The Skipper’s orