shapes
Nils Dougan dot com
::little-man complex::

Sifting

It makes more sense to work at night, so that’s what they do. Sona does a double check on her guages to make sure her exosuit is sealed and then hits the release for the door. Even now, well past when the sun has set, her celsius indicator shoots up as it adjusts from the capsule temperature to the outside.

“Let’s go,” she says to Baker without turning to him. Not far away she sees the lights of the site already on. “Did you turn those on from the inside?” This time she does turn to Baker. He nods. “Okay. For a moment I thought we had left them on all day.” Not that they didn’t have the energy to burn. A single minute in high noon sun charged their energy silos to capacity. The lights themselves were rated for twenty years consecutive output. It still felt wasteful somehow though.

A gust of wind comes at Sona from the side and she stumbles before catching herself. She brings up her weather indicator but there’s no sign of an incoming storm. Still, when she looks around she sees the rusty grass whipping back and forth as the air tugs and pushes it. It’s dusty too, without enough vegetation to keep soil in place. And then the sun bakes everything during the day. She wonders how long it will be before this whole area is a desert.

As they approach the site, Baker walks over to the hanger to start the hover rover as Sona opens the monitor station and runs a sonic ping. The screen returns with splotches of red on a mostly brown topographical map.

“Hey Baker.”

“Yeah?”

“Let’s leave the rover today.” She sends over a data slide of the ping to Baker’s hud. She circles a clump of red dots about two kilometers out. “Let’s grab the backhoe and go here.”

“After a month of finding next to nothing on top, all I can say is thank you.” Even without seeing his face, she can hear the smile in his voice. It had been nothing but garbage in the most literal sense of the word. Clusters of goods were helpful. Appliances gave insight into the technology of the time. Clothes became a window into the culture of the era. Books were Sona’s version of gold; data storage her platinum. But it had been nothing but household junk: food refuse, broken kitchen goods, endless seas of plastic. Nothing they didn’t already find tons of at other sites. Still, protocol required that a surface analysis of the entire area be done so that they could confirm, yes, this is in fact just like the dozens of others they’ve begun excavating. It’s her call to decide when their surface survey was thorough enough.

Baker finishes opening the hanger and goes to start the backhoe. The vehicle comes alive with a roar and the air fills with a crunch as its wheels dig into the brittle soil. Sona opens a storage unit and packs a bag with various electrical plugs, wires, converters, readers and duplicators. If her hunch is right, she’ll hopefully need most of it. Baker pulls up next to her and she climbs the step ladder to jump in.

“What did you run this scan on?” Baker asks as they pull out of the site and head down the slope that extends from their camp.

“Quartz.” Instinctively her training kicks in and she considers all of the things that would have triggered false positives if she had searched for silicon or aluminum instead.

“Nice. So hopefully this is a stash of computers or phones or something.”

She laughs. “With our luck it’ll be boxes of fake jewelry.”

They ride in silence for a while as Baker steers them through the clumps of larger refuse that gather in the shallow valley and then up the other side. They crest the hill and the sudden intensity of the moon revealing itself catches Sona by surprise. It isn’t full, but it is radiant and casts a pale yellow glaze over the landscape. Now the rest of the night sky is in her view and Sona scolds herself for not taking the time to look up more often. Even with the moon out, thousands of stars fill her view. She loves archeology, the secrets it reveals, but the beauty of astronomy still held a reverential awe in her. With no colony around for miles and the lights of their own camp already behind them, the stars dominate the sky.

Baker slows and then stops as they reach the indicator on the map.

“Shut the lights off for a minute.” Sona says, still caught in her moment. She climbs down the vehicle.

“What are we-”

She cuts him off. “Your helm light too.”

Darkness settles around them and the gaseous clouds of the Milky Way reveal themselves. Somehow it’s even more beautiful than from space. It must the context, she thinks. She can feel herself on the planet, on the skin of an enormous marble hurtling through space. And even so, with the vastness of the land that stretches out as far as she can see in all directions, that gently flowing tapestry cuts across the entirety of the sky and and reminds her of how small even her giant marble is. The silence lingers.

Sona turns her helm light on and Baker takes it as a sign that they are getting back to work. He climbs onto the backhoe as she begins unpacking their temporary site. Since the cluster is deep, Baker stars by clearing a wide area, piling the looser top layer along one side. Soon though the refuse is so dense and compact that he stops the vehicle in one place and begins digging in earnest. Sona watches as the steel handfuls come up, keeping an eye out for anything interesting but mostly seeing the same brown filler that has accompanied all of the landfills she’s been to. Every once in awhile she documents a few small details of what comes up. It would be hours before they reach the depth indicated on the original scan so Sona fills her time by running smaller scans and feeling more confident about her decision with each outcome.

