Digging, 2020

Donal Buchanan

© Copyright 2015 by Donal Buchanan


Photo of a man digging with a trowel.

Arthur Fact brought his hovering aircraft around in a lazy circle and peered at the ground below. The flood plain at the bend of the river looked likely. So did the island that split the river at that point. One of the channels looked suitable for a weir.

Art (who hated for anyone to call him Artie) came to a decision, checked the empty sky for traffic, and soared to a point just 1,000 feet above the meadow that interested him. He set the controls to maintain his craft on hover.

He turned to the aerial scope mounted through the floor next to his seat and peered into the view-finder. He twiddled knobs until satisfied with the settings, grunted, and pressed a stud that caused his on-board computer to snap a picture of the selected locale, store it, and automatically provide him with a printed copy.

A print thrust itself from a slot in the bulkhead. Art grabbed it eagerly and spread it out against the dash. One glance told him that it would suit his purposes admirably— The entire meadow was clearly shown as well as the river and the island. He could trace the outlines of what could be several oblong structures,some either amorphous and not immediately identifiable groupings, and smaller markings that might indicate a stockade wall. There was no doubt about it: an Indian village had once stood below him.

He tried to shift this body into a more comfortable position. Even though he was lean and, at six feet, barely average in height, he felt cramped in the crowded cabin of his aircar.

He flicked the 'voice-only” toggle on the dash and spoke into the microphone: “Survey 16 to Control, over . . .”

Control here. Go ahead 16.” As usual, Art mentally complimented Control on her sexy voice. He wished now that he had used his video circuit even if he was too far away to receive a good signal.

Ownership check please, on ….,” he consulted the map clipped to his dash, . . . the property located on the bend of the Hatchee at coordinates E-66 & G-9 for this state—to include the island.

Wait one . . .” There was a lengthy pause. Art filled in the time pleasurably by picturing Control, her pretty lips pursed, leafing rapidly through the printout of the ownership-and-use records for this Section. “Control to Survey. Contact Thaddeus Stevens, 223-7627, your area . . . and be prepared: he's given us trouble before. It might help for you to know that the property has lain fallow for the past twenty years as port of the soil bank program.

Thanks, Control,” said Art. “You're a doll! Survey 16, out.” That last bit had been nice of Control, he thought. Many dispatchers wouldn't have bothered.

Art called the mobile operator and set up a video transmission to the number given. Half a minute later, Stevens' face filled his small screen.

Omigosh,” Art groaned to himself. “Not one of those!”

Thaddeus Stevens was obviously a rock-ribbed conservative. His long out-dated locks brushed his shoulders in sharp contrast to Art's neat crew-cut. His bushy, Moses -type beard made Art's hairless face feel naked. Stevens glared out of the screen and said, “Well?”

Mr. Stevens, my name is Arthur Fact. I represent the National Archaeological Department in this area. I was making a survey . . .”

Man, that's cool!” Stevens hooted. “Artie-Fact no less! Oh, you gotta be kidding!”

Art's lips set in a thin line. Stevens would be an easy man to hate, but he must try not to antagonize him. “I can assure you that I am most serious, Mr. Stevens,” Art said. “I have located a site on your property at the bend of the Hatchee . . .”

Well, look all you want, sonny,” growled Stevens, “but don't dig! Don't you so much as take a leaf or stone outa there!” In a very audible aside to somebody off-screen he said: “You can't trust these government types—thieves, every one of them!”

Art was glad that he was transmitting in black and white. He was sure that his face must be purple by now. He could feel his ears burning. His voice became deceptively gentle and very formal. “I am fully cognizant, Mr. Stevens of your rights of ownership to anything that is found . . .”

Yer damn right, boy!”

After the Department has completed its study of the material, of course. And you will be adequately compensated for anything that is retained for display. Al this was laid out in the Fitzhugh-Gardner Act of 2008.”

Stevens began to sputter, but Art interrupted him.

