Submitted Date 09/16/2022

A crowd had gathered around what looked like an old-style safe, one secured by a clicky-clacky dial lock and opened, once the dial had been spooled to the correct numbers left and right, with a large circular-wheel crank and then by the turning of a large handle that would draw back the locking cylinders within the door mechanism and allow the door to be opened–slowly, slowly!–on its creaky hinges. It looked like that because that's what it was, but none of the onlookers would have known that. They were all staring at it, not comprehending, and then all their heads turned as the crew door opened and Sander Veener stepped through.

Once through the door, Sander stopped; he had not expected that there would be an audience, and he certainly had not expected that it would be Tenprongs, but there they were. Tenprongs, the native sentient population of this planet, did everything in crowds; they were descended from hive animals, and while they did have independence of action, movement, and thought, their habit and culture and civilization were all geared toward what Colonel Pierson had called 'an enthusiasm for togetherness.' Sander cleared his throat and then spoke loudly: "Excuse me, but are there any humans in the hangar?" The Tenprongs continued to stare, but they wouldn't be able to understand his English. They communicated among themselves by the motions of two small limbs positioned one on either side of the mouth. They had ears and they could even make sounds, after a fashion, but communication in English with Tenprongs required computers and specially trained Tenprongs, and Sander didn't see any.

On the far side of the hangar, a security drone rolled into view. "The humans are in the lounge," it announced in a feminine voice. "Come join us."

"Excellent," Sander replied, and he started in that direction. The lounge was on the other side of the crowd of Tenprongs, so he simply walked around them, being careful to keep some distance to avoid startling them. Their heads all turned to follow him, and when he disappeared around the corner that the drone had disappeared around, they all went back to staring at the box.

Sander pushed the door to the lounge open and the door bumped against Krip Sidese, who, for some reason, was standing directly inside the door. Krip stepped aside and turned around as the drone, now airborne, floated past and took a position in the center of the room. "Oh, Sander, we've been expecting you," Krip said. "Here." He extended a hand and Sander took the beer he offered.

"Thanks." Sander looked at it. "Aren't you going to open it."

"Nope," Krip responded and stepped over to the sofa that faced a large television monitor. He took a drink of his own beer. "Did you see this crap that's going on in New Boston?"

"I don't really watch the colony news shows," Sander said as he moved over to the snack bar and popped the top off the beer on the opener that was screwed onto the bar. "None of that Mars stuff concerns me."

"It's going to concern you," Krip said. "As soon as you get done cracking that box that all those damn Prongies are staring at."

Sander took a drink and moved over to the window. He opened the curtain a little with one finger to see what the Tenprongs were doing, but they weren't doing anything new--they were all just staring at the box. "How long have they been out there?"

"An hour. Maybe two," Krip said. "Who the hell knows?"

"Well, how long have you been here?" Sander asked.

"Tell him, Sidese," the drone said. "Tell him how long."

"How the hell should I know?" Krip responded. He put his feet on the low table that separated the sofa from the screen and took a long pull from his beer. "I'm not a clockwatcher."

"He's been here six hours already," the drone said. "He's drank four beers, he's hit the head four times, and he ate all of the brownies that Billy's wife sent."

"Were they the lemon ones?" Sander asked.

"Of course," the drone responded.

"Lemon brownies ain't right," Krip offered and then he laughed.

"Thanks a lot, jerk," Sander said. He strode over to the sofa and sat down heavily on the other end. "What else do we have to eat in here?"

"There are some of those oatmeal cookies in the fridge, and I think some of Cassie's birthday cake is still in there," the drone answered.

"That cake is two weeks old, at least," Krip said. "Good way to get salmonella."

"Are you going to be able to get it open?" the drone asked.

"I don't really know until I take a look at it," Sander answered. "Corporate really wants it open, then?"

"Yes." The drone rolled over to the door and opened it. "I'm going out there. Get my feed on the monitor there."

"Yeah, okay," Sander said. He got up from the sofa and moved over to a desk along the side wall where there was a monitor, and when he pressed a panel on the desktop, the monitor displayed the hangar outside the lounge from the viewpoint of the drone's visual system. As he watched, the viewpoint moved towards and eventually through the Tenprongs, who parted as the drone advanced, until he was seeing a good, clear closeup view of the front of the safe. Sander pressed another panel on the desktop surface and spoke into the end of a stalk that extended from the top of the monitor housing. "Can you hear me?"

"Yes," the drone answered back.

"Get closer to the dial," he said. "Look down at it so I can see the top edge of the dial."

The drone obeyed and the screen was suddenly filled up with a view of the top of the dial, the index markings clearly visible, and Sander could see the number 5 was just about at the topmost position.

"Okay, move to your left a little, I want to see--"

Then the view suddenly jolted to the side violently, then spun, and then the screen turned black. "What the hell..." Sander said. He jumped up and stepped over the window, yanking back the curtain.

The Tenprongs had knocked over the drone and appeared to be disassembling it--rapidly. "Krip! What they hell are they doing?"

Krip, usually slow to respond, appeared to understand the urgency in Sander's voice. He leapt up, looked out of the window, and sprinted to the lounge door. "Call Tommy! Now!" he said, and then he was out of the door and around the corner.


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