It was a pile of humongous rubble. The chunks of crust averaged fifty or a hundred meters on a side, tossed up on top of a plateau about three kilometers above what was now sea level. The chunks betrayed sedimentation and metamorphosis and all the things geologists read with a glance. It was what the chunks lay on top of that interested Rachel and Clay.
Half obscured by scree and by a two-hundred-meter boulder was a series of broad faint lines meeting at 120 degree angles. Zooming out and blurring the view, more design resolved: a honeycomb of perfect regular hexagons with sides 330 meters long. Many were partly erased, many were distorted, many were obscured by a thin dust that seemed to blow about up here in the nearly nonexistent upper airs, but the pattern covered a section at least eight kilometers long and four wide, and presumably continued under the scree.
“And it’s not the same all over,” said Rachel as they hovered a kilometer up. “It’s definitely centered. See how this line of hexagons and that line are clearer? I’m sure of it—see the designs? Those ones have those little paisley designs.”
“They’re not just clearer,” said Clay. “Those aren’t just paisleys, Rache. Those are signals. They’re just dead.”
“What?” She fiddled. “Man. That’s technology down there. That’s solar. Those are beacons.”
“Or something,” said Clay. “And they focus just under the rubble.”
So they landed in a hexagon close to the edge of the scree. They got out, suited up: the atmosphere up here was vanishingly thin. They walked around the hexagon, which was nowhere near as clear down here as it had been from a kilometer up. Its linear edges were not ruts nor ridges, but slightly different colored substrate. On close examination they weren’t even sure it could be called rock: was it highly metamorphosed asphalt, or highly metamorphosed soil, or some alien applique?
The “paisley” pattern Rachel had noticed was actually a curlicue of small embedded pieces. They looked like crushed light bulbs, with metal bits stuck down inside hard-pressed bits of colored glass or plastic. Rachel poked around with a probe tool that came out of her sensor, another of Padfoot’s little innovations: with prodding, they could see bits of device. The whole paisley wasn’t at the center of the hexagon, but within ten meters of the vertex nearest the rubble.
“Weird,” said Clay. “I keep thinking about the beings that left this. Who left this. Right? I’m trying to get the, uh, relative pronouns right. These were a who, not a which. Think about that.”
“Think about this,” said Rachel. She kicked some of the debris around. It was thin and corroded but also dense and metallic somehow: a dust of dead steel. “This was laid down long before the miners got here. To them, this was just rock. They dumped their stuff on this. There is no sign of actual things here, just these hexagons. The whole place was ruins by the time the miners got here. I’m sure of it.” She kicked her way to the vertex of the hexagon and glared at the scree. “And the signs all point, literally point, to something under there.”
“How the heck do we get under there?”
“With our amazing brains,” said Rachel.
An hour later, using their amazing brains and some navigational software in their helmets, Clay and Rachel had worked their way back under the boulders. Once they had found their way in past the scree through a narrow gap, they found mostly spacious halls of stone formed by the chunks of rock above and the flat highland below. Their helmet screens overlaid the hex pattern on the dim scene before them, and presently they found themselves standing in the middle of a huge vaulted chamber. At their feet was a hexagonal hatch sixty centimeters on a side.
“The guys who left the plaques,” said Clay, “you know, the iridium plates? They liked hexagons.”
“So do bees and wasps,” said Rachel. She bent and started using her probe to get into the cracks that marked the edge of the hexagon. “Help me out here.”
Clay continued walking around the hexagon, then bent and looked at what seemed to be a central design, a sort of sixfold paisley. He stuck his own sensor’s probe into it, then probed around, poking and stirring. Rachel rose to kneel and watched.
Suddenly the hatch popped up a centimeter or so and dropped back askew. They looked at each other. Then they carefully lifted it up and set it aside.
Beneath, there was a hexagonal space only about ten centimeters deep. It was filled with glittering metallic disks, dozens of them, each five or six centimeters across.
“Gold pieces,” said Clay. “We just rolled real good for treasure. Where the hell’s the dragon?”
“It’s not treasure,” said Rachel, picking one of the disks up. She glared at it, then turned her sensor on it. “Letters. No, grooves. Coding.”
“But it’s gold, right? Tell me it’s not iridium-osmium.”
“Platinum,” said Rachel.
“Why platinum, I wonder,” said Clay. “I mean, for coins—?”
“I told you,” said Rachel, still glaring at the sensor. “It’s not coins. Platinum is the least reactive of all the metals. It’s rare, but that’s not the point, except that whoever they were, they would only have used it for something really important. It’s not treasure. It’s records.”