Tarl kept climbing. He was used to the added twenty percent of gravity on Sediment, even though it sometimes took a toll on his hamstrings later on. The treasure he sought was not only worth the trouble, but a lot more valuable than the time lost on a few days of leg recovery. Platinum, and lots of it from what he was told, was an element forged in the collision between two neutron stars. It was too rare in the galaxy to pass up, but then again, so was another life-bearing planet out past the 14 Cancri system.
One problem he faced was that Sediment was a beachhead whose habitable real estate was contested by an ancient machine culture the Terrans called sentries. Whoever controlled Sediment had a geopolitical advantage, and the sentries were a wedge in such a stake. As for Tarl, he never met any as far as he knew, thank God! But he heard they had the uncanny ability to camouflage themselves as any object by shapeshifting, which meant they were the kind of power he was up against if he had the fortuity of meeting one. It was also the reason the treasure map he was given was a physical sheet of spectra paper rather than a hackable file uploaded onto the Locus.
The mountains around him were uncharted territory, on foot at least, so searching for platinum in the hills would have been a group endeavor, but he was alone in his venture, a privateer, since he looked to establish his own empire while others jockeyed for position among the stars. Spectroscopic relay discovered veins of it all over the planet, but this particular strain Tarl was after was already minted and stored by an unknown prospector––bricks of it! And he coveted every bit of it for himself.
Scanning his horizon, he noticed a familiar land formation up ahead. He flared his brow in excitement. Checking his map, the crude illustration jotted next to the proverbial “X” matched the geography, and he hollered in triumph. After managing a path of stones across a small stream, something caught his eye he was not expecting. His jaw dropped. No one said anything about anyone living here. From the looks of the hovel, the stone and woodwork that went into its construction looked too skillful to have been cobbled together by some random hermit. Whoever it was, he was going to find out.
He climbed a rock formation that was fashioned into a stairwell; the lapidary incisions and flag stone were impressive in how they merged with their natural setting. At the top, he came upon a small but elaborate porch draped in planters, ornaments and decorative banderoles. The front door had a rope hanging from it. Peering over the sides of the house to see if anyone was around, he finally came back to the door and knocked.
“You’re supposed to pull the rope!” Someone from inside shouted after a pause. “That’s what it’s for.”
Tarl balked. Not only was he taken off guard, but whoever responded like that knew Pan-Stellar Standard, and with a condescending tone no less. With a shrug, he deigned the wishes of the resident and pulled the rope. The sound of a gong rattled him, and the door slowly creaked open. What stood before Tarl was someone too pristine of decorum to be taken as some disheveled recluse. He wore a long kasaya robe with a cleanly shaven pate, giving this gentleman a monastic look. Did he live amongst any kin or kith?
“Ah! A weary traveler!” he greeted with outstretched arms that dragged the sleeves every time he gesticulated. “Welcome to my lamasery!”
Tarl was at a loss for words.
“What’s the matter? Arietan Ganoosh got your tongue?”
“Um…” Tarl finally said, “please to meet you?”
“Come in! Come in!” The monk waved his hand toward the house interior.
Tarl felt some of the cramps already coming on as he waded inside. The walls were even more ornate, adorned with various cultural artworks and sculptures. The monk leaped on a dais flanked by a balustrade of posts at the far end of the room and sat into a lotus position. A small doorway above on the second floor must have led to the sleeping quarters.
“So, what is it you seek, inquisitive one?”
The scene was awkward. Tarl had no way to coherently respond, and he remained standing in place with a look of surprise. However, he was not too keen on wasting the man’s time by reluctantly holding his tongue, so he had to say something. “Gee, thanks…” Another pause. “I was just passing through, looking for––”
“Looking for what? The keys to the vehicle you lost?”
“What you’re holding is sort of a dead giveaway.”
Tarl looked at his hands, forgetting he had the map out all this time.
