De-orbiting is frightening at worst and boring at best. I’d been bored for an hour now since I came out of High-G travel at Triangilus. Not a pretty place by a long sight – a sickly sulphurous yellow planet with scant vegetation and ugly scudding clouds – a typical factory world where no one would want to live, settle or worst of all, stay. I did not want to be here.
I’d been chasing the terminator the whole time, so it would be dark shortly after my boots hit dirt. That was going to be annoying, too. I’d had my fill of annoyances already, but the Universe kept piling them on. I checked the computer – landing was still minutes away.
Originally my schedule had me joining up with the Tau Ceti Expedition. About 15 light-years from here, that star had a planet that was surprisingly Earth-like. And its sun had apparently been winking at us…
Scientists speculated that the light frequency was so pure and stable that some civilized people were using a high-powered laser, targeting every local star they could see, in an effort to get attention. That is where I wanted to be. Yes, the signal was 15 years old from here, 10 years at Earth, and maybe they didn’t want to meet us anymore. Maybe it had been a desperate emergency and they’d all be dead or decimated. It was the not knowing that made it so essential to go and meet the first living aliens.
Working for the Terran Technological Artifacts Division as an investigative agent, I gathered Tech that was returned to Earth to be analysed and deployed to humans everywhere. I collected it from dead civilizations that had long returned to the dust. Some of their stuff was like ours; some was far less advanced. Certainly, we had plenty that was far too advanced, stowed away in vaults on Luna until the human race was ready for it. On the whole, it got distributed and utilized, and humanity was the better for it with cheaper energy, better housing, new food production, better manufacturing – we had it all. Tangibles were so cheap and plentiful that no one sought war. No one sought to steal from a neighbour. We all had what we needed or desired – which was why I was out here.
It simply wasn’t challenging on Earth anymore. When money is something of an anachronism because most manufacturing is automated, when people live on their monthly pensions and few have jobs, when people vie for what jobs there are, and are happy to work four hours per week, sharing one job with nine others just for the status of being “employed”, what are you supposed to do to keep busy? I lacked an artistic bent, and was too much of a loner for the service industry. Like many others, I chose the stars.
But now I was hoist by my own petard; I used the excuse of seeking tech to get out here in the first place. I became an expert, well-respected – the “go to” guy when a mystery arose. Now that very expertise was dragging me away from the Tau Ceti Expedition. And my only chance was to solve this one quickly.
The foreman at Triangilus Industries had reported a giant robot. It was embedded in a cliff face, and starkly, if partially, revealed by a massive subsidence due to blasting operations at a nearby mine. His report said it stood 90 metres tall. Clearly the man was exaggerating, if not outright insane. I had protested to my overseer that he should send some junior operative, not me – not now – not when the Expedition was due to leave.
My boss assured me the guy was on the level; he was highly reliable; he was the son-in-law of his overseer; and that I could rely on the fact that I’d be surveying Mercury if I didn’t get there now. I saw that his logic was irrefutable and diverted to the Triangilus system.
A little jolt, followed by a musical tone, told me that the landing was complete, handled entirely by the all-knowing computer. It didn’t bother me with those details anyway. I may be a Technologist, but I’m no pilot. I might be able to fix Tech, but I could not fly this ship at all. Ah, the wonders of modern (and acquired) technology!
But I brought my own hard gear – always had it with me onboard – either for work or recreation. The foreman had said “cliff face,” and if there was one physical skill I had, it was rock-climbing. I grabbed a cart and tossed my climbing-gear on top, grabbed the handle and headed for the hatchway.
“Pop the hatch, Maggie,” I said to the ceiling.
“Aye, Captain,” said the shipboard computer from the overhead speaker.
“Which way to the Port Office?”
“Straight ahead, Cap’n. I always try to aim the hatch right at it so you don’t get lost.”
“You’re not too bad looking yourself, sailor!”
“Lock it up when I’m out. New Password: I love my job.”
I dragged the cart behind me towards the Port Office. The door said Push so I pushed. It didn’t relent. The cart banged into the back of my legs. “Ow!”
“Visitor detected,” said a voice. “Our offices are now closed. Please return at daybreak for the opening of business. If this is an emergency, please use the courtesy phone next to the door.”
I picked it up. “Port authority,” said a bored male voice.
“Okay, I’m here.”
“Are you the guy what just landed? The one from the T.T.A.D?”
“How many people were you expecting today?”
“Yeah, yeah. Don’t get wise,” he replied. “We didn’t know when you were gonna get here. There’s a flitter ’round back of the building. It’s got the destination plugged into the GPS. Just take it and go. It’s also got your quarters plugged in there, and most of the interesting places ’round here.”
“Hopefully I won’t need any quarters. We’ll see how it goes.”
I hung up and got the flitter loaded with my gear. The menu of the GPS was sparsely populated with such descriptive selections as Bar, Bar, Dancing, Hotel, Mine 1, Mine 2, Movie, Quarters, Restaurant, Restaurant, and finally, Robot. I punched that one. The flitter came to life and drifted down the road like a slightly drunk seagull.
Soon enough I arrived at a site, about 15 kilometres from the Port. There was a small crowd nearby dutifully standing behind barricades, but at the same time looking on with interest at something on a cliff that rose almost vertically half a kilometre away.