A cluster of office chairs catches her eye. She wonders if it could be a server dump from a business of some sort. They usually ran basic wipes on devices but not enough that some of the data couldn’t still be retrieved. Servers full of intranet office protocol wouldn’t exactly be  thrilling, but things could still be learned. Medical records from a doctor’s office would be interesting. Occasionally the businesses were sloppy and they found entire racks of servers with all of their data still on them. She tells herself she’s getting excited. Anything is better than surveying the perimeter of a landfill though.

They break for lunch as they near the indicated depth. Sona takes the opportunity to glance back up at the sky but already her head is filled with information about the dig and the stars can’t hold her attention long.

They haul smaller automated shovels to the end of the slope that Baker cut into the ground and begin digging again. Before long the sound of metal on metal stops their action and Sona bends down to remove debris with her hands. She turns to grin at Baker.

“It looks like a pallet full of workstations. Not mass storage, but could still be something.”

They dig around it and then bring a winch in to help them take out several stations at a time.

“These computers are all different. I don’t think this was an office,” says Baker. Sona just nods. “Maybe a community center or something?”

“I don’t know.” Sona lifts another case onto the winch. “There’s a lot of personalized stuff. Stickers on monitors. Cartoon character mouse pads. I think these are a bunch of home computers.”

After a few loads Sona begins to open up the cases to dig for parts and leaves Baker to finish bringing them out of the ground. She removes hard drives as she finds them, running a quick scan through her myriad adapters to see if they worked or could easily be fixed. There are a few phones and tablets as well. The screens are all broken but a few still respond when she feeds them power. She checks the memory slots she comes across. Even if the device is broken, memory cards usually still held something.

“The the whole pallet is dug out,” Baker says as he walks over to where Sona is working.

“Let’s see if we can finish digging through these before the sun rises.” She looks up as she says this and notices the tinge of color on the horizon. “Or at least close.”

A subtle but distinct alarm begins to beep and Sona notices a flag appear on her hud. She brings it up and a weather map shows a dust storm forming uncomfortably close by.

“I guess not then?” Baker turns to her.

Depending on how harsh the storm and heat gets, much of their find would be lost. She could tell Baker to start burying some of the cases again, but there was no guarantee that the storm wouldn’t pull it all out of the ground anyway. Or it might bury it under an entirely new pile altogether. And time spent burying was time that could be spent bringing more of the dig back.

“We still have a bit of time. Don’t worry about running diags on them. Let’s just load up all of the small devices and pull as many drives as we can from the bigger ones. We’ll check them back at camp. Quick.” They move as fast as they can, but the storm begins to creep on them so Sona says it’s time to go. They give the remaining systems the barest of cover. Sona tells herself to send Baker back tomorrow to see what survived.

When they arrive at camp Baker pulls the backhoe directly up to the capsule so they can unload quickly and then goes to park it. Sona watches from the window as the hangers disappear behind a sandy cloud. The sky continues to brighten but is already overcast.

Briefly she toys with the idea of beginning to pull data from the drives, but her body protests and she starts for the shower instead. Baker is already in his half of the capsule and she doesn’t see him again before making her way to bed.


***


In the morning her excitement gets the better of her and Sona eats breakfast in the lab as she begins scanning their collection. The storm is still going, but as the sun sets it starts losing strength, though a steady wind continues to blow into the night. The rest of the dig would have to wait until tomorrow then, Sona thinks. No problem. Plenty to sift through here.

She begins by making piles of media types while Baker finishes testing and diagnosing what they didn’t check on site. Sona decides to start small and grabs her tray of memory cards. She brings them over to a rack of tethers and begins connecting them one by one until she runs out of plugs. The mainframe guesstimates an hour to complete and Sona watches as the computer begins cataloging all the media it finds.

Amateur photographs are in abundance. She watches as the computer brings up photos in rapid succession, red boxes automatically tagging faces. The photos move too quickly for her to make anything out, but she can guess the contents: family and friends, food, flowers, random places and the occasional genitals. Music is coming in as well now. Terrestrial music isn’t Sona’s specialty, but everything is tagged and ordered so that others can take a look once it’s been uploaded. Contact profiles are already over a thousand, though they’re mostly just names and phone numbers; occasionally a physical or electronic address is included. Like the photos, the names move too fast for Sona to really read anything. She pulls one at random. The name suggests female, probably of eastern decent, though their dig was in the western hemisphere. An immigrant perhaps. Or a convert. That was a trend for a while. The number is certainly from what was once near the site. Within a hundred kilometers or so. She looks at the name and tries to imagine the person it once belonged to, but Sona knows the image in her head is pure fantasy. There just isn’t enough detail. The thread she holds is so bare as to nearly not exist at all. She holds it for another second and then lets it fall back into the pile. The computer will notify her if it finds anything interesting.

