Aphelion Issue 277, Volume 26
October 2022
 
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Time Capsule Hunters

by K. A. Williams




There was a small yellow excavating machine next to me. Two large scoops were folded against its body. A square head swiveled toward me. "Do you know why we’re here?" Green eyes blinked as it talked.

"Not yet. But I know that the human who bought us from the Alpha 5 Robot Factory on the moon is named Professor Tempro."

We had boarded the ship along with the rest of the crew and were waiting for our orders.

"Can you two get out of the way?" asked a crew member.

"Yes, we could," I said, "We are both capable of movement."

She looked at us for a minute. We stayed still and watched her, until she walked off, shaking her head.

A man passed her and came up to us. "I am Professor Tempro," he said, "I bought you both to fulfill a project of mine. You are an Alpha android, prototype series 4."

"That is correct," I said.

"I'll just call you Alpha. I want you and this excavating robot, which I'll name Digger, to collect time capsules from dead civilizations to preserve what remains of their cultures."

"What is a time capsule?" I asked.

"It's a container which holds artifacts from a certain period of the area's history that someone deemed important enough to preserve for a future generation to open. But if their world is dead, there won't be a future generation to open it."

"Why would their civilizations die?"

"There are different reasons. Sometimes people have destroyed themselves with global or interplanetary wars. Some worlds are dead because their inhabitants have stripped them completely of resources. Thankfully, Earth's civilizations are prospering. We'll dig up our first capsule here, and I will supervise. I will be unable to join you on toxic worlds."

 

******

 

Professor Tempro showed me how to operate the ground penetrating radar device, although he said there were records showing the exact location of this particular time capsule.

Digger unfolded its powerful metallic scoops, bent its upper half over, and dug up the ground where I pointed. I dropped into the hole and retrieved the stainless-steel container.

"Very good," the professor said, "Never open them until you're onboard the ship. A corrosive atmosphere could ruin the contents."

I jumped out of the hole. Then Digger shoveled the dirt back in and we followed the professor, who carried the small container to his special storeroom on the ship.

He cleaned its surface, opened it, and dumped everything onto a long table. Then he explained the function of each item he showed us, which included photographs, letters, magazines, coins, and a calendar.

 

******

 

Professor Tempro named his ship The Preserver. We had traveled to our first destination and Digger waited on me to tell it where to dig. The level of radiation was dangerous, even with a protective space suit, so the professor watched Digger through the viewer integrated into my eyes.

I used the GPR like the professor had taught me, and Digger dug up the area that I indicated. Then I stepped into the hole and picked up the time capsule.

The professor spoke directly into my ears through my built-in transmitter. "Good work, Alpha. Bring it aboard."

Digger and I returned to The Preserver and waited in the decontamination chamber until it was safe to exit. Professor Tempro met us at the door and took the capsule from me. He swiftly carried it to what he now called the treasure room.

He wiped it off with a towel. "The outer material looks completely alien." He set it down on the long table. "Alpha, see if you can figure out how to open this."

I inspected its surface until I located a depression and pushed with my fingers. The middle of the container parted.

"Dump everything out gently."

I did, and we all stared at the contents.

"None of these things look like the items you showed us from the Earth’s time capsule," Digger observed.

I agreed with Digger. "What is that red thing, professor?"

"I don’t know what any of these objects are. Isn’t this wonderful?"

"Why do you say that?" Digger asked.

"Because they are alien artifacts, and we get to discover their function."

The professor picked up the red triangle-shaped object I had asked about and waved it around experimentally. It made noises almost like the music discs that he listened to. If he waved it quickly, the music was faster, and when he barely moved it, the music slowed down.

"This is marvelous."

He set it back on the table and picked up a small blue sphere. It began to talk. I translated, "We are the Secosian people. Our planet, Trumara, is involved in a worldwide war. All sides possess weapons of mass destruction. We will all die because of this war. I am packing this time capsule with our history in the hope that someone will discover it and our civilization be remembered. I will describe the function of each item inside this container." And the speaker did so.

One of the things was a black square filled with flat thin objects that looked like photographs. When they were touched, a voice said what they represented. Among them were pictures of people, animals, plants, buildings, and other things that my translator could not interpret.

We spent hours looking at everything. "This is why our project is worthwhile," said the professor.

 

******

 

The ship’s scanners had designated this planet uninhabited with only trace amounts of radiation, but Professor Tempro remained on the ship because of a sprained ankle. Doctor Spinak had treated it, but didn’t want him walking a lot yet.

"What are you doing?" a voice asked. My translator had turned its high-pitched verbal squeaks into words.

I turned to look at a native of this evidently not so dead world. "We were preparing to dig up this time capsule," I answered in the alien's language.

"I don't understand what a time capsule is," the blue squat creature said through a hole in its face, while it waved spindly arms. "But you are trespassing on sacred burial ground." It then squealed loudly, several times.

The professor’s voice crackled in my ear. "I want you and Digger to return to the ship immediately! That creature is calling for help!"

I climbed up on Digger's metal body and hung on just above its tank treads. "You can travel faster than me. Let's get back to the ship. Hurry!"

It bumped along uneven ground toward our ship which was parked five hundred meters away, because the terrain was flatter there.

A rock hit my back. It jarred me and I turned to look at the blue aliens who were getting closer. They ran on six legs while scooping up rocks with their four long arms to throw at us. The ship's hatchway opened when we approached and closed immediately once we were inside.

Digger and I listened to the rocks strike the outside of the ship before it lifted off.

Professor Tempro was waiting for us when we left the decontamination chamber. "The ship's outside viewer showed you bouncing along on Digger with all those aliens chasing you," he said, wiping his eyes.

"I'm glad I didn't fall off."

