Previously: The industrious exile Starling and the thinking machine Glimmer seek their fortune in the boom town of Mausoleum. They make chump change on chump labor and are expelled. They seek employment at a dig site.
They moved to the next pillar. Starling peered at the carvings, jagged within their perfect grids and around the occasional abstract bas-relief. "Nothing." He looked at the note in his hand, compared the glyphs with those on the pillar after that. "Count. Count."
Half a day's journey had taken less than half an hour after Starling talked a man at the gas station into giving him a ride. From the gravel road, the Mausoleum could have been taken for an unusually oblong rock face, but the excavation on the other side showed a dozen stories of sheer black metal.
A battered quadcopter drifted down the hall. A red LED on the housing blinked for Starling's attention. He pantomimed the area he had surveyed and slowly signed his count in the archaeologist's sign argot.
"Hey. Watch this." A burst of static came from Glimmer's headset. Starling winced and grabbed his ear. "What was..."
"Sorry! I can tune that. Watch the drone."
Two of the quadcopter's rotors had stopped, and it gently drifted to the floor. Starling knelt to inspect it. "What did you do?"
"These machines communicate in ultrasonic pulses - well, they can communicate, normally they just use radio, I'm not sure why they've got the sensors -"
The drone shakily lifted off, steadied itself, and wound back the way it had come as if nothing had happened.
"-but anyway they send out little status messages, right? I don't think the owners know about them. I was thinking about those and what kind of protocol would produce that, and -"
"You can analyze that?" Starling felt impressed and unsettled. He looked at the next pillar and tried to focus.
"I used to run the cleaning robots at Dolphin Cottage, I know the basic theory. You met the live carpet. Anyway I can use a trick with the resonators in that headset to step up the frequency and hijack robots. Cool, huh?"
"Yeah." He felt like he wasn't showing enough enthusiasm and didn't want to sound sarcastic, but he had no way to tell how Glimmer took anything, except for an occasional sigh or murmur. He wished she had a face.
Starling had found the site foreman near the bottom of the ramp with a group of men lowering a rope into a deep hole, where the mausoleum entrance yawned black behind them. The foreman glanced at Starling's arms and sent him inside, to where the research team had set up tents at the base of what seemed to be a great onyx amphitheater.
A heavy electrical cable from a generator outside the building powered lights and computers, and about a dozen archaeologists milled about with cups of coffee, photocopies of photographs, and three-ring binders with pages spilling out. He caught the eye of a bullet-headed man in a leather jacket, yelling into a handheld radio.
The man greeted him with a handshake surprisingly gentle for the size of his hands, and sent him to a harried young woman in a lab coat tugging on kite strings by a square-walled shaft. She took the distraction gratefully and caught her breath, then pointed him to a staircase that led deep into the hillside, well past the road by Glimmer's estimate.
At the bottom was a smaller camp, with just two big tents and a relaxed atmosphere, in a chamber even larger than the one at the entrance. Rows of square pillars went on into the black distance, with an abstract humanoid statue at the head of each one, all with small variations on their stances and gestures, none with a face.
A half-dozen laborers and a pair of researchers lived on this level, which they called the Archive for the steles inscribed on most of the pillars. "They only carved symbols to a little above eye height," said the lead researcher, a chipper, rail-thin man named Blund. "Above there it's all drawers. We can't open them yet but the symbols give us clues."
He handed Starling a note. "Someone in the antechamber wants an estimate of how many times this group is repeated in the north side of the Archive. Get it to us by the end of the week and we'll give you a zarn." He noticed Starling's wince. "Look, we don't get funded enough as is. You can make more if you work more."
Starling got a sleeping pad in one of the tents and three MREs a day. Blund walked him to his starting point by the base of the stairs. "Oh. And if you think you hear drumbeats, don't worry about it. It's an illusion caused by the shape of the roof." He slapped Starling on the back.
Starling's work ethic and Glimmer's focus had made for short work, and after only two days they had walked up and down two-thirds of the north side, breaking the count down by rows. It was monotonous work, but Starling was soothed by the atmosphere. Glimmer had been quiet, and he wasn't sure if she was brooding or just bored.
He paused. "You said you ran the robots, right? Did you ever get to pilot one?"
"I piloted all of them." Her enthusiasm had run out.
"No, I mean inhabit one, like my brain's in my body."
"No." She sounded confused. "I wasn't allowed to. Why... why wasn't I? Was there a reason?"
"Do you want one now? It would be convenient for both of us. Count."
"One-sixty-five. What, like that quadcopter? That would be fun. Or maybe a car?"
A deep thumping noise, almost too deep to hear, echoed through the pillars. The circle of light around Starling's borrowed headlamp was a bright drop in a sea of pitch.
"I wish that were an illusion," said Glimmer.
"Earthquake?" Another laborer, a stunningly ancient man named Carnassus, had left the day after their arrival, swearing he'd felt the foreshocks of an earthquake. Of course, he'd also sworn the drawers were speaking to him, and once had admitted quietly that he was the real Zarn.
"It's coming from below, whatever it is. And it's..."
She paused. "I'm probably senile. But there's a pattern in it that matches the command I sent that drone."
"Freaky." They stood together in the silence. "Blund says they haven't found a path to the lower levels, if there are any."
Glimmer sighed. "I want to come back here with some of the instruments from Dolphin Cottage. And an extra parallel unit. I don't remember anything like this when the city was above ground. If I haven't mixed up my coordinates, this place was a lake."
Starling looked at the pillar, eager to return to his task, but tore his eyes away. "I want to find out," he said, "I want to find out what's down there.
"Then maybe you should get better job, chief." Glimmer's voice was harsh and flat. Starling snorted.
"Maybe I should put you to work. Tie you next to one of those big file cabinet computers and have you help it with its homework. One sixty-six."
The dark outside the circle was deep and solid, but it didn't matter. "Count. I'm already working. I'm a backscratcher. Jump up and down."
A shuffling, a tapping, echoing through a tomb. "It doesn't work." A giggle in an earpiece. Footsteps in the dark. Another rumble.
It didn't matter either.