“Oh…well…I guess it’s pretty obvious now,” he stammered as he shoved the parchment back into his jacket. “I was guided to this very location as you can see here…” he said, holding out the map to the monk, hoping to convince him of his account. “But I didn’t…you know––”
“So, you didn’t expect the likes of me to be here instead.” It was more of an accusation than a question.
Feeling exposed and discomfited, Tarl darted his eyes from side to side as he spoke. “Well, there didn’t seem to be any indication that…uh…an error in judgment like this would come up.”
“Was there. How long had it been since that map was written? Have you checked the date?”
“Uh…I don’t know. I don’t think whoever created the map had a publication date in mind. I just got it from reliable sources––”
“Reliable? Reliable my you-know-what! The only thing that’s reliable are the two feet right in front of you. Do you ever have to think deeply in order to go for a walk? Of course not, but everyone goes through life looking for things on the other side of the universe when they don't even know what's in front of them. That’s how we lose touch with ourselves, our families, our society, because we’re never satisfied with what we already have.”
Tarl furrowed his brow. “I apologize, but not all current circumstances are always favorable––”
“So, they pine over abstractions and gratuitous irrelevancies rather than dealing with the tasks at hand. No wonder so few today have their lives together. There’s no greater treasure than the moment, I tell you!”
It was hard for Tarl to accept that his sojourn was done in vain, and that he would instead end up debating someone who spoke in parables.
“Okay, but I think it’s the moment in which I came here in error. I’ll let you be.”
He started to turn around and head out when the monk sprung from the dais and landed in front of him with his palms out. Tarl marveled at the acrobatics the monk displayed, despite his intrusiveness. That he could jump like a flea made him practically superhuman.
“Wait one second, far traveler! Why are you in a hurry? Oh, that’s it!” he said, swinging his arm down to snap his fingers. “It was the treasure, wasn’t it?”
“Is that a question?”
“Certainly, my friend!”
The monk snapped his palms out. “Say no more! Now, listen…” he leaped back onto the dais and returned to lotus, “I’m giving you a treasure that will prove more valuable than any intangible abstraction. The present!”
“The present?” Tarl gave a look of incredulity. “Shouldn’t we focus on future goals––”
“The present, my friend, is where all your answers will lie. Not the future, not the past. You'll get overwhelmed and stressed. You have to focus on what’s inside you in the very present!”
“I…I’m not sure if I’m following you.” He was growing frustrated with this peddler of platitudes.
“Oh, of course you don’t. Trust me. You’re not the only one stuck on empty possibilities and fickle monetary exchange––”
“Excuse me, sir, but what I seek not only has intrinsic value, but…” he paused, feeling he already said more than he should have.
“But economic stranglehold?” he finished with his own spin on the topic.
“What?” Was the monk on to his exploits?
“Oh, you know, everyone on this planet happens to be fighting over land and resources. That's all. Before you know it, we’ll all fulfill the Fermi Paradox as a result!” His sardonics were grating.
“Unfortunately, things have not turned out the way we inten––” Tarl began.
The monk threw his hands up in his typical manner of interrupting. “Say no more! I understand. Struggle is commonplace, and you must've been trudging through hell in order to obtain whatever treasure you've been seeking.”
“Alright, listen,” said Tarl with a dismissive shake of his head. “I don’t think we’ve ever met, yet out of nowhere, you overload a complete stranger with sage advice, and I deeply thank you for the kind words. I admire that in a man. However, everything you’ve been telling me seems to be impertinent and sounds like something you lifted from a fortune cookie.”
“Hold on,” he said, abruptly throwing his hands out again. Then in a flash, he leaped up from the dais and disappeared. Tarl looked around the room through all the bric-a-brac and other tchotchkes lying about but couldn’t find where the monk had landed.
“You mean this?” The voice shot directly behind Tarl, startling him into twitching his shoulders. He whipped around clutching his chest.
