The Acquisition

A Sci-Fi Horror Short Story written by Corinna Underwood

The Acquisition

by Corinna Underwood

 

Corinna Underwood is a British author, currently residing in Rome, Georgia. She writes short stories and novels in the magical realism, mystery, and horror genres.
 
She is also the author of Murder and Mystery in Atlanta and Haunted History of Atlanta and North Georgia, as well as the mysteries, A Walk On The Darkside, Beyond The Darkside, and the forthcoming Return To The Darkside.

 

 

Backing away from the docking port, Professor Freema Omanda tried to slow her breathing and look matter-of-fact so that the negotiator would not detect her excitement. In her forty years as curator of the Intergalactic Antiquities Repository, she had never been able to get her hands on an acquisition of artifacts from the ancient world of Othonia. The vast museum held only a single Orthonian artifact; was a small, non-descript ceremonial urn. Little was known about it other than that it had been acquired by the museum’s founder millennia ago, perhaps even before Othonia became a barren world of ice. 
The lot that Freema was now so anxious to see had been shipped from an anonymous private collector and she had no idea what it contained. It mattered little. Even if it was only another ceremonial urn it would still put her museum at the top of the list this side of the galaxy for Orthonian artifacts. Ancient legends told that all light deserted the planet when it was forsaken by its protector, Nuva. When Othonia’s only sun died the planet quickly became a frozen wasteland. With its limited technology, the race lacked the ability to travel in space leaving the few remaining survivors to be rescued by other nearby planets. Surviving generations had quickly caught up with space technology and had developed into a nomadic race dedicated to traveling the stars in a constant search for Nuva, in the hope that one day they would regain his favor. There were always rumors of valuable objects surviving, but no one had ever seen them. If this shipment was authentic – and Freema’s knowledge of Othonian culture was second to none – then it would be the peak of her career.
The cargo hatch opened, and the negotiator stepped outside and bowed. Freema went through the formalities, swallowing down her impatience. Finally, he handed her the authentication chip and followed her into the cargo hold. She slipped the chip into her handheld computer and waited.
Professor Omanda, please proceed to examine the artifacts.”
The negotiator released a panel, and Omanda stepped forward. When she saw the contents, Freema forced herself to stifle a gasp. Slowly, she stepped up to the waist-high table. Laying upon it were two Othonian artifacts. She knew she must tread carefully if she was to seal this deal and send her reputation rocketing out into the galaxy. She glanced over her shoulder at the negotiator who remained at the door and felt icy fingers trace the notches on her spine.
Before her, were two perfectly preserved bodies of Orthonian high priests in full regalia. On closer examination, the quality of the artifacts was so impeccable that her heart began to sink. Any remaining Orthonian Royals would have to be found and contacted for clearance. There were rigid protocols in place. She could not authorize the purchase of such ancient antiquities, such that had probably been robbed from sacred Orthonian tombs? Freema scanned her handheld, checked over the authentication data, and her spirits suddenly spiked. The documentation showed that the antiquities were indeed authentic members of the Orthonian Sacred Brotherhood. More importantly, they were being granted to the repository by the sole survivor of the Orthonian Royal Family. Freema closed her eyes and took a deep breath, bracing herself for the asking price. Orthonians were not renowned for their generosity. She turned and bowed to the negotiator.
I would like to begin negotiations.” He bowed in return and held out another chip.
There are to be no negotiations. There is one offer and one offer only.”
Freema swallowed and took the chip. This was a complete break from protocol. By the laws of fair trade, there had to be a negotiation, legally she should end this conversation here and now and report the negotiator. But she couldn’t. She had to know what they wanted; to know if it was within her reach. She licked her dry lips, nodded, and took the chip. Turning away from the negotiator she closed her eyes while she waited for the figure to come up on the screen. When she finally looked at the handheld, she could not contain her gasp. The figure was less than a quarter of her sizeable budget and only a fraction of the possible value of these artifacts.
Is there a mistake?” She showed the negotiator the screen.
        “No, Professor Omanda. There is no mistake.”
She broke into a smile suddenly and held out her hand.
Then I accept.” The deal was sealed.
On the way to her lab, Omanda’s assistant Verundi buzzed through on the com. His voice was high-pitched with excitement.

