Chapter 1

All of our wives wanted to join in the exploration of the Dyson Sphere, so we took two fighters on our return. Jane Montgomery, the wife of Ed Snow, and Sarah Hammish, the wife of Bill Hudson, were the two new members of the group. For lack of any other ideas, we landed at the same building that we had previously visited and left the fighters. We all stripped off our flight suits and donned our weapons and water canteens.

Something just occurred to me. "AI, how can we feel essentially normal gravity if the construct is not moving fast enough to generate the gravity?"

"I don't know the details, but there must be some sort of artificial gravity built into the construct. I'll see what I can find out."

This time, the door was locked, so we simply went down the line a little bit and found a door that was not locked. Jim and I opened the door and went in while the rest of the group covered us. Fortunately, all of us were experienced combat troops, so we knew how to handle a situation like this. Jim and I quickly moved into the room with our weapons ready to fire.

The room was empty, so we waved the others to join us. It was probably a misnomer to call this a room because of its very large size. It was definitely a lobby capable of handling at least 100 people without crowding. A line of desks was along one side of the lobby, and it was easy to imagine a receptionist sitting behind each one. There was a display board above the central desk, and there was something written across it that none of us could read.

"AI, can you make out what is written on that display board?"

"Not really, but I can speculate that the column of markings along the right edge are floor or room numbers, perhaps both. I will need many more samples of the writing to begin to interpret what I am seeing. Wait a minute, I can detect another AI trying to contact me."

There was some delay, and AI resumed talking to me. "I have just been given a crash course in reading the local language. The local AI which does the oral translations was able to give me a memory dump of the written language.

"Yes, that board you mentioned does list where one should look for various social services and departments. It appears that we have been very lucky in selecting a government building for our first entry. The computers here are all active and contain a history of their activities over the last few thousand local years. By the way, each local year is 238 Wolfian-days long.

"The length of the day is somewhat moot because there is no nighttime, so you can ignore it. Just rest when you feel tired. I will keep you posted on the day and the year if it becomes important.

"Well, back to the current problem. People stopped visiting this building approximately 80 thousand years ago, and the computers have no record of the reason for that. I will keep probing every time I find a new computer so that we may have an answer eventually."

"What can we do for local transportation? This place is so large that we may never discover anything if we have to walk."

"That I can help you with. There is a rental office two blocks to your left as you exit the building, and there you will find what most people used for local transportation. Just go to the office and select what you want. You should not need training with the use of the vehicles."

That was good enough for us, and we headed down the "street." This time, the door was easy to open, and we went in. What we found was rank after rank of scooter-like vehicles. I sat down on the saddle and a yellow light flashed immediately. "That is the signal that you have not yet registered as a renter of the vehicle. You will have to visit the desk to fill out a rental form. Do that now and have everyone join you."

We approached the desk and a form appeared on the display. It was already filled out, except for the signature. "Just sign your name as you would do if you were back on Earth, and I will take care of the rest." I did as AI instructed and returned to the scooter that I had originally sat on. This time, a red light flashed and some instructions appeared on a display screen. AI read them to me, and I found out that they were local traffic regulations. Hopefully, I could ignore them, and I pressed what looked like a "Start" button.

I pushed the button, and I felt a gentle vibration through the saddle. The steering mechanism was a simple handlebar. On the left side was a twist-grip accelerator, and the brake was a peddle on the floor board. The power seemed to be electrical in nature, so I twisted the accelerator and followed a red line that led me outside the building. There I waited until the rest of the crew showed up.

They formed up behind me and waited until I started to move. I thought that it would be a good idea to look over this group of buildings before we ventured "out of town." We passed a number of buildings that each had a label on it. AI provided translations of what the sign said, but there was nothing that was of especial interest to us at the moment.

We were tooling down one street when I came to a screeching halt, if one could do that while not making actual contact with the ground. I had spotted a store, at least I guessed that was what it was, that had this same kind of vehicle on display. However, the item of interest was almost out of sight. There was some sort of trailer that could be fastened to the rear of the scooter. I figured that could come in handy, so I pulled over to one side of the street and parked.

