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Chapter 34: Excavating the Past

The aircar sailed through the night sky. Its engine hummed softly inside the cabin. Irsa watched the dashboard flash and dance like an electric parade. She recognized words like fuel and temperature but others meant nothing to her. "What do all those things mean?" she asked.

"The instruments show everything needed to safely arrive at destination," THX responded.

"What is that one?" Irsa pointed to 'elevation'.

"Distance to ground."

Irsa marveled at the number. It was very large. She asked THX about every detail of the ship's instruments. Becka squirmed beside her and tried to get comfortable despite having to share the seat.

Dawn approached. Irsa and Becka curiously watched the sky through the windshield. The horizon was larger than anything they had ever seen before. The Warden's environment decks were dozens of kilometers wide and much longer, but this place seemed to have no ceiling! Irsa wondered if plants could grow without lights or sprinklers.

A sliver of brilliant light appeared on the horizon. Irsa leaned forward to see what it was. She watched the sliver grow. It hurt her eyes to stare at it. It grew into a round, featureless disc. "What is that?"

"Rho1 Cancri A. Yellow-orange main sequence star, 0.95 times the mass of Sol, 1.1 times the diameter of Sol."

Becka looked down and saw only water. There was no land anywhere in sight. She sat back and tightly closed her eyes.

The journey lasted several more hours. They traveled quickly and saw nothing but ocean until a continent appeared before them. It rose gradually. Soon Irsa saw a range of mountains sheltering a broad, green valley. THX flew over the valley and slowly descended. Irsa could see there was a jungle below. "This is amazing Becka, you should see it!"

"I saw it," Becka responded from behind her hands.

The jungle was dense. Irsa couldn't see where the aircar was going to land until they were directly over the place. It was a deep hole, about two kilometers wide. There was an equally high hill just north of it. At the bottom of the hole, there was a small clearing with exposed, rectangular ruins. THX flew into one of the ruins and landed the aircar.

The cabin opened and Irsa got out. She was in a large room made of solid, black rock. Four other aircars were in the room, but nothing else. Becka climbed out behind Irsa and followed her through one of three doorways in the southern wall. They walked up a sloping hill until they stood in a large, muddy clearing. The sky was gray and cloudy. In front of them was a large hole with a partially exposed cube of black rock at the bottom. To their right was another pit with another cube of black rock. A trench exposing six, smaller cubes led away from it. South of their location they saw a large ship partially covered by dirt and vegetation.

THX walked up the slope behind them. A drop of water fell on the robot's transparent dome.

"Wowza!" Irsa said as she looked around. She moved closer to the black rock in front of them. "THX-1492, what is this black rock made of?"

THX accessed its memory banks and replied, "Basalt."

"It's a made thing, right?"


"Why is it in the shape of cubes?"

THX searched for the analysis done by the archeological robots but found nothing. "Analysis unknown. Cubes exposed shortly before my activation. My shutdown initiated soon after work began."

Irsa flapped her wings. Her feet lifted from the mud and she flew into the pit to her right. She saw curious patterns carved in relief around the top of the large cube. A portal opened into an inner room. Light streamed in through two other openings. She flew inside. The stone floor she landed on was clean and dry. More patterns ran along the interior walls. A strange script scrolled along the top. It was clearly a language, but unlike anything Irsa had ever seen before.

Meanwhile, half a world away on the lifeboat, Nike called the crew over the comm device. She told them the away team had reached the excavation. "Shooby Doobie," Bud said into the comm and headed for the bridge. He was still a little intoxicated but wide awake from the coffee.

Percy spilled his mostly cooled coffee all over his uniform. It was in desperate need of cleaning, what with the scorch marks from firefights on the Warden, his tromp as a wolfoid in the jungle dome, his trek in the sands of the planet, etc., etc. The movie was over and the audience was heading out. "What?!" he said, picking up his coffee mug, setting it on the counter and rushing after them. He followed Bud to the bridge where Nike watched THX's video feed from the excavation. Over the bridge's speakers, Percy heard THX speaking to Irsa.

"Are we recording this?" Percy asked and looked for the controls to do just that.

"Oh yeah," Nike replied. She crossed her arms in front of her chest.

Bud watched the video feed. He was shocked by what he saw. "Hey cap'n, how is it we can see live video from half a world away?"

"THX gave me a channel through a comm satellite," Nike explained.

