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Chapter 36: Up the Downed Staircase

The ship's incline made the stairs uneven. Irsa held the handrail to keep her balance. Small, circular windows in the corridor above dimly lit the way. THX flashed its spotlights down the long, dark corridor to their left. Irsa saw a distant, open doorway and a tangle of roots at the end. She turned toward the windows. They lined the north wall of the corridor. She looked out and saw tree branches, strands of ivy and the excavation below. An empty nest of twigs and feathers sat on the other side of the glass. The only features on the wall behind her were two closed doors.

"Hey, back on the main ship," Irsa said, "THX and I are on the second level of this ship. We're going to check out the first door on the left side of the right corridor."

The nearest door had no passcard reader or writing on it. It was similar to doors on the Warden that opened when something passed in front of them. Irsa waved her hand. The door made no sound or motion. Irsa pushed on the duralloy door but it wouldn't budge a millimeter. She looked for a doorknob but there wasn't one. She pounded on the door a few times and listened. She heard a faint scuttling then silence.

Irsa walked down the hallway past the windows to the far door. It was identical to the last one: no passcard reader, no doorknob and no power. It resisted her efforts to push it open. THX tried its superhuman strength on the doors but they would not budge.

They turned the corner and saw another long hallway sloping into darkness. Three open doorways lined the wall to the right. The floor at the end of the corridor was sprawling with roots. "How long have we been exploring this ship so far, THX?"

THX computed the time interval of ship exploration. "42 minutes since we entered dropship," it replied.

Irsa turned the corner and headed for the first door. She looked in and saw hooks on the wall. Suits, helmets and boots hung from them. On the far side of the room, two open doors revealed small chambers with circular doors at the other end.

Irsa entered the room and collected a suit and helmet. Neither looked like they would fit her comfortably, but she thought they might be important. She tried packing them away. The helmet fit in her backpack, just barely, but the suit was too bulky. She held it up, examining the complex system of tubes and wires. She carefully set it aside and tried on a pair of boots. They were too large for her feet, but they were better than going around barefoot, as she had been. She pulled the plastik fasteners as tightly as they would go. Her toes wiggled around a bit, but perhaps she could find a pair of socks to make them snugger. She picked up the suit and went to check out the two small chambers.

Each chamber was identical. Each door had a wheel-like handle. There was a small computer interface on the wall beside each door. Their small, glass monitors were smashed beyond repair.

Irsa tried turning one of the handles. It rattled as if it wanted to move, but nothing happened. Thinking THX-1492 was likely stronger than her, Irsa asked the robot, "Could you try to open this door?"

"Irsa, the probabilities are 87% that this unit can open this door." THX-1492 extended its manipulating grapples. Just as it was about to exert its superhuman strength...
September 21, 2555: There are several constructions on the moon's surface. They were clearly made by intelligent life! Many of them are large buildings, very large. They might be hardened against more than just cosmic bombardment. Long, wide corridors connect several of them. Craters have destroyed some buildings; ejecta obscure others. Mike thinks they've been long abandoned. I am inclined to agree. We're transmitting images and data back to Eridani.

September 22, 2555: We're orbiting the moon's farside. Amrit has deployed telescopes to scan the moon's surface in greater detail. Mike is deploying a fleet of orbital probes to continue the search for the Warden. At present, the farside is completely lit by the sun.

September 27, 2555: The farside of the moon has only a few of the features we observed on our approach. The orbital probes are arrayed and Mike has linked them to a relay network so we can access them from the other side of the moon. We're setting a course for the nearside.

September 28, 2555: We watched the planet rise over the surface of the moon from the cockpit this morning. Besides brief telescopic images taken during our descent to lunar orbit, this was our first real sighting. The planet seems cold and barren. The poles are white with enormous glaciers. Only hints of color peer through the clouds around the equator.

September 29, 2555: We're in orbit around the moon's nearside. Only half of the moon's surface is lit by the sun. It's waxing toward full. Mike is preparing another fleet of probes. Amrit is making observations of several structures on the moon's surface.

October 3, 2555: I've thawed Ken and Marie. They were naturally shocked by our location and the fate of the Solar system. We all are. The daily discoveries Amrit has been making are keeping our minds from our troubles. We are preparing a dropship to explore the lunar surface.
"Whoa!" Percy said at THX's latest revelations. He made sure the recorder was still on. He looked up at the Hercules dropship map and said into the live, full-duplex radio connection, "Guys, that room you're in is labeled 'entrance' on the Hercules map. Those must be airlocks." Muting the comm for a moment, Percy added, "I guess we should stop bringing up the fact that THX keeps recounting the logs? Don't want to give the robot a complex or anything."

