“Sixty seconds to deceleration burn” crackled over the cabin speaker.
Archer craned forward to look through the open hatchway. Silhouetted against the bulbous cockpit windows, their pilot Toreth was methodically making final checks and adjustments to their cutter’s attitude. Visible for the last hour, their destination loomed and now completely filled their view, an enormous craggy asteroid lined with deep fissures, jagged peaks and, scattered across the surface, metallic flecks glinting in the faint glow of Sol. Those flecks would be of great interest to OSS mining concerns, but they would come later. Archer’s mission was to lead her team and investigate a site of possible archaeological concern. Most of the time, it was a pre-OSS Hylan facility or undocumented crash site. Occasional though, ancient ruins of significant scientific and cultural significance were uncovered. It was not unheard of for entire asteroids to be protected from the ravenous mining vessels.
With no cities or known landmarks to reference, Archer found it difficult to judge distances to the asteroid. It appeared to be disturbingly close. Toreth was not concerned, however, and Archer relaxed. A native of Neptune, Toreth had a narrow, lanky frame and leathery skin typical of the Passerines. Evolved from a sort of flying-reptile, the short-lived Passerines spent their days sailing cloud-skimmers above the eternal blue oceans and rarely left Neptune. The few who did were natural pilots and in great demand. Archer was lucky to have him on her team for these past five years, and considered him a good friend.
Toreth turned back to check on his passengers; seeing Archer his face and beak contorted into what could be charitably called a painful grimace. Archer returned his smile and performing once final check on her safety harness, settled back into her gravity couch.
The cutter violently shook as the main retro-rockets fired. Archer felt the weight of a giant hand press her back into the gravity couch. A dial above displayed the acceleration in Earth-calibrated units. 1.5g and increasing. She risked a slow turn of her head and looked around the cabin at her two colleagues. Towering over her in the seat across the aisle sat Cortan, a Droserac. Evolved from hyper-intelligent plants in the thick jungles of Venus millions of years ago, Droseracs were now more or less humanoid in appearance. However, as with all Droseracs, it was not exactly clear if the eight-foot tall Cortan was male or female. For some reason, no one had yet ventured to ask. Considered quick-witted and impulsive by Droserac standards, Cortan was one of the first of that species to settle on Mars after the short-lived Terran-Droserac war. Whilst that ancient planet would never become like Venus, the Droseracs had a long-term vision to restore its grandeur. Working to restore and expand the ancient northern polar region canal network, Cortan became an expert in ancient languages and glyph systems. This was only the second mission on which they had worked together, but Archer was already coming to depend on his vast knowledge. Thick, vine-like tendrils had wrapped around the legs and back of the gravity couch. Cortan was not going anywhere and seemed to be asleep.
“Regulations prohibit unnecessary movements during high-g burns, Project Specialist Arden Archer.”
Their OSS observer, L’Tep was sitting to her left. A Hylan from one of the Jovian moons, L’Tep had a flat triangular head with large, black eyes. Vestigial gills hung around his neck over thick, mottled purple skin. His stocky body was cocooned in a net of regulation issue webbing and safety harnesses. One of his many annoying traits was to refer to everyone by their position and full name when stressed. Unfortunately, OSS regulations required an observer on all expeditions and they would not be allowed here without him. Politeness and discretion were to be her watchwords.
“Thank you, L’Tep, you are correct as always.”
Archer looked back at the dial which was now reading three-g and beginning to creep towards four-g. She focused on taking long, deep breathes and reflected on the past week. Urgently recalled from an archaeological dig on Luna, Archer barely had time to pack her bags and attend the briefing in the Regional Commonwealth HQ in Canberra before catching a maglev to the nearest spaceport. After that it had being a blur of metal bulkheads, beige gravity couches and unrecognisable food. Yet some images could not help but stick in her mind. White clouds streaking past the porthole as her orbital jet blasted off from Townsville Spaceport. A turquoise Coral Sea sparkling visible below Earth low orbit. A rare view of the asteroid belt from above the elliptic, millions of rocks, asteroids and tiny worlds twinkling as they slowly spun in the warm, orange glow of Sol, the immense disk curving off into infinity. And arriving into CERES-1 controlled space, the drive flares from hundreds of ships like a cloud of fireflies buzzing around a rocky outcrop. And hovering above it all, a Plume Solar Clipper unfurling a hundred square kilometres of molecule-thick gold sails, ready to carry its enigmatic occupants across the solar system back to their home world of Mercury.
