“What is it?” I asked the museum curator, peering down into the dusty wooden chest.
“It’s an All-Seeing Eye.”
I stared at it. Black. Spherical. Shiny. So shiny I could see my face.
I puckered my scarlet lips in satisfaction. Cruising the universe in a space jalopy with her pal, a gal could still look good.
That reminded me, Lexa was waiting up in orbit.
Her last words had been, 'Find out what the old guy wants, and then get the hell out of there before Carlo’s widow catches up with us.'
“Looks heavy,” I said.
“Light as a feather,” the curator replied. "Real, too." He shifted his weight a little and ran his finger around his shirt collar. "Ever seen one before?"
In a world replete with virtual reality, the very idea that something was physical wasn’t to be sniffed at.
I reached into the chest and picked up the All-Seeing Eye. It emanated a queer, brooding resentment. If an inanimate object could sulk, this was it.
It made Lexa’s strops look like child’s play.
“Never heard of it,” I muttered, fiddling with my weapon belt.
As the curator told me all about the All-Seeing Eye, I nodded along politely.
It was the usual story: a small kernel of truth developing into myth via a lengthy process of exaggeration, mostly during tales told in cyber pubs.
In a way, we were all to blame when that happened.
A team of assassins had been sent to find the last surviving Eye and kill its owners. Their mission had gone well to start with, but on the ride home it had all gone to pot.
After that, the Eye had been lost to posterity, spinning off into the unknown reaches of the universe for centuries.
Its existence had almost been forgotten, the memory of it kept alive only in the deepest, darkest recesses of human consciousness.
That sounded typical enough of almost every quest for a magical item I’d ever gotten involved with: chaos from the start, and nothing but backstabbing by the end.
Magical items acquired a life of their own and were inevitably dangerous to be around. This was precisely why they so often ended up forgotten in a corner somewhere.
After a while, no one felt confident enough to use them. Good servants made bad masters.
“What does it do?”
The curator hesitated. He lowered his voice and glanced over his shoulder twice as he answered me.
I rolled my eyes at these precautions. We were alone, apart from Lexa orbiting the museum planet. Just a million square miles of dusty exhibits. A panoply of human existence through the centuries, stored right here in case anyone ever wanted to look at it again.
“This one? Nothing. It doesn't work,” he said.
The curator sounded heartbroken. What a terrible thing it was to husband a hoard of pointless, outdated, outmoded inventions from way back when. It was like Noah’s ark.
“Where do I fit into this?” I asked, smoothing my long red hair.
“You’ve got a reputation for finding things. One’s been sighted.” The curator pointed to the star map circling above our heads. “There. A working one. That's what I'm after.”
“I don’t take on challenges like that any more,” I told him, fiddling with my gun belt. “Learnt my lesson on my last mission.”
I strolled to the lift and smacked the button with my hand. The curator watched me go. I could feel his eyes drilling into the back of my head.
A moment later, he called after me, “I’ll make it worth your while.”
The curator’s star map was still fresh in my mind as I climbed into the jalopy from the space buggy I’d used to reach the planet’s surface. Lexa was sulking, but that was nothing new. I clapped her on the back as I slipped into my seat.
“You took forever. Carlo’s widow’s right behind us, but I don’t think you’re taking her threats seriously,” she snapped.
I smiled as I strapped myself in. It felt good to be back in the old crate again. This jalopy was the only home I had.
“What did the old fart want anyway?” she added.
As I told Lexa, her eyes gleamed. She warmed up the jalopy’s engines with an enthusiasm that worried me. I’d seen that dangerous look in her eyes before, too, and had no wish to encounter it again.
“Best give it a miss,” I added. “Good money but dangerous work.”
It was high-risk, but then so was being on the run from Carlo’s widow!
The Galaxy High Court had found me responsible, in absentia, for Carlo’s death and laid down the required amount of blood money. The level of damages set was so out of my league that it might as well have been the whole galaxy I was being asked to pay over.
Carlo and I had spent the last decade, since I sneaked onto his ship aged fifteen, cruising the galaxy, picking up cargo runs and undertaking small-time felon repatriations.
It was a hand-to-mouth existence, but it worked for us. Carlo was more of a father to me than my biological male parent. I was devastated by Carlo's death and traumatised by the ongoing uncertainty as to whether I was in any way responsible for his demise. All I could remember was taking a heavy blow to the head. Everything after that was a blank.
