Though Rusto dislikes children, he can tolerate the orphans running around the station market. As long as they keep to themselves, only steal from the oblivious travelers stopping at Rodan 8C for resupply and not his spacecraft parts, he let the children roam free around his stall.
They like shiny things, the orphans. They like ghost stories and the latest weary stranger arriving at the station. They gossip, a lot, like a pack of sparrow drones. They are good at gathering information that way, and trading them for shiny things. Those little rats scurry through the air ducts and between the fueling pipes.
Rusto listens to their fanciful tales while he cleans his wares, sometimes curses at them but they take everything like a joke and always come back with giggling laughs. They ask which portal generator is for what class of a ship, as if that kind of knowledge could one day allow them to fly far away from this hell hole.
Not now, kids. Not anytime soon. Rusto knows. He has been rotting on this dusty colossus in the frozen vacuum for a handful of decades. They drift in space, orbiting a decaying tourist planet that fewer and fewer come for a tropical getaway. Life is a dead end and the only good entertainment—besides the bar and Red Lights—is a good story.
“…and murders. I know they are. They store the dead bodies on their ship, and ferry them off-world. I know they do. I’ve seen it.”
The orphans chitter as Rusto is waiting for a penny-pinching customer to make a decision. Rusto sits his weight on a stool behind the display stand, as the traveler inspects each and every one of the oxygen recycler filters. Rusto is patient, and it’s not like these sapient species can live without oxygen.
Personally, Rusto takes comfort in bargaining spaceship parts. His hearing is well, so naturally, the orphan’s story flows into his ears. There is a steady monotone in dressing the gears, which look positively ancient. Whichever ship they last belong to must’ve come from galaxies away.
He pays half a mind to the orphan’s new tale like he usually does. Except for this time it catches his attention. He listens closer just because of the subject matter.
The kid dumps his pocket full of credit chips on the tarp and starts sorting them by colors. He keeps on talking.
“I did saw the bodies on that Terran ship!. They store them upright, in this hard, white material. It’s like the dead bodies are frozen! It could be cry freeze, but there’s no chamber, I tell you. No wires, no nothing. I doubt it’s even the tech we can understand. It’s like those poor bastards are still alive when the Terrans turn them into white stone!”
“Terrans?” The children look at each other in horror. “Did you just say Terrans? They are freaky, that’s what I heard. And they are here on 8C? Why are they here?”
Rusto knows the Terrans are just space merchants, nothing more to it. Same as every other ship, they are stopping at the station for resupply while unloading some of the goods they are carrying. Exchange for credits, buy more goods, sell them in another galaxy.
He has seen plenty of Terran trading ships in his lifetime. Some as large as a colony ship, gliding like a massive whale in one of those old films. Or small and agile cruisers, buzzing like flies, usually with something less than legal onboard.
Rusto sees this particular ship at the hangar. It looks nothing fancy, parking at the dim end of the lot. He never sees the dead bodies, though. The children’s tales are just tales.
Until much later in the evening, when half of the market is closing shop and the other half opening up for the nightlife—the real freakish hour of the day, when everything hangs in limbo—he spots a pair of Terrans with a handcart. The metal wheels make creaky noises as they carry the stone-encased bodies down the service path. Rolling, screeching, toward a temporary stall.
They are selling them, Rusto realizes Wirth a rare kind of chill. The Terrans truly have no respect for the dead. Even on an old station like 8C, they mourn their dead by holding a drinking ceremony in the bar and float the body wrapped in good fabrics.
Did the Terran kill those people, who look like their own kin? They freeze them in stone, preserving their likeness, and use them as decoration.
The pair of Terrans look…average. They are much smaller than Rusto himself, but most sentient species are. Terrans are slim, soft, and fragile beings. Maybe that’s why they make their dead into stone things, so they become strong in the afterlife. Rusto can rationalize their culture, but even he cannot fathom why they would sell their deceased.
Perhaps some perverse customs would be interested.
The Terran spacemen are neatly dressed in khaki work suits, faded but clean. One could never know they deal in such distasteful wares. Rusto eyes their cart as they push it across the market. Before he can think it through, a boldness takes hold of him.
“How much?” Rusto asks, stopping them in the path. He searches the eyes behind their masked faces for a sign of comprehension. They must speak the common tongue if they get so far away from home. “For one of these.”
The Terrans exchanged a surprised look.
“The statues aren’t for sale, sir.”
Sta-choo. That’s what they are calling this. Rusto looks for an equivalent in his native language and found none. It should be similar to a monument. However, these things are too small and numerous to be monuments.
Hearing the Terran speak make Rusto realize a critical error. The statues are not for sale, so they are not decorative souvenirs like he previously thought. For the first time, the children may be right in their assumption.
“So what are they for?”
Rusto asks out loud. The Terrans exchanged another look among themselves.
“We are taking them back to our home system. Our Sol is too far away and we need supplies and a bigger ship. It’s waiting for us on the lower deck of this station. We are taking the statues there.”
