“You know, sometimes I think of the years ahead, when our present civilization has turned to dust, and a new civilization thrives here. They’ll probably dig up the past, just like we do. I hope these aren’t the artifacts we leave behind for them.”
Deputy Peacekeeper San Kepolis stood atop a large pile of pulpy debris, just a few meters from the hole where that debris had just been removed. Even after being buried for at least a century, San could tell that the debris was clearly made up of building materials designed to provide non-load partitions and walls between offices.
Deputy Frank DeJaye walked up behind her, surveying the debris, and the hole. “Oh, I dunno. The archeologists of the future might be unhappy that we’re destroying so much of our own archeological history, just to clean things up and provide for our own present.” San turned and glared at Frank, who shrugged. “Just offering another viewpoint.”
Behind them both, Commander Thomas Beak chuckled. “I don’t think our descendants will mind if we tidy up a bit. After all, if we don’t, sooner or later our children’ll have to do it. And I’m sure they’d mind that.”
San and Frank both nodded, and all of them looked down into the hole before them. Actually, it wasn’t a hole, so much as it was a pit… roughly twenty meters wide and deep, and nearly a hundred meters long. There were dozens of people, in groups of three and four, spread out along the excavation. One or two of each group used sensory equipment to search the ground around them, while the others used shovels and finer digging gear to sift through the dirt. It was a sunny day, with few clouds in the air, and the digging crews were mostly working in light shirts (or none) and shorts, many with strap-on kneepads. It looked to all the world like an excavation in ancient Egypt, or perhaps an unearthed Roman villa.
In fact, they were on-site of a scientific research laboratory in Namerica, built no more than two hundred and fifty years ago.
It was part of a Peacekeeper’s job to monitor activities outside of the cities most people lived in. This site was within the region monitored by the PKs stationed at Midland City, so Thomas had been assigning one of his officers to regular checkup duty on a rotating basis since he had taken command of the station. Normally, the PKs only needed to stop in every so often, make sure no undue risks or liberties were being taken, and occasionally assist in any problems that might arise, rare as they were.
Today had been Frank’s day to keep an eye on the diggers, his first day of the rotation. Thomas and San had been outside of the city, taking the opportunity to see some of the frontier Thomas had recently assumed responsibility of, when Frank had radioed them about a problem. So they swung their gyrobikes northward and, within an hour, were standing with Frank at the edge of the excavation.
San was the first to see the man approaching from the side of the pit. “There… that’s Dr. Madison. He’s overseeing the project,” she explained to Thomas. They waited for Dr. Madison to climb the sturdy ladder against the wall of the pit. He had a sec tablet in one hand, and instead of depositing it in a pocket, he took his time and ascended the ladder one-handed. When he reached the top, he looked up at the three Peacekeepers.
“Oh… are you the new Commander? I thought I’d heard… that Cartier left.”
“Commander Thomas Beak,” Thomas introduced himself and extended a hand. Dr. Madison paused, an action the three Peacekeepers silently noted. Then he wiped his dusty hand on his dustier shorts, reached out and shook Thomas’ hand. San and Frank exchanged glances, but Thomas pretended not to notice. “I understand something’s wrong out here?”
“Yes, it looks like it,” Dr. Madison replied. “I don’t know if Deputy Kepolis brought you up to date on our project, but we were looking for a radiation source. Prior excavations revealed low-level radioactivity, and research into the site’s cells suggested there was once a radiation storage site here.”
“Yes, San did pass that on to me. So, I take it you’re having trouble finding anything?”
“No, that’s not it,” Madison said, in a noticeably curt manner. “We’ve reached the site specified on the cells, and we do get residual radiation signs from there. We’ve already begun decon treatments.”
Dr. Madison stared pointedly at Thomas, and Thomas glanced at San for help. She seemed to be as confused as he was, so he turned back to Madison. “All right, I give up. Where’s the problem here?”
Dr. Madison heaved a sigh of exasperation and thrust the sec tablet at Beak. “Look: Our cells contain the old records for this area, including every source of radioactive material, its amounts, and its status. Everything that was listed in this area was accounted for, years ago. Except at this spot.”
