A stringy clump of recalcitrant grey hair flopped this way and that as the owner of the aged head methodically examined one of the ancient artifacts selected at random from an overflowing tray on a crudely constructed table. No more than a collection of large injection-molded packing cases pushed together to form a work surface, the ad hoc table was perfectly adequate for the task of sorting the incredible bounty unearthed during a laborious day of digging. It was hot and stuffy inside the tent, and the unlit stump of a cigar that presently hung precariously from the lips of the septuagenarian had fouled the air until it was fit for neither man nor beast.
A young head, eyes bright with excitement, suddenly appeared between the sun-bleached canvas flaps at the entrance to the tent and shouted, “Doctor Peterson, come quickly!” After coughing twice when it unwisely paused to breathe, it managed to choke out, “We’ve found something! Please come at once!”
The weatherworn face of Doctor Edward Peterson turned slowly to squint at the eager graduate student and sigh quietly. He’d seen that selfsame look on Bruce Priestley’s face many times before, and it might, or might not, be anything significant, but as expedition leader he was perforce obligated to take a look. Removing his eyeglasses unhurriedly, he rubbed his nose gently where the frame had rested and left slight indentations in the flesh. Then he carefully folded them before placing them into their hard protective case. It was almost impossible to get new eyeglasses these days, and he guarded the several pair he owned with a controlled fanaticism. Virtually everyone had been having their eyes corrected surgically since the process had become as routine as cleaning your teeth with a sonic toothbrush, but Doctor Peterson was a bit of an anachronism. His career in the field of archeology kept him living in the past, and he frowned upon modern technology, yet— he never hesitated to use it wherever it proved to be an invaluable tool for advancing his work. He insisted on living in a tent, while everyone else lived in temperature and humidity controlled portable shelters, but he allowed special digger droids to assist in earth removal efforts because they greatly facilitated access to the magnificent relics from the past. He’d sworn an oath to himself to use eyeglasses to correct the vision in his light-grey, senesced eyes until he could no longer replace the spectacles.
Doctor Peterson cleared his throat noisily, put his enormous, gnarled hands on the arms of his chair and pushed down as he rose to his feet. As he reached the entrance, his young assistant eagerly swept the tent flap aside, allowing fresh air to vivify the smoke saturated milieu inside the large tent and bathing the doctor in the summer afternoon’s harsh sunlight. Doctor Peterson squinted, ducked his head, and propelled his sinewy six-foot four-inch frame outside, just as an early afternoon zephyr drifted leisurely through the camp.
Pausing for just a few seconds to allow his eyes to adjust to the bright light, he glanced at the horizon and again marveled to himself just how much the rolling landscape on this part of Mawcett always reminded him of his hometown in western Pennsylvania. If not for the purple and black leaves of the trees, and the tree trunks covered by a slippery, fibrous surface that constantly oozed a mucous-like substance, he could almost forget that he wasn’t near the town where he had spent his youth. Several varieties of fragrant wildflowers grew in great abundance around the camp and even made it smell like home. Perhaps that was why he’d selected this area for the dig site from among all the locations available on the uninhabited planet.
The weather on this June day also compared favorably to what he would have expected back home at this time of year. And each evening, every individual on the planet was treated to the most magnificent light show in the known universe. As the sun dipped slowly below the horizon, the sky virtually exploded into a brilliant spectacle of reds, yellows, oranges, and purples. It was almost worthwhile taking the long trip to Mawcett just to enjoy its panoramic sunsets.
Turning his craggy face with its hawk-like features and two days of salt and pepper beard stubble towards Priestly, Dr. Peterson said sternly, “I hope this is better than yesterday’s spectacular find, Bruce.”
