in her daughter’s favourite book - ‘The Spaceman and The Martian’.
She stared at her daughter sleep, hugging the rabbit soft toy she had bought when she had been in the hospital with a broken leg. And without thinking, she let her auburn hair tickle the cheek and whispered, 'Mummy loves you, Emma, always.'
One, two, three, four, five, six. With each footstep out of the room, she took in as much as her memory could allow.
Her husband was now with his best friend, and she walked into her study and took out a piece of parchment and picked up her fountain pen.
Vesta Art Gallery, 3 June 3142, 6am
Syeman Robayts smiled as the front door to the Vesta Art Gallery flew open, and watched as the dust danced with the beams of sunlight bursting into the lobby. The dance was over as quickly as it had begun as he shut the doors with the biometric keypad. The gallery was not due to open for another hour, and checks had to be made before the dignitaries arrived.
The gallery was divided into six rooms, and the usual exhibits and been transferred to the other Art Gallery, the Vesta Portrait Gallery. For the next six months, the Art Gallery would be home to the artefacts of the mythical planet called Earth.
He strolled into the first room, dedicated to Transport. Hanging down from the ceiling were these great ugly structures called “flying metal birds”, an exoskeleton of metal. There were also a series of primitive hover cars with round objects that had to stay grounded to run. In the past few days, he had climbed in one of these primitive devices, imagining what it must have been like to have been a human being back on Earth, but there was a new exhibition he was desperate to see. He looked at the wires holding these birds, and assured that they were all secure, he moved into the second room.
The next room was entitled “Exploration”. It was not known when the human race started to look towards space, but it was believed to be in the 2000s. The Moon colony was on display, with the huge plastic bubbles that had protected those first astronauts. Glancing through the open hexagon, Syeman glanced in to check that the replica living systems were free from damage. A few weeks ago, the museum had a few issues with squatters. The rest of the room was full of things called “probes”, a cacophony of wires, metal circles and wings of what seemed to be wings of solar panels.
Syeman strolled into Room Three, “Literature”. This was a room full of paperback books, an object that he had been told about but had never believed someone would have taken the effort to type the words out onto the paper and then bind it. And that people would take the time to turn the pages with their hands. He knew the itinerary of books off by heart and he just needed a quick glance to check that all the items were in place.
The fourth room was full of statues. He shuddered as he looked at the stone monstrosities with their dead eyes following him as he searched for damage. They had been standing here for two hundred years, at least, and he still had no idea who they were or why they here. A colleague had said they were of the first Vestian settlers. A chill ran down his spine at the idea.
Entering the next room, a smile appeared on his swollen lips and he cursed at the shooting pain. He ran his fingers through his wispy grey hair, grabbing strands before cursing again. ‘The job’, he whispered to the religious shrines scattered around. His parents had brought him up to believe, as all Vestians did, that there was no God - but in this room, he always smiled. This mystical Earth had a whole spectrum of these “religious” fantasies that even if they weren’t true. The paintings, films, even the statues of the great Gods, beasts with multiple heads, wizards and goblins, detectives and heroes that protected their towns and cities - the smiles on the statues never scared or disturbed him. There had been a great deal of attention to make sure these faces had human features, eyes that welcomed you, a smile that reassured you. This room had never changed since he was five years old.
But today, Syeman reminded himself about the sixth and final room. The refurbished room.
Syeman Roebayts had just turned eighty earlier in the year, and next month would be celebrating his fiftieth year as a security guard at the Gallery - and yet, not even he was allowed to see the room being refurbished. His colleagues had gossiped about what it could be, ranging from an expensive Neptunian diamond to a caged Vestian eating monster. He knew, whatever it was, it was small and singular. In the past week, he had been briefed upon the security procedures and it had been referred to as “the object”. Each visitor was limited to one minute with “the object”. Syeman sighed as he remembers in an hour, he would have to give a presentation to his team about the rules. Alph and his questions.
