Eda blew out a gentle stream of breath. Dust particles jumped into the air in front of her. She stared through the cloud of grime, her gaze moving over the surface of an intricately carved wooden vase. Angry faces leered back at her. Gods of war, their demonic features formed expressions of malice. With a delicate touch, she put the vase back on the shelf in front of her.
Despite its macabre appearance, the wooden ornament had a certain appeal. Had Eda been a tourist, she would have bought it, and congratulated herself on a bargain. After a closer inspection, however, she wondered how the ancient Amorphar people had acquired a type of wood not found anywhere on their home world. Obviously a fake. The shop owner's tenacity brought a frown to Eda's face. She carried on down the aisle between racks of muddled shelving. Drops of water fell from the hem of her raincoat and left a dappled trail on the floor. Around her, more examples of grotesque antiquities sneered out of the shadows.
She paused at the end of the aisle, surveying the cluttered shop counter up ahead. Behind the till, a curtain of wooden beads stirred. Eda could just make out a man's shadow in the darkened recess. Turning away, she began to head for the exit. Whatever promise the shop might have held, the fake vase had driven it away. If she wanted to browse, there were no end of reputable antique stops in the city of Assulm, and most of them located in better suburbs.
Behind her the wooden beads clicked.
"A moment, please. Was there anything you liked?" The voice had a forced pleasantness about it. Eda could picture the eager expression on its owner's face.
She took hold of the door handle. "Not really. Sorry."
"But Doctor Sooca, you haven't seen everything yet."
Eda paused, still gripping the handle but not pulling.
"Please, Doctor, he's waiting for you."
She turned to face a short, dark-haired man, and noticed how he rubbed his hands together, as if anticipating a profitable sale.
The door chimed as she pulled it open. A wave of heat and a splash of rain noise swept in from the street outside. "I really should be going. Maybe I'll come back later."
"He can help you." The man's voice now sounded more urgent than pleasant, and he took a step closer. "He knows people here in Assulm, people who can help you get off Quesamee a little more easily. I'm sure you're aware how slow off-world travel can be. Not the speed, of course, but getting the right papers. He'd like to help you."
Eda let go of the door handle. Slowly, her view of the street-come-sewage pipe outside, took on the cool blue sheen of the door's tinted glass. A beggar sitting beneath the shop awning turned and looked up, a hopeful, toothless grin on his face. The assistant stopped rubbing his hands together, a more genuine smile forming on his lips.
"Come." He gestured towards the beaded curtain. "The Pasha Rains will still be there when you leave." Stepping away from her, he took a pair of dark-rimmed spectacles out of the pocket on the front of his smock dress.
As Eda followed him through a narrow opening in the shop counter, she noticed the bald patch on the crown of his head. Though not particularly tall, on the planet of Quesamee she felt like a giant. So far, she hadn't met anyone who could look her in the eye without needing a box to stand on. Besides the height difference, her blue eyes and shoulder-length, grey hair also singled her out, along with the fact middle-aged women seldom travelled alone in the city of Assulm.
The beaded curtain clicked once more as Eda pushed her way through. She paused, letting her eyes adjust to the gloom of a darkened passageway. Having caught up with the shop assistant, she mounted the first step of a twisting stairway.
The man's sandal-clad feet ascended without a sound. Eda's larger frame, however, made the stairway creak and groan. Cobwebs caught in her hair and brushed against her cheeks. She stared down at her feet, trying not to think about the narrow stairway and its cramped confines.
Thankfully short, the awkward climb ended on a wooden landing, the banister of which rattled beneath Eda's grip.
A firm knock made the door in front of the shop assistant sound solid and well constructed, unlike the stairs. Though Eda heard no reply, the bespectacled man opened the barrier just enough for his head and shoulders to fit through. A smoke-scented atmosphere tumbled out onto the landing.
The assistant moved to one side and pushed the door open, gesturing for her to enter. A sparsely lit room, with a low ceiling and wooden floor, awaited her over the threshold. Faded, threadbare rugs marked a path between well-aged furniture, and following the carpeted trail, Eda made her way past a knee-high table, and in between several low sofas.
Pictures of ancient battles scenes and religious ceremonies broke up the sandstone walls. Painted in rich, dark colours, the images caught moments of anguish and triumph.
Only glancing briefly at these, Eda turned her attention to the centre of the room. In the middle of one of the sofas, sat her host.
"Doctor Edarna Sooca." The old man's voice blended in with the rain noise coming from outside. "Please, have a seat. Agora, take the Doctor's coat."
She slid out of her raincoat and handed it to the shop assistant. With a smile and a bow, he backed out of the room, closing the door behind him.