Bruce Priestly grinned awkwardly as they started to walk. Twenty-six years young, with short brown hair, pale skin, and a thin frame, he looked more like an accountant than a field researcher. Standing barely five-foot seven-inches, he was shorter than the Doctor by more than half a foot. He lowered his medium brown eyes and put on his most apologetic face before saying, “It is, sir. I’m sorry about yesterday. I really thought that we were onto something when we found that concrete tunnel.”
“Bruce, since we know that this planet was home to an advanced civilization twenty thousand years ago, before some great, unknown disaster appears to have wiped out all sentient life, it’s logical to assume that we would find a sewer pipe or two. You have to investigate further before proclaiming to the entire camp that you’ve discovered a secret underground burial chamber. You have a fine mind and a brilliant future in Archeology, but you have to avoid getting carried away by exuberance before determining if your discovery has scientific validity.”
“Yes sir. That’s why I didn’t come get you hours ago.”
Doctor Peterson slowed his pace and cast an appraising eye towards Priestly. “Hours ago? What is it, another underground tunnel?”
“Not exactly. It’s more like a ramp that leads downward- but it does move horizontally underground after it descends about ten meters.”
“Ten meters?” Doctor Peterson said sharply. “That’s rather deep! But— I suppose it could lead to a sewerage treatment line.”
“I don’t believe that it is a sewer tunnel this time. We’ve excavated the tunnel and we’ve encountered a door.”
“A door? Made of concrete?”
“No sir, it appears to be some sort of metal or composite material. My laborers are vacuuming up the last of the dirt now, and I felt that you should be there when we opened it, even if it’s just a sewer connection point or pumping station.”
“If it’s been protected from erosion and corrosion, even a sewer plant can yield valuable information and artifacts.”
“Yes sir. That’s my thinking as well.”
To save time, the pair crossed an area where excavation work was going on. They were forced to pick their way carefully along narrow paths that wound through a checkerboard grid layout of five-meter square excavation areas marked with wooden stakes and string. All other dig sites on the planet used laser stakes positioned along two axis of the dig area’s perimeter. When activated they constantly drew and redrew a grid in light beams and presented no chance of anyone becoming tangled in string. But Doctor Peterson intractably insisted on the ancient system. Each time someone tripped on a stake or string, they would just sigh, shake their heads, and mumble a brief and unintelligible expletive.
When Bruce and the Doctor at last reached the beginning of a two-meter wide tunnel that descended slowly into the ground, Doctor Peterson halted and took out his eyeglasses. Bending, he closely examined the black shiny walls that bordered the entrance ramp, and slid his rough, calloused hand over the smooth, lustrous surface to feel the texture. Threadlike streaks of white in the solid wall gave the appearance of fractures.
“This is no sewer plant, Bruce. These walls were constructed with a highly-polished, metamorphic rock such as marble. I can’t see this sort of expensive construction material being used for the entrance to a utility plant. And this ramp has to be at least two meters wide.”
“When I saw the marble surface, I didn’t really think it was a sewer plant, Doctor,” Bruce Priestly admitted candidly, “which is why I’m so excited. I, uh, was trying not to carried away by exuberance.”
Doctor Peterson scowled at the comment, an obvious reference to his most recent chastisement, as he straightened up and rejoined Bruce who stood eagerly waiting, several feet ahead. With each step further into the tunnel, it grew darker and their nostrils were assailed by the pungent odor of damp soil and mold spores still lingering in the passageway. Their eyes, accustomed to the bright sun outside, slowly adjusted to the dim light of the tunnel. Dr. Peterson was able to see well enough to observe that the dirt had been thoroughly vacuum-ed up.
When they turned a corner some ten meters into the passageway, Dr. Peterson halted suddenly in surprise. The tunnel widened dramatically from two-meters to four, and some five-meters ahead, an ominous wall blocked their path. As black as midnight, it gleamed menacingly in the harsh light of portable Chembrite Light panels. Some thirty-seconds passed before Dr. Peterson moved forward again. Laborers cleaning up the last of the soil, parted to let them through as they approached.
