Act 1: Hope

Scene 1: Araskia

Doctor Abramoff Zorba wiped the thin film of omnipresent dust from his tiny, wire-framed glasses. It covered everything in sight, from the sagging habitation tents to the worn digging equipment. He carefully repositioned the spectacles on his arched nose and wiped a bead of sweat from his brow with a handkerchief. With his vision restored, he examined the scene before him. A team of several dozen archaeologists crawled like ants over an excavated pit, excited by the remote possibility of finding something of interest. The clang of pickaxes filled the air with their dull reverberations, but having lived the greater part of his life serenaded by such a symphony, the venerable Doctor tuned it out. His attention was instead drawn to the horizon, where a light veil of dust obscured the line that divided the clear blue sky from the harsh, tan dunes.

On the horizon there was a flicker of light. Zorba was confused, and again wiped his glasses. Surely his mind was playing tricks on him. There was not another living soul on the planet of Araskia apart from the hardy team of archaeologists, despite its agreeable living conditions. But again he saw it there, a flash of light and a speck of black that trembled as the heat radiating from the sand left wave patterns dancing in the air. Troubled, he walked over to an ideal observation point where his personal assistant was overseeing the dig. The young man held a clipboard and a pair of binoculars as if he were afraid that they would escape. A light breeze ruffled his sandy brown hair, cut short because of the heat, which only slightly less intolerable than the dust.

Zorba caught his attention with a gruff salutation. "Afternoon, Span."

"That it is," Thomas Span replied disinterestedly. "A little cooler than yesterday, which is quite welcome."

"Let me see those binoculars," Zorba said.

"Certainly, Doctor," Span replied, handing them over.

Zorba peered at the wavering black dot through the viewfinder of the binoculars, then slowly zoomed in on the mysterious object. A figure in torn black robes was crouched low over a grav-bike; the great speed of the bike caused the black robes to billow out behind like shadowy flames. Zorba was immediately struck with an intangible sense of foreboding, and the image of the Reaper came to his mind. He shook his head and dismissed the nonsensical thought. He had set aside vague ghost stories and irrational wives tales a long time ago. The dark figure was making a beeline for the dig site, it seemed, which was logical because there were no other places of interest nearby in the featureless and barren landscape.

"Take a look at this," Zorba murmured to his assistant, handing him the binoculars.

"Looks like we have a visitor," Span grunted in reply after peering through the viewfinder. "Dressed rather oddly, I must say."

"This troubles me."

Zorba carefully made his way down the dune towards the center of the dig site, determined to intercept the curious figure. He grumbled as the sand poured down the sides of his high boots and stung his ankles with their heat. The planet's twin suns did a remarkable job of heating the ground, so much so that specially insulated boots were required to tread over land. Keeping to the shade of various open-air tents, he scuffled towards the east side of the encampment, which was where he could best greet their strange visitor. Zorba stopped in the shade of a refreshment tent and reclined on one of the lawn chairs, the irony of which escaped at the moment. The speck on the horizon steadily grew bigger until it became clear that in had no intention of stopping before it hit the refreshment tent. With a yelp, Zorba did his best to get out of the way, but only succeeded in knocking himself over into the dirt. Luckily, the grav bike came to a sudden halt not three feet from his cowering form, and the mysterious figure dismounted gracefully.

"Are you crazy? You could have killed me!" he shouted at the rider, getting back to his feet and wiping the dust from his prized uniform. In response, the rider swept back the cloak's deep hood to reveal the face of a very beautiful Terran woman. Her black hair radiated under the eternal noontime glow, and her deep irises of crystal gray pierced him with a glance. Zorba was taken aback, and mumbled an apology, forgetting that he was not at fault. "Excuse me, ma'am, I forget myself. I'm Doctor Abramoff Zorba, field archaeologist for the Terran Archive. Pleased to meet you."

The lady looked upon him with disdain. Suddenly, Zorba heard a voice echo between his ears. 'Speak not with your mouth, Doctor, for you and I are not of the same tongue. Speak with your mind, for it is open to me, and I can read it as you would read a book. I go by many names, but I shall be Sana to you. Do we understand each other?'

Zorba was mystified. In all his sixty-three years of galactic adventure, and in all the countless dig sites that he'd overseen in a similar time period, he had never before encountered such a strange sight. He barely knew how to react, much less carry on a conversation with this striking young lady. It must have been the first time he'd ever come across a Terran who didn't speak Standard, for any other language was a relic meant to be studied by balding professors. He felt the vague notion that pleasing her would be good. Luckily, his first impulse to be hospital was well received.

"Please, come inside and take a seat. I will take your robe. Are you thirsty?"

A melodious laugh reverberated through his cranium. 'With your mind, Doctor, and this whole exchange shall go the smoother for the both of us. That said, I have been sitting for the past two hours, but water would certainly be welcome.'

Zorba had some trouble following her archaic speech, which, coupled with the way her mind leapt from one thought to the next with such quickness, caused him to take a second to understand what was going on before he acted. Embarrassed, he chastised his aging mind for losing the nimbleness of youth. He led Sana inside the tent and offered to take her heavy cloak. With a gloved hand, Sana unfastened the clasp and let him take it from her shoulders. Again, Zorba was dazed. The unseemly cloak concealed a tight fitting black space suit that had been optimized for use in a desert environment. He caught himself staring and quickly looked away. To distract himself, he hung cloak on the rack and began filling a pitcher with water.

Thomas Span walked in at that moment, for he too was curious as to the identity of the mysterious stranger. "Who-" The words caught in his mouth as soon as he noticed that the stranger was with them.

'I am Sana, Keeper of Secrets. I do not speak your tongue, but I can understand your thoughts. Speak with your mind, then, and we shall understand one another. I have come to discuss a very important matter.'

Zorba saw that Thomas was similarly surprised, although the young man managed to smile and bow. 'Pleased to meet you,' he thought. Zorba thought he caught the hint of a smile in the woman's eyes.

'Come, allow me to survey the excavation. I am interested in your affairs and your goals, and if such an interest does not bother you, I should like to know what you are doing here and what you plan to do. Let us walk in the sun, for I can better see what is and what is not with my own eyes.'

Zorba nodded, and led Sana back into the sweltering heat. He thought aloud as they walked around the circumference of the dig site, explaining himself to the girl. 'Well, I'll start at the beginning, I guess. As a kid I became interested in archaeology when my father gave me an Apostatic runestone as a gift once. I went to school at the Terran Academy on Seroth and focused my studies on the ancient technology and of the five great civilizations, and did some language studies and folklore on the side. Since then I've toured the galaxy, conducting numerous digs. What got me interested in Araskia was the fact that it didn't exist-in the Archives, at least. I'd heard numerous references to it in legends and folklore, from such diverse sources that it couldn't have been made up. What was interesting was that every tale depicted this planet as not only harsh and unforgiving, but deeply foreboding. Superstition, of course, but it only got me to wondering what could be buried here. I'm still not quite sure what it is I'm looking for, but I know that when I find it, it will be one of the greatest finds of the century. I will be famous.'

They walked by a series of digging machines and surveillance equipment, which Zorba began to explain. 'Ancient artifacts are usually detectable from the surface with modern equipment. That machine there uses sonar to determine the composition of the earth beneath our feet, and extrapolates likely positions of objects of interest from the data it collects. This dig site is working its way towards the largest collection of metal within a kilometer of planet's surface.'

At this point Sana cut in. 'Who is funding your research? Is there another who knows of the secrets buried here?'

'The Terran Archives has generously given me a block grant to conduct research as I please, so I don't have to worry about the money. As for people who know about this-I've tried to keep this as quiet as possible. I don't want another archaeologist stealing my artifacts.'

'So no one really knows where you are?' Sana inquired, puzzled.

'Not even the families of the diggers. I couldn't risk someone else getting wind of this.'

'Good,' she said. Suddenly, Zorba's mind split apart as images of pain and suffering clouded out his vision. The hallucination rushed over him, suffocating him like the flood of a rushing river. His mind was being eroded from inside out; his eyes watered and his lungs burned. He could barely make out the form of Thomas Span, doubled over and screaming with all his might, yet despite the young man's cry of anguish, Zorba could only hear the rush of air, and then… nothing.

Sanathedramilanabliss opened her crystal-gray eyes and surveyed the scene of carnage. Lifeless bodies littered the dig site and colossal digging machines stood desolate without men to operate them. Soon they would all be swallowed by the desert. Their blood was on her hands, but it was a small price to pay. No one must know the secret.

Sadly, she returned to the tent, retrieved her cloak, and headed back the way she came.