The door to the room was shut. It was new. A huge metal door, three metres thick. And the layers of security. He placed his hand on the handle and watched as it was illuminated by a cyan light.
‘Fingerprints scanned.’ A high-pitched automated voice rang out.
He then took a large step forward into the door. ‘Breathe in’, he told himself, finding himself enveloped in a metallic sea.
‘Full security procedure taking place. Vesta Art Gallery thanks you for your cooperation and reminds you not to panic.’
Panic? ‘In and out Syeman!’. He knew that if one security check failed, he would die as the sea in which he could walk through like an exaggerated spaceman would solidify, entrapping him forever. He knew at least thirty people had died in such security doors in the past ten years at this gallery alone, and they were used rarely.
The metal turned green with a ping.
‘Congratulations. Identity confirmed, Syeman Roebayts, Chief Security Guard at the Vesta Art Gallery. Olympus Security Systems thank you, once again, for your cooperation and calmness. Please note, you need to cut down on your sugar levels. A full medical can be requested at your convenience. You will be released in five, four, three, two, one. Goodbye.’
There was no satisfying clunk, instead, it was that the light from the room just appeared. As he entered the room, he glanced behind to see the security tunnel now in place. He wondered if the visitors realised just how many checks would be carried out on them as they walked through?
‘Lights’, he muttered, and as white light streamed into the room from the ceiling, his jaw dropped. His hand reached out for the padded bench as he felt his knees go weak. ‘It exists?!’
He had read about it as a child, but? His hand frisked his jacket, looking for the straw for his water pack strapped to his back. Sucking in the tasteless liquid, he managed to swallow once again.
‘This - is - real?’ He placed his hand on his mouth, hearing his pitch squeak.
The room was the home of a painting, a small painting. He estimated it was about 50cm by 25cm, with an oak frame. But, that did not matter, because the painting showed a sphere. The bottom half was engulfed in darkness, but it was the top half that excited Syeman. The swirls of blue, the masses of green and the scatterings of white…it was unmistakeably a planet.
‘Earth. It exists.’
He just stared. Imagining himself as a young boy, what was it like to put his feet in the water? Those grand seas the myths talked about were so vast and scary: pillars of waters crashing down on people, vortexes that stoles bodies. And the mountains that burned humans, poison raining down…but…
‘It would be amazing.’
His body jolted, as he realised he had ten minutes until he had to greet his staff. As with every item in the museum, there was an e-plaque, this time positioned to the right of the frame. It took a couple of seconds, but he noticed that it was not turned on. Not taking his eyes off the painting, he slowly strolled to the plaque and placed his hand on the screen. After turning blue, the text came to life.
“The Last Beacon of Hope. By Helen Shearman. Painted 2042. As the Earth was destroyed, colony ships departed the home of the human race. The first colony ship included Helen Shearman, the craft’s engineer. As they prepared to leave Earth orbit for the last time ever, she painted her view of the planet. She called the planet as The Last Beacon of Hope because, as she put it, no one knew if they would ever see a habitable planet again.”
Syeman coughed as he felt a salty liquid drip into his mouth. He looked at the Earth, his eyelids closed and then opened -
The painting was gone. There was just a frame. It was -
‘Security, stolen exhibit!” he screamed as his voice was drowned out by the sound of the shutters descending.
Syeman’s boss, Miche Gaia, placed a cup of coffee on the table. He stared at it, the nutty aroma being shunned by his olfactory senses.
‘Look Syeman, talk.’ Miche barked.
‘Syeman. You know we have video footage of the theft, we have enough to sack you and when the police arrive. Think of your…’
He ran his hands through his hair and pulled strands out one by one, his black eyes reddened:
‘I didn’t - I never. It was just, I didn’t take it.’
She sighed, looking at the man who been guarding the gallery when she was a four-year-old girl making her first visit.
‘Syeman, I’m sorry, but you will have to remain here until the police arrive to question you. And then, you will be suspended with pay until the investigation is complete. I really hope you’re telling the truth.’