I'm sure that you are aware, Mr. Stevens, of another provision of that Act which covers the archaeological exploitation of Federally owned or used property. The site in question has been part of the Soil Bank program for many years and, I'm sure, has provided you with a steady, if small, income from the government. In such a case a request for your permission is merely a polite formality. All that is necessary is notification of intent.”

A string of obscenities poured out of the speaker. Art shook his head, wearily.

Really, Mr. Stevens, there is no need for such language—especially on the open airways. Some little kid might be listening.”

Stevens promptly told him what any such little kid could do. “I'll see you in hell . . . I'll bull-doze the site . . . before I let you pigs on it!” he bellowed.

In that event,” said Fact, firmly. “I must inform you that this conversation constitutes formal notification of intention to proceed with a survey of the site, to be conducted on and beneath the existing surface wherever necessary. I must further inform you that any attempt to disturb the site or my activities on the site in any way will constitute an illegal action under Article VI of the aforementioned Act and is punishable by a sizeable fine. A record of this conversation has been made for use as evidence of your notification. Thank-you, sir, and goodbye!” Art broke transmission,cutting Stevens of in the middle of an inarticulate screech.

Fact mopped his brow with his handkerchief. It came away sodden with sweat. Normally a gentle, rather scholarly type, he hated the kind of scene just enacted. “It must have been that crack about my name . . .” he muttered to himself.

Art set his aircar down gently on the meadow below, close, but not too close, to the area he intended to survey. He climbed and began to unload his equipment. The day was warm and, no longer protected in the air-conditioned flyer, he was soon sweating freely.

The next step was construction. This had never been Fact's long suit and he got the job done only with much thumbing of the manual. “Let's see now: 'the Hopper (a) is connected to Receiver Arms (b) and (c) only after dis-engaging Lock-Bolt (d) and making sure that Sieve (e) is in a position which will not occlude Receiving Mat (g)' . . . Hey! What happened to (f) ? And where the heck is the Lock Bolt? There isn't any on this dingus! . . . Ah . . . Here's an asterisk: 'replaced on newer models by snap-switch (q) . . .It's nice to know I'm working with new equipment!”

It only took an hour to put the sampling rover together ('rover' is not quite accurate; once programed and put in motion, it's path was perfectly predicable).

Art paced of the distance to the water's edge. I was just a hair over 300 meters according to his estimation. He made a short tour of the area he wanted to sample and noted that there were no trees or major obstacles with the exception of a couple of large rock outcrops the machine could easily 'see' and go around. He then returned to the little sampler, extended its aerial, and tuned it to the power system of the aircar. On the side of the flyer away from the sample area, he set solar-heat collection panels so that his power storage would be built up almost as fast as the sampler could drain it away.
Climbing back into his aircar, he burnt a program onto a CD that would guide his rover so that it would safely cover every inch of the site, keeping it well away from obstacles and at least twenty-five meters from the edge of the river. The computer hummed and clucked to itself and finally spat out the CD. Art took it outside and slipped it into the slot in “Piglet”—as he called the sampler. He carefully checked all the settings, made sure that Piglet was properly positioned, then pressed the starter button. Instantly the machine began a slow but steady movement forward, its 'eyes' fixed firmly on the ground ahead and with a vacuum-grip tentacle weaving eerily back and forth before it. It made a strange noise between a grunt and a snuffle, hence its name.

Art could relax for awhile now. Piglet was set for surface collection and would take at least an hour to cover the area assigned. If it ran across an artifact the computer didn't recognize—or saw something special (for instance, something the little robot couldn't lift into it's hopper), Piglet would stop and an alarm would be sounded. Fact would then have to trot over to see what was up. Piglet only had a very small brain of its own and was constantly monitored and controlled by the larger computer in the aircar. Compared to his office computer, which measured its memory in petabytes, the aircar was an idiot.; thus Art had dubbed his flyer Winnie-the-Pooh, since it had, in his estimation, very little brain.

