KNOCKING ON HEAVEN'S DOOR
CHARYBDIS, INNER MOON OF ARGO
Without an atmosphere to create distortion, the stark crags of the Pindus range cast exceptionally sharp shadows across the plains of Charybdis.
Commander Manuel Rusk took a deep breath, admiring the view, even though he breathed only his suit's slightly stinky recycled air. The view was still grand.
"Drop position confirmed, all relays good," Sloan Griffin, his second, said over the public channel from orbit.
He almost felt like it was real, that they were in the Castor 6 system, instead of a training mission on Argo's larger moon. Fine, he'd go with the feeling, treat it as real as he could, since that was the best way to be successful. Here he was, leading an investigation into a five-sigma gravitational anomaly on a planetary moon. Not so exciting, he supposed, although the anomaly was real and worth exploring. Probably just a mineral excess of some sort, a random fluctuation ...
But maybe not. This was how a buried Argonaut power plant had once been discovered, after all. Definitely worth a look.
"Fan out," Rusk ordered. "Let's proceed through the foothills, systematically, heading north, with Selene and Melinda on the perimeters, at two kilometers, with X-bots trailing in the gaps."
He hopped forward in the light gravity, deliberately moving slowly as he scanned every direction. Compared to the humans, the bots were more likely to find something given their extended spectral capabilities, but they were not foolproof. Humans had millennia of natural selection going for them when it came tohunting the unknown. Rusk was a modern hunter, and had skills that the cyberneticists could not quite duplicate. Yet.
So he hopped, and looked.
With no atmosphere or significant erosion processes, tracks in the dirt would last for millions of years. It might not be so hard to locate something of interest, if it were present. Charybdis had not yet been mapped at the sub-meter resolutions necessary to spot fine details from orbit.
Sixteen individual Argonaut landing sites, plus two long-term bases with associated activity, had been located on Charbydis from satellites. The nearest base was over one hundred kilometers away, not all that far. But anything military, the most interesting sites, might well be designed to avoid detection from orbit, high-resolution imaging or not.
"Rusk," Walter Stubbs's voice floated over the public channel. "I've got something. A hole."
A hole? Okay, worth a look, but it didn't sound so promising for everyone to quit what they were doing. "Walter, I'm on my way. Everyone else keep on. Come, Magellan."
His X-bot, fifty meters to his left and a little behind, closed the distance between them. The bot didn't bounce in the lower gravity like he did, but moved in a sinuous, snakelike manner with its multiple legs undulating beneath as one. Apparently that was more efficient than the more spiderlike way it moved under heavier gravity. The X-bots had a built-in library of movement patterns for a wide range of environments spanning more properties than just surface gravity.
Rusk's head's-up painted a green label STUBBS over the silver-suited figure a short distance away. Stubbs's X-bot, Phyllis, squatted beside him, leaning its sensor-adorned head downward and to the right of the pair.
"What do you have, Walter?" Rusk asked over the short-range channel.
"Phyllis picked up an aberration in the dust at a radius of thirty-four meters. I mean, a nonaberration aberration. I'll let her explain."
Over his HUD, a ghost of a face appeared, one of Phyllis's expert patterns: an older, blond woman with long, straight hair. Rusk couldn't recall the pattern's human name. She said, "There's a circular region of enhanced randomness. That is, it exhibits perfect Gaussian statistical randomness, which happens all the time with large enough samples, but I guess you'd call this anally random."
Walter said, "Especially when there's a big rock at the center, with a hole under it."
Too random? There had to be a chance of getting perfect randomness that wasn't too small. But it did seem to be of interest, potentially. And any protected nook here was worth at least a quick look. "Tell me about the hole."
"It's a hole. It's a meter across, at least ten meters deep, then it slants off. You can't see it from orbit at all."
Rusk considered the situation, the chance that this was something artificial. It seemed like it might be. Under normal circumstances, he would drop everything and allow an archeological team to proceed. But these weren't normal circumstances--he was on a training mission, and directed to play it as honest as if this were a real find, so he should proceed as he would if this were a moon orbiting a planet in the Castor 6 system.
So ... onward. And downward.
