By the time the Farrago achieved orbit around Van Ham 2, Evette was just about at her wits end. Elsie showed up to do her duties, such as calculating the jump through hyperspace, but otherwise kept to herself in the workshop or engine room. To make matters worse, Brother Karl, realizing Elsie was out of his league, decided that he would seek consolation in Evettes tender arms. And he didnt seem to be able to take "get lost" for an answer. Though he made his desires clear, Brother Karl was always polite, always helpful, always charming, and always present. Yet somehow he had a knack for stopping just short of the point at which Evette would have felt justified in stunning him and pushing him out an airlock.
The rest of the passengers had their own quirks, but at least were fairly predictable. Brother Santos could be counted on to disapprove of everything. Brother Zanzibar stayed in his cabin except for meals. Brother Thoo-Loo was as affable as ever, but whenever he emerged from his habitat module, he stank so bad it made Evettes eyes run. She surreptitiously checked the controls on the module to make sure nothing was amiss, but everything checked out normal. None of the other Seekers of Truth seemed to notice or care.
It all made for a long week and Evette felt lonelier than she had in years.
Elsie had set the Farrago in a geosynchronous orbit over a ruined city on the shore of a dried-up ocean. Van Ham 2 supported meager plant and animal life, but that life was no more than a generation or two from extinction. The air was thin and let through ultraviolet and traces of other less savory forms of solar radiation. And it was hot. Really hot.
Elsie and the Seekers of Truth had all gathered in the pocket-warp bay in full gear for their expedition. Evette would have preferred to stay aboard the Farrago, but after 190-plus hours with the Seekers, Evette felt vaguely uncomfortable with the idea of her best friend alone on a strange planet with them. For Elsies part, of course, there was no question that she was going to join the expedition and explore the deserted city. It would be a novel experience; therefore, Elsie would be a part of it.
The city had once been home to some fifteen thousand souls and was built around a giant trapezoidal temple. Brother Karl was of the opinion that the most valuable artifacts would be inside the temple, probably underground. That would be the best place to begin their explorations in the several remaining hours before sunset and the beginning of the cold thirty-hour night.
Brothers Santos and Karl had left their robes in their cabins and were dressed in heavy pants and shirts. They wore large backpacks and fully equipped utility belts. They also had lightweight plasteel helmets that provided eye protection, breathers, and water, as needed. Brother Zanzibar wore his robe, but it was a different and heavier material than the one hed been wearing on the ship. He also had a helmet, a lighter backpack, and utility belt.
Brother Thoo-Loos outfit included exploration gear appropriate to his size and strength. Plastic tubing ran along each of his limbs, including two that inserted at the corners of his wide mouth. An umbrella-like device over his head sprayed a fine mist down on him.
For their parts, Elsie and Evette had equipped themselves with standard planetary exploration/survival kits from the Farragos supply room. Elsie had armed herself with a two-meter staff.
"Im setting the pocket warp to open in a shady portion of the courtyard outside the temple," Elsie told Evette and the Seekers of Truth. "Everybody ready?"
Receiving affirmatives all around, Elsie activated the pocket-warp field using the hand control. "Warning! Coordinates set to deep space! Hard vacuum hazard! Warning!"
Evette and the Seekers of Truth covered their ears as Elsie overrode the warning and opened the portal to the planet surface.
"It lies," accused Brother Santos, scandalized.
"It is broken," corrected Evette tiredly as the Farragos atmosphere met that of Van Ham-2. An orangish dust devil swirled into the chamber and dispersed.
"Would you care to do the honors, Brother Santos?" offered Evette.
The elder Seeker of Truth nodded and stepped through the portal. Brother Thoo-Loo followed him, followed by Brothers Karl and Zanzibar. Evette glanced at Elsie who returned her gaze for a moment and then returned her attention to the remote control in her hand.
"This is the Van Ham 2 Temple of Truth," Brother Karl was saying as Evette and Elsie stepped through the portal and closed it behind them. Brother Zanzibar was recording him with a helmet-mounted video camera.
