The four robot servants entered the lichen-covered ruins of what had once been the cathedral of a large city, many centuries ago. The remaining walls reached up at the sky like the half-buried hand of some submerged giant, trying to claw itself up from the rubble of time.
The moon was out of sight this night, but the sensors of the robots registered infra-red heat from living beings as well as ultra-violet light; they needed no daylight to search the ruins. The red glimmer of their visorplates moved about the place as they scanned the dark earth and rocks for any sign of metal - anything unusual that might interest their owner, Lord Bor Damon.
A muffled whirring of servomotors, the occasional clicks and low hisses of their hydraulic systems, was all the noise they made. They did not communicate; their objectives were clear. Find something of interest and return to Damon City before dawn. Should the Lepers find you, you and the aircraft must self-destruct immediately.
It is not easy to say whether these machines could feel genuine fear; their richly ornamented, helmet-shaped metal heads were incapable of expression. Nevertheless, they treaded about as silently and carefully as a man-sized, two-legged robot could.
After a few minutes of searching across the huge church ruin, something happened. The robot bearing the name Vhustank - engraved on its forehead below the crest of the Damons - stepped on a wide, grass-covered slab of stone. Unexpectedly, the slab yielded to its steel-and-lead foot. With a sucking sigh of inrushing air from below, Vhustank fell. He did not say a word.
The sound of his fall alerted the three other robots: Surabot, Avton and Lachtfot. They marched forth to help their fallen comrade - perhaps not so much out of compassion, as because their directives ordered them to protect their owner's property; but who knows? As they looked down the square hole where the ground had caved in, they saw what no human eye would have discerned in the darkness: Vhustank was undamaged.
He and the slab upon which he rested had fallen a few meters, landing on a heap of old rotten coffins, which had crumpled like soft paper under their weight.
"Are you still functioning, Vhustank?" Surabot asked in a very low, metallic tone - constructed to be understood by humans as well as machines.
"I have no severe damage," Vhustank answered immediately. He was already rotating his head to scan the new surroundings. "I appear to have reached a lower chamber. Please prepare to help me up with the ropes. Just a moment -"
His red visorplate halted, pointing to some inner recess of the crypt.
"I am registering a large metal object nearby. I will examine it closer. Just a moment - weak radioactivity is emanating from the object."
Lachtfot stated in a calm tone: "Vhustank: if you find any sign of resemblance to the historical descriptions of Radioactive Weapons, please avoid the object until our master is informed."
It was a robot's way of saying "Be careful". Ignoring Lachtfot, Vhustank crawled to his feet and walked over to the sarcophagus at the corner of the abandoned chamber. Rats, snakes, bats, and insects scurried away as he lit the flashlight of his visorplate to get a clear view of the artifact. The sarcophagus was very old, and covered with a thick layer of dust and dirt.
Vhustank picked a small brush-head from his round waist, unscrewed his left hand, and fitted the brush to his wrist-socket. With a low whine, the brush-head began to spin very quickly. Starting from the top, Vhustank neatly polished the dust off the surface of the sarcophagus.
When he was finished, Vhustank stepped back to scan the uncovered object. The outside of the cleaned coffin turned out not to be made of metal - but some kind of composite material, covered with a very thin coating of diamond-hard material. In fact, it was diamond: ionized carbon atoms sprayed over a concrete and plastic shell. The metal object registered by Vhustank was hidden deep inside the shell.
The robot noticed an inscription on a metal plate on the side of the sarcophagus. The style of the lettering was archaic but recognizable: Old Juro. The plate had been scraped badly centuries ago - when some long-forgotten thief had removed most of its thin coating of gold. To the robot, the sign read:
In an instant, Vhustank searched his memory for the word "D. ARC" or "DARC", and found nothing of importance. Vhustank made a quick decision.
"The object is named 'DARC' and appears to be harmless," he told his comrades. "Please help me lift myself and DARC up to ground level."
As he spoke, Vhustank picked up the ropes that the others were hauling down the hole. He tied them to some holes in the outer shell of the sarcophagus.
Surabot said: "I agree. Move quickly, dawn comes soon."
With no further objections, Avton and Lachtfot threw down another rope and lifted up Vhustank, who was holding the ropes connected to the sarcophagus. Then, all four of them began hauling up the heavy coffin. The strain on their motors and battery-cells was considerable, but within their limits; the sarcophagus weighed much less than half a ton. When the sarcophagus had been lifted to the ground, the robots positioned themselves along its sides.
Surabot said: "Commence collective lifting procedure... now."
In a smooth, mechanical parody of a funeral train, the four metal figures kneeled down and lifted the sarcophagus onto their shoulders, then stood up. They walked slowly to the edge of the ruin, down the shallow grass slope that covered the entrance steps of the former cathedral. Silently, the procession marched along the grassy, desolate streets of the ancient city - towards the waiting, unmanned aircraft that bore the insignia of Bor Damon.
They marched up the loading-ramp, which folded up after them. The robots shackled the sarcophagus to the floor of the cargo room, while Surabot took the pilot seat. He started up the vessel's jet engines. The keel thrusters of the jet tubes screamed into life, pushing the streamlined aircraft slowly up, up - rising above the maze of ruined city blocks. The vessel turned its nose toward the glittering lights of Damon City at the dark horizon, and roared off. The noise echoed and rolled along the ruins, waking up animals. Night beasts howled and screeched in fearful response.
The craft reached the city well before dawn.
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