"Magellan," he said, "give me a line."
Rusk turned toward his X-bot and extended a hand. The X-bot responded by taking two of its legs and grabbing a nub in its thorax. The bot pulled out the nub and handed it to Rusk. A filament of high-tension nanocarbon ribbon connected the nub to the X-bot's carriage.
Rusk locked the nub into his belt and stepped to the edge of the hole. "Give me a solid belay," he said.
Wrapping the line around his back, Rusk stepped to the hole, and jumped in.
Jagged rock walls flashed slowly by in the low gravity. His helmet lights followed his head, providing a strange perspective as he looked about during the rappel. When his feet touched the wall, he kicked off, slightly, and continued to drop.
Rusk fell into the hole, trusting his equipment and training. Training was for real, something one could rely upon in the face of any challenge. For one properly prepared, fear was unnecessary. He wouldn't get caught on a sharp outcropping, and he wouldn't twist an ankle with an awkward landing.
He landed, softly, on a flat surface covered in a few millimeters of dust. Flat seemed interesting. He shone his light down, panning around his landing area.
Tracks in the dust. Hundreds of them. Not human prints, either, but the smaller oval prints of suited Argonauts. Jackpot. He radioed up calmly, "This is the real deal. Get everyone over here, and get Timothy down here, and an X-bot with Argonaut military expertise."
Timothy knew Argonaut history, such as it was presently understood, and could provide an informed opinion about anything they might find. He'd be a useful human counter to any X-bot perspective. Despite being based on human personalities and expertise, X-bots often lacked the big picture view.
He wished he had an omni-bot, or O-bot, his dream assistant, that could synthesize disparate information more effectively. People had been daydreaming about decent help for the entire history of civilization, and you worked with what you had. X-bots were useful, but their narrow-mindedness sometimes let people down when relied on too much. Still, Earth-based researchers were always improving the things and broadcasting the results to Argo.
Rusk didn't pay much attention to the discussion topside, the logistics of moving down people and bots. His team was competent.Rusk focused on the tracks in the dust. These were at least many hundreds of thousands of years old. Part of him realized that he didn't dare move, but another part of him didn't care. These were mere footprints. His suit was recording them, not only with video but--he picked out a menu on his HUD and eyed the appropriate activation--with scanning lidar. If he were in the Castor 6 system, he'd make high-quality recordings, and proceed despite the destruction his own movements would cause. So he would here, too.
He hadn't come for footprints.
"I'm moving ahead," he said, detaching himself from the drop cable, and oriented himself toward the downward sloping tunnel filled with prints. "Full archival recording engaged."
Rusk shuffled along, slowly, looking at his surroundings. The tunnel itself wasn't natural, he decided. The walls were smooth and round, but not perfectly so, slightly elongated in the horizontal to maybe three meters wide. The ceiling was two and a half meters high at least, and he didn't have to stoop.
It wasn't spooky, exactly, as he didn't think anything had been here in untold millennia, but there were ghosts nonetheless. He was the first here in eons, and he couldn't help but imagine what things might have been like when the Argonauts had abandoned this place. Which era had built the base, and what had ended things here? Had it been war? Economic depression? Or perhaps just a bureaucratic decision?
He didn't know, but speculation made him feel closer to the long-lost beings of Argo, exploring and establishing their presence on their largest moon the way men had done on theirs.
About fifty meters down the tunnel, the passage opened up into what seemed an antechamber, close to ten meters in diameter. While much of the floor was covered with more oval footprints, there were also several flattened areas that looked as ifsomething large and flat, like crates or machines, had once rested there.
Rusk scanned it all.
Opposite the tunnel was something that was clearly a door of some type: a flat indentation in the wall, wide at the bottom, tapering to a rounded top, similar to other Argonaut doors he'd seen in ruins and in videos. "I've got something. Get that X-bot down here, and another to relay."
"Acknowledged," said Timothy.
When Rusk was sure that he'd recorded every detail, he stepped toward the door. He didn't see any obvious way of opening it. It had no handle, or knob. There was no keypad. He supposed it might open with a radio frequency combination, or have a light sensitive lock. Maybe even something much more exotic. In the worst case, they could always force it open one way or another. The team had enough explosives to make an academy of archeologists cringe, but it probably wouldn't come to that.
One thing different about it, though, was a mark. Close to what he perceived as the middle of the door, was a dark indentation. The shape was familiar: like a four-leaf clover from Earth, with the top two leaves larger than the bottom two leaves. It was the Argonaut symbol for heart, equivalent to the human symbol with two bulges on top, narrowing to a vee at the bottom. This symbol, he thought he recalled, was associated with one of the primary nation-states during one of the high-tech civilizations. He should know it, and was irritated with himself for not being able to place it exactly. He'd studied this topic extensively for an exam, and he didn't usually forget.
Rusk let it go for the moment.
The question was, for him as training mission commander, should he continue as if he and his team were really in the Castor 6 system, alone and isolated, or recognize that this was anopportunity for some crack archeology team from Argo to take over?
Inside this lunar cavern, inside his helmet, where no one could see, Rusk frowned.
The chance of this sort of discovery was remote enough that it hadn't come up explicitly, and from experience he knew the real answer to the unknown range in possibilities had always been "use your best judgment."
And then he'd be judged in turn, later, with perfect and unforgiving hindsight.
He could argue either position, and he could see those with control over him and his future arguing the opposite positions. He imagined the back-and-forth conversation. He took a deep breath. People in charge always condoned success, when it could be visibly measured, but blasted failure. At this point, he and his team would get credit for the discovery, and credit for the methodology that produced it. Anatole's new algorithm had selected this site as more unnatural, as he defined it, than others. Any additional level of discovery would be a bonus, but only that, on top of the basic find.
He should stop now, he realized, from a political perspective. They'd score points for no additional risk.
As fascinating as Argonaut discoveries were, he'd grown up with them, and nothing here could match the importance of the initial exploration the previous generation had performed. Only something like opening a new solar system, or a multiple system like Castor 6, could compare to that.
Training his team should take precedence over a marginal increase in the archeological understanding of the ancient Argonauts, but it wasn't the safe move. Leading an unsupported team in an alien star system would require safety. He grunted to himself, "Too much second-guessing already." Safe or reckless?
Rusk made his decision. He stepped forward through theancient dust, stopping before the doorway and its dark symbol. He raised his hand and, with only a little hesitation, briskly knocked on the surface before him. The surface felt firm, and resonant. A satisfying sensation, even though he couldn't hear any sound. He spoke, but did not broadcast, "Is anyone home? We've arrived. Now I turn you over to the experts to follow with their slow, careful brushes."
Rusk stepped back, satisfied with the state of the universe.
"Rusk?" It was Griffin's voice, relayed to him from orbit. "About six seconds ago we picked up a neutrino pulse."
A neutrino pulse? That was far from the easiest thing to detect. And when he knocked? Exactly when he knocked? That seemed unlikely.
"From here you think?" he asked. "And real?"
"Yes," she replied. "Several dozen detections. Really strange, isn't it?"
Neutrinos barely interacted with anything. Gazillions spewed out of Pollux all the time, essentially all of them passing through everything peacefully, including a star and the entire planet of Argo. Spacecraft Cerenkov detectors were small and only picked up neutrinos as a by-product of monitoring dark drives, and without the drives they wouldn't even have known about the burst. Furthermore, Griffin had to have had a good position to intersect with the neutrinos.
A cold sweat trickled down Rusk's forehead, and he couldn't wipe it away because of the helmet. Was it possible that he'd triggered the neutrino pulse, with his simple knocking?
No ... couldn't be.
"Yes," said Griffin, "I've backtracked the trails, and the ninety-five percent confidence interval is centered within a kilometer of your location. Did anything happen down there in the last few minutes?"
A knock. That's all, but there it was. A giant black spot on hiscareer, for a little knock? Oh ... how? Ludicrous! And he had decided to play it responsible, to play it safe.
He took a few deep breaths. He was probably okay here. What could a neutrino signal do from a lunar base millions of years old, after all?
But a neutrino generator as an alarm system was a very, very strange thing indeed.
Copyright © 2008 by Michael S. Brotherton