28 August 2014

The city on Dite

One night I was at the rec facility on Derva having some dinner with Hatfield, MacRoi, Isaaks, and Kim. Kim was new to Derva and Aocer had asked us to make him feel welcome. Kim was new to the company, having just finished his training as a System Engineer, and would soon take up a position on the maintenance team at Ipsha Station. There he would assist his superiors in keeping their little portion of the System running correctly. His job would not be glamorous and could not make him famous, but the entire System depends on men like him who keep the vehicles moving. Aocer, himself, was detained on Remer compiling reports on the success of the local breeding programs. This was, much like Kim's upcoming position, unglamorous, but Aocer had a way of making his reports enjoyable to read. The more mundane the subject, the greater the liberty he took with language and structure. Hatfield, whom I introduced to Aocer after that strange incident on Plinth, related to us a report Aocer had written on Kitap. A university team elsewhere had asserted a certain relationship between upper atmosphere composition and rabbit breeding cycles in dry, temperate forests of fruit trees. Wild rabbits were common to the worlds, but only fruit trees had been seeded on Kitap, making it an excellent site for verification of the theory. Aocer, his career still being held up over his actions on Tront, was considered by the Phase Administrator to be an excellent choice for what was seen as an exercise in tedium. Upon his arrival on Kitap, Aocer threw himself into his work. It took the better part of three drinks at the rec facility before he had full access to the local research database, and another drink to determine that Kitap had entirely the wrong upper atmospheric conditions to permit either a proof or a disproof of the theory at hand. Eager to keep himself busy, he began visiting expat markets to collect samples of rabbit meat and fur, mounted several grand hunting expeditions to an apple forest, and cross-referenced immense portions of the animal studies available to him there. Four months were spent collecting data and another three in compiling his preliminary report. He did not, per Hatfield's rather mundane telling of the story, ever give a conclusive opinion one way or the other on the theory. The report was rather a detailed scrutiny of the local courtship rituals of the expat communities nearby the Station and the forest as compared to the mating habits of the wild rabbits. At points the report confused to the two as to imply that the expats were seducing, or being seduced, by rabbits. The analytical details supporting his supposed research was locked away in the appendices via a secret language called Pig Latin, or so I have been told. When I asked Aocer himself about this, he told me that most of the data he had cited were randomly chosen from the archives via a search for 'rabbit'. Nobody knows if our superiors ever read his report, but it was filed in the company archives to collect whatever the digital form of dust is. Aocer was transferred back to Tront in a non-judicial role, but his nephew began to make the family fortunes by exporting apple wines and rabbit furs from Kitap through the system. If you're interested in a more elaborated version of this little tale, I suggest following up with Isaaks as he tells it with a lot more flourish than I do. It was at the tail end of this dinner that MacRoi and I stepped out onto one of the balconies overlooking the courtyard park to enjoy some of the cool evening air. MacRoi, you must remember, works in security and is cleared for a lot of information that you or I would not normally be privy to. Normally this means nothing to our friendship, since corporate security only has a few responsibilities. They enforce the protocols to prevent plagues from spreading through the system, they keep the expats from moving between worlds or back to Earth, and they keep the inner workings of the transit system itself classified. The protocols are simple and effective. Medical teams are sent to each planet to provide healthcare to the Station workers and expats living nearby. The first arrive as small teams during the initial Station construction, and before the first expats are brought in, a large hospital is well-staffed. Radiation from the threshholds sterilizes the outside of the trains, while passengers and contents are quarantined on at the receiving station for a few days. Biochem analyzers in each Station search through the air, water, sewage, food, and trash for any diseases found by the network of hospitals. If some stray organism is found that could present a threat to Earth, it is the security teams that close off worlds and idle trains until either a solution is found or the threat revealed to be illusory. The expats, criminals who have chosen exile over imprisonment, are likewise isolated from Earth. Free to communicate with all of the other worlds but barred from transiting away from their assigned location, they can still enjoy most of the perks of civilization and the rewards of being able to claim and develop the new worlds. To keep them from returning to Earth with new fortunes or taking out any form of vengeance against those still on Earth, all of their communications are monitored by corporate security and each Station and research outpost is designed as a fortress. The