Eda adjusted the collar on the jacket of her trouser suit, the thin fabric of which allowed her to stay relatively cool, despite the humid heat. Taking a seat opposite the old man, she declined his silent offer of a cigarette. Withered, yellow fingertips pinched out the glowing end of his own cigarette. He dropped the butt into an ashtray.
"I'm glad you've come." His voice had a calm, aged tone. "It's so good to finally meet you in person."
As her eyes adjusted to the broken daylight coming in through the latticework windows behind him, Eda could make out his features. He looked much older in the flesh, his face having a pasty, unhealthy sheen. The skin across his cheekbones appeared paper thin, time having screwed it up into a mass of wrinkles. But his eyes held the brightness of youth. A velvet suit, along with his well-trimmed beard, gave him the appearance of someone who appreciated the finer things in life. And could still afford them.
Wesson Yarnex. Eda put a name to the face she'd been corresponding with for the past two years, ever since she'd left her home back on the planet of Ensoura.
Pleasant small talk broke the ice, and they chatted for some time about the weather, and the lack of visitors in the city of Assulm during the Pasha Rains. Agora returned and served them tea. Again, the old man began to chat about nothing in particular. Eda shifted in her seat. She needed to find a way into the conversation, and steer it in a more relevant direction, or it felt like Yarnex would talk all afternoon.
"I'm sorry I didn't reply to your last message," she injected, as he paused to sip his tea. "I received it during planet fall, and once I was down, I had some trouble making sure all my equipment had followed me."
"Yes, of course." He nodded. "No need to apologise."
"You said you had something you wanted me to look at. Something I could help you with."
"I have, but first, now that we are at last face to face, I feel I must ask you about the reason for your brief stop over here on Quesamee."
Eda had wondered when he would mention the cause of their long distance friendship. "You mean the Spiral Chair?"
"Yes. It seemed inappropriate to discuss such an item in our correspondence. Don't worry, I'm not going to try and talk you out of looking for it. Quite the opposite, in fact. Do you mind indulging me, it'd be nice to talk to someone who's also interested in the Chair."
"No, I don't mind. What would you like to know?"
Yarnex's face lost some of its light-hearted expression. "Mostly I'm intrigued. So many people see it as a symbol of evil - doesn't that bother you? And the story of the Chair being the throne of the fallen god, such a cruel deity that even his own worshippers exiled him to an eternity of damnation."
"It's an interesting myth, but that's all it is."
"Maybe. But I've met people who swear by it."
"Ancient beliefs can have a powerful hold on people, but that's not me. I have respect for people who do believe in that sort of thing, I'm just not one of them."
Yarnex didn't reply straightaway, instead turning his head slightly and narrowing his eyes. Then a full-faced smile exposed his perfect teeth. "Good for you. It's thinking like that, that's going to help you succeed where all the others have failed. Now, let's get back to why I asked you here. The thing I'd like you to look at, it's in the basement. Would you mind accompanying me down there?"
"Em." A cautious voice in Eda's head warned her against accepting the offer. Rumour of Yarnex portrayed him as more than a dealer in fake antiques. "I really should be going. Maybe another day."
"Don't worry, I won't keep you long. And you'll be perfectly safe with me." He fixed her with an encouraging, eager expression. "It'll be worth your while to see what I have, I'll promise you that."
A certain sense of obligation pulled at Eda. Enough to have already brought her into one of Assulm's seedier districts. Through his correspondence, Yarnex had often helped her since she'd left Ensoura. "Well, ok, I suppose so. But I really can't stay long."
Eda watched as he took hold of a walking stick propped up against the sofa. Using it for support, he struggled to his feet.
"I have a rather large storage facility here," he explained, straightening his jacket. "Placing things underground helps me keep them out of harm's way."
His heavy breathing accompanied their descent of the rickety staircase. Carrying on past the shop level, they emerged into an underground passage. Pale green lights flickered into life, revealing a damp, slime-coated tunnel.
Yarnex led the way forward. "You must feel as though you're always going somewhere?"
"Yes, you could say that." Through their correspondence, Eda had provided her host with bits and pieces of information about her journey from Ensoura. He appeared to have taken a degree of pleasure in following her progress. And his messages had often contained suggestions for a quicker, cheaper means of transport. Or ways to avoid planets that applied excessive transportation taxes.
"Two years is a long time to be on the move." A tone of admiration shaped his words. "I wouldn't have the stamina for it. When you get to my age, home comforts come to mean a lot."
He ended the sentence with a sympathetic smile, which Eda felt obliged to return.
