©2022 by Ted R. Blasingame
Chapter Twenty - Discovery
“Mr. Robeson, Your Honor.”
The cougar looked up with irritation from his tablet where he had been focused upon construction reports from each of the department heads. “Yes, Arion, what is it?”
“With the exception of twenty-four Global Positioning and Communication satellites, all materials and supplies are now on the surface, as are all living cargo and personnel. Dr. Colton’s submersible probe was delivered to Continent Five earlier this morning and is now in operation.”
“Well, that’s a good report,” Ken responded with a private nod. “Is there anything else that needs doing up there?”
“To deploy the satellites, I will need to take Arion-1 out of its current geosynchronous orbit, boost to a higher altitude, and then move to each location for optimum distribution.”
“Will we lose contact with you while you are doing this?”
“Yes, sir. Your authorization as the ship’s captain is required prior to the start of this operation, as this is the first time Arion-1 will be solely under my control without a human presence since this system became operational.”
“You have my trust, Arion. How long will you be out of contact?”
“Approximately thirty-nine hours, providing there are no issues with the equipment. I am currently orbiting at an altitude of two hundred seventy miles above the surface of Bellerophon. The satellites will need to be placed at an altitude of twelve thousand, seven hundred miles to properly cover the globe so that at least four satellites are in view at all times for optimum positioning. Once all are in place, any location on the planet can be pinpointed with precision and also have available cellular reception.”
“Are you expecting equipment issues?”
“I have powered up all twenty-four satellites and am currently running diagnostics on each of them to ascertain that none have suffered software glitches or system degradation due to time in storage since launch date. If any anomalies are detected, I can repair the issues before deployment.”
“Ah, I see. You have my authorization for this operation. Please send an alert to all devices announcing the blackout of communication and access to your information databases, so everyone will be aware your links will be unavailable. Once you have completed your task and have returned Arion-1 to geosynchronous orbit over the Tellus crater, please inform me even if I am on a sleep period.”
“Aye, sir. All directives acknowledged, to be implemented immediately.” There was an instantaneous message chirp on the cougar’s tech devices. Robeson looked over the message and approved of what the SI had sent out to everyone.
“Thank you, Arion. Boost as soon as you are ready and please announce your return when you are back in place.”
“Yes sir, Your Honor, sir.”
Ken heaved an audible sigh. He did not mind when someone called him by that title in an official capacity, but Arion knew he preferred to be informal when it was just he and the SI in discussion.
Who would have thought that an artificial, synthetic intelligence would tease him at every opportunity, in spite of commands to stop doing it?
Dana Barringer was all smiles as she flew over the tops of the high peaks of the crater rim mountains. As a shuttle truck pilot, she had been constantly flying material and personnel back and forth between the interstellar ship and the camp in the crater for several weeks. While she and the other pilots were good at their jobs, the trips to and from orbit had become tedious, but now that the task of unloading the vessel was over, she was now free to engage in actual exploration on the new planet.
Piloting one of the V-780 Bell tiltrotor aircraft, the lapin woman was accompanied by two others in Flitter-3 as they traveled to the south into regions previously unexplored by any of the other parties. There was no reason to believe this part of the surrounding rainforests would reveal anything different, but they would never know if they did not take a look, and now that they had an operational GPS network in place to keep track of their progress, there were fewer chances to get lost.
As with her and her small party, Dana’s husband Sean had also taken Flitter-4 out to the west. With luck, they would return that evening with some stories to tell one another over supper. Even if they did find something, it appeared that any traffic in and out of the crater would have to be made via air travel. None of the ground vehicles would be able to leave the crater due to the height of the rim and a deficit of any mountain passes. The crater was not old enough for the surrounding ridge rock to have weathered down for easy passage. The horizontal forest and the rainforest beyond the crater was so dense with vegetation that it would be near impossible for a vehicle to drive through without a cleared road of some kind. It could take generations to lay down an interstate highway in a major effort just to drive from one crater to the next closest one, should another town be developed there.