“Where’s the Foreman?” I asked the crowd.
“Toby Wilkins. You from t-tad?” He pronounced the letters of my organization’s acronym as if it were a word.
“Yes. I’m Agent Fate. I'm here to check out your alleged robot."
“Okay, Fate,” he said unfazed. “See that shiny spot over there on the cliff? That’s your giant robot.”
“I don’t see anything. It’s getting too dark.”
“Use these.” He held out a battered pair of binoculars.
“Got something else,” I said.
I reached into my gear and pulled out a nice alien-tech magnifier. I held the hoop up in front of my face, and slid the thumb control up. The cliff raced towards me with sickening speed. Though it was dark, I really could make out something. I slid another thumb dial, and the scene turned into a daylight view. I was stunned.
“It really does look like a giant silver humaniform robot!”
“Told ya,” he said flatly.
“Except it is clearly not of human origin. Anyone over there now?”
“Nope, too much chance of more falling rocks.”
“Okay, keep clear unless you see me get into trouble. I’ll handle this.”
I climbed back into the flitter and manually steered it down the access road until I arrived at the rock-strewn base where the shale had sheared earlier.
It was quite a long way up from here to the one foot that protruded from the rock, but an easy climb over the rubble. Beyond that, it got vertical fast. Both legs of the thing were still encased in rock until the hip on the right was exposed. I reduced the magnification on my hoop and planned my ascent. Not too bad, actually, though it might take a while.
With the sun behind me, the cliff would stay illuminated for a while, but it would be dark all too soon. I got my gear ready, slung rope-bags over my shoulders, tightened my harness and got climbing.
The pouch of pitons on my left thigh slapped counter-time to the carabineers in the pouch on my right. Within an hour, I had reached the protruding foot. It was a good two metres wide and slippery as could be: ridiculously bright, polished, and silver. Not a mark on the solaret, despite being buried under grinding rock. No rust or discolouration. Pristine! I couldn’t believe it.
Though dangerous due to reflectivity, I pulled out my cutting laser, put a shroud around it and set it to cut for a few seconds. The smell of the overheated shroud was vile. When it shut off I looked at the surface. Unmarked! And cool to the touch – not a hint of heat. Next, I tried a zirconium drill, but the surface was so slippery I couldn’t keep it in place. It was too difficult an angle to get to what appeared to be the bottom of a greave at the top of the foot, where it disappeared into the rock. I was beginning to suspect it might be impervious to the tools I had with me.
Nothing for it then! I’d better get climbing. I roped in and started to do some real ascending. It took me an hour to get to the next break in the rock, where I found an exposed bit of thigh covered in a cuisse, over which was a protective tasset. This was clearly designed for war. Layer over layer, protecting vulnerable spots – gears, pistons, power supplies – who knew? Clearly there was no way inside from here. With heavy equipment, we might be able to prise apart some joint so as to explore the interior, but I was as good as excluded on my own.
I pulled out my hoop and tried to look further up to work out a path. Suddenly I saw it – a rent in the metal. Incredibly strong and seemingly impervious, and yet there it was – a hole!
I set my teeth and climbed. The darkness had been upon me almost unnoticed for a couple of hours. I couldn’t see worth a damn. I took a couple of carabineers and jury-rigged a holder for my hoop. I set it to zero magnification, daylight enhanced, and stood it in front of my face. Ah, Perfect!
Another hour and I got to the fauld. One more and I was level with the plackart and the hole. But I was too far off to the side. I climbed above and mantled across, finally lowering myself to the seemingly impossible hole – a window into a wonderous world of new technology.
I peered inside with my miraculous hoop, set to full daylight. My jaw dropped open. I was speechless. And, suddenly, I was filled with rage!
“You idiot!” I screamed at the dark.
Carelessly, recklessly, I rappelled down the artifact; down the cliff at breakneck speed; regardless of my own safety.
“If you’ve cost me the expedition for this stupidity, I will kill you!” I swore.
Breathless with the effort, I made it to the rubble at the bottom and scrambled down to the valley floor. Hands bloodied and raw with rope burns, I decided to abandon my gear. I threw off the harness and ran for the flitter.
It seemed to understand my urgency – my mission – and moved faster than it had for the entire trip out. I got back to the promontory where the crowd had been. There was one man left.
“Where’s Wilkins?” I ground out between clenched teeth.
“Back home, I expect,” said the man.
“Right behind the Port Office. Red building. Can’t miss it.”
I headed back to town, seething. Locating the building, I hopped out of the car and strode up to the door.
“WILKINS!” I bellowed.
He opened the door. “What the...”
“You idiot!” I grabbed his lapels and crushed him up against the doorframe.
“Hey, let go of me!” he yelped. “What did I do?”
“You dragged me out here to the back-end of hell; you may have cost me the chance to go on the most important expedition for all of humanity. And for what? BONES!”
“What are you talking about? What’s more important than the biggest robot in the entire galaxy?”
“That’s no robot, you moron. It’s a suit of armour!”
“Armour? Well, that’s still pretty important,” he said defensively.
“But not MY job,” I said. “That’s for the Archeology Department!”
“You’re sure it’s armour?”
“Of course I'm sure.” Releasing my grip, I spun on my heel, and stalked away. “I was up half the Knight!”