Edward was at the controls this time. Ellen Vasquez, the captain of the re-supply ship, was in the bay preparing for her recon' evac'. The station orbiting INTA 3 was not responding.
The station itself was in a close proximity, low orbit, and a study facility monitoring the newly discovered planet and manned by three personnel and one robot, an android. The station or the android should have replied to electronic hails, but not even they seemed to be active over there.
"Okay, I'm ready to leave," Vasquez called out over the mike' inside her helmet. "All's green. Open the hatch now, Ed."
"Hatch opening," he said, then seconds later, "You're clear for evac'," and Edward watched as the small one man utility work pod silently lifted and left the bay. It maneuvered gracefully and quietly over to the big station's outer rotating ringed hull and docked at one of the entry portals, matching the rotation position and velocity.
Being linked now, by coupling to the station, they both scanned the information relayed to them by direct hook-up, having physically joined with the station's computer.
Everything seemed fine, except one item. The crew was still in stasis. They'd been there since arrival, after looping into orbit, ten months ago.
"Something's not right," Vasquez said.
"I know," Edward agreed. "Even if the Android failed to wake them, as it should have, the ship should have done it."
"But it didn't."
"I'm going in."
"Be careful. No telling if that android is defective. They're pretty strong, you know."
"I've got my nurter handy. I'm not taking any chances." The nurter would turn off anything, just about, that was mechanically driven and electrical, like the android.
"Okay," Edward told Vasquez, "I've got you on monitor and every compartment of the station, but I don't see the android."
"Is it outside somewhere?"
"Just a second." Pause. "No. It did come on the mission, didn't it?"
"Yes," Vasquez said definitively.
"What is it?"
"One of the S.O.P.'s is missing," a 'surface to orbit pod'.
"It went down to the surface? What the moon-ice did it do that for?"
"Does seem curious, doesn't it?"
"Cripes! Guess I better get them all up?" Said Vasquez.
Nineteen hours later, Vasquez and the station commander sat in conference with the other two station attendants who worked groggily. Everyone was in front of various work stations, with Vasquez trying to get them to work and answer questions faster than they had energy or inclination to.
"I've got something," one of them finally said. It was the com' specialist.
Edward stared at her image on the monitor with longing eyes from his other ship's monitor. She was pretty darn cute for someone that had spent so much time, recently, in a stasis chamber.
"Three days out, we received a message, just about the time we were suppose to be woken up."
"From where?" asked the station's commander.
"From down there," the com specialist pointed.
"Was it human?"
"Unknown. It came in as basic, but it's been encrypted into something I've never seen before. Some kind of binary. It's brief, though, barely a megabyte in length. Theirs an image with it, too, but I can't open that, either. Can I suggest the android must have interpreted it as pretty important not to have woke us up, then later, left the ship. It would only have done that if it thought we were in danger."
Or if its programming were screwed up, or something it thought was more important, thought Edward, being a bit cynical. He would have offered his opinion but as he was subordinate to everyone else, it was probably wise to keep silent.
The commander considered things for a moment, looked at his two people, the com' specialist and a pencil necked engineer with his back to them all, and said quietly, looking at Vasquez as he leaned towards her, "Who have you got on board your ship?"
"Uh-oh!" said Edward, to himself, listening in on their conversation. He took in a deep breath and sighed long and low, murmuring, "Looks like I just volunteered."
Strapped into another S.O.P., Edward fired some jets, the hit the S.O.P.'s retros and slowly drifted away from the station and their ship he'd come in on. The re-entry would be slow, no fire-balls or ultra heated surface temperatures, just a slow easy decent down into the E-type atmosphere. Once into it, he'd skim the surface at a thousand meters till he arrived at the android's landing coordinates.
The android's S.O.P. rested peacefully on the surface gravel that crunched like granite from somewhere else. The ground was reddish with iron oxide and barren. There wasn't a plant to be seen anywhere, and yet the whole of INTA 3 was encased in a thick rich layer of nitrogen-oxygen. No one knew where it came from but the terra-formers, at the relay station and headquarters, thought it worthy of study and possible future colonization. Bringing in and lowering a few comets would satisfy the water needs, probably. Thus, their presence here, to peruse the place.
"I'm following its tracks. They're leading straight for some big mother of a rock, close by," he told the others, orbiting overhead. "What's this android's name, anyway?"
"Debby," came the reply. "She's an eleven series."
The newest and smartest, and strongest, too, he considered. They used human brains, and other body systems, wiped clean from cadavers and had full usage of their brain capacity, unlike humans that generally used about ten percent of what they had. Which would also make her dangerous, if she was wacko.
Edward shook his head. "That figures," he almost mumbled.
There was a pause, then, "Why's that?" asked Vasquez.
"Every woman I've ever known as 'Debby', was a royal pain."
"Maybe this one's different," said Vasquez, laughter looming low in the background of his earpiece.
"Yeah! She's gotten off to a great start at following protocol, hasn't she?"
There was no reply but he figured they were all having a good look at each other with funny smirks on their faces.
"There's a nice warm breeze to the air. It smells like flowers, too. Almost like Lilac's."
"You're not getting sleepy are you?"
"No. There's no sign of plant life, but that's what is smells like." Pause. "Almost to the rock, now."
He came up to it without slowing. Nothing to fear from it.
"This stone is about ten meters high. I don't see anything from this side. It's an irregular spire and I don't see any notable features. I'll go on the other side. -- Still following the tracks," he informed.
Edward walked around it, his finger tips grazing the surface of the rusty hued, sandpaper-like stone.
"Nothing over here, either. Her tracks are leading off to some low blue hills a couple of clicks away. Can you see them? And what direction is that, anyway?" he asked.
"Yes. We see them. They're Northwest from you," came the reply. "Why do you want to know?"
"Just want to know where I'm going." He grinned to himself. He could laugh at them, too. He knew exactly were he was.
All was silent for a while as he walked with a determined stride toward the blue hills, following Debby's easily seen foot prints.
"What's the ground look like?" came an inquiry.
"Pretty flat surface out here. It's almost plain-like. There's tiny little washes, here and there, and the hills look rain washed. That's sort of weird since this planet doesn't have any kind of cloud cover, does it? But I'm not near enough to know what they're made up of, yet, those hills I mean. I'll take a reading when I get to them and transfer it up. See anything from above?"
"No. Just dirt."
As he approached the hills, he noticed some sparkles of sunlight occasionally. They'd flicker on and off, here and there. As he stepped closer, Edward soon discovered why.
He picked up a clear crystalline stone half the size of his glove covered palm. They were laying all over at the base of the blue hills and higher up in them. He ran a spectral and analyzed it's composition, then smiled.
"These blue hills are covered with huge diamonds," he reported. "They're all over the place. Some are as big as my feet. I think we just paid for the two missions."
An elevated discussion ensued with the three mission people, the commander, com specialist, and the engineer. Vasquez let them talk, apparently. When the conversation waned, Edward tossed the diamond aside and continued on with his assignment.
"The tracks are going up a draw. Still following them."
It wasn't more than a few hundred yards up the slowly rising draw, that it soon turned into a deep ravine, then Edward saw an archway carved from white stone and set in place, constructed, cradling two large doors. He sent some pictures. The arched entrance lead into the blue hills. There was no other place for them to go. They were beautifully shaped with swirling geometric forms, not unlike some of the old home-world's civilizations and almost looked like lettering.
"You seeing this?" he asked, standing a few steps away from the entrance.
"Yes. We see it. It's a good bet this planet was once inhabited. Or -- still is," said the commander.
"I don't see any alternative but to go in, do you? We might loose audio, though," Edward said.
"Looks like it. Vasquez?" asked the commander.
She okayed the proposal.
"I'm opening one of the doors, to take a look."
He sent pictures. It was a generous down sloping corridor that disappeared in the distance of the underground. It was lit by hidden light sources and beautifully made with the same white stone. The ceiling was vaulted and nicely carved. It seemed peaceful enough.
"If we loose contact, I'll try to return to the surface in a couple of hours and give you a further report."
"Have you got your nurter with you?" asked Vasquez.
"Right here on my hip."
"I don't want you to take any chances with Debbie. Don't damage her, if you don't have to, but don't be deceived either. We can always reboot and reprogram, if we have to. Commander. Do you have any advice to add?"
"There's a manual off/on switch just behind the left ear lobe. Other than that, be careful and good luck."