In the silence that followed she reflected on what he'd said. Two years certainly was a very long journey time, and she still had another six months to go. But as for home comforts, she didn't really miss them. In fact, now she wasn't even sure where home was. In a way, she had become a citizen of the Seventy. A journeying being, trying to cross the majority of the seventy-two inhabited planetary systems. And amongst the confused mass of stars, her goal, the planet of Bodarium, couldn't be more remote, more inaccessible.
The click of Yarnex's walking stick marked their slow progress down the tunnel. As he hobbled along, the old man fumbled in his jacket pocket, finally taking out a small remote control.
A pulse of light flashed from the end of the black oblong, and Eda heard a heavy click followed by the whir of door motors. Green light seeped through the opening up ahead. From the slimy tunnel, they descended in a groaning elevator. As it had no front or back, Eda watched grubby walls pass slowly by. First out the elevator, Yarnex led her down another passage, each of its faint lights playing host to a cloud of insects. Rounding a corner, they approached another doorway. Perched on a stool next to the opening, a very fat man dressed in a dark suit picked at a bowl of nuts. As he looked up and saw Yarnex, he got quickly to his feet. His height matched his enormous waistline. Obviously not a native of Quesamee.
Unlocking the door with a key taken from his trouser pocket, the large man appeared a little flustered. "I didn't expect you today, sir."
"No, Haz, this is just a quick visit," Yarnex replied, his tone more abrupt.
With a grunt, Haz used his huge bulk to heave the door open, and a light spluttered on in the room beyond. Ruffled by the exertion, the fat man's jacket now revealed the butt of a thick-barrelled pistol concealed in a holster under his right arm.
"Thank you, Haz. Shut it behind us, please." Yarnex's walking stick tapped out a smarter rhythm as he crossed the threshold, and indicated for Eda to do the same.
A heavy thud marked the closing of the door, and Eda listened as the locks clicked shut. Sparse lighting fixtures revealed a cluttered storage area. She tried to gauge the size of the room, but transit crates of varying shapes and sizes obscured her view in every direction.
Here and there, an item stood waiting to be packed. Limbless statues, nose-less stone faces, replica weapons and ancient machines of torture. Yarnex had a select clientele.
As she trailed along behind the old man through the canyons of transit crates, a growing sense of apprehension slowed her steps. Coming down into the basement now seemed like a rather stupid thing to do. From the tales she'd heard about Yarnex, she knew him to be more than just a trader in fake antiques. Gunrunning, drug dealing and prostitution. All had been amongst the warnings she'd received. But his correspondence had seemed so genuine, so benign.
Another locked door blocked their progress. A well-practiced action had Yarnex entering a four-digit code, and with a heavy creaking the barrier swung open. Cold air tumbled out the doorway, causing goose bumps to prickle along Eda's arms.
At a gesture from the antique dealer, she moved forward into the blackness. Her breath turned into a blur of white vapour, illuminated by the overhead lighting that struggled into life.
Empty except for a table covered in a black sheet, the room had a clean, sterile smell about it. The aroma reminded her of spotless operating theatres, or storage rooms used to house medical supplies.
"This is what I wanted you to see." Smoke-like breath clouded Yarnex's features as he pulled the sheet away from the object on the table. "Please, take a look."
"Oh, my goodness." The exclamation escaped Eda's lips before she could stop herself.
Laid lengthways along the table, a coffin-shaped, rectangular slab reflected the overhead lighting off its jade surface. Ridges adorned the top and sides of the object, reminding Eda of blood vessels around a beating heart. She took a step closer.
Patterns appeared within the ridges. Hieroglyphs, like those chiselled on the tomb of a fallen king, formed definite outlines. Eda recognised the origin of the code, but the symbols had been used in a way she'd not seen before. A new dialect formed from an old language. She reached a hand out towards the uneven surface.
Unsure what to expect, her fingers encountered something that felt like stone, but not entirely. Subtle warmth, similar to that of skin, pervaded the jade façade. She let her index finger trace the outline of one of the hieroglyphs, intrigued by the sensation of touching something that felt so well defined, but at the same time raw and unprocessed.
She directed her gaze towards Yarnex. "I've never come across anything like this before."
"Yes, I can well believe that. But you must recognise something about it?"
"Sort of. The hieroglyphs look like Amorphar script. But they're arranged in a way that's new to me. And I can't tell if they've grown into this pattern or been carved. Is this living tissue?"
"That's a good question. Is there anything else familiar about it?"