Bud looked more confused than before. "Doesn't anyone think it odd that the locals are yokels but they have a global communication system?"

"I wonder if their global communication system also includes a global defense system that likes to shoot at dropships!" Percy attempted to connect dots he guessed were there. He raised an eyebrow at Nike.

"Yes, I find it very odd. I find many things about this entire situation odd, to tell you the truth, and I'm not sure that all the information we are receiving is correct." Nike stared at the video feed. Her face crinkled at the sides from thinking very hard. Her eyes were piercing and interrogative. Bud didn't have to be told she was skeptical. He could see it in her face. She didn't trust what she was seeing or hearing.

"Caleb, I need you in here," Nike said over the comm. "Chelydra, I need you as well."

"We're here," Chelydra said as he entered the bridge with Caleb.

Nike looked around and saw Drake wasn't on the bridge. Chelydra and Caleb gathered around her. "Drake is a security risk," she whispered. "Monitor him. Make sure he is not alone. He may be okay, but something about this whole 'demon' situation smells like bullshit. I want to make sure the bullshit doesn't explode all over this bird. We like our feathers clean and tidy. So your main job, gentlemen, is to make for damn sure that no other unannounced guests make their way onto this ship. Do what you have to to make that happen, and I want it done yesterday."

Caleb and Chelydra nodded. "I'll keep an eye on him," Caleb replied. "I'll secure the ship," Chelydra added.

Chelydra left the bridge. Caleb noticed Arkady was absent and sat at his station. The computer interface seemed familiar to him. He called up the ship's security files and familiarized himself with the layout of the ship. Cameras were installed in every room and corridor except in the quarters and restrooms. Caleb saw Chelydra as he headed down the corridor toward the gangplank. He flipped through the other cameras until he found Drake in the galley, stuffing his face with what was left of the food.

While he watched, Caleb searched for anything that might relate to Drake's identity or background. He searched the ship's rosters but found no record of anyone by that name. Instead, Caleb found a page of data on Caleb La Trans: Single, no relatives aboard, no next of kin listed, place of birth New York City, USA. There were multiple memory and genetic recordings listed between 2290 and 2337. Caleb's residential address on the Warden was listed as being somewhere on Level 9. As he sat and read his personal information, a host of memories flooded his mind... memories of friends, work, and the mutiny.

"Waitaminute," Percy said quickly, not giving the long drawn out version of his typical voila-tterance on account of his mind racing yet again. "Radio off," he said to be sure. Then, to Nike, he questioned, "Why'd none of us go to the excavation?" By us, of course, he meant those who had arrived via Pandora as opposed to escape pod or foot.

"None of my original crew went with them because they are expendable. You are not," Nike replied without a hint of apology.

Percy gulped audibly. "Well, there's something to be said for being hatched in the same clone class as the ranking officer on deck! But do we really trust the unearthing of this planet's secrets to the new guys?" Sure, Percy could trust Warden crewmembers, but there weren't any at the excavation site. Becka and Irsa had spent only a short time acquainting themselves with the 'original' crew and the mission.

The video feed had been silent for a while. Irsa spoke and the lifeboat crew turned their attention to the monitors.

Irsa looked thoughtfully at the hieroglyphs on the black stone. THX and Becka stood behind her. "So there used to be some kind of people here before all of us on the Warden got here. I wonder if they might be the demons someone mentioned earlier?" Irsa said, thinking aloud. "THX, are there more of these made things nearby?"

"Analysis complete." THX-1492 explained, "On the western edge of the trench are six cubes that are solid objects which have an 82.4% probability of being artificially constructed..."

THX-1492 paused uncharacteristically, shuddered slightly and made a buzzing noise. A narrative from long ago began:
"Here begins the personal journal dictated by Aralwith Pyr Jamar, captain of the Rescue Ship Alexandria, second in rank to Captain Lynn Margulis of the Warden."

