professor bernice summerfield and the secret of menarios...

by mark phippen

Copyright © 2002 by the author. Reproduction of any kind is forbidden.

It's hard to believe, thought Bernice, that this place could have ever been alive.

The view afforded from the sand dune on which they now stood should have been spectacular. Instead it merely laid bare the fact that this lifeless planet had nothing to offer but sand, rocks and a cracked and broken landscape. That and the twin suns that chased each other across the sky, taking turns to further bake the surface, a constant relay that lead to permanent daylight and a ground beneath their feet hot enough to scold bare flesh.

Bernice took a long swig from her canteen and offered it to her companion. Natasha, intently studying the readout from a small electronic device she held in her hand, shook her head almost irritably at this small distraction, so Bernice took another draught and replaced the cap.

"Found something?" Bernice decided that the only she was going to get a reasonable response from Natasha was to take an interest in the object of her current fascination.

"Yes, I'm sure of it," Natasha passed the device to Bernice, brushing back her long blonde hair from her eyes. "Look here, look at this rock formation. See how it forms a crescent shape?"

Bernice studied the digital map on the screen in front of her, noting the rocks that Natasha had highlighted in red with her digipen. The lack of detail on the map meant that she couldn't be sure, but the rocks appeared to form a half ring around a cracked open plain, much like the one spread before them.

"Well, it could be the same plain, but then again it could be any of the thousands of very similar plains that cover this planet." Bernice handed back the map.

"No no, look over here," Natasha pointed out across the plain to the west of where they stood, indicating the large rocks that lined its edge. "Look at how these rocks being to curve inwards, towards the plain."

"But there aren't enough of them, if you look at the ma-" And then it struck Bernice. Of course, why hadn't she seen it earlier? The sand dune on which they now stood also curved, and Bernice traced its course west with her finger, following its turn to the north to meet the rock formation.

This was no dune they were standing on. Beneath them was the very cave system they had come looking for.

For the first time since they had met, Bernice was starting to think Natasha might be on to something.

• • •

Natasha had initially contacted Irving Braxiatel three weeks ago, claiming to be the last survivor of the Menarian race. Braxiatel had, at first, been sceptical. After all, thought Bernice, this was much the same as someone on Earth claiming to be the Man from Atlantis. Menarios, once renowned as a place of beauty and tranquillity, had long since passed into legend. Indeed, most believed the place had never existed; certainly any proof of its existence, let alone its location, had long been lost.

But now, apparently, they had been found.

Such was Natasha's confidence in her claim, and such was her determination that Braxiatel would believe her, that she eventually succeeded in wearing him down. At least to the point of agreeing to fund an exploratory mission provided Natasha was accompanied by Braxiatel's resident expert on such matters.

Enter Bernice.

As it happened, Natasha had been about to request Bernice Summerfield's assistance, and was more than happy to have her on the team. As good as the Menarian's information was it would only get them so far. She was no archaeologist.

So it was that Bernice found herself traipsing halfway across the sector to a planet so insignificant that no-one had bothered to name it, though Bernice had had a few choice suggestions.

Natasha had been irritatingly sketchy on the details of her own past, refusing to elaborate on how Menarios had been lost, saying only that she had been spared its fate by 'a miracle', the exact nature of which she refused to explain. When Bernice asked how long Natasha had been searching for her home, the Menarian would only say "It seems like forever."

This behaviour did little to encourage Bernice to believe what she believe to be little more than, at the very least, the fantasies of a disturbed mind. And at very worst, an elaborate con. She was undecided whether Natasha's refusal to tell her more was a faux mysteriousness designed to intrigue her, or the symptoms of a genuine, unquestioning faith.

Well, supposed Bernice, Brax seemed to believe her, and, while he was paying the bills, that was good enough for her. For now.

So, now they stood on this dead world, having followed the directions of a map so vague as to be almost a hindrance, bought from a source so unsavoury as to be almost certainly unreliable. But the map had matched enough of what Natasha did know for her to believe in the rest, and, reflected Bernice, it had got them this far without letting them down.

So how far was this far? Well, having cleared away a significant area of the sand covering (what was now confirmed as) the rock on which they stood, Bernice and Natasha had uncovered a narrow but adequate fissure in the rock. With some effort, the two of them had squeezed themselves into the dark opening, taking a minimum of supplies, mainly consisting of torches and communications equipment.

