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Robert Silverberg

ACROSS A BILLION YEARS
excerpt
(for a reading diary)

 

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I personally discovered something of major importance this morning. And almost got myself fired for doing it. We still don't exactly understand what it is I found, but we know it's big. Possibly the biggest thing in High Ones archaeology up till now. Here's what happened--

After breakfast, five of us went out to the site to dig: me, Jan, Leroy Chang, Mirrik, and Kelly. At the present stage of things a five-man team is about as big as is efficient. The rest were in the lab, processing artifacts, dating things, running computer analyses, and doing other sorts of backstage work.

We are now pretty deep into the hillside, and the zone of High Ones occupation has widened considerably. Artifacts are thickly strewn about; we have more than a hundred inscription nodes already and a huge carton of plaques and puzzle boxes. All standard items, though; just more of them than usual.

It was a cool, rainy morning. They all are. We huddled under our weather shield and got to work. First Mirrik scooped out the backfill of soil that we had used to cover the actual excavation level. Then Kelly moved in with her vacuum-corer. The way we organized things, I got down in the hole to direct the work; Kelly crouched above me, drilling cores from the rock where I told her to; Mirrik stayed to my side, scooping up the debris with his tusks and carting it away; Jan ran the camera, filming everything in three dimensions; and Leroy, as the senior archaeologist of this particular team, kept a chart of all that went on.

For an hour the work was uneventful. Then we started coming around a zone of soft pinkish sandstone in which a batch of puzzle boxes were embedded. When you work hard enough and intensely enough, you start to become a kind of machine, sometimes, moving mechanically in an automatic rhythm, and that's how Kelly, Mirrik, and I were functioning. I'd point, Kelly would core, Mirrik would clear away; that exposed an artifact, which Jan photographed, Leroy charted, and I lifted carefully from its place to go into the collection box. Point, core, clear; photograph, chart, lift. Point, core, clear; photograph, chart, lift. Point, core, clear--

Something strange gleamed at me out of the sandstone.

It was a curved metal mass, gleaming brightly. From the gentleness of its curve I estimated that it was a globe of some kind at least one meter in diameter. It was fashioned of one of the customary gold alloys used by the High Ones for larger mechanisms; its surface was smooth in some places and covered with centimeter-high ridges in others.

"Bring that corer in here, Kelly!" I called. "Let's see what we've got!"

I guided her to the edges of the embedded artifact. Beautifully, delicately, she cored it free, exposing another few centimeters, and then a little more, and then still more. I scrabbled at the sand with my fingers, pushing it out of the way. Leroy didn't pay any attention to what we were doing; he was busy charting, or perhaps he was trying to get a little biology going with Jan. In any case both of them were well up above me on the rim of the pit and I was too involved in my digging to stop and see if Leroy had any special instructions for me.

"Here we go," I said to Kelly. "Follow the curve. See? Get the corer under here, and then--"

Kelly nodded. She looked tense and keyed-up with excitement, and when an android gets excited, it has to be something special. She gripped both handles of her corer and started drilling in from the side. The corer tip found a huge mass of sandstone and split it neatly. I started to heave debris, but Mirrik said, "That's too much for you, Tom. Get back." And jammed his tusks into the opening and pitched a half-ton of rubble out of sight.

Point, core, clear. Point, core, clear. I was drenched in sweat. Kelly, who doesn't sweat, somehow seemed flushed and sticky too. For ten minutes we went at it in a frenzied way, until half the globe was uncovered. I began to see a control panel and a variosity of knobs and buttons...

 

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