Professor Silsby, thought Fact, would not have liked Piglet at all—would have thought it a complete waste of time, in fact. In the time that Art had taken to put Piglet together, old Silsby would have fine-toothed the whole area by eye and hand and probably would have found more than the machine could. But Art knew his own limits. He simply didn't have the experience and knowledge that Silsby had and had depended on Piglet too long to do without it. He watched his snuff-grubbling little mechanical partner for a minute and decided to take a look at the stretch of river between the meadow and the island to see if there was any evidence of a weir.

He had been quartering the riverbank for about fifteen minutes when it happened (he had, indeed found evidence of a fishing weir as well as several scrapers, broken projectile points, and even one small bit of pottery). His belt-communicator gave three attention-getting beeps. This could only mean one thing. Some person or persons unauthorized to do so had approached within twenty-five meters of his flyer. Sensing devices had noted this and Winnie was alerting him.

Art scrabbled up the bank. There, peering at his flyer, were two men. One of them was Thaddeus Stevens. His companion, equally long-locked, was unknown to Fact, but looked like he was cut from the same mold as Stevens. Piglet was, temporarily out of sight behind a rise, but Art could see its aerial bobbing happily.

Whatever their purpose, Art had no reason to believe it was friendly. As he approached them he casually tapped out a brief combination on the console of his belt-communicator—a command ordering Piglet to “Home on this signal.” He then positioned himself so that his two visitors stood between him and Piglet—a logical path of approach.

“Quite a little setup you have here, man,” said Stevens. “Me and Ben was just figuring how it must have set us poor, sweating' taxpayers back a yard or two. Pity if something happened to it.”

“Nothing is going to happen to it,” said Art firmly.

“Now, I wouldn't be too sure, Artie,” drawled Stevens. “We've got just the right tools: This ball-bat for you and Ben should be able to mess up your computer some with that crowbar. Now, why don't you be a good little boy and run away and invade somebody else's property!” He took a step forward and made a threatening move with the bat.

“Mr. Stevens, I suggest you look behind you before you try something you will regret,” Artie cried sharply. It was an old trick, but Art was obviously sincere.

Stevens and his friend turned as one and saw Piglet bearing slowly, but remorselessly down upon them, its tentacles waving before it, emitting its usual weird sounds. For just one second, they were paralyzed. This was long enough for Art.

He stepped forward and wrenched the bat out of Stevens' grip. Swinging it in a short, chopping movement, he brought it down on Ben's arm just hard enough to cause him to drop the crowbar. Ben gave an inarticulate cry composed as much of outrage as of pain. Art stepped back.

“Now then,” he remarked conversationally. “Why don't you two heroes beat it and let a man get some work done. Ah, ah! Don't touch! He lifted the bat threateningly as Ben made a move to retrieve his crowbar. Stevens just stared with his mouth sagging open. To keep them focussed on his voice—and for the benefit of the aircar's automatic video record—Art added, quoting from the official manual: “No invasion of private property is involved or contemplated here. This is an authorized government survey of land which is part of a government program. We are bound by law not to disturb the local ecological balance—nor may we mar its scenic beauty or future ulitiy, but must leave it as we found it.”

His voice grew soft. “Now, if I don't do things just right, why you can sue and probably collect a bundle, but right now, you are definitely out of line . . . Now, move! Scram! Hit the road!” He ended with a roar.

Stevens and his friend flinched. After a wary look at Piglet which stood weaving and chuffing ten feet away where Art's “Hold position” signal had halted it, they beat a hasty retreat.

After about twenty meters, Stevens turned and shook his fist. “I'll be back!” he cried. Art tapped out a command to Piglet: “MOVE twenty meters LEFT!” As the little robot turned towards them, the two scrambled away and soon were out of sight.

Reaction set in. Art began to tremble and the bat slipped from nerveless fingers. It was always this way and it disgusted him, for he felt himself to be a coward.

“Damn, damn, damn!” Art groaned. “All I ask is just a quiet day's work!”

He walked shakily over to the aircar, leaned in, and flipped on the communicator. “Survey 16 to Control, Over . . .”

When Control answered, Art told her briefly what had happened and asked: “Just what kind of trouble did we have with Stevens before? What can you tell me about him?”