Did we get it Prof. Did we get it? What is it? As soon as I’m done with this class, I’ll be down to the lab.”
The professor smiled. This was going to be almost as big a moment for Verundi as for her. It would blow his mind when he saw what she had just acquired and it would certainly kick-start the student’s career. When the artifacts went on display, visitors would be flocking to the repository from all the known galaxies. Perhaps she would even invite the surviving member of the Othonian Royal family for the unveiling ceremony. They had decided that their nomadic lifestyle was not conducive to the preservation of such antiquities, and her repository was certainly a safer home for them. It was already the biggest in the nearest three galaxies, and she had a feeling it would soon be growing even bigger.
Once the artifacts had been teleported to the lab, Freema sterilized and set to work examining and documenting. The two priests lay head to toe, as though they might rise at any moment and begin officiating an ancient Orthonian ceremony. She had never examined such well-preserved specimens from any race before. She was eager to take tissue samples to assess the preservation technique. Judging by the design of the ornate headdresses, these bodies had to be at least two thousand years old. All the facial and neck tattoos were still intact, with only minor skin discoloration. The headdresses linking the gnesian telepathic transmitter crystal to the forebrain were still in place. She ran her handheld over the length of the bodies, taking initial readings.
The data from the first priest came back as expected. Preliminary analysis dated the priest at two and a half thousand years old. He had the usual Orthonian genome sequence and the typical brotherhood telepathic enhancements of that era. The readings from the second priest were vastly different. Though the Brother had the same enhancements, the date of origin was impossible. The reading showed him to be several million years old. The genome sequence was also completely out of kilter. Freema docked her handheld and ran a full system check. Everything was working perfectly fine. She ran the analysis of the second priest again and got the same wild results. It now seemed that the second priest was not authentic at all, but had been tampered with. It hardly mattered now. Two Orthonian priests would have been fantastic, but even one was wonderful for the price she had paid. She decided to run a few more tests on the second Brother. If he did prove inauthentic, she would have to file a detailed report, and the artifact would have to be incinerated to prevent any cross-contamination.
Omanda pulled down her visor and set about taking a tissue sample from the priest’s inner lip. Suddenly she noticed there seemed to be something in his mouth. She went back to the first artifact. Through its slightly parted lips, she could see that his mouth was empty. She started as Verundi buzzed her again but then hit ignore. Moving back to the second priest she injected a lubricating solution into his jaw and waited forty seconds for it to take effect. As the tissue slackened she carefully widened his lips and reached inside. Gently she pulled out a small circular object. It appeared to be some form of an opalescent gemstone. It was golden in color and contained darker flecks that seemed to float beneath the surface. She lifted her visor to look at it more closely. Although it was customary for Orthonians to place a gem in the mouths of family members, this was taboo within the priesthood, and Freema was perplexed by the stone’s presence. The object felt strangely warm, and she was about to swab it when it exploded and turned to dust in her hand. Cursing herself for lifting her visor, Freema rushed over to the steribay and bathed her eyes and face. It was protocol to call the medic, but her eyes looked and felt fine, and if she made the call, she would have to file a report on the article she had damaged. That would lead to her suspension pending investigation, which would keep her from working on the Orthonian artifacts and damage her pristine reputation. 
She rushed back to the bodies, rationalizing that the stone must have been compromised by the preservation process. She captured a few specs of dust and fed it into the analyzer. Within seconds the machine told her it was an unusual form of chrosorolite; a common enough mineral on Othonia, but this sample also showed trace minerals that resisted analysis. This may have accounted for the stone’s unusual inclusions but still did not explain why it was in the Brother’s mouth. Belatedly she pulled down her visor, disheartened by her carelessness. She tapped some data into her handheld and began a search of the museum databases for information on this odd mineral and its connections to the Orthonian Sacred Brotherhood. After a few minutes, her search came up blank, so she extended her search beyond the museum onto the intergalactic databases.
Verundi buzzed in again. She flipped off the com. Now she had to act quickly. On the one hand, she may have damaged an important artifact, but on the other no one knew about it but herself. No one need ever know. Whatever the crystal had been it was not worth compromising this exhibit or the prestige it would bring her. She set about erasing all information of the crystal from her records.
Freema knew she didn’t have long before Verundi came down to the lab, his class was almost over, and she wanted to make the most of her precious time alone with her prized acquisitions. She went back to her data collection, conducting a layered scan of each body. Without the presence of the mineral, both readings were the same and as expected, meaning they were both a hundred percent authentic and it had only been the presence of the stone that had caused the anomaly. This also meant that she would be getting a very large salary increase in the very near future.
Her handheld flashed indicating incoming data. She glanced across at it. It read:
Orgol: a rare form of Orthonian chrosorolite, believed to have been a sacred gemstone that had the power to bestow the wearer with the ability to control the will of others. No reported findings of the mineral exist, and many archeologists believe it to be a myth created by the ancient Orthonian race.
For a moment, Freema allowed herself to consider the prestige she would have attained for discovering the legendary Othonian gemstone, then Verundi buzzed in again.
I’m on my way.” He cheerfully announced and she suddenly found herself wishing he had other classes to attend.
Omanda deleted the orgol data from her handheld and incinerated all traces of the dust without a second thought. She had just started the tissue samples when Verundi teleported in.
Why didn’t you answer I’ve been… Oh my…you are not serious!” His opalescent eyes flecked blue with excitement. “How did you ever manage to acquire these two specimens?”
It took a little negotiation, but I pulled it off.” She avoided his eyes. “Now let’s get to work so we can get these artifacts exhibited. “
Although the readings were normal on the second artifact now, there was something about it that still kept tugging at Freema’s attention. She scanned it again and chided herself. Yet somehow, the more she looked at it, the more that she seemed to sense something, something she couldn’t quite put her finger upon. She leaned closer into the Brother’s face. Strangely, there was something about the sunken cheeks, the heavily lidded eyes that were beginning to look strangely familiar to her despite his obviously non-human features.
Take a look at this Verundi. Does it look different to the other  one to you at all?”
He pulled down his visor and slowly examined each one in turn.
They both look the same to me. Why what do you see?”
Oh, nothing really. I guess I’m just letting my excitement run away with my objectivity.”  But still, there was something, almost like…
        “Wait a minute; there is something.” Verudni beckoned her over to the second artifact. “This Brother must have had seniority over the other. Look at the sacred sigil tattooed on his wrist.”
Well spotted Verundi.” She went back to her handheld and entered the data, feeling irked that she hadn’t spotted something so obvious. Another batch of data flashed in, and when she read the screen, she began to break out in a cold sweat. It read:
Orgol is the sacred ceremonial gemstone of Orthonia. It is believed that Nuva, the divine creator of Orthonia, having no form of his own, adopted the form of a gemstone in order to hide from his nemesis. The gemstone has been entrusted to the   Sacred Order of the Brotherhood for millennia. The legend goes on to say that Nuva will one day take on a new form to avenge his people and return them to their homeland.

