Chukka’s gloves were made to grip on any but the smoothest surfaces. If there was a way to create friction, the gloves would amplify the effect, making mountain climbing a lot easier. It also helped when scaling the side of a dark shaft inside an alien asteroid.
The ladder she had begun descending was gouged out of the rock. It had rungs and clearly defined grips, but it wasn’t attached to the wall, it was carved out of it. The rock was old and worn, and some rungs had been eroded to the point of almost disappearing, but the rocky surface provided plenty of purchase for the VendX proprietary Clinch™ system. She could feel her fingertips warm up as the gloves did their job and kept her securely in place.
“Hot in here,” said Bashir from above her. “Where’s the heat coming from?”
He was right. It was getting warmer the lower they went. She was starting to sweat through the suit’s cooling system. It would work better if she had the helmet closed but then they wouldn’t be able to talk with the comms deactivated.
The air was breathable but a low-mix. She guessed this place had been airless until recently.
“Just keep a steady pace and make regular movement checks.”
“I don’t think this was built for people,” complained Bashir. “Not my size, anyway.”
The rungs were a couple of metres wide and the distance between them was a little too far to be comfortable, even for a tall person, which Chukka wasn’t. Bashir was even shorter than her.
Chukka peered up, the light from her helmet showing the bottom of Bashir’s feet. He had followed her into the hole without complaint. Meek, easily bullied, keen to not cause trouble — a solid company man. The two sisters were above him, presumably. They had allowed her to go first, for some reason. To act as a meat shield, probably.
“It wasn’t designed for droids either,” she said. “So who does that leave?
Bashir made a snorting noise. “I guess we’re about to find out.”
“Are you keeping a watch for movement?”
“Yes. Nothing down below us. Yet. Doesn’t mean there isn’t something waiting, just keeping very still. Flott had the right idea. Get out of this big grey bastard while we can.”
“Stop mumbling and stay focused,” said Chukka. “Do a better job than you did up above.”
“That was a dead zone,” said Bashir, sounding a little putout. “Not my fault the assassin droid was hiding. Nothing I could do.”
He was right, of course. He could hardly have spotted the droid without his organic. But it was worth making him feel that he was being treated unreasonably if it drove him to catch the next attack just to prove a point. It was also good to keep the people beneath you in their place. They couldn’t be allowed to think everyone was on an equal footing just because things had turned sour.
“I didn’t say it was your fault,” she said sternly. “Just do better. Same goes for me. We need to expect tricks like that one.”
Bashir started muttering again but too quietly for her to hear.
She looked down past her feet. The light from her suit showed ten metres of dull-coloured rock before dissolving into nothingness. There was no end in sight.
Something could easily be down there, waiting. It would have to keep very still to avoid being spotted by Bashir. Or it might be in another dead zone, although they would be able to detect that, and be ready this time.
Chukka had been the first one into the mysterious hole under a pile of organics, no hesitation, no need to consider the options. There weren’t any. If this dark hole led to a premature death, so be it.
The organics could have been there to make people think that was what the room and the assassin droid were protecting, or they could have been bait. Either way, she had been quite pleased her guess had turned out to be correct. A diversion to keep the true prize hidden. It also meant that the Antecessors weren’t so different from humans psychologically. If they thought the same way, that meant they could be swayed the same way. She would have to think of ways to test the theory. It would be more difficult without a shared language, but there were other methods.
But despite the dangers, there was no way she wasn’t going to continue going deeper. This asteroid had already revealed so much, and she had a very strong feeling there was more to come. Careers were made on far smaller discoveries. She would pursue this to the end.
There was a blur that shot past and startled, Chukka nearly lost her grip. The gloves reflexively clamped down hard as she felt her fingers about to come away. Then another blur on her other side; this one slower and easier to recognise. Weyla.