"Will do. Thanks. Entering the corridor. We should count up numbers until I get to the end of the passageway," he suggested. "You can track how long it takes for my com' to disappear under this diamond rock strata. It shouldn't take too long."
It was agreed they would do that and Edward counted and waited for its repeat, starting with one. By the time he got to five, he heard no reply from the orbiter. The ground was just too solid for communication through it.
Edward walked for quite a ways, he thought, but found after twenty-four minutes, the corridor ended in a 'T'. He held up the analyzer and tried to determine the length of either side, but the slow down curving of them only allowed so much information. He tried ground penetrating radar and could see fuzzy cavern-like openings beneath him, on screen, but no detail. He marked the floor with a black line and arrow, by way of a permanent marker, indicating his direction, and walked to the right. The air seemed flowing and cool from that direction.
After more time, he came to a circular room with a domed ceiling. On the floor, in its center, stood a fountain. It was made out of a solid piece of diamond. He couldn't believe the size of the thing. He tested the water. It was perfectly safe to drink and he did so. It tasted like snow melt and he was now convinced that all the water on this world was below ground. He also felt the planet was definitely inhabited. The fountain had to be maintained, right?
He could see the end of the second corridor/hallway in the distance and put his hand on the nurter. Edward didn't want any surprises.
Coming to the end of the corridor, he came to a broad balcony of sorts. It overlooked a vast and beautiful underground city all lit up from the same unknown light source. It was a vast array of domed buildings and cathedral like crystal or diamond spired structures that looked far more lavish and beautiful than any he'd ever seen on any world, and he'd seen quite a few. The place was absolutely without precedent or equal, in his opinion. Staring at it all, he hadn't noticed until he'd gotten used to the sight that he was feeling somewhat uncomfortable, as if he were being stared at. His eyes darted around him and there, next to some classically sculpted, almost French or English architectural-like forms of a banistered stairway, stood the robot, Debby.
She was more beautiful than he could have imagined. These eleven series were too life-like, too perfect, and even though she was clothed in some kind of flowing white gown with a full spanning diamond necklace about her throat and across the full width of her clothed breast, she still looked more elegant than any artists conception of royalty from old earth history he'd ever seen in books or on a hologram plate.
She smiled at him, a fully entrancing smile that made Edward swallow hard. How cherished her appearance was and beautiful she seemed in her elegant clothing. It sure wasn't ship's issue. How, desirable she was, too, he thought, still looking at her vision of loveliness. She appears almost angelic, he thought.
Debby stood with her hands behind her back and took small steps, coming forward.
"It's beautiful, isn't it?" she asked, matching his vantage point. A cool soft wind blew from somewhere, blowing back her long, soft brown, light colored hair in a billow of serene, graceful movement.
"Yes," he agreed. "It is lovely. Does anyone live here?"
He watched her breasts rise as she took in air, wherever it was coming from, and released it slowly, then just as slowly turned to his direction and answered softly, "There is now."
With the smile she gave, he knew it wasn't threatening but he didn't understand or fully realize she had no intentions of letting him leave, permanently. He thought she was just making a little joke, now that he, as a living being had showed up.
"Come," she said, offering him her hand. "Let me show you the city, this whole planet is just like this. A world within a world. It is quite the place. I think you'll like it."
Edward had no reason not to go with her and he took her, for all intense and purposes, natural feeling hand in his and followed as she walked down the long staircase that had to be half a kilometer long, down to one of the levels of the city. From the upper vantage point, he had seen many levels, one after the other, some rising and some descending, and it seemed endless but that made no sense to him. There was a ceiling but no sidewalls, as in a cavern, not for a very long distance, that he noticed anyway, in the far off fuzzy distance, that must have been sixty kilometers away, at least.
"What is your name?" she asked sweetly, holding up the bottom of her gown with her other arm as they took the stairs downward. She was wearing thinly strapped golden sandals, he could see, and her lower legs were lovely. He told her, introducing himself, as they continued their decent.
"We've been worried about you," he told her. "Why didn't you wake the others up when you arrived at station?"
"That's why you're here, I take it, to discover my lack of protocol, am I correct?"
"Yes. We thought you might have been damaged down here, or lost, or there was some danger you had to neutralize."
Science Fiction /