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Story 3

Don D' Ammassa

Don D'Ammassa is the author of twelve books including murder mysteries, science fiction, and nonfiction, as well as 150 short stories. He was book reviewer for SCIENCE FICTION CHRONICLE for 25 years and now reviews for his website. He lives in Rhode Island with his wife Sheila, 2 cats, and 60,000 books.

Start with a deserted planet covered with unspeakably old, alien ruins, sprinkle with a quirky love affair, stir in a generous helping of mystery and you have "SANDCASTLES".



Don D’Ammassa

The wind was picking up, chasing small particles of sand through the empty streets. Hannigan quickly packed the last of his equipment and prepared to join the exodus from Chime City. He was just shouldering the backpack when Palliser came by in his skimmer and leaned out to shout an invitation. “Need a lift, Hannigan?”

He shook his head. “Not today. My ride is parked on the other side of the Harmonium. I’ll be right along.” The ringing tones were already making communication difficult and he unconsciously checked his pockets to make sure he’d brought his earplugs. He hated wearing them but he wasn’t stupid. If it got much louder, he’d put them in.

Palliser waved acknowledgment and turned away. The other members of the team were already streaming out into the desert, on foot or aboard a motley collection of skimmers and fliers and even a handful of surface vehicles, most headed for the assembly point.

Hannigan had first come to Conundrum as a technician with an archaeological expedition much like this one. They’d had a grant to study the ruins at Monolith City and when their funds had run out and they’d left the planet with the job half done, he’d stayed behind. It hadn’t been a completely conscious decision on his part. As the preparations for departure had gotten underway, he’d felt increasingly divorced from his companions and had ignored the instructions to pack up his personal possessions – subject of course to the allocated mass limit. He tentatively began looking around for a way to sustain himself after they were gone. There was, after all, nothing particularly important for him to go back to and one place was just as good as another, pretty much. He was used to Conundrum, rather liked it in fact, and had spent all of his free time exploring the planet at large rather than drinking, sexing, or jockeying for position in the academic career game.

Conundrum was not a conventionally appealing world. Most of its land area consisted of deserts fringed with grasslands or occasionally marshes. The landmass boasted no mountains to speak of, no valleys either, and only a handful of islands snuggled close to the two continents, Riddle and Enigma. The icecaps were small and seasonal variations in the weather, at least on Riddle, were barely detectible. Life was limited to hardy plants, insects, and a few small animals. Presently, there were no predators dangerous to humankind, although the fossil record showed that much larger animals had stalked the planet earlier in its history. The air was breathable, if you had good lungs. Some of the local plants were edible, but provided no nourishment. Fortunately, human compatible vegetation had no trouble establishing itself. It was not on balance a particularly appealing world, but a thousand years earlier Conundrum had been inhabited by an intelligent, technologically advanced race, and humans, who had reached the star only a few generations earlier, wanted to unlock its secrets.

With a quick look around to make sure that he hadn’t forgotten anything, Hannigan began to jog down a wide path to the Harmonium, one of the largest structures in Chime City. The city was virtually intact although it had not been inhabited for many centuries. The intricate mechanisms that gave rise to its name had proven to be amazingly durable. They came in a wide variety of sizes and shapes, and the Connies had built them everywhere. Some dangled from window ledges, others from the rooflines. They were sheltered in pergolas, gazebos, and stadiums. Some were set close to the ground; others adorned the pinnacles of spectacular towers. They could be found inside and outside, even below ground, shut up in closets, hanging from ceilings, or sticking out from walls. In a gentle breeze, they produced an ocean of soft sounds. In a storm, they’d shatter your eardrums.

Hannigan found his skimmer right where he’d left it. It was an older model that he’d bought from another expedition when they’d broken camp to return to their home world. It had consumed most of his savings, and parts were increasingly difficult to find, but he needed to be able to cover substantial distances if he was to maintain his income by providing labor to the various expeditions that visited Conundrum each year. According to the Authority in Capital City – which was barely a town – there were currently just over one hundred separate groups on the planet, but given the large number of ruins they were widely scattered.

Hannigan climbed up into the pilot’s seat, slipped out of his pack, and pressed his thumb to the ignition. The power came on promptly, to his great relief. As he negotiated the constantly twisting roadways of Chime City – whose patterns were not replicated in any of the other mapped sites – he called up his credit statement and noted that he’d received the final payment from the Noyes Group right on time. Until and unless he was hired to return, this might well be the last time he visited Chime City. It was not one of his favorite sites, although it was very popular with offworlders. Occasionally there might even be a tourist group. He switched to messaging, but there were no icons. Officially unemployed, he programmed a course for Capital City and relaxed.


The Connies had sprinkled their cities all over both land masses. They had established just over two hundred major settlements and an untabulated number of lesser ones, at least a few dozen, almost all in surprisingly good condition. Despite this, virtually nothing was known about the Connies themselves. No bodies had been found, not even a random bone. There were no representations of them anywhere, no paintings, statues, carvings, or written descriptions. Such evidence might have existed at one time, but it had long since vanished. It was impossible to theorize effectively even from their architecture, because each and every city was different, sometimes radically so. Doorways, for example, could be rectangular, round, narrow, or freeform, and they varied wildly in size. Geologists had found no traces of earlier civilizations, but there were indications that a small unstable moon or possibly a wandering asteroid had wiped out most of the original ecology. The land masses had become patchily forested again by the time the cities were being built, but subsequent changes in the planet’s sun had since altered the climate dramatically. Conundrum had had a hard life.

The diversity of construction was a source of constant wonder. The chimes of Chime City were found nowhere else. Grid City consisted of blocky buildings laid out in regular, parallel rows. Tortoise Town was enclosed in an opaque shell and had been lighted exclusively from within, at least until parts of the dome had collapsed a few hundred years ago. There were no straight lines anywhere in Sphere City, Cavern was built into the side of one of the rare hills on Enigma, Chain City consisted of one meandering row of buildings, twenty kilometers in length. New Persia could have been built by humans and had a distinctly Mideastern style with minarets and what might have been a large central park. The structures in Colossal City were of Brobdingnabian proportions and the ones in Transylvania looked like crumbling gothic castles. Novo Venice was crosshatched with canals, Aerie crouched atop the highest hill – it really wasn’t a mountain – on Riddle, and Marsh City was supported by massive stone pillars.


Hannigan had begun to doze off when his com unit beeped at him. Even as he reached for the toggle, he saw that he was no longer alone. Another skimmer was approaching on a converging course, though still distant enough to be unidentifiable.

“Hey, Hannigan! You awake in there?” He recognized the voice immediately. Maggie Baines was another freelancer and they’d crossed paths more than once in the past. They’d slept together a few times as well, but neither was interested in making it a regular habit.

“More or less,” he replied. “I didn’t know you were at Chime City.”

“That’s because I wasn’t. I’ve been up at Onion Town measuring wall thicknesses and running perk tests. Where are you headed?”

“Layover at the trading post at Culvert City, then into Capital, I guess.”

“Want some company? I’ll chip in for a bed and bath.”

Hannigan had planned to sleep in the back of his skimmer, but the prospect of an actual shower was even more appealing than a night in bed with Maggie. They fell into formation and made their way together into Culvert City, entering through one of the enormous circular tunnels.

In the morning, when Maggie tried to fire up her engine, a muted explosion followed by flames and very black smoke curled up into the sky. Hannigan helped extinguish the blaze but it was obvious that the skimmer – even more ancient than his own – had just become another ruin on a planet filled with them.

“I can give you a lift into Capital City,” he offered, glancing at her cargo space. “I think your stuff will all fit.”

Maggie had been stalking back and forth, swearing profusely. She finally nodded, accepted grumpily, and started unloading her gear. An hour later, they were on their way.