"I'll try and recalibrate our underground scanner to tell the difference between a burial container and a time capsule."

 

******

 

Digger slipped into the hole it was making.

"Come out," I said, "Time capsules aren't buried that deep. The radar must be wrong again."

"I can't get out. My air jets aren’t working, and something’s pulling me down."

"It's called gravity. Scanners didn't indicate any intelligent life on this planet. Whoever buried the time capsule is gone now."

"Sometimes the scanners lie. Remember those blue aliens we met last month?"

I certainly did. "You're right."

I jumped into the deep hole that was sinking fast. Dirt slid down on top of us as we sank lower. Then we were falling.

"Can't you grab hold of the edge?"

I watched Digger try and fail. When we hit bottom, Digger landed on treads which was good. I was strong, but I didn't think that I could have righted the robot if it had landed sideways.

We looked around.

The ground had been smoothed and leveled by something or someone. Tunnels went in several directions. One opened up into a large area and we looked inside. There were several robots. I examined them, but they had ceased functioning long ago.

"Which direction should we take?" Digger asked.

"Professor Tempro suggests following a tunnel that slopes upward," I said, after he had spoken to me.

Before we had moved far, a silver android approached us. It was humanoid in appearance, except it had wheels instead of feet. My translator deciphered the language. "Fellow robots, I thought I was alone on this planet."

"We just arrived. We were searching for time capsules."

"What are those?"

I explained.

"You'll find nothing like that here. When the planet's sun died, the weather grew cold. The people dug tunnels and moved their civilization underground, but eventually they all died. Since there were no roboticists left to repair them, the robots ceased to operate over time. I’ve been searching these tunnels for years and have concluded that I’m the only one still functional."

I recalled the ones Digger and I had seen. "Will you show us to the surface?"

"Yes, follow me." The android moved slowly through a maze of twisting tunnels. Its wheels looked damaged.

"Invite the robot to come with us," the professor said, after we reached the surface.

"Professor Tempro would like you to join us on the ship."

"Thank you." It followed us aboard.

"Do you have a name?" I asked.

"Why would I have one?"

"We all have names on this ship. I'm Alpha and this is Digger. You should have a name."

When we left the decontamination chamber, the professor looked at the new robot and said, "I’ll name you Roller. Come with me and I'll show you a time capsule."

We followed him to the treasure room which he had decorated with paintings and wooden statues. I translated back and forth between them, while the professor explained time capsules and our mission to Roller.

"Alpha, I am going to modify your orders. From now on, you and Digger will search for robots that might have been left behind on deserted worlds, in addition to hunting time capsules. I’ll start reprogramming a scanner for that purpose."

 

******

 

The professor found some replacement wheels on Space Station 3 and modified them for Roller. 

It quickly learned our language and joined Digger and I on our next mission. The professor’s new scanner led us to a long metal container big enough for a human-size robot.

Professor Tempro was waiting for us outside the decontamination chamber. Digger carried the object in its scoops to the treasure room and set it on the long table.

"This is exciting," the professor said, "Please open it, Alpha." He grabbed an apple from the fruit bowl that sat on a small nearby table and munched it while waiting.

I brushed some dirt off and found a recessed button. The lid opened upward, revealing a red android that lay inside.

"I wonder how we can turn it on," said the professor, "Does anything look like a switch to you, Alpha?"

I examined it carefully, running my fingers along its smooth surface, hunting for any differences.

Roller said, "There might be a reason the android was buried. It could be dangerous, maybe we shouldn’t turn it on. Once a malfunctioning robot on my planet had to be destroyed."

I stopped touching it and looked at the professor who frowned.

"Thank you, Roller, I hadn’t thought about that."

"What should we do with it?" Digger asked.

Suddenly the android sat up and laser beams shot out of its eyes, disintegrating one of Professor Tempro's favorite paintings on the wall.

I grabbed the fruit bowl, dumped out the fruit, and shoved the bowl over the android's head, covering its eyes. Blinded now, it raised its hands and projectiles started spitting out of them.

The professor's favorite statue broke apart, showering us with hard pieces of wood. I had moved in front of him to act as a shield. Projectiles bounced off my metallic body as I yelled, "I'm protecting the professor! Do something, Roller!"

Roller started forward, but it stumbled over the fruit and wood chunks on the floor and fell down. Digger smacked the android's head off with one of its powerful scoops, but the fingers kept shooting.

When Roller managed to get upright, it picked up the head, which was still stuck in the bowl. Then Roller shoved the android's body back down inside with the disembodied head, left it in there, and slammed the lid shut.

We could hear the projectiles echoing around, but none of them penetrated the outer covering.

"Are you okay?" I asked Professor Tempro.

"I… I'm fine. Would you please get that android off this ship and bury it again? But first, see if you can find some paint in the supply room, and draw a skull and crossbones on the container."

"Skull and crossbones." I repeated. "What for?"

"It's a universal danger symbol and will, hopefully, make anyone else less likely to open it."

 

******

 

We kept exploring in The Preserver and dug up many time capsules. We hadn’t found any more robots yet, but Professor Tempro was optimistic. He said, "I believe we will find others.  A certain percentage of the dead worlds out there would have been advanced enough to create them. I just hope the next robot will be more like Roller, and not like the last one we brought aboard. We will continue our search."


THE END


2022 K. A. Williams

Bio: K. A. Williams writes speculative, mystery/crime, general fiction, and poetry. Her science fiction has appeared in many magazines including Aphelion, Black Petals, 365 Tomorrows, The Creativity Webzine, Corner Bar, View From Atlantis, and Schlock! She has published 2 science fiction collections - "Androids and Aliens: A Short Story Collection" and "12 Science Fiction Short Stories". Apart from writing, she enjoys rock music and CYOA games.


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