Read Asimov's SF, January 2012 Online

Authors: Dell Magazine Authors

Asimov's SF, January 2012 (9 page)

"We have a series of missions, Dr. Abel,” she said. “Have to pull out today."

"I'm sorry to hear it. Anyhow, my name's Ted. We'd hoped you'd be able to spend some time with us.” He was tall, younger than his pictures had suggested. He had black hair, dark skin, dark eyes, and the easy manner of a guy who usually got his way. “Why don't you let us serve you some breakfast before we start unloading?"

They left their gear in the blockhouse, descended a staircase, and started down a dimly lit corridor, past closed doors on both sides. “As you can see, Michael,” he said, addressing Eddington, “we're still living the good life here."

Eddington reached out and touched the wall. “Yes,” he said. “Enjoy it while you can. Seriously, Ted, you know the Academy is closing the operation down. I don't think they feel there's much more to be gained out here."

"That's what we heard. But I don't think it's going to happen."

Eddington slowed down. “Why not, Ted?"

Ollie glanced across at Hutch. She got the significance: This was the surprise he'd mentioned.

"Let's eat first. Then I have something to show you."

* * * *

Hutch had pancakes and strawberries. She got introductions to everyone at the Complex, except the half-dozen who were out doing field work. Ollie sat down with her. She asked if he was a biologist.

He laughed. “I'm just the technical support. Something breaks down, I do the repairs."

"How do you like the job?"

"Never again,” he said.

"Don't get out much?"

"That's part of it."

"What's the rest?” The strawberries were good. She wondered how they managed to produce them.

"It's—” He shrugged. “I don't know. I guess it's seeing the same people all the time. I don't think I realized what I was getting into. I mean, everybody's nice and all. But you like to see some new faces once in a while."

"How long have you been here, Ollie?"

"Three and a half years,” he said. “I signed on for four."

"Why so long?"

"The pay's good."

"Any single women here?"

He didn't have to think about it. “A couple."

Okay. Nobody to get excited about. “So what's the surprise, Ollie?"

He looked down the table toward his boss. “I'd better let Ted break the news."

* * * *

When they'd finished, Isaika took Ollie and a few others down to unload the shuttle, while Abel led Hutch, Jake, Eddington, and Larry into a conference room. The lights dimmed, a projector came on, and they were looking out across the vast purple matting that constituted so much of the surface of Hibachi's World. In the distance, it faded to ocean. “This,” said Abel, “is a section of coastline about a thousand miles west of us. You'll notice the diminution in the coloring. That was what first drew our attention."

Hutch saw only a very slight difference in the color.

"You get something like that,” Abel continued, directing his remarks primarily to Eddington, “and you know there's an abnormality."

Eddington nodded.

"A disease,” said Larry.

"As a matter of fact, it was a parasite. But that's not the point. It's simply the reason we got interested. We sent a team out to look. And they found
this—"

The image shifted. The foliage receded and grew swampy. A hilltop emerged. “There's a bay beneath all this,” Abel said. “And the hilltop you're looking at is an island. Or would be if the cover were to disappear."

"So where are we going with this?” asked Eddington.

"Let's make some of the cover go away.” It vanished, and they confronted a harbor opening into the ocean. And the island—

"My God,” said Larry.

A round building, about eight feet in diameter, stood at the highest point on the island. It was an open-air structure, made of stone, its roof supported by five circular columns. Its base was raised a few feet above ground level, with steps providing access on opposite sides.

"You're saying,” said Eddington, “it's been there all the time?"

"There's a
city
beneath the growth. But it's limited to the coastline. It's big, though. Probably supported a population of twenty, thirty thousand at one time."

"How long ago?” Eddington leaned forward, peering.

"A thousand years or more. We don't have the capability to make a determination."

"What else,” asked Larry, “is on the island?"

"Nothing. The only thing we found was
that."
The round building.

Eddington shook his head. “I wouldn't have believed this world harbored a sentient life form."

Abel nodded. “Since then we've discovered two more cities. One smaller, and one capable of supporting probably a hundred thousand. They're both on this continent. Nothing anywhere else that we could find."

"What's the technology look like?” asked Larry.

"Rome, probably."

Eddington just sat there, breathing heavily.

Larry was visibly overwhelmed. “You have any idea what they look like? Are any of them still around?"

"If there are, we haven't seen any. And so far we don't know much about them. We're pretty sure they were taller than we are. But we haven't really had a chance to do any serious investigation."

Eddington cleared his throat. “Does the Academy know?"

"We haven't notified them yet, no."

"Probably just as well. You'll want to have a few more answers before you say anything. As soon as they learn about this, they'll send some specialists out. In the end, they'll take the mission from us, and we'll be closed down."

Larry was peering at the building. “What is it, Ted? You have any idea?"

"We think there was a table in it at one time. We found what was left of it.” He shrugged. “Maybe it was a bait shop."

"It was probably an altar,” said Hutch. Her tone drew a few glances.

Abel's features softened. “I was kidding,” he said.

"What sort of condition are they in?” asked Eddington. “The cities?"

"They'v beene wrecked by the vegetation. It's thinner out on the water. Along the coastline, everything got strangled."

"Okay,” he said. “I want to go take a look. As soon as you can arrange it.” He was giving orders.

Abel frowned, but let it go. “If you're interested, Michael,” he said, “we can take a look at some of it now."

"What do you mean?"

He got up. “Come with me.” They followed him out of the conference room and down another long corridor until they arrived at a set of double doors. He pressed a pad, the doors opened, and lights came on.