“It was before my time,” said Control. “Let me put Marsh Waters on.”

After a short pause, a new voice said: “Art, this is Marsh. Stevens owns some other property over near Palmer we wanted to survey about five years ago. He wouldn't let us near the place—got downright abusive about it. Darn shame, too. There's a site there—we're sure of it—but we didn't have a leg to stand on at that time and had to stand down. The locals around there thought he had a still on the place. We didn't do anything more than call him a couple of times and fly over his property, buthe went to a judge and got an injunction out against us declaring harassment. He's not a nice man, Art.”

“You're telling me!” Art's reply was heart-felt. What can you give me on his background, Marsh?”

“Not too much. About thirty years ago Stevens was the boss-man of a commune that used to camp out right where you're standing. One of those 'I love the world so much it can go hang' set-ups. Mostly strays and runaways in it. Four girls and one other man besides Stevens. The whole thing broke up finally—the girls couldn't take it, I guess. The men woke up one morning and they had split—all four of them.”

“Was the other man named Ben?” asked Art.
“Yep, Ben . . . Ben Bloom, I think it was,” said Waters. “I believe he and Stevens still live together.”

“You think right,” Art replied, “and if their dispositions now are anything like their dispositions then, I can see why the girls ran for it. Thanks, Marsh. Survey 16, out.”

Art leaned against the side of his aircar and thought about it. He wasn't against communes. Far from it, in this day and age when more people lived in communes than not—he lived in one himself. But today's communes existed for economic reasons. Some of the early ones were set up by little dictators who wanted people to boss with a little sexual experimentation on the side. This sounded like one of those. Art shrugged his shoulders. A sick setup, but there was nothing he could do about it now. He hoped the four girls made out okay. He tapped on his communicator, sending Piglet back to work. It was getting late. Looked likehe'd have to camp here and finish the job in the morning. He didn't like the idea much, but there was no help for it.

There was just a possibility that Stevens and his buddy might decide to make a midnight raid, so Art set his proximity alarm for 100 meters and slept in his flyer. It was not a comfortable night. There was just no way to stretch out in an aircar; and he was awakened by the alarm three different times: two rabbits and a skunk. After a close call with the latter, he decided to switch off the alarm and take his chances. He slept fitfully, but undisturbed, for the rest ot the night.

He drank a breakfast of scalding hot coffee and examined a computer printout of the finds made by Piglet the day before. Although most of the items were small and broken, there were several interesting artifacts: two perfect celts and a banner-stone (he
pulled these out of the hopper and examined them closely). There was also a great deal of broken pottery. On the basis of surface artifacts alone he was able to guess that the site had been in use for a considerable length of time—perhaps two or three thousand years. It would be a useful site, but not earth-shaking. In all probability the survey digging he intended to do today would be the last time the area was disturbed for archaeological purposes. There were just too many just like it. For that reason Art couldn't understand Steven's violent objections.If he had shut up and left Art alone, the survey would probably have been completed yesterday and Stevens would have heard no more about it.

“A crank,” muttered Art to himself, “that's what he is . . . a mean, cantankerous old crank. Probably the kind of guy that shoots at kids swiping apples . . .” Here a mental image of a farmer who once tried to fill him with birdshot merged with his thoughts of Stevens. Art shook his head, gulped the last of his coffee, and went out to make some necessary alterations on Piglet. He removed some equipment and added more. He emptied and re-attached the hopper. An arm with a small, but powerful, laser plugged into a socket on one side of the robot. It was balanced on the other side by an arm which ended in a maneuverable scoop/shovel arrangement. He replaced the vacuum-tentacle with another which was capable of handling larger artifacts than those normally encountered while surface collecting. Although the morning was cool, Art was sweating by the time he completed his mechanical chores. All that was lefto do now was to decide where he wanted to dig and set up a program.

