Incompatible

By Martin Greaney The white hot flash of lightning ricocheted off the roof of the small craft’s cabin, dazzling the pilot whose hands darted about the flight controls scattered about him. The four passengers, less used to such distractions, flinched or raised a hand across their eyes instinctively. None dared let out a sound – the pilot’s expression of intense concentration and his barbed comments had put paid to that already. A tense silence would have overwhelmed the cramped space had not the growls of thunder and the rattling of metal fittings maintained a cacophony as the ship descended towards the thick canopy of the forest. Rain lashed the front windows, and thick patches of cloud colluded with the wash to reduce vision to mere feet. It mattered little to the pilot, who worked solely through his instruments. But to the others who were keeping an eye out for the mountain it was a frustrating experience. It was a deep green swathe of barely-visible vegetation below and a iron grey sky above, and little to fix the eye on between. There was yellower flash, an almighty explosion and the small craft lurched forward, pointing its nose down. “Shit!” the pilot rasped almost under his breath. Automatic systems brought the craft level, but that fragile flight stability was gone and p1 of 27 Incompatible Martin Greaney

the rattling was replaced by a nauseating swinging to and fro even as the ship tore on through the storm. Having satisfied himself up until now with a frantic re-adjustment of the controls to guide them in, the pilot grabbed tightly on to the flight stick, sparing only a moment now and again to bash at a section of dials which had started flashing when the blast hit. “… engines… Damn it!” he yelled. “Are we hit? Was it lightning?!” said the woman occupying the copilot’s chair, the leader of the expedition and yet not someone with flying experience. The others looked at her, taken aback at her sudden words, and then at the pilot for an answer. He remained silent some moments, body juddering in the chair but mind still fixed upon his lone task. He jabbed with a fist at the problem area again, to no effect. “Either the-“ He lashed out at the panel again. “Either the left atmo engine has blown off, or… come on! … or … steering has-“ The final words were muffled beneath another thunder crack and several expletives. The rest of the cabin’s occupants flicnhed again, glancing at each other with nervous expressions. The leader began again: “So –“ “This isn’t going to be a… pretty… landing,” the pilot said while straining against the flight stick. The craft pulled out of a shallow p2 of 27 Incompatible Martin Greaney

dive, climbing momentarily before plunging several metres in one go. The passengers all let out involuntary groans. “Fasten your belts,” said a man in a rear seat. A cluster of taller trees became visible ahead. The crew had barely five seconds to brace themselves. *** The drizzle mingled with drips from the leaves as it fell upon the still spacecraft. The heavily damaged windscreen could be replaced from spare parts; the dents and scuffs on the hull would make flying a little more exciting but presented no permanent problems. The electronics in one of the atmospheric engines was completely burnt out, however, and would take several hours to replace, wire by wire. The ship had somersaulted across the taller emergent trees, throwing its occupants around in a harrowing roller-coaster ride. Eventually it had plunged back end first into the canopy before bouncing, branch to branch, down to the forest floor, right side up. The passengers, heavily bruised and battered but held secure in their flight seats, had emerged into the rain through a sticky but still functional side door. The pilot remained inside, examining the controls while the party leader leaned over his shoulder. “Can you get her flying again?” she asked him.

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“Yes,” he replied gruffly, as if his skills were being doubted. “Only one engine out, so we can do a vertical when that’s sorted.” “And how long’s that gonna take?” “Look, Lissa, I know what you’re thinking,” he said, finally looking at her with a grim smile, “and you’re going to have to walk.” Was he relieved they would be out of his way for a few extra hours, or did his skepticism about their whole mission show itself in that half grin? The leader stalked out the cabin onto the wing, and hopped down onto the soft ferns on the forest floor. From here the canopy looked a lot less solid, and the rain was coming through large gaps through which she could see the grey sky. The planet was habitable; that was why it had been chosen for redevelopment. It was also why she, an archaeologist of sorts, was here. But the site she wanted to explore was still several miles in the direction they’d been flying. Trekking amongst the trees it would be several hours before they reached it. Luckily their survey required only light packing. In fact, their methods demanded it. *** The landing shuttle had carved a clearing in the forest, but soon after plunging into the trees with her team in tow, Lissa Ban Loc found little let-up from the twisted vines, thorny creepers and damp foliage. Her global positioning system was sensitive enough to receive its signal from their orbiter – the ship that had transported p4 of 27 Incompatible Martin Greaney