“But you found radiation,” Thomas stated, and Madison nodded. “If unlisted radioactive material was here, and isn’t here now…”
“You’re finally getting it,” Dr. Madison replied, somewhat condescendingly. “There could be more of this unknown radiation source, somewhere between here and anywhere, and we have no idea where or how much! Someone’s screwed up the historical data!”
“All right, all right,” Beak said, examining the data on the tablet. “Are you sure there’s no sub-level below this one, which you haven’t reached?”
“We’re looking for one, now,” Madison told him. “So far, we haven’t found anything larger than a drainpipe continuing below this level. We’re still looking, though.”
“Fine.” Thomas set the sec tablet to copy and download its data, handed it back to Madison, then set his sleeve sec to receive the data from the tablet. “Keep at it. We’ll see if we can find anything to help you.”
“What do you think you’re going to find that we don’t already know about?” Madison asked, pocketing the tablet. “A hidden vault under the floor, maybe?”
Thomas regarded Dr. Madison with a cold stare. Then, without replying, he turned and headed back to the parked gyrocycles. San followed in a moment, and Frank moved to block Dr. Madison when he started to follow them. “Don’t you have some more digging to do, Doctor?” Frank snapped. Madison glared up at Frank, snorted, and turned back to the pit.
Thomas reached his bike and thumbed the starter. When San reached her bike, parked next to his, he said, “Would you rather stay here and monitor the dig, or are you coming back to Midland with me?”
“Commander,” San offered, “I swear, since I’ve been out here, Madison has never acted that way with me—”
“It’s okay, San,” Thomas said, cutting her off. “I’ve dealt with my share of bigots. Funny, you don’t run into too many Neanderthal scientists these days.” San smiled at that, and visibly relaxed. “I could use your help accessing the cells… you probably know this area much better than I do.”
“Sure.” San hopped aboard her bike and thumbed the starter. “Frank,” she called out, “keep an eye on that idiot. We’ll be in touch.”
Officer “Teez” Laird was seated at the Commander’s desk when Thomas and San walked into the station. “Hey… that was a quick tour,” he said. “What happened? You have a problem with one of those bikes?”
“No,” San replied, hanging her jacket up on the hook by the door. “We made a detour to the excavation site.”
“Something going on up there?”
“Yeah,” Thomas nodded. “They discovered unexpected radiation, but they can’t find an accounted-for source. We’re going to see if we can figure out what the historical cells missed.”
“Oh.” Teez reached forward to clear the sec on the desk. “Here, let me—”
“No, that’s okay, we’ll use the conference room,” Thomas said, motioning at him to stay where he was. “What are you looking at, anyway?”
“Oh, it’s just the news,” Teez replied. San had stopped at the mini-kitchen to fix herself a drink, and Thomas noticed Teez surreptitiously watching her as she did so. He seemed to relax when she finished and walked into the conference room. Thomas fixed himself a drink when she was finished, but before joining her in the conference room, he stepped over to Teez.
“How do they look?”
“No problems, so far,” Teez said in a low voice. “They’re about eight million miles out, reporting no flares or micrometeorites worth mentioning.”
“Great, great.” Thomas patted Teez on the back, then turned to join San in the conference room. He had noted that, since their former Commander had volunteered for the new Mars mission, that San had pointedly avoided any news on the mission. Thomas hoped that she would eventually forgive Matt his decision to go, but until then, had decided there was little need to bring it up. Still, he couldn’t help following the mission, and like most others, he often found himself hanging on every report they sent back.
San had already activated the large sec on the wall, but she was waiting for Thomas before going any further. When Thomas entered the conference room, she said, “You know, some of those old research institutes used to build separate storage sheds nearby the main buildings, so they could keep samples nearby but well-isolated.”