The jalopy juddered, ready for take off. The old girl was falling apart. She was barely able to fly half the time, but (somehow) she got Lexa and me around the galaxy.
A sudden blow to the side of the craft slammed into us.
Lexa frantically pressed buttons, putting the emergency shield into operation. The water system would cope with any fire caused by the collision. What we needed most was our shield up and a dollop of good luck.
“What the hell was that?” Lexa breathed.
I closed my eyes and braced for further impact.
“I can’t really condone the use of my museum planet for these purposes!” the curator told Carlo’s widow. He glanced over at Lexa and me, strung up in handcuffs and with leg-irons firmly in place.
“They owe me!” Carlo’s widow snarled. “My husband died because of her,” she added, kicking me in the shin.
“She’s got hundreds of husbands, don’t feel sorry for her,” Lexa told the curator.
He was sweating. I prayed he would keep calm and not let Carlo’s widow shoot me in the head. “Put your gun down,” he told Carlo’s widow.
She did so. She could afford to be cocky. Lexa and I were trussed up good and proper, and our jalopy was even less space-worthy than usual. We weren’t going anywhere.
“I might have a solution to your problem,” he added.
“I’m listening, but I’m going to want my blood money. Carlo was the first husband I took. He’s worth more to me because of that. The judge said so.”
I couldn’t believe this drivel. All the times I’d sat in the jalopy and heard Carlo moan about how much he loved his wife, but he had seven hundred other husbands to compete with and only got to claim his conjugal rights once every two years!
“Go with them, fetch the All-Seeing Eye and I’ll clear Dixie’s debt to you.”
Carlo’s widow scowled at me and made a great show of considering the offer, but, finally, she nodded.
Lexa throttled the jalopy up into the stratosphere. The craft was a mess, and we were crawling slowly upwards at the same pace that lichen grows. I pressed the button for hyper-speed.
“The curator’s last tip was so cold it could re-freeze the glaciers. We need something a little hotter to put us on the trail of the All-Seeing Eye,” Lexa said. She smirked and closed her eyes.
I felt the soporific pull of hyper-stasis. I could sleep out the whole journey and wake up light years from here, looking younger and more rested than I’d been since Carlo died. I gave the coordinates for our destination as nonchalantly as I could.
“Junkyard Joe,” Lexa chuckled. “So, you’re hoping for a little romance as well?”
On the flight over to Junkyard Joe’s place I thought about Carlo and of the times we’d had together. He’d been good to me. Never once taken advantage, even though we cruised the universe together, spending almost all of our time alone. I was a feisty fifteen-year-old when I stowed away on board the jalopy. I’d thought then I knew it all. Looking back now, I was horrified at how naïve I was then, but Carlo had treated me like a kid sister and a buddy rolled into one.
He’d talked and talked about his wife. He still loved her, no matter how many other suckers she took for a ride. I felt so sorry for him. He’d always said it was easier to hike around the rest of the universe for a couple of years in between the times his conjugal nights came up than to sit at home waiting.
It was a tough world.
A tough world, indeed, for most of us women, too.
Ninety-five percent of the human population in the universe was male. They lived for centuries; thousands of years, in many cases.
In order to keep population levels manageable, some planets kept all females corralled together. Others made licences to ovulate compulsory, but they were difficult to police and children just kept on getting born. Eventually, mass-slaughters were arranged until the female population all but died out. That left the few women who were around with a pretty good card hand. They could have any man they wanted.
In the case of Carlo’s widow, that meant loads of men. Carlo said it was too painful to be at home in his flat, waiting day after day, night after night, knowing what she was doing with those other spouses. Better to be away, doing something adventurous to take his mind off it. The worst time in those ten years were the nights he parked the jalopy and left me, worried about managing on my own if an attack came, to spend the night with his wife. But it was worth it to see how happy he was when he came back the next morning.
Eventually, the pain of remembering Carlo was too much, and I switched on the hyper-stasis drive and slipped away to sleep.
Walking into Junkyard Joe’s was like trawling through the dustbin of history. He’d have appreciated the thoroughness of the curator, even though they were about as different as two men could be.
Junkyard Joe was messy, dirty most of the time, he could barely read; but he had an unerring instinct for the value of things. He was a real trader so haggling was never really an option, or only when he was enjoying himself or feeling particularly sentimental.
