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9. Briones Park

“So many lights!” Berzher exclaimed. He was amazed by the greenish glow that, from their vantage point of 10,000 meters, he could hardly resolve into point sources and so must represent fields of illuminated ground many hectares wide.

Merola swung outward on her strut and looked down past the liteship’s offside deflector. “This civilization is at the height of its economic power in the middle of an Electronic Age,” she said. “They considered it gracious living to turn night into day.”

“We’ll never find a hiding place in all of that!”

“Find a dark patch,” she advised.

He steered them off to the west.

“Not the ocean!” she warned.

“But it is utterly dark,” he said, “per your specification. And the area is large.”

“Machine intelligence!” Merola sneered. “That’s open water, very deep. You could hide anything there, true. But you could not retrieve it, could you?”

“I suppose not.”

According to Jongleur du Temps protocol, the first thing a team was supposed to do after transiting a temporal gap as large as eight millennia, and then recrossing the spatial displacement of 5.87 light years due to the Sol-Earth system’s proper motion during that time, was to find a secure cache for their backup liteship, a biosuit for the human member, and a functional chassis for the intelligence. That way, no matter what happened to the mission, all the team had to do was survive, wait out any temporary difficulties, and retrieve their ride home.

So Berzher and Merola spiraled down in the dark of night. From a point directly above their target city, on the west coast of the Nortamerican land mass, they searched for the piece of wilderness specified in their Search parameters; dark ground where humans did not pass and their cache would remain undisturbed. Twice Berzher was fooled by bodies of water to the east and north of Safronesco. Once they were almost at wave height and about to step off when he recognized his mistake.

“Listen for wind in the trees,” Merola said. “That indicates dry land.”

At last, approximately twenty kilometers northeast of the city, in a place with both moving trees and deep darkness, Berzher set the liteship down.

“Perhaps too far to walk,” he observed.

“Unless we steal a vehicle,” she agreed.

While he released the spares from their cradles among the ship’s charged elements, Merola unsnapped her helmet and took a deep breath.

“Air’s not very clean,” she warned.

Berzher took a sample. “Carbon compounds, sulfur oxides, many synthetic organics, traces of metal halides,” he recited. “Interesting—there is wild pollen in this air. These plants reproduce sexually!”

“I told you this place would be old.”

“But consider all the variables, mutations, genetic drift, how did they—?”

“They didn’t,” Merola said flatly. “Not for many hundred years yet.”

“Will it actually be safe to leave a ship here?”

“Underground should be secure.”

“Dig a hole?”

“Find a cave.”

Merola turned in a circle three times, getting her bearings in the dark, and moved off in a direction that was slightly downhill. Berzher followed, picking out his steps with his own senses.

“What are you looking for?” he asked.

Before Merola could answer, she disappeared. One moment she was beside him on nearly level ground, and the next it had swallowed her up. He scanned in a half-arc over her last position but found nothing. He replayed the critical instant in his sensory loop: the only clues were a scatter of sound that might be falling stones and a soft thump. He moved slowly forward and found the edge of a cliff. A muffled heat signature that approximated Merola’s body mass was visible on the ground three meters below.

“Are you hurt?” he called.

“In a biosuit? Be serious!”

His human stood up and began moving around. She was in a narrow cut in the earth, obviously the trace of an old water course, now dry. Merola walked toward the cliff face and disappeared from his view.

“Have you found a cave?”

“No, but a place to make one.”

“How do you propose to do that?”

“Not me. You’re going to dig it.”

“Do I look like a gardening tool?”

“You have that laser, don’t you?”

“I have a sophisticated communications device capable of delivering terabits of information over interplanetary distances.”

“With a couple of megawatts of focused heat energy, if I remember.”

“This chassis does not have unlimited resources.”

“You can recharge on the ship.”

“So I can,” he agreed.

Berzher climbed down the cliff while Merola scouted the location of her cave-to-be. “About here,” she said. “The rock is soft, almost crumbly.”

He faced the wall and gave it a blast. Fragments exploded outward before the matrix could fuse and slag. “Sedimentary,” he said. “Sandstone, I think. With a high moisture content. That is the steam expanding.”

“Well, can you do it?”

“How deep a cave?”

“Meter and a half? Enough to conceal the folded panels.”

“Stand back, please.”

Berzher alternately blasted at the rock and scooped away pieces with his tiny, delicate claws. It took half an hour to make a cubic space of the requisite size. While he worked, she climbed back up for the packaged liteship, her spare suit, and his spare chassis, folded small. When the rock walls had cooled, she deposited these items inside.

“Anyone can look in and see them,” he cautioned.

She touched a spot on the wall above the cave mouth. “Cut here. Two seconds.”

As he focused and cut, his chassis went on reserve power. The cave mouth partially collapsed down to a low slit. Merola picked up three fist-sized rocks that were almost melted and arranged them in a triangle pointing toward the cliff face.

Berzher marked them with a phosphor immediately recognizable among the Jongleurs. “That should suffice,” he said. Then he stepped back to study the cave’s entrance. “Animals would enter a place like that.”

“Nonsense,” Merola replied. “There are no animals around here. People of this time are practically civilized and have control of their animals. They keep them as pets.”

“When the spring rains fill this canyon, water will enter the cave.”

“Will you quit worrying? Our goods are well protected.”

“My job is to worry about these things.”

“Well, do it somewhere else.”

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