Hard drives are what Sona is really interested in so she spends the remaining hour organizing them by type and size. A buzz notifies her that the first pull is done so she removes all of the attached cards and fills the empty slots with new ones. She walks the finished tray over to Baker.

“Whenever you get done with those, can you begin labelling and storing these?”

“Sure. Here, I’ll trade you the rest of the working cards. I went ahead and gathered them first.”

“Thanks.”

“Also, check these out.” He holds up several magnetic tapes.

“Wow, those are vintage, even for the timeframe of the dig. I wonder how much is recoverable from them.”

“They’re deteriorated certainly, but we may still get something. Do we have any readers for them?”

“I don’t actually know. We’ll have to check some of the storage units. And download an emulator. There’s no software for it on the local mainframe, that I’m sure of.”

Baker nods. “Okay. I’ll look into it later.”

It’s two more rounds before Sona is through all of the memory cards in her pile, so she occupies her time checking the flags set by the data scan. Most of the flags are maybes from photographs; facial recognition is still difficult for the software, especially if the person is at any sort of angle. A photo appears and next to it several people of interest with similar features. Sona checks them off, one by one, without seeing any matches. After several dozen the monotony gets to be too much and she switches over to names from the contact cards. One of the names grabs her attention immediately: James Maxwell, the famous mathematician and physicist. This can’t be him though, she thinks. Maxwell was dead long before any electronic storage was invented. She wonders why the search algorithm didn’t already know that and briefly entertains the notion of submitting a request to get it updated. Maybe there was an aspect she wasn’t considering though. She lets it drop and continues going through the list. The final pull on the cards is finished and she’s done nothing but move flags into the negative pile.

Sona heats her lunch as she continues working but says nothing to Baker when he lays down his tools to sit and eat lunch proper. She muses on her own obsession; no need to push them on others, she thinks. Soon enough he’s finished anyway and having completed the check of the remaining devices from the dig, starts adding what he recovered to Sona’s existing piles.

“Do you mind if I hold off on labeling and check for that reader? I’m really wondering why someone would throw those tapes away. They look homemade.”

Briefly Sona fights with her OCD; her desire to see things done in sequential order floods her with an impulse to say no. But Baker’s curiosity is now in her so she acquiesces.

“Sure. We’ll make it dinner and a movie.”

Baker laughs and starts for the storage cell in the back of the capsule.

Because of their size and speed, the hard drives take much longer than the memory cards. Much of the information will be trash: operating system files, standard application data and that sort of thing. Huge caches of pornography are common as well, which are of no personal interest to Sona, though some of her colleagues claim to find social patterns in the content as it trended from one time period to another. She’s read the papers and found their evidence compelling, but couldn’t imagine herself going through all that content to find the threads. From her perspective, all it took was a single email to shed light on previously hidden aspects of life in the past. As she finishes filling the tethers with drives the computer tells her it will be several hours at least. If she’s lucky she’ll be able to start another pull before heading to bed.

She passes the time cataloging the cards Baker left unfinished until he shows up with gear in hand. “Did you find it?”

“I think so. This module should work if we can get the right software for it.” He demonstrates by inserting one of the tapes they found.

The software is easily located and Sona puts down her work as Baker finishes configuring the output for their screen. The image is mostly static, as is the sound. Clearly there are people doing and saying something, but nothing easily distinguishable.

“Let’s see if cranking up the error correction gives us something,” Baker says as he fiddles with the settings. The image hems and haws before showing a couple of slightly cleaner frames and then turning to static again. Baker rewinds the tape and stops it on the more stable image.

“Looks like a field somewhere,” says Sona. “A farm or ranch maybe?”

“Hard to say. No people or animals.”

“Fast forward it. Let’s see what else there is.” The tape rolls forward but nothing more than slices of frames are stable enough to read and none of them offer usable information. Baker loads the second tape. “You found what, four of these?”

“Yeah. Well, four total, but two of them had their magnetic strips completely trashed. We might be able to get more from those if we send them off, but I don’t think this reader will do the job.”

The second tape starts playing and though still grainy, the picture is stable enough for them to make out objects. Rows of potted plants fill a packed greenhouse with multiple levels of vegetation taking up the majority of the available space. Larger plants, perhaps ferns or palms of some type, sit in enormous containers on the floor, their epic leaves spilling onto some of the table tops. The tables themselves hold a spectrum of flora with everything from cacti to wildflowers to what Sona thinks she can make out as orchids. Vines of several types hang from the ceiling. As the image pans around the greenhouse, Sona can see doorways leading to other rooms equally packed with green leaves. The camera zooms in to focus on a particular plant and an indistinguishable voice says something that comes through only as bursts of fuzzy noise. Slowly the entire image begins to degenerate into the same. Baker attempts to bring it back but nothing comes into view.

