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Treasure Hunt

By Tim Dodge

The gold-skinned android said, "Master Yeager, I fail to understand the purpose of this excursion."

"Can't say that I get it, either," Damani Legrand put in from the pilot's seat. "Seems to me we're chasing a unicorn."

Artemis Yeager gave no indication that he had heard any of what had been said. He leaned back in his chair on the bridge, studying a tablet, chewing on an unlit pipe.

Legrand looked over his shoulder and scowled. "Hey Boss, Fortran here downloaded a couple of terabytes of android porn yesterday."

"I most certainly did not," the android huffed. "Such crass entertainment holds no appeal to me."

"Mm-hmm," Yeager mumbled.

"Also, the fusion reactor is leaking, the ship's registration expired, we might be flying into an asteroid field, and your mom says you're a dick."

"Mm-hmm."

"And I'm thinking of becoming one of those new sexes they've created in the Inverness system."

"Mm-hmm."

"For the love of Jupiter, will you put that damn thing down and tell me what's going on?" Legrand yelled. "You've been staring at it since before we went into warp speed and you're not hearing a thing we're saying."

Yeager didn't look up from the tablet. "No watching android porn until after you've fixed that reactor."

"Right." Legrand looked at the display on the console. "It's going to be a few hours before touchdown. You going to memorize the entire contents of that tablet?"

Yeager scrolled the device with one finger. "I'm trying to crack a code."

"A code? What kind of code?"

"The kind that disguises a message."

Legrand shook his head. "Did that damn bug on Adrasteia bite you when you found that micro drive under it? You've been in one of your moods since you found it."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"It's just like every other time you've found one of these drives. You get obsessed, absolutely positive there's something valuable on it. You know what's usually on it, chief? Viruses and remote bots. And do you know who gets the honor of cleaning up the mess?"

Yeager stifled a yawn. "You."

"Yes, me!" Legrand was transitioning into Stage One Rant status. "If I'm lucky, all that's on there are directions to dead-end business opportunities, specs for equipment we can't use, or really, really bad movies."

Yeager crossed his arms in front of his chest. "This time it's different."

"The four most dangerous words in any language." The first mate glared at him. "This one's knocked you right off the rails. You're not looking for new jobs. You're not looking for new women. I scored a case of fifteen year-old Callidoran whiskey on the black market on Adrasteia and you couldn't care less. Hell, you actually seem to be taking the crap the android says seriously."

"I beg your pardon?" Fortran interjected.

"And now we're on course for a planet that serves as a big floating landfill for the rest of the system. It's a hell of a risk you're taking, boss."

"If what this tablet says is accurate, we're going to find billions of credits worth of hidden cargo. It's a good lead, Legrand, and I've got debts to pay," Yeager said in a clipped tone.

"What did I tell you about taking on that line of credit?"

"I don't want to hear your I-told-you-so's."

Legrand ignored him. "We could have financed on a cash-flow basis without it. Instead, we're one step ahead of the ship getting repossessed."

"That will be enough, Mr. Legrand." The captain's tone was a little less clipped and a lot less friendly.

Legrand took the hint and shut up, but he continued to stew on the situation. This was not the Artemis Yeager he'd hired on with five years before. That guy could sniff out a good opportunity anywhere, drive a hard bargain and win, and deliver the product early and in good condition. People were begging him to haul their stuff. Now he was chasing riches like an old gold prospector. And just to make this fool's errand a little more bizarre, the captain was trying to crack a coded message himself. Legrand thought that was what androids were for. Yeager's insistence on doing it himself was just more evidence that he was losing it.

He'd lost his edge, and if Legrand wasn't careful, the boss would drag him down, too. Legrand wouldn't stick around long enough to see that happen. He'd already made a few quiet inquiries about work with other crews. Nothing serious was in the works yet, but if the right opportunity came along and Yeager was still pursuing fantasies like this, he'd make a move.


#

Artemis Yeager had become adept at tuning out his chirpy android and grumpy first mate. Complaining was Legrand's full-time business; in his spare time, it was his hobby. He was the best in the business at what he did, so Yeager put up with him. We'll see if he finds anything to bitch about when we pull in a billion credits selling this haul, he thought.