Today was a day of exploration for all of the pilots. As with the Barringers, Joe Kittinger had taken a team over the mountainous rim due north, and Henry Clifton was returning with his party to the marker beacon they had left behind at the small pass east through the rim. He could have chosen anyone from the entire camp to accompany him, but he had offered the chance to his original team with Ginger, Victoria and Dean. Chef Rocky had not wanted to let Victoria go this time since he needed her to help feed the masses, but Dr. Kate had volunteered to fill her place in the kitchen so that the vixen could go on this outing.
Their plans this time involved hiking through that passage as far as they could go, hoping to prove that even if a ground vehicle could not travel outside the crater, someone on foot or horseback just might. They did not bring horses for this venture, but would explore on foot.
They were prepared for the trek through the mountains taking time, so they had been allowed up to four days to see what they could see before they would need to return to Tellus. Henry was put in charge of the party since he was their transportation pilot, and they were all outfitted with tents and provisions, as well as arms for protection in case they ran into something that had an issue with their intrusion.
Having cleared the peaks, Flitter-2 descended not far from the stone wall toward the signal generated by the marker beacon.
“I have two items of interest for you.”
“I’m concentrating on not letting area winds blow us up against the mountains, but go ahead.”
“Item 1 – Although the global satellites were not yet in position the last time you were here, I recorded the position of the marker beacon based upon visual points provided by your team.”
“That’s good, right?”
“Under normal circumstances, that would be correct, but it appears that the marker has moved.”
The cheetah’s eyes darted from his instruments to the screen depicting the SI’s virtual face, and then back to his job at hand.
“Would you care to explain how the marker moved from where we left it?”
“I can only conjecture that an animal of some kind has carried it off. I am still receiving its signal, but it is reflected; the beacon appears to be farther inside the mountain pass you intended to explore today. It is no longer at the entrance where you were parked.”
“Hmm, that’s a heck of a note. Can you direct me back to the original parking spot without it?”
“I can, but that brings us to Item 2. I have detected trace amounts of processed metal alloy from orbit in two places and Mayor Robeson has asked me to postpone your current mission so that you may investigate the nearest of these.”
“Processed metal?” Henry slowed their descent to a hover, but they were still a distance from ground level.
“That is correct, Mr. Clifton. Coordinates have been transferred to onboard mapping.”
Now that the Flitter was stationary at a safe distance from the nearby rock walls, he pulled up the GPS map on his panel screen. Two blinking silver stars indicated the locations of the metal detections, and he raised an eyebrow when he recognized the general vicinities of both.
He leaned back and called over his shoulder to the others in the passenger compartment. “Please come up here, I have news.”
It took a moment for everyone to get out of their harnesses and gather at the door to the cockpit. “What’s up?” Dean asked.
“Our hiking trip has been postponed,” Henry began. “Arion has detected processed metal nearby and we’ve been directed to check it out.”
“Processed metal?” Ginger repeated. “Did we lose a part off the Flitter the last time we were here?”
The cheetah snickered at that. “No, our flyer was intact when we got back last time, and nothing was missing when I did my pre-flight check this morning. This is something else, and that’s not all.”
Dean frowned. “There’s more?”
Henry looked straight at Victoria. “There are two spots showing this metal, and the location that Arion has provided from orbit for the nearest is in the vicinity where we were looking for your dome.”
A wide vulpine grin crossed the vixen’s face and she laughed aloud. “I knew I’d seen something!”
“We were close when we were looking for it,” Henry clarified, “but just didn’t hit the right spot. With the GPS network in place, now we can go right to it.”
Dean returned to his seat without a word. The prospect of a possible alien construct bothered the Siberian husky.
“What are we waiting for?” Ginger said with delight. She darted back to her seat and strapped herself into the harness. Henry waited until everyone was secure and the women were chatting animatedly before he put the Flitter back into motion.
Processed metal! The implications of that were staggering and the mystery of the moving marker beacon was forgotten.