The others joined me, and we went inside the store. Yes, there were 12 of the trailers, and we took the time to hook one up to each of the scooters. Now we had a place to carry extra water and food, as well as any local artifacts that we might want to save. I was back to my squad leader persona, and I felt a lot better about being able to carry extra water. The food was nice, but the water was essential!

We kept looping back and forth through the town's streets looking for something interesting, but nothing else showed up. It was time to move on. As it happened, we were located in a wooded area, so it seemed appropriate to explore the forest. The trees were far enough apart to allow easy passage of our scooters and trailers, so we had no trouble with this part of our trip.

For the first time, we saw signs of wildlife. An animal cut across our path making more speed than I would have thought possible on its very short legs. The thing that was most interesting was that the animal had 10 or 12 legs. They were moving so fast that I could not get an accurate count. The animal was about the size of a large piglet, and that brought to mind just how dangerous full grown hogs could be. I used the internal mental intercom to tell everybody what I had seen and to warn them about the danger of hogs.

I was not concerned about shooting the animal for food since we had the replicators on board the fighters, and AI could bring them to us whenever we asked for them. We could get water the same way, but I wanted us to drink a lot of water because it was a hot day, and it was a nuisance to stop every time anybody wanted a drink of water. It was bad enough to have to stop for toilet breaks.

I called for the fighters at the first large clearing we came to. We made a picnic out of this stop, and everybody indulged in one bottle of beer. Man, that cold beer went down well on this hot day. We were careful to police the area before we started back up on our trip. We didn't want to start the conversion of some animal because we had left a little bit of Wolfian food for it to find. Such would have been wanton cruelty, and we were all against that.

We had progressed a little into the forest when we were suddenly attacked by a flying animal that seemed like a cross between a bird and a bat. The animal had the head, and noticeably the jaws, of a vampire bat, but the rest of the body was pretty much that of a bird. Anyway, a flock of 20 or so of the creatures swooped down upon us from up in the trees hidden by the leaves. es hidden by the leaves.

They were silent in their dive and they caught us completely by surprise. The animals flew so fast that it was impossible to shoot them, but they had to get close to us to bite, and them we were able to hit them with our hands and arms. With our hardened skin, it was like us hitting the animals with clubs. A solid hit anywhere on the animal's body would crush bones and make it impossible for the animal to fly. On the other hand, our hardened skin made it impossible for them to bite us for more than scratches. but that was about the worst that could be said about them. Our flailing around of arms and fists was enough to kill most of the attackers, and the rest flew away after a few minutes of frustrated ineffectualness. We killed those animals lying on the ground unable to fly by stomping on their heads with our hardened feet. As far as the animal was concerned, it was about the same as being stepped on by a small elephant. Most of our wounds had already started to heal, but they sure did itch while that was going on. We guessed that the itch was caused by some sort of poison excreted by the animals. We left the bat-birds where they fell, assuming that their bodies would be eaten by some scavengers.

Okay, that attack served as a wakeup call. We had been very complacent up until then on the assumption that there was nothing dangerous in the woods. Surely, this was an artificial world, and the inhabitants would not have been so foolish as to introduce dangerous beasts into it. However, we had overlooked the possibility of evolution causing animals to evolve to fill empty niches in the ecology. Well, we hoped not to make that mistake again.

I appointed two of the women, Sue and Jane, who appeared to have sharp eyes to keep a watch on the trees to warn us if something else tried to attack us from that direction. Jane had been badly bitten on her left breast, so she was eager to spot the next danger before it got too close. Sue was the conscientious type who did a good job with any task that she was assigned to.

We had gone about two klicks (kilometers) farther through the woods when we met a woman carrying a jug of water. She was obviously headed home with her load, and she stopped so suddenly when she saw us that she almost dropped her burden. She was so frightened that she shook with fear as she stared at us. That must have been because our camouflage tendrils were working overtime, and it must have looked at first glance as if no one were riding the scooters.

I said, "Please don't be afraid of us. We mean you no harm. This is just the way we are built, and we cannot control how we look. My name is Andy. What is yours?"