company is scheduled to open planets up for free settlement one hundred years after the last expat arrival which means Dimet will be the first in another twenty-seven years, but until then only expats and company employees will call any of the worlds home. The design of the transit system is almost as big of a secret as how it works. Giant train-like vehicles run from world to world across the near-magical thresholds. How the company opens and controls the thresholds is one of our biggest secrets. In the unlikely occurrence of sentient alien contact, the ability to shuttle people and resources between worlds almost instantly is an ability we could apply to great effect but which could easily be used against us by anything with malicious intent. The structure of the network connecting the worlds is supposed to be a secret as well, but by now everyone knows of the linear path from Earth through the first ten worlds to the great hub at Pantic. Having been trained as a vehicle operator at Pantic when I first joined the company as well as my many return trips, both business and personal, I can readily attest that none of the leaked images of that facility attest to the grandeur, majesty, and security that it so justifiably warrants. All traffic from Earth past the Phase One worlds goes through Pantic, as well as the transiting between all eighty of the other worlds. Most travelers are unaware that they have been to Pantic, as the vehicles have almost no windows and usually move from one threshold through to another without stopping. It is through the efforts of engineers like Kim and security personnel like MacRoi that Pantic can continue to function as the heart of the network. There are rumors that the widespread knowledge of Pantic has caused concern among the company hierarchy and led to development of a second hub, but that is beyond my knowledge. Knowing all of this, it caught me off-guard when MacRoi casually mentioned that I should accompany him on a visit to M4276. Firstly, because MacRoi is the sort of man who enjoys his work enough that a vacation seems a spurious distraction from what he considers important. Secondly, MacRoi is one of the company's masters at diffusing riotous situations involving angry expats, while M4276 is an unsettled world where the Station is little more than a depot and quarters for the construction crew. Thirdly, because there wasn't even a construction crew on M4276. It had been transferred elsewhere shortly before rumors began that a city had been found by one of the scout drones. One of the first things done to establish a new Station is the dispatching of a small drone through the threshold. This lets the exploration team know if there is sufficient space for a station and the general topography. None of the atmospheres can support life, so the depot and the construction crew quarters are self-contained and buried inside a concrete shell. Balloons lift up survey packages and drones are flown in all directions to determine the location of any large bodies of water. Planets without sufficient water are not developed much past that point, but for those falling within the necessary parameters, algae and plankton from Earth's own seas are left to grow. Additional plants and animals are added as the atmosphere changes until the world is tolerable for settlement. According to legends and scuttlebutt, the drones on M4276 found oceans, but also found the remains of a city, leaked pictures show sunlight glinting off of skyscrapers on an island. The company, as any reasonable person would expect, denies that any aliens ruins have been found on any world. M4276 was, according to every publicly available record, a lifeless world. It was not a dead world where there had once been life, now passed, but sterile from the time of its own formation. The position the company repeated was cold, rational, and believed by practically nobody. We stared at each other while I thought, he with his steady patience and myself in dumbfounded amazement. As soon as I had finished thinking it through and recovered my senses, I agreed to accompany him. I tried to start a discussion into the logistics of the journey, but each time I brought up a point of concern he dismissed it with a wave of his hand. 'Already handled,' he would say. Sundries, shelters, survival suits, transportation, food, and even the time allocations were 'already handled.' I wasn't sure whether to be offended at his presumptions, ashamed of my own predictability, or put at ease by the way he trivialized matters that the company preferred remain complicated. With everything apparently handled, we rejoined our table for a few more drinks before parting for the evening. Several weeks later, having not heard from MacRoi in the interim, I was called to a meeting in the Planetary Administrator's office on Tront. I arrived fifteen minutes early and was ushered into a tiny office. I was hastily introduced to the Planetary Administrator, the Phase Administrators for Phases Three and Seven, and the Security Administrator for Phase Fifteen. Phase Fifteen had not, to my knowledge, completed seeding, so the presence of a Security Officer outside of that Phase caught me off guard. I became immediately suspicious that MacRoi's silence was not intentional on his part, but imposed by others in his department. The Administrator's must have sensed my concern. The formalities were concluded by