Jack stared at the cube, mesmerized by its iridescent color. One part of his mind calculated how long it would keep him in smoke while another part mocked him for thinking iridescence a color.
Two inches to a side, the cube glowed from the middle shelf of a contraption known as an oven. The cube stared back at him.
He swore it stared, seeing deep into his soul, tracing his past through his three failed marriages, his four bankruptcies, his multiple encounters with the Imperial Patrol, and his constantly smoking himself into oblivion.
Ivory swirls sloshed across its surface, like laughter. The cube knew him.
Twenty minutes earlier, he'd dropped from orbit in his Salvager to sniff through the ruins of Canis Dogma Five, the old Circian homeworld, for something he might hawk to the junk lords for a few hundred galacti. He'd found someplace to park the Scavenger out of sight from the constant patrols, his ship almost as derelict as the ruins he explored. Then he'd worked himself between the decrepit doors of an apartment building, one of the few still standing amidst the ruins of a city that had once housed a million people, minimum. Two floors up, he'd cracked a flat whose stale air bespoke its millennial inoccupancy. The oven was a perfect find, as valuable in its current state as it would be after being dropped out a window. I'm not carryin' it down two flights of stairs, he'd thought indignantly, bending to look inside. The dusty glass pane obscured the interior, so he'd opened the door.
And stared at the cube inside.
Before he could think, he snatched it from the oven.
A scene filled his sight and a voice rang in his ears.
He was in a cavern, and a man stood before him, dressed in sequined silks of multiple colors, upon his head a slim, simple circlet, in one hand a two-inch silvery cube.
"I am Lochium Circi the Ninth, Emperor of Circi, a civilization that once reached to the outer arms of the galaxy." Behind the figure was a small table, on it a vial filled with orange fluid, and a large stone slab atop one-foot pillars. "Welcome to my final resting place, Traveler. You have now been selected for a sacred duty. You see me because you have been chosen to wield the Ghost cube." Lochium Circi the Ninth ceremoniously held up the silvery, two-inch cube. "With this modest device, the Circians spread their influence throughout the galaxy."
A remote rumble shook the chamber, and dust drifted down from the ceiling. "And now our influence is dying. Barbarians bombard Canis Dogma Five into oblivion as I speak.
"You, Traveler, have been chosen to become the next Emperor of the Circian Empire, with all the privileges, responsibilities, and obligations thereto implied, and to bring together again all the remnants of our once-great Empire under the auspices of one government, to live peacefully until the end of time under you and your successors.
"The cube has chosen you, Traveler, because you are worthy and noble and pure. May the billion suns of the galactic core light your path with brilliance."
His head spun and his face stung.
"Hold it by its edges," the girl told him.
Jack did as she bade him, the cube threatening to suck him elsewhere again.
He stared at her, she who had slapped him. She who knew what he held.
Because it was hers.
He wondered where she'd come from. The apartment had had the feel of having been vacant for a very long time. He also wondered why she hadn't just taken it from him. One part of him already knew, and another part ridiculed him from not considering for a moment handing it back to her. He'd be stupid to give up something that might keep him in smoke for the rest of his life.
She stared back at him, much as the cube had.
Jack saw what she was thinking. Me, Emperor?
The thought was beyond ludicrous and passing farcical.
She laughed softly, shaking her head.
He was a wretch, through and through. No amount of wealth, schooling, or breeding could remedy that. All a charm school might do is teach him how to insult people without their knowing it, something he now did without intending to.
He frowned at her. "I'm Jack, but you knew that, didn't you?"
She nodded. "Misty." She didn't extend her hand.
He might have been a leper. "Pleased."
"Likewise." Clearly she wasn't.
"This is yours, isn't it?"
"It was," she said, shrugging. "Or more accurately, I used to be its."
"And now I'm its?" He frowned at it in his hand.
"You catch on fast."
"What is it?"
"A Gaussian Holistic Oscillating Subliminal Tesseract, a ghost cube." She suddenly stood and beckoned him to follow. "Now that you're here, I need your help."
He climbed to his feet slowly, as though he'd been sitting for several hours. The quality of light through dusty panes hadn't changed appreciably.
She led him up several floors, some of the stairwells difficult to navigate, their steps mangled by time and inattention. He wondered as he followed her up what an eight- or nine-year-old girl was doing in a decrepit ruin like this by herself.
"It's been a couple weeks," she said, stopping outside a door at the end of a hall. "So he doesn't smell very good."