“This is phenomenal!” Doctor Peterson said with excitement and awe in his voice as he stared at the wide door in the center of the wall. “There isn’t a speck of corrosion on the wall or door. It looks brand new. I wonder what it’s made of? Do you see a handle, or a way of opening it?”
“No sir,” Bruce said shaking his head. “I gave it a quick check before I came to get you. There doesn’t seem to be any easy way of opening it from this side.”
Doctor Peterson’s excitement had risen to rival that of Bruce, who was having great difficulty standing still and looking even marginally calm. Although Bruce’s arms were held rigidly at his side, his fingers were twitching spasmodically, and his breathing was as ragged as if he had just run a hundred meter sprint.
“Let’s get our portable x-ray, sonar, radiation, and air quality measuring equipment down here right away!” Doctor Peterson said obstreperously.
“It should be here any minute, Doctor.” Bruce said. “I sent for it when I came to get you.”
Doctor Peterson nodded absently at him then began a close examination of the door and wall as they waited.
When several laborers finally arrived with the equipment they had been sent to retrieve, a coterie of curious dig site team members with anxious faces trailed close behind. The rumor of a possible major discovery was already spreading through the camp like wildfire. Doctors Anthony Ramilo, Barbara Huften, and Dakshiku Vlashsku had dropped whatever they were doing and hurried along behind the laborers. As they crowded around the door for a closer look, their young assistants yanked aside the laborers who were trying to set up the equipment.
Doctor Huften slid her petite, five-foot two-inch body next to Doctor Peterson, fixed her pale-blue eyes intently on the door, and said in her surprisingly husky voice, “What is it, Edward?”
“We don’t know anything yet, Barbara, except that young Priestly has found a marble-lined tunnel that leads to this most extraordinary wall and door.”
“Any markings on the door?” Doctor Ramilo asked, as he tried to maneuver his own five-foot eight-inch body closer. His curly ebony hair and sable skin, features from his Moroccan heritage, seemed to give him an odd sort of kinship with the wall.
“No, Anthony, it’s just a plain black surface with no markings of any kind. Its only unusual feature is its size. Lord, it must be two-hundred centimeters wide! But more importantly— there’s not a single micron of corrosion or deterioration in evidence.” Straightening up, he turned and carefully waved his arms, saying, “Everyone stand back now so that we can get the equipment operating.”
The archeologists moved aside and watched as Doctor Peterson directed the setup and use of the testing equipment.
“Most unusual,” Doctor Peterson mumbled when the examination was finished. Raising his voice, he said, “The sonar won’t penetrate the door or wall, there’s no measurable radiation, and the x-ray radiography shows absolutely nothing.”
“Then it would seem that there’s little left to do except force open the door slightly and take new readings,” Doctor Huften said.
Everyone registered their concurrence that it was the only sensible action by nodding or mumbling something affirm-ative. Laborers were beckoned forward to force open the door using simple pry bars. As a precaution against possible security safeguards left by the planet’s former inhabitants, everyone not participating in the labor intensive effort moved well back.
Failing to make any headway, the laborers advanced to a two-meter long wrecking bar that allowed several to push or pull together. And when the simple methods proved unsuccessful, they set up a hydraulic unit that exerted up to a hundred-sixty tons of pressure on the door. To everyone’s amazement, the door still refused to budge a millimeter. As the hydraulic device reached its rated capacity, it automatic-ally shut down. The laborers stood back and looked to Doctor Peterson in confusion.
Doctor Peterson scowled and threw up his hands. “Okay, okay, use the laser torch,” he said resignedly. “But only along the edge so as to minimize the damage to the door and frame,” he added quickly.
After an hour of unsuccessfully trying to cut their way through the door, the laborers surrendered to its seeming invulnerability and turned off their equipment. When the laser had proven itself inadequate for the task, a plasma torch had been brought down into the tunnel. Although guaranteed to cut through thirty centimeters of solid steel, it too had failed to make the slightest progress. The archeologists, who had all moved well back when the plasma torch was ignited, now moved in from their positions of safety to examine the door.
