by Deborah J. Ross, writing as Deborah Wheeler
As they continued across the massive forest, shipbrain sketched details of a variety of animals--insects, amphibians in the rivers and ponds, and reptiles, some of them the size of wolves. There seemed to be no recognizable primates or felines. Shipbrain continued to report nothing on the radio frequencies except natural background noise.
So much for my woodmen.
Without checking the scrubjet=s chronometer, Eril couldn=t be sure how long they=d been flying, watching and scanning. It felt like forever, suspended between forest below and equally endless sky above. Kithri said nothing about the flower field and very little about anything else.
The novelty of the planet quickly wore thin on Eril. He found himself itching for something--anything--to happen. This couldn=t be all there was--a few tantalizing mysteries and then nothing but hours on end of unremitting pastoral peacefulness.
He signaled shipbrain to pipe the radio scans to his headset. Maybe there was something out there after all and the dumb machine was too limited to recognize it.
He listened, hearing nothing but uncommunicative noise.
Eril=s thoughts turned to the unconscious man in the hold. Maybe they should find some place to set down and try to rouse him, find out who he was and where he=d come from. The stranger might even be from this world, peacefully exploring the tunnel when he and Kithri jolted out of nowhere. Eril instantly discarded the notion. For one thing, they=d been in their own Stayman--a normal jaydium tunnel of it anyway--when the spacer appeared. For another, the suit was clearly designed for work in space. Who in their right mind would go exploring a tunnel in extra-vehicular gear? Boredom must be corroding his brain, to even think of it.
Squawk!--BURST--bzzz--BURST-- Squawk! came shrieking over the headset. Eril nearly leapt out of his seat.
"I don=t know," he said, quickly scanning the location functions. "It=s gone now. Damn!"
"I=ll check shipbrain=s analysis." After a brief pause, she said, "Inconclusive. Could have been some natural source--lightning, something like that."
"No damned lightning made that sound."
"You know something shipbrain doesn=t?"
"I gotta hunch. I gotta hunch of a hunch. Where=s the source?"
"Shipbrain pins it near Port Ludlow--or where it used to be. We could fly there in an hour, if you want to check it out."
"You bet I do!"
Brushwacker cleared the last ridge. Eril and Kithri looked down into the depression where Port Ludlow had lain baking in the sun. No low, flat‑walled buildings of ash‑brick greeted them, no spaceport with its battered insystem traders and field of garishly painted scrubjets. No distant fields of sallow, struggling green, no tendril roads spewing forth plumes of powdery dust. After the forest, Eril hadn=t expected any of that. But neither did he expect what he did see.
Once, when he was a boy of four, the year before his father disappeared on that Exploration mission, Eril=s mother had taken him and his sister to an antique crafts exhibition. There he watched a glassblower fashion a fairy castle, looping and twisting the liquid glass into filigree designs. It was his earliest childhood memory.
Six-year-old Avery chose a winged horse for herself, but Eril had eyes only for the tower. It stood on his dresser, a touchstone for his imagination, until...he could not remember what happened to it. Now the memory of that childhood treasure rose up in front of his eyes, magnified a thousandfold and tinted like a watercolor rainbow, a crystal city set in a cup of living green.
"Lo-o-ok at that," Kithri said.
Eril leaned forward across her shoulders, straining for more, hardly daring to breathe least the city shimmer and evaporate like a fever-born mirage. Even at this distance, he could distinguish individual structures. A ruby spindle shone in the late afternoon sun, dwarfing a flat rectangular block of pearlescent lace and a chain of smaller towers linked at every level by bridges of the same translucent material. A series of causeways, sapphire blue and turquoise, wound through the forest of towers.
As they drew nearer, Eril realized that the city was not nearly as large as it first seemed. He was accustomed to the scale of artificial satellites or ancient mega-cities like New Paris or Terillium City, where ten thousand might live and work within the same self-contained scraper. These shining buildings before him could not be more than three or four stories high. It was their slenderness and composition that made them seem so elegantly tall. Judging by Fifth Fed standards, he put the city=s entire population at fifty thousand people, no more.