Not smelling very good was an understatement. He could barely hold his gorge. "What do you want me to do?"
Grief wrecked her face. "Help me bury him."
He knew without asking that just leaving the corpse wasn't a choice. He also knew that just leaving the girl wasn't a choice. A tantalizing lifetime of smoke-filled nights receded inexorably from his grasp. And right now, he really needed to smoke.
The blanket helped to hold together what decay was rapidly dismantling, but couldn't shield him completely from the ooze he should've expected.
She led him to a wildly overgrown park, two blocks away, where a pit had already been dug.
"I just couldn't figure out how to get him down here."
Once he'd finished, organic was the only word he could summon to describe his smell. In addition to the odors of necrosis and its associated fluids, a thick layer of freshly-turned soil now stuck to those stains. The cube was tucked in his pocket.
He'd just chunked the last shovelful to fill the pit when a distant whine alerted him. "Quick! The patrol!" He loped for the nearest building, the girl outpacing him easily and leading him toward a culvert.
They dove into it just as the craft roared overhead. Straining engines whined in complaint as it circled back.
"Stars above, they saw us. We can't stay here." He looked at her, despairing that they'd be trapped in the culvert.
Misty seemed unconcerned.
Jack tracked the incoming ship by sound as he looked her over. The backwash of the landing retros buffeted her thin, threadbare clothing, its many rents and tears each carefully stitched. Her hair fell in stringy, ungainly swatches to uneven, hacked-off lengths near her shoulders. Her cheeks were hollow with malnutrition or shock.
Maybe both, he thought. "Why won't they find us?"
Her eyes glistened with ethereal light. "You'll persuade them not to." She didn't glance toward his jacket pocket, but she might have.
Voices outside approached. "Over here. I told you I picked up a signal of an incoming ship. Probably some scavenger."
He brought out the cube.
Jack looked at the culvert. The drainpipe was three feet in diameter, barely room for anyone to have gone in. "We've picked up native signals before. Remnants of the old Circian Empire, eking out a meager life among the ruins. If it was a scavenger, where's the ship?" He turned to look at his shipmate.
The guy shrugged, his uniform immaculate.
Jack knew his own was perfect as well. "You goin' in after 'em?" He gestured at the culvert, and then picked an imaginary speck of dust off his sleeve.
The other guy shook his head. "They ain't payin' to replace uniforms, remember?"
"We'll set up monitors in a perimeter. If there's a scavenger, we'll catch 'em on the way out."
Jack snapped back into the culvert, his hand coming off the cube.
The voices outside faded.
He'd felt as if he'd been dreaming, on the one hand hearing them talk outside the pipe, on the other doing the talking. Somehow, he'd maintained an awareness of his hand on the cube.
Misty watched him, her eyes on his face.
"What is this thing?"
She shrugged. "Grandpa never said, but he did tell me it's old, very old. My ancestors used it to control the galaxy."
He brought his gaze up from the cube. "What ancestors?"
Archeologists had long wondered at the source of Circian power. A meek, unpretentious peoples, they had somehow spread their influence from a modest-size planet with few mineral resources across the galaxy, dominating multiple constellations with far more natural resources and far larger navies. Even their home system had been insignificant, a two-planet single-star system with a young blue primary sitting astride the narrow neck of empty space between Canis Major and Canis Minor. The Dog Bone, it'd been called by the early spacers who'd colonized the area some ten thousand years ago.
But somehow, Circi had come to dominate first the adjoining Majora and Minora constellations, then the Perseus Arm itself, and then the entire galaxy. Not by conquering anything, either.
All by persuasion.
Jack shook his head at her. "That your grandpa we buried?"
She nodded, looking sad.
"We'll go say a few words, once it's safe."
She smiled at him, looking grateful.
"Where are your relatives?"
Her gaze narrowed in bewilderment.
"You don't have any relatives?
"Grandpa never mentioned any."
"Died five years ago when the building two blocks over collapsed."
"There have to be other people around here."
She shrugged. "Grandpa always told me to stay away. There's a tribe six blocks to the west, another twelve blocks north. See them once in awhile, but they always run when I approach."
"What did he tell you to expect once he'd died?"
She brightened unexpectedly. "He told me, 'Expect the Universe. You're the Princess.'"
He was dumbfounded. What kind of upbringing was that? "Princess of what?"
"Circi," she said matter of factly.
He threw his head back in laughter and hit his head on the inside of the culvert. Laughing even as he rubbed his head, he shook it in wonder, bemused and bewildered.