Before they could sell the haul, though, they had to find it, and that meant cracking the code. He'd considered letting the android try it but decided that wasn't wise. Fortran was excellent at retrieving all kinds of information about locations they visited. He could report on everything from expected relative humidity to planned and ongoing construction projects to the names and DNA profiles of all living creatures on the planet. He knew thousands of languages and all their dialects, the exchange rates of local currencies on hundreds of planets, and detailed topographical information for all of them. If Yeager needed a location where he could land the ship unnoticed, Fortran could produce six alternatives in less than thirty seconds. If he needed the payment history of a Eupraxian thruster repair business before agreeing to pick up parts for them on spec, Fortran delivered. Instantaneous research was his gig. Yeager had never asked him to break codes before, and he wasn't inclined to start him off on a job this important.

The code appeared to use characters from one of the simpler Adrasteian languages. Fortunately, Yeager was conversant in several of them. It was far better to say "fifty percent cash upfront" in the other party's language; it left no room for claims of misunderstanding. With a few hours' work, he would be able to figure the code out. The more he could block out Legrand and Fortran, the better. Unless pieces started falling off the ship, they wouldn't need him for a while anyway.

He had already pinned down the characters that appeared most frequently. The next part was harder - trying to plug in common words that contained those letters to see if they made sense. This was the painstaking part, but there was no way around it. All he needed was time.

Legrand and Fortran began arguing over obscure sports facts. Fortran was always correct, of course; he had the records stored in his database. Legrand was absolutely certain Fortran's records were corrupted, and he so stated in ever-increasing volume and intensity. Yeager couldn't afford to push either of them out of the airlock, so he took his work to the galley.

After more than an hour and three cups of coffee from a planet with the worst beans in the galaxy, he started to make increasing progress. Deciphering was always this way; once the puzzle pieces started coming together, it got easier to find the others. There were no spaces in the message, but he could identify where groups of letters probably began and ended. It started to be fun.

At least until the com buzzed. "Hey Art." Legrand's voice came through the speaker. "You want me to use the recycling story when I request permission to land?"

Yeager considered. "How long has it been since we used that one?"

"I dunno. Seems like we used it not that long ..."

"Master Yeager," broke in Fortran's voice, "the last time Damani told transport control that our purpose was to procure used materials for recycling was twenty-nine days, five hours and seventeen seconds ago on the ninth sector of the planet Sotiria."

"Did it work?"

"They demanded financial consideration."

"Oh, yeah. As bribes go, that was one of the smaller ones. Sure, give them the recycling line. If this trip goes well, we'll be able to afford their fee."

Yeager thought he heard Legrand sigh. "Roger that," the first mate said. "Figure out the mystery yet?"

"Getting close. Keep me posted on your communications with the guardians of the trash."

"Copy that." Legrand switched off the line.

An hour later, he had it. Deciphered message in hand, he returned to the bridge.

"Good timing," Legrand said. "We just got permission to descend."

"How much?"

"Five hundred."

"Jeez, they're practically inviting us to visit. Maybe we should have charged them." Yeager checked the coordinates on the navigation display. "Put her down in sector eleven at one-zero-one, three-six-two."

"Roger that."

#

The ship came to rest in what looked to be an unpopulated area. There were a bunch of small structures; storage units or industrial buildings by the look of them. Nothing that looked like dwellings, at least nothing that Yeager would want to live in. "Okay," he said, unstrapping, "Let's have a look. Got your tools and some sacks?"

Legrand was slinging a pack over one shoulder. "Right here."

Yeager nodded and turned to Fortran. "Pull up the most detailed maps you have of this sector. If this stuff is here, I want to get in and out as fast as we can."

"Retrieving maps now, Master Yeager."

"And I've got the directions. Let's do this."

Legrand was the first to comment on their new surroundings once they were outside. "Great gobs of wookie snot, what the hell is that stench?"

"I believe we have landed in the vicinity of landfill 1B1," Fortran said. "It is one million, three hundred twenty-one thousand, eight hundred twelve square meters in area. The sector's waste management report to the system government's department of environmental affairs at the end of the last fiscal year indicated that this landfill is at eighty-two point seven percent capacity."

Legrand glared at Yeager. "You brought us," he said, though it sounded like you brod us, "to the biggest trash heap in the galaxy?"

"Wud of deb."

Legrand covered his nose. "This better be worth it."

Yeager looked at his tablet and pointed. "This way."

The group walked toward a hill rising in the north. The air was warm and humid, and the two humans were quickly perspiring. "Seems a little strange," Yeager said, "that no one's around, don't you think? This is a major landfill. You'd think there'd be some activity."