Something useful?” Verundi tried to see over her shoulder but she turned away and deleted the data.
It was just another legend. She kept telling herself over and over that she had not just destroyed a unique and ancient relic. The integrity of the gemstone had been compromised, otherwise, it would not have crumbled right before her very eyes. The Scared Brotherhood should have taken a little more care of their charge. Still, she felt that she had let a wonderful opportunity slip literally through her fingers. She went back to the second artifact again and peered in his mouth as though another stone would appear. She shrugged. Even though it would have added to the exhibit, it was just the stuff of legend. She began to relax and started documenting the gemstones in the ceremonial headdresses.
She hadn’t got far when her handheld flashed more data retrieval.
Nuva’s revenge; an archaic Orthonian legend, of which only fragments remain, tells of the planet’s creator who took on the disguise of a sacred crystal so that one day he could take revenge upon he who stole the  Ceremonial Chalice of the Sacred Brotherhood; the receptacle of the light of life.
Beneath the data was a digital rendering of the desecrated chalice, and it chilled Freema to the bone because she had seen it before. She had seen it every day of her life for the past forty years.
I’ll be right back.” Before Verundi had a chance to question, she stripped off her gloves and visor and teleported to the Frelian Gallery in the east wing. At the entrance stood a small but stately showcase displaying a single and  rather drab piece of pottery. She pressed the keypad and read the data.
A singular example of an ancient Orthonian ceremonial chalice dating back to circa 21.000 O.A. Acquired by the museum’s founder Ramartho Romuli.
Acquired. That word could have so many connotations. The museum had existed for hundreds of thousands of years. They often joked that it was almost a relic itself. Back then there would not have been authentications chips and permits; everything would have been taken in good faith. Just how Romuli had acquired the chalice could never be known. The artifact had certainly bough him prestige and sizable funding credits from all over the galaxy to extend his museum. But had the Orthonians permitted him to take it? Had Romuli deliberately removed all records of the connection to Nuva and the chalice? Freema gave herself a mental shakedown. What was she thinking? Even if Romuli had stolen the chalice no one alive could know or even prove it. She keyed her handheld in search of a source for the data but the link was dead.
She reminded herself that she had to think with the scientific mind that had earned her reputation. By the time she had teleported back to the lab she was laughing at herself for even contemplating the idea that she had released an angry god into the museum. Omanda sterilized and gloved up. Verundi was absorbed with the tissue samples. Once again she went to the second artifact. There was something elusive about him that held her attention. She dropped her visor and closed her eyes for a moment, focusing her concentration. She breathed slowly, determined to make an objective imagination. She opened her eyes. Clutching the examination table, she raised her visor and leaned closer. Her chest constricted. She cursed herself for letting her imagination run wild; for an instant, the face she was peering down at was the mirror image of her own.