Art strolled around the meadow, thinking it out. He was sure that he had a village here. He would have to confirm the existence of the stockade wall in at least two widely separated spots—preferably four. He wanted some idea of the house structures—and most of all he needed a burial or two. A lot could be told about the former inhabitants from the way they treated their dead. Some of the garbage pits he thought he had noted in the infra-read videos he had shot from on high might also cloke burials. Then he noticed it. Near where the photo indicated there might be a stockade wall there was a rather large area of meadow grass that somehow seemed thicker and more abundant. That would be a good spot. With any luck a single square could net him the stockade wall, part of a house and a burial or two. By the looks of it, there had to be organic material of some kind under that lush grass.

He paced it off, determined the coordinates he needed, and decided a five-meter square would do the job nicely. Returning to his aircar, he burnt a new CD and fed it into Piglet. With a chuff and a snortle, Piglet marched off to work. Art thrust a mason's trowel, brush, and small toolkit into his hip pockets and followed and followed. Piglet was alright as a general handyman, but when it got down to cases, there was always work for the human hand and eye.

His work started almost immediately, but it wasn't his hands that were busy. Piglet stopped at the required spot and proceeded to use the laser to burn away the grass over a five-meter square area. As he frantically stamped out the sparks, Art cursed himself for not thinking the program through. He should have had a fire-extinguisher handy. As it was, he barely avoided disaster. When the fire was out and Piglet was merrily snuffling up the char into its hopper, he sat and panted, staring balefully at the little robot.

“Someday,” he growled, “I'm going to program you right into that river!”

Piglet paid no attention whatsoever.

Art's absorption with his sampling robot was a bad mistake. He heard a slight sound behind him, but before he could turn fireworks seemed to explode in his brain and he fell unconscious.

It could not have been much later that he groaned himself awake. He was bound hand and foot. The back of his head ached abominably. Stevens and his pal were hunkered down next to the square, mumbling and staring at Piglet. Obviously they wanted to do something about the little robot, but were scared to approach it. As quietly as he could, Art felt for his belt-communicator. It was gone, along with his sundry Archaeological tools.

He must have made some kind of noise, or perhaps it was a delayed reaction to his earlier groan, for the two men turned and looked at him. Stevens got up and came over.

“Hey, man,” he said. “you're with us again, eh? Be good and we might stretch it out a bit for you. You going to give us any trouble?”

Art started to shake his head, but pain spread like an evil flower and he could only manage a grunt.

“Now, Artie,” Stevens continued. “I want that machine of yours stopped and I want it out of that hole and back by the flyer—and I want it done fast!” I used the butt of this” —he indicated an ancient Browning 45 automatic thrust in his belt— “on you before, but the business end is ready and waiting!”

He pointed the weapon at Art. “Now, buster, you tell it what to do.”

“Tad!” It was Ben. “The golem's blown a fuse!”

Stevens whirled and all eyes stared at Piglet.

The machine was halted and was aimlessly waving its arms and making hooting noises. Somewhere close by, in the grass, Art heard his communicator giving the routine attention-signaling beeps, each series getting louder as the expected response was not received.

Art could see that Piglet, following its orders to “remove all disturbed earth,” which was the first part of its digging program,had lowered one portion of the square quite a good deal deeper than the other. Obviously, it had run into something that the computer decided had needed expert treatment by a human. The hoots and beeps got louder.

“Shut that damn thing off!” Stevens screamed, turning back to Art. “They'll hear it in the next county! Shut it off!”

“I can't unless you untie me,” Art replied. “I tried to tell you. Piglet isn't voice-operated. I control it by a special program and instructions transmitted by my belt communicator.”

“Okay, tell me what buttons to push and I'll do it.” Stevens seemed to have calmed down a bit. Ben had come up and ranged himself beside him.

“You can't handle it,” said Art firmly. “That communicator is print-coded to me. If you try it, it will melt its innards. A nice little anti-theft device.”

“Okay,” snarled Stevens, lifting the 45 with a threatening gesture, “cut him loose, Ben, but watch him!”

Ben whipped out a large, mean-looking hunting knife and sliced through the ropes. Art got up carefully, walked over to the communicator and pushed the cut-off buttons. The communicator and Piglet both fell silent.

“Now what?” said Art.

