"Today is an auspicious day."
The bold proclamation was followed by several seconds of dead air.
"Really, Lume. And why would that be? Perhaps because today is the fifth day of the five hundred and fifty fifth year of the fifth era of humanity? Is that what you're telling me, Lume?" The young woman sounded affronted, but she was overdoing it a little too much to be taken entirely seriously.
"No, that's interesting data, but not ultimately relevant. I simply have a good feeling about today's dig. We're gonna make a big find." There was a smooth rustling sound as Lume combed his fingers through his sweat-damp hair.
"That's what you said for the last three digs, and what did we find? Not a single blasted thing worth the price of travel permits. Let alone travel costs." The woman's words were spoken with the familiarity that comes from repetition.
"I know, Jannit, I know. But this time is different."
"It certainly is. The family won't be able to afford to sponsor another dig after this one. So this has to be either the biggest discovery since the cores great-grandpa sold to Carna, or it will be our last. And don't tell me we can get funding from the other families. They're smarter than that. There is nothing left to find!" Jannit punctuated the end of her sentence by slapping her hands against the smooth borehole. Her gloves muffled the sound somewhat, ruining the effect. Her body swung away from the wall, and her rope creaked as the tension shifted minutely.
"And yet you still came, Sis."
Jannit let out a long-suffering sigh. "I know, I know. Part of me still hopes you're right this time. And if you are, I want to be here to make sure you don't mess up."
"And to be a part of the most amazing archaeological find of our generation," Lume said, already proud of an accomplishment he had not yet made.
A grin coloured Jannit's response. "Yes, definitely that too. Now if you're done hanging around talking..." Her voice trailed off to let the implication speak for itself.
"Now, now, don't rush the moment. What's the point in living if we can't properly savour it?"
A rubbery smack spoke of Jannit's opinion of that line of thinking. She had kicked at the tunnel wall with the heel of her over-engineered hiking boot. Like the rest of her outfit, it had been produced under direct human control, not fabricated automatically like the clothing and other possessions of most people in the Solar System. "I'm quite done 'savouring' hanging in a harness with a few hundred meter sheer drop beneath me." She snapped her fingers together and spoke a few words with a clear, commanding tone. "Rig two, begin decent at standard exploratory velocity on my mark."
An artificial voice — similar to Jannit's, but softer and more eager — responded from a device on her belt. "Jannit, this rig will descend at standard exploratory velocity of zero point four meters per second, on your mark."
Jannit snapped her fingers again. "Mark."
A quiet motor began to whirr while steadily lowering Jannit away from her younger brother. He huffed in disappointment and hastily ordered his rig to catch up and keep pace with her. They did not speak again until reaching the bottom of the borehole. The only sound accompanying the motors was that of occasional contact with the almost perfectly smooth walls. The light from the sun did not reach far down the hole, requiring them to switch their safety goggles into a vision enhancement mode, but this process was completely silent. Neither sibling had any ocular body mods installed — or any other b-mods — nor had they packed any chemical enhancers, preferring 'old-fashioned' external aids when digging into the planet's past.
Minutes passed. The air grew cooler, prompting the siblings' clothes to adjust to trap more heat. Lume zipped ahead of his sister to be the first to plant his feet on the untouched rock. His boots made a satisfying 'clonk'. His sister alighted beside him with a much more delicate touch. "That feels much better," he said, swiping his sleeve across his brow. "I love seeing the world in person, but it's practically still summer on the surface, rather than early spring."
"Really, Lume? You're wearing a top-notch outfit that keeps you at the optimal body temperature, but you're complaining about the heat."
"I'm just saying the air temperature up there felt all wrong, that's all." The stubble on Lume's chin scraped against his collar as he tilted his head to the side, as he often did when defensive. Lume regularly neglected to shave, giving the excuse that he 'liked the look'. The numerous gifts of automatic shaving devices regularly given to him by family members showed that his opinion was unique.
Jannit began demonstrating her lack of patience. "Stop 'just saying' and help me set up the borer already! I don't want to be here all night if I don't have to."
"We've been down here less than a minute, and the borer is quite capable of setting itself up. And you say I'm the one complaining needlessly." He unsnapped a handheld device from his belt and began checking the details of the dig, accompanied by soft taps and beeps.
