We touched down in the high places, where the clouds drifted beneath us as they wrapped the fields and valleys far below in a cloak of mist. At that point in my career, I’d seen vestiges of ruined civilizations from similar vantage points on almost every world I’d visited. When searching for alien life, it makes sense to start at a high altitude, where the equipment can get a good scan of the surface, before moving on. You leave a minimal trace that way, and it’s best not to disturb the locals — if there are any locals to disturb in the first place.
“It’s so beautiful,” Kline said through the com-link in my ears. “I never thought I’d see something like this.”
I turned toward him. Or, rather, the suit did. It was just the two of us out here. Kline had become a last-minute replacement for Adanoa, my usual partner on survey expeditions, after she’d managed to get herself buried in paperwork. That’s what a few snide remarks about Commander Andrè can do to your career if they make their way up the chain of command.
“First time out?” I asked in the friendliest tone I could muster. I already knew the answer. It was evidence in the tone of his voice.
“Yeah,” Kline said, full of wonder. “You think there’s any life down there? Below those clouds?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Look to your left.”
Kline’s suit turned. It was painful to watch.
They were unruly things, the surveyor suits. They were previous-generation powered armor suits that the Geological Survey Group — the GSG — had purchased from the military and retrofitted for archeology and life-detection. They weren’t anything like the suits you see in the army recruiting ads today, all sleek and fitted to the user. No, this tech was outdated, considered cutting edge maybe half a century ago. But with a little practice and a steady hand, you could move them in a way that one might consider near-graceful.
Adanoa had a knack for that.
Kline did not. His suit lurched back as if pulled by the shoulder. To offset the jolted movement, he tried to take a step back. The back leg kicked out — too far — and Kline was toppling onto his back. I lurched forward, got the fingers of my suit under his torso and felt the actuators engages as I set him upright again.
“Thanks,” he said.
“No problem.” Idiot. “You don’t have to turn the suit to turn your head. Just look — don’t turn — to the left.”
Slowly, the head craned left to what I’d wanted him to see in the first place. In the com-link, Kline gasped.
“That’s an alien statue!” Kline exclaimed. “It could be thousands of years old.”
“Unlikely,” I told him. “Look closer. It’s made of materials that would erode in that time frame.”
Kline was silent a moment. “Wood,” he said. “It’s made of wood!”
Inwardly, I sighed and reminded myself that this was part of the job. I never agreed with the way the GSG trained its new recruits. All lab studies and ancient text. No field experience. Half the GSG advisory board had never been inside a suit, and recruits who did want to train did so via outdated simulation. Either way, the first time down was always rough.
Because of my days in the service, I got a pass on that training. This was my second career, not my first, and I was intimately familiar with the rigors of suit work long before I joined up — even if it was a step back in time.
“We don’t need to search any further,” I told him. “This is everything we need right here.”
“But . . . what about all that down there?”
“With any luck,” I said, “the people down there won’t even realize we’ve been here. Our assignment was to check for signs of intelligent life. The statue confirms that this world supports and maintains it. Go ahead and scan everything into the database while I call a support ship to carry us back to orbit.
“Fine, fine,” Kline said. His hands jerked up, and the suit settled into place. “I just wish we could see more of this place, that’s all.”
“I understand,” I told him, and I did. “You’re actually lucky. Some people go their entire career without seeing any sign of life. You managed to see something on your first time down, at your first landing sight.”
“I guess you’re right. You think they’ll send us back down after they learn about what we’ve found?”
They would. I knew that I’d likely be spearheading the operation. But Kline didn’t need to know that. Not yet, anyway.
He was too busy marveling at the high places to understand the danger lurking just below the clouds.