Eda let her gaze pass over the object once more. Yarnex seemed to be testing her. Though she'd asked him a direct question, he'd only replied with a query of his own, as if he wanted her to vocalise her thoughts. But he must have known she wasn't an expert, just a keen amateur.
She started with what seemed obvious. "I think that somehow it was created by the Amorphar. The design reminds me of other pieces taken from the planet of Bodarium. There's a continent called Hymila that runs almost pole-to-pole, and a city in its southern desert region known as Mastra. I think this object comes from there. The markings are regular Amorphar hieroglyphs, but they're arranged in unusual patterns. I think it could be a different dialect to what's been found before. I can't really say what it's made of, but the overall shape and size reminds me of a coffin or a sarcophagus. Then again, the ridges on the outside almost make it look like a cocoon. Can I ask where you got it from?" Eda hoped a second direct question would receive a straightforward answer.
"Your assessment of its origin is spot on. It's a family heirloom, handed down over many generations spanning about two hundred years. It's been in my possession most of my adult life."
"Two hundred years." Eda did some quick mental arithmetic. "Then I guess it was taken off Bodarium when the Amorphar were captured by the slavers?"
"That's correct. It's not a part of my family history I'm particularly proud of, but I am a descendent of the Serlham slave raiders who wreaked so much havoc in the Blue Flow system. They found this object as they were preparing to leave Bodarium for the last time. It was hidden in a chamber beneath the citadel of Harlak in the city of Mastra. None of the Amorphar left in the city would go near it, until the Serlham killed a few of them for disobeying orders."
Still watching Yarnex, Eda noticed how the lightness and charm in his mannerisms had disappeared as he told the tale of his forefathers.
A pang of sympathy pulled at her. "Have you ever had it scanned? You'd probably learn a lot."
"Ah, that's very interesting," he replied, his lightness of tone returning. "Let me show you."
Shuffling past the table, he crossed the room and drew aside a heavy curtain. Lights buzzed on in the alcove beyond, revealing a variety of electronic equipment. The sparkle in his eyes grew brighter, as he stepped up behind an aged scanner.
He touched the machine's screen, then wheeled the device across the room and positioned it in front of the table. Eda watched as his fingers moved around the display, engaging the machine's warm-up cycle and causing a soft hum to fill the air.
"I've scanned this object countless numbers of times." An earnest expression matched the eagerness in his voice. "But it's still very exciting."
Slowly, an image began to appear on the scanner's screen. A wire-framed rectangle filled the monitor. Yarnex worked the screen's control sliders. The shape began to solidify, and Eda spotted contours forming along the surface. Yarnex switched his attention to a different series of sliders. A subtle shade of green appeared on the object's surface. Abruptly the humming stopped and the screen readouts turned white. The object began to revolve, allowing a gradual view from all sides. A head and shoulders rotated past. Arms appeared, held close by the sides of a male torso that tapered down to well-muscled legs.
Yarnex stepped back from the scanner. "Interesting, isn't it?"
"Yes, it is." Eda stared at the image. "The shape... it looks like there's a body in there."
"Doesn't it just."
"I could confirm that for you. I think your scanner is a little old. I've got handheld devices that could probably tell you a lot more."
"I'm sure you have. But I only keep this old thing here to use in the presence of customers." He patted the edge of the screen. "I find a sale much easier if the potential buyer thinks they have the upper hand, thinks they know something I've missed. I can assure you, however, that this object has been in front of the best reading equipment there is, and each time the results were just the same as what you are seeing now."
"So, there might be something in there, or it could just be an empty space shaped like a body?"
"I can't say for sure. But there is a little more to reveal." He turned his attention back to the scanner.
The humming sound returned, only this time at a much lower pitch. Simultaneously, the image of the rotating man shrunk into the top right hand corner of the screen, to be replaced by a sonic interface. Yarnex took a tiny earpiece from a panel in the side of the scanner, and handed it to Eda. Complying with his wishes, she slipped the plastic circle into her ear.
Moments passed and nothing happened. About to suggest the equipment may have developed a fault, she caught a faint hissing noise coming through the earpiece. A deep, distant moaning quickly arose in the background. The depth of frequency made the sound almost inaudible, causing Eda's ear to tingle, and bringing to mind the kind of noise created by deep-dwelling sea creatures. The tone of the moaning pitched abruptly upwards and oscillated between two different notes. Here it stayed for a moment, continuing with heart beat regularity. Then the hissing noise grew louder, and the beat gradually faded away to nothing, like a dying echo.
Unsure why the sound had made the hairs on her neck stand up, Eda glanced at the interface on the scanner. The machine had drawn a visual representation of the tone, beneath which sat an analysis of its composition. As she regarded the heartbeat like waveform and read the breakdown, she became aware of Yarnex staring at her. He seemed to be waiting for a reaction.
