The Museum of Terrestrial Archaeology was an oddity among the dark glass-and-steel skyscrapers and condominiums of Nerio, the capital city of Mars. Immediately recognizable by its turquoise and gold domes and set apart from the rest of bustling metropolis by a large park, it was one of the only green, contemplative spaces in a city otherwise devoted to running the vast, interconnected economy of the solar system. It was one of Lieutenant Padma Singh’s favorite places in the city, and she often stopped by on her days off to enjoy a stroll around the museum grounds or to enjoy a book in one of the museum’s many cafes.
Today, however, the effect of peace and reflection was shattered by the wailing of police sirens. Officers in dark blue uniforms scurried across the meticulously kept grass and pristine marble floors in a hurry, searching for clues to solve what the more sensational reporters were already calling the crime of the decade, if not the century.
“And then?” Padma prompted, hoping to bring the distraught curator’s wandering attention back to the topic at hand. One of the junior officers had just left a trail of muddy footprints across what she had been assured was a 22nd-century antique from Titan, the curator’s face turning paler and paler with every mud-encrusted step.
“And then,” the curator said, turning back to face Padma, “I followed the janitor back to the display case. I could hardly believe him, after all. The Senate itself doesn’t have the kind of quality security we employ at the museum. And the Rosetta Stone is one of our most valuable pieces – there are more layers of protection around that stone than the most banks. Did I tell you that it’s an artifact native to Earth itself?”
“Yes, you did,” Padma said, silently pleading for patience. This was about the fifth time the curator had mentioned that little detail. True, it was impressive; only one or two other museums in the entire system could claim to hold something from Earth in their collections. Still, it wasn’t helping her figure out who had stolen the damn thing.
“I didn’t believe him, as I said. I thought he must be having a laugh, get one over the new boss. But it was just as he said. It was gone! Not a thing out of place, nothing broken – just one of the most precious archaeological artifacts, gone! I’m ruined!” With that, the curator plunged his face into his hands and began to sob, great, heaving cries that made Padma embarrassed to watch. She called over one of the junior officers and asked him to find the poor man a blanket and some tea.
Padma turned off her recorder and clipped it back to her belt. The curator’s statement didn’t offer her anymore insight into the case than she already possessed, but it did corroborate other statements she’d gathered earlier. The story, as far as Padma knew so far, was that the cleaning staff checked out at closing time, confirming that everything in the museum was where it should be. The footage from the security cameras confirmed that much. But when the morning shift arrived, they found the Rosetta Stone missing, as if someone had walked in during the night, sailed past eight layers of the best security on the planet, lifted the display case, took the stone, replaced the case, and walked right back out the way they came. Ten hours of security footage was missing and all of the security bots had been disabled. A classic mystery.
“Any luck on your end?”
Padma turned and saw her new sergeant and second-in-command saunter up behind her. In the ten months she had known Detective Liza Meadows, Padma had never seen the woman simply walk; she either sauntered forward in a lazy, cocky stride or charged straight ahead. Meadows was also never without a grin, as if she were permanently laughing to a joke only she knew. But the Detective’s smile wasn’t something Padma should be thinking about while on duty.
“Not a damn thing.” Padma sighed and placed a hand on her hip. “For all we know, the 10,000-year-old hunk of rock just got up and walked away.”
“A hunk of rock that practically created the field of Egyptology,” Meadows said. “Have some respect for history.”
“Never took you to be a history buff, Detective.”
Meadows laughed, high and lyrical. “Minor in anthropology.” Then she grinned, a slow, dangerous one that slid across her face like a snake, contrasting her bright teeth against dark skin. “Turns out that beneath this sexy and highly available exterior beats the heart of a true scholar.”
“Duly noted, Meadows.” Padma turned away from Meadows to hide her own smile. “Let me know if any of that schooling gives you any insight into our mystery caper.”
“Not a clue, both literally and figuratively. As for motive…well, it’s one of the last artifacts to survive the war. Some people cough up billions for anything with a connection to Earth.” She paused a moment to think. “Or it could be a stunt. A ‘look-what-I-can-do’ sort of thing. Best sort of advertisement for thieves.”
“It’s certainly impressive, if a bit showy for a professional thief.”
“Sympathizing with the enemy, are we?”
“It’s not wrong to have respect for your opponent. Disrespect breeds arrogance, and arrogance leads to mistakes.”
“Where’d you find that little gem?”
“A book of quotes,” Padma admitted. “Still good to keep in mind.” Padma looked around the museum and the flurry of activity around them. They had been here for hours, and still nothing of real use had turned up. “Meadows, tell forensics to make one last sweep and then pack it up. We’ve found all we’re going to for now.”
“Yes, ma’am.” For all her sass, Padma had never witnessed Meadows disobey or question an order; however casually she took the rest of her life, Meadows took her job seriously.
“Lieutenant! Lieutenant, you have to see something!”
From behind, a young officer came running up to her, out of breath and red up to his earlobes.
“What is it? Take a breath.”
“N-no time, ma’am,” the officer gasped. “They need you in the back.”
Ten minutes later, Padma and Meadows had rushed through the “Employees Only” door and into the museum’s vast storage area, where hundreds of rows of artifacts rested into climate-controlled stasis. About five rows in, a group of officers formed a circle around something covered in a white sheet. Padma tasted bile the moment she saw it.
“What do we have?”
“A body, ma’am,” one of the officers said, confirming her worst fear. The officers parted to let through. In the center of their circle, a body laid awkwardly on its back. Dark stains blotched the sheet. Padma crouched, then gingerly lifted the sheet to see underneath.
“So much for it being a stunt,” Meadows said. Her good cheer had evaporated, and her usually warm face looked clammy and ashen.
Padma let go of the sheet, letting it drape itself over the head of the deceased to form a ghastly death mask, then stood up and faced Meadows. “Too bad. Now we need to figure out why anyone wanted that rock so much they were willing to kill for it.”