The sisters had jumped. Presumably, they had detected the bottom of the shaft using some ability or device they had. Chukka had taken the lead and now they had taken it back. That was probably for the best. She had only gone first in her eagerness to discover more secrets. The more she learned about this place, the more valuable her time spent here would become. There might be a good chance they would die, but if they didn’t, she planned to have gathered the best returns on her investment as possible.
She heard them land not too far away.
“What’s the air like down there?” she called through her legs.
“Hot,” said Weyla.
“Thin, but breathable,” said Leyla. “More or less.” Their voices drifted up, expanding as the rose. It was a large area below.
Chukka descended quicker. Her fear of whatever might be lurking in the dark was no match for her excitement.
The walls around her disappeared and she was climbing down one side of an immense cavern, or so it seemed. The lights could only show that there were no nearby surfaces.
“Nothing moving?” looking for confirmation from Bashir.
“Just those two. They’re looking around.”
The ground surprised her when it finally met her feet, making her stumble. Her arms ached a little and her fingers were stiff but apart from that she was in good shape. Now to face whatever was down here.
“It’s clear,” said Leyla, appearing beside her. “No active droids, assassin or otherwise.”
“Not yet,” said Weyla from the other side.
Chukka wasn’t sure a sweep that quick could be relied on to be fully conclusive, but she wasn’t going to argue. She looked at Bashir.
“Can confirm,” said Bashir, flexing his gloved fingers.
“What is this place?” asked Chukka, peering into the darkness.
“Looks like a storage facility,” said Weyla. “For this.” She held up what looked like a droid, or part of one. It was a limb of some kind, clearly no longer operational. “Place is littered with them.”
“That’s encouraging,” murmured Chukka. “What else?”
“The place was sealed,” said Leyla. “Temperature controlled, stable environment, all of it deliberate and maintained for who knows how long. Millennia?
“What does that mean?” said Chukka.
“What we need is to find a way out,” said Weyla. She raised her hand above her head and pumped her fist. A small projectile shot out and disappeared into the darkness above. There was a quiet pop and then a bright flare lit up the area around them.
It was a harsh, sterile light that created a flat, even wash of whiteness across the cavern. The area was bigger than Chukka had expected and also a lot more roughly hewn out of the asteroid rock. This wasn’t a cleanly built structure like the ones above, it looked more like a natural cave adapted for some use.
The flare remained aloft and kept glowing steadily. As Chukka looked around, taking in the floor and the walls, she started to notice the droid parts lying on the ground in small piles, strewn about like an afterthought.
The walls had lines carved into them. Not like the ladder, these were thinner and more delicate, creating patterns. The light seemed to reflect off them with a silvery quality, like they contained some kind of mercurial liquid.
“I’ve got activity,” said Bashir, his voice almost doubting itself. “I think.”
“Have you or haven’t you?” said Chukka.
“Just a flicker.” His face screwed up in concentration. “I could have sworn… There it is again. The walls.” His eyes were glowing softly. “It’s not moving closer, just active.”
Chukka wasn’t sure what that meant. Something inside the walls? “Droids?”
“I don’t think so. More like… I’m not sure how to put it. It’s weird.”
“Bashir, could you be a little more specific? ‘Weird’ doesn’t tell us much. This whole place is weird. Just tell me what you’re seeing.”
Bashir’s eyes glowed more brightly. “Writhing. Twisting. Pulsing.”
Now she wished he hadn’t. “You see anything?”
The sisters both shook their heads.
“Where is it?” said Weyla, turning all the way around in case they were snuck up from behind. “Specifically.”
“There,” said Bashir, pointing across the cavern. He started moving in the direction he was pointing, finger still out.
The sisters rushed ahead of him, their boots kicking up small puffs of dust, their weapons drawn and held high, level with their faces, eyes alert and checking ahead and to the sides, like two avid bodyguards for the little man. The light overhead gave them full visibility. There was nothing ahead of them except for the far wall.
All seemed quiet and dead. No sign of any activity, although Chukka had the impression of a power patiently waiting for them to fall into its clutches. She pushed the notion from her mind. Now was not the time for paranoia. She could indulge herself once she got promoted to the boardroom.