telling me that I was in no trouble whatsoever. This is, of course, what they tell everyone who is in trouble. The rest of the meeting managed to prove them right. No questions were asked about my friendship with MacRoi or our previously planned excursion. I was, for reasons not explicitly stated but seemingly tied to my adaptability, being promoted early and suprisingly high. I was now the Phase Administrator for Phase Eighty-Seven, which had just opened up for initial construction. The releases provided to the press only discussed Phases through 25 inclusively, but the company had been working tirelessly to spread humanity through the universe and was well ahead of the publicly available schedule. My staff was still being selected and informed, and, until facilities were ready within Phase Eighty-Seven, would be operating out of a few empty warehouses on Pantic. I returned to my quarters as quickly as I could and began to box up my things. By quietly slipping some money to the expats looking for work in the residential section, I was able to move all of my belongings to Pantic by the following evening and took up residence in the Bachelor Officer Quarters, a building that I now realized was not as oversized as I had previously thought. The next morning I heard from MacRoi, now my own Security Administrator, about our expedition to what was now Dite, the third world of Phase Eighty-Seven. In one of my few acts as Administrator, I reduced the construction crews of the other nine worlds to two shifts, transferring the remainder to Dite, under the pretext of making it a hub within the Phase. My position put me mostly above question, so my justifications were unnecessary but I will always prefer to err on the side of caution. MacRoi and I traveled to Dite during the local spring, again with a false pretense, this time of observing first-hand the seeding of the dead seas with algae and plankton, something done by disposable drones and thoroughly uninteresting to actually observe. During lunch on our second day of this supposed observation, MacRoi outlined his plan to me. This wavered regularly between extensive detail and extreme vagaries. There had been placed, at his discretion, survival stations for unfortunate explorers approximately twenty-five miles apart between Dite Station and the phantom city. Each of these was well-supplied and designed to last from the beginning of human exploration of the planet until the world was tame enough for men to breathe the open air. Using these as shelter, his security team could escort us to the city in a few weeks time. This I promptly overruled. As the Phase Administrator, I needed no permission to tour my worlds, such familiarity was something the company encouraged, so I countered that we should just fly out there, a journey of two days given the limitations of our vehicles in a low-oxygen atmosphere. He consented, although given how he had manipulated the situation to that point, this may have been his plan originally, and the matter was settled. The next morning, I met MacRoi and his team at the top of the secondary construction barracks, built to house the additional personnel I had been transferring in. An enclosed heliport that would have housed drones if it was the primary had been used as storage for the manned vehicles. When human exploration/rescue officially began, everything would operate out of the primary as if it were, as originally planned, the only heliport. The secondary nature of the barracks afforded us not only this extra space, but the privacy to organize our affairs there as well. MacRoi and several of his men would fly with out with me, resting at a shelter near the midway point and explore from another shelter a few miles away from the city. A secondary vehicle would resupply the shelter with food, fuel, and other sundries as many times as possible during our outing. Everything being settled, we set out shortly before dawn the next morning. The sky, construction barracks being notoriously bereft of windows so I had not seen the Dite sky before, was a brownish-red through which clouds of a yellow-greenish color seemed to drift. We flew across an extensive array of hills and what may have been a large plain dotted with rust-colored lakes. We flew across a small mountain range and then a larger one that seemed to run at an odd angle to the first. We flew and flew and spoke not a word among us although VanSmith, one of MacRoi's men with whom I became much better acquainted after this trip, kept studying me as if he was concerned I would panic. I tried to whittle the time away by looking out the window at this new world, for which I was now responsible, and contemplating its future and potential past. Toward dusk we reached the designated shelter, and when the vehicle was safely stored we prepared our food into some semblance of a decent meal. There was ample food and water within the shelter, enough to our small group to survive several months or more, but we were trying to have as little impact as possible on future denizens. These shelters always became the first homes of the expats. While we ate, Lorwence, our pilot, told us about one such shelter adaptation, but that story is for another time. We went to sleep as we could, but were awakened frequently in the night by the weather. A storm had moved in, heavy winds and rains were battering the shell of the structure with such force that