She looked as bemused as he felt.
"And just how were you supposed to become the Princess of Circi?"
"Become?" She looked even more befuddled. "I already am!"
He roared with laughter all the more.
Misty looked annoyed.
Outside, the roar of engines signaled the patrol's departure.
He sleeved the tears from his eyes, his hands still grimy with fresh earth. "What the stars am I going to do with you?" He laughed some more at his own predicament, the sudden caretaker of a delightful nine-year-old.
A crusty, renegade salvage-hound too self-centered to make four marriages work, not diligent enough to avoid three bankruptcies, having tangled more times than both combined with the law, and an inveterate smoker, now the guardian of this orphan.
And owner of a cube that had ludicrously chosen him to become Emperor.
"Are you all right?"
He nodded and caught his breath, sure he looked a wreck, his face red and tear-strewn. "Too ironic, is all," he said, glancing down at the cube. "Well, if this was truly the source of the Circian's power, it's clear why their Empire fell." And he laughed some more.
"I think they're gone now," Misty said, peering from the culvert.
He could barely see her outline, night having long since fallen.
They'd likely set up infrared monitors in a perimeter, but they weren't interested in the native peoples. The Imperial Patrol would be looking for him and his Salvager.
He followed her out, trusting that she knew the area and where they could flee if the patrol returned.
They made their way to the gravesite and stood beside the unmarked mound of freshly-turned soil.
Her face swung up to his, a pale shadow amidst darker shadows.
What am I supposed to say? he wondered; I didn't know the man.
The moon of her face beamed at him brightly.
He took her hand and sighed. "We gather here at the final resting place of—"
"Augustus Circi, Emperor," she supplied in the pause.
"—to honor his passing from a life of devotion. Those of us who remain behind will never forget him."
The girl beside him wept softly in the darkness.
He climbed into a clean set of formalls, fresh from a shower, wondering the whole time how they were going to get off planet without the Imperial Patrol's intercepting them.
At least I'll be clean when they arrest me, he thought.
He'd parked Misty in the galley in front of a protein mush, his synth having sized up a meal for her.
Although famished, he had more of an appetite to get out of his soiled clothing and get cleaned up.
She licked the last off the spoon and glanced at him, her eyes taking in the fresh formalls.
"Your turn," he said, hiking his thumb toward the stall.
She half-frowned in that direction. "I've never been in one before. Does it hurt?"
He chuckled, shaking his head. "It's voice-operated, so if you scream, it'll shut itself off." He glanced around. Everything looked all right. "Did you touch anything?"
"Not a thing, just like you told me." She beamed at him. "The mush was terrible."
"You get used to it. In," he said, hiking the thumb.
He took her seat, the cube where he'd set it, after admonishing her not to touch it.
"It's not mine anymore, so I can't," she'd told him.
The galley was small, with barely room for two at the table. The seamless walls hid all the kitchen gadgets, but Jack needed just two: the synth and a spoon.
"Synth on," he said, and a whirring noise trundled out a bowl of mush. "My favorite."
He devoured it mindlessly, his gaze on the cube.
Two inches to a side, its edges slightly beveled, its sides completely reflective, the cube gazed back at him.
Belching, he pushed aside the empty bowl and put his hands on the cube.
The opulence stunned him, and the feel of the silk against his body felt like a mother's womb.
The two bulges at his breast bewildered him, as did the cavity between his legs. Mammaries and a vagina! he thought, looking around.
In his hand was a hairbrush. The marble columns framed a view of manicured palace grounds, topiary-tangled gardens, sprawling out-buildings.
He knew where he was, but not how he'd got here.
Or who he'd become.
Dismayed, he looked up from his ample breasts to see a servant approach.
"My Lady looks distressed, pardon my noticing," the handmaid said.
"What am I supposed to wear?" Her voice came from the shower, bringing him back to the ship.
He hadn't noticed she was finished. Ordering up a pair of small formalls, he took them from the sizer and thrust it into the showercube, his eyes on the kitchen, averted.
He stepped back to the table.
She emerged, clad in formalls, looking down at herself in evident distaste. "I'll need better clothes than this before I can be presented at the Palace."
He roared with laughter and the bewildered look on her face caused him to laugh all the harder.
"You shouldn't have laughed like that," she said a long time later.
"I'm sorry," Jack replied, kissing the top of her head. She was curled against him in the Pilot's chair, one of three places to sit aboard the Scavenger.