May 3, 2336: The end of a long and disastrous journey has become the beginning of another, hopefully more successful expedition. The interstellar colony ship Warden's communication systems were destroyed and most of her crew and passengers were killed by radiation. We managed to take control of the Warden and three weeks ago finally arrived at her destination, 82 Eridani. Captain Lynn Margulis sent me as an ambassador to the settlement. I took with me lieutenant Ken Matahachi, astrogator Amrit Singh, engineer Mike Benalidino and doctor Marie Batiste. When we landed on the planet's surface, we were told the Warden was leaving orbit. Our welcoming ceremony quickly became a debriefing on the details of the Warden disaster. Over the next few days, the Warden's trajectory became clear. She was headed out of the Eridani system entirely. The fledgling settlements at Eridani were unprepared for such an unlikely event. They only had two ships in orbit. The Congress at New Alexandria decided to retrofit their colony ship, the Alexandria, as a rescue ship. The retrofitting took several weeks. 39 men and women from the settlement were hastily selected. Our mission is to secure the Warden and return her to Eridani. We will use an Earth calendar to track mission time.

May 5, 2336: The Alexandria has left orbit and is on course for the Warden. The Warden is still accelerating and probably will be for the duration of the chase, which I suspect will last several months. The Alexandria has been outfitted with a new reactor that will give the Warden a run for her money. We are...
The robot shuddered again and made a buzzing sound. Its metallic voice returned. "In the southeast corner is a large hollow cube. Its area is 99.2% of the area of the room in the large central cube. Density analysis indicates a 97.4% probability of a very large number of hidden structures buried below."

Back on the bridge, Nike said, "Bud, did you see that?" Her voice was tense. Bud nodded.

"Whoa," Percy added, slumping into his seat at the Post-It™ festooned console. The mention of Captain Margulis stirred something in his brain. He tried to remember, but he couldn't.

Irsa regarded THX-1492's odd recording of the ancient journal. "This just adds more mystery to the story of Warden," she thought. "THX, were you aware just now that you recited a journal entry from long ago? Are you okay?" she asked a bit timidly.

THX-1492's visual circuits locked onto Irsa with an expression that, if it had been human, would have given her the impression the robot had been seriously insulted. "All circuits nominal. No transmission or transplay of unauthorized recorded documentation possible with this unit. All programs functioning at optimal capacity. All electronic and computational resources prioritized to maximal efficiency towards successful conclusion of priority one programming as dictated by UWSC High Command authorities. Repetition for emphasis is warranted. Repeat: no transmission or transplay of unauthorized..."

...has been outfitted with a new reactor that will give the Warden a run for her money. We are gaining on her, but a stern chase is a long, tedious affair, especially in space. Everyone but Marie, Amrit and I are hibernating in cryochambers.

May 19, 2336: We've made up 5% of the distance between us and the Warden. I have ordered Marie and Amrit to go into hibernation. Their chambers are set to revive them upon reaching the Warden, remote command from Eridani or manual override.

May 23, 2336: The ship is as quiet as a tomb. There's not much work to be done. The ship is on autopilot. I've been listening to music to keep company, Gentle Giant mostly. Last night, as I lay awake trying to get to sleep, I started thinking about my parents' ranch on Warden Level 7. It was a peaceful place with horses, cows, chickens, pigs, peacocks... a veritable zoo!

June 6, 2336: We've made up 10% of the distance to the Warden. The Warden's course has not changed. We're coming Lynn. I'll see you soon.

July 18, 2336: 25% of the way to the Warden. There's still no change in course. The Alexandria is terribly...

"...of unauthorized recorded documentation possible with this unit. All programs functioning at optimal capacity. All electronic and computational resources prioritized to maximal efficiency towards successful conclusion of priority one programming as dictated by UWSC High Command authorities. This unit functions at 100% optimal capacity during active utilization time periods."

"Well okay, if you say so," Irsa said, not wanting to further upset THX-1492.

"Holy shit," Nike exclaimed from the bridge. "It just did it again." She was now convinced that something in those ruins was amiss.

Irsa whispered into her comm, "Every time he checks himself out, he repeats more of that journal. But he can't remember doing it, reciting I mean."

"THX," Nike said, "we have video confirmation that you are playing back a journal entry and yet unaware of it. Can you access the playback feed so that you can see it yourself?"

"Captain Nike, biological unit memory systems are only 23% accurate compared to robotic memory systems whose accuracy approaches 97.3% under normal working conditions given a 0.48% daily breakdown rate. It is likely since Captain Nike is not technologically trained in robotic disciplines, that she does not know this information. However your request will be honored. Accessing playback feed... Analyzing... Working conditions nominal. Wait... Unknown feed."