Seeing that Art apparently intended to cooperate, Stevens lowered his pistol and spoke in a more reasonable tone. “Like I said, Artie. Get that thing out of there!”

Art looked at Piglet. The little robot was too deep to climb out. It would have to jet-jump. This wasn't a technique one liked to use until the square was empty of possible artifacts because it played merry Ned with carbon and thermo-luminescent dating of anything caught in the jet. Then he looked a Stevens and Bloom, who were standing together about twenty feef from him and about 15 feet from the side of the square. He got an idea. His mind churned, computing angles swiftly.

“Hurry it up!” shouted Stevens.

“Why don't we shoot the damn thing, Tad?” whined Ben.

“You idiot, we'd have to hit its 'brain' and this thing hasn't got one. Whatever it has got is behind a steel panel this gun can't handle. And no telling what kind of alarm we might set off.” To Art again: “Come on!”

Art's fingers moved rapidly on the communicator buttons: “EMERGENCY. Jet azimuth 190 angle of exit 45 degrees; at height one meter FIRE laser. One second burst, wide beam, 190 azimuth . . . EXECUTE.”

Piglet ROARED. Art threw himself flat and closed his eyes as Steven and Ben were momentarily distracted. Piglet rose out of the excavation seemingly headed straight towards the two men. A searing bright beam fanned out from the laser and washed across them. It was brief, but long enough to set their hair and clothing smoldering and cause Stevens to drop the weapon that was suddenly too hot to hold. The two men were howling with pain, their eyes streaming tears. Piglet settled quietly down on the edge of the square, awaiting orders.

“I'm on fire and can't see!” screamed Stevens, stumbling into Bloom. “I'm blind! God! I'm blind! You dirty . . .” Bloom was moaning incoherently.

Art got up and moved towards them. He bent down and picked up the 45 that still felt warm to the touch.

“I think you boys need a little bath,” he said, conversationally. “Just head where I push you and you'll be fixed up in no time at all—unfortunately.”

They staggered ahead of him, pounding on their clothing, sobbing and cursing. As they passed the square, Art looked in and came to a sudden halt. He now knew why Piglet had called for attention. A red haze of anger almost overcame him and he rushed after his charges and pushed them roughly on until they reached the bank of the river, where he clearly enjoyed booting them in.

Using his communicator, Art called Control and explained the situation. “Get some cops out here,” he pleaded, “before I lose my temper with these two bums!”

Art settled down on the bank and pointed the 45 at Stevens and Bloom who sat balefully in the muddy shallows.

The police arrived and took charge. Marsh Waters was with them. He and a police officer questioned Art while other officers took charge of Stevens and Bloom.

“What's the charge, Art?” askedMarsh. “Interference with an official in the performance of his duty or assault and battery or both?”

“In my case, both,” said Art, “but there's more to it than that. You can charge them with murder, unless I'm terribly wrong. Look in the square. You'll find, protruding from the ground, a scorched sandal—a woman's sandal—and there is a foot in it!”

Marsh looked horrified. “Then . . .”

“Yes,” said Art, “the four little fillies didn't desert Stevens. He—or he and Ben—must have killed them. I'll bet you'll find all four in that hole. It might pay to dig up his other property near Palmers too since he was so anxious to keep us away from it.” Art shivered. “God, he probably planned to stage some kind of 'accident' that would do for me, too, once I got Piglet to fill up the hole . . .”

The police officer walked over to examine the square. Waters patted Art on the back. “All in a day's work, eh Art? You used to say that this life was too dull!”

“If I ever say that again, you have my permission to kick me,” Art said with feeling. “And . . . “Oh, my aching head. Those idiots have shovels!” He pointed to a group of policemen who were heading purposely towards the square. “I'd better go see that they dig properly, or that square will be wasted. I'm certain we'll hit a stockade wall there . . .” He left, abruptly.

Marsh stared after him. “Now, that's an archaeologist!” he said to himself, grinning. “Five 'll get you ten that all he puts in his report is a complaint about an intrusive burial cluttering up that square.” He got out his own trowel and trotted after his friend.

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