THX returned from its journal entry and grasped the wheel on the door. If the robot had heard Percy's warning, it did not acknowledge it. The wheel creaked and strained, as metal sometimes does when it sits idle for centuries. The wheel turned slowly at first, then faster as THX spun it. With the heavy clanking of sprung steel, the door suddenly opened outward.

Beyond the door they had a view of the excavation. The floor dropped away from the doorway's edge at a steep angle. The ground was 20 meters below their feet. "Another way out," Irsa said, "for me anyway." She flew out the open doorway. "It feels good to stretch my wings a bit."

Irsa flew around the nose of the dropship. It was below her and to the left. Most of the southern side of the ship, the side facing away from the excavation, was covered by an overgrown landslide. A large tree stood in the landslide just above the ship. An even larger tree faced the nose of the ship. Both sheltered the dropship in the shade of their giant leaves. Their enormous roots ran along the surface. Irsa returned to THX and landed in the old airlock. "About what I thought happened," she said, "partly buried in dirt and a giant tree growing next to and into the ship. Let's continue our explorations."

They continued down the hall and entered the next open doorway. The room was pitch black. In THX's spotlights, they saw a tangle of broken pipes and thin, collapsed walls. Irsa got a little closer and saw broken fragments of mirror, tile, masonry and porcelain. She looked carefully through the debris in search of valuables and found several nice sized pieces of mirror. She admired her green feathers in them, but the fragments were too sharp and jagged to be useful or safe. She kept looking and found a strangely shaped plastik device. It was half a meter tall, white, perfectly flat and shaped like the capital letter "U". It had once been connected to something at the bottom of the "U", but its hinges were broken. THX-1492 asked Irsa what she held. She showed it to THX and giggled. "We found where the humans on this ship got rid of their bodily wastes."

"Biological organisms are inherently inefficient," the robot replied. "Mechanisms are far more efficient."

Irsa put the toilet seat down and left the room. She drew her weapons in case something was dumb enough to stalk her and headed to the last door along the corridor. The room inside was filled with rows of medium-sized bins separated by thin, sturdy partitions. She stepped inside and searched the bins. She found several short straps at the bottom, but otherwise they were empty.

Irsa exited the room and came to the end of the hallway. She poked her head around the corner and gazed into the corridor beyond. It was choked by heavy roots that had grown in through the windows. The roots were swollen inside. They had been unable to break the duralloy and ballooned into grotesque figures. Pools of water formed on the floor in pockets between the roots. The roots left only a narrow, twisting passage that Irsa could squeeze through, but not THX. Just around the corner, however, there was an open doorway. THX's lamp couldn't illuminate the chamber without climbing over the roots, but Irsa could see a row of chairs fastened to the deck in the dim light.

Irsa stepped into the room and her footsteps echoed. The room was enormous. Slowly her eyes adapted to the dark. She saw dozens of rows of chairs facing her. The ceiling and the wall to her left were burned and damaged. She returned to THX-1492, took her knife and cut a dead piece of root hanging from the ceiling. She used the flint in her backpack to get it burning. She told THX to check out the room while she climbed through the root-encrusted corridor. THX acknowledged her command and Irsa climbed into the roots.

The robot stepped over the roots, stooped through the doorway and entered the room. It shone its lights around. Percy said over the comm, "That room is listed as 'Passenger Compartment'. It seems likely to me that if there were any crew that survived for any amount of time, we might find evidence of them there." THX looked around with its cameras and walked through the room. Firearms had damaged the LCD monitors on the front wall and ceiling. The rows of chairs were intact but badly worn. Some were slashed. Most looked like they'd been lived in or chewed on by something furry.

By flickering torchlight, Irsa made her way through the narrow passage outside. She noticed the roots had not penetrated all the circular windows along the corridor. Through some windows she saw dirt and small burrows. Brown fur lined the walls. She climbed over more roots and soon saw another doorway at the end of the hall. She moved toward the doorway but saw movement from the corner of her eye. A small, furry, four-legged creature with two horns stood on the root beside her. It was poised to jump into a nearby window. The window was missing and dirt had spilled onto the roots from it. The creature noticed Irsa and froze.