I reckoned he had a real pile of credits stashed under his junkyard. One day, someone would come and try to rob him of it. But that didn’t worry Joe. He could handle himself.
Joe’s place was legendary. It was the place to get whatever you wanted. If he didn’t already have it, he knew just where to get it.
I wanted to keep things as casual as I could. The last thing I needed was our past history getting in the way of negotiations. “Hallo, Joe. I’ve got a job on. It’s for an All-Seeing Eye.”
Joe eyed me up and down. “Yeah, babe. I’ve got an All-Seeing Eye.”
I started laughing in spite of myself. It had been a while, and a gal had to eat. Maybe a night’s stopover before heading back to the museum planet wasn’t such a bad idea after all.
“It’s a thing, not some skeezy innuendo,” Lexa spat.
“I know what it is,” Joe said, nodding his head over towards the corner.
He didn’t take his eyes off me. I felt a warm feeling of happiness and anticipation spreading through me. Joe knew his way around. In a world almost bereft of women, I couldn’t think where he’d got the experience, but I didn’t really care.
Lexa started off towards the corner Joe had gestured towards without waiting for me.
“Be careful!” Joe called. “It’s not what it seems!”
I went with Lexa. I’d seen her rush in before, and it was easier to counsel caution now rather than pick up the pieces later. In the corner I found an All-Seeing Eye identical to the one I’d seen on the museum planet. It was guarded by a cage of ninja soldiers. “Any preference for attack?” she asked.
I mulled over our options. It was unlikely to be too difficult. Ninjas were tricky, but I had plenty of experience with them. A laser quark refractor seemed the best option. It would do minimal collateral damage to the basket of kittens Joe had sitting beside the ninjas’ cage.
“Take your time. Use the ultimate weapon to avoid making any costly mistakes,” Joe called after us.
He had taken up a position leaning against the wall by the door. The beaded fly-screen rattled, and he was joined by a slim, black-haired woman. She was younger than me and very beautiful. She ran her hand up Joe’s arm, and my heart sank. Somewhere, somehow in this universe devoid of female kind Junkyard Joe had picked up a girlfriend in the year since we’d last met.
I didn’t meet Lexa’s eye. She’d laugh all night about Joe dating, about how any women had been persuaded to show an interest in him when he was filthy most of the time. She could be harsh that way. I thought she’d more or less given up on romance. There were few women around, and even fewer who shared her orientation.
I had to get this right: brazen out the negotiations in front of Joe, and then get back to the museum planet with the All-Seeing Eye. That was all that mattered. I could sob over him in private later when it was all over, and he was light years away.
“Dixie thinks cherry-red lipstick is the ultimate weapon. Whaddya think, Joe?” Lexa chuckled.
“Intelligence is the ultimate weapon. Sets us apart from lesser life forms,” he replied.
I slipped the laser out of my holster and raised it to waist level. I aimed at the ninjas in their cage, all ready to squeeze the trigger. A bolt of blue neon came from Lexa’s waistband. I stared at her in horror. There was blood all over the lower part of the walls, fur was everywhere.
“What is wrong with you?” I stammered. What sort of girl would shoot a basket of defenceless kittens into oblivion?
Lexa smiled and switched off her ray. Joe came over and clapped her on the back. “Very savvy,” he said. “Just an illusion to protect the All-Seeing Eye. That thing’s valuable. People are always trying to steal it. A bunch of kittens that aren’t entirely what they seem to be has helped me to keep hold of it since I bought it. So, how much you girls prepared to offer?”
Lexa snarled, “I haven’t been a girl since I got my first period at age twelve.”
Joe smiled. “Get a box. Over there, behind the vampires.”
I went over tentatively and fetched the box. Vampires weren’t always the most predictable life form. I was nervous around them for good reason. Carlo had been way too cocky in dealing with them; look where that had got him. We put the All-Seeing Eye gingerly into the box. It was light, despite its appearance, exactly as the curator had claimed. But handling it, the thing felt odd. I was beginning to regret taking on this mission at all.
“Where d’ya get it?” I asked Joe once the price was agreed. He seemed almost glad to be rid of the thing, and of course that should have been my first clue to leave it behind. Or at least tell the curator to come pick it up himself.
Joe’s dark-haired girlfriend slipped away somewhere, leaving Lexa, Joe and me in the bar down the road from the junkyard. In the back of my mind was the lingering pain that maybe she was using Joe for his money, his reputed wealth hidden below the junkyard, and she would leave him as soon as she’d stripped him bare.