“Amazing,” Doctor Huften said with obvious awe in her voice as she shook her head gently, “not a mark on the surface, and it’s barely warm to the touch from the cutting efforts. The door seems to have just soaked up the energy and heat from the laser and plasma torches like a sponge sops up water, and then— dissipated it somehow.
“In my fifty-three years, I’ve never heard of a metal that’s totally impervious to a plasma torch,” Doctor Ramilo said. “This is absolutely unprecedented.”
“It’s fairly obvious,” Doctor Peterson observed, “that we’re dealing with something incredibly unique here. We know that this planet has been devoid of sentient life for almost twenty-thousand years, but all previous discoveries have indicated the former inhabitants were considerably less technologically evolved than ourselves or any of the other species with whom we’ve made contact. Now we encounter a door that defies opening, and which is made of an unknown material that we can’t cut, or even mar, with our most powerful, commercially available, cutting implements. There must be something of immeasurable value behind this door for the former inhabitants to have zealously guarded it so.”
“Then again, it might be just an empty vault,” Doctor Vlashsku offered. He was one of only two Nordakians in the party, the other being his assistant, Glawth Djetch. The pair were the only ones in the camp taller than Doctor Peterson, owing to the natural size of their species. Where Nordakian women were seldom less than six feet tall, the males normally varied between seven and eight-feet in height. “Perhaps it was a place that was being prepared for some purpose such as storage of hazardous material. Or maybe it’s a military installation, and contains weapons of incredible power; perchance the very weapons that destroyed the former inhabitants of this planet. Or maybe it was a shelter to be used in the event of an enemy attack.”
“Perhaps, Dakshiku, perhaps,” Doctor Peterson mumbled thoughtfully. Then more clearly, “Does anyone have a suggestion for our next course of action?”
“We should notify all the other teams on the planet immediately,” Bruce Priestly offered excitedly. “With so many brilliant minds, someone will surely know of a way to open it.”
“Not just yet, Bruce,” Doctor Huften said. “Let’s try to find out what we have first, and then we’ll announce it to the others. I’m not as young as you, and I have no desire to fight a hundred other archeologists to get a first look at whatever’s inside.”
“But we’re stonewalled, Doctor Huften. We can’t get the door open with the equipment that we have. We need their help.”
“I agree with Barbara,” Doctor Ramilo said. “Let’s keep this to ourselves for now. It’s past dinnertime already, so let’s go eat and we can discuss the problem further over our meal. Perhaps even sleeping on it will provide some new insight. We can always inform the others in a couple of days. The vault, or shelter, or whatever it is, has been here for twenty-thousand years. It certainly isn’t going anywhere.”
After covering the expensive analytical equipment, everyone plodded wearily back to the campsite, where workers from the other on-site excavations were already finished with their evening meal. They surrounded their fellows who had been working in the tunnel with the archeologists and began to ply them with questions as the scientists entered the mess shelter to eat. Most of the laborers preferred to eat outside and enjoy the sunset. Electronic bug traps kept the space around the campsite relatively free of flying insects, doing a much better job overall than the sticky mucous coating on the trees that was always alive with tiny, recently-trapped arthropods struggling uselessly to get free.
Once they had selected their food and taken their seats at their usual table inside the mess shelter, the senior archeologists again began discussing ways to open the door, but nothing really new was offered. The junior members ate quietly, respectfully listening, as always.
* * *
Doctor Peterson felt someone shaking him roughly and came partly awake. “What? What is it? Who’s there?”
“Edward, wake up! It’s Dakshiku. The door is open.”
“Then close it, man, and let me get back to sleep,” Dr. Peterson said grumpily. “Your shelter’s auto-sprayer will kill all the insects before they have a chance to bite you.”