The blare of the proximity klaxon and an uncharacteristic curse from Toreth in the cockpit bought Archer back to the present. The faint sound of pea-sized rocks spattering on the outer hull grew louder. L’Tep gasped as a shadow fell over the starboard portholes and Archer could have sworn that the rock face on the port side was now close enough to reach out and touch. Before anyone could reconcile themselves to a horrible death, the engines cut out, stomachs lurching as the gravity couches compensated. The view from both sides was now entirely filled with rock rushing past. The cabin jolted from another short engine burst and the view slowed down. Several loud thumps signified landing gear deployment. Toreth gave a final adjustment with the attitude jets and the cutter gently touched down at the bottom of a deep fissure, light clouds of dust puffing up from each landing pad. The cabin filled with the sound of belts and harnesses unzipping as everyone climbed out of their gravity couches and began preparing equipment and EVA suits.
“Thank you for another safe landing, Chief Pilot Toreth De’Seve,” L’Tep murmured, his vestigial gills pulsing nervously. “Whilst we appreciate landing so close to our objective, I implore you in future to please consider OSS minimum clearance guidelines for Expedition class cutters.”
Toreth grinned briefly at Archer, before turning and nodding acknowledgement to L’Tep.
Like everyone else, Archer had studied the briefing papers during the flight from CERES-1. Excluding the area slightly down-spin from Jupiter that was home to the Catvik, most of the belt was uninhabited and thus under the jurisdiction of the OSS. Up until recently, it was generally understood that any race who wanted a bit of extra metal helped themselves to a choice metallic asteroid. Even a ‘small’ rock could supply a hungry moon or small planet for thousands of years. But the OSS now felt, with the recent addition of Earth and Venus to the happy system-wide family, that this was a good time for a thorough stock-take. Archer couldn’t help but feel the subtext of incrimination through the bureaucratic briefing text. “If only those annoying Humans and Droseracs hadn’t turned up we wouldn’t even need to do this!” Still, for archaeologists and researchers the exhaustive and well-funded survey was a godsend. On a regular basis, automated droid probes found a ruin or artefact that needed closer attention. Teams like Archers were then bought in to investigate, and if necessary protect the sites. Toreth climbed from the cockpit into the main cabin.
“So why are we here? I thought this sector had already been surveyed.”
L’Tep put down his EVA checklist, his gills extended in puzzled annoyance.
“Chief Pilot Toreth De’Seve, have your briefing documents gone missing again? They clearly describe all relevant mission parameters.”
Before Toreth could think of an answer suitably annoying to the Hylan, Cortan, now evidently awake, joined the conversation.
“Precession.” Everyone turned around to look at Cortan, who continued. “Precession. This rock is not actually in a tidally locked orbit as the first surveys indicated. Uneven heating by the sun combined with faint gravity effects of Jupiter cause a slight precession. I estimate an angular rate of 0.0001 degrees every one thousand years. This narrow gorge has not seen any sunlight for at least sixty million years. I believe it was once filled with ice, perhaps dumped from a collision with a passing comet. Once exposed to the sun, the ice sublimated away and it was only a matter of time before the exposed artefact was detected by the magnetometer of a passing droid probe.”
Staring through the adjacent porthole, Cortan continued in the deep and raspy voice unique to all Droseracs, “That is my current theory at any rate, and it is consistent with the unique erosion patterns along the walls.” Vine tendrils tightened around the legs as Cortan turned to face the rest of the group.
Fearing a time-consuming elucidation, Archer quickly interjected, “Thank you Cortan, that is a useful addition to the otherwise thorough briefing papers provided by L’Tep. Would you mind checking my EVA suit feeds? Toreth and L’Tep, I want to be outside in ten minutes.”
Nine minutes and thirty seconds later, Archer cycled the airlock, spun the hatch wheel, opened the exterior door and led L’Tep, Toreth and Cortan out onto the rocky surface. The gorge was very angular and straight-edged, almost artificial in appearance. Tall and narrow, it was maybe two hundred metres deep and only twenty metres wide. Glancing back at the cutter and up at the narrow band of space above, Archer marvelled at Toreth’s skill in landing in such a tight space. Dangerous yes, but it saved them days of hauling gear and supplies from topside. The warm yellow glow of Sol filled the gorge; if Cortan’s observations were correct, it would remain in sunlight for thousands of years. One hundred metres away, a large mound of rubble and the glint of reflected metal was all that was visible of the artefact. Archer flicked the wide comm-band switch on her radio.
“Sound off and radio check.”
L’Tep, Cortan and Toreth all checked in and the group started walking towards the artefact, small puffs of dust rising from each footfall. A small automated rover carrying their equipment followed closely behind. As they walked, Archer took in the high walls with unnaturally straight edges that hemmed them on both sides. Here and there, the rock had crumbled away to reveal a deep, glossy green jade-like material. Shadows and tricks of light gave the appearance of movement deep within.
