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Bought: Chapter Two

Serra

“What lovely things do we have here?” I murmured as I entered the code into the square shipping box before me.

I could have checked the manifest. But that would ruin half the fun of this job. Like peeking at a present before it’s time for the grand opening.

The silver top retracted, the sides unfolding down to form the bases of four perfectly even pyramids.

“Let’s start with you,” I picked one at random, tapped the peak of one of the pyramids, winced slightly at the sharp prick at my fingertip.

Not one of my favorite parts of the job, but necessary.

As the tiny droplet of blood was processed and accepted as a match, the four sides of the pyramid shimmered, dissolving to reveal the artifact contained within.

“Look at this,” I breathed. “Where should we put this beautiful thing?”

“Accessing gallery files.”

I didn’t pay attention.

Annie, the collections assistant, while useful, never had and never would feel the same way I did about these treasures.

Before me was a tiny sculpture, no bigger than my fist, silver and grey metals twisting around bright colored jewels, the fine filigree at its core making the entire sculpture appear as if it could float.

“The first recorded sculpture by the artist Son Ronsut,” the collection assistant’s voice burbled out. “Primary metal is palladium. Would you prefer it to be housed with other sculptures by artists of contemporaneous eras, artists by location, or by material?”

“None of those,” I murmured as I detached the shipping panel from its base, carrying it before me to the other side of the massive hall that housed my employer’s collection.

“Is there an opening on shelf Magna 36?”

The assistant trundled beside me, the parallel tracks that propelled her clicking almost silently over the creamy stone floor.

“There should be sufficient space to house this item,” she answered. “However, I do not understand your reasons for placing it there.”

“I know, Annie.” I tried to explain. “But see how this twists, how the jewels are red and orange, burning against the silver?”

“Nothing is currently on fire, Curator Serra.”

I sighed.

“I know, but it reminds me of fire. And all of these,” I nodded to the massive shelf in front of us. “They make me think of fire too. So this is where this piece belongs.”

I let my eyes wander across the shelves, holographic paintings of other worlds, handwoven textiles, even the recording of a long forgotten song.

Well, forgotten by everyone but my employer.

“Here,” I said as I slid the panel into place, tapping the code that would lock it onto the shelf.

Annie extended a telescoping limb from the top of her domed head, handing me a small tablet.

I tapped it twice to activate the display, then set it at the base of the panel.

The sculpture’s tag flickered to life, then displayed its name, cycling through information about its creator, its history, and then back again.

“None of those things are on fire,” she repeated. “Atmospheric systems would have been activated long before now.”

If Annie had been a person, and not an artificial intelligence assistant, I would’ve thought she was miffed at the nonsense of it all.

“Which is a good thing,” I agreed with her. “But that’s just as much of my job as unpacking whatever treasures our employer finds out there. Making them make sense for humans. Which unfortunately, isn’t always the logical choice.”

The rest of the afternoon was spent the same way.

Just as the majority of my days were spent.

Unpacking, sorting, arranging and rearranging the collection.

Each item was a thing of beauty.

Perhaps not all in the most traditional sense.

Some were crude, some ancient and clumsy.

But every one had a story, a significance.

And that gave them value all of their own.

The late afternoon sun stretched across the high arched windows lining the gallery.

“Time for a break, Annie,” I told her. “We’ve done good work for the day.”

I made myself a cup of tea, my fingers gently tracing the delicate porcelain, the painted and gilded flowers dancing just below the rim, colors still as vibrant as they had been centuries ago when this was created.

Every time I touched it, my heart leapt into my throat.

My employer was insistent. Things that were made to be used, should be used, no matter how fragile.

And honestly, despite my terror that one of these days I would drop it, this small thing of beauty in my hands made my soul soar every time I touched it.

“Serra,” a different voice emerged from Annie’s chest.

“How are you doing today?” I asked.

“I’m almost 200 years old now,” the thin voice made the strangled coughing sound that I knew was her laugh. “I’m feeling as well as I’m going to feel. What did you think of the last batch? Show me where you put them.”

Annie and I walked around the room, the screen set in her chest now filled with the thin dark face of the one person in the entire universe I cared for as much as this collection.

Andrea Transaman.

My employer, and the official owner of the collection.

I’ve never been entirely certain if she loved the items more, or the hunt for them.

“Oh good choice, good choice,” the thin voice crooned when she saw where I’d placed the pair of ceremonial daggers acquired from the ruins of the failed colony at Radomski Seven.

They framed a light tapestry woven by the descendents of one of the exiles who’d escaped from that doomed anthropological experiment.

The bright shimmering colors shone like a flag of defiance against the man-made apocalypse that had claimed half the weaver’s ancestors.

One by one I showed her the new acquisitions, discussing possible alternate arrangements, speculating about dream items that would fill out the shelves, let us tell new, different stories.

“Now darling,” Andrea started as we made our way back to the broad tables that dotted the length of the collection room after reviewing the day’s placements.

“We’re going to have a visitor. Possibly an important one.”

“I’ll set up the conference room. Do you know what their holo requirements are?” I answered.

Preparing for Andrea’s meetings wasn’t an uncommon task on my list. Usually she ‘met’ with investors and clients every month or so.