“Edward, wake up. The door is open!”
“What? What door?” Dr. Peterson asked, a little more awake now. “What are you talking about, man?”
“The door to the vault. It’s open!”
Doctor Peterson came fully awake as the information sank in. “How? Who? When?” he rattled off in quick succession as he tried to focus on Doctor Vlashsku’s face in the darkness of the tent. The Nordakian was so excited that his skin was flashing different colors faster than a nightclub strobe. During times of emotional agitation, Nordakians could lose control of their skin coloration. In extreme situations, control deserted them completely and they could appear like a spinning rainbow gone amuck.
“I couldn’t sleep so I went down to the tunnel,” Doctor Vlashsku said. “I reexamined every square centimeter of the door and frame, but I couldn’t find a thing that offered a clue for opening it. After a couple of hours, I just started yelling at it out of frustration. Then it suddenly creaked, and opened of its own volition.”
“On its own? You just yelled at it?”
“What did you yell?”
“I don’t know. I lost my temper and was screaming out of weariness, anger, and frustration. The important thing is that it’s open.”
“Okay. Okay. You’re right. Wake everybody up while I get dressed.”
“The entire camp?”
“No, just the main staff— and the laborers that worked with us in the tunnel. Let the others sleep. They have their own work to do in the morning.”
“Right, I’ll tell everyone to meet outside the door in fifteen minutes.”
Some fifteen minutes later, a stimulated group of scientists in various states of dress and undress, was gathered outside the doorway, armed with light torches and an assortment of recording and measuring devices.
“I still want to know, before we go in,” Doctor Ramilo said, “just what Dakshiku said to open the door.”
“I’ve already told you several times, Anthony, I don’t remember,” Doctor Vlashsku said, with a touch of irritation in his voice. “I was tired and frustrated, and I just screamed at it. It creaked for a second, then opened noiselessly. That’s all I can tell you.”
“You should have had the vid cams running, Dakshiku,” Doctor Ramilo said, his voice angry and accusing. “That’s what they’re for.”
“I was only examining the door; I never expected to actually find the key that would open it. You’re right, I should have turned them on before I started. But— I didn’t. And reminding me— over and over and over— that I made a mistake will not alter the situation, Anthony.”
“What if Dakshiku isn’t responsible for opening the door at all?” Doctor Huften asked calmly.”
“What are you suggesting, Barbara,” Doctor Peterson asked, “that the door was opened by some life form inside?”
“In a word, yes!” she said emphatically.
“Impossible,” Doctor Ramilo said. “The life form would have to be twenty-thousand years old. That’s the most recent date that evidence of planetary habitation will support.”
“Or possibly just asleep for twenty-thousand years,” Doctor Huften countered. “Perhaps we awoke it with our earlier attempts to gain entry.”
“Asleep for twenty-thousand years? Barbara, be practical,” Doctor Ramilo said. “Our most brilliant scientists say that a person in prime physical condition can only be suspended in stasis sleep for forty-two years. Then he’d have to be awakened and made completely healthy again before being put back in stasis. That’s why no expeditions to other galaxies have ever been seriously contemplated.”
“That only applies to Terrans, Anthony. As an example of my hypothesis, let’s use Alyysians. Their unique physiology, similar to that of a Terran frog, has allowed them to be frozen solid, and then revived centuries later. Our first contact with them was when a pre-FTL ship containing Alyysians, was discovered by Space Command as it crossed our outer border. The occupants had all been asleep for more than seven hundred years. Think of it, Anthony. They were already underway when Galileo was still working to perfect a refracting telescope for astronomical observation. All were revived successfully.”
“What if this is a cryogenic prison facility?” Doctor Vlashsku asked. “Perhaps our tampering has awakened someone? We might be responsible for releasing the worst criminals in the galaxy. Look how strongly the facility is constructed.”