“Does that look natural to anyone?”
“It is not uncommon for fissures to follow a long, straight break line. But, the width of this feature is extremely consistent. It is quite likely to be artificial in nature.”
Cortan had nothing to add and the group walked on, reaching the artefact after a few minutes. Cortan and Toreth, closely supervised by L’Tep, began unpacking the sled whilst Archer walked around the artefact. It was fifteen metres in diameter and covered by glassy rubble, fine dust and the odd chunk of ice which had not yet sublimated. Poking above the rubble and debris, several metres of clean sleek lines terminated in flared drive nozzles pointing back up into the inky void above. The rest of the small vessel was buried in the substrate. L’Tep, distracted from his self-appointed supervisory role, came over.
“Why has it landed upside down? Did they crash?”
Toreth, who was looking with interest at the strange drive configuration on the vessel, responded, “I find that extremely unlikely.”
L’Tep, clearly still thinking of their recent landing, could not keep the doubt from his voice. “What do you mean?”
“Look at the narrowness of this fissure.” Toreth gestured with his arms at the close walls. “What are the odds of a crashing vessel being on just the right vector to not skim the surface or disintegrate into the walls? Maybe this wasn’t a conventional landing, but the pilot deliberately put the vessel here.”
“There is more.” Cortan’s voice sounded even raspier over the radio link. Cortan tapped on a wrist mounted computer, sending initial scan results to everyone.
“Differential radio-isotope readings indicate this impact happened at least fifty million years ago.”
The radio was silent as everyone took in the results. Pre-OSS ruins were rare, but not uncommon, the most well-known of course being the Martian canal system and the subterranean caverns of Luna. But nothing this old had been found, let alone a spacecraft. This would be a career-defining find for everyone. Archer, professionalism reasserting itself over the initial excitement, took over.
“L’Tep, notify OSS of a significant historical find and request a fully equipped survey team immediately. Cortan, begin a full site-wide laser scan and image collection routine. Toreth start a geological analysis of the crater and surrounding gorge. I want everyone finished and ready to begin initial excavations within four hours.”
Archer stood back while her team began the work. Four hours for such a small site was longer than necessary; 4D laser scans, robotic photogrammetry and subsurface mapping were highly automated and could be completed within an hour. But she wanted no excuses for some upstart OSS bureaucrat to hijack the project once the word got out.
Four hours later, after all the scans and surveys had been double and triple checked, Archer directed the team to begin carefully excavating around the craft with ultrasonic diggers. As the craft was gradually exposed, they placed supporting scaffolding to hold it in place. After several hours, they had uncovered three metres of the vessel revealing an access hatch with a recessed handle and locking mechanism. Archer silently looked around at the group.
“It looks like it was built yesterday!” exclaimed Toreth.
Archer could only agree; the vessel was in remarkable condition with no signs of metal fatigue, radioactive decay, micrometeorite collisions or corrosion.
“I can only surmise the thick layer of ice and surrounding rock of the gorge offered significant protection from radiation and meteorites,” Cortan suggested.
L’Tep, slightly back, was festooned in cameras and blinking recording devices covering a wide range of visible and non-visible EM bands. Archer turned back to the hatch, shrugged and turned the locking handle. The hatch sunk into the hull, then smoothly pivoted and opened outwards. There was no puff of escaping gases, the interior was a hard vacuum. Archer shone a torch into the blackness within, but from this angle could only glimpse the edge of a long-dead console on the opposite bulkhead. Toreth held up a portable gauge.
“There is no residual power, chemical storage or radiation signatures detected. Whatever powered this has long since decayed or out-gassed.”
Archer nodded, then awkwardly manoeuvred her suit through the hatch.
The interior was ivory white, occasionally interrupted by black circles which Archer took to be long dead console displays. Next to each display was a cluster of harness fittings and what looked to be air or hydraulic connectors. In total there were twenty of these stations, ten to each side. Archer noted there was no obvious floor or ceiling; the interior was not organised to any obvious line of gravity. Running lengthwise along the interior, thick bronze rails ran at parallel intervals, perhaps as handles to assist with moving about in zero-gravity. Looking up towards the engine bay, a ‘floor’ of metal grating covered a nest of pipes, pressure containers and machinery. Nearby sat a large console and two chairs which Archer assumed to be the pilots station. Archer shone her suit lamps towards the front of the ship and gasped. Her lights revealed nothing but inky blackness. Grabbing one of the nearby bronze rails, Archer hauled herself further inside. The asteroids gravity was modest, and even with the weight of the suit it was easy to hold herself up.