Brother Karl gestured toward a tall sun-scorched statue out in the courtyard. "The statue of Revered Seeker of Truth Findller suggests that this is one of the six colonies he helped to found. Were hopeful that we may find, among other things here, clues to the great Seekers final fate," narrated Brother Karl.
The interior of the Temple of Truth was a vast affair done up in black and white marble. A massive crystal chandelier hung from the ceiling and four more lay in shards on the stone floor.
"Glorious," breathed Brother Zanzibar.
"More like a tomb," whispered Evette.
"That would explain the bodies," suggested Elsie.
Rows of stone pews surrounded the center of the chamber where a circular skylight had been cut at the pinnacle of the temple so that the Light of Truth could shine down upon the congregation. Dozens of mummified corpses, their mouths agape, occupied the pews.
Brother Thoo-Loo approached the closest one and gently touched it with a tentacle. The remains crumbled to dust with a soft "whoof."
Brother Karl gestured to everyone else to stay away from the bodies and pulled a scanning device from his utility belt. Brothers Zanzibar and Santos quietly intoned the Prayer of Truth for the Dead.
"I count the remains of 47 humans, twelve Winslans, and a Chadrill," said Brother Karl turning a slow circle holding the small gray scanner in his hand. Then he methodically scanned each body. "Theyve been here over fifty standard years. When we get back to the ship, I can order a DNA match so we can find out who they were."
"Cause of death?" asked Brother Thoo-Loo.
Brother Karl shook his head. "Its hard to tell. No signs of physical trauma. No apparent traces of chemical poisons or other telltales. Animals have been at some of them too. I can run a more complete analysis on these data later."
"What kind of animals?" Brother Thoo-Loo and Elsie both wanted to know.
"Small-to-medium, judging by the teeth marks," said Brother Karl. "Probably harmless. Local equivalent of rodents and insects, Id guess."
"Uh-huh," said Evette doubtfully. She was several paces closer to the center of the chamber. "And these?" In the dust before her were several sets of heavy paw prints the size of her hand with its fingers spread. Whatever had left the tracks had six toes and very long claws.
Brother Karl examined the tracks. They seemed to meander throughout the great chamber. "Obviously something much bigger," allowed Brother Karl, "and more recent. Doesnt look like they were around when the bodies were still fresh."
"I dont have any exact matches to these paw prints in my database," said Elsie. "But then I dont have much on this planet to begin with."
There was the soft growl of stone sliding against stone. "Truth be praised!" gasped Brother Zanzibar. The floor directly beneath the skylight had irised down into a spiral staircase.
"I whispered the names of the Prophets of Truth and the path was opened before me," explained Brother Zanzibar.
"In other words, you guessed the password," said Brother Thoo-Loo, his tendrils writhing in a laugh.
"Well, this looks promising," said Brother Karl.
Brother Thoo-Loo led the way down the stairs followed by Brothers Santos, Karl, and Zanzibar with Elsie and Evette bringing up the rear.
The stairs led to a long corridor which, in turn, ended in another great round room. Around the rooms circumference, towering statues of the Prophets of Truth stared impassively at a point in the center of the room.
"Truth be praised," breathed Brother Santos nodding his head in reverence.
"The Holy Circle of Truth," added Brother Zanzibar.
"Do you guys hear that?" wondered Elsie.
"The Book of Truth says that the Truth will be granted to anyone whose heart is free of deceit who stands in the center of the Circle of Truth before the Prophets of Truth," said Brother Zanzibar softly.
"Hear what?" asked Evette.
"Perhaps my faith is not all that it should be," admitted Brother Karl, "but Ive often wondered why Findller never bothered to explain exactly what he meant by the Truth being granted to someone."
"Its a very low-frequency modulated growl," said Elsie. "It seems to be coming from all around us." She indicated the other corridors leading into the room.
"I hear it too," said Brother Thoo-Loo, the tips of his facial tendrils twitching to hear the sound better.