them to this planet – but even though she knew the exact direction and distance to the supposed building it hardly eased the physical effort needed to keep their speed up. One consolation was the chance to stumble across some collateral structure. She was aiming for the bullseye, the big prize, but in this vast forest must still be the remains of dwellings, farms, industrial complexes – who knew what else? And all this needed to be studied; needed to be recorded, duplicated in digital form and uploaded to the data hoard she had painstakingly accumulated over these past 14 years in ‘the field’. Her research was unnecessary for the greater good, or so people – society – would tell her. For sure, it was fascinating for intellectuals studying the long-lost civilisations of other planets, the dead worlds which could mirror human history as often as parody it. But knowledge wasn’t a weapon you could defend your home with. You couldn’t colonise planets and build new cities – the primary force keeping human culture alive today – just because you knew where the remains of other species were. In fact, that’s exactly where you couldn’t build. Many a colony project had faltered as terraformers were dragged through court, having to justify why they should be allowed to ‘develop’ planets and reduce ancient alien cultures to dust. [paragraph on Lissa’s background removed]

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*** “So how do we know when we’re at the hill?” Danal called from his place midway down the pack. “I still haven’t seen it yet.” This was a deliberately provocative statement, but despite herself Lissa – soaked, tired and frustrated – raised her voice and called back: “It’s not a hill, it’s artificial.” She added: “And it’s dead ahead so just keep walking.” Brief and strained exchanges like this had taken place since they’d boarded the Janus, the ship currently orbitting 150 kliks above them. Danal was new to the team, and seemed to be attempting to stamp his personality all over it. His charisma had impressed some, annoyed others, but there was no escaping his sardonic remarks. To Lissa’s benefit they forced her to second-guess all her own decisions, ensuring each was water-tight – even if she wouldn’t admit it to herself. He’d worked as a salvor – the common name for Lissa’s and Danal’s jobs – for years, and on many a project Lissa had known well. Some of the bigger ones she’d cut her own teeth on too, but their paths had not crossed until now. He bore the scars – mostly physical – of these excavations, and the current expedition was as good a chance as any for Lissa to see just how good he was. If his attitude was anything to go by, however, he’d clearly been burned before. His

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remarks were just as likely to be a cover for a childlike enthusiasm as they were an attempt to unseat her as leader of the gang. “Really?” he said as he clambered over a fallen trunk. “And how do you work that one-“ “You’ve seen the scans, Danal, now-“ “Hey, come on,” came a voice from between them. Em was one of the old guard of the group, along with Pett and Jjo who’d remained behind in orbit. She’d probably seen it all too, but the years hung around her shoulders like yoke. Why she continued to pursue this career was anyone’s guess judging from her general attitude. Perhaps she had no other career to go to. Perhaps she liked to keep on the move (a lot of people do) or perhaps she was as wedded to it as Lissa and Danal. But as her trudging figure got caught between this useless verbal crossfire she quickly tired. “We’ll get there. Then we’ll find out. Then we’ll come home if it’s a hill. We still get paid.” This much was true. However little the pay packets represented, it was a regular income, and a living. “Yeah, but the chances of this being a hill are pretty big,” said Danal conversationally. No one in the group spoke for a while after this. The only sound was that of the drip, drip, dripping of rainwater on the soft forest floor, and the gentle spongy crunch of their boots on the woody detritus beneath their feet.