The others clambered inside, the additional torch light reducing the gloom and revealing the entire front of the vessel to be an enormous airlock, open to a circular dark passage five metres in diameter. The walls had the same translucent glassy, green sheen as the walls of the gorge. The passage gently twisted and curved downwards into the depths of the asteroid. Cortan closely examined the strange lettering on the central console.
“This matches no language I have ever seen.”
L’Tep of all people was the first to make sense of it. “Could this be a boarding craft of some type? Our resident military expert, Archer, may have a better idea.”
Everyone turned to Archer who nodded, “Thank you L’Tep. I should remind everyone that all Earth based military units were disbanded in the OSS-imposed armistice ten years ago.” Looking awkwardly at Cortan, Archer continued. “I can only speak to what I saw during my brief service in the unfortunate Venusian Conflict. Shortly before the ceasefire plans were made to develop a craft with a similar layout. The idea was that a small, nimble craft could evade detection and coast at high speed into the hull of enemy vessels or facilities.”
“You mean crash into them?” Toreth enquired.
“Not exactly, just fast enough to rupture and pierce the outer hull. Small teams of suited soldiers could then enter the enemy vessel and capture key locations.”
“If your hypothesis is correct, that might signify the existence of at least two unique cultures, the attacker and the defender,” Cortan mused.
“More pertinently, it could mean there are defence mechanisms inside. Ancient and dormant no doubt, but still possibly dangerous for all that!” exclaimed Toreth.
They all looked down, the partially translucent walls of the tunnel absorbing and scattering their torch beams into strange glows and reflections.
“I suggest we proceed, but with all due precaution and care. Agreed?”
There were nods and murmurs of ascent from the group. To be the first to uncover, not just one, but possibly two long dead and unknown cultures was a prize worth the risk. Archer leading, one by one they climbed down into the tunnel and began walking into the depths of the asteroid.
After one hundred metres they stopped and Archer watched as Toreth deployed their first beacon. Nicknamed a parrot, the small spherical device acted as both navigation marker and radio repeater. Deployed correctly, it would keep members of the team in radio contact with each other and the surface as well as assist with navigation back out of the tunnel system. Toreth sprayed a black polymer glue to the wall and affixed the parrot. Later, after they had performed a detailed survey of the tunnels, the glue could be easily dissolved with a tuned ultrasonic pulse leaving the ancient surface underneath untouched and unscarred by a more permanent adhesive. Toreth depressed the activation switch and a green light began slowly blinking. A readout on Archers wrist screen confirmed the parrot was working correctly.
“Let’s keep going.”
The group continued down the tunnel, which continued to spiral and twist in seemingly random directions. After another two hundred metres and two more parrots, the team reached a sort of bizarre intersection or junction. The spherical chamber was over fifty metres in diameter and had seven more evenly distributed tunnel entrances, all the same diameter but coming in at different angles: some above, some below and one veering off horizontally. Archer craned her head back to look up at the three tunnels coming from above, high out of reach and too steep to walk or climb up at any rate.
“Could they be some sort of ventilation system?” she mused.
“The size is far larger than necessary for a ventilation network,” Cortan replied.
“Perhaps there was a fire or other calamity which destroyed the stairs and access ladders?” Toreth ventured.
Before Archer could reply, L’Tep who had wandered closer to the tunnel entrance on the opposite side called out on the radio link.
“I think I found our attacking force.”
Lying either side of the entrance was what remained of two bodies, sprawled on the floor in grim poses of twisted agony. The bodies had little organic matter remaining on them, but the hard vacuum had preserved the equipment which consisted of a fully enclosed face mask, remnants of body armour and a cylindrical metallic tank on their backs. One skeletal arm was reaching towards what was clearly the remains of a weapon, although its exact nature and workings were not clear.
“Remarkably preserved,” muttered Toreth.
Archer knelt down for a closer look, taking care not to touch the remains. The shape of the helmet suggested a long, almost snout-like mouth. Archer peered through the eye-slits, but could nothing more than the vacant eye sockets. The legs ended in large flat feet, with a long wickedly sharp claw in place of the last toe. The creature looked vaguely familiar to Archer, although she could not place it.
“Fascinating. They match no record of any known sentient species in our solar system,” observed Cortan.
“I wonder what planet they came from?” asked Toreth.
“Or where they are now?” replied Archer, more rhetorically than a true question. The empty sockets of the long-dead attacker stared back at her, but gave no answer.
“L’Tep and Toreth. Set up another parrot and then head back to the surface and bring our equipment rover down here. I would love to see what the DNA re-sequencer says about our new friends. Cortan and I will continue the sweep.”