They had found themselves in a narrow tunnel, created by a split in the rock that burrowed deep into the planet, as if someone had taken a giant chisel to the surface of the world. The fissure had begun to seal itself over time, but, thankfully, still had someway to go before it was healed completely. 

After some time, the cramped tunnel eventually opened up into a large, airy cavern, much to Bernice's relief. As she stood, taking lungfulls of surprisingly fresh air, Bernice realised that they were standing on a ledge overlooking an impenetrably dark internal cavern.

Bernice's torchlight cut into the gloom, where it was swallowed up in the murky blackness. "It's no good, I can't see a thing down there. For all we know it's a sheer drop for hundreds of fee-"

As Bernice spoke she turned her head towards her companion, catching her in the torchlight. Natasha was hefting a large rock above her head, ready to bring it down.

Down into the cavern.

If Bernice was expecting it to fall soundlessly into the blackness, she was to be surprised, as only seconds later it rebounded off something with a loud clang. Something metal.

"It's there!" cried Natasha.

"What's there?"

"What I've been looking for. The ship." In the torchlight, Natasha's eyes shone brightly as she stared down into the black cavern.

"Um," Bernice started, "Is there something you've not been telling me?"

The Menarian tore her gaze away reluctantly from the edge, even though there was nothing to see but the blackness. She started, as if she had forgotten Bernice was there.

"I'm sorry," she said, "really I am."

"This is a hoax, isn't it? You've been lying all the time!"

"No, no, I really am the last of the Menarian, we are here to find the remains of my civilisation. It's just…"

"Just what?"

"This isn't Menarios. It never has been." Natasha looked shamefaced.

"I knew it! There's no way life could survive on a surface as barren and lifeless as this. Not only that, but none of the legends, as inconsistent and mythological as they are, indicate that Menarios is anywhere near this sector of space." Bernice's disappointment was evident in her voice.

"I knew you'd say that, that's why I had to lie to you. Braxiatel would never have agreed to fund this expedition, you'd never had agreed to come, if I had said we were coming here to find one ship."

"What's so important about this ship?" Bernice was intrigued again, despite her disillusionment.

"It holds the answers. Find that ship and we find all that remains of Menarios. That much is true. But we have to go down there," Natasha said determinedly, "or all of this will have been a waste of time."

Not to mention a great deal of Brax's money, thought Bernice. "OK, but only one of us. If we both get trapped down there we'll have no chance of getting out again."

"Then I'll go," Natasha said quickly, already fastening a rope around her waist. "This is my quest, I should take the risks."

"No, I think it would be best if I go. I have considerably more experience in this kind of thing." And besides, thought Bernice, it's about time I took charge of this situation.

Natasha was about to argue, but instead she unfastened the rope and handed it to Bernice, a resigned look on her face.

• • •

The drop, Bernice was glad to find, was not too far. The sheer blackness of the cavern was deceptive – Bernice literally couldn't see her hands in front of her face without the aid of her helmet lamp – and she was surprised as she abseiled down the side of the cavern to find herself landing with a clang on the roof of the ship after only a minute or two.

The dual beams of her helmet lamp and hand torch cut into the darkness, illuminating the scarred, rusting hull of the ship beneath her feet.

"Can you see a way in?" Natasha's voice came from above.

"Not yet, but I'd be surprised if this ship is in one piece down here. I'll see if I can find a sufficiently damaged section." Bernice placed the first of her lamp markers at her landing point. "And I'm switching on my headpiece now. All this shouting is giving me a headache."

Taking careful steps across the roof of the ship, and placing regular markers as she went, Bernice made steady progress but found no access points.

"Just how big is this ship?" she said into her headpiece.

"I'm not sure, but it was a fighter ship so I'm guessing it won't be too big." Natasha's voice crackled over the headphones.

"A fighter? Not a cargo vessel?"

"That's right." Natasha paused. "Not one of ours, I hasten to add."

Bernice decided to let that one pass. That the vessel was not Menarian was not terribly surprising given the other half-truths Natasha had been spinning since they had met. Instead she said: "Then I must be reaching the forward end. The roof is beginning to narrow, and I've been descending for the last few steps."

"That sound about right," replied Natasha, "perhaps you can find the cockpit?"

