2952-06-11 – Tales from the Service: The Pillars of 779C 

Turning the tablet over in his hands, Reade Marinou turned and looked back to the hilltop on which he’d landed his survey-ship, around which that double ring of boulders stood. It was hard to imagine that this stinking atmosphere had been the home of alien sapience, but it was less hard to imagine that species in long decline and eventual ruin amid the splendid, dramatic landscapes of ‘779c. His sensors had failed to pick up any lights, not even cook-fires, on the night side of the world through several orbits. Whoever they were, they were either entirely gone, or so nearly so that it would be the work of a lifetime to find the remnant. 

Tucking the tablet under one arm, Reade continued to the water’s edge to collect his samples. As he did so, the clouds over the far shore parted, and something glinted on the top of a dark hill. Whatever it was, to create a reflection he could see at such a distance must have been large indeed. 

After marking and pocketing his samples, Reade pulled out his magnifier and set the meta-lens to its maximum setting. No matter what settings he used, the reflected light from that distant hill appeared only as a blinding white patch on the device’s screen. He couldn’t see anything on any of the other hills beyond the water; that wasn’t too surprising, with the rangefinder displaying eighteen kilometers or more. If he was going to find out what was causing the reflection, he’d have to fly over there. 

Reade scoured the beach for other things to stuff into sample containers for more than an hour, regularly looking over his shoulder at that distant reflection. When the clouds closed in again, it vanished, only to reappear somewhat dimmer a few minutes later when they parted once more. As he watched, the light waned rapidly to almost nothing, lingered for another moment, then went out altogether. 

Once again, he tried the magnifier on the spot, and once again, he saw nothing remarkable; the rugged shoulders of the hill appeared as tree-covered as those on the near side of the water, and its bare, rocky summit bore no signs of artifice. 

With one last look at the beach, Reade turned back toward his ship. The curved hull of the PCS Tern that Survey had issued him was easily visible on the hilltop for most of his return hike, so he hardly needed to use the locator beacon. Apart from the horrendous smell, he decided this planet really was quite pleasant; perhaps the climate engineers could do something to reduce the odor and render the place fit for human habitation. 

At the top of the hill, Reade stopped to walk around one of the standing stones. No matter what angle he looked at it, he saw no sign that the stone was shaped by intelligent hands, and it bore none of the markings on the tablet tucked under his arm. He made a far more cursory examination of another of the boulders, then shrugged and clambered up the boarding ramp and into the sweet air of the Tern’s crew cabin. 

“Give me a local terrain map.” Reade angled his head up as he spoke, as he always did when issuing commands to the computer. For some reason, he always thought of the ship’s automation systems as “above” him, even though the computer core itself was behind the paneling on the port side of the narrow corridor leading to the cockpit. 

“Specify range.” The toneless voice, configured to Reade’s preference, could never be mistaken for that of a human. He’d seen too many Survey spacers go a little mad out in the wide emptiness of the Frontiers, and start treating the pleasant voice of their computer system like a close confidant, or even a lover, and he didn’t want to walk down that road. 

“Thirty kilometers.” Reade closed the hatch behind himself and unzipped the front of his environment suit.  

The center of the compartment grew bright and a white mist seemed to fill it as the holo-projectors warmed up. In a moment, the mist cleared into a translucent relief map three meters across. The mountains on one side rose around Reade’s knees, and a narrow sea, a miniature of the one whose water now occupied his sample jars, occupied much of the center of the compartment, and the far shore rose into a line of dramatic hills on the far side. 

Reade took two steps into the middle of the sea, then knelt down and looked at the hills. The one he was looking for wasn’t difficult to pick out; it wasn’t taller than the others, but it was broader than most, with steep shoulders falling down almost to the water’s edge. “Is there a good landing spot near this?” 

“Unknown.” The computer helpfully placed a pulsing starburst at the point of Reade’s outstretched finger. “Further information required.” 

Reade nodded, stood, and headed for the cockpit. Within a minute, the Tern was airborne, and within three, it was hovering over the top of the hill where he’d seen the glinting reflection. From the air, he couldn’t see anything that might reflect that much light, but with trees crowding the slopes almost to the summit, he suspected that whatever it was, would be somewhere below the canopy. 

“Landing site found. Autopilot route computed.” The computer helpfully painted holographic indicators in front of the viewpanel. “Initiate?” 

“Yes.” Reade took his hands off the controls, and the Tern wheeled and began a circling descent toward a clearing between two projecting ridges. A few twisted, black stumps jutted out from the thick underbrush, but the autopilot avoided these. The landing skids crushed down the plants with a rasping noise, and then the Tern once again came to rest. 

Despite his interest in finding the reflection – he felt certain that it would be more evidence of the departed former masters of this world – Reade took time to collect samples of every species of plant growing around his new landing site. By now, the afternoon was getting on, and he briefly debated bunking down and waiting for the drones to come back. He certainly wasn’t pressed for time; another twenty hours on 779c wouldn’t do any harm. 

All thoughts of waiting until morning vanished from his mind when, rounding the tail of his ship, Reade saw something reflecting light jut within the trees. Stowing his sample containers in a pouch, he pushed through the chest-high shrubs until they failed under the shade of the massive, high-crowned trees. 

Reade didn’t have to walk far before he came to the source of the reflection. From the forest floor, a pillar rose, hexagonal in profile, with its top squared off. The whole thing was a single crystal of clear quartz – or its local analogue – but its inside was shot through with silver filaments which seemed to sparkle in the light of the sun. 

Walking around the pillar several times, Reade used his suit cameras to capture images from multiple angles. Surely this was the work of intelligent hands – even if crystals of this magnitude could form naturally, they would do so far underground. 

Even as he considered whether this single monolith would have been able to reflect the light he’d seen from nearly twenty klicks away, Reade spotted another flash of reflected light beyond the first pillar, and then another. Each one lit up when touched by the light, as if it was more than mere reflection, and surrendered its glow reluctantly when the rays filtering down through the trees moved on. It seemed the whole hillside was studded with the pillars, but that with the sun so low in the sky, only a few at a time caught any light. Perhaps earlier, with the sun overhead, most of them had been shining. 

Reade took a few more still images, then retreated toward his ship, certain now that he would be staying one more day. 

It is for the safety of these crystal pillars that Mr. Marinou seems to have omitted the catalog number of the system from his account; by his description these alien artifacts would be quite beautiful art objects even without their mysterious provenance. No doubt, after the war, Survey will bring a xenoarchaeological team to the site to fully investigate it, and to search for more samples of the writing on his tablet. 

Unfortunately, Marinou did not include any images of the pillars in his account; evidently he thought this too great a risk.