Archers eyes swept back around the junction. Excluding the tunnel they had just arrived from, only two others were accessible without climbing equipment. One spiralled further down, and the other, marked by the two bodies, veered off horizontally. With Cortan following, Archer took the descending tunnel.
The descent was silent, punctuated only by the occasional radio chatter between the L’Tep and Toreth above. Occasionally Archer thought she could feel a subtle vibration in the floor, but whenever she stopped it disappeared. After another hundred metres they reached another junction, identical to the last with eight tunnels, branching away in all directions, often with no allowance for access by foot. Archer was quietly thankful that there were no skeletal remains here. From this junction, only one tunnel was accessible. With a quiet nod to Cortan they setup another parrot before continuing into the darkness. After several hundred metres the tunnel straightened and opened into a large, circular cavern, the ceiling lost far beyond the range of their headlamps. Around the outside wall ran hundreds or perhaps thousands of circular openings. They were two metres in diameter and evenly spaced. Behind each opening was a murky green-grey gloom, their headlamps casting dancing shadows. Cortan moved closer and placed a hand against the opening. Cortan flicked his radio selector to short-range.
“Some sort of glass; however I can get no sensor readings through it.”
They continued to walk the perimeter. On the far side, there were three more bodies like those found at the first junction. These were arranged around one of the openings in yet more grotesque poses of death. Again, Archer felt they were strangely familiar but could not place the distant memory. Cortan tried scanning the murky depths behind this opening.
“The scanner shows nothing just as before.”
Archer gingerly stepped over one of the skeletons and moved closer to the circular glass door. Archer placed her face-plate against the glass opening. Glare from the headlamp blinded her, so she turned it and used her handheld torch to provide ambient light with minimal glare. She had the sense of something large just visible at the edge of her torchlight, but it quickly passed and she was left with nothing but a vague feeling of an immense void beyond.
Archer and Cortan retraced their steps back to the first junction to find Toreth and L’Tep back with the equipment rover and beginning detailed scans on the bodies. Archer gave a quick update on what they found below, before continuing with Cortan into the other tunnel. As before they placed the parrots at regular intervals and came across the same spherical junctions every two to three hundred metres. All featured the same number of tunnels radiating out. In all cases, most of these dark passages were high and inaccessible. The few they could access on foot were often blocked by an ancient collapse. Some twisted back on themselves bringing Archer and Cortan back to a previously visited spherical junction from a tunnel high above. The only way to tell they had doubled back, the steady blinking of a parrot far below. By process of elimination and with the parrot network providing a real-time map update on their wrist terminals, they systematically explored every accessible passage. After several hours of this, Cortan, consulting the wrist terminal with their parrot map overlaid against external scans of the ‘asteroid’, made an announcement.
“I believe this next chamber will be the last.”
Archer depressed the long-range radio link button.
“Toreth, do you copy?”
“Toreth here.” There was faint static with the occasional pop.
“We have nearly completed the initial recon. How is your analysis proceeding?”
“There must be something wrong with the machine as it appears to be giving contaminated results. So I ran the test again with restricted parameters, and the results are…ah…fascinating.”
“What do you mean?”
“It might be best if you come down here to see for yourself.”
“OK, we have one last chamber to sweep and then we will head back down.”
Cortan and Archer entered the last spherical chamber. It was the same size as the others, and featured the same eight radiating tunnels, but was clearly different. Distributed around the internal surface of the sphere, in between each tunnel were what could only be described as control consoles and long-dead view screens. In addition, eight plinths extended from the walls, almost meeting each other at the centre. Archer could imagine a circular object, or perhaps a large creature, sitting at the centre of those plinths, in control of the entire facility. Surrounding the plinths, three more bodies like the others, all reaching for something or someone long gone. Cortan pointed to a spot high up on the opposite wall. Archer saw a partially destroyed console and view screen. Below it, on the floor, an untidy pile of shattered bones and equipment from one of the invaders. Archer walked closer. A few metres from the shattered remains, a single curved claw, separated from the foot in what must have being a painful experience for the former owner. Assuming of course the owner was alive by that stage. Archer bent down and picked up the claw, rotating it slowly in front of her face-plate. Half remembered images from her childhood came to her.
“Cortan, I am sure I have seen these before!”
Before she could continue, Cortan slowly backed away from a console.
“I am detecting a faint power signature from this console.”
Standing orders were clear: at any detection of latent energy all personnel must be cleared from the site to await a fully equipped site survey team with automated probes and drones. Locating and disabling ancient energy sources was a job for robots. As if to emphasise this, a low rumbling vibration began to be felt through their boots. Archer quickly pocketed the claw.
“Can you feel that, Cortan?”
“Yes, and according to the parrot seismic readings it is originating from below the stasis chamber.”