Hearing my voice must have gone a long way toward calming her down. I supposed that she decided that we were not malevolent spirits after all, and could be reasoned with. She said something, and AI tried to translate. As nearly as we could tell, she asked if we were representatives of the Ancients.

I answered that we were ordinary people from our world a long way away from here, and we were just looking around for a while before we left. Something happened, and her face lit up. Somehow, she must have gotten a translation of what I had said.

I heard her say directly in my head, "In that case, you are welcome to visit us and to share in our supper. Follow me, and I will lead you to our village."

The woman led us about 100 yards to a clearing where there were a number of primitive huts arranged in a circle around a central fire pit. We parked our vehicles and walked with the woman to a hut that looked to be in better condition than most. Hardly had we arrived when a man came out of the hut and addressed me.

"Welcome, visitors, to our humble village. I have been told by the mind-speak that you are strangers to our land and only wish to visit with us for a short time. Please make yourselves comfortable, and I will join you shortly."

The woman showed us where to sit to wait on the man whom we assumed was the shaman of the village. He had the air of someone with great power, but it was not invested in him by the local people. We were sitting on comfortable pads not too close to the fire, considering the fact that it was a hot day. We only had to wait for a few minutes before the shaman showed up.

He was now dressed in some ceremonial finery and looked very impressive. He was obviously accustomed to being shown great courtesy and deference. As he approached, I stood and bowed to him, saying, "It is a great honor that you show us with your courtesy. May I introduce each of us?"

At his nod, I went around the group giving the names and pointing out who was wedded to whom. When I finished my side of the introductions, the man said, "My name is too long and would mean nothing to you, so you may call me Ooru. That is a title and not my actual name."

"Thank you, Ooru. We will use that word when we address you. We are a team of explorers who have stumbled upon you home which is very strange to us. We come from the stars and not from this place. Please tell us what you can about the history of your world and how you came to live here."

"Very well, I will tell you the legends that guide our existence. But first, what are 'stars?'"

"Stars are suns similar to the one that hangs over our head, but are much larger. They exist in a vast space of virtually nothing which we call a vacuum. There is a vast distance between the stars, and it is very difficult to make the journey. You cannot see the stars because of the vast canopy of your world which is between us and them.

"We live on the outside of large bodies of dirt that we call planets. These planets circle around a specific star that shines on us and gives us the kind of light that shines from the center of your world. We have recently learned to travel between these planets and are now exploring more of space than we had previously known."

"I find your story very hard to believe, but the mind-speak tells me that you have been truthful with me; therefore, I will not dispute what you have said. Now I will relate to you what I know about our world.

"Our world was constructed by god-like men who looked like you and us so long ago that we have lost count of the years. We do not know where they came from, so we tell our children that they were the children of gods. They lived for many years a happy existence on this world. It has been reputed to be for thousands of years, perhaps a million years, though I doubt that number.

"Anyway, they built this world by scavenging materials from the void that surrounds us and brought in the plants and animals that sustain us with their bounty. We have no reason to doubt that, but we do wonder why they brought in the harmful and dangerous beasts that now inhabit parts of our world.

"As best as our sages can guess, there was a great plague approximately 90,000 years ago that wiped out these original god-like people and left only us behind. Our most learned sages postulate that we are the degenerate descendents of these god-like people and must struggle to do what we can to live our short lives.

"As you can see, we do not live in the kind of luxury that our great ancestors enjoyed, but must make do with what we can contrive on our own. Tell me, do those strange vehicles you are using come from our ancestors or did you bring them with you?"

"We found them in a town many kilometers from here and are using them because we foolishly failed to bring our own individual transportation with us. I must say that these vehicles are better than anything we can build, yet they are easy to use once you understand the principles. Yes, your ancestors were great, and we hope to learn some of what they knew."

"In that case, you are welcome to stay with us as long as you wish while you study our home. We don't have much in the way of goods from our ancestors, but please feel free to study what we do have. I will show you what we have after we eat and take our rest.

Uh-oh, here's where things get sticky. We don't dare share supper with the locals for fear of contaminating them. Somehow, we will have to work out an excuse for eating alone so that we can protect them.

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Story tagged with:
Ma/Fa / Science Fiction / Space / Military /