Irsa decided to offer it some food. She removed some seeds and dried fruit from the food pouch in her right cheek and put it on the ground below the open window. She stood back and waited. The small creature remained perfectly still for a moment, then sniffed the air. It cautiously approached Irsa's offering. It touched it with its nose, sampling the aroma. It bit off a piece of fruit and stared at Irsa while it chewed contentedly. Irsa nodded and entered the doorway.

THX stood inside. Irsa gazed around at the damage illuminated by THX's spotlights and her torch. The room was obviously a warren for hundreds of small creatures. "There's a sorta rabbit out in the hall. Looks like they've been using this room as expanded living space," Irsa told THX thoughtfully. "I'll take a quick look around for loot."

"What will be the status of the Leporidae creature, ingestion or companionship?" THX asked Irsa as she wandered into the room and searched the seats.

...clumb.......... ......butxk. ......... .......shudder. ......... ..
October 5, 2555: The chosen site is one of those we initially thought was the Warden from a distance. We can now see it was once a large community. The area is punctuated by craters that have ruined some structures. Some of the craters are themselves cratered. Amrit is analyzing the crater patterns to determine their age. He thinks these structures were abandoned millions of years ago. Mike is preparing seismic probes to place on the lunar surface to get a better estimate.

October 6, 2555: Amrit and I have landed on the moon. The sun is directly overhead in the middle of a lunar day that lasts about 30 Earth days, very much like the moon we are familiar with. It comforts me to think the celestial dance may be universal. We immediately set up the seismic probes and a mining device to extract minerals from the lunar soil then set off to explore. We easily entered several buildings opened by meteor damage. We discovered metal devices mounted to the walls. Several empty niches may have once held other devices. The robots detached a few to take back to the Alexandria. We explored further into the ruins through open doorways that were roughly human shaped. Some were rectangular; others were circular or nearly so. We discovered a warren of rooms filled with very little debris, some empty containers of unusual shapes and empty shelves. We also found several flat but low constructions that we've called furniture, although they're too low for normal human use. They are usually constructed of metal, but we found some wood and fabric. These pieces were remarkably well preserved in the vacuum of space. Even more amazing were the numerous, white sculptures we found in nearly every room. They look like ceramic trees. They are bent into various shapes but all look strikingly similar. The smallest one was about 50 centimeters tall. The largest was over two meters. Amrit and I think they were objet d'art but Ken thinks they were security devices. Mike thinks they may have been used as lamps but no power source can be found. We tried to bend a few of their branches but they were brittle and broke off. Inside there were long strands of white fibers. The robots have stowed many of these artifacts in the dropship.

October 7, 2555: We found a corridor with a metal wall and detected a large empty space beyond it. The robots cut through the wall but there was an atmosphere beyond. As soon as they punctured the wall, the door blew into pieces. The air blew out with gale force. Amrit and I hid in a nearby room so we were not injured in the melee that followed. The wind blew the room's contents into the corridor. They smashed into the walls and each other and shattered into hundreds of sharp fragments. One of the robots was completely destroyed and a few others were damaged. After the space beyond the wall depressurized, we ordered the robots back to the dropship with the remains of their fallen comrades. We're exploring the space beyond the metal wall right now. There is a hole torn in it large enough for us to step through. There's a large, long corridor on the other side. Rails made of ceramic run along the ceiling. On the walls there are giant murals. The murals are gouged in places, possibly by debris blown through the rupture. The colors are badly faded. Portions are bubbled into a red mud. However, enough remains to see humanoids in the murals. It's impossible to see what their faces look like. Some seem to be dressed in black costumes and look like they are slaughtering other humanoids that resemble children and old men. I pity them. In my imagination, I hear their long dead voices crying to be remembered.
"Whoa!" Percy said again. He shared a grim look with Nike.

Irsa continued her search. The far corners smelled of urine. Dirt and small pellets covered the floor. Among the rows of gnawed chairs, she spotted a piece of paper in a back pocket. She opened the pocket and removed an ancient pamphlet. It was in remarkably good condition. On the cover was a painting of a city with tall towers surrounded by green gardens. The largest building was an enormous hemisphere with green terraces on one side and a mirror-like, C-shaped surface on the other. Inside she saw photographs of the same city. The heading said, "Welcome to New Alexandria, capital of a whole new world!" ......... ......... ......... ..

"Irsa," THX said in its own voice, "in this unit's memory banks are several edible concoctions called recipes which use flesh from such creatures, especially from the country once known as France. If you wish, this unit can transfer this information for downloading and hardcopy printing."

Irsa gave THX a look of extreme distaste. "I am a hamster. Mutant yes, but still a hamster. We are herbivores. That means we do not eat meat."

"Database updated," THX responded.

Irsa carefully placed the pamphlet in an outer pocket of her backpack and hurried past THX. She checked outside the room for the rabbit-like creature. She wondered if she could befriend it and keep it as a pet. The food she had left for it was gone. Other rabbits were there. They sat in the broken window and crouched in the hallway. The rabbit Irsa had fed approached her but froze when it spotted THX. It made a faint noise and the other rabbits fled. Irsa's rabbit lingered at the edge of the window. It looked back at Irsa.

"Don't worry little one. The metal one won't hurt you. Would you like some more food?" THX remained in the passenger cabin. The creature sniffed the food Irsa offered. It ate from her paw and calmly looked up at Irsa as she gently stroked its back. It showed no fear of her. The creature affectionately licked the downy feathers on the back of Irsa's paw.

"Awwww, can we keep him, please? Please," Percy said sleepily and softly. He felt the atmosphere on the bridge was devolving into a somnolence befitting a movie of the kind he'd experienced not too long ago in the recreation room. He felt there was something else they could or should be doing instead of watching the remote exploration. "Cap, what's our long term plan? Not that I'm getting an itchy save-the-Warden finger or anything, at least not more so than before. Maybe this is the part of the episode where we skip ahead two hours for the next exciting plot point. Waaaaiiitaminute, that's it!" Percy sped up as he got more excited about his esoteric revelation. "Ever wonder what happens during the time in between, before it says 'two hours later'? That's where we are! We're in that off-screen time where no one ever knows what happens! Does that mean nothing is going to happen? Maybe we should make something happen!"

Nike thought for a moment, considering Percy's words. "Want to make something happen, Mister Jenkins?" Nike paused for effect without taking her gaze from the viewscreen. "Go make me some coffee!"

Percy's face fell from exuberance to a smirk with a sigh. "Well, let me know if anything happens out there, anyway," he said. Percy left the bridge and took a stroll to the mess hall. There he found Drake feeding his face. "Hello," Percy said. "Hey, are you eating the last of the food, you doofus?"

"No," Drake replied. "Not yet."

Back on the bridge, Nike fought back a yawn and said, "Amanda, please monitor Percy's station. Make sure the transmission, recording and other systems stay online."

Amanda, glad to be of assistance to Nike, took Percy's place and monitored the transmissions. Everyone on the bridge watched THX's video feed on the big monitor. Irsa stroked the creature once more and said, "I have to leave now. You and your family and friends take care. Come THX, let's move on to the next area to explore."

THX entered the corridor. It stepped over the roots to pet the rabbit-like creatures as Irsa had done. They immediately ran and hid deep in their burrow. The robot followed Irsa around the corner to an open doorway and looked in. THX waved its spotlights around the room and Irsa held her torch aloft. The room was long, narrow and filled with oversized bins, all of them empty. At the north end of the room, a large cage with a door held an empty elevator shaft.

Irsa looked around the room. "Well THX, I guess we're finished exploring this ship. Time to leave." She headed for the stairs. THX followed her. As the robot descended, it buzzed...
October 8, 2555: We're on our way back to the Alexandria. We're bringing a full load of calcium, aluminum and iron oxide.

October 9, 2555: We found words written on several walls and doors on the moon. We transmitted the images we took to Eridani but there are no linguistic analysis programs in the ship's computers and no crewmembers with skills in linguistics onboard. We're on our own for translations. I wonder what the reaction will be on Eridani when they see these pictures. They won't get the data for another 52 years. Whatever response they send won't reach us for at least 104 years. If we can't find the Warden, maybe we'll hibernate and wait for their response. [laughter] No one's really said much about the Warden lately. It's a good thing, too. Mike has completed the nearside probe array and linked it to the relay from the farside, but none of the probes have found any sign of the Warden or any alien intelligence.

October 11, 2555: Mike, Marie and Ken have taken a dropship. They landed on the other side of the site we explored. They set up the miner, stopped by the war mural and journeyed to the center of the complex. They found an enormous pit. Ken said it was like standing at the Crack of Doom. The pit was perfectly round and lined with ceramic. It was too deep to see the bottom. The pit was covered with an equally enormous frame. It was collapsed over the top of the pit like a haphazard grate. Perhaps the frame had once housed a winch or protected the pit from the sun's rays. The team attached a winch to the frame and lowered a probe 500 meters down. At that depth, the bottom was still not visible. The sides of the pit were uniformly constructed of the ceramic material. There were no openings at all.