...The Alexandria is terribly lonely. I think I may go mad if I stay awake much longer. I will be entering hibernation in a few minutes. My cryochamber has the same awaken parameters as Marie and Amrit's.

September 6, 2555: I can't believe it. I've been asleep for 267 years! I was the first to awaken. I'm still recovering from hibernation. I've started the thawing process for Mike and Amrit. They will be awake soon. The logs report an error occurred when the ship's engines were throttled down on September 19th, 2336. The transmitter, remote computer access and the visual sensors were all damaged. The Alexandria has been flying blind ever since. We'd almost caught up with the Warden, but there's no visual record of her after the error. The Alexandria's lasercomm receiver still works. We've continued receiving narrowband, lasercomm transmissions from Eridani.

September 7, 2555: As if things weren't bad enough, the transmissions from Eridani included some terrible news. In a message the Alexandria received in 2342, Eridani reported asteroid movers had been dispatched from Earth to redirect a group of erratic asteroids. Earth lost radio contact with the movers before their mission was complete. "The first asteroid struck Buffalo, New York on April 17th, 2322. Communications with Earth were instantly disrupted. Tons of debris left the atmosphere, but rained back down to earth. Several other asteroids struck Luxembourg and Manchuria before dark clouds of soot and toxic chemicals obscured the surface. Nitrogen oxides thrown into the stratosphere wiped out the ozone layer. Carcinogens, radiation, acid rain and the complete blocking of the sun's rays caused widespread death and misery on the Earth's surface." Within a month, later transmissions explained, Mars too was struck by asteroids. Life on her surface had always been tenuous. The damage to her cities and orbital power plants caused the thorough collapse of the Martian settlements. Solar civilization withered in the absence of supplies. Refugee ships from Mars and the mining outposts returned to Earth. The last community survived until 2327 under martial law imposed by premier Toranaga. Their last message was a priority code Alpha-Omega: "Ensure the survival of the human race". Our mission to save the Warden is now more important than ever.

September 8, 2555: Mike has completed repairs on our visual sensors. We can now see we've safely reached a star system. Mike will have the rest of our damaged systems working soon. The damage was caused by...

"Analysis complete, Captain Nike. No unknown or unauthorized memories or playbacks detected by this unit. Perhaps Captain Nike's systems are in need of rest?"

"THX, you're absolutely right," Nike replied. "My systems need a good long rest and rehab. However, my tall metalloid friend, you did it again. Request the landing party make general surveillance for next ten minutes and then report back for diagnostic evaluation."

"Let's look around the site of those black rocks and see if the other robots found any bodies or skeletons of the builders of this place," Irsa suggested. She walked along the trench west of where THX and Becka stood. She walked between the dark stone cubes jutting out of the muddy soil. There were no bodies, skeletons or even statues. There were only the strange, incomprehensible patterns carved into the stone. Irsa walked back the way she came. "I wonder who made this place and why."

A warm tropical rain fell. Irsa looked up at the falling water. It seemed to come from the dark clouds above. Irsa remembered areas of the Warden where a picture of a dark cloud would sometimes form to let folks know the sprinklers were about to turn on. "So, dark clouds bring falling water," Irsa said to herself. She was pleased at having figured out part of the puzzle of how a planet worked. Realizing she was also getting wet, Irsa sought shelter in the central cube. She urged Becka and THX to join her.

THX-1492 followed Irsa into the cube to get out of the rain. Becka ran down the muddy slope with her umbrella held over her head. Once inside, she closed the umbrella and washed the mud from her shoes in the rain water that washed into their shelter. A steady stream was coming into the pit. The water was a few centimeters high over the stone floor and slowly rising. The rain struck the stone roof above them with a fast, rhythmic tattoo.

Irsa watched the rising water and realized they couldn't stay there much longer if the rain didn't quit soon. "Um, my mistake folks. We should seek the high ground instead. I don't like getting wet much, but I like getting stuck in this mud even less. Back up the ramp and be careful, THX and Becka." Irsa flew quickly up the ramp, leading the way. She mumbled to herself, "Drainage, I forgot about draining water always going down."

Nike's unease grew stronger. She had more questions than answers. Why was THX acting so strangely amid the ruins? Was something in those caverns altering his ability to function properly? If the 'demons' they had heard about could change their appearance to lure unsuspecting Rota, could the man who had shut down THX have really been a 'demon' trying to get THX out of the way? Off-comm she said, "Percy, can we do a long range scan of the elemental components of that cavern?"