Once again, Victoria’s nose was pressed up against a window, looking out at the innumerous horizontal trees passing below. There were various forms of vegetation growing between them and there were occasional clearings where natural rocks or hills had deflected the fallen giants, but there was only one thing that her eyes sought; she hoped that she would be the first to spot it since she still remembered what she had seen before.
Despite her wishes, however, it was Ginger who saw it first from the other side of the compartment. “There is it!” the gray wolf exclaimed.
“Come show me,” Henry called back to her, slowing the aircraft. She unbuckled her harness and made her way forward to the pilot. The tiltrotor craft rotated around horizontally until the cheetah saw their objective, but he barely gave it a glance. It was the narrow confines of the space between the giant trees that he studied with a critical eye.
A moment later, they were hovering over the small clearing; with luck, it was just big enough for the Flitter to land in. If there had been the slightest breeze down near the ground, he might not have made it, but the cheetah dropped in straight down with barely a foot of clearance on all sides.
Before all systems were shut down on the aircraft, Victoria had already opened the door and scrambled to the ground. With clearances so tight, Henry had landed with the door facing a strange dome-shaped object. Although it was the color of greenish mud, it was a perfect half-circle sitting atop the ground, protected by a knoll of rock behind it.
One of the large fallen tree trunks lay partially atop it, providing a bit of a faux cavern beneath it. When all four furmen stood outside the Flitter, they could see that there were several other smaller domes beneath the horizontal trunks, but the destruction of the forest had all but demolished them. Only the one that Victoria had seen from the air seemed to be relatively intact.
The dome did not look like a building, as the vixen had first called it, and it certainly did not look like processed metal. If anything, it looked as if something had grown right out of the ground; it looked organic, almost like a mud bubble nearly twenty feet in height. It appeared to be solid and blended in with its surroundings. It was a wonder that she had seen it at all from the air in a moving aircraft.
Victoria reached out and placed a hand flat on its surface; the others watched quietly. “It’s cool, and feels like wet leaves,” she muttered. She leaned forward and sniffed closely at it. “Smells like wet leaves too.”
It had gotten quiet after the Flitter’s fans rotated to a stop, but an avian creature broke the silence with a shrill cry. The furmen were all tense from the mystery of the situation, and the cry made them all jump. There were several other answering calls from farther away, and soon the natural sounds of a warm summer morning began to fill the air; avians, insects and other critters went about their business while the transformed humans approached the bubble.
Dean mimicked Victoria and placed his hand flat on the surface of the dome, but then he wiped away a layer of leaves, dirt and dust that covered it. What had felt and smelled like leaves were indeed plants that had grown over the dome. Beneath the covering was a hard shell surface, although it was the same color as the vegetation that covered it.
The husky pressed his fingers into the shell, and although it was firm, it gave in as if made of some kind of rubber or vinyl. It, too, looked as if it was organic, that the leafy outer covering was only a layer.
“What is this stuff?” he murmured.
“Here’s a way inside!”
Everyone turned to look at Ginger as she brushed aside more of the leafy covering, revealing a dark opening that was partially obstructed by a panel.
Already equipped for the planned hike in through a rift in the mountains, the wolf pulled a flashlight torch from a vest pocket. It was of a type that did not require batteries to provide power, just a wind-up spring generator; it had been projected as practical in an environment where replacement batteries might be hard to come by.
“Careful…” Dean growled. “You don’t know what’s inside.”
The she-wolf glanced back at him, swishing her tail in agitation. “Rusty, I am careful,” she told her work-mate, “and you’re right, I don’t know what’s inside. That’s why I’m going inside!”
Dean bit back a retort and let the others go in after her. He was still hesitant to investigate something that might confirm the existence of an intelligence other than mankind. He was not actually afraid of a hypothetical intelligence, only that humans were notoriously unwilling to share land they had claimed as their own. Truth be told, he simply did not want to provoke a conflict between two species.