“Now everyone calm down,” Doctor Peterson said. “The door is open, and whether it’s an invitation to enter, or simply a response to something that Dakshiku said, we’ll never know unless we go in. Dakshiku, can you and Glawth please stop flashing. You’re giving me a severe headache.”
“I’m sorry, Edward. We’re trying. But you know that we can’t completely control our chromatophoric cellular distensions when we get excited like this.”
“What happens if we all go in and the door closes behind us?” Doctor Ramilo asked. “We’ll be trapped inside without anyone out here being able to rescue us. One of us should remain outside.”
“Good thought, Anthony,” Doctor Peterson said. “You remain out here and guard against that eventuality.”
“Wait a minute!” he said loudly. He wasn’t about to remain outside when everyone else entered the— whatever it was. “Why me? I want to see what’s inside as much as everyone else.”
“You can’t have it both ways, Anthony,” Doctor Huften said, grinning slightly at Dr. Peterson’s mischievous taunt.
“Okay, let’s all go in— but leave a pry bar in the doorway so the door can’t close completely.”
“From what we saw yesterday,” Doctor Peterson said, “I doubt that a simple pry bar could stop this door from closing, but we’ll try that as an attempted safeguard to prevent becoming completely sealed inside. Is everyone ready?”
Doctor Peterson led the way in slowly and carefully, taking radiation measurements and checking the air quality as he went. The others crowded close to him and pointed their lights ahead, looking for any signs of life or danger.
After passing through the entrance doorway, they found themselves at one end of a broad corridor. A high, arched ceiling capped the hallway and the floor was paved with large square blocks of polished metamorphic rock. Four more large doorways, with doors of a size similar to that of the entrance, disrupted the smooth lines of the walls. Only one, on the immediate left, was open. They nervously moved that way in a tight cluster.
The large open doorway was revealed to be the entrance to an impressive rotunda, at least thirty meters in diameter. Standing just inside the entrance, the scientists shone their light torches around the room and played the beams across the high vaulted ceiling. Half the room had what appeared to be tall cabinet doors built into the walls, while much of the remaining wall space was dedicated to peculiar looking instrument panels. A solitary table sat roughly three-meters from the entrance. The floor in here, like that of the corridor, appeared to be surfaced by highly-polished marble slabs in a slightly off-white color with mottled green streaks.
“We need more light,” Doctor Peterson said. “Let’s get some of the Chembrite Light panels in here.”
Without waiting for further instructions, the laborers retreated quickly through the doorway and returned promptly with some of the lights from the tunnel. Once aimed up at the highly-reflective domed ceiling, the entire room was brightly illuminated. Now able to see clearly, the scientists ventured further, moving to more closely examine the instrument panels mounted on the walls.
“I shouldn’t need to remind anyone not to touch anything,” Doctor Peterson said. “The fact that the door opened, clearly indicates that there's at least a small amount of residual power in here.”
“Edward, look at those markings in the floor!” Doctor Ramilo said excitedly as he unnecessarily aimed his powerful light torch towards the polished stone floor in the center of the room. “They’re like the symbols that the team at site three found!”
The scientists chattered enthusiastically as they moved to the center of the room to examine the strange gold symbols inscribed into the floor while the laborers continued to carry more portable lights into the room to provide even better illumination.
Mounted on tripod stands, the thin, meter-square light panels were arranged primarily around the walls of the room, and aimed up at the ceiling, but one was placed on the solitary table and pointed down at the floor to brilliantly illuminate the etched symbols. Suddenly, the entire center of the room, where the archeologists had congregated, was bathed in amber light, and each of the eleven scientists was paralyzed where he or she stood. A ten-centimeter-thick circular wall, made of a transparent polymer-like substance, rose soundlessly from the floor to enclose the immobilized group, and the area began to fill with a dense ocher gas that smelled of persimmons. In seconds it was impossible to see into the encircled area.
The laborers, who had witnessed the event with terror-filled eyes, ran screaming from the room.