Friday, February 25, 2011

Directions

“I just need a minute.” Alex sat in the tall grass, legs splayed out in front of him and just looking off into the distance with a thousand yard stare. That was the first reaction Carbon had gotten out of him in ten minutes.

“Very well. I will inspect the area.” She turned and walked off with an annoyed huff.

They were inside. Specifically, inside what appeared to be a constructed object. He suspected it was a Dyson shell, a megastructure built around a star to harness all of its energy. From what Alex could see, this one had large parts of its interior surface covered in habitable land. He continued to stare into the distance, shaking his head slowly.

“Structures like this can’t exist. They just can’t. There would be too much pressure, it would just collapse.” He was talking to himself but Carbon could hear him clearly on the open audio link.

“One hour ago I would have told you that these portals are impossible. We seem to have used two in that time.” Carbon came around the small building, blades of grass bending under foot as she walked back to him.

“That’s not even the same.” His voice was distant, still unbelieving.

“It is very much the same.”

Alex laid back in the grass and rubbed his eyes. “Yeah, you’re right. It is.”

“Thank you. Are you done?”

“I think so.” He picked himself up and brushed the grass off his suit. “Did you find anything?”

“Nothing of obvious significance. The building here is no more than an alcove. There is a large lake downhill of our current position, a grove uphill. The grassland appears to stretch several kilometers in every direction.”

“Huh.” He hadn’t noticed the slight grade to the area before now, nor the lake. Deep blue water shined with small waves and stretched off into the distance. The stand of trees was wide and looked deciduous, blue-green leaves waving in the breeze. Both appeared to be about a kilometer away.

“The count down timer - if that is what it is - seems to be set to run out in approximately 20 hours. By Human measure.”

“Well, looks like we have some time.” He looked down at the lake again and broke into a grin. “Want to go for a swim?”

Carbon leveled a particularly unamused glare at him.

Alex held up his hands. “I’m just trying to keep things light.”

“I do not believe now is a good time for humor.”

“Alright. Should we go explore? There’s nothing here.” He gestured to their immediate surroundings, nothing but a squat alcove and tall grass.

“I believe we should.”

“Oh. Well, okay. Lake or trees?”

“Trees.” She started towards the grove, “I do not trust the lake.”

Alex jogged to catch up with her. “Looks cold anyway.”

“It looks deep. Many things can hide in deep water.”

“Well yeah, that too.”

They walked in silence the rest of the way. The stand was short and sparse, plenty of space between each tree. They struck Alex as unusual, reddish bark beneath wide bluish-green leaves and currently bearing oblong, crimson fruit.

“These are thun. I have not seen these since... Before I left Schon.” She reached up and plucked one of the fruit off the branch, looking it over sadly.

“You alright?”

“Yes.” She turned the fruit over in her hands, face twisting with regret. “No. We had a small orchard of these at home, I spent many hours with my mother in it as a child. It has brought up unexpected memories.”

“I’m sorry. If there’s anything I can do...”

Carbon knelt and set the fruit on the ground and gave him a faint smile. She still looked like she was about to cry. “Later. We need to secure this area first.”

“How do we do that?”

She straightened, her expression hardening again. “We will check the perimeter and then sweep through the interior.”

They stayed in a group. Carbon could, in a worst case scenario, punch many things to death because of her strength boosted armor. The exterior was just trees, as expected. They weren't ten meters into the grove before Alex spotted something.

“What... is that a birdbath?” There was a wide pedestal in a clearing in the center of the grove. The sides were carved and the top had a shallow depression. As was his way, Alex started straight for it.

Carbon grabbed him before he stepped into the clearing. “No. We will scan the area first.”

“Fine, let’s do that.” He reached down to grab the scanner out of its cradle and she waved his hand away.

“I have finished, it is clear.”

“Really? Must be nice having built-ins.” He stepped out into the clearing, again heading straight for the pedestal.

“It can be. They have very limited range because of the shields.”

“Makes sense.” He crouched down next to it, inspecting the carvings on the side. “Well, I am freaked out now.”

“What is- Oh.”

The carving was an anatomical drawing of what was clearly a human male. It was surrounded by intricate swirls and curlicues, a female human not far away. “Reminds me of the Pioneer plaque, but... Shit, a million times creepier.”

Carbon stepped back and walked around the pedestal slowly. “There is the Tslao equivalent on this side.”

“How the hell did this even get here?” He reached out and put his hand on the pedestal to pull himself up. It thrummed deeply, the sound spiking and fading down to just barely audible in the span of a second. Carbon jumped away and Alex froze halfway up to standing. A hologram faded up from the bottom of the basin, a gently curved red arc.

“What did you do?” Her voice was low, Alex could only hear it over the audio channel.

“I put my hand on it.” He whispered back.

“Why?”

He gritted his teeth, exasperated. “I was distracted and you said it was clear!”

She grumbled at that and Alex saw her shields pulse to full power out of the corner of his eye. “Very well. Remove your hand slowly.”

Alex took a deep breath and pulled his hand away. The hologram and faint hum remained as he stood and then reached out and touched it again. “I don’t think it’s dangerous.”

“How have you come to this conclusion?”

He gestured into the basin. “Same shade of red as on the small portal. I think everything so far has required both of our races to be present to operate and this is evidence supporting it that. It’s pretty clear that whoever built this knows a whole hell of a lot about us already. In addition, nothing bad has happened to us. We’ve been inconvenienced, sure, but it seems like an awful lot of work just to kill two people.”

“In truth, I have been considering a similar hypothesis.” She stepped up to the pedestal, hand hovering over it. “If we are wrong?”

“I’m sorry in advance.”

Carbon smiled at that and set her hand down. The hum spiked again, a blue arc in the basin completed a circle and they both faded out. A large globe flickered to life above it and started rotating, translucent colors showing a detailed map. At the equator a tiny purple triangle pointed at a grass-green field next to large lake.

“There is no need to apologize.”

“I guess not.”

They stared at the map for a long while, taking in the oceans and landmasses. From deep rift valleys and mountain ranges that were probably thousands of kilometers long, it appeared that most every environment was present.

Carbon was the first to notice a larger second triangle, emerald green and pulsing slowly at the top of the globe. She leveled a finger at it, “what do you think that is?”

“I don’t know. We should go there and find out.”

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