Lifting his techwatch to his lips, he spoke in a quiet voice, as if afraid he might disturb something besides birds or insects.
“Arion, this is Dean.”
“Yes, Mr. Ruston?”
“We have found what appears to be a constructed dome of organic material. We’ve found no processed metal yet, but we are about to investigate its insides with caution. It appears this is the building that Victoria previously reported seeing when we flew overhead.” He gave the SI a more detailed description of what they found while the others disappeared in through the opening. “I do not know if the communication signal will reach you once I go inside, but I will try to give you reports as I can.”
“Thank you, Mr. Ruston. Please exercise caution and safety.”
“Aye to that. Dean, out.”
There was an obstruction of some kind across the entrance, and he realized with a hard swallow that it was a door panel. While the dome could have been mistaken for an earthen bubble, there was no mistaking a flat plate that slide along a track in the floor, corresponding with another just above it. The height of the doorway, however, was much taller than a human, or even the enhanced height of any of the new anthro-humans. Were the original inhabitants taller, or did they possess some kind of horn or extrusion on top of their heads that would require a higher passage? The door was wedged tight, however, so he had to squeeze past it.
Inside the dome, four flashlights roamed around in wonder. There were platforms that might have been tables supported by a thick central pedestal, but anything that had once been upon them were now scattered upon the floor as detritus they had to step around. The flooring itself was a rubbery material similar to the dome’s exterior, slightly textured to provide traction.
The walls appeared to have been organically grown, but broken sections due to the cataclysm revealed internal metal supports; no doubt this was the origin of Arion’s processed metal alloy. There was also an abundance of a fibrous material that may have been some kind of electrical, optical or other type of wiring, although made of different materials than those used by the Terrans.
Henry crouched down and picked up something from the floor. To him, it looked like a technological device of some kind, yet it was also constructed with a blend of metal and organic compounds. The item he held was obviously broken, with more of the fibrous wiring partially exposed from its interior.
“Arion, we are inside the dome. Are you still reading us?”
“Yes, Mr. Clifton. Your signal is coming in strong and clear.”
“Very good. Please keep tabs on us. We will all make periodic reports of what we find.”
Victoria shined her light across the room. There was a type of shelving growing out of the walls, but as with the tables, all previous contents were now upon the floor. She knelt and sifted through the things at her feet, but most of it was unrecognizable. There were things that could have been tools, but were of such different designs that for all she knew, they could have been sports trophies, children’s toys or eating utensils. Some she picked up and sniffed at, but the scents were also unfamiliar – and old. These items had been here for some time.
So far, none of them had found anything that would identify who the original occupants had been or what they might have looked like, but one thing was certain and that was that humans were not the only intelligent beings in the universe. Humans had never been to this distant world before, so everything they saw had to have been made by non-human hands and technologies. Despite what might be interpreted as tables in the front room, there was nothing analogous to chairs, seats or beds. Even the forged metal tools they found did not indicate what kind of hand or limb might have once held them. There was very little actual color in the things they found; perhaps these people were color blind or just did not have similar aesthetics as the human race.
The interior of the dome had internal dividers as walls or partitions, each that looked as if they had been grown from right out of the floor and into the ceiling. On one wall of the first room were large, curious markings that looked as if they could have been a written language scrawled across the flat surface, but it was anybody’s guess what it could mean.
The vixen moved toward the nearest doorway and cautiously peered through the opening with her torch. She had been thrilled with every discovery they made, but she held a private fear that she might find alien remains deeper in the structure.
There was more of the same kind of detritus in the next room, but these items seemed to be more of a technological nature than what she had personally inspected on her own. Over near a wall were several items that were egg-shaped, all about the size an ostrich might lay. There was an indentation at one end with several coppery metal prongs in a triangle pattern, and along the outer perimeter was a row of circles that could have been diodes or indicators, but all were dark.
Victoria picked up one and immediately felt a small tingle where she touched it, and one of the diodes light up briefly. She carefully set it back on the ground and tried another one. It had the same effect on her, but the next one she picked up was cold and inert.