Hannigan felt uncomfortable. He liked Maggie but he also liked his privacy and had no intention of asking her to partner with him. It was possible that she had enough savings to buy a new vehicle. It was more likely that she’d have to find something to do in Capital City and haunt the spaceport until she found an expedition that hadn’t already hired its full complement. It was a distinct advantage to have your own skimmer because passenger space was hard to come by. Hangers on in the Capital were at the bottom of the social and employment ladders.

Maggie also seemed disinclined to talk, lost in her own thoughts so completely that from time to time Hannigan forgot that she was there. Nothing much happened en route except a mild sandstorm that sent grit slithering up the windscreen. Hannigan cursed under his breath because that meant he’d have to disassemble and clean the power units when they reached Capital. Just after it died down, Maggie broke the silence.

“Got a new contract yet?”

Hannigan shook his head. “Lines are out. No bites yet.”

“Ever think of prospecting?”

There were estimated to be scores, perhaps hundreds of small sites scattered across Conundrum. Most of those already visited were uninteresting, although a few repeated patterns found in the major cities. The most popular theory was that these latter were of more recent vintage than the cities because most of them were pretty obviously incomplete, as though whatever disaster had overtaken the planet had interrupted and terminated their construction.

The only surviving portable artifacts found so far had been buried in these smaller ruins, a couple of hand tools, a translucent globe made of some kind of plastic, and an odd looking piece of machinery whose purpose was unknown. Some of the permanent residents on Conundrum devoted their time to digging through these largely untouched settlements. Although prospectors received only a small mapping fee from the Authority, they were entitled to a much larger reward if they found actual artifacts.

“Not really. If I was desperate, I suppose.”

“I found a site. Looks promising. I could cut you in for a percent.”

Hannigan grimaced. A fraction of a pittance did not excite him. He had enough credit to last a couple of seasons. “Thanks, but I’m not interested.” His brow furrowed. “Why are you here if you found something?”

Maggie glanced away. “Ran low on food. It’s pretty barren out there. Not even bristlefruit.” Humans could eat bristlefruit, if they didn’t gag on it, but the pulp was almost indigestible. “I can’t get back out there without transport.”

Hannigan squirmed. He really didn’t want to prospect. The return on time invested was minimal. When he was employed by a research team, he worked the same hours they did. On his own time, he’d feel compelled to start early and end when the sun went down, if then. Researchers paid him by the hour; prospecting paid a flat and inadequate fee. “I can’t help you, Maggie. Sorry.”

But in the end, he agreed. Capital City was full of tourists and the price of everything had been jacked up accordingly. And Maggie provided additional inducements in bed.


Her find was so far off the beaten track that he asked her how she’d stumbled onto it.

“Bum compass. By the time I noticed, it seemed smarter to stay on course for Chime City than to double back. Then I ran into some bad dunes and diverted around them because my skimmer was having trouble staying clear and the next thing I knew there was this dome sticking out of the sand right in front of me. Damn near hit it.”

She’d stayed long enough to take some readings and dig around a little. “It’s only about fifty meters across, but it goes deep. Real deep according to my sonar probe. If it’s sealed, stuff might have survived.”

“And if the sand and wind and ground water got in, it might be a deathtrap.” The smaller ruins weren’t nearly as stable as the big ones.

Maggie shrugged her shoulders. “Nothing easy is worth having.”

“Nothing a thousand years old is worth dying for.”


It took just over two days to find the site. It would have been easy to overlook, even from the air, because the dome – the only structure not more or less completely buried – was constructed of fused sand and mimicked the colors of its surroundings. The small exploratory excavation Maggie had made had been filled in by drifting sand, so they unlimbered four sand shifters and set them up with their solar generators. All four began to hum as they sucked in loose sand and expelled it in a fan shaped cloud. Hannigan sprayed the immediate area with a sealant to prevent more sand from drifting in.