"Whatever," Jannit said in a tone ill suited to her twenty-five years of life. "Uh, which way is the chamber?"
"That way. But the borer already has the scan data uploaded, so it's gonna dig the right way whatever you do."
"Ugh, why am I even here?"
"Because the cost of two people traveling isn't much more than for one, and you love participating in digs in person?" Lume asked rhetorically. The borer began whirring and clanking into a position to brace itself against the side of the tunnel.
"Nah, that couldn't be it. It must be because I forgot how much of a nuisance my little brother..."
"Please ensure you are wearing appropriate safety gear before activating this equipment," an odiously pleasant voice from the grinder said, in response to Lume entering an activation command into his device.
Jannit made a violent gesture, jangling the decorative metal buckle on her sleeve. Lume pointed delicately tapped on his ear protectors, which he was wearing. Jannit retrieved hers from her belt, fumbled with them momentarily, and wrangled them into place. Once that was done, she meticulously placed her mask. The mask would provide protection from any errant dust from the borer, and from unbreathable air in the target chamber. "Ready," she said, her voice measurably muffled.
"Are you sure? Nothing you need to say first?"
Jannit said nothing.
Lume said nothing.
Jannit continued saying nothing.
Lume sighed in disappointment and activated the borer. It roared to life. Using a combination of ultrasonics and metamaterial cutting blades, it pulverized the rockface and sucked the material away and up to the surface via a tube. Slowly, a horizontal tunnel began to form in the side of the near-vertical borehole. The two siblings stood back on the far side of the borehole and observed the machine's gradual progress. Jannit listened to a global newsfeed, while Lume set a list of his new favourite music tracks to play quietly.
After several minutes and nearly a meter of tunneling, the pitch of the grinding noise changed. The borer automatically stopped a moment later, barely beating Lume pressing the manual stop button. He had evidently been paying close attention. He stepped over to the borer for a close look. "Yep, that's the outer wall of the chamber. The material is the same as we've seen used elsewhere to ensure such underground chambers remain watertight, and to protect against burrowing creatures, rockfalls, EM leakage, and to help with temperature control. But we've found it and uncovered it. The time has come to put a door in this wall. Well, a peephole first."
"Must you be so dramatic?"
"Yes." Lume ordered the borer to pack itself away and began using a smaller hand grinder which he'd been carrying on his belt. It was a little quieter, but produced a higher pitched whir as it cleared away the remaining rock. This was much slower work, taking several more minutes.
"Whatcha listening to?" Lume asked as he clipped the little grinder back onto his belt.
"Anything interesting going on in the wide world? Or are we the real cutting edge? Heh."
"The usual debates over the usual issues," Jannit said, sounding bored. "Carna are tipped to announce their new line of b-mods next week, so the usual outlets are already squawking opposition or praise for what they suppose the goods are. Gurazlon's earnings are up with their new wind turbine design catching on, but none of the animal protection groups are happy with the displacement numbers. Vina's attempt to cut their human workforce by another two percent was rejected on the usual grounds of automation safety."
Lume cut in to the litany, sounding surprised. "It was? What happened about the stories of workers falling asleep on the job?"
"Really Lume, you should know better than to think they'd get away with that sob story after last time."
The fabric over Lume's shoulders crinkled ever so slightly as he shrugged, and one of the joints popped. "Eh, you never know for sure. Any news in the construction world?"
"Soong are about to start the construction of new hab sectors in five cities."
"They've been about to start for months." Lume did not sound impressed.
"Now they're actually going to start, next week. So that means contracts on earthshaping equipment."
"Income for Oji," Lume said, stating the obvious.
"Exactly, so if this venture doesn't pan out, we won't be completely destitute. Too bad no one thought of diversifying from digging up and selling or displaying old stuff a generation or two sooner."
"Yeah, yeah, but we were all a bunch of single-minded optimists with our heads in the dirt until Aunt Belopa took charge and actually used her brain, and why can't I be more like her, blah blah blah. You've said this a hundred times. And yet you're still here on this dig with me."
"And are you grateful? No, you're standing there arguing instead of working."
"I'm resting my arm, and I don't see you working."
"This is your dig. I'm just here to observe and protect. Now is your arm rested enough, or shall I bore you with the latest rumours about Gantt's research?"
