Fire With Fire – Snippet 13
The low buildings of the open quarry — or whatever it was — barely rose above the ferns and clusters of helical, bone-white tubers that seemed frozen in the midst of a delicate, upward-spiraling dance. Caine drove past thickets of them, wondered what they were called, reflected on the utter lack of poetry in the meretricious souls that had come to command the fate of this valley. They probably hadn’t even bothered to name any of the plants they had seen. To them, it would all simply be categorized as “obstructive vegetation — removal pending.”
He eased off the accelerator as he approached: don’t want to look like I’m in a rush. He heard and ignored yet another page on the radio, thought a moment, then reached under the dashboard and disconnected the unit.
He emerged into the clearing and, as he heard the spatter of loose rock under his tires once again, he realized that the road to this site was more worn, and smoother, than the one to the oil rigs. It either got more use, more attention, or both. Yet it led to the one location that was left off Caine’s itinerary. Whatever Helger didn’t want him to see was here.
He slowed as he came amidst the cluster of prefab buildings: newer and better maintained than the ones out at the oil field. More vehicles, also. But it was the small groups of workers — two lounging against a truck, three more under the awning of an administrative prefab, another two walking slowly past a pile of white and dusty dig spoor — who were the most strikingly different. It took a moment for Caine to see what the difference was, as they looked up briefly over the rims of their coffee cups before resuming their casual chats. It wasn’t their crisply clean clothes, or their neatly groomed hair, or even their alert faces and scanning eyes: it was their postures of relaxed self-assurance.
One or two looked up from their coffee again, matching Caine’s gaze. Christ: don’t stare. Get moving.
He swung his legs out the door port that had been scalloped low into the chassis of the Rover, settled his hat on his head as he looked up at the sun, and then at his watch. He peripherally saw the watching eyes withdraw as he walked with a casual surety that was pure bluff; he only knew that he needed to get to the excavations.
Caine hadn’t been sure what to expect in the way of challenges, but was utterly surprised by what he did encounter: nothing. Slowing to a stroll, he passed compact excavating equipment: caterpillar-tracked backhoes, drills, one small articulated hoist jury-rigged on the back of a large truck. One hard-hatted mechanic emerged from the truck’s cab, stared at him without nodding, went on his way.
And that was it: no Cerberus guarding the gate to whatever buried secret CoDevCo had found here. Caine suppressed the urge to laugh at the anticlimax of the moment, kept walking forward —
— into a litter of chalky white rock. Oval pits dug here and there, one of which was long and narrow. Beyond that was a high berm of loose dirt. Well, might as well start looking —
Caine managed not to flinch, turned to face the voice. A middle-aged man, half-a-head shorter than Caine’s six feet, was approaching. He looked more like a librarian than a machine operator: it wasn’t just his clothes — appropriate for a company picnic — but his soft, almost delicate face and bookish glasses.
“Hello,” the man repeated. “Can I help you?”
“You in charge here?”
“Well, I — I have final authority over dig priorities and scheduling, so I suppose –”
“Fine, then I can talk to you. I’ve got to check drainage and pump placement. We don’t have any details on it and the weather stations are confirming a possible hurricane. So I need to see a schematic of your flood-management systems.”
Bookworm blinked several times. “I — but I don’t know about this. I mean, no one told me –”
“It’s okay, I’ll take care of it. No one’s fault, really. Not the responsibility of the excavation crews, and the research teams wouldn’t know to ask about it if someone didn’t mention it. So here I am. Do you have any sump pumps in place?”
“A few down in the main site, near the base of the columns –”
“– but only one, just to handle regular rainwater accumulations. This hurricane: could it damage –?”
Caine waved a dismissive hand. “Look: you don’t have anything tall exposed above ground level, right?”
“Then the worst that could happen is that things will get wet.”
“But there might be seepage. The soil we’ve removed was a barrier, prevented any water from getting as far down as the foundation. If there are sealed chambers, then –”
“Okay, I get the picture. We’ll get the necessary machinery out here to take care of it.”
“Thank you. Thank you, Mr. –”
But Caine had already turned, and walking away, acknowledged Bookworm’s hand-wringing gratitude with a lazy wave. He also resisted the choking urge to race ahead, to run everywhere the ground had been torn up, looking, looking, looking. Columns. Foundations. Possible sealed chambers. A little bit more than just a line of rocks in the ground.
In the small dig pits, he saw what had caught the attention of the CoDevCo surveyors, and what one naval officer — a j.g. who had minored in forensic archeology — had noted in his analysis of close aerial imagery: right angles. Throughout this area, the ground rose up in low, flat, elbowed humps that looked like barrows for carpenter’s squares. CoDevCo had obviously read and heeded the j.g.’s report, and sent archeologists — not construction workers — to unearth the underlying mysteries: every hole had the carefully graded sides and the strange yet irregular precision of historical dig sites. The archeologists had evidently started by exhuming these old bones of isodomic wall junctures: moored upon large cornerstones, quoined blocks were stacked two, occasionally three, courses above that fundament.