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There was no animal life on this planet. At least, according to Lissa’s hypothesis, no longer any life. If she was correct about the building they were heading for, then there most certainly was intelligent life once, and therefore all manner of animals roaming these forests. Whatever that intelligence was, it had died out along with the rest of the animals. It had either killed itself and all animal life somehow selectively, or the planet was scrubbed clean, these tall plants having survived as hardy seeds. Of course, this meant that whatever remained of the culture could already be millenia old, but that would not matter if Lissa found the civilisation she was after. The prize was huge: archaeologists and amateur explorers crossing between star systems had found tens of planets with incontroverible evidence for sentient life. Houses, tools, cooking remains, possible temples, fences, crop seeds and and husbandry had popped up all over the explored galaxy. It was widely known that ‘medieval’ class societies had grown up anywhere someone cared to look, on even the least hospitable planets. Traces of creatures great and small, of all shapes, had been found alongside these structures. But none had seemed to have gone through much of an industrial, and certainly not an electronic, revolution. There were no pylons, or skyscrapers, or bridges wider than a few hundred metres. No undersea tunnels, no moon bases, and no computers. Certainly some had come close to industrial revolution, but if current knowledge was anything to go

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by this was the most likely time for a sentient species to selfdestruct, or simply disappear. So what kind of civilisation could build an edifice as big as a mountain? With vast swathes of streets and houses suggested in the contours of the area surrounding it? If her own orbital surveys were correct (though she would admit that her tools were less than the latest thing in scanning technology) then the city they were approaching was as large as anything built on Earth before the diaspora into space. She dared hope that for the first time in history an archaeological expedition would discover technology more advanced than that of humans. And what off Earth would that look like? Lissa’s research had told her the hill ahead contained secrets which would derail the development of this planet and revolutionise what was understood about the civilisations of the galaxy. It might even put humans in their place, who until now believed that they were the only form of advanced technological society the universe had ever seen. *** The storm was gradually abating, and Lissa knew what that meant: demol ships were in orbit and had already begun the terraforming process. The others knew it too.

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As the demolition ships prepared the planet for redevelopment they would cause noticable changes that Lissa could use to judge her time left on the ground. The wind would die down to a gentle breeze and the temperature would rise in in the stillness. The clouds would clear and the sun would beat incessantly upon the surface. As the demol beams warmed up the air would fill with a buzz and eventually the ground would start to tremble under the strains of the artificial gravity fields created. Anyone unlucky enough to still be on the ground after about an hour of this would probably start to feel the beginnings of organ liquefaction. They wouldn’t have long after that. After the storm of the late morning, the present dying down of the wind was especially noticeable, and pressing. But that was the eye of the storm, and even if they managed to get the shuttle back up in the air they would have increasing gales to contend with once the actual demolition began. From an aerial viewpoint the ship’s occupants would have a fantastic view as vegetation, drift geology and – in theory – buildings collapsed, crumbled and fell. Rivers would boil, lakes would dry or overflow and oceans would re-arrange themselves, scouring the land clean. In the end, new colonists and developers would have a tabula rasa upon which to play out their dreams of new cities and sterile infrastructure. Mountains would be flatter, less troublesome. The planetary water system would re-find its balance and form new seas

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and river systems. In a couple of months the water cycle would reestablish itself and new rivers and streams would form on the wide plains. This was quick and dirty terraforming, and left most of the modifications to the generations who moved in later. *** The heavy vegetation on either side of their route showed here and there tantalising glimpses of what it might conceal. There were scatters of large boulders which suggested monumental walls. Or natural crags and outcrops. In places shrubs clustered in lines as if atop the ruins of an ancient building. Or colonising a fallen tree. In either case this would be little new to a practiced archaeologist. But Lissa had no time to stop and hack away at the jungle. Even if she did find another large town this would neither make a name for herself or tell them much that was not already known. Those who cared to keep up with such discoveries had heard it all before. Seen it all and visited it many times. And on this planet the demol ships would reduce it to rubble in a few hours anyway, and no one would miss what could have been found. It had long been shown that civilisation was not a finite resource. But an advanced technological one was different. If the hill they were heading towards really was the remains of a massive building then that changed everything. If human science was destined to prove that homo sapiens’ escape from its own planet, and its p11 of 27 Incompatible Martin Greaney