Or perhaps they aren=t human. Perhaps we=ve discovered a new race of intelligent aliens! That had only happened twice before in humankind=s exploration of space and in neither case were the aliens this sophisticated. He=d met a few during the early years of the war, semi-telepathic anthropoids who quickly withdrew to their own planets at the first sign of interstellar warfare. The pseudofelines were even more reclusive and limited their own colonies to less than a dozen individuals.
When he first went into space, Eril thought he wanted adventure, the biggest there was. Before him lay the wildest discovery he could ever hope to make, even in the far-flung Exploration Corps.
A long-remembered quiver shot through him like an ember leaping into flame. At any moment, the city people would spot the scrubjet and send out an envoy.
Wait until the Council gets my report--first the spaceman and now a whole new civilization! If only Weiram could see it...
"Whatever made the radio signal, it wasn=t that city," Kithri said in a puzzled voice. "There=s nothing alive down there."
Eril=s mind still roiled with images of a brilliant new interspecies alliance. "What are you talking about? It=s got to come from there. It couldn=t have been anything else. I=m betting we=ve just made First Contact with a new civilization!"
"I=m betting you=ve got rocks in your skull," she retorted. "I=ve been monitoring the infrared and motion scans, and there=s not a trace. And no radio, either. The burst must have been a natural fluke, just like shipbrain said. If anyone was there, their radar would have picked us up by now and they=d have sent someone to check us out."
Eril skin prickled. Logically she was correct, but it wasn=t logic that had kept him alive through one dog-fight after another at the end of the war. Maybe he was fooling himself, maybe he wanted the city to have inhabitants. Maybe he wanted an excuse not to go back--not yet, not empty-handed. Whatever his rationalizations, he couldn=t shake the bone-deep certainty that the noise burst had been from some advanced, power-using intelligence.
But would such an intelligence necessarily be friendly? The two alien races known to the Federation were timid and anything but warlike, but he had no way of knowing if they were a fluke or the rule.
Their radar would have picked us up, Kithri had reminded him. Were they even now being tracked by hidden weapons? Was the city=s silence an absence--or a lure?
Kithri brought >Wacker down into the shallow bowl of parkland that surrounded the city. With a sinking heart, Eril recognized the signs of deterioration‑‑the splintered towers, the shredded supports beneath the causeways, the bridges whose lacy structures had crumbled in patches. The cores of the buildings still stood upright, lonely and proud as they slowly lost their battle with the elements. His fairytale city was nothing but a decaying ruin.
"Eril, wait!" Kithri said suddenly. "On the infrared--I=m picking up something moving on the far perimeter, something small, or maybe there=s only one of them. I--you could be right..."
An alien survivor, Eril wondered, or only a large animal, something we missed in the forest? Hope soared in him again.
They came around to the far side of the city, following the location of the reading, to hover over a belt of velvety tree-dotted lawns. Eril had seen similar gardens on long-civilized worlds, intricate orchestrations of botanical species chosen for their nonproliferating nature. They required little maintenance to preserve the original landscaping.
On the far side of the park lay a huge, flat field. Where it was not pock-marked by faded blast‑sites, the surface was smooth, the color of cream instead of the charcoal ceramic asphalt used by the Federation in its spaceports. A chain of crumbling buildings, most likely control towers, ran down the center like the shattered fragments of a spinal column. Nothing else, not even the rusting framework of a abandoned ship, rose above the level surface.
"You could berth twenty‑‑no, thirty starcruisers out there without being crowded," Eril said.
Kithri=s voice sounded tinny in the cramped cockpit. "Even during the war, we always had something, if only some old insystem junker."
"Jaydium kept us coming back. Even with the Fed falling apart, that was too valuable to forget."
"But they didn=t come back here. Eril, could that mean‑‑no Federation at all, no space travel, maybe the whole place left to rot like some sort of graveyard planet?"
"If you=d built a spaceport that size, and a city like that, would you just leave?"
"Not if I had any choice," she answered bleakly. "But if they weren=t human, why should they even think like us?"
"There=s got to be something left," he said stubbornly. "Something. Where was that heat source?"
"It=s gone out of range. Or maybe the damned detector malfunctioned and it never was there at all."
"No matter, we=ll be waiting for it when it sticks its pitouchee out again."
"Uhn!" came from behind them, a voice barely recognizable as human. The spaceman, as if following a carefully orchestrated script, had woken up.
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