She stood up and as she opened the door to leave the security room, she turned and gave Syeman a smile.
Standing in the corridor, she swore loudly. One of the guides was walking towards her, but upon seeing Miche went wide-eyed and then turned on the spot and walked the way she had come.
It was only twenty steps to reach her office. It was a small room, full of her boyfriend Karl and a couple of his paintings. She approached her vidiwall, the far wall that was just a screen.
‘Vidiwall, play the security footage I requested.’
‘Good morning CEO Miche Gaia. Security footage will be played, holofootage can only be watched by the police first.’
She swore under her breath. ‘Fine, play security footage.’
The camera, from which the footage was being played from, was positioned about 235° behind the painting. She drew a circle with her hand, speeding up the footage as she saw Syeman just stare at the painting, doing nothing. Quickening her finger, he was still just sitting there, doing nothing.
‘Please, Syeman, please.’
And then, he stood up and approached the painting, and she reversed the circle with her finger, slowing down the footage. He turned on the plaque, there was a small flash of light - and then…The painting was gone.
She rewound the footage, watched.
Her jaw hit the ground.
‘Computer. I don’t think. I need a whiskey.’
Maudlin Muckibus, Vesta, 3 June 3142, 8pm
Sara Zubani allowed her bony fingers to caress the chips in front of her, pleased with another successful evening’s work. She held one finger up to the barman, and he nodded in return before disappearing into the kitchen.
The bar was packed, with what Sara estimated was a hundred weary Vestians, crammed into the metallic cage with the dented silver table and chairs stained with a mixture of alcohol, grease and blood. And it was poker night.
Poker was a game played normally with eight to ten players, crammed around an oval table with each player doing their best to peek at their neighbour’s cards. When it was Sara at the table, it was a challenger only environment.
She slowly stacked her collection of chips. One, she looked at the bald man who had lost his right eye. Two, now at the woman who was crossing her arms firmly. Three, the soldier with the battle scars across his face. Four, the businessman adjusting his tie. Five, the woman who was adjusting her hairpiece. All unable to return her gaze.
‘Any game. You decide.’ She said, smiling.
A challenger sat down opposite Sara. He was young-looking, maybe 18 Earth years old. His fingers twitched, and he was unable to look at Sara, directing his hazel eyes downwards as he tried to hide the noticeable bruised eye. His clothes had been ripped and scraped, and the pale blue suit suggested he was not a Vestian local and most likely from the nearby planet of Aries, working in their financial district. He dropped a pile of chips onto the table and began organising them into stacks of 50, 100, 200, 500 and 1,000 Vestian Credits.
‘What’s your name?’ Sara asked, extending her hand for a greeting that was rejected.
‘Zooius’, came the reply with a harsh twang on the -ius. The barman placed a glass of water in front of him, which he immediately gulped down.
The barman refilled the glass, leaving a jug on the table and looked at Sara. She held up two fingers, and he nodded.
‘Is that an Aries’ accent I detect?’ she asked Zooius.
He nodded, taking in a series of a deep breath before looking up at her.
‘What game do you want to play Zoois?’
‘One card, five rivers.’
‘You do realise that you have to use all your chips in that game.’
He looked back at her, his breathing quickening and now he was scratching his arm. He knew.
The dealer approached the table, and she was someone that Sara had not seen before. She was wearing a black waistcoat and black bowtie and had her long brown hair tied back in a ponytail.
The dealer did not look at either player, and just picked up the pack of cards, shuffled them and then proceeded to deal out the five rivers in between the players, and then held out her hand to Sara. She shook her head, refusing the invitation to move any of the cards to another river. This really was a game with a high degree of chance, and swapping here was a sign of weakness. Zooius, on the other hand, swapped the fifth card of the first and fifth rivers, the fourth between the second and fourth, and the third between the third and fifth.
He had not understood the game. By swapping, he would bet first.
