The dropship fell through the air on a pillar of thunder and fire. Beyond the windows, the sky was turning from black to blue as they rode down through the thickening atmosphere past desperate scraps of frozen cirrus. The desert World they had viewed from orbit expanded out beneath them from a jasper marble into a vast plain of blank and bright. Away in the distance, a dust storm studded through with electrostatic discharges grew from a flat smear into a wall of darkness taller than a mountain range.
Casmir felt his bones and teeth-rattling as the vehicle descended. With battles happening all across Skarkon, the RSS supported archeology team had skipped the elevator ride and taken a military transport directly down into the ngelgneig. It was not designed for comfort and Casmir, an expert on Jovian archeology whose usual haunts were the orbiting ruins of the Ani constellation, found the experience distinctly unpleasant. G forces slammed him into his seat as the vehicle began its final deceleration burn before gently coming to a rest on the scorched, barren surface.
It was then that the archeologist finally threw up, earning him looks of bemusement and irritation from his teammates. Arms pulled him out of his chair and down the ramp on shaky legs as his inner ear continued to reel from the violence of their descent. He fell onto the hard-packed salt plain and heaved up the rest of his lunch and was left to cough and sputter while the transport was unloaded the rest of the way.
Finally, his stomach began to settle enough to peer around the campsite that had been set up in the middle of nowhere. It truly was that, nowhere. All around him were empty salt flats and rising heat shimmer. He could see the dust storm rolling along far to their south, and to the east, a distant line of mountains rose up out of low rolling hills. All of it, all of this vastness, was completely dead. He knew about the ngelgneig, he’d been briefed on the dead zones before coming down, but seeing it first hand was still unsettling. It was a sort of barren blankness that the eye simply slid off of, refusing to linger on the vast bright emptiness without watering and distorting. A hand appeared before him and he took it, letting the severe young RSS agent help him to his feet.
“Dr. Ultriard,” she said, shaking his hand once they were both standing, “I’m Cosra Methanjald, republic security services, I’m the head of this expedition, I assume Director Walstoj briefed you before sending you down here?”
“Err, sort of?” Casmir said, scratching the back of his head, “I admit I’m a bit confused, I was told there were Jovian artifacts of importance to the security of the republic located here?” He turned around, continuing to see nothing in all directions. “Director Walstoj wasn’t very clear on what exactly the artifacts were.”
Cosra smirked and pointed at the ground, “What do you see?”
“I see that we’re in the middle of a salt flat,” Casmir answered her, raising an eyebrow.
“Look again, closely,” she said.
Feeling a bit miffed but supposing this was some sort of test, Casmir hunched down well away from the place he’d retched and examined the ground again. It was obvious once he was paying attention. The hard crust wasn’t salt, “Impactite,” he said somewhat sheepishly, “This is a crater.”
“Good,” Cosra said with a smile, “Now for the fun part, hold out your arm please.”
Still somewhat confused, Casmir held his arm out to her, and without warning she pulled out an autoinjector and stabbed it into his muscle tissue. “This is an eidestic agent,” she explained, “It helps retain memories in the presence of contracognative effects.”
“What are the side effects?” he asked with some irritation, “Now that you’ve injected me without asking permission.”
“A slightly increased risk of cynosis, a decrease in the effectiveness of antidepressants, and nightmares,” she explained.
As she talked, Casmir was looking around, his eyes growing increasingly wide as the drugs reached his mind and took hold.
“What do you see now?” She asked him, still smiling. Casmir watched in wonder and awe as a vast alien metropolis emerged out of the heat shimmer around him.
“This has to be the most intact Jovian outpost I’ve ever seen,” he gaped, looking around in fascination. The blast crater they were standing in was just one small section cleared out of a much larger city, one whose skeletal towers and crumbling structures climbed up all around him blocking the horizon.
Casmir’s eyes couldn’t find things to focus on fast enough. The city was unbelievably intact, nearly pristine despite the streets themselves being filled with dust and sand. The architecture bore the distinctly monolithic impressions of early Jovian, from the brutal sheer faces, to the glossy oil-like sheen, to the corrugated decorations, to the materials which seemed as if they were one solid piece from which the buildings were hewn. It was beautiful, a near work of art, and here it was, left in the desert slowly being buried in the sand, rendered impossibly invisible.
“This looks First Empire,” he said finally, awestruck, “how is it that no one knew about this? How was it that I didn’t know about this? I was looking right at these buildings when we landed, how is any of this…?”
“This place has been irradiated with a contracognative effect,” Cosra said, “Without the eidestic we just gave you, all of this will just fade out of your memory. There’ll be nothing left but a blank spot and you’ll wonder if you hadn’t just had a bit too much to drink the night before. You could look at a picture on one of these buildings and would insist it was a blank image.”
“Amazing…” he said, turning around and around, “What happened here? Why is this place like this?” He asked as he came back to facing Cosra.
“That’s one of the things we brought you here to find out doctor,” she said, handing him a stack of notes and wandering off.