“I thought of that, too,” Thomas agreed. “But I think if they’d done that, Dr. Madison’s people would have found it already. If it was in the plans, it would be the first thing they would have excavated. If it was in the plans but removed, they would have picked up residual traces of radiation in obvious places. So there probably wasn’t a shed. At least, not nearby.” He turned to the wall sec. “Secretary: Show me—” he stopped and considered a moment, before continuing—“show me the NA(s)5 region map.” In a second, a map covering the regions surrounding Midland appeared, with grid references and landmarks displayed. He verbally narrowed the map reference down to the region where the excavation was located, and the sec zoomed in on the appropriate area. “What was the political designation of this region two hundred years ago?”
The sec came back with an answer almost immediately: “Tulsa, Oklahoma, United States of America.”
“Okay, let’s see.” Thomas stroked his smooth chin. “Search for any cells recorded by public media corresponding to that region, and display description.”
There was a pause of a few seconds. Then the screen filled with a list of recordings, at least fifty of them displayed on the screen, and scroll arrows indicating many more to come. Many of the listings included detailed descriptions, but many of them contained no more than a few key words, such as “crime”, “budget”, “weather”, “gun control”, “civic event”, et cetera.
“Whoops,” Thomas said. “I never would have guessed there were that many recordings still intact and in our files. I wonder how specific we can get?”
“What, specifically, are you looking for?” San asked.
“I wanted to find any information on the early recovery period of that region,” Thomas explained. “Different areas went about their recovery in different ways. Secretary, eliminate all listings without key words, ‘commercial’, scientific’ or ‘relocation’.”
The list changed, but it still filled the screen. “Oh, mother,” Thomas said under his breath.
“Maybe we’d better just start scanning through some of them,” San said. “We may get a clue to speed up the process along the way.”
“I guess so,” Thomas agreed. Selecting an entry by tapping on the screen with a finger, he said, “Display.” There was a brief pause, then the screen went blank. It was replaced by an image of a man in a business suit, standing in an open lot with a silver tube in one hand. It was a television broadcast cell, Thomas recognized immediately. From the attitude of the person standing in the middle of the image, he guessed it was a public information broadcast. The figure began speaking, holding one end of the tube close to his mouth. Of course… a handheld microphone, Thomas realized.
“We’re here on the site in contention, the sixty-acre property formerly owned by Congressman Gerard Ryan. As you can see, the surveyors are already on site, as well as the new property owners, Hank Addison and Rayna Evans. Mr. Addison…”
“Increase speed 100%,” Thomas requested, and the recording sped up to twice the speed previous. His first choice was apparently not germane to their search, being mostly concerned with the property in question being converted into public housing. After listening for a minute longer, Thomas ended the recording and selected another.
“The damage started in the southwest corner, when the floodwaters weakened the foundation on this side. When the west wall collapsed, the rest of the structure slid into the waters right behind it…”
“We’re here waiting for the Mayor and City Councilman to appear, to begin the dedication of the new police headquarters…”
“This is the suburban townhouse where Mrs. Francine Reynolds was attacked by the closet rapist. He broke in while no one was home, then waited in th…”
“Christ,” Thomas commented. “What was this, the high crime region of the country?”
“Let’s try this,” San said. “Secretary, advance recordings fifty years, and continue.”
“The east side recycling facility was closed today, for the duration. Until authorities determine whether the facility has been illegally disposing of…”
“This is the new Tulsa Government Mall, now open for business. All city government services have been relocated to this facility, or are in the process…”
The Taylor family support facility, the first of the old government buildings to be converted into temporary housing, is finally seeing some relief in the form of…”
“Tulsa Government Mall has requested assistance from the Federal government to provide support during the relocation of the State Revenue Institute…”
“As more businesses are relocating to centralized industrial parks or malls, the city is discovering how much of its infrastructure must be reshuffled to adequately service these new facilities. The recent electrical outages…”
“Hey, I think we’ve got something here,” Thomas said. “Services were centralized. City services were redistributed.”
“And they needed outside support for difficult relocation efforts,” San added. “So the research facility may have moved to a centralized location, too. The radioactive matter was probably moved, too.”
“And the records were simply lost in the confusion,” Thomas concluded. “We’re going to have to find the location of the relocated research facilities.”
“They’ve probably been reclaimed already,” San pointed out.