“So somebody’s garden,” he says while still playing with the controls.

“Something of that sort. Seems a bit clumsy though, doesn’t it?” Sona asks. “Some of those plants have drastically different natural environments.”

“Maybe it was some type of genetic engineering test? More resistant plant strains, that type of thing.” Baker pauses and then chuckles. “Or maybe the end of this tape shows half of the greenhouse brown instead of green.”

“I’m curious about something. Let’s see if any of those cards we found have pictures of plants on them that look like they could have come from there.”

The images from the video aren’t stable enough to run a search against so Sona queries for all of the flora photos the computer identified from their dig. She sighs aloud as over a thousand results return.

“Let’s be more specific,” Baker suggests. He rewinds the tape to a wide shot of the greenhouse. “How about images of purple flowers? It looks like there’s a few.”

Sona refines her search and the list drops to less than twenty. “Very nice. This should be quick.”

The first few photos are all clearly taken outside, some including smiling families in front of manicured landscapes, others taken of what are clearly the ultra-saturated enhanced flowers commercial vendors sometimes used to draw attention to their wares. It’s a small, delicate looking bloom that Sona stops on. The petite and fragile plant sits in a nondescript black plastic container with a white stick stuck in the soil. Black letters on the stick read Salvia miltiorrhiza.

“This has to be it. Let’s see what else the card has.” Dozens of pictures appear, each in a similar style to the first: a plant, a container and a tag. “Now if we’re lucky and the hard drive pull has gotten far enough...” Sona trails off as she begins running the comparison. “Yes!” She stands up with excitement. One of the images is flagged as having been also found on one of the hard drives. She puts the drive on high priority extraction and watches eagerly as more images begin to match. “Now let’s see what else is on this drive.”

“I don’t get it.” Baker breaks in. “If they had digital imaging and a computer, why the old analog tapes?”

“I don’t know. Maybe they were just working with what they had. The setup doesn’t exactly look high tech.”

Sona flips through the other images on the drive. Initially it’s plants, all of them cataloged like the first set, when images of seeds begin appearing. In each picture, a small pile of seeds sit atop a manila envelope bearing the plant’s name.

“So the greenhouse is a nursery of some sort?” Baker says.

Sona’s chest is pounding and she doesn’t process Baker’s comment. “I need you to look through the drive and see if we can find any type of address or location identification.” She begins flipping through the images faster, looking for something besides catalog photos.

“You think we can find this place? Or rather, do you think there’s anything left of it if we do?”

“There will be if this is what I think it is.” Still only plants and seeds.

“And that is...”

The question hangs in the air as Sona races from one image to the next, barely having time to take in what the image contains before moving on. The composition of the photos change dramatically and Sona stops. Rows of cabinets fill the walls of an enclosed room, floor to ceiling. Large block letters label the cabinets with portions of the alphabet.

“It’s a seedbank,” Sona says in almost a whisper. She can feel her eyes begin to well up. Sona turns to look at Baker directly and she can see his grin ear to ear.

“That would be an interesting find.”

Sona continues through the images and the photograph is further back now, showing an enormous metal door as the only entrance to the small room of cabinets. Each subsequent picture is further back, as if they’re watching a low frame rate movie in reverse. The camera exits the building and now the images are at the edge of a vast mountain range as it turns into low lying plains. Rows of greenhouses sit with the building on the slope of a hill. Several photos show the compound and landscape at night.

“Do you think we can-”

Sona’s excitement cuts him off. “If we find this place, we can bring some of these plants back. Species thought extinct for hundreds of years! We can bring them back to life!” Now tears flow freely as Sona tries to maintain her composure between bursts of excitement and joy until she can’t contain herself anymore and moves to hug Baker. The two laugh as she steps back and clears her throat. “This is a big day for us.”

“This is exciting, but I didn’t realize it was something you felt so strongly about.”

Sona stops to think about it for a moment. “For me, archeology is about giving the past meaning again; to breathe new energy into something long forgotten. That’s always what brought me out here, finding these beautiful truths of history. But this. To literally bring the past to life again... I’ll be honest, I’ve dreamed of it, but I never thought it would happen.”

“Well, not to be a naysayer, but we haven’t found it yet.”

“Yes we have.” She pulls up one of the night time photos. “It’s a star map.” She feeds the photograph and an estimated time of year into the computer and gets a small set of possible locations back. Only one sits at the edge of a mountain range.

Baker can’t help but laugh. “You’re good at this. I guess we need to start making some transfer requests.”

“First, I think a few calls are in order. I hope you’re ready. Things are about to get very busy.”