“OK, lets fall back to the cutter. We have done what we can for now.”
Archer depressed long range comm switch to inform Toreth and L’Tep, but before she could speak her ears were instantly blasted with a burst of static, overlaid with a loud rushing noise. Archer thought to hear a faint gurgled scream before the transmission cut off. The heavy clunk and thud of what could only be heavy doors rolling open could be felt through their boots.
Cortan looked up from the wrist terminal. “I am losing contact with the parrots.”
Archer opened her own terminal and looked on in horror at the three-dimensional map of their parrot network. Starting from the stasis chamber at the bottom, they were switching off. Something was rising up and destroying, or at least blocking communication with their sensor network. With a quick glance at each other, Cortan and Archer started running back, retracing their steps towards the first chamber and their only exit from this ancient ruin. No words were necessary; it was clear they would not make it back in time. Whatever was destroying or blocking the parrots would reach the exit before they did. Archer only hoped that those were not screams she had heard and that Toreth and L’Tep were now safely on the surface. They made it as far as the next junction when the low rumbling they could feel in their feet took on a new, more urgent tone, building up and up into a rushing turmoil. Drops of water began to collect on Archer’s visor. They stopped running and looked up to see a rivulet of water streaming from the uppermost tunnel. The roiling turmoil reached an even high crescendo before a foaming wall of water spewed out of the tunnel, cascading into the centre of the junction. The water surged around their knees, foaming and flowing into the other tunnels. Archer and Cortan pushed on, their footing unsure in the torrent. They made it only a few metres before they were met by a rising tide of water coming the other direction. They were trapped, the water quickly rising to their waist and then chest.
“It seems we will be going for a swim,” Cortan noted with an uncharacteristic deadpan wit.
“Our suits should be OK, at least for a while, but this water will block our high frequency comm channels. I hope the parrots are still present, otherwise it could be easy to get disorientated and lost.”
Cortan nodded and pulled a cable from the back of the suit, reeling out several metres of line before connecting it to a corresponding socket on Archer’s suit. They pushed against the torrent and waded forward. After just a few more metres, the water had risen to their helmets. Archer took one last look at Cortan, noting the heavy beads of perspiration running down the bark-like skin before they sank beneath the frothy turbulent surface.
At first they could see nothing but a swirling mass of bubbles. After a few minutes the strong current settled; perhaps the internal structure was now completely full of water. The circular walls of the tunnel became visible as the water cleared and Archer could now see a faint green glow behind the translucent surface of the tunnel walls. She tapped on Cortan’s visor and signalled to switch off their suit lamps. Their eyes adjusted to the dim light which was now bright enough to see down the murky tunnel, the glowing walls pulsing slowing in time against some indiscernible rhythm. They pushed on, trying to ignore the significance of the rumbling and thumping they could now hear occurring in distant corners of the facility. After five minutes of awkward swimming-walking action they reached the next junction. One the far side, a red lighted flashed. Archer glanced at Cortan who nodded back. At least one parrot had survived; if the rest were intact they could navigate back to the surface. Archer started to moved forward but felt a gentle tug. She turned around to see a frantic expression on Cortan’s face as a hand gestured towards the tunnel marked by their parrot. Archer turned around but could see nothing past the blinking parrot. What did Cortan mean? Then she realised, she could see nothing beyond the parrot. The glowing walls continued a few metres before becoming wreathed in darkness, an oily swirl blocking sight of anything deeper. Cortan pointed back towards the parrot. Extending one metre into the clear water, a thick shiny arm covered in suckers gently twisted its paddle appendage and prodded the parrot. After several unsuccessful attempts to dislodge it from the wall, the horrific tentacle receded into the oily swirl. Before Archer could catch her breath, there was a horrific screech and an enormous coiled mass, almost as large as the tunnel, emerged from the cloud and enveloped the parrot. Sickening crunching noises could be heard as it twisted and writhed. Archer felt another tug on the line; Cortan was signalling frantically at the wrist terminal and pointing towards a nearby tunnel above them. Archer nodded and they swam into the opening, leaving the horrific creature free to pursue its own designs.
