Author : M.J. Hall

“Is this it?” the young man asked. “The evidence to prove your thesis?”

“Yes,” she said, with quiet conviction. “I think this artifact might be the key to the entire society. If it’s intact. If it still functions. If the scans read it right . . . “

For years she had taught about the Ancestors, a people of networks, and books of faces, and pale skin that would scald in sunlight. Her dark purple arms glowed magenta in the red light of the planet’s dying sun, a skin tone that evolved in their people through a thousand years of UV exposure on a planet practically devoid of ozone.

A beep sounded from the tablet in her hand.

“It’s here.” She spoke softly, as always, but now excitement sang in her voice.

She had read the works of all the old authors in her field—Willey, Jennings, Binford. Strange names from eons ago, and even stranger methods described in their work as they dug into the soil—actually touched the dirt!—with their primitive tools. Despite an odd sense of nostalgia, she knew the ionizing radiation from the loam beneath her would kill her within a week without lotion to block its harmful emanations. She didn’t dare touch it.

She squinted hard at the sheen on the soil’s surface for a moment. Then, with a careful hand, she drew two parallel lines in the soil above the artifact. Changing to the opposite axis, she drew two parallel lines, perpendicular to the first and intersecting them. Without glancing up, she began to lecture.

“Dr. Emuh believes that this symbol was religious iconography. But I think it served a social function. It was a crucial piece of etiquette in relating to others in the social network . . . “ She continued automatically as she adjusted the settings on her sonic trowel. Switching from magnetic imaging to an excavation feature, she carefully manipulated the parallel blades into the earth at her feet. The machine ticked off the centimeters as she squatted to push it farther into the iridescent soil. As she reached twenty centimeters below datum she paused, holding her breath in an effort to hold the blades completely still as she adjusted the settings. One slip now could ruin a lifetime’s work, or at least a dissertation’s worth.

Two more green blades extended, perpendicular to the first. They now formed a box around the location of the unseen artifact, and with the lightest touch she activated the bottom of the cube. Twenty centimeters below their feet another panel sealed off the bottom of the cube. Carefully, gently, and ever-so-slowly she removed the artifact, encased in its matrix of loam, the decayed midden of a thousand generations. Her student moved fast to slide the hovercart under the excavated block. Once it was safely delivered she adjusted the settings on her trowel once more. Sonic waves gently pulsed against the artifact, shaking the dirt of a thousand years away. She barely registered her student’s gasp as the small black rectangle was revealed.

Unconsciously, she held her breath once more as she keyed a final combination. The machine first vacuum-sealed the box, drying the contents instantaneously, then sent a full charge through the antiquated system. Without daring to look at her student, she touched the last key.

The artifact came to life, its screen glowing for the first time in a thousand years. Its mechanized voice droned a single word: “DROID”.

As she exhaled the breath she didn’t realize she’d been holding, she noticed her student’s grin.

“Congratulations, Doctor Aisling.”

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