The shifters were limited and he and Maggie had to stand by and watch for problems, then intervene with shovels and muscle power when they inevitably occurred. The equipment itself had to be relocated periodically. With a full crew, they could have let them operate most of the night on stored power with shifts of attendants to watch over the operation, but that was impossible with just the two of them. They were even too tired for sex.

At the end of the second day, they had cleared a slit window into the structure. It was blocked on the inside by a glasslike substance, which lifted their spirits. It was entirely possible that the structure, if not the entire site, was sealed. Unfortunately the opening was not large enough for either of them to slither through and they had to move more sand out of the ever deepening pit. On the third day, they reached the lintel of a door. On the fourth day, they reached its threshold.

“How do we get in?” The door appeared to disappear into the walls along all four sides and presented a featureless, unblemished surface. No doorknob, no keyhole, no retinal scanner, no hinges, no house number, nothing. Maggie kicked it impatiently.

“Force, I guess.” Hannigan always preferred subtle solutions, but sometimes there wasn’t one available.

He didn’t carry explosives, but he had cutting tools, a pickaxe, and an inertial ram. “Let’s try the ram.”

“That’ll take forever.”

“But it’s safest, for us and for whatever’s inside.”

It didn’t take long to set the ram in place with its padded horn flat against the lower portion of the door. Hannigan activated it and stepped back instinctively although the only sign that it was working was a low hum and the ever so slight rotation of the horn. “What are we going to do for the next couple of hours?” Maggie looked around. “I suppose we could start digging up one of these other buildings.”

Hannigan shook his head. “I’ve got a better idea.”

She glanced around. “I’m open to suggestion.”

“I was thinking about over there.” He gestured toward where they’d set up the field tent and sleeping gear.

“Oh,” she said. “Good thinking.”

The ram was still humming away when they checked back after a couple of hours. The lower third of the door was quite obviously distorted now, although it showed no signs of rupture. “Amazing elasticity,” Hannigan observed. As if on cue, there was a low, not quite metallic sound and the bottom left corner of the door came loose. “Won’t be long now.”

They ate sparingly from their rations and by the time they’d finished, the second corner had been pried out of its frame. This provided enough space that they could crawl underneath by the time they had to raise the horn to get a better purchase. Maggie glanced at the sky. “It’s going to get dark soon.”

“I’ll get the flashers.”

It was dusk before the entire lower half of the door was forced out of its grooves with a groan of defeat. Hannigan killed the ram and moved it out of the way, crouched and used his flasher to look inside.

“What do you see?” Maggie’s voice was more animated than he’d ever heard it.

“Empty room. Some shadows. No sand to speak of. It looks intact.”

“Great! Move aside.”

It was her find, so Hannigan backed away to allow her to make the initial entry. She crouched and ducked her head and disappeared. He waited a few seconds so she could enjoy her triumph. “Okay for me to come in?”

“Sure. Watch your head.”

The inner chamber was disappointing, not much more than a landing surrounding a shadow wrapped stairwell. No furnishings. No skeletons in the corner. No travel posters on the walls. Maggie was leaning over the stairwell, which had no handrail, probing with her flasher. “See anything?”

“Steps. Lots of steps.”

The stairway might have been designed for humans, except that they were so large that Hannigan and Maggie had to jump down onto each with both feet before proceeding to the next. They spiraled down a tube that was broken occasionally by narrow landings with openings that led into invariably empty rooms, lacking even doors to secure them.

It was hard to judge distance because of the peculiarities of the steps and the inky darkness outside the range of their flashers, but Hannigan estimated they were about six stories down before they reached the bottom. There they found the control room.

Hannigan thought of it that way immediately. The surprisingly large open space was dominated by a table or dais upon which were two large scale models, one of Enigma and one of Riddle. As soon as they walked inside, a pale bluish light came on and they turned off their flashers. “Heat or motion detectors,” suggested Maggie. The fact that the lights were still working sent a thrill through both of them.