"Maybe they all asphyxiated from the smell," Legrand offered.

"Actually, Damani," Fortran said, "it is physically impossible to suffer asphyxiation solely from unpleasant odors. Asphyxiation can occur only when the human brain is deprived of oxygen for an excessive length of time. That length can vary ..."

"How's about I rip out your vocal circuits?" Legrand growled.

The android fell silent, looking a bit miffed.

"Fortran," Yeager said with a warning look in Legrand's direction, "what are we going to see at the top of this hill?"

"My map indicates that the hill will descend to the southern-most end of the landfill."

"What do your directions say we do when we get there?" Legrand asked.

"Uh," Yeager said, "they say we should continue walking north."

"So you're saying we have to walk across the landfill."

"That's the size of it."

Legrand muttered something about a raise, and the trio got to the hilltop.

Looking out at the vista before them, Legrand said, "So this is where we'll find our fortune."

Starting at the bottom of the hill were piles of garbage as far as the eye could see. Large black birds swirled around mounds of refuse, making a sound like a cough. The trash flowed in every direction. "It's kind of impressive, in its way," Yeager observed.

"A monument to our ability to throw crap out," Legrand added. "Who the hell would hide a treasure here?"

"Someone who wanted to be sure no one would come looking for it."

Legrand shrugged. "You've got a point. Lead the way."

They walked down the hill the way prisoners in their last moments walk toward the gallows. The smell grew steadily more oppressive as they drew closer to the outer boundary, as did the heat. "Hot, humid and stinky," Yeager said.

"The current temperature is thirty-one degrees Celsius," Fortran reported, "and the dew point is twenty-one degrees. Unfortunately, there are no scientific measurements for the pleasantness of odors."

"Some things, Fortran," Yeager said, "you just know without having to measure them. Now," he looked down at the tablet, "we're looking for a yellow shed."

"Should be easy to find a building in the middle of a trash heap," Legrand said.

"Hope so. Let's get moving."

They stepped into every variety of garbage the inhabitants of the system could produce. Wrappers, cans, clothes, food, sauces, spoiled beverages, plastics, diapers (a lot of diapers), and so forth. There were apparently several layers, and they began sinking into the muck almost as soon as they began to cross. "This is so disgusting," Legrand groaned.

"Showers for everyone as soon as we get off this planet," Yeager said. "Captain's orders."

"According to my measurements," Fortran said, "the composition of materials is seventeen percent paper, thirty-one percent metal, five percent wood, twenty-nine percent plastic, five percent food, and the rest miscellaneous, primarily fecal matter."

"That's more information than I really wanted, Fortran. Got a lead on our yellow shed?"

"According to my map, there is a metal structure five meters by seven meters large one hundred meters to the north-northwest."

"Let's hope it's right."

It was. Walking a hundred meters waist deep in garbage took some time and effort, but they came to a yellow metal building on a stone platform. It rose about four meters into the air and had a flat roof. There was one door, also metal, uncolored and locked.

Yeager walked around the shed's perimeter. "I don't see any other ways in," he reported, "but also nothing that looks like an alarm or trap."

"It's probably just an equipment shed," Legrand observed. "Nothing in there worth protecting with an alarm."

"I expect they're wrong about that, but we'll soon find out. Got something in your tool bag that can get through that lock?"

"Shouldn't be a problem." Legrand sorted through the contents of his tool pack and selected a device that looked like a cross between a blaster and an old-fashioned power drill. "A little demagnification ought to do the trick." He pressed the device's barrel against the door in the space between the handle and its edge and gave a gentle squeeze on the trigger. When nothing happened, he gave it a somewhat less gentle squeeze. Still nothing.

"Is there a problem?" Yeager asked.

"It worked last time I used it," Legrand said, examining the device with a puzzled look.

"If my observations are correct," Fortran said, but Legrand cut him off.

"I've got to invest in some better tools." He tapped the device's side.

"If I may," Fortran continued, but this time Yeager interrupted him.

"Do you have anything else that would work?"

"Not as easily as this piece of junk if it would just do what it's supposed to."

"Damani," Fortran tried again, "it is my observation that batteries have not been inserted in the device."

"What? You're nuts. Of course there are ..." His voice trailed off as he checked the battery compartment and found it empty. Without a word, he set it down, picked up the pack and fished out a box of batteries. He snapped two of them into the device, pressed it against the door and squeezed the trigger. A hum sounded, followed by a sharp click.

"We're in," he announced. Making brief eye contact with the android, he said, "Wipe that smirk off your face."

"All right," Yeager said, "let's see what's inside. It's got to be more pleasant that what's outside."


#


They pushed the door open a few centimeters and Yeager peered in. All he could see was darkness, so he turned on his utility light and pointed it inside. He took a quick look around, pulled the door closed and turned to his companions.

"I stand corrected," he said.

"What did you see?" Legrand asked.

"I was kind of hoping Fortran would be able to help me answer that question."

The android gave him a quizzical look. "I'm intrigued."

"Good," the captain said, grasping the door handle. "Have at it."

He turned the handle and pushed the door open wide. The daylight spilled into the shed, revealing several lizard-like creatures. They had six legs, round heads with eyes in the front and on the sides, scaly hardened chests, claws, and mouths full of what looked like quite sharp teeth.

"Borraniss's balls!" Legrand said.

"I can't argue with that," Yeager said. "Any guesses as to what they are, Fortran?"

"Searching the animal population database for this sector now," the android said. His eyes always rolled slightly back in his head when he did a search, and Yeager still found the sight disconcerting even after their years together. After less than a minute, his eyes slipped back into normal position and he looked at the captain. "Bezzilith. A cousin of what humans refer to as reptiles. They grow to no more than one-half meter in length. They feed on wild animals and any other materials they can swallow, using their seventy-six teeth that have been known to cut through five centimeters of solid wood in one bite. Also ..." The bezziliths hissed, almost in harmony. Yeager counted a couple of dozen of them.

"They live in packs," Fortran concluded.

"Well, this is indeed a problem," Yeager said.

"I'd say so," Legrand agreed. "But they're just lizards. We should be able to blast them away."

"And blast the hell out of the shed while we're doing it."

"Got a better idea? I kind of like my face and would prefer to keep it."

"Maybe we can get them to come out," Yeager said. "Entice them with food. There's got to be some rotting meat around here somewhere."

"May I suggest an alternative?" Fortran broke in.

"Does it involve batteries?" That comment earned Yeager a dirty look from Legrand.

"No, it involves sound. My records indicate that these creatures are very sound-sensitive. They cannot tolerate certain pitches and tones. They survive on this planet because these sounds are not common here. However, if the sounds can be produced, they might force the creatures to vacate."

"Great," Legrand said. "Know any show tunes?"

"It does not appear from the records that musical works from American and British theatrical productions of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries would produce the tonal qualities necessary to disturb twenty-seven bezziliths," Fortran said, "but this might."

The android's face twisted in a grimace Yeager had seen once on a guy who had slipped and fallen on a reinforced synthetic iron pipe with his legs spread apart. Fortran emitted a barely audible sound that was a cross between a wheeze and a nose whistle. He held the note for a good ten seconds. Somewhere between seconds three and four, a hissing blur shot past the trio. A pack of frightened bezziliths scampered away into the mounds of trash, moving as fast as they could, though one stopped to pick up what looked to be a curtain rod in its jaws.

Yeager poked inside with his light. "All gone," he announced. "You've got quite a set of pipes, Fortran."

Fortran began to protest his sound-producing modules did not include pipework, but Yeager shushed him. "Let's get in there before they decide to come back."

Inside, they found hand tools, a transport pod that looked like it hadn't been used in years, spare fuel cells, and a lot of bones. Against one wall was a stack of boxes and containers. "We're looking for gasoline," Yeager said.

"Gasoline?" Legrand gave him an odd look.

"That's what the tablet says. 'Beneath the gasoline lies the gateway to treasure.'"

"I thought that stuff was illegal."

"That is correct," Fortran said. "A prohibition on the production of gasoline was first enacted on Earth in the year 2411, inspiring comparable statutes in the rest of that galaxy. By the year 2503, seventeen galaxies had banned petroleum product production, including the one in which we now stand."

"So it's contraband," Yeager said. "Start looking for something that looks like it's illegal."

They began moving cartons around. It turned out they were piled four deep against the wall. In the very last row there stood a large cylinder that looked to have a twenty-liter capacity. "Think that's it?" Legrand asked.

Yeager moved closer. "I don't recognize the smell," he said.

Legrand sniffed. "It's pretty bad but it's still better than anything else we've smelled on this planet."