I mentally ran over her calendar. Nothing had been scheduled for today.

Something must have come up. Not a huge surprise. Andrea had her fingers in corps spread throughout the sector.

“No need for that,” she answered. “He’s coming in person. He’ll be at the landing pad shortly, actually.”

I froze.

“A visitor? In person?”I repeated dumbly. “We don’t have visitors.”

“But today we do,” she insisted.

I brought the cup to my lips, the tea inside cold and bitter now, then placed it down quickly on the table, my hand shaking.

“I’m afraid I won’t be able to attend to him for some time, so you’ll have to be my representative for a bit,” Andrea continued.

“Why isn’t he doing his business over the screens, like a normal person?” I protested, my voice sounding whiny, even to my own ears.

She made the laughing cough again, then it quickly turned into a real cough, dry and hacking. “Because I suspect he’s not a normal person.”

Well. That didn’t sound encouraging.

But I knew better than to keep arguing.

Andrea was sweet. Indulgent even.

But she was still my employer, and her word was law.

“I’ll let you know when I’m ready to see him.” The screen flicked back to black, and now only Annie was in the room with me.

“Would you like me to accompany you, Curator Serra?”

Yes. I would like that more than anything.

And that was completely ridiculous.

“No. Keep searching the corporate archives for any traces of those Imperial letters Chairman Transaman has been after.” I brushed on my clothes, wondering if I should go change.

No. Whoever this guest was, he wasn’t here to see me. Wouldn’t care in the slightest what I was wearing.

Besides, I straightened my shoulders. I didn’t care either.

All I had to do was go, retrieve the visitor, and wait for Andrea to be ready to see him.

Easy.

At the door leading out of the immense collections room, my hand stopped.

Come on Serra, I chided myself.

I looked through the tall plexi window at the rolling blue and green lawn beyond.

Bright flowers from all over the sector formed winding beds, making patterns that only made sense in Andrea’s mind.

It was pretty enough to watch from my favorite chair. Inside.

I didn’t go out much. Too many lovely things inside to keep my attention. But the gardens were lovely too, and as much of a collection as what was on the shelves.

Step one, I murmured. Open the door.

Step two: start walking.

The warm air was a shock after the coolness of the collections room.

Quickly I shut the door behind me, mindful of the careful atmospheric balance I’d always maintained for the artifacts sake.

Now I was out.

Step three: get to the landing pad.

The bands around my chest only tightened as I crossed the lush estate, spoiling my usual pleasure at the wonderland.

A gardener descended from a grove of thick silver barked staria trees,

“Greetings, Curator Serra,” it chirped. “Do you require additional blooms?”

I shook my head. “No thank you. This morning’s arrangements are still sufficient.”

All of the gardeners were built to the same design, cylindrical bodies with long expandable arms, ending in three long multi-jointed fingers and a thumb.

Telescopic legs to bring them low to the ground for weeding or high into the trees, smoothly rounded chest and head units, cameras clicking as they rotated between lenses.

They all looked the same, and as far as I knew, all shared the same memory banks.

Every morning Annie and I collected bowls of fresh cut flowers that ornamented the gallery and Andrea’s personal chambers.

Occasionally I varied the orders, but in general let the gardeners bring me what they thought was best, based on whatever their programming decreed.

“Very well then.” The gardener’s legs lengthened until he was lost again in the branches above, pruning the canopy.

More gardeners worked through the estate, weeding, pruning, planting. All the hundreds of little tasks required to keep this paradise in bloom.

In only a few more minutes I stood at the top of the hill, staring down into the basin which held the landing pad.

Pausing, I studied the awkward, blocky ship that sat there.

Some kind of shuttle, maybe?

It didn’t look like anything special. Certainly nothing worthy of Andrea’s personal attention.

Motion caught my eye and I froze, watching as a man strolled from behind the ship.

This was her important guest?

A dark blue jumpsuit covered his form, as much as the shaggy black hair and thick beard covered half his face.

He looked wild, feral.

I tightened my lips together.

Probably yet another freelance explorer, come to sell Andrea on the dream of some long lost artifact.

They messaged from time to time, with wild tales of a treasure she couldn’t miss, a sure thing.

Just as soon as she invested some vast fortune in their expedition.

It seldom took more than the most casual of questions to expose their scams.

I took a deep breath.

He wouldn’t be here for long.

As I marched down the hill, I realized I’d misjudged something.

Two somethings, actually.

The ship was much larger than I’d realized.

Not a personal shuttle after all.

And the man that leaned against the hall, arms crossed over his chest, watching me approach was far bigger than I’d imagined as well.

I glanced around, reassured by the glints of metal at the top of the hill.

He might be big, but the gardeners were everywhere.

Swallowing hard, I took another deep breath, tried to convince myself all was well.

I was safe.

Before I was ready, I was at the edge of the landing pad, looking up at the giant.

“Would you follow me?”

“You this Andrea Transaman?” His voice was a low rumble, almost rough as if he didn’t bother to speak often.

“No. But if you’d like to speak with her, you should come with me.”

I turned back towards the house without waiting for an answer.

Whoever this person was, whatever he wanted, the sooner Andrea saw him and got him out of our lives, the better.

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