A map was superimposed over the model. The labels and features were a kind of holographic image through which Hannigan could pass his hand, but there was no sign of projectors. Possibly the entire dais served that function, with an internal power source based on temperature changes, or magnetism, or some other force. It was still working after a millennium, so it obviously didn’t require fuel. They both had more than a passing familiarity with the local geography and it only took seconds to confirm what they already suspected.

“Here’s Long Tooth City and Bubbletown,” said Maggie excitedly.

“I’ve got Herringbone and Laddertown and Twisty City over here.”

They worked their way around the map, picking out familiar landmarks. Every city they knew of was represented by tiny miniatures of the originals, each accompanied by a unique glyph, but none of the smaller ruins were shown. It was Hannigan who found the icons, a large bar, a smaller bar, a crossed bar, and a circle. They seemed to be inscribed within rather than upon the surface of the dais. He touched the circle and jumped as all of the tiny holograms disappeared. A single, fist sized ball of light hovered in the air above the dais.

“What did you do?” asked Maggie querulously.

“Just a second.” He touched the large bar and the tiny replicas of the cities were back. “I found some kind of control.” As Maggie came around the far end of the dais, he touched the smaller bar. The cities disappeared again, replaced by hundreds, perhaps thousands of tiny points of light.

“What’s that supposed to be?” Maggie was at his side.

“I don’t know. The smaller settlements maybe.” He made a quick search and found a tiny light marking their present location. It was the only one that blinked on and off. “Bingo.” He turned and called back to Maggie. “Press the one that has the crossed bars.”

She didn’t answer, but the models blinked again and now the cities were back, distinctly larger than the myriad smaller ones, which remained alight.

“Do you know what we have here, Maggie my love?”

“One humongous alien artifact that’s going to set us up for life?”

He joined her, threw his arms around her, and squeezed her tightly. “More than that. We have a map to every ruin on Conundrum. Look at the lights. There are hundreds of them, ten times the number the Authority knows about.”

She was silent a moment, absorbing the thought. “So where are we? I mean, what is this place? The planetary capital?”

“I don’t know. But whatever it is, the Connies thought it was important.”

They found doors leading outside and realized that the building had not been dug into the ground, as they originally believed, but had been buried over a period of time. They could not find a way of opening them, and didn’t try very hard. The last thing they wanted was to provide ingress for thousands of tons of compressed sand.

Maggie discovered the selection function completely by chance. She was idly playing with the various displays, then cut them all off leaving just the single ball of light. When she pressed both hands on the edge of the dais in order to raise her body and peer down its length, the globe began to move slowly toward her. She backed away and it stopped, but did not return to its original position.

“How did you do that?” asked Hannigan.

“I haven’t the foggiest idea.” She returned to the dais, tentatively touched the large bar. The cities lit up again, but the globe remained visible and immovable. “I’m going to try something.” Very tentatively she touched one fingertip to the perimeter of one of the controls. As she did so, the globe began to move again. It passed over one of the cities, which immediately flashed and expanded.

“It’s some kind of pointing device,” she said excitedly.

They identified the enlarged image as Boulderfall, one of the more remote cities on the planet, reproduced in astonishing detail. They also noticed several thin lines of light that extended from the sides of the hovering shape, connecting it to several of the smaller, amorphous lights. “What are we looking at?” asked Hannigan.

“Beats me. Some kind of network.”

Eventually, reluctantly, they climbed back to the surface, ate a quick meal, and collapsed into their bedding. It was almost dawn. At midmorning, they were up again, carrying a day’s provisions as they re-entered the buried tower and descended to the control room. Nothing had changed since they had left it.

They spent the day exploring by proxy, taking occasional breaks to eat, climb to the surface for sanitary reasons, and make perfunctory explorations of the rest of the interior, finding nothing of interest. Except for the dais, everything had been removed from the building. Like all the other ruins, it appeared to have been abandoned by its inhabitants in an orderly fashion. But where had everyone gone? No trace of the inhabitants or their personal possessions had yet been found in any of the settlements, large or small. Had they gone lemminglike into the ocean carrying their belongings with them? One small cult believed that a Rapture had come to Conundrum, but if all the inhabitants had been carried off to some alien Heaven, why had they taken their clothing and furniture with them?