"According to my records, gasoline ignites very easily," Fortran said. "It was used primarily as a fuel for transportation units for this reason. It has a flashpoint of negative forty-three degrees Celsius. I would suggest not approaching it with a heat source."

"So how are we going to know if this is it?"

Fortran picked up the cylinder and tried to turn its cap. It didn't move. "Due to lack of use, the cap has become difficult to remove," he said. "Damani, do you have a powerful wrench in your pack?"

"Wouldn't go anywhere without it." He attached the wrench's jaws to the cap, entered a code on its keypad, grasped the handles and punched a button with his thumb. Metal screeched, and the cap unscrewed.

"Now what do we do?" Legrand asked.

Fortran picked up the open cylinder, tilted it toward his mouth and took a big swallow of the liquid inside. After he gulped it down, he said, "Intriguing."

"And I thought I had a tough stomach," Legrand said.

Fortran's eyes rolled again. "Test results coming ... seventy percent complete ... eighty percent ... ninety percent ..." His eyes snapped back into normal position. "Captain, I can confirm that this liquid is the distilled petroleum product known as gasoline. On a personal note, I find its taste to be most unpleasant."

"Yeah," Yeager said, "I'll take your word for it. Make sure you perform waste removal procedures before you re-board the ship, okay?"

"Acknowledged, captain."

"Good. Now, what was underneath that can?"

The three of them crowded around the spot where the cylinder had stood. Legrand said, "Looks like there's a seam starting here." He traced a path with his finger. "And it runs around to here."

"Hidden trap door?" Yeager asked, looking at him.

"That's my guess."

Yeager pushed on it with no result. "There isn't a handle or a hole for inserting a lever." He held out a hand to the first mate. "Hand me a saw."

Legrand passed a saw with a pointed end to him, but it didn't make a dent in the metal floor. He mumbled a curse. "How about something I can pry it with?"

A small pry bar was passed over. Yeager forced the flat end into the seam and pushed down. There was a spine-chilling sound of metal scraping against metal. The door opened a few centimeters, allowing Yeager to push the pry bar further into the space. The additional leverage was all it took. The door popped off entirely, exposing a hole large enough for a man to crawl through.

"I'm going in," Yeager announced. "You two stay here and help pull me out." He shined his light through the hole. "Doesn't look like much of a drop." He sat down on the floor, stuck his feet into the hole, and climbed down, landing with a thud.

If anything, the heat was even more oppressive under the floor than it was above it. His shirt would be soaked in a matter of minutes. Whatever was down there, he needed to find it fast. He swept around the space with his light.

"See anything?" Legrand called.

"Oh, do I." Yeager's voice had a slight tremble. "Fortran, what is the current price of one ounce of platinum?"

"At the close of trading yesterday, one ounce of platinum was selling for ten thousand, four hundred fifty-five point six credits."

Legrand frowned. "How much do you see down there?"

"My guess? Around two hundred pounds."


#


It took two trips to get it all back to the ship, considering that Fortran was not built to carry loads heavier than thirty pounds and Legrand had his tool pack. After Yeager hauled the last of it out of the hole, they put the gasoline cylinder back in place and re-stacked the containers. Wading through the swamp of garbage didn't seem quite so bad with their treasure in hand, though Legrand still gagged a couple of times.

Once the platinum was aboard, Yeager reminded Fortran to jettison the gasoline he had swallowed. "Outside," was his specific instruction. Captain and first mate gave him privacy while he unloaded, but they heard him say, "Intriguing." Soon enough, they were airborne and cruising through space. Yeager did not have to remind anyone of his previous order to take showers.


#


Three days later, they were docked at the Oasis Space Station and Resorts. Fortran was getting a thorough defragging and upgraded memory chips. Yeager and Legrand were getting massages from a pair of lovely Callidoran masseuses. As the women worked their shoulder muscles, Yeager looked through the hole in the head rest. Something on the floor caught his eye. "Say, what's that?" he asked.

"What?" Yelva, his masseuse asked.

"Down there. On the floor."

She paused his massage and looked under the table. She picked up the item and examined it. "It looks like a file drive. Someone must have dropped it there. I wonder how long it's been there?"

"Can I have it?" Yeager asked. Yelva handed it to him, and he curled it in his fist beneath the sheet.

Roanha, the masseuse working on Legrand, said to him, "It's a good thing you came in for this. Your muscles got really tense all of a sudden."


<<< END >>>


By Tim Dodge

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