It was a storage area. The walls were lined with shelves. Spare parts were stacked around the room. And some building materials. And—

—In a corner, pieces of stone. Hutch recognized them immediately, slices of the columns, the rounded roof cut in half, pieces of the steps—

It was the island building.

"Eventually, we'll take it home,” said Abel. “We'll reassemble it and put it on the front lawn of the Tolliver Building.” At the Academy.

"My thought exactly,” said Eddington.

* * * *

Lyla had been, apparently, someone's girlfriend. Forty-three hours after departing the Complex, Jake and Hutch rode the
Copperhead's
shuttle down to Lyla's surface.

It
was
one of the Great Monuments. It had been erected in the middle of a flat rocky plain. Protected from the void by e-suits, they stood in front of it, and looked up. It towered over them, long golden-red petals, soaring into the night. The design was similar to the others in the series, the style, the general sense of ethereal beauty defying a boundless, uncaring universe.

It was not, however, a depiction of a flowering plant, as Hutch had thought at first, but rather of solar flares, a tribute to the local sun. The flares, eight of them, lifted out of an engraved base and rose toward the unforgiving sky. They were of different sizes and textures. One was broken. Hutch looked up at it. No. Not broken. Unfinished.

Neither Groombridge nor Hibachi's World was in the sky. The monument was on the back side of Lyla, so the planet was
never
visible, since the satellite was in tidal lock. But the stars were bright, and the monument caught and reflected the illumination.

"It's magnificent, Jake.” She'd never actually been in the presence of one before.

The base was engraved. Two lines of characters unlike anything she'd seen. The symbols that appeared on the Grand Monuments never matched each other. Theory held that each of the monuments came from a different era, the most recent ending at about 19,000 b.c. “I would have liked to have met them,” she said. “The builders."

"You're a few thousand years late."

"I know."

"And you can't be sure they'd be friendly."

"Jake,” she said, “there's no way I could be afraid of whoever put this here."

"Jake.” Benny's voice. AIs were supposed to be detached. But he was so excited he'd fogotten that Hutch was theoretically in charge. “There's something else. Off to the left of the monument. Your left."

* * * *

There was a stone marker. Oval-shaped. Engraved with the same type of characters that were on the base of the monument. Two lines.

Jake looked at the engraving, then walked back and looked at the one at the base of the monument. “Different messages,” he said.

Hutch opened her channel to the AI. “Benny, scan the ground. Where we're standing."

"Scanning."

"You think something's buried here?"

"Some
one."

"Jake."Benny again. “There's a box. With something inside. A skeleton. But not human. I would guess from its condition that it has been here a long time."

They climbed back into the shuttle and the AI forwarded the images. Details were difficult to make out. It was a biped. Hutch counted six digits on each limb. And she saw a cluster of thin bones underneath that didn't seem to fit. Wings, maybe? If so, it might be a match for the creature depicted on the Iapetus monument.

"I wonder what happened?"said Jake.

"Best guess?” she said.

"Go ahead."

"This one died while they were working. While they were putting this thing together. Maybe they got caught off guard by a flare. Maybe it simply fell off a ladder. No way to know. And it doesn't matter. But they decided to pay tribute to it."

"By burying it here?"

"That, too."

"What else?"

"They left the monument incomplete. Maybe for them it constituted the ultimate recognition."

"Okay,” he said. “Makes sense to me.” Big smile. “Hutch, I can't imagine a better way for you to launch your career. Find one of these? They'll put our pictures on the Wall of Fame."

"I'll settle for my license,” she said. “Benny, we have lots of pictures?"

"Yes, Hutch. I have a substantial record."

"I suggest,"said Jake, “we call it in now. Let them know what we have. Before somebody else stumbles across it.” He looked at Hutch. “What's wrong?"

"I think we should direct Benny to destroy the record."

"What?” Jake looked stunned. “Why?"

She hesitated. She was thinking how nice it would be to go back to a hero's welcome. To become famous.

"Hutch?"

"I think we should forget what we saw here. Just go away and leave it."

"Have you lost your mind?"

"After we call it in, they're going to come out here and dig everything up. They'll take the creature back to a lab and dissect it."

"Of course they will. Hutch, this is one of the Monument Makers."

"They'll desecrate the place."

"I didn't know you were religious."

"Religion has nothing to do with it. What do you think the builders would have thought about us ripping up the grave?"

"They're long gone, Hutch."

"No,” she said. “They're still here."

"I'm not sure I know what we're talking about, Priscilla."

"I'm tired of it all,” she said. “This time, Jake, we have some control over what's happening.” She turned frustrated eyes on her captain. “I'm tired of hot dog stands on the Moon and beachfront homes on Quraqua and wrecked altars back
there
.” She looked up at the sky but of course saw no sign of Hibachi's World. “If you'll consent, I'd like to let it go. Forget the monument. And hope that Eddington and Ted Abel and people like them don't notice what's here. Maybe by the time somebody else comes across this, we'll be a little smarter."

Jake let his disappointment show. “You're really serious, aren't you?"

"Yes, Jake.” She saw the uncertainty in his eyes. “Please."

He touched the marker. Pressed his fingertips against the engraved symbols. “I wonder what it says?"

Copyright © 2011 Jack McDevitt

[Back to Table of Contents]

Poetry:
SEEING ONESELF
by Robert Frazier
* * * *
* * * *

From “The Official Guide to Time Travel"

* * * *

Whenever you approach your old self

A distraction leads you farther aside

* * * *

When you try to focus upon your child-self

You find you are looking in the opposite direction

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