“No contact, our Guardian,” their captain reported. “The first city lies just over the horizon from here. No activity.”
Now it was my turn to be perplexed. We were knocking on their door. Weren’t they even interested? Surely we had not seen the full strength of the plateau.
“Right,” I said. “Maintain perimeter, keep your distance. Keep touch with the other patrols. Someone somewhere will care what we’re doing.”
He snorted, gave a wry smile, waved his men around. Left. This wasn’t right, any of it. The Augers should have responded better to my ploy. And they never should have left so many tiers vacant in the first place. We were missing something. I sped back to the Stair, looked down upon all the flashing. Ash’s disks were tiny coins in the distance. He had advanced. The ramp was cycled down. It would be a while, yet. I spun back to the switch house. This time I did dismount. I walked inside, to watch the keystrokes and be sure I had the sequence right. One never knows.
I nodded at the scout-captain, took in the rest of the room. Swore.
“You’ve got to be kidding me! Why the hell didn’t someone say–”
I cut myself off, staring at the black and swirling sphere, head-sized, sitting atop a pedestal against the back wall. The constraints of the culture of this world: unless yon scout-captain had been a clerk in the Temple, secretary to Jerem Cozak, or page to one of the eight Guardians of the world, he would have had no idea what was in the room with him. He could never have identified a linking sphere, that orb which once empowered a network of instantaneous communication between the stars. Now, of course, the Augers used them the same way I once had: to talk to high command.
They had a memory. I picked up the orb and replayed the last electronic conference. A three-way confab between officers on this very Stair and the commander of the incoming interstellar fleet. Did I harken? To the tips of my toes. And sat down, in the end, overwhelmed by the import. Cradling the orb, I replayed it again, and again.