mastery over electrons, gravity and distance were a fluke – or rather an astonishing and unique achievement – then the question that needed to be answered was ‘why?’ Why humanity and no one else? Or had all the other space-travelling civilisations found a next destination? The longer time that went by without evidence for so much as a pocket calculator beyond the Earth’s atmosphere, the more humanity got paranoid. Why were they special? Was someone or something looking out for them? Or did humanity’s longer survival just mean the fall would be twice as catastrophic? Lissa stopped at a place where the jungle suddenly thinned. “Are we there yet?” Danal called out in a whine like a difficult child. Lissa looked up the broken craggy slope of the hill. There was a ragged-edged cave in its side some hundred metres up. “Yes,” she said. *** After the long hike on the flat, the short scramble up the hillside was punishing. Danal had made it clear in his commentary that they weren’t here for the mountaineering. He suggested that looking for cavemen was not likely to save the planet from destruction, but Lissa saved her breath for the climb.

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When they reached the cave entrance Lissa noticed the almost heavy calm even here, only halfway to the height of the canopy. The sun was low in the sky to their right as they looked down to the base of the hill, but its heat was unmistakable. Lissa turned back around to look at the opening. It looked like nothing less than a caved-in mine entrance, as Danal was quick to point out. “So this is the main entrance,” he said with one eyebrow raised. Simon walked forward. He was tall, and his years of moving earth and rock had bulked him out. His hands showed clear signs of the arthritis that he denied agonised his joints, and his attitude to these kinds of blockages was one of direct action. Without a word he made his way to the tumble of boulders filling the recess, and began pulling at the higher rocks. The moment of truth was surely approaching, Lissa thought to herself as other members of the team put down their packs and went to help Simon. This close, the slope up which they had climbed was certainly the least steep part of the hillside. From the narrow ledge where she stood the sides of the mound steepened, and carried on up for another hundred metres in this way before ending high above in a sharp, splintered plateau. If she had been so inclined she could imagine the debris beneath her feet as those parts of the ‘building’ which had broken away and fallen from the storeys near the top. p13 of 27 Incompatible Martin Greaney

Whether the aperture they were excavating was a door or a third floor window was neither here nor there as long as it gave them access. There was a gasp. “Oh… yes,” said Simon quietly. He was standing at the top of the cave-in, having dug himself a keyhole tunnel across the top of the pile. He was shining a torch through the hole, which clearly went deep. Lissa rushed up to him and grabbed the light. He stepped aside to give her room. Lissa crouched down and peered into the gloom. “Watch for sabre-tooths,” Danal said. Lissa didn’t respond. The torch reflected off a perfectly flat, horizontal surface – a ceiling. “You sure that pile’s stable?” His voice betrayed something approaching real concern, but that concern didn’t feel directed at Lissa’s safety. “Dan, give it a rest,” said Em. She was as keen as the others to see what was behind the pile, but Danal didn’t seem keen at all. He was in fact now looking rather agitated, trying to hide it behind his usual humour. He looked about to say more but was interrupted as Lissa pulled an armful of stones out of her way and wriggled through the gap. The

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soles of her feet disappeared last. There was silence in the evening heat while they waited for a reaction. Then Lissa’s head appeared in the hole. She was grinning, and wideeyed. “Get your backsides in here!” *** With little help from Danal, three enthusiastic team members had managed to clear half the blockage away, to let light in on a rectangular corridor. The walls were made of some kind of plastic, with floor and ceiling clad in a tough, foam-like substance. Along its lenth were wide square doors which swung to and fro on double hinges – or would have done originally. After submitting to some force from Simon a couple were wedged open. The torchlight revealed tables and large cuboid furniture, perhaps made of a similar material to the walls or floor. But nothing resembling ‘technology’, least of all a recognisable computer. There were cubes and shapes on the walls which could be anything from television screens to abstract art, but whatever power source would once have fed these things must have long since died, and now these ‘offices’ lay in the cool darkness. Lissa, heart pounding, had gone from room to room rapidly, taking Simon with her to help open doors leaving Em and Danal to try prising some knowledge from the dead rooms. The corridor p15 of 27 Incompatible Martin Greaney