Bernice's next tentative footstep came down on something smooth, slippery and altogether more fragile than the metal hull she now stood on, and, as she quickly pulled her foot back, the glass she stood on cracked right across its width. "I think I found it."

"I heard the crack from up here," said Natasha, "should the glass break like that?"

"It's been down here a long time. I'm surprised it's even stayed in place this long."

"Millennia." Natasha's voice was barely a whisper, but the enhancement features of Bernice's communications equipment still managed to pick it up.

"Yes, well, it's probably my best chance of getting into the ship, so I'm going to smash it." Bernice peered closer at the glass, shining her torches inside. "If I can clear a big enough – argh!"

"Bernice, what's wrong?" Natasha shouted unnecessarily into the communicator.

"Nothing, don't worry. I just got a fright, that's all." Bernice silently admonished herself for her over-reaction. "I've just found the pilot."

It wasn't as if Bernice hadn't seen her fair share of corpses, both fresh and long since calcified, but she had still been surprised to see the long since sightless eye sockets of the creature in the pilot's chair staring up at her.

The being, now little more than bones wrapped in tattered leather clothing, was nevertheless intact enough to indicate that it had never been remotely human, certainly not Menarian, if Natasha was anything to go by. A large, barrel shaped ribcage and very low brow were enough to prove that, even without the telltale tusks attached to its cheekbones.

Bernice became aware that Natasha was still talking in her ear. "It's OK," she interrupted, "I'm alright now. I'm going to smash the glass. There should be enough room for me to squeeze through if I move our friend here. You know, this does feel a little like grave robbing."

Through the headphones, Bernice heard Natasha sigh. "If it is, then it's no worse than what that creature once did himself. We are only stealing what belongs to us. To me. We have every right to be doing this."

If you say so, thought Bernice.

• • •

Once inside, and once she had gotten used to the smell, Bernice swung her torch around the cockpit. The long dead controls for the cockpit door would be of no use, so, producing a jemmy from her backpack, Bernice turned to brute force. As it turned out, the only resistance she met was from the rust that coated the door, and, once she had managed slide the door partway clear of its jam, it proved surprisingly easy to open it further to enable her to slip through.

The corridor Bernice found herself in ran down the centre of the ship, back to the aft of the ship where she had landed above.

"So, what am I looking for?" Bernice spoke into her headpiece.

"The cargo hold. Should be near the rear. That's where it will be." Natasha was audibly excited.

"It?"

"What we've come for – the lost civilisation of Menarios."

"Of course. It's just that you make it sound like an object. Something tangible." Bernice had that worrying feeling again that she was being lied to.

"Of course there will be physical evidence. What did you expect?" Natasha was getting irritable, impatient.

"Something more than buried treasure, I guess." Bernice replied.

"What I expect to find is considerably more than that." Natasha's tone softened. "How are you getting on?"

"Lots of doors to the sides, which I'm ignoring. I'm taking it slowly, so as not to miss anything, but I'm getting near to the rear of the ship, so I expect to find the – ah, I think this is it."

"Open it, quickly!"

"Okay, okay, I don't think whatever is down here is going anywhere fast. Not sure this jemmy can shift it. I'll have to cut my way in." Bernice shrugged off her rucksack and shone her torch into it, searching for her laser cutter.

"How long will this take?" Natasha was trying to remain calm. She'd be no good on a dig, thought Bernice.

"Not long with this," replied Bernice, finally finding the cutter at the bottom of her bag, "it'll cut through anything."

As it turned out, the doors of the cargo hold proved surprisingly sturdy, even after millennia down here under the rock, and it took Bernice a while to cut a hole large enough crawl through. Whoever these being were, she thought, as she kicked out the panel she had cut, their cargo was obviously the most important thing on board the vessel.

The hold she found on the other side was large; it must have taken up nearly half of the length of the ship, and Bernice's voice as she reported her success to Natasha echoed loudly around the room.

Large and empty then.

"It can't be!" cried Natasha, "Look everywhere, it has to be there!"

"It would help if I knew exactly what you were expecting to find in here." Bernice replied.

Natasha sighed. "A box, a small wooden box. It'll probably have markings on, but you won't be able to read them. If there's anything else, ignore it. All that matters is that box."

Bernice lit the last of her marker lights, which helped illuminate the room a little, and, removing her helmet, she placed it on the other side of the room so that, between them, the two lamps provided her with at least some light to work in. She then proceeded to methodically sweep sections of the hold with her handheld torch.