A nod from both players signalled the dealer to deal one card to both players but placed tantalisingly out of reach. Cards from the rivers had to be revealed first.
The dealer revealed the first cards of each river:
One of Comets
Four of Planets
Seven of Stars
Ten of Asteroids
Four of Asteroids.
Sara looked at the cards and thought through the ranking of the cards. In this game, from lowest to highest it was: One, Two, Three, Four, Five, Six, Seven, Eight, Nine, Ten, Trickster, Colonist, Chronos.
There was a possible high card chance on the first river, and it reduced the chances of either a two pair or three of a kind with the fours. Zooius was mouthing numbers, clearly trying to work out the probabilities as he counted on his fingers. She smiled.
The dealer signalled to both players to turn over their single card. Sara peeled over the card without looking at it, maintaining contact with Zooius. He was scratching his wrist furiously that specks of blood were appearing, and he was biting down on his lip. His eyes darted from each river, biting harder each time, and then looking at his chips.
Now, Sara looked at her card. Five of Asteroids. She smiled.
The dealer revealed the next two cards of each river. They now read:
One of Comets, Six of Planets, Three of Stars
Four of Planets, One of Asteroids, One of Planets,
Seven of Stars, One of Stars, Two of Comets,
Ten of Asteroids, Chronos of Planets, Colonist of Stars,
Four of Asteroids, Six of Asteroids, Three of Asteroids,
‘Place your bets.’ The dealer stated.
Sara stared at Zooius who looked at his card before his shaking arm tried to sneak up on his chips and knocked them down. One chip fell to the floor, and her hair on her neck stood to attention. She moved her right leg back, ready to launch a kick, but she was saved by the dealer who offered to pick up the chip. Clearly, the dealer was aware of the tricks carried out by desperation.
The agitated movements from Zooius were getting worse, and with one big sigh, he placed four-fifths of his chips on the second river and the rest evenly split across the other hands.
Sara reacted by running her hands through her short aquamarine hair, then squeezing her left arm with her right hand, and banging her head on the table. Laughing inside.
She only had one river where she could be certain that she could win, but he had made it easy for her. Ignoring the second river where Zooius had placed the majority of his chips, she evenly split her chips across the other four rivers. A smile appeared on his face.
The dealer revealed the remaining cards:
One of Comets, Six of Planets, Three of Stars, Trickster of Asteroids, Colonist of Asteroids.
Four of Clubs, One of Asteroids, One of Planets, Four of Comets, Four of Stars.
Seven of Stars, One of Stars, Two of Comets, Nine of Planets, Ten of Comets.
Ten of Asteroids, Chronos of Planets, Colonist of Stars, Trickster of Comets, Nine of Asteroids.
Four of Asteroids, Six of Asteroids, Three of Asteroids, Two of Asteroids, Three of Planets.
Both players revealed their own card, with Zooius tapping his Chronos of Hearts. Smiling. Mouthing a celebration.
‘The winner is Sara Zubani.’
The smile deserted Zooius’ face, his face reddened and everything seemed to happen at once. Sara jumped up, pushing her chair back to make room as she raised her fists ready. Zooius stood up and flipped over the desk in one smooth motion. The dealer stood up, pulling his arms behind his back, linking them with her left arm. Whilst she wrapped her left leg around his legs, she pushed an object held in her right hand into the bottom of his spine.
‘That is a blaster. Choose your next move better than you play cards.” She stated with a calmness that made Sara swallow.
‘She cheated’, he spat out, his saliva drenching the cards.
‘Zooius. One card, five rivers is a game only played by Trick-Artists. Whoever goes second is almost guaranteed to win. How you bet gives the second player indication on how to bet, after all, it is just the number of hands I needed to win. Because of the way Trick-Artists explain the rules, you bet on your best hand instead of focusing on winning the overall number of hands. And then when you protest - well, I suspect that has happened to you. Look, you're from Aries, you’ve only just picked up your first job, you’re in debt, desperate - I mean, your tells were visible from Aries itself! I’ll let you walk away with your stake.’