“Henry, can you come in here?” she called out, rubbing her fingers across the fur of her leg. “I’m in the next room.”
A moment later, the cheetah crouched beside her while the other two shined their lights on them from the doorway. The pilot picked up one of the technical eggs and Victoria saw his tail twitch.
“I can feel an electrical current!” he conveyed. He hefted it in one hand, as if estimating its weight, but the longer he held it, the stronger the tingling became. He placed it back on the ground with the others and looked up at his companions. “I could be completely wrong, but I would almost wager that’s a battery or capacitor of some kind, maybe to power some of their devices. It tingles when you hold it.”
When he looked again closely, there was a darker ring around the middle of the eggs that looked to be of a different type of organic material. Testing a hunch, he picked up one of the live ones, touching only that middle ring. He grinned and held it up. “It has an insulating band around it,” he explained. “There’s no electrical tingle when I hold it like this.”
“Did you find anything that had an end that might plug into that port?” Ginger asked, crouching down to look closer at the egg battery in the cheetah’s hand.
“I haven’t,” Dean replied, “but I wasn’t actually looking for it. Let’s look again.”
Victoria had already gotten up on to her feet and was prowling into the next room. With all of the stuff on the flooring, she could have examined everything better down on all fours, but the vixen still needed one hand to hold the flashlight torch; she would have needed an elastic strap to hold it to the side of her head.
When she turned the corner, the next room contained no tables or even shelves. The place was empty, save for a fine layer of dust and a few dried leaves on the flooring. She was only curious why this space was different for only a moment before moving on to a connecting room.
This area was different from all the rest. Organic technical devices in form-fitted receptacles adorned every wall from floor to high ceiling. Some of the spots were empty, and a few of the corresponding items lay broken on the flooring, but it appeared that some were missing altogether.
The vixen did not feel like calling out in a loud voice, so she lifted her techwatch and set it to connect only to those in her party. “Hey, you all need to see this. I’m in a back room filled with tech-toys.”
“Toys?” responded Henry’s voice.
“Their devices. There are walls full of them.”
It only took a moment for her companions to find her. Dean went to one of the walls and reached for one of the items. It appeared to be secured with a thin strap, but he was able to release it with a sideways click.
The organic device was roughly diamond-shaped, about eight inches long and four across. It was the same greenish-brown, mud color and texture as everything else within the dome. The husky shined his flashlight over it and found one of the three-pronged ports on its side.
“Somebody get me one of the eggs that still has a charge. I want to see if it will make this thing work.”
A moment later, Henry handed one to him, holding it only by the insulating band. Dean took it, examined the port and then mated the two items together with a satisfying click. A ring of lights illuminated around the perimeter of the egg and the diamond-shaped device emitted a low hum.
Looking closer at the unit, he found several depressions along one edge. Curiously, he pressed a finger into one and it gave slightly. Almost immediately, the device produced a series of sounds that were completely foreign to the furman explorers.
“What’s it doing?” Ginger asked.
Dean held up the alien device, but felt no vibrations coming from it. “It’s not doing anything other than making weird, random noises.”
“Maybe it’s a communication device of some kind,” Victoria guessed. “That almost sounds like words… a spoken language.”
“Yes, it does,” Henry remarked. “A voice recorder, perhaps. Maybe it’s for taking notes on their daily activities.” He held his techwatch to his lips. “Arion, are you hearing this?”
“Yes, Mr. Clifton. I have been monitoring your discussion.”
“Can you make heads or tails what this thing is saying?”
“The sounds do not match anything in any of my linguistic databases.”
Victoria listened to the sounds for another moment before she turned toward the wall. “Let’s try your battery on something else.” In a purely random selection, she grabbed a device strapped in high on the wall and offered it to the husky.