we thought it almost certain to give way. The walls held though, as did the storm, delaying us for most of that day, and as we all deemed it unwise to fly through unknown, unlit lands at night, we spent a second, much more peaceful night, in that desolate place. The second leg of our trip was almost as uneventful as the first. We were given a flyby of the city, which appeared magnificently upon a large, wide hill that had it been any smaller or had steeper sides, would have been counted as a plateau. A number of other hills stretched around it in every direction for what must have been twenty miles or so, at least. These other hills were smaller to the north and west, but larger to the south and east. The city itself was, as cities go, not impressive by any means excepting that of its very existence. Barring organisms brought or sent by men using company resources, this world had no life. Yet standing on that hilltop was what appeared in every respect to be a city. Shining black and silvery towers stood comparable to a nine-story building with rich golden inlays. We could not see great details through the dingy air, but we could see enough to understand why rumors persisted of this place. In awed silence, we fly to the shelter, supped, and slept through the night. We walked out the next morning. Each of us wearing an appropriate survival suit for Dite and carrying all of the resources we could to record and sample anything we found. The hike seemed long, and I had to stop to catch my breathe more than once while MacRoi and his men circled patiently. They were normally calm and uninterested in what went on around them but the previous night's flyover had put them on edge. I don't know what they expected we would find there, but MacRoi tried to casually persuade me to take his extra sidearm. I declined, being much more comfortable with the rifle in my pack than a pistol, but it was agreed that we would all be armed when we gained sight of that place, and Lowrence would keep ready to come pick us up at a moments notice if anything untoward should happen. As we began to crest the last hill before the city, I did stop to pull out and load my rifle. MacRoi and his men continued to circle, changing places every few minutes as we walked so they would not become too comfortable and unobservant in any given post. It was also not lost on me that as the city was now in view, they didn't spend much time looking towards it as they did scanning the horizon behind us. We all shared the feeling of being watched, and of being followed. The city had at its outskirts small stone outcroppings. We were mostly put at ease by these, but kept up our vigilance as we moved forward towards the heart. MacRoi gave signals to his men and they began to walk off alone, although the growing chatter on the radio gave away their cautious concern. Eventually even MacRoi wandered off, but neither he nor the others saw anything alive other than occasional glimpses of each other or myself. For my part, once I was alone, I began to study the place, not with only a vague awareness of my surroundings as if I were a tourist in a bus terminal, but with a keen interest in what I was surrounded by. The city was magnificent. The city was desolate. The city was completely and utterly dead. The buildings were crystalline in nature. Not like diamonds, ice, or salt, but like pyrite. Large sheets matted together over time and weathered into the shape of buildings. Only a geologist could explain how they came to be, and a geologist I am not. Likewise, I could not explain the regularity of them, or the flattened pathways between them that seemed like poorly constructed roads. From above, it looked like a city, from within, it looked as if a giant hand had stabbed at the ground with giant squarish slabs. From above, organized and structured; from below, uneven and haphazard. The company had been right. This had never been a city, although even then I could see the tourist potential of a place that seemed so obviously at a distance what it most definitely was not up close. I wandered around a bit, taking pictures of the uneven ground, the piles of fallen debris at the edges of each tower, and the pockmarked and fractured walls. I radioed back to Dite Station with instructions to install a rail-line and permanent research station as soon as possible. With that, MacRoi and the others began to consolidate around me. They were each weighed down by several small boxes of rock samples, hanging from bands around their shoulders. I had taken many pictures but forgotten to collect any hard evidence. Even weighed down with rocks, the security detail easily kept up with me as we returned to the shelter. We talked constantly on our return trip to the Station, but not about the city. It has been many years now and the research station there has been operating for a while but I won't attend the opening of the new rail-line. The quiet, desolate, desperation of that place does not make me believe that it once sheltered life, but neither does it keep me from believing that it is haunted. I still dream of it every now and then, and in none of those dreams were we alone, but watched constantly by faces in non-existent windows, forever chasing footsteps across the uneven ground, every glint off of the broad rock-faces at ground level a momentary door to somewhere else that is best kept closed. Goe, always trying new things.