“Old fella dropped it off. Barely asked anything for it. Said he just wanted shot of it. Shame. I’ve been tempted to try it out myself. Must be so many things we think we know about the history of our universe. Apparently, this shows us what really happened as opposed to what we think took place.”
“What stopped you?” I asked, sitting down beside him.
Joe gestured to the bartender to refill our drinks.
“Good sense,” Lexa interjected. “Not that I’d have expected it in you, Joe.”
“Just goes to show men can surprise you,” he said.
“Not if I can help it,” Lexa muttered.
“Staying over?” Joe asked, as we got unsteadily to our feet. “My old room’s free. I use the bigger one above the shop now.”
Not for worlds would I let him see that it bothered me to think of him and this new girl together under the same roof.
“We oughta be going,” I said.
Lexa and I were in no fit state to pilot the jalopy, but we could sleep on board tonight and head off, hangovers permitting, first thing tomorrow. All we needed to do now was swing back round by the junkyard and pick up our All-Seeing Eye. Then it was back to the curator. Afterwards, I felt like never coming back here, that was for sure.
“Where’s the box?” I asked, searching around for it under the table where Joe had placed it before we left for the bar. I stared around the room. The box wasn’t the only thing missing. The cage of ninjas was empty, too.
“I can’t believe it!” Joe said.
“Why not? You’ve said people were always trying to steal it.”
Joe shook his head. “That cage of ninjas! I bought it because the vendor told me it was really a box of puppies. I was holding on to them in case a customer ever wanted a birthday party novelty. Damn!”
I stroked Joe’s arm. It was a real affront to his trader’s esteem to be tricked on a deal. Joe always dealt straight. No wonder he was angry.
“We need to catch up with the ninja puppies, and shoot it out until they hand over the All-Seeing Eye. They can’t have gotten far in a few hours,” Lexa said. “We’ll pop down to the space park and see if the guard has seen anything.”
That sounded sensible. A gang of ninjas carrying a box ought not to be hard to trace. Guards were usually open to bribery, with credits, alcohol or, if it came to it, sweeter pleasures. Everyone in our world had a price.
We ran down to the harbour. Row after row of wonderful, shiny, state-of-the-art spacecraft; and our beaten-up old jalopy with Carlo’s widow’s ship parked right next to it. The two were chained together.
I dug deep into my pocket. It wasn’t going to be easy to persuade the guard to turn a blind eye in return for the little I could offer financially. Alcohol was freely available on this planet. No leverage there, then. I swallowed nervously. That meant having only one card left to play, and I really didn’t want to be reduced to that.
Lexa slipped a hairpin from her up-do and picked the lock. She gave me a stern look that made me wonder if she hadn’t followed my train of thought. We scrambled into the old jalopy, and she started the engine.
Lexa and I caught up with the ninjas soon enough. They’d got sloppy; plugging the accurate course into the authorities’ computer system when they were carrying stolen bounty was pure stupidity.
Five minutes of firefighting later, Lexa and I had the All-Seeing Eye in our hands. I hated it. All this trouble for a measly payoff. Even bringing in a criminal or a making dodgy cargo run would have yielded more credits. I’d been altruistic in trying to help the curator, and I was regretting it already.
On the run back to the museum planet, I began to suspect that the All-Seeing Eye had a life of its own. The box moved from one side of the hold to the other, even though it had been firmly lashed down with cables.
Then, later in the trip, we were both sure we’d heard music. Sweet, alluring, soporific music that Lexa and I were only just strong enough to resist. That should have told me to jettison it out of the waste chute at the first opportunity, or sell it at our first stopping-off point to the highest bidder, but Lexa wanted to try it out, and I foolishly agreed.
Lexa got the sphere out of the box and placed it carefully on the floor. “So, it’s supposed to show history the way it really happened? Regardless of our poor understanding, flawed archives and broken artifacts?”
I nodded. I could feel my heart thumping. What was wrong with me? “Let’s dump it out the waste hatch,” I said.
“We need the money. I’ll have a go, find out if Adolf Hitler was really a world-class philanthropist. Or whether Elvis Presley was actually tone deaf,” Lexa replied. “Imagine what we could do with it! Think of the prize money for all those philosophical debates. ‘Is God an Alien?’ We could live forever on the proceeds of that one. Knowledge is power.”