stretched on beyond the weak beams of their cheap torches, and for all Lissa knew it could go right through this ‘mountain’ and out the other side. She was getting more and more frustrated. “Damn it, Si,” she said finally, kicking at another dead cube. “Dan’s right. This is a hopeless task, and a suicidal one to boot. We’ve got a couple of hours at most.” She pressed the balls of her hands to her temples, and breathed out heavily. “Well, if you ask me,” said Simon quietly, glancing quickly across his shoulder at the open door and looking concerned, “that boy protests too much.” “Ah, he’s just a realist. A painful, arsey realist,” she said. “Hey, he’s probably a bit nervous over the demol ships. He’ll learn to live with it once he’s done this a few times.” There was a faint thud from down the corridor, and the sound of the other two moving around. Lissa and Simon moved back out into the corridor, then Lissa froze. “Do you feel that?” she said to Simon. “What?” “It’s…” she said and moved further along the corridor. “It’s what?” he said as her torch beam disappeared into the darkness. “Lissa, wait! What?” And then he felt it too. “Heat?” He jogged up to her. Even the slight warmth felt in this part of the

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building was noticeable after the cave-like coolness upon entry to the building. He watched over her shoulder as Lissa walked, her torch beam limply piercing the gloom as she moved it back and forth, until it hit a wall around 40 metres ahead. Lissa ran to the wall, quickly followed by Simon. This corridor end consisted almost entirely of two doors side by side. As well as the heat they could both feel the first faint buzzing of the planet-wide gravity field being manipulated by the orbiting demol ships. They had little time to waste if they were to save these remains and prove their modernity. Simon took the pack from off his back and pulled a long thin metal road out of it. Wedging it in the crack between the doors he began rocking it side to side. The first few millimetres of movement were the easiest, but then the doors stuck firm. Lissa crouched down and tried her torch at the tiny opening. The beam gave fleeting glimpses of furniture, but no details. She stepped back again, and retrieved a similar tool from her own pack. Together the two dug in their crowbars and swung them back and forth. Millimetre by millimetre the doors budged apart, but still no detail could be discerned in the darkness beyond. The ground trembled; the first death throes before the planet’s impending rebirth. It must have dislodged something, for at that p17 of 27 Incompatible Martin Greaney

moment a gap of almost a metre opened between the doors before they came to rest again. Immediately Lissa dropped her tool and started to squeeze herself through. “Lissa, careful,” her companion said. “You don’t know what’s...” He trailed off at a look from her which said that this was the very reason for her haste. She disappeared into the gloom. Simon resumed his efforts to get the doors wide enough for himself. Inside the new room the warmth was certain. Lissa felt it was coming from the very walls and floor, and it was different to the heat felt outside. It was artificial; she knew it. Lissa pulled her torch out of her pocket and flicked it on, apprehensive of what she would see. For a second the beam streaked into the black, into nothing. She turned it this way and that, and it hit nothing. No walls, no ceiling. Just floor. She felt nauseous, vertiginous, space-sick. She span round and her dim light hit the wall behind her, and picked out the crack as Simon forced the doors completely apart. The ground shuddered again, more forcefully this time, and Simon was coated in a thin dusty layer. He sneezed, then Lissa’s torch flickered and died. The two were plunged into tarry blackness. Lissa spun around blindly, almost expecting attack to come from the vast space. But no attack came; instead the red lights came on.

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If Lissa had felt space-sick before, then they both did now. The room they were in was revealed to be a huge cavernous space. The roof overhead stretched in two rows of ribs like a cathedral above them. It reached a peak like a spine which carried a bundle of tubes from their end of the room to the far one. The red light was gloomy and threatening. It simply worked to give the space an even more sepulchral feel. The floor was occupied by rows upon rows of pedestals. The pedestals were perfect, sharpedged cuboids of square cross section, roughly 1.5 metres tall. Sitting upon the pedestals were small, intricate boxes made from densely packed wires. They looked for all the world like metallic balls of yarn. Lissa and Simon were dumbstruck. This was their evidence. They walked towards one of the massed ranks of pedestals, and Lissa reached her hand out. “Lissa...” Simon warned again. Another warning came from a tremor, and the device on the nearest pedestal skipped and rolled off the edge of its platform. Lissa dived to catch it. “Wow,” she said, gazing into her cupped hands. “It’s so... light. It can’t be metal. It feels… delicate.” She was on her knees. Simon looked at the object, then at Lissa, lost for words. “Here,” said Lissa suddenly, turning around. Simon knew what was needed, and unhooked the clasps on Lissa’s pack. He lifted the flap p19 of 27 Incompatible Martin Greaney