October 13, 2555: The team is back on the Alexandria. Amrit and I have returned to the moon with longer cables. We labored for hours before finally reaching the bottom: 3200 meters. Our probe sent back pictures of a large piece of machinery fitted into the bottom. It was partly covered by debris.

October 14, 2555: Mike has examined the ceramic and metal devices. The ceramics are a little pliant, unlike real ceramics, but under too much stress they break. Inside the metal casings we retrieved, there are multiple layers of a flexible material composed of petroleum-based polymers. The layers are connected by the same white fibers inside the ceramic trees. Mike said the polymers smelled like mold. I've quarantined him in his lab until we know the mold is dangerous or not.

October 16, 2555: Robots have been hauling debris from the pit for two days. The machinery at the bottom has been uncovered but the mystery remains. It has no obvious purpose, no exposed electronics, no input or output. Ken, watching from the Alexandria, suggested it wasn't machinery at all but something purposefully buried there, perhaps radioactive waste. Ken is alone in that opinion. It begs the question why the pit was left exposed and why was it so central to such a large installation?

October 17, 2555: Marie has given Mike a clean bill of health. The polymers found in the alien devices did contain mold, but they were dead and possessed no latent spores. Just to be safe, I've given Mike orders to open all alien devices in a controlled environment and have them tested for biotics before further testing.

October 18, 2555: Mike, Marie and Ken have returned to the moon to explore a different site. They've landed in a tightly knit gathering of buildings nestled inside a small crater. Marie has given it the name Wart City because of the way it looks. There's very little damage there. They had to cut their way into the buildings, but we've learned from our mistakes. A robot carefully sealed a portion of the door, punctured it and slowly released the air. Once inside, they found numerous small suites that looked like apartments. There were very few artifacts. All the buildings we've explored seem to have been abandoned in an orderly fashion. The occupants took whatever they could carry or thought valuable.

October 19, 2555: Near the center of Wart City, the team found another mural. This one depicted a large forest scene. It's a remarkable find! The plants and animals in the forest are wildly exotic, unlike anything known on Earth! Marie said she felt like she was staring into a prehistoric moment captured for eternity.

October 21, 2555: The sun is on the opposite side of the moon today, leaving its nearside in total darkness. The robots are all equipped with floodlights. For the next several days we won't need the extra layers of radiation gear.

October 24, 2555: Amrit and I explored a site that seems to have been a radio telescope or a transmitter of some kind. At the bottom of an artificial crater we found the nearly complete remains of a parabolic dish. We found dozens of unique polymer devices and brought them back to the Alexandria.

October 28, 2555: Mike, Marie and Ken have discovered another large room with murals. Three long walls depict an earthlike savannah with exotic animals playing beneath exotic trees. None of the animals seem hostile or even wild. Ken has nicknamed it the 'Nursery'. Nearby they found a long hallway painted as if it were underwater. Aquatic life swam or fed off the bottom. Some of the sea creatures are remarkably similar to plesiosaurs or trilobites. One large sea creature looked identical to a modern shark. Only the tail was strikingly different. The plant life growing on the ocean floor looked more alien than anything I've seen yet. A multitude of sizes and shapes floated in the water, some secured to the ocean floor by long tendrils.

October 30, 2555: I've told the crew I want to take the ship to the planet. Our supply of minerals for the matter compiler is running low. We've extracted a good deal of metals, oxygen and helium from the lunar surface, but only trace amounts of carbon. If there's anything edible on the planet, it'll be nice to have a change of diet. We'll stay for a few more days then leave orbit.

October 31, 2555: Just over half of the moon's nearside was lit by the sun today. Amrit chose a landing site that was still in shadow. It was a small site, a few structures at the bottom of a crater. Only a single building was large enough for a human to enter. A thick metal bulkhead barred the way. The robots cut it open but the space inside contained no air. Inside was a narrow chamber with stairs that descended several flights. At the bottom, we found several small rooms and a large rotunda. A round table with strands of white fiber and blocks of ceramic attached to it occupied the middle of the rotunda. A dark crystal was set into the center of the dome. The walls were painted with a mural. This one was spectacularly well preserved. It depicted two clashing armies. Fantastic, black airships rained fire on cities. Beneath the cities, humanoids sat peacefully in fortified bunkers. Despite being well preserved, their faces are strangely featureless except for a ridge on either side.
...THX's buzzing stopped.

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