I shook my head. A little knowledge was a dangerous thing. I stuffed the All-Seeing Eye back in its box and strapped it to the side of the hold. I couldn’t afford to junk the Eye, but, if I was going to transport this thing half way across the galaxy, I was going to need reinforcements.
“Nice to see you two girls again so soon,” Joe’s girlfriend said, as we strolled back into the junkyard office.
“Where’s Joe?” I asked.
“Out back. I’ll give him a shout.”
I waited patiently in the office. It was a cacophony of noise from the items Joe had stored there. He kept live items in the office so he could feed them. Inanimate stuff was stored ‘out back’. I’d never been ‘out back’. Joe said the office was the clean part of his operations, and it was filthy. Eventually, I got so jumpy I wandered out front to the roadside. A box of puppies lay on the pavement immediately in front of the junkyard office.
I took my laser out from my holster and fired it at the box. I’d felt nothing but paranoid since we’d found the All-Seeing Eye. It would be just like the ninjas to have kept a back-up team in reserve nearby.
Joe lost his temper completely when he saw what I’d done. “Actually, those were just a box of puppies. I ordered them for Althea’s birthday. She loves animals. You can explain to her what’s happened. I’m not taking the rap for this!”
“I need to pay off Carlo’s widow. I can’t keep running for the rest of my life looking back over my shoulder. She’s horrible. Hard and mean. She’ll never give up. I don’t believe she ever cared about him yet she’s making all this fuss. It’s just about the money. Even Carlo said that about her.”
I started crying. Just as well Lexa wasn’t here to see me. I was ashamed of myself, but my grief over losing Carlo, when I still blamed myself for his death, was only just starting to hit me. Joe gave me a cuddle, and I gradually started to feel better.
We told Althea as gently as we could, but the blood-splattered puppies, along with my reappearance, was too much. She stormed off, rucksack swinging on her shoulder, calling Joe all sorts of names.
He just shrugged and said, “Guess I’ll come along with you guys after all.”
Carlo’s widow was lolling against the bar. She was barely sober enough to remain on her leather stool. The place was a dive, but even so she was in danger of lowering the tone. Men were all over her like a rash of course. She’d been beautiful in her younger days, and she still had that way about her, sort of soppy and feeble. The kind of girly way that turns grown men to putty.
The bane of my life was wearing a very low-slung dress, of course, since there were men in the vicinity for her to add to her growing list of husbands. An expression of real distaste spread across Joe’s face. She was absolutely rat-arsed drunk, and I could just spy her laser gun in her holster. She was a loose cannon at the best of times. The bar was emptying; people were keen to avoid getting drawn into the looming confrontation.
“Got the Eye. Ready to go when you are,” I said.
Carlo’s widow responded by firing at my leg. She missed but only just. I curled up on my seat. Joe was already on his feet, shouting at Lexa and me to get behind him. He was never armed, so I didn’t know what he thought he could do to help. Carlo’s widow had always been a firebrand. Now it seemed like she was all ready to take a lengthy prison sentence just to make me suffer. Or maybe the alcohol here was stronger than she was used to, and it was going to her head.
Either way, I didn’t fancy travelling light-years with her in that state. The jalopy’s air conditioning system was old and rubbish. If she threw up we’d be stuck with the reek for days. I pulled out my gun, set it to stun and watched in satisfaction as Carlo’s widow slumped unconscious to the floor.
The three of carried Carlo’s widow to the jalopy and scrambled aboard.
Lexa strapped her into one of the spare bunks to sleep it off. “One day, you’ll have to tell me what happened with Carlo on the day he died,” she said.
The truth was I’d been unconscious for most of the confrontation. I didn’t know what had happened. No wonder Carlo’s widow had been able to spin the court into believing her version of events.
Joe strapped himself in and squeezed my hand. “You know,” he murmured, “set this old crate on autopilot, can slip back there and-”
Lexa tutted loudly.
“I was going to say we could crank up this All-Seeing Eye before we hand it over to the museum curator and find out what really happened the night Carlo died,” Joe snapped. “Put your mind at rest about whether it was your fault.”
We three looked at each other. That thing had a mind of its own. I mulled it over. It might be an answer to all our prayers or just the beginning of all our troubles. Difficulty was, how to tell.
Thank you for reading my short story.
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