and dug his hand into the bag, feeling for the right instrument. Finally, he pulled out a slim rectangular tablet from which he unclipped two squat cylinders around the size of a thumbprint. Resting the tablet on the vacated pedestal, he placed each of these on the sphere in Lissa’s hands. The sensors were self-adhesive, and the upper surface of them both glowed steadily to show they were getting to work, trying to detect any metallic signatures, electromagnetic waves, water or any other clue as to the contents. Versions of this tool were used to sound out underground hollows and the damp earth of buried ditches, or to analyse bricks, pottery, bones and every other material find. It made the age-old practice of archaeology-by-destruction unnecessary in many cases. Simon picked up the tablet and watched tables and charts slowly materialise on its surface. He raised his eyebrows. “And?” said Lissa impatiently. “There’s definitely… something here.” Lissa rolled her eyes and put the ball on the floor. “Give me a look at that,” she said. She ran her eyes across the data output from the sphere while another tremor blurred the numbers. “Come on,” said Simon, grabbing her arm, “we have to go.” “Not until we-“

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There was crash as another two spheres toppled to the ground and shattered. The pile was little more than glassy shards, wire and dust, although one or two inner components were certainly visible poking out from the mass. The shaking was a constant mumbling now, and motes in the air suggested the dust of countless ages was being disturbed from rafters above them. A long bleep from the tablet grabbed Lissa’s and Simon’s attentions, and Simon span round to gaze over Lissa’s shoulder at the readout. “It’s binary.” “As far as the computer can guess –“ “It’s binary, Simon! There’s binary data in these wires! This thing… This is a computer. It must be!” “We have to get it to the ship to be sure. Any processed metal would give out a signal to this cheap piece of kit.” Lissa’s expression changed subtly. A moment ago, knowing this was the first non-human data storage was enough. But the fact remained that this was nothing without proof. Nothing if they stayed here and perished on this planet as the demol ships carried out their devastating attack. Lissa gingerly placed the sphere, about twice the size of her fist, in her backpack and shoved the tablet in her pocket. Simon was already half way to the door. Lissa walked slowly backwards, taking

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a long view of this cathedral to ancient knowledge. To know, to discover all the culture stored in these globes… “Lissa, come on.” Simon disappeared in to the corridor. Lissa could here him calling the names of the others. Once she had dragged herself away from the scene, Lissa saw Simon darting into the first room they had entered, to gather together the rest of their party. She broke into a jog, expecting to meet her three companions at their improvised entrance to the building. Instead Simon gave a shout from the room, and then he was at the doorway, looking frightened and angry. “Where’s Dan?” he said. “Dan!” he shouted down the corridor. “Wha-?” Lissa moved towards the room. “Don’t go in there,” he said, starting for the portal. “Dan’s gone. Em’s… He’s - ” Lissa pushed past him into the room. Em was slumped in a corner, her neck at a horrible angle. Blood trickled thickly from her nose. Lissa’s heart thudded at her ribs. What the hell was Danal up to? If it was as simple as stopping this expedition – by whatever gruesome means necessary – he’d clearly chickened out half way through. When the tremors started, he’d made a run for it. “We’ve got to get to the shuttle!” Simon was now shouting above the growing cacophony of wind and earthquake. “Before Dan!”