"Well, theres only one way to find out for sure," said Brother Santos. With that, he strode into the center of the circle and stood before the Prophets of Truth.
"Could it be a message of some sort?" suggested Evette. "I cant hear it myself. It must be below the range of human hearing."
"Perhaps your heart is not sufficiently free of deceit," suggested Brother Karl bluntly.
"What?!" Brothers Santos and Zanzibar stared at him appalled.
Elsie ran the noise through several translation subroutines. "Huh. We are several large carnivores and we have surrounded you in order to kill and eat you," translated Elsie.
"What?" exclaimed Brother Thoo-Loo flipping his blasters from charging mode to ready mode.
"I-I am sorry," apologized Brother Karl. "I dont know why I said that aloud."
"As you should be," snapped Brother Zanzibar. "How dare you question the Honesty of our spiritual leader when you yourself are only interested in having sex with Elsie."
"Thats not true," returned Brother Karl. "I happen to think Evettes pretty hot too."
"What?" said Evette.
"I think weve got trouble," said Elsie.
"What?" asked Brother Santos.
The answer to his question came in the form of a roar and a dun-colored blur. The creature that bounded into the chamber from one of the corridors was roughly lion-sized and shaped, but gaunt-bordering-on-skeletal. A matted black mane ran the length of its spine from its knobby head to its bare tail. Its face was mostly a bad combination of tusks and fangs along with a single snorting nostril and a trio of dull yellow eyes. With a hiss, it leaped over Elsie and Evette, pounced on Brother Thoo-Loo, and sank its mismatched teeth into one of his thick tentacles.
Swearing (To Elsie, whose translation subroutine was still running, this came out as a statement about the predators parent having been hatched from eggs laid in polluted water), Brother Thoo-Loo blasted the creature full in the face before it could rake him with its sickle-like talons. The alien predator went up like a sack full of dry leaves and fell back thrashing and shrieking until it lay still and smoking.
Brother Thoo-Loo glared bug-eyed at the creature; a meter of one of his tentacles still clenched in its mouth. "I hate it when that happens," muttered Brother Thoo-Loo using one of his good tentacles as a tourniquet. "Take me weeks to grow it back."
"We may not have that long," Elsie warned him. Many trios of yellowish eyes were visible down each of the darkened corridors leading into the chamber. Evette, Elsie, and Brother Thoo-Loo formed a defensive ring around the unarmed Brothers. They could all hear the creatures growling now.
"How high a charge?" asked Evette drawing her pistol and working its energy setting with her thumb.
"Seven minimum to drop one the size of the one we just saw," advised Elsie. She was holding her staff ready and there came the soft hum of a power pack charging from somewhere within it.
Brother Thoo-Loo raised one of the two heavy blaster rifles he was holding and flexed his tentacle against the firing mechanism. A flash of blue-white light erupted from the weapons muzzle and, simultaneously, one of the creatures down the hall burst into flame with a scream. Four others rushed past it and charged Brother Thoo-Loo.
At the same time, three charged at Elsie and two came at Evettes position. A stun bolt from the tip of Elsies staff dropped one of the beasts while Evette downed one of hers with her own weapon.
Brother Thoo-Loo had time to shoot one more of the creatures before using his three powerful legs to leap high in the air. He came down hard enough on the back of the next creature to snap its spine and then lashed out with two free tentacles to snare the last one.
Elsie braced her staff against the floor and caught one of the creatures square in the solar plexus with the tip as it leaped. She unloaded a stun charge directly into its chest as it involuntarily pole vaulted over her. "Clear behind me!" Elsie warned Brothers Santos, Karl, and Zanzibar. The Brothers scrambled out of the way as the creature landed, barely alive in the center of the Holy Circle of Truth. Even as the beast gasped its last and collapsed, the statues of the Prophets of Truth around them opened their mouths and sang out a single note.
In the air above the melee, a fist-sized fragment of rock appeared surrounded by a soft orange glow.
"The Stone of Truth!" exclaimed Brother Karl. "Also known as the Exposition Stone. Only the predators heart was sufficiently free of deceit for the Prophets of Truth to reveal it to us. After all, its only thought was its honest desire to kill and eat us."
"Watch out!" warned Evette as the creature she hadnt stunned scrambled past her. "Ones gotten past me!"
As it skidded across the stone floor on its clawed feet, it snapped its head and grabbed a mouthful of Brother Zanzibars robe. "Help! One of them got my robe as it skidded across the stone floor on its clawed feet!" cried Brother Zanzibar as he was pulled off his feet.
"I cant help you; Im busy grappling with a beast of my own," shouted Brother Thoo-Loo wrestling with the creature he had ensnared in his tentacles.
"Ive got him!" shouted Evette spinning and letting off a shot. A glancing stun bolt caught the beasts hindquarters and it released Brother Zanzibars robe and turned toward Evette in irritation.
"Thank the Truth," cried Brother Zanzibar as Brother Santos pulled him to safety. "Youve distracted it!"
"Its coming toward me!" exclaimed Evette as the beast crouched to pounce on her.
Elsie used her staff to vault over another creature and landed straddling the shoulders of the one menacing Evette. She grabbed its mane and held on for dear life as it bucked and rolled trying to shake her loose.
"Look out!" called Evette. "Ive got a shot at it!"
Elsie released her grip and jumped clear.
"Has anyone else noticed how chatty everyones gotten all of a sudden?" asked Evette stunning the beast.
"Not really," replied Brother Thoo-Loo who was busy throttling one creature with his tentacles and fending off a second one with the butt of one of his blaster rifles. "But Ive been too busy throttling this creature with my tentacles and fending off this other one with the butt of one of my blaster rifles."
"And Brother Zanzibar and I have been busy trying to scramble out of harms way," added Brother Santos.
"And I am grateful for your aid," Brother Zanzibar told Brother Santos. "Really, really grateful."
"To tell the truth which I am bound to do by oath, as everyone here knows," said Brother Karl hiding behind one of the statues of the Prophets of Truth, "Ive been hiding back here behind this statue of Zollas and watching Elsie bounce around in her skintight jumpsuit and becoming inappropriately aroused. Plus, Evette looks pretty good too."
"Do you ever think about anything else?" complained Evette dodging out of the way as a new creature leaped over the one she had just stunned.
"Well, of course," said Brother Karl. "I think about lots of other things. For example, right now, Im wondering whos going to survive this mess. Im also wondering if were going back to the ship later or if well have to eat the explorers rations we packed because they give me gas and Im already having enough trouble impressing you and Elsie without having to worry about letting off a loud smelly one after dinner. Also, Im not sure whether or not I turned off the CD player in my cabin before we left. I was listening to some dance remixes of Bholphosian cyberopera."
"Actually," said Elsie grabbing her staff off the floor and swinging it at the predator menacing her lover, "Im scanning incredible levels of neuro-anti-inhibitants on telepathic wavelengths originating from the Stone of Truth. Its causing us to say whatevers on our minds."
"Of course!" exclaimed Brother Santos. "Those in the presence of the Stone of Truth cant help but to tell the truth!"
"You mean, if I were to ask Evette what color underwear shes wearing, shed have to tell me?" asked Brother Karl. "By the way, Im wearing snakeskin pattern bikini briefs."
Evette spared Brother Karl a withering glance. "Im wearing the lacy black bra and panties that Elsie said are her favorites," she was obliged to answer.
Elsie jammed the stun charge in the tip of her staff into the spine of the creature in front of her and it collapsed like a zuthskid with its strings cut. Evette looked up at her. "Im sorry if I gave you the impression I was ashamed of you," she told Elsie. "Because Ive never been more proud to know anyone. You have the ability to find joy and wonder in everything." She paused to shoot at a snarling beast that had arrived late. "Because of you, my heart my life is full of joy and wonder. Id do anything to have you not be mad at me anymore."