Her initial assumption had been correct. Aside from a few pallets of long decayed food supplies, the hold appeared to be empty. She was about the report this to Natasha when her torch caught a small, square shape nestled in the corner. Quickening her pace, Bernice moved towards it, kneeling as she ran the torch over the object.

A small, wooden box.

"Bernice, you've gone quiet. Anything wrong?" Natasha at least sounded genuinely concerned.

"I've found it, Natasha. I've found your box. Do you want me to open it?"

"NO!" the automatic level adjustment on Bernice's headpiece struggled to cope with the volume of Natasha's reply. "No," she said, a little more calmly, "just bring it up with you and I'll show you just what it is."

• • •

"This is the bit where I pass you the box and you let go of the rope, isn't it?" Bernice forced a grin, which, surprisingly, was returned.

Bernice had managed to move the box, which had been surprisingly light, out onto the roof of the vessel and back long its length, following her marker lights, to the rope that lead to the ledge where Natasha was waiting for her. The hard bit had been climbing the rope with the box, which had been just a little too large to fit in her backpack, under one arm.

"You've been watching too many bad movies." Natasha reached out and took hold of the box, grasping it tightly.

"One of my specialist subjects." Bernice held out her free hand as Natasha placed the box carefully, almost reverentially, onto the floor of the ledge. She was still hanging there as Natasha, her back to Bernice, began fumbling in her pockets, apparently looking for something.

"Um… a little help please."

The Menarian didn't respond. She seemed more concerned with the object she had removed from her jacket pocket and was now turning over in her hands. As Bernice struggled to pull herself up onto the ledge, her helmet lamp caught the object in its beam.

It was a knife.

"No!" cried Bernice, startling Natasha, causing her to drop the knife. She whirled around, a look of surprise on her face.

"Oh Bernice, I'm so sorry," she moved to the edge and, taking Bernice's arm, began to haul her up onto the ledge. As she swung her legs over the top, Bernice rolled over to the box, and the discarded knife that lay beside it.

Except it wasn't a knife. It was a pen.

"Ah," said Bernice, a little sheepishly, "I though… erm, it doesn't matter."

Natasha stared back, her eyes wide. "You didn't really think… I thought you were kidding! Oh, Bernice, I'm so sorry. I just don't know how you could think that."

Bernice sighed. "Irrational mistrust is something of an occupational hazard, I guess. You wouldn't believe how many times it has saved my life. I just guess I'm a getting little jaded. I'm sorry."

Natasha shook her head. "No, no it's my fault for acting all mysterious. I should have come clean from the start. Should have trusted you."

"Trusted me with what? What haven't you told me?"

"Help me get this box to the surface and it will all become clear, I promise you." Natasha looked Bernice straight in the eyes for the first time since they had met. Bernice felt as if she was finally being allowed somewhere near the truth.

"All right," said Bernice, "but what were you doing that was more important than helping me up?"

Natasha rushed over to Bernice, her attention now returned to the box. "These markings, see?" She knelt down and smoothed away the dust from the cover of the box to reveal a series of markings around the lid. They meant nothing to Bernice, but Natasha's enthusiasm was even more intense now. "It's Menarian! A little worn away, but I'm sure I can piece it together."

Natasha removed a notepad from her breast pocket and began to copy the markings, adding lines here and there where time had erased them from the box.

"So it's Menarian, but one box? That's all that's left of an entire civilisation? And what about that ship down there? If it's not Menarian then what is it?"

Natasha was still scribbling. "It's Jarkan. Porcine mercenaries. Very stupid, but very dangerous. Will do literally anything for money."

"Including stealing the last known remains of the Menarian civilisation."

"Oh, they didn't know what it was," Natasha had finished her notes, "My guess is they stole it from some other bunch of scavengers. This box has changed hands so many times, I never thought I'd trace its route. Never thought the day would come when I could hold it in my hands."

"And now what?" asked Bernice.

"And now…" Natasha paused. Bernice got the impression she was mentally preparing herself for something big. "Now we take it to the surface."

• • •

As they emerged from the cave entrance Bernice had to shield her eyes from the fierce flare of the twin suns, both of which now hung in the sky, as one day handed over to another.