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He disappeared over the lip of the entrance. But if Dan had been making for their shuttle the whole time they’d been exploring, then there was no chance they would beat him to it. She screamed into the noisy air in frustration. Who was Danal working for? The demols no doubt, but was that where it stopped? Shit. No doubt the shuttle would be repaired before Danal got there, and now they knew what he was capable of the pilot stood little chance either. If he wasn’t in on it too. She still had the sphere in her pack, but no way to get it back to the orbitter miles above. It was going to be lost, all this. This city would be the rubble from which humans would make their homes. This mountain; this building… Well, it probably would no longer exist. Even if it was found by some future team like hers the most important secrets would have already been lost… But of course. This was one artifact which didn’t need to be taken back to a laboratory. This was one source which could be sent ahead of the team. Ahead even of Danal, Simon or the pilot. Saving it would seal her own fate, but then again that was a decision already made for her by Danal. He wouldn’t get away scot free. Liss turned and started to mount the side of the building-mountain. Even with the bulky pack on the back, the climb was effortless, driven as she was by the justice she felt was necessary. Slowly the p23 of 27 Incompatible Martin Greaney

top came in site, and gasping for breath in the rising gale she slung off her bag and slumped herself on top of the hill. For a brief moment she allowed herself to gaze at the surrounding vista. She could see for miles across beautiful emerald green forest and jungle, the sky above it a pale blue. In the far distance to the south west the planet’s sun reflected from a wide blue-grey sea. But clouds were massing, casting large shadows across the swaying treetops. Back to the task in hand, she pulled the sphere from the bag, the two glowing sensors still attached. She rummaged in her pockets for the tablet, and brought it out, the tables reflecting the masses of information still being drawn from the mysterious object. She was no master of interpretation of this device, but could see from the basic readout that gigabytes of data had been extracted already. Swiping her fingers across the tablet’s surface, she initiated the device’s upload function. The tablet gave out a double bleep confirming that it had made contact with the orbiting spacecraft. The display showed that a steady stream of raw bits and bytes were now heading into orbit. Even if this planet could not be saved, the record of what happened here perhaps thousands of years ago would make it out intact, and perhaps the activities of Danal and his paymasters would be called

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to account. Automatically the ships computers were already analysing the data and sending back conclusions. The wind was almost too strong for Lissa to stay up here, but she knew that she could dedicate her every last strength to keeping the datastream going. Perhaps the last thing she would know would be something of the people who erected this giant edifice on which she now sat. Something of the people who thought fit to save their lives in row upon row of chromed spheres. If she had had the capacity to glance up at this moment, perhaps she would have seen through the dust and wind a small shuttle battling with the elements to make it back out to orbit. As it was, the tablet double beeped again, and Lissa’s attention was drawn down. “What the –“ she said reading the screen in her hands. The tablet had confirmed her hopes: these spheres were highly likely to hold structured information as a series of binary-encoded electronic structures. Analysis showed that the readings were too regular to be random. The report went on to suggest that despite this, there were no ‘files’ on this drive. No images, no text. No corruption of the data, but no decipherable information. “But how can that be?” she yelled into the gale. This information needed to get out there. How could it be both perfectly preserved, and yet at the same time gobbledegook? Another civilisation, whose whole trace cut off at the moment they pass the medieval stage. p25 of 27 Incompatible Martin Greaney

Was that why no civilisations had advanced beyond the medieval? Once their culture was encoded in plastic and metal, did it become completely inaccessible to future historians? An alien culture, an alien computer. Alien language. Alien technology. Damn it, she could barely find a device to read her university dissertation, from only 12 years ago. What was she expecting from a long-dead civilisation? The tablet beeped twice again, but Lissa ignored it. Tears welled in her eyes, and he made no effort as the wind snatched it from her hands and sent it bobbling over the edge of the roof. She let the tablet fall to the ground and the hurricane tugged insistently at her. Gone for good. A mighty civilisation, whose physical monuments may have sat undisturbed for centuries, and yet whose highest achievements – the writing, painting, sculpture, perhaps plays and concerts – all was gone to dust and bits, never to be relived. She had spent her life chasing that dream, and now it proved an illusion, a basic mistake. As the demol ship’s destruction beams reached full heat, and the building began to crumble beneath her, Lissa wondered whether Simon did make it back to the shuttle.

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