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."
.... There is more of this story ...
Science Fiction /