He hated desert planets. He absolutely detested them. He'd always find sand crammed up places he didn't want it, but for some reason he always, always ended up on them.
Vickers took a step forward and stepped into a large, circular hall. Dust intermittently fell from the domed ceiling as the ground rumbled. He wiped some dust off of his helmet's visor. He estimated the hall was about 50 meters across, but he'd always been bad at estimating distances. He mostly felt comfortable with this estimation because Jay had told him the hall would be about 50 meters across. Jay, as his ship's Virtual Intelligence, was programmed to be good at estimations. So if he was wrong, it was too late to get it right anyway.
"How long until everything turns to hell, Jay?"
"I don't know, Hugo, a few hours maybe? Less? Significantly more? Let's just settle on 'too soon to get comfortable', maybe."
"That's not very specific, but it works for me. I'll get back to the Lance 2 soon," Vickers said as he looked around carefully.
"Good, we'll be waiting. The object should be right in front of you, Hugo."
Hugo nodded, even if Jay couldn't see it. In the center of the hall he could see something odd, as he by now had reason to expect. A rectangular block stood on a raised area in the center, looking shiny and reflective.
They had arrived at Deonides B about a day ago, knowing that tidal forces were about to rip it apart. Nobody seemed all too interested in coming here anymore after the archeological digs had all been evacuated months ago when the planet started experiencing near-constant quakes. But Vickers knew there were still riches to be found here, and he knew enough people willing to pay what they were worth, one way or another.
It was risky, sure, but shying away from a challenge had never been his deal.
He walked up to the shiny monolith and as he got closer he got a better feeling for just how big it really was. It was at least three times his height, and he wasn't short by most standards. As he neared it, he noticed the surface wasn't just shiny, it was moving. Ripples formed in the center and moved towards the edges. As he approached it, it seemed like the ripples got more and more agitated. Like it was sensing his presence somehow.
"Jay, you noticing anything different about your scans of this place?"
"I'm checking now, Hugo, and the answer would be a yes."
A silence followed, with Vickers wondering why.
"Jay, do you mind telling me what exactly is different about your scans, then?"
"Oh, no problem, Hugo. The energy levels have changed. It seems the object is more energetic now than it was before. However, the type of energy or the material it is made of is still unknown to me."
Hugo stepped even closer. The ripples moved as if he had touched it, but he was still at at least a meter's distance.
He peered into it, and even though it was shiny, like a mirror, he could not see himself in it. He could see his surroundings, the hall behind him, but not himself.
He took out a portable scanner and aimed it at the mirror. It gave him nothing. It was as if the object wasn't even there. It returned values for the stone floor behind and beneath it, the dust in the air, and when he aimed it at his hand, for himself. But the object seemed to be invisible to it.
"Jay, I'm going to touch it," Hugo said.
"I feel it is my duty to mention that might not be wise," Jay said, a worry evident in his voice.
"I'll never get used to you sounding so... Real. But I'm here, it's weird, I can't find out anything with either you or the scanner, and I'm not going to just turn around and walk away."
"I never expected that, either, Hugo," Jay responded.
"Alright then," Hugo said. "Here goes."
He considered taking his glove off for a second but figured he didn't have to go full stupid immediately. He could always do that later, if there was an actual reason to.
He stuck out his arm and stopped when his outstretched finger was a few centimeters away from the rippling surface. It went crazy, like he'd thrown a rock into a pond with quite some force.
He sighed and straightened his back.
He pushed his finger forward, into the object.
When it went through the surface, it didn't really surprise him. Part of him had expected it to offer resistance, like a mirror, a solid substance stopping him once touching. But another part of him had accepted that it was rippling, and that it might act more like a fluid.
It felt like a combination of the two. Shiny space molasses, he thought. Then he shook his head and wondered where 'molasses' had come from. Brains are weird, he thought, almost proving his point by doing so.
Then his attention was grabbed when he experienced a pinching sensation in his finger and a buzzing sound in his ears. He pulled his hand back and the surface stopped rippling. The object seemed to pulsate in a rhythm for a second, then stopped.
A non-distinct, unclear voice spoke out. What sounded like 6 words to him in a language he didn't understand filled the room.
Vickers stepped back and raised an eyebrow.
"Energy levels peaked right now, I was listening in. You've activated a system of some sorts."
"Thanks, genius, I figured that part out already. What did it say?"
"None of the translation filters seem to understand the language. I'm sorry, I don't know."
Another 3 words rung out.