"If we were in orbit we might, but not from here. They're 14,000 kilometers away!" Percy rubbed his eyes, yawned and continued watching the video feed. He was soon distracted by the idea of backtracing the signal to see if he could plot the satellites in orbit and find out something about them. He scrutinized his console. A Post-It™ on which he had written a casually remembered name suddenly sparked his developing neurons. "Waaaiitaminute!" he exclaimed, returning to his old habits. "I know what a 'packet sniffer' is for! Nike, what channel are we using to access that comm satellite?"

Nike showed him and Percy went to work. Less than a minute later, he leaned back in his chair and laughed, "You've got to be kidding me!"

"What is it?" Nike asked.

"The signals are sent with username 'admin' and password 'password'! It's a newbie mistake." Percy typed away at his computer. He opened a secure shell to the satellite channel address and tried the username and password. He held his breath and waited for the computer to respond. Several seconds passed before a prompt displayed on his terminal. He smiled and said, "Ladies and gentlemen, we have ourselves a satellite!"

"No way, really?" Bailey said.

"Really. Let's see what we have here." Percy checked the log files. The most recent entries were from THX-1492. They were routed through satellites MENSAT-1 through MENSAT-6. The only other transmissions in the log were from username Alexandria. They occurred at regular intervals on MENSAT-1 and were very small. Percy noticed the dates each Alexandria transmission had been sent. A recent transmission was dated '304.189 07:45:02'. The dates counted down to '304.001 01:00:06' then rolled back to '303.282 23:45:06'. He scrolled all the way back to the beginning of the log file and found the first number was in the high 290's. Before that, the log file contained a reboot notification but nothing else.

Percy copied all the files from the satellite to local storage. He locked them with a password he quickly thought of: "WhoWatchesWatcher".

Irsa flew south toward the overgrown, ancient dropship. THX-1492 stomped through the underbrush behind her. The dropship ahead was covered with plants and trees. It had merged with the cliff behind it, pushing the side of the ship facing them slightly upward. Vines and branches hung from its hull and wings. A cascade of water flowed off the top forming a thin sheet like a waterfall. Irsa flew beneath a broad branch that diverted the runoff and protected her from getting too wet. Beneath the shadow of the dropship, the ground was mostly dry. She landed on her feet and looked up at the vine covered gangplank that led into the dark underbelly of the ship. She turned to see THX standing behind her, but Becka wasn't there.

Becka still stood at the excavation, watching them. She clung to her umbrella and trembled. "Hurry up, Becka! It's dry here," Irsa shouted. Becka just shook her head. Irsa wondered what to do for a moment. "THX, stay here. I'll be right back." She flew into the rain toward Becka.

As she drew near, Irsa saw she was terrified. "What's wrong?" she asked.

"There's death in there."

"How do you know that?"

"I've seen this place before. I saw it in a dream, when I fell asleep on that ship in the sand."

"I understand," Irsa replied. "Will you wait for us in the aircar? We have to investigate that ship over there. It's the reason we came all this way."

Becka nodded and allowed Irsa to lead her to the underground carport. Irsa worried about the water that was pooling inside, but it wasn't any higher than it had been in the other cavern, maybe even a little less. "Besides," she said to herself, "these machines are tall enough." Becka climbed into the aircar and Irsa, convinced that Becka was safely out of sight, flew back into the rain toward the dropship.

Becka removed her mud soaked boots and put them on the floor of the otherwise clean aircar. Her jacket was drenched but clean. She removed it and laid it on the dashboard to dry. She realized she had left her book in the jacket's spacious pockets. She removed the book and was glad to see it was perfectly dry. She opened it and read the cover page. 'The' and 'Modern' were the only words she understood. She figured the book was about modern life on the Warden. The other words, 'Frankenstein' and 'Prometheus', meant nothing to her.

She turned the pages excitedly. The only other books she had ever seen were those the village elders possessed. She had never owned her own book before.

"St. Petersburgh, Dec. 11th, 17--," she read. Was Petersburgh a place on the Warden? She had never heard of it. Perhaps it was hidden or on one of the more distant Levels. "You will rejoice to hear that no disaster has accompanied the commencement of an enterprise which you have regarded with such evil forebodings," she happily continued reading as the rain fell on the stone roof above her.

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