“See anything?” said Leyla.
“Nope,” said Weyula, adjusting her weapon to a new setting.
Bashir stopped when he got to the wall. There wasn’t anything apart from the rock wall. “Here. Right here.”
Chukka eased him aside and moved her face closer, eyes scanning the area he had pointed to. She checked the EPK on her arm, but the readings were completely scrambled. She couldn't even make a recording. There was something closed and sealed off about this place.
The surface of the wall was rough and uneven, apart from… her light fell on a shape that seemed unexpectedly symmetrical coming out of the wall. Moving closer, she used the light to trace the outline. It was a bump the size of her palm.
With her right hand, she reached out and very lightly brushed away dust to reveal a smooth bulge, glassy but opaque. She examined the protrusion, fascinated. She brushed away more. Uneven lumps fell off to reveal more of its smooth curvature. It was bigger than it had first appeared — two hands wouldn’t cover it, maybe not even four. She gently placed both palms on the curved surface. It was soft and gave a little under pressure from her fingertips. She moved her head to make the light focus more on the object.
Something moved on the other side.
She jumped back. “There’s something inside there.”
“That must be what I’ve been detecting,” said Bashir. “Is it alive?”
“You tell me,” said Chukka.
Bashir took a gulp and uneasily came closer. He retrieved a small instrument from a compartment on his arm and ran it over the bump. “I can’t get anything solid off of it. I’ll have to...” He turned the scanner off and slipped it back into its slot. His eyes lit up, far more intensely than before. The object responded by also starting to glow, the exact same shade of blue. At the same time, glowing light appeared all around them, higher up and to the sides, muted under caked dust. Within a few seconds, the walls of the entire cavern were dotted with them like a starry night sky.
They watched with only their heads moving to follow the spread of lights, waiting for something to happen. The glows slowly receded.
“They’re like organics,” said Weyla. “But bigger. I think they’re embedded in the wall.”
“Organics?” said Bashir. “That size? How would you get that inside a person?”
“Not an organic, just the same production line,” said Weyla. “And I don’t think the Antecessors had us in mind when they created them or grew them or whatever the hell the process is. We just do that because of the benefits. Who knows what they originally made them for. Probably a biological weapon we’re dumb enough to infect ourselves with.”
“Same process,” said Leyla, nodding. “Makes sense. If the Antecessors were able to make organic augments, they could use the same tech to make other things.”
“What things?” said Bashir, peering at the orb in front of him.
A tiny appendage of some kind struck the inside of the orb, making Bashir leap back. “I think we woke it up.” He didn’t sound happy about the accomplishment.
Chukka drew closer again, this time turning her light on full power and aiming it directly at whatever was inside the bulge. She needed to get a better look at whatever it was. This was the treasure she needed to take with her, the thing she had been looking for without knowing it. She could feel it. Whatever they had discovered, she needed to get it back to the surface and then call in an evacuation under the highest priority. Nothing was going to stop her now that she had found her prize. Ubik could do as he pleased, this was far more important.
It was murky and hard to see. Very much like the sacs organics came in, but they were much smaller and contained microscopic fragments of genetic material that could be bound to DNA. Is this what they could develop into if left alone under the right conditions? It made her feel uneasy about the organic inside her. She dug her nails into the edges to see if she could pull it out.
“Get away from there,” said Weyla. “We don’t know what it—”
“I’ve got movement,” said Bashir, this time his voice full of panic.
“Is it going to hatch?” said Leyla, weapon up.
“No, not that thing. Movement, towards us. Something’s coming. Lots of them.”
The Seneca women stood back to back and aimed their weapons at the walls. “Where?” they said in unison.
He looked around frantically. “There, there, there… everywhere.”
Patreon is two weeks ahead (usually 6 chapters currently 4 because of everyone self-isolating at my house). Patreon.Afterword from Mooderino