Zooius spat towards Sara, missing the target. ‘Vestian scum.’
The dealer pushed Zooius into the crowd, and he sprinted towards the exit as the regulars crowded towards him.
‘Anyone else want a try?’
This time, a challenger appeared immediately. He was different. His face bared no scars or bruises, something that meant that if he was a Vestian native, he had to be from the wealthy families. But, they would never appear here. So he was from another planet. A Trick-Artist? No.
His eyes were jet black, and he was wearing a chameleon suit - clothes that adapted to whatever colour the wearer wanted. His jacket flickered between red, green before returning to the jet blackness. His blond hair was cut short and styled in a neat side-parting.
Sara tried to speak, but her voice-box stopped. There was something. Something.
The barman came to the table, placing a pint of Vesta’s Honey Brew next to the challenger. And then he served Sara her original order: scones and a pot of Vestian Needle Tea.
She picked up her knife and spread the jam on the scone, paying more attention to the challenger who just stared at her than the scones and soon noticed that her fingers were becoming covered in the jam. Wiping her fingers with a tissue, she made the decision to remain, because…something.
‘What game do you want to play?’ Sara asked.
‘Poker.’ He growled.
As the dealer shuffled the cards, Sara poured a cup of tea for herself. ‘What’s your name?’
The dealer dealt out the river, before dealing both players two cards. Sara glanced at them. Ten of Spades, Two of Clubs. Not a great hand. But she would at least be able to learn something. Something. Just at the back of her mind. A memory stretching its limbs? No…this was more instinctual.
Her minimum bet was 50 credits, but she went in with 100. The challenger was yet to look at his cards, and that was it. How could she have been so stupid? All this time, she was looking at the challenger’s face, his body movements, just looking for something to give her an edge. The ale should have given her a clue, but that was not enough. Many players from other planets buy the drink as a way to please the Vestian natives, but the challenger was different. Because the something was - where was his chips?
And then, he raised the stakes by drawing the blaster and it was at that point, she noticed the dealer had disappeared. The dealer was working with him. She cursed her stupidity under her breath. Comfort. In this environment, she knew everyone and knew their weakness and how to take advantage. She had become lazy.
But he had made a mistake too.
‘You are going to tell me everything Sara Zubani.’ His voice was monotonous, and quiet, but it was enough to make the crowd back off.
Sara took a sip of her tea, her eyes closing as she savoured the fruity tones dance across her taste buds and enjoyed the warmth slipping down her throat.
‘Do you want a cup of tea?’ she asked, before taking a large bite of her scone.
‘If I feel you are lying, I will kill you.’
Sara placed her hands on the table legs, gripping both.
‘You really should. I mean, the majority of Vesta’s products are of a poor quality, especially to someone who has travelled the universe. But, our Needle tea is something else. There are fairytales written on Rigel about the tea, even though I don’t think a single Rigellian has ever travelled here. The fruity hints, citrus and sour…’
‘Shut up! You will tell me where the “The Last Beacon Of Hope” is.’
‘Or else what?’
‘I will kill you.’
‘No you won’t. Trust me. Look at that cross scar on my right cheek, the broken nose and that scar down my left cheek. They were when people would have killed me. Each time they wanted something from me, and they made sure how little they care about me. So, it tells me that I am needed alive and I am to be unharmed. You are a Chameleon assassin. You won’t hurt me, even if you hate me because of your orders. So tell me, what is “The Last Beacon Of Hope”?’
There was no emotion as he placed the blaster on the table. ‘A painting.’
‘And you think I have it?’
‘You know where it is. There is a difference.’
‘I don’t. I have never heard of it.’
The assassin smiled that was closer to a grimace and let out a high-pitched laugh. ‘You have heard of it.’
And with that, he picked up the blaster and placed in his inside pocket of his jacket and walked away.
There was something about the assassin’s choice of words that made Sara feel…something.