Dean touched the pad to turn off the vocal intonation and then unplugged the ostrich egg from it. He returned the diamond unit to its receptacle and took the new item the vixen handed him. This one was a cube four inches on a side. There did not seem to be any markings, lights or indentations to touch. All sides were smooth but for one spot to plug in the battery. As soon as he plugged the egg into its port, the cube vibrated hard for just a few seconds, but then became inert again.
“Mr. Clifton, what did you just do?” Arion asked.
It was Dean who answered. “I plugged the battery to another device. It shook in my hand and then just stopped. It didn’t make any sound or lights. Not sure what it was, but it didn’t do anything else.”
“My sensors detected a powerful signal burst from your location lasting 3.14 seconds. It was not recorded despite my quickest efforts to capture it. Can you repeat it?”
“I’ll try.” The husky unplugged the device, waited a few heartbeats, and then plugged it back in. There was no reaction this time. Even the indicator lights on the egg were dark.
“Nothing happened this time,” Dean reported. “Let me try another battery.” Henry disappeared into the other room and came back with another egg.
When he plugged in the second battery, the lights lit up weakly on the egg, but nothing happened with the cube. “No joy,” the husky reported. “It either burned itself out or it was only for a one-time use. I have no clue what it did.”
“Nor do I,” Arion replied. “You may continue your investigations, but when you return, please collect such items and bring them back with you. I am sure personnel in Tellus will want to examine them in greater detail.”
“We haven’t found anything like a recharger, so there’s no guarantee what’s left will have enough of a charge to play much with the devices,” Henry said. “We’ll bring back what we can.”
Ginger tilted her head. “It sounds like the daily rains have started, but we’re dry in here. Whatever this dome is made of, I see no sign of leaks despite that a tree fell on it.”
“There were other domes,” Victoria reminded them. “They looked demolished, but I may go take a look anyway. It’s possible this was an office and the other domes were their quarters, or homes.”
“Go ahead,” Dean replied, “but be cautious.”
The red fox unholstered the pistol she carried and held it so the barrel faced upward. Without a word, she stepped out through darkness.
“Due to the amount of damage around here,” Henry remarked, “our home crater is probably why this place has been deserted. The meteorite impacted the earth, formed the crater, pushed up the mountains and the shock wave knocked the surrounding rainforest on its tail. There’s what appears to be a granite knoll on the lee side, and it’s probably the only thing that saved this dome.”
“Have you found any sign of the former inhabitants?” Arion asked.
“Nothing,” Ginger answered. “No pictures, nor even furniture to know what shape or kind of seats their butts needed to sit in. There are only tables and wall shelves. Even the hand tools don’t tell us what kind of hands they might have had.”
“The ceiling and doorways are high, so they may have been taller than we are,” Dean added.
“We’ve found no bodies,” Henry said, “but there’s no telling how long ago this happened. Scavengers could have dragged away any who may have died from the impact.”
“Investigations into the rock, soil fertility, fallout ash and vegetation in the crater seems to indicate the meteorite may have impacted approximately twenty years ago,” Arion reported. “Lander rovers in the other craters on the continent corroborate this conjecture. The lack of bodies may mean that either they died in the other domes that were demolished, or they could have left the planet entirely before or after the destruction of their outpost.”
Henry nodded. “Here’s another thought. If they were away from this location at the time of the impact, it could also mean that they might have had to abandon this spot and relocate to another part of the globe.”
Dean looked troubled. “Are you saying it’s possible they’re still here somewhere?”
“That is a likely scenario.”
“Not only that,” Ginger added, “but before the meteorite hit, this spot was deep inside the rainforest. What if this was just a home or office out in the country? There may be a whole civilization hidden under the canopy elsewhere on this continent.”
“Arion did detect a second source of processed metal.”
“That second source is located deep inside the pit where Mr. Clifton left behind a marker beacon,” the synthetic intelligence reported, “but the strength of that detection is much smaller and weaker.”
“I really hope that isn’t the entrance to an underground civilization,” Dean said with undisguised dread. “Just by moving in and building our town here could start an interstellar incident.”
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