Caine sidestepped up the final embankment of dirt, backsliding slightly, finally digging in with a quick sprint to get him over the lip —
— and which nearly propelled him into a pit where something vaguely like a partial floor plan of a half-sized Greek temple lay exposed to the sun. After several seconds, Caine realized his mouth was open, closed it. The half-buried stones at the oilfield and the nearby wall-fragments had whispered that a millennium of humanocentrism might need reconsideration. But this bone-white expanse of quasi-Classical architecture decisively rebutted any arrogant assumptions that humanity might be the center of all things, the origin of all causes, the denouement of all purposes.
Caine sidestepped down to the base of the embankment, stretched his foot out onto the marble esplanade, thinking ridiculously, “One small step for a man –” Ridiculous because dozens of humans — hundreds maybe — had walked here before him. But he felt a narrow shiver arc up his spine, nonetheless.
Starting at the extreme left hand of the facing colonnade, four one-meter-high remains of columns were the only vertical objects protruding up beyond the lateral plane of the stylobate. Lighter circular shadows completed the peristyle sequence that the extant columns predicted, all the way out to the far right hand corner. Leading up to them were steps — cracked, disintegrated in many places, but unquestionably steps — which spanned the entire frontage of the structure’s crepidoma, or base. Caine raised his foot, knowing he should not tread upon them, but drawn by an urge far stronger — and far more important — than the one which Consuela had inspired in him half an hour earlier.
Movement to the left, from around the corner. Caine pulled his foot back, put his hands in his pockets. An unusually short man of late middle age seemed to emerge from the ground behind the left hand corner of the crepidoma. Tubby, hirsute, bespectacled, making smacking noises with his lips, the gnomish creature stopped when he saw Caine. “Oh. Hello,” said the Gnome. “It’s something, isn’t it?”
“Yeah. Something. Look. There might be a hurricane coming. I’ve gotta do an assessment for flood control: drainage, sump placement –”
“Good, good,” said the Gnome, “glad to hear they’re taking the value of the find seriously. Although,”– he stopped, eyes dim through his round, dust-smeared glasses — “I suppose I’m being overly optimistic again. They don’t care about the history of this, or its significance. They just want to protect what they’re hoping to find — and the hell with the rest.”
“And what is it that they hope to find?”
Gnome — who had been standing arms akimbo, admiring the structure — turned to look at Caine again, eyebrows raised, “What else? Artifacts.”
“Why? For sale on the black market? Alien antiquities, that kind of angle?”
“No, no, no.” Gnome shifted into a professorial head-wagging remonstration; he was doing his best to be patient with a slow student. “Not primitive artifacts. Advanced artifacture. Devices. They didn’t tell you?”
Caine shook his head. At first, he couldn’t speak; he was simply glad he wasn’t gaping. Then, hoarsely: “So, how long –?”
“How long has it been here? Can’t be sure; we’re still waiting for the radioisotope dating equipment. But I’m guessing — judging from the depth of overhead sediments, the speed with which they seem to accumulate here, the erosion — ten thousand years, at the very least. Instinct and experience tells me it’s twice that. I doubt it’s more than forty thousand.”
“And you found their machines?”
“Not yet. Frankly, I don’t think there’s anything to find. Stone weathers better than almost anything else. Intricate machines and objects — well, they are the first things to go. And given the priority list Mr. Helger gave us, I don’t think he’s particularly interested in museum pieces.”
Caine had recovered enough to actively steer the conversation. “CoDevCo wants toys that work, huh?”
“Yes, indeed. Weapons applications, I suspect — the blackguards. But I accept their pay, so I suppose I should remain a bit more philosophical about it all.”
“They’re looking for weapons?”
“Oh, no — not directly. But there are plenty of indications that –” Gnome stopped himself, mouth open in mid-syllable, as if he had checked his didactic enthusiasm at the last possible moment: he was concealing something. When Gnome resumed, his tone was more controlled, careful: “There are indications — historical indications on Earth, that is — showing that there’s a close relationship between new weapons and new technologies.” He hurried onward from that lame generality: “Personally, I think their hope to find advanced technology at this site is a pipe dream, and I wish they’d wake up from it. Until they do, we’re going to be isolated in this damn valley — leaves suspended, contract extension clauses invoked — until God knows when.”
“Yep: it’s tough.” Caine wondered what Gnome had almost revealed, but a deep animal instinct told him not to exert any pressure.
Gnome had evidently forgotten his near-misstep. “It is not merely ‘tough’: it is crippling. I am not permitted to submit reports, articles, or get proper equipment. And my old university would come back to me on hands and knees with the offer of an endowed chair if they knew half –”
“Thanks,” said Caine. He turned and walked back the way he had come, bypassed the embankment, continued up out of the far side of the dig site and kept walking until he reached the edge of the forest. Fifty meters to his right, a trail wound up the slight incline that led into the alien foliage, sparsely peppered with startling red-purples and subtler mauves. Somewhere — in there — were creatures, presumed bipedal, who traveled in groups. Heat signature, speed, and inferred length of gait suggested something roughly man-sized. Who were being pushed out of their natural habitat. Or worse.
But that jungle was, for all intents and purposes, still terra incognita: a heart of alien darkness. He stared into it, trying to see further, thought: and perhaps they are staring out at me. He thought he saw something move — sweep from the trees down to the ground, a blurred shadow — but it was too quick to be an animal of any kind, he realized. He laughed at himself, part of a fruitless attempt to displace the fear that rose up as he looked into the underbrush and thought: I must go in there.