Elsie blinked back some saline solution and smiled at Evette as she ducked under one of the creatures the Brother Thoo-Loo had managed to shake off. "I love you too," she said. "And Im not mad. Its just that I cant believe you ever thought I was serious about the gerbils."
Evettes jaw dropped. "You mean you were only kidding?"
"Of course," replied Elsie stunning the last standing creature unconscious. "Come on, the cost of the cloning facilities and the nanotech alone would be astronomical, plus who knows how long it would take us to find a regulation trampoline in this part of the galaxy?" She paused. "Oh, and Im not wearing any underwear at all."
"Im not wearing any underwear either," volunteered Brother Santos venturing back into the open. "But thats because I have this rash on my genitals that the autodoc says is a result of an improperly sterilized laundrobot subroutine rather than due to my illicit encounter with "
"Why can we not stop talking?" complained Brother Thoo-Loo. "I am feeling very nervous that I might betray my hidden agenda."
"Its the Stone of Truth," explained Brother Karl. "Its still compelling us to tell the truth, which I find fascinating. However, Im much more interested in hearing more about Evette and Elsies underwear or lack thereof."
"Have you any idea how utterly remote your chances of getting anywhere with either of us are?" snapped Evette.
"Prophets of Truth preserve us!" breathed Brother Zanzibar. "Dont you see? This is what happened to the colony! Under the influence of the Stone of Truth, they kept on telling the truth, not stopping to eat or drink or sleep."
"You mean they talked themselves to death?" said Evette. "How horrible-yet-ironic."
"You know what else is interesting?" mused Elsie as she watched Brother Thoo-Loo slowly move toward the Stone of Truth. "Were all telling the truth but none of us is really listening to each other."
"Well, I for one am still hoping to turn the conversation back to Elsie and Evettes underwear," said Brother Karl. "Although the philosophical implications are intriguing: What is the value of Truth if none hear it?"
"Perhaps our more immediate concern should be freeing ourselves of the effects of this artifact," suggested Evette.
"I think that we will be able to shut up once we return to the Farrago," said Elsie. "However, we have a more immediate problem." She whirled to point her staff at Brother Thoo-Loo. At the same time, Brother Thoo-Loo reached up and snared the Stone of Truth with one tentacle, pointed his blaster at Elsie with another, and grabbed Brother Karl by the throat with a third.
"Gack!" complained Brother Karl. "Youre choking me!"
"Put your weapons on the ground or I will kill Brother Karl," Brother Thoo-Loo warned Elsie and Evette.
"You had better do as he says," Evette told Elsie. "Even with your enhanced reflexes, you wont be able to drop him before he snaps Brother Karls neck. While Brother Karl has been a nuisance this entire trip, Id still regret his unnecessary demise if it were in my power to prevent it."
"I appreciate that," wheezed Brother Karl. "And Id like to add that I find compassion an attractive if underrated characteristic in my potential sex partners."
"Elsie and I are not your sex partners, potential or otherwise," complained Evette loudly. "Will you get it through your "
"Could we please focus on me and my nefarious scheme to sell the Exposition Stone as a device of galactic espionage?" complained Brother Thoo-Loo.
"You fiend!" accused Brother Santos. "You betray all we believe in!"
"Bah!" snorted Brother Thoo-Loo. "You all deceive. You all keep secrets."
"Im really a woman," admitted Brother Zanzibar. "Ive only been pretending to be a man to be closer to Brother Santos."
Brother Thoo-Loo blinked. "Good example. Now then, I will trade Elsie Brother Karl for the portal remote control, then take the Exposition Stone and the Farrago and abandon you here to your collective fate."
"That doesnt sound like much of a deal," complained Evette.
"I believe you will prefer it to the alternative, which involves my shooting you and taking the Exposition Stone and the Farrago anyway."
"Thats true," admitted Brother Karl. "Besides, being marooned here will only help improve my chances with Elsie and/or Evette. Plus, Im kind of curious about Brother Zanzibar now."