This passage had the same sickly green glow and they half-stumbled, half-swam through the twisting turns without the need for torches. Archer was glad, not wanting to risk attracting any unnecessary attention. Every few minutes, more ominous thumping could be heard from deep in the structure. Was that another creature emerging from ancient stasis? What millennia-old plans and strictures did they want to enact? Something terrible enough that a group of strangely familiar beings lost their lives attempting to stop them. Such thoughts were not pleasant and Archer decided to focus on the task at hand: namely, navigating out of this twisting maze before they blundered into another creature. Before long they reached the next junction, eight passages spiralling away into a green haze. Archer huddled over as Cortan consulted the wrist terminal. This was an unknown junction with no marker to guide them. The twisting, spiralling nature of the three-dimensional map made it difficult, but after close examination it seemed they were approximately three hundred metres in a straight line from the first junction that led back to the surface. Archer pointed at the passage which vaguely went off in the appropriate direction. Cortan nodded and they swam onwards. They repeated this for several more junctions, each time cautiously checking before crossing the open space between tunnels. It was difficult to gauge, but Archer and Cortan agreed they were getting closer to the surface based on the tone of the regular clanking and thumping noises. As they approached the entrance to another junction Archer heard something. It was a faint grinding sound, just at the edge of her hearing like two sharpening stones rubbing against each other. Archer signalled for Cortan to remain back and she unplugged their tether, then carefully edged towards the opening. Archer cautiously peered around the corner so she could get a look into the junction. Several boxes of their equipment were haphazardly scattered across the floor and on the far side at least one skeletal relic had survived the flooding, gently rocking in the subtle current. Archer grinned, finally they had made it to the first junction! However, there was no sign of Toreth or L’Tep. Archer hoped they had made it out. Leaning forward to take in the rest of the junction, Archer’s hopes fell as she saw the source of the grinding noise. Blocking the passage that lead back to the surface floated the creature: an enormous central torso, at least several metres in diameter, surrounded by a multitude of twisting arms lazily floating in the water column. A faint black cloud surrounded it. Archer could make out no eyes, but sensed its focus was back up towards the surface and not the junction. On the wall adjacent, all that remained of their parrot was a dark smudge.
Archer quietly retreated back to Cortan, signalling with emphatic gestures to look very quietly. As Cortan put eyes on their difficult predicament, Archer considered their limited options. They had no weapons; the only items they had were two parrots and whatever survey supplies remained in the equipment cases. As Cortan drifted back down, Archer thought of the strange suits and tanks the dead attackers had worn. It made sense now, the facility must have been flooded when they attacked eons ago. An idea formed. Using the keypad on her wrist terminal she outlined the plan to Cortan, and they both swam back up to cautiously check back on the creature. It was still in the same spot, attention focused on the passage to the surface. Iridescent green lines shimmered from its central torso to the tips of arms. Archer handed a parrot to Cortan, took what she hoped was not a last look and drifted out into the open. Taking great care to avoid kicking the floor or stirring up bubbles, she gently kicked towards one of the equipment cases in the centre. As she swam, one agonisingly slow kick after another, she noted with concern that the creature’s arms were long enough to lance out and grab her without its main body even moving. Mercifully, by choice or ignorance, it let her pass and with a sigh of relief Archer made it to the large case. Kneeling down, she glanced back across the room at Cortan who nodded in acknowledgement. Cortan attached a parrot to the wall, then began slowly to swim towards Archer. She watched with concern as Cortan’s feet scraped the floor, once, then twice. Millions of years of plant-based evolution had created very strong muscles, but lacking in fine motor control. It happened when Cortan reached the half-way point, a boot tip scraping the floor a third time. The great creature straightened, its body billowing and iridescent pulse quickening. Bands of black and red began to flicker across its body as two long arms uncoiled, questing towards Cortan. Cortan saw what was happening and froze, not wanting to lead the creature towards Archer. The thick arms moved past, slowly tracing out circles within a hand-span of Cortan’s helmet. Archer discreetly tapped a command on her wrist terminal and remotely activated the parrot. The creature’s questing arms froze and the red and black bands pulsated even quicker than before. With an indignant screech, the creature jetted towards the parrot enveloping and crushing. Jade green and electric blue bands flashing triumphantly down its arms as it crushed the unwelcome device. Cortan wasted no time and immediately made for the now unguarded passage. Archer began to move for the same passage than paused. Cortan was closer and should make it, but the creature’s enthusiasm for destroying what was left of the parrot was already waning and Archer doubted she could cross the gap in time. Signalling Cortan to keep going, she drifted back to the open equipment case and began searching, rummaging through the case for something that might distract the creature. The creature stiffened at the new disturbance, and ceased its gleeful crushing of the parrot. It uncoiled its arms and began to twist up the wall and along the ceiling, long arms questing into the centre of the room. It stopped on the ceiling directly above Archer and began pulsating in a hypnotic black and white pattern. Captivated, Archer wondered where its eyes were. The hypnotic flashing quickened, but before it could strike Archers radio crackled, one word only just audible over the static.
