‘So who’s the vee-eye-pee?’ asked Jo, voice crystal-clear over the comm-bead in spite of the perpetual rain. The sergeant shrugged.
‘Some bigwig archaeologist. From Ariel, I think.’
Jo nearly dropped her gun.
‘An archaeologist? Fuck’s sake, Booker, why didn’t you tell me that before I volunteered?’
The sergeant laughed. Jo couldn’t see the expression on his face through the coloured glass of his mask, but she could imagine it; and what she could imagine made her want to break his big, smug nose.
‘Afraid you’ll have to do some real work for once?’
‘Fuck you, sarge,’ she said, and cut off her comm-bead just as he started laughing again. She looked at the landing pad, at the archaeologist in his bulky civilian survival suit clumsily dismounting the cargo shuttle. She glanced enviously at her colleagues engaged in the boring, everyday work of unloading the supply crates, and then turned her gaze on the mountain.
The mountain was really a city. Two hundred years prior its inhabitants had changed themselves into something other than human. There had been a war, and now everyone on the surface of the godforsaken rock once known as Paradise had to wear a survival suit.
The inhabitants of the mountain were long dead, but their machines were built to last and did not like intruders. About once a month they’d get tourists who wanted a close-up look. None of them were stupid enough to want to go inside, so babysitting them was an easy break from the drudge maintenance routine. Archaeologists, on the other hand, were that very highly-educated kind of stupid that tended to get their escorts killed.
A thought occurred and made her smile. Jo flicked on her comm-bead.
‘Hey, Booker, maybe the bookworm’ll eat it right away and we’ll be home in time for tea.’
‘Hmm. Well, that’d be a neat trick seeing as you’ll be out in front, kid.’
The sergeant laughed once more and slung his rifle over his shoulder. He pressed a few buttons on the wrist of his suit.
‘All right, I’m about to link the egghead in on our frequency. So play nice.’
The sergeant waved at the approaching archaeologist, who had an anti-grav palette trailing after him, and offered a greeting.
‘Aloha, señor! Welcome to Paradise!’
Jo nearly burst out laughing at the sudden formality, but bit her tongue. The archaeologist waved back.
‘Aloha to you! Are you my escorts?’
‘That’s right,’ said the sergeant.
‘Oh, goodie,’ said the archaeologist, brimming with enthusiasm; ‘Well, let’s get going right away! To think – to see the fabled machine-mountain from the inside! Oh, the things they have – you know they say the technology there matches anything on Earth? I simply can’t wait…’
…and on and on he went, as they started the two-kilometre walk to the base of the mountain. He didn’t even ask their names. Shit, thought Jo, I’m going to die.