"I will leave you to work that out amongst yourselves as I have no interest in human reproductive rituals," said Brother Thoo-Loo. "The remote, please."
Elsie tossed the hand unit to Brother Thoo-Loo and Brother Thoo-Loo shoved Brother Karl at them. He leveled his rifles at the group. "Everyone step back into the corridor," the alien instructed them. "If you attempt to follow me, Ill kill you."
"Youll never get away with this!" warned Brother Santos.
Brother Thoo-Loos facial tendrils wriggled in the equivalent of a shrug and he squeezed the Go key on the hand unit.
"Warning! Coordinates set to deep space! Hard vacuum hazard! Warning!"
Brother Thoo-Loo had time for a startled gasp as he and the Exposition Stone were blasted through the portal to a point in orbit some 500 meters off the Farragos port bow.
"The device spoke the Truth this time," guessed Brother Santos once the portal had winked shut.
"I changed the coordinates as I handed him the unit," explained Elsie.
"But were still stuck here," said Brother Karl eyeing Elsie, Brother Zanzibar, and Evette.
"The Farrago will automatically open a portal for us in six hours," said Evette.
"Oh," said Brother Karl, crestfallen.
"But what of the Exposition Stone?" asked Brother Zanzibar sparing a nervous glance at Brother Santos.
"Youre welcome to hire another ship to come retrieve it from orbit," said Evette. "Personally, I prefer it where it is."
"After all," added Elsie, "in space, no one can hear you exposit."
The trip back to Sphinx-6 was uneventful due to Evettes insistence that the Exposition Stone not accompany them back. It was Elsies argument that the Stone could be considered a mind-altering substance and that they were not licensed for such cargo that finally swayed Brother Santos. Besides, Evette added, the Stone was in a stable orbit (along with Brother Thoo-Loo) and it wasnt going to go anywhere until the Church of Truth could mount a second expedition to retrieve it.
Evette was never quite sure whether Brother Santos had come to terms with Brother Zanzibars deception and the reason for it. In any event, Brother Santos and Zanzibar spend most of the trip home locked in Brother Santos cabin. Whether they were bonding romantically or praying for forgiveness for their various deceptions was none of Evettes business. Evette suspected it was the latter though, especially considering the rash on Brother Santos genitals.
Brother Karl kept to his own cabin and took a lot of cold sonic showers.
Now that the truth was out between them, Evette and Elsie made good use of their own sonic shower. In ordinary use, the sonic showerheads used ultra-high frequency sound to vibrate dirt particles from the skin. It was a highly effective method of cleaning oneself. However, there were also other vibratory settings that were a lot more fun. Granted, it still wasnt the same as a nice steamy H2O shower, but it wasnt bad.
"I have a surprise for you," Elsie told Evette once they had dropped off the Seekers of Truth at Sphinx-6 and had broken orbit.
Evette arched an eyebrow at her partner. Elsies surprises spanned the entire range from pleasant to apocalyptic. Still, after all theyd been through, Evette was not about to pre-judge one of Elsies ideas if she could help it.
"Follow me," Elsie said taking her by the hand.
She led her downstairs to the cargo bay where Brother Thoo-Loos habitat module sat in the corner.
"I thought we offloaded that with the Seekers," said Evette.
"They didnt really have any use for it," said Elsie, "And I quoted them a high price for moving it for them. So they let us keep it." Elsie opened the door and a cloud of steam wafted out. "I chucked the methane and ammonia canisters, made a few other tweaks, and voila! You like?"
"I love it!" cried Evette.
Elsie had already kicked off her boots and was stepping out of her uniform. She gave her partner an inviting look as she stepped into the module.
Evette tore off her clothes like they were on fire and leaped in after Elsie. There was a splash and a giggle as the module door slammed shut behind her.
"You know what would be cool?" suggested Elsie some time later.
"What?" panted Evette soaking in the warm water.
"We could fill this thing with green Jell-o."
Evette started to say something and then decided against it. "Yes, that would be fun to try sometime," she decided.
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