Author : Philip Berry
Olwen, the expedition’s chief archaeologist, was the first to see it. A line of metal protruding above the sand. There was a dip by the windward edge, where eddies of air had begun the excavation. She knew that she had found the top of the ancient city’s outer wall.
A week later, following the installation of automated sand-movers, she stood at the base of a great pit, looking up at a fully revealed, vertical expanse of titanium. She knew, from soundings taken by detector drones, that the wall extended in a smooth circle along a perimeter of a thousand kilometres. The wall was a metre thick. The revealed portion gleamed, its shine preserved despite a millennium since its burial. There was more metal in this wall than could be mined from every planet and asteroid known within the galactic empire to which she belonged.
In the hard tent Benson, her deputy, explained,
“Titanium does not exist on this planet. This wall – it’s seamless by the way – was cast in zero gravity and dropped. Inserted onto the landscape. Solid. Unbreakable.”
Next day she approached the wall. There were abrasions on the exterior surface. Blast traces. Here and there the faint imprint of a blow, from a diamond-tipped hammer perhaps. But no breach.
Later, Olwen’s team found the remains of another half-way to the perimeter’s central point. They bored an access well with an ionising drill and reinforced the sides with a series string-fields. At its bottom was a crumbling wall, only the base recognisable as a man-made thing. Benson held a fragment up,
“We’ve run the analysis. Calcium silicates, alite and belite, iron, aluminates… lime in the form of volcanic ash…”
“Cement. You’re describing cement. But there are no volcanoes on this planet.”
“Guess they brought the ingredients in from off-planet and poured it here. And it’s five hundred years older than the metal. Looks like they traded up.”
“What destroyed it?”
“I think it’s an alka-silica reaction. There’s opal in here, it reacts with water, forms an expanding gel. Blow-
outs, craters. It happened from the outside. Someone worked out how to degrade it by drilling bore holes and injecting in the water.”
Benson’s comm unit buzzed.
“Madam, we’ve found another structure, fifty clicks from here.”
“At the centre?”
“Sounds like it. Could be the first settlement.”
They flew up the well on steel lines, leaving the team to continue their exploration in the well.
It took a month to reveal the delicate traces of the wooden wall. Olwen insisted on hand-held vacuums to displace the sand, or soft-surface trowels. This, the original perimeter, with a diameter of ten kilometres and a circumference of thirty, was barely discernable to the untrained eye. When the trench was complete Benson walked Olwen along it. They stepped cautiously alongside the black mark.
“What happened here Benson?”
“Fire. There are charcoal traces everywhere.”
Later, in the hard tent, Benson spoke quietly. He sounded scared.
“I have a daughter.”
“There’s a story I read to her. Very old, very simple.”
“It’s about three pigs, and a wolf. They each build a house, one of straw, one of wood, one of brick. The first two get blown down, and the pigs run away. The third resists the wolf’s efforts, and they lure him down the chimney into a stew pot.”
“Don’t know it. No kids. Your point?”
“That’s maybe what happened here. The metal held, but the people fled. They gave up.”
“The wolf… he’s still out there.”