They had moved steadily through the day, stopping about noon, or what they believed to be noon for something to eat. They had hidden in a thicket and buried the remains of the meal, though Price didn't think anyone or anything would be following them to search for the remains of the meal. They drank some water and then pressed on.
They crossed an open field that looked to be cultivated. The ground was soft, as if it had been plowed, but there were no straight lines of crops, just a uniformness of the plants that suggested farming. They found no buildings, no houses or equipment sheds. They discovered no roads and the one river they crossed was clean and pure. No sign of any pollution, no cans or old tires or wrecked cars. And no fish.
They continued to march, hearing nothing other than the noise they made. No where could they find animals or insects or the sounds of civilization.
And then, suddenly, that all changed. Price believed they were getting close to the outskirts of the city. They had traveled ten or twelve miles and hadn't been that far from the southern most reaches of the city.
They had been walking through a forest that had a strange, manicured look to it. Grass, or the equivalent, not tangle of undergrowth, and trees that were space out. Clumps of bushes and trees were scattered through the forest, but even those had a regular look to them, as if someone had planned it all out carefully.
At the edge of the forest they stopped so that Price could crawl forward. There was another open field, but this had the look of a desert. It was a large area that contained almost no plants, was level, as if it had been plowed, and was filled with sand. Heat radiated from it, though at the upper latitudes, it wasn't as hot as it could have been if it had been located near the equator.
Right in the middle of it was a clump of machinery painted a bright red. A half dozen creatures were scrambling over it, one of them sitting in the center of it looking as if it was the driver.
Coollege joined him, lying on her stomach beside him. She leaned close and said, "Well?"
"Looks like the little creatures from the asteroid." He handed his image enhancer to her and she lifted it to her eyes.
"Looks like it hell," she said. "It looks like the twin."
"That's what I thought, too."
"Well," she said, "I guess we are on the right planet after all."
Price began to push himself to the rear. He found Monier and said, "We found someone. You getting anything?"
"No, not really. Just a feeling that the job has to be done right now. They're not distracted by anything else. They're focused."
"Highly disciplined," suggested Price.
"No," said Monier shaking her head. "I don't feel it is discipline. It's something else."
"Fine," said Price.
Coollege asked, "What are we going to do now?"
"I'm tempted to walk out there, across the field and see what happens," said Price.
"Not very good procedure," said Coollege.
"I don't think they'll even react," he said. "They'll just keep working away and not do a thing.
"You really going to do that?" asked Coollege.
"Not at the moment," said Price. He turned toward Monier and waited.
"I can't get anything more from them. They're focused on the task."
"Do you know what it is?"
She shrugged. "Has something to do with computers... some kind of pipeline for a cooling system... or rather an addition to the existing cooling system."
"How smart are they?" asked Coollege.
"I don't know..."
"They have equipment out there," said Price. "They're using it in coordination with one another. That implies some intelligence."
"If they built the equipment..."
"Jackknife," said Price, "I don't want a long discussion here and now. We've got to think of something. We can't get to the city if we don't get moving."
"So we detour around them."
"I'd like to see what they're doing out there."
"Rachel already told you," said Coollege.
Price took a deep breath and closed his eyes momentarily. "You and Monier stay here. "I'll stroll out there. If I get into trouble and you can help, then do so. If not, you know what you need to do."
"Nothing's going to happen. Besides, we need this data for the next report."
"Okay," said Coollege.
Price stripped his pack and set it on the ground. He put his rifle on top of it and then pulled his pistol. He checked it, chambered a round, and then stuck inside his shirt so that it was hidden from view.
"You know it's against the rules for you to carry it concealed," said Coollege, grinning.
"So arrest me."
"You're under arrest."
Price ignored that. He took a sip from his canteen and added it to pile of gear. "If everything goes all right, bring this to me."
Price stood up and then without looking back, walked to the edge of the woods. He stood there for a moment and then stepped out, onto the sand. It seemed that no one saw him.