Fog coated the young man’s glasses as he left the air conditioned confines of the ground car for the humid, tropical warmth outside the villa. He rubbed the lenses to clear them and contemplated the opulence of his patron’s residence. Weathered columns in early Imperial style graced the entryway of the villa, a commanding presence overlooking the Capital’s coastline. Palm trees lined the walkway, with splendid gardens to either side, carefully tended.
It was, the man reflected, a home fit for royalty. He knew the professor came from old money, but this was something else.
As he clambered up the oversized steps to the entryway, great bronze doors laced with Imperial motifs loomed before him. No buzzer, he thought, that’s rather quaint. He rapped twice on the metal doors, the booming sound as imposing as the doors themselves. Creaking with age, they swung slowly open.
“Welcome, Julian,” said a familiar voice. No servitors, he noted, definitely old-fashioned.
“Dr. Fleming.” He began.
“Please, please, Julian, we’re not on campus. You can call me Eric.” The professor waved distractedly, walking toward a small table with a number of spirits. “Anything to drink?” He asked, pouring himself a bourbon on ice.
“I’ll have what you’re having, sir.”
Dr. Fleming smiled and produced a second glass, sliding it over to him. “Now, let us go to my study and discuss the matter of this discovery, and how I can help in your research.”
Julian followed quietly behind his patron, admiring the ancient masterpieces that graced the hallway of the villa. Some he recognized as artifacts the professor had discovered himself, earlier in his career. Dr. Eric Fleming had been a legend in the field for as long as Julian had been alive. Others were completely alien to him, though clearly ancient.
The study was every bit as luxurious as the rest of the home, with windows overlooking the Imperial Capital and the Great Sea beyond. Sunlight streamed in through them, the curtains fluttering in the warm afternoon breeze.
Dr. Fleming contemplated the bustling city below, sipping gingerly on his bourbon. “You know, the early legends, the ones in the oldest written archives, say that Madrid was named for an ancient capital still-extant on the world of Origin.”
“It’s plausible, sir.” Julian replied, shaking his glass gently to melt the ice a little.
“Is it?” Julian had no reply and the professor turned to him, his gaze steady. He held eye contact a moment before smiling pleasantly. “Anyway, Julian, please don’t call me sir. When you’ve dug around in the mud as much as I have, such formalities become banal. Please, sit.”
Julian smiled in turn, sitting gingerly on the luxurious chair. A pair of cigars graced the small table between them, and the professor neatly clipped one and lit it. “Feel free, Julian. Sirian tobacco, imported last week.”
He nodded and struck up his own cigar. “Very generous sir – Eric.”
The professor suppressed a chuckle. “You’re probably wondering why I brought you all the way out here.”
“Something like that.” Julian nodded. “I didn’t realize that anyone still cared about pre-Imperial archaeology. Certainly, the University hasn’t seen fit to extend our grant. We’re it not for your kind offer, we’d be out of business.”
“Yes, well the University is staffed with nitwits and politicos these days. They don’t have time for anything that doesn’t expressly serve the interests of the regime.” The professor puffed lightly on his cigar and leaned back. “As for me, let us just say that I expect to find something out there. But digging around the Imperium is a game for the young.”
“You seem young enough, sir.” Julian replied politely.
“Unfortunately not. And the machinations of the Senate ensure that I can’t stay long away from the Capital even if I could go. That, of course, is where you come in.” The professor reached underneath the table and produced an old-style print book. “How much do you know about the Exile?”
“Not much, I’m afraid. Nobody does. The point of Origin was erased, the reasons for the Exile similarly destroyed. We can’t even determine a rough direction for the original colony ship.” Julian explained.
“Quite right. Consider that. Biologists have determined that we were populated from roughly 250 founders, and that only some early genetic tampering ensured there wasn’t… unpleasant consequences from that. But even then, how do you convince 250 people to erase every single mention of home, of why they left? And, more to the point, why would they do that? There is an undercurrent of fear to the original archives, like they were running from something. What happened to them?” The professor tapped out the ashes and continued. “You see, Julian, I’ve long suspected that references to the Origin question still exist somewhere. Not in the official archives, or the early reproductions, but in the personal effects of the colonists themselves. Even, perhaps, if they didn’t intend to make mention of it. Consider all of the casual references we make to our homes in our daily lives.”
“Yes, I’ve wondered that myself. But we’ve never found anything like that.” Julian frowned slightly. I don’t want to irritate him, we need that donation if the dig is to stay funded.
“No. But something caught my eye when I was perusing your records at the University.” He opened the book and pointed to a faded drawing, hand-scrawled onto the page. “Recognize this?” It was a circular metal object, stamped with a strange symbol, vaguely reminiscent of the Imperial Insignia. Red stripes flowed from a blue box, covered in white stars.
Julian was ecstatic. “Yes, that’s the artifact we found at the dig last month, though the paint was too far gone to determine what it originally looked like. We couldn’t determine what it was – there was no mention of it in the University records or the archives.”
“And there wouldn’t be,” Eric explained. “These are my personal family records, copied and passed down to me from one James Fleming, only two or three generations removed from First Landing. What you see here is part of one of the original Landers taken down from the Colony Ship. You found a piece of the Colony Ship, Julian.”
Julian rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “How do you know that?”
“Easy. James said so in this diary. In the early days after the Landing, shelter was difficult to come by, and the deconstructed landers served as primitive shelter for a time. In his day, a few such structures were still in occasional use.” The professor smiled, closing the book and sliding it gently across the table to Julian. “Please, take this with you and read through it. It will help you.”
“I’m still not sure what you want me to do.” Julian reached for the cigar again, taking a long pull from it.
The professor smiled warmly. “Simple. Find me more artifacts like this. We’re going to piece together where the Colonists came from and why they left the Origin. You’re the best in pre-Imperial archaeology, son, even if you weren’t aware of it. I will fund your efforts for the next year. If you can bring me more artifacts or information in that time, I will continue to fund you for as long as is needed. Furthermore, if we find the answer to either of these questions, you and your team will not want for money again. I will pay a bonus of fifteen million credits for each of the two Questions. That’s thirty million, if you can pull this off.”
Julian dropped the cigar from his mouth, fumbling and catching it at the last possible moment before it landed on the floor. “Thirty million, sir?”
“I’ve never been a man to cheap out on anything,” he gestured to the opulent surroundings. “Anyway, this will be worth it. And you’ll keep the credit too, son. I’m not going to deny you that. You’ll be touring the holoband circuit for decades if you pull this off. And I think you can do it, Julian.”
“I’m flattered, but why?” Julian wondered aloud.
“Because I had hundreds of students over the years, and the only ones who ever bypassed the easy funding of Imperial History are on your team. People who want answers more than they want money are rare. People who are competent and trustworthy on top of that…” The professor put out his cigar and stood up. “Take the diary and find the answers. Then, perhaps, we shall visit the namesake of this dear city for ourselves. Imagine that… standing on the world of Origin.”
Julian stood and put out his own cigar, warmly shaking the professor’s outstretched hand. This was a dream come true in every possible way, finally his team had a backer who understood the value of pre-Imperial archaeology, and more information to lead to a final answer on the Origin question. But a nagging thought remained to him.
What were they running from? And will I find that, too?