“But if a storage vault of radioactive material was accidentally not recorded, it might have been missed.” Thomas drained the last from his cup. “We’re going to have to find them, and check them all.”
“Thomas. Dr. Madison. Come over here.”
Thomas and Dr. Madison both heard San clearly, despite the distances between them all. They stood scores of meters apart, on flat dry land lightly peppered with thin scrub and small rocks. There was little for sound to do in such an empty area except bounce along the dry ground and travel to its heart’s content. The site was kilometers away from the excavation where Dr. Madison’s crews were working, in the middle of a fairly flat, barren area indicated on the cells as the location of an old research complex. Thomas was the first to start toward San when he heard her call out. Dr. Madison, being closer to San than Thomas was, watched him approach and pass by on the way to San. A moment later, he sighed and followed.
When Thomas reached San’s side, she was making adjustments to the PRT control on her sec. The PRT was part of the Peacekeeper’s standard equipment, and was stowed on a clip attached to the inner sleeve of the PK uniform. The sec was attached to this sleeve, as well, and it not only acted as the control console for the PRT, it functioned as a monitor and recorder for its readings. When she was through tapping new settings through the sec, she pointed the PRT at the ground before her.
The tiny rectangular device, not much longer than San’s fingers, made no sound or indication that it was functioning, save a single yellow telltale on its wide face. But on San’s sec screen, an image was forming, a reflection of the finely tuned and pulsed radio signal from the PRT. It was cubical, and the imaging circuitry in the sec made it clear that it was large and deeply buried. A moment later, the image was joined by a straight channel, which ran from its side under their feet, and terminated a dozen meters away. The sec began printing further details on its screen, information about the object.
“About twelve meters down,” San retranslated the PRT data for Thomas and Dr. Madison’s benefit. “Six meters by six meters, about a meter thick. Lead and packed ceramic. There’s a corridor that connects to it, that ends in an open shaft…” San turned and pointed along the ground past them… “about there. And I can’t get any radiation readings, but I can detect some heavy density objects inside. Shaped like containers.”
“That’s it.” Thomas smiled and gestured at the ground beneath their feet. “There’s your vault, Doctor. Complete with what sounds like a radiation storage container inside. It was probably constructed after the rest of the facility to store the materials, and somehow the revisions were lost to the public record… not surprising, considering the problems this area had after the mid-2000s. We’ll do a bit more surveying, and post the site of that open corridor for you. It would probably make sense to see if you can get through from there, first. It’s likely to be easiest.”
Dr. Madison took turns staring at San’s sec, San, Thomas, and the ground at their feet. When he finally brought his eyes back up to Thomas, his expression was very different than when the two had first met. “Okay, I’ll have my people here in the morning. “I’d appreciate it if you could have this area cordoned off for us, Peacekeeper.”
“That won’t be a problem, Doctor,” Thomas told him.
“That was good detective work you all did,” Dr. Madison added. “You saved me from a lot of wasted time and effort.”
“You might not want to say that, until you’ve gotten in there and found what you’re looking for,” Thomas advised.
“No, I’m sure that’s it,” Madison nodded. “Thanks again, Peacekeeper.”
With that, Madison turned and began walking back to the gyrocab, dictating orders into his sec as he walked. Thomas waited until he was well out of earshot, before leaning over to San.
“I don’t remember his thanking us the first time.”
San leaned back to Thomas. “Well, that’s the way it goes, sometimes. At least he’ll find his radiation source. And once his people vacate the other site, we can recommend a total reclamation of the area. One more old site cleaned up. Two, actually, since we found this one.”
Thomas glanced over at San. “That’s the best part, to you, isn’t it? The reclamation of the old building sites… the restoring of the original land?”
“Absolutely,” San said, as they started back to the gyrocab. “Anything that advances the reconstruction of this land is a good thing, to me. The sooner, the better.”
“Then, I guess we’d better get busy marking the area off for Madison,” Thomas stated.
“Oh, no hurry,” San smiled. “Go ahead, grab a drink in the cab. Go talk to the friend you just made.”
Thomas glanced after Dr. Madison. “You sure he wants to talk to me?”
San grinned mischievously. “What do you care?”