Lume answered by unclipping his drill from his belt and starting the slow and noisy process of boring a hole through the wall made of one supermaterial with a bit made of a slightly stronger material. Conversation was impossible as all manner of screeching sounds eclipsed even the whine of the motor. Once it was done, he stepped away from the hole, pulled down his mask, and blew on the drill bit.
"You know you don't need to do that. And keep your mask on. You don't know what's in there."
Lume pulled his mask back into place over his stubble and returned to the hole. "I will in a moment. Let's see... Oh."
"Oh?" Jannit sounded concerned at her brother's mild exclamation.
"No oxygen. Zero. We officially cannot breath in the chamber."
"I got it the first time."
"I'll send in the hummingbird to scope the place out. That way, we'll know exactly where to go, if it's worth going in."
Lume sighed and switched his drill for the lightweight hovering camera. "Don't act bored, Sis. You're about to see inside a chamber that's been sealed for hundreds of years!"
"Are you making sure to use a maximum security video link? We don't want the Goodminton infowar goons to be watching along with us."
"Of course I am, even though there's no way they could possibly do that."
"We have our VIVID caps in our packs."
"And they're switched off. Which reminds me, we need to set up the datalink repeater by the hole."
"There's no way we're sleeping in the chamber, not without breathable air!"
"For the hummingbird, not for us! Seriously Jannit, I'm not actually trying to get us killed." Lume unzipped his backpack, and rummaged around, knocking a plastic container of food against a metal tin of first aid supplies with a dull ping. "Here it is." He slapped the flat flexible square against the exposed wall, and it made a loud thunk as it magnetically attached. "Hummingbird, launch."
"Launching hummingbird, Master Oji," a very posh artificial voice replied. The hummingbird floated up and zipped away through the hole, the high-pitched noise of its tiny wings fading until it sounded like a distant mosquito.
"Turning the main camera on... and we've got signal!" Lume said, sounding rather more excited than he'd been all day.
"So this is the top level of the cavern..."
"...and it looks like it's mostly control consoles, in a ring around the perimeter. I don't see anything obviously unique," Lume said, not acknowedging his sister's interjecting in the slightest.
"No signage? Maps or diagrams on walls?"
"Yeah there's one pretty clear one. Pretty sure it means 'exit'. That's odd, because the survey showed no side tunnels. Must have been filled in when the site was abandoned. That's promising."
"Or worrying. Can the hummingbird access any data on the consoles? What about cabling? And is there visible access to the lower levels?"
"One thing at a time, Sis. I'm not reading any power emissions on this level. That's consistent with my initial findings. Anything electomagnetically active is downstairs. Not that there's stairs. I see a couple of hatches. Probably ladders."
"There's several bundles of seriously thick cabling coming up from below, in the centre of the chamber. It goes up to a huge box mounted on the ceiling, and more cables radiate out across the celing and down the walls to the consoles."
"No, I didn't damage any cables. I know what I'm doing, okay? Get off my back."
"Sorry Lume," Jannit said, actually sounding contrite. "Can the hummingbird open a hatch?"
"Nah, it's too small, and they appear to be locked. Shouldn't take long to get through with the proper tools, which I have."
"So you think we should go in?"
"Definitely! Looking at the way the cables attach to the consoles, they have to be data cables, not power. Something was producing an absolute ton of data, and I for one am not leaving before I found out what, and whether it's still down there."
"Is there enough space between the cables to use the plasma cutter to cut our door?"
"Vertically, for sure. For the horizontal cuts, uh... That depends."
"If you're okay with a door you can squeeze through sideways, I can do it all with the plasma cutter. Otherwise, it'll take a bit more drilling to be sure I preserve the cables. Too bad the exit is on the far side, or else we could save time by reusing an existing door. But grinding a rock tunnel to there from here would take much longer, so we're stuck making a new door."
"If you drill, can you get it done by sunset?"
"Sunset on the surface."
"Yeah, I can do it," Lume said with utmost self-assurance. He produced a squeaky marker pen from his belt and began determining exactly where he would cut.
"We'll see." Jannit produced a self-inflating cushion from her backpack, switched her news feed back on, and settled in to wait.
"Do you think he'll make it, ALI?"
Most certainly, sir.