“We need to let the Authority know about this. They can bring in people a lot brighter than we are.” Maggie had become convinced that there was nothing further they could learn and she wanted to cash in her chips.

“Let’s hold off a little longer.” Hannigan thought he might be on the brink of grasping at least part of the explanation. “We need to know as much as possible when we negotiate our finder’s fee.”

He had trouble sleeping that night. He dreamed that he was back on Wellington, attending a beach party with some of the kids he’d gone to school with. He’d grown up on the coast and beach parties were a regular event, but one which he had neither thought nor dreamed about during his three years on Conundrum. But when he woke up in the morning, he was pretty sure he had the key to the buried tower and a great deal more, and he woke Maggie up with a fit of irresistible laughter.

“What’s so funny?” Maggie was not a morning person and found nothing amusing until she’d eaten.

Hannigan managed to control himself, mostly. “It’s your turn to cook today, isn’t it? I’ll tell you while you’re making breakfast.” Maggie hated cooking and Hannigan loved it, would have done it all himself except that he knew it would insert an imbalance into their otherwise stable relationship.

He waited until she’d pulled herself together and taken bacon and bread from the cryo unit. “I know why there’s no furniture in any of the cities.”

Maggie was not impressed. “They took everything with them when they went wherever it is that they went.”

He shook his head. “Nope. I doubt there was any furniture to begin with.”

She paused and turned to him holding a handful of raw meat she’d just thawed. “I suppose they slept on the floors and ate out a lot.”

Hannigan suppressed the urge to laugh, knowing she would be offended. “There’s no furniture because no one ever lived there. The Connies aren’t from around here. They weren’t native to Conundrum any more than we were. Maybe less. They probably lived on the ships that brought them here.”

Maggie started to gesture, realized that she was waving bacon at him, and set it on the Quikcook unit before answering. In the interim, her own sluggish thought processes had begun to move. “That would explain a lot, admittedly. But are you suggesting that two hundred or so alien races each came to Conundrum to build one of their cities as a showpiece of some sort? We haven’t found one intelligent race yet, Hannigan, let alone two hundred.”

“No, I think the same people built all the cities. Different groups probably, but all the same race. I imagine it was some kind of competition and this, he gestured toward the buried tower, was where things were coordinated. Maybe it was the judges’ booth.”

“And the smaller ruins?”
He shrugged. “False starts? Engineering models? Rough drafts? I don’t know. But I’ll bet if we visited the lesser sites that are linked to the cities on that model, we’ll find that that all of the connected ones have physical similarities. Each individual, or team more likely, was assigned certain locations as working spaces. Maybe each of them started several different versions and only completed the one that was the most promising.”

The bacon had progressed from sizzle to burn and Maggie was preoccupied for a moment or two. While she split the bacon up onto two plates with freshly heated bread, Hannigan drew two cups of coffee.

“It makes sense,” she admitted. “They chose a planet with no indigenous intelligence, in fact, a planet where catastrophic events have pretty much wiped out the ecology. Then they set up a gigantic Worlds’ Fair. It makes our interplanetary corporate conventions look pretty insignificant.”

Hannigan finished chewing a hunk of bread. “Not really. I don’t think it was a business meeting at all. I think it was a party. A beach party, in fact. Lots of water. Lots of sand. A little hot and dry for human tastes maybe, but it might have been paradise for them.”

Maggie frowned. “But if it was just a party, why build the cities?”

Hannigan smiled. “I told you. They’re not real cities. They were never meant to be lived in. No one could live in most of them. They’re sandcastles, Maggie, and they’ve been left here to be washed away by the tides of time.”

A playful breeze sprayed them both with fine sand.

The End

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