"That's very odd," she began. "I can't help but again question the ability of your equipment. Did the other scanners pick up the noise?"
He nodded a reply.
"And their analysis was the same?"
"Yes, but slightly more detailed."
"In that case, I can only think of one course of action left to you. Open the object and have a look inside. I could help you with that, if you like."
Yarnex smiled. "If I were you, I probably would. But it's not really mine to tamper with. I am only its guardian."
"There'd be very little damage done. A pin hole investigation would be enough."
"I would like to, but my hands are tied by an age old promise. To be truthful, I shouldn't even be letting you in here. Family tradition forbids outsiders from seeing this thing. But times are changing."
"I see. Well, I'm not sure I can really help you. I know quite a lot about Bodarium, and the Amorphar people who lived there. However, I've never heard of this object. But seeing as quite a lot of their history was oral, there are some big gaps in my knowledge. There might be other people here on Quesamee who could tell you a lot more."
Yarnex's expression hardened. "Be careful when you get to Bodarium."
Was this a threat? Had she offended him? She hoped not. Despite his stature and overall pleasant demeanour, the world he moved in had a definite sinister side.
"There are other people here on Quesamee, in Assulm in fact, who also have an interest in the Spiral Chair. People who hold a different set of beliefs to you. Keep an eye over your shoulder, and watch out for who's behind you."
"I will." An apprehensive look came over Eda's face.
Yarnex must have noticed her change of expression. His features relaxed, the aged gentleness returning. "I don't mean to scare you, but like I said upstairs, I think you're going to succeed where all the others have failed. And you've got Doctor Frenhal's journal, haven't you?"
Eda slid a hand into her jacket pocket. "Em, yes I have."
Though she'd told Yarnex many things during their correspondence, she hadn't shared all the details of her Amorphar research. How could he know about the journal, one of her most valued possessions, and closely guarded secrets?
"I often wondered what happened to the Doctor's notes. Have you had them long?"
"Quite a few years. The journal was a present."
"Do you have it with you? I'd like to see."
Eda's fingers closed around the shape in her pocket. If she refused Yarnex's request, would he just help himself? The old man might not pose much of a threat, but the bodyguard by the tunnel door certainly did. With great reluctance, she drew her hand back out into the light. Excited eyes stared down at the plastic cover, as Eda handed the journal over.
"This isn't the original. I left that back on Ensoura. This is my field copy."
Yarnex didn't reply. Withered, trembling fingers slowly flipped through the weatherproof pages.
"Doctor Poab Frenhal." His slow drawl sounded full of admiration. "My father met him, you know. But of course, that was a long time ago. As a child, I often heard how the Doctor went to Bodarium looking for the Spiral Chair, and was never seen again. With this, you're bound to succeed, and that might not be such a good thing. Digging too deep can sometimes reveal a little too much. Things are normally buried for a reason. But listen to me, I said I wasn't going to try and put you off, and here I am filling your head with vague warnings." He snapped the journal shut and handed it back. "Thank you for taking the time to come here today, and I wish you the best of luck. What I've shown you may give you something to think about during the next leg of your journey. Which reminds me, I've heard you're having trouble getting a permit to take your equipment back off Quesamee."
"Yes, I am. A real lot of trouble, in fact."
"I can help you. I move things on and off the planet all the time. Cargo taxation annoys me, so I'm always looking for ways around the official channels. Off-world admin has its headquarters here in Assulm, and a contact there owes me a favour. If you don't mind, I can ask him to assist you."
"That would be a great help, thanks. I'm sorry I couldn't tell you anything new about your sarcophagus, or whatever it is."
"Maybe you can, with a little more information." Yarnex fumbled around in his jacket pocket, eventually removing a small data round. "This d-round contains all the data I've accumulated over the years about this piece. Perhaps you could give it some attention when you have a moment. If I'm still around on your return journey, you might want to stop by and discuss it. And if I'm not here, well, whoever is next in line will probably be interested. The information might also be of some use to you with regards to your search for the Spiral Chair."
Eda took the bullet shaped data device. "Thank you."
"Good, good. Agora will come down in a minute and escort you back upstairs. It's been a pleasure talking to you. I'm sure you're going to find the missing piece of the puzzle, and come back to tell me what's inside my heirloom."
"Bodarium is a big world," Eda didn't want to disagree, but he seemed to be clutching at straws, "I don't rate my chances very highly of finding anything."
He fixed her with a knowing look. "I wouldn't be so sure."