Images slid in from the bottom, filling up the surface, which evidently was a screen, and the images seemed to be thumbnails of some sort of footage this system was now offering up. Vickers figured he had no idea what he was looking at, and he might just be assuming this was footage, but it was unique and he hadn't heard anything about this from any of the buzz about Deonides B, so he enabled the camera in his helmet.
"Jay, please record both audio and video to the Lance 2's storage directly."
"Alright, Hugo," Jay said. "Ready."
Hugo didn't know how to control it, but given that him touching the thing had enabled it, he assumed it was touch-based. He pushed his finger into the first image in the list, again not encountering enough resistance to stop, but enough to feel he was engaging with it.
After a second or so, the images disappeared and a moving image showed up. The footage, as requested, was now playing. His assumption had been correct enough, he thought slightly proudly.
What seemed to be a priest of some sort, or perhaps an elder, wearing red robes, was standing in front of the object. A group of people was sitting on the stone steps he had just walked down from. He couldn't understand what was being said, but he made sure to remain quiet so linguists could possibly decypher it based on the recordings later.
He noticed the reflection of everything but him was somehow incorporated into the footage he was viewing, and he shifted his position to see if it turned along with him. It did. It was an eerie thing to see. It was as if he was looking into a mirror into the past. Like a contained hologram of sorts.
The ground rumbled underneath his feet, noticeably heavier than before. A reminder that time was running out. Hugo decided to not spend too much time wondering about things anymore. He needed to get as much recorded as possible. This planet wasn't long for this universe and there was a lot of proof here of a civilization nobody knew much about.
They didn't seem alien to him, simply human, but how had they gotten here? The colonies were all pretty recent, and none had ventured out this far. At least, not to his knowledge, and though he didn't consider himself a scholar, he did consider himself knowledgeable about things like space travel, colonies and the complete lack of undiscovered yet lost human civilizations multiple light years away from the solar system.
He went through the footage one by one, ignoring both the increasing rate of quakes and Jay's complaining that Vickers was taking his damn sweet time.
But this was a find that could not be lost.
He wondered why none of the archeologists had figured out how to use it, and then realized the likely reason. They were too careful. Or, perhaps, as careful as their profession required. He could see tools lying around, so they had definitely been here.
But who would have been stupid enough to touch something unknown like this? Especially something that in no way implied that it was interactive?
He had been. And he'd always have been. And he also knew he'd always be.
"Hugo, it's time to go. I'm sensing serious tidal disruptions, and the quakes are almost constant by now."
"I've noticed," Hugo said. "And I hope that regardless, the recordings are good quality?"
"As far as I can tell they're all good enough."
"Good. Then I'm on my way back."
He ran up the stone steps and out of the old sandstone temple. Jay and the Lance 2 were not that far away, but now that he was outside he could see it really was time to go. There were massive cracks in the ground, a smaller temple nearby had half-sunken into the ground and even the Lance 2 was not looking so straight anymore.
He ran blindly towards the ship and up the extended airlock ramp.
"Go go go, Jay!" he shouted as he closed the airlock behind him.
"Alrighty, Hugo," Jay said.
Vickers could hear the drive start and the gravity around him shifting. They had lifted off.
"Please get to the cockpit and strap in, Hugo," Jay said calmly.
Vickers didn't need to hear that, as he was already out of his atmo suit and into the hallway towards the cockpit. He jumped and landed in his seat and strapped in as tightly as he could. Not long after, the drive really spun up and they darted out of the atmosphere.
"Are we still recording?" Vickers asked as they cleared Deonides B's atmosphere completely. "We are," Jay said.
Vickers turned the Lance 2 around to view the planet's surface. By now, superheated lava could be seen, even from this distance, coming up from the cracks left in the surface, which was no longer shaped the same as it had been before. As the red-hot stone crawled across the planet's surface, it left blackened ground behind it.
They stayed there for a few hours and recorded all of it.
"This'll be worth something to someone, too," Vickers said.
"With the footage from the archive system as well, this could be very lucrative," Jay said.
"Imagine what we could have found, knowing they had these systems, and enough time to find more of them," Vickers said, somewhat solemnly.
"At least we have this," Jay said.
Vickers thought for a second, then smiled and nodded to himself.
"Call Archibald. He'll know someone who will take good care of this footage. Let's make sure this gets analyzed and perhaps figured out. This is a whole new civilization we've learned about."
Jay couldn't nod, but Vickers decided that he probably had.
"Calling Archibald..." Jay said as the beeps of the comm system rung out.