She closed her eyes again, swallowed, reminded herself that she was the curator of the oldest repository of antiquities in the universe. But when she opened her eyes again the room began to spin, and she felt herself slowly falling a great distance. When she finally opened her eyes again, Verundi’s concerned face was looking down at her from above. How was she going to explain to him why she had fainted? Vaguely she wondered if she had breathed in contaminated dust from the gemstone.  Freema struggled to get back to her feet, but her body was lead. She tried to ask Verundi to help her, but when her dry lips parted, all that came out was a whisper of dust. Then a disembodied voice drifted across from the other side of the room, it sounded like her own, but the words were not those she was screaming in her head.
You need to come and take a look at this,” Verundi said, looking over his shoulder. Freema tried to nod and push herself up. Again she heard her voice coming from a great distance.
What is it Verundi, what’s wrong?”
Paralyzed with terror, Freema Omanda listened to the conversation going on around her.
        “It’s the second artifact; the High Priest. There seems to be some kind of anomaly. The genetic sequence is out of sync, and the dating is much too recent.”
Yes, I noticed an anomaly earlier. I think this one is inauthentic after all.”
Freema Omanda fought hard to move, to scream at Verundi that she was here, somehow trapped on the examination table. Then suddenly it was not Verundi’s face squinting down at her, but at her own, visor up, handheld poised. She was locked in stasis, terrified. Panicking wildly she tried to tear at the air, to move her ancient limbs she and to scream for help. She was powerless.
Yes, I think you are right. The tissue samples appear to be contaminated.”
 “What shall we do?” Verundi asked.
Then came her voice, so soft, so final. “We’ll have to destroy it.”
        “Destroy it?”
Yes, you know the protocol. Contaminated artifacts must be incinerated. Who knows what might be lying dormant within it.  You write up the report, I’ll deal with this.”
From her prison, Professor Freema Omanda looked up and saw her own eyes staring down at her, once blue, now they had a golden hue with darker flecks that seemed to float beneath the surface. She was slowly wheeled to the back of the lab. In a last frantic attempt to heave herself upright one of the ancient arms slipped from the table. She willed Verundi to notice, but the entity controlling her own body calmly replaced the limb on the table. Freema heard the doors of the incinerator open. No one heard her silent screams as she was fed into the flames.

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