She and Natasha hauled the box away from the cave entrance, to a level piece of land some distance away in the plain.

"This will do," the Menarian said as they set it down.

"Do for what?" Bernice sounded more impatience, more petulant than she meant to. "Are you going to tell me what all this about?"

"No, I'm not," Natasha was running her fingers across the box's surface, looking for a catch. "I'm going to show you." There was a click as Natasha's fingers pressed one of the markings.  "Watch."

There was a faint hum, barely noticeable, coming from the box. No, Bernice realised, not from the box, but from the air around them. As the humming grew louder Bernice felt the air begin to move around her, and she began to shake.

"It's working!" cried Natasha.

"What's happening? What is in that box?" Bernice had to shout now, as the hum had increased to a roar and the shaking more violent.

Natasha turned to her, and Bernice could see the passion in her eyes. "My world!" she cried, "Menarios!"

• • •

Bernice felt stupid. Why had she not worked it out sooner? It all made sense now. Bernice could see now the reason behind Natasha's choice of words – they were never there to find signs of the lost civilisation of the Manarians, to find remains. No, she had always asserted that they were here to find Menarios.

It hadn't been lost. It had been stolen.

"You should have told me," Bernice shouted, her voice barely audible over the din, "I'd have still helped you!"

Natasha shook her head. "I couldn't take that chance. I've been ridiculed right across the system. I've heard it all before, been called a mad woman. Menarios has been lost for millennia – it's a legend, a myth – nobody actually believes it ever existed. And there's me, claiming that not only was it very real, but that it still exists! It just needed to be found."

Bernice struggled to take it all in. "So Menarios isn't a world?"

"It's a world, but it's not a place. Take this, put it on," Natasha handed her a crystal studded bracelet, "quickly, there's little time. You'll soon see what I mean."

Bernice quickly put on the bracelet. The crystals set within it were glowing brightly, and Bernice felt a stillness, a calmness take hold of her like none she had ever felt before. She felt detached from the world around here. She could see, but not feel, the energy field emanating from the box, spreading like water across the sand, transforming the landscape, leaving behind grass where before had been only sand, flowers where there had been rocks.

Bernice watched as the transformation spread across the desert, Menarios writing itself across this dead world like a computer generated image being rendered on a screen in front of her.

Before long small building began to appear, simple, low buildings, then larger, grander dwellings. The ring of rocks around them became a luxurious palace, towering over the other buildings that now huddled at its base, rocky outcrops becoming elaborate minarets.

The sky became alive as birds appeared, trees shot up from the ground, small animals nesting in them, calling and whooping. The air filled with the sounds of life for the first time in this world's existence.

And then came the people.

Last of all, only when the world was ready for them, the Manarians wrote themselves into existence before Bernice's eyes. They were blonde, tall, beautiful. Much like Natasha, Bernice noted with a touch of envy.

They were dressed in simple robes, like togas, and were going about their business, as if they had always been here on this world. As if this was right.

Adult Manarians strode around a market square that had appeared in the centre of the town, bartering good-naturedly with the stallholders. Children ran around their feet, playing games, laughing. These people had picked up their lives from where they had left off.

And that's when it struck Bernice.

"This isn't real," she shouted, "None of this is real! This is a simulation, a digital recreation of Menarios!"

"It's as real as I want to believe," Natasha replied, vehemently. "These people are real – they have real lives, real memories. They know nothing of the Jarkas, or the thieves who stole their civilisation. They know nothing of the box, of the thousands of years that have passed while Menarios became nothing more than a myth. This is my world, and it's just as I remember it."

"But you'll be living a lie!"

"It's all I have left!" Bernice could see the tears in Natasha's eyes. "No-one will miss this world – it doesn't even have a name! Well now it's home to my people. Now it's Menarios. What harm can it do?"

Bernice had no answer for that.

"You're free to leave anytime you want, Bernice. Just remove that bracelet and you'll be back on that dead world with your ship waiting for you. But remember, if you leave you can never come back. I just ask that you take a look around before you go, take a piece of Menarios with you, if only in your mind."

"I'll tell Braxiatel you found what you were looking for," Bernice smiled. "I'll tell him we found Menarios. And how beautiful it was."

"Thank you Bernice. Don't let it be forgotten."

"I won't, I promise."

Bernice removed her bracelet, and Menarios died around her.