“Jeez! You scared me––” he was suddenly distracted with an object the monk held out to him. “What is that?”
“Another fortune cookie as you say.” He tilted his head to make it apparent to his guest. “You should know by now!”
Feeling like a scolded child, Tarl took the box, too cautious to open it. Instead, he kept staring at it while an uneasy feeling welled up inside him.
“Well, what are you waiting for? Santa Claus? Open it!” His snappy head movements and gesticulations made every time he opened his mouth became jarring after a while. Tarp understood such behavior was characteristic of shysters. What was he trying to con him into?
As he continued to eye the box, the thought occurred to him to shove it back into the hands of this veritable madman and vamoose. But his scruples spoke louder than his penchant for awareness and flipped the lid open.
He was practically knocked out of his socks.
“Well?” the monk demanded.
“These…this is all platinum?” he said in shock as he lifted one of the bars and examined it closely.
“What else would it be? Maybe fortune cook––” he waved his hand down, “Never mind. I’m beating that dead Pegasus too often.”
“But what? Isn’t that what you wanted?”
“How did you know…” He cut himself off.
It dawned on him that not only did this crazy hermit have prior knowledge of the platinum he was looking for but must have been in possession of vast repositories he handed out pell-mell. Whoever provided Tarl with the map must have done the same for others. Hopefully, they were all prospectors, he thought. Logically, it would not have been to the enemy's advantage to help out a human in this manner. But Tarl was only one man who did not have the backing of an entire federation. This, however, gave him a good start to break the competition. The monk must have been collecting the rare element from a mine somewhere unknown and tipping the balance of the war on Sediment in favor of the Terran Empire. There would be no other way to explain it.
Collecting his wits, Tarl refused to ask any more questions about the issue. Thanking his host, he stuffed the box in his pack and ventured back home. With his arms akimbo and head affectionately tilted to one side, the monk watched him recede over the first hill that would take him back through the mountains.
He nodded. “Mm. Nice fellow. A little zealous, but I suppose that’s natural…for humans at least.”
“Give it all away, why don’t you!” Someone protested behind the monk.
The veneer of one of the sculptures achromatized and melted down to the floor in a cascade of viscous fluid, reforming into a homunculus with multiple appendages. Several other transformations took place, their forms rising from the floor in dark grey pillars to join their comrade.
The monk turned around and tipped his head in acknowledgement. “Come on now. I didn’t wanna be too stingy on the guy. You saw what he went through to get here. I’d say he was pretty darn brave.” He bobbed his head on the beats of the last sentence.
“Sarcasm, brother. You’ve always had a knack for it.”
“Like I said, it’s all in the moment.”
“Cut me some slack. You didn’t believe in all that malarky you dumped on that human, did you?”
“Hey, I was being honest. It’s the best way to fight.”
“Uh-huh. Now, about the platinum. Why extend a limb to help these creatures who live by stabbing others in the back? How often did they break our mutual treaty just to swindle us out of our resources?”
“Have you studied their past? Do you see how often they double-cross one another?”
“And they certainly impose that philosophy on everyone else!” His limbs sagged in a revelation. “Wait a moment. You’re breaking their competition by breaking their unity. The more outliers they have who wield their own economic sword, the more they’ll grab at each other’s throats, hindering their monopoly!”
“But how do you know they won’t settle their differences and collaborate against us?”
“Because, my ornery brother, they were already engaged in fratricide when we arrived on the scene. The humans are too fickle even with themselves.”
“Even on a distant planet! Their habits follow them like a tail.”
“All the proof we need! We barely have to lift an appendage. All we have to do is beguile them a little and wham! We've got 'em where we wanted. By the way…”
The monk’s head split at the mouth until his form broke open as would a cocoon, revealing stores of platinum he was hiding inside his synthetic protoplasm.
“Don’t choke on the cargo!”
“Oh, quiet you. We’ve got a whole planet full of the stuff. Like I said, focus on what’s inside you!”