The sound comes from the translating device, a common accessory the Terrans wear like a wrap on their necks. Their words are stiff and mechanical. Rusto understands, though he wonders how much of their true meaning is lost in translation.
“Are you going to sell them in your home system? Why not sell them here, then you don’t need a bigger ship to carry your cargo.”
There are holes in the Terran’s narrative. Suspicious. Profit is one of the usual things that drive one to murder.
“We are not selling the statues.”
They say this with finality.
The killers feel neither guilt nor sympathy. Rusto muses, since they appear to be uninterested in hurting those not of their kind. Or are they waiting for the right prey?
They are stiff–their voices flat, but otherwise polite. A peculiar behavior, but Rusto has seen worse. But the children, no one is looking out for them and no one is going to care if they disappear one day. There are young bodies among the Terran’s cargo. Naked, and tense when they died. The children may be captured turned into a statue.
Rusto looks around. They have attracted a small crowd. Workers who got off work and on their way to bars or sleeping quarters. Plenty of witnesses here. He is safe if he exposes the Terrans right here.
“Fine. If not for profit, then why did you kill them?”
For a moment, silence. They exchanged another look, as if they can communicate with looks alone. This time, entirely confused.
“We didn’t kill anyone.”
The crowd murmurs.
The pair look like prey animals, small and innocent, wrapped in bulky suits. “How did you come to that conclusion?”
“You are hiding dead bodies inside the white stone. You have the nerve to parade it down the street. You have committed crimes, and are now escaping back to your home system.”
Rusto says, his voice raised. The spectators are his neighbors and friends who stand with him.
“I will report you to the Galatic Peacekeepers.” Like they’d do anything for him, but the foreign travelers don’t need to know. Rusto looks intimidating in size, and his bluffing never fails him. Yet the Earthlings look unbothered, just curious.
“You think there are dead bodies inside the statues?” They asked. “There are none. It’s all stone, marble, mineral on our homeworld.”
The small crowd of night dwellers gathers around the scene. All examine the cart full of statues with mildly horrified but interested stares. Rusto himself caves in. He has to prove himself right. Before he can think things through, he uses one of his forelimbs and gives the closest stone statue—what looks like a woman carrying a child—a shove. His touch light enough to be an accidental nudge. And with the crowd buzzing around him, no one notices.
The anatomical body falls, as if in slow motion, toward the ground. The marble leaves a phantom coldness on his skin. Then the spell breaks, the stone shatters to pieces.
The head rolls away to the side, half of her face gone. The legs break into pieces, but the arms are still half intact just not attached. Everyone stares, some gasp, and take a step back. There is no dead body inside. It’s all just stones.
The previously unfazed Terran let out a howl. A gutwrenching sound, the way it goes through the static speaker of the translator. Rusto winces, alarmed. Sounds like a battle cry. He tenses, preparing for a fight—but instead of a war cry, it was the sound of sorrow.
One of the Terrans kneels, attempting to pick up the broken pieces. They are trying to put them back together like a child with building blocks. It’s all broken now. The sharp edges of the stone cut through their gloves in the frenzy. No one can see their face behind the mask, but Rusto imagines it’s a look of desperation.
What is broken cannot be mended. The other Terran simply stands leaning against the cart, quiet.
Slowly the kneeling one looks up at Rusto. “Are you happy/ satisfied now?” The translator glitches as it struggles to convert strong emotions. “For five years we have searched far and wide for our artifact/belongings. The sculptures are a part of our history/past that is lost to the stars. We are locating/gathering them are returning them to our home.”
“I…” Rusto begins, but the Terran stands up and presses a bleeding hand to the trader’s chest.
“They are not trophies/decorations, though they used to be, a long time ago. Now they belong to our history/past that we don’t want to forget. Why did you destroy it? The sculpture is older than you, older than this space station. It was carved by hand out of a rock, long before we human/Terrans could leave our home, long before any of us was born.”
As Rusto understands it, he has done a horrible thing.
“You are not killers.”
“No. We are artists, historians, and travelers. We are reclaiming the history of our species.”
“You Terrans make wars, just like the rest of us.”
“Yes. Some of the statues are made from war. See, this one depicts a warrior with his weapon. We do not select which part of the history we tell,” the Terran paused, looking out the greasy window panel of the station, toward the stars beyond. “At least, not anymore.”
Rusto thinks he can scrap together some credits to compensate for the damage. He contemplates, though he doesn’t say anything.
The space station orphans sneak between the adults’ legs, picking up the tiniest pieces of stone, examining them under the white light.
“Well,” they say, lost for words, as is Rusto.
The Terran has stopped weeping, and together they sweep the pieces into a garbage bag and carry it like a hefty bag of coins. Neither of them speaks again, before turning away and continuing to push the cart toward their destination.
They are going home. Rusto follows their diminishing shadows with his gaze. With their long lost treasure, now found.
They are going home. After all, that’s all that tired travelers could ever dream of.