Her mind her own again, Archer removed the claw from her pocket and grabbed a pressurised canister of marking paint from the equipment case. In one quick, smooth motion she stabbed the canister with the claw, immediately releasing a thick black cloud of paint as the high pressure can vented itself into the surrounding water. She let go of the can and kicked backwards towards the open passage, the expanding cloud of paint covering her retreat. Reaching the tunnel entrance, Archer glanced back to a maelstrom of thick, twisting arms coiling on themselves attempting to locate the source of ‘ink’. She turned and hurried up the tunnel to catch up with Cortan and reach the safety of the surface before the creature realised what had happened.
There was little point in attempting stealth now and they swam through the tunnel as quickly as possible. As they passed the remains of their first parrot, less than one hundred metres from the shuttle, a deep rumbling could be felt beneath them. It began to rise in pitch, the slow green pulsing of the walls increased in tempo. Cortan and Archer found new reserves and and pushed forward, emerging from the water below the shuttle airlock, which was now closed. Archer cycled the airlock, behind her the pulsating green walls had reached a fever pitch and bubbles had began to reach the surface, something was coming. Cortan and Archer climbed through the shuttle, cycling the airlock behind them before clambering back out onto the surface. Even on the surface, a disturbing rumble could be felt through the boots. They started to run for the nearby cutter, still waiting for them at the entrance to the fissure.
“Thanks for your help back there Cortan – I think it nearly had me there.”
“What do you mean?” Cortan replied.
“Calling my name on the radio back there. It snapped me out of the trance long enough to get away.”
Cortans face was puzzled. “I did no such thing. Your orders were clear: get out at the first chance. It must have been L’Tep or Toreth.”
Archer, close enough now to the cutter, saw that the airlock was still open. No one else had come back, L’Tep and Toreth must still be back there. Climbing up the ramp, Archer closed the airlock and removed her helmet.
“We have to go back. We can use portable laser drills from the cutter as weapons.”
Before Cortan could comment on the practicality of her plan, there was a sickening thump and the cutter dropped half a metre. Archer raced up to the cockpit and stared out the window back towards the fissure and the ancient shuttle. It had sunk a metre into the ground and streams of ice were jetting out from the rubble pile around the craft. Another thump shook the cutter and Archer looked on in amazement as an enormous geyser of ice jetted up, a torrent of crystals shooting kilometres up before falling back as snow. Water from the inside the facility was being sucked out, the hard vacuum causing the liquid to boil then change to ice in an instant. The shuttle shifted again, and began to crumple into itself, pulled from the inside by an unknown force. Large cracks ran along the floor of the fissure, splitting towards the cutter. Cortan reached the cockpit and the whole ship was now constantly shaking.
“Strap in, prepare for emergency takeoff.”
Archer bypassed the pre-start sequence and directly engaged the main engine, sending them straight up and out of the fissure. Once clear of the asteroid, Archer directed the autopilot to place them in a orbit, thousands of kilometres above the fissure. Cortan focused the macroscopes and switched on the viewscreen. The shuttle was gone; all that remained was scattered rubble and a small geyser of ice, shooting up like a lonely fountain. After a few minutes it stopped altogether. The shock of the past few hours weighing heavily on their minds, it was Cortan who spoke first.
“Where did you see them before?”
Archer knew Cortan was referring to the skeletal remains and not the tentacled, swimming creatures.
“I don’t know, they just seemed familiar.”
Cortan tapped a nearby console, accessing the cutters computer databanks.
“Toreth managed to upload the DNA sequencing results before the parrot network was disabled. They indicate significant overlap of DNA with lifeforms indigenous to Earth. In particular, birds.”
Images from childhood books and school edu-vids came to Archer. A long curved claw, like the one still in her pocket, tapping on a floor in a half remembered scene from a vintage movie. Raptors.
“Sixty-five million years ago, ancient birds on Earth were massive, flightless and in all probability quite intelligent. We called them dinosaurs and they were wiped out by a large meteorite impact, paving the way for mammals and eventually humans to evolve.”
“Fascinating. It would seem the first advanced civilisation in our solar system came from Earth and was engaged in some sort of battle with another unidentified race.”
Archer thought of the thousands of stasis pods they had seen at the bottom of the facility.
“I think those creatures are interstellar in origin. They came here to colonise a new planet and the Raptors fought back.”
“An interesting hypothesis. Certainly, here in the asteroid belt the creatures would have no problem sending killer asteroids to Earth.”
Archer, still numb at the loss of two friends and feeling a sort of kinship with the ancient Earthlings who had lost everything in a titanic battle against the creatures, rested her hand on the pulse cannon controls. Cortan, noticing this, paused for a moment, then spoke.
“I can divert power from the main reactor. It should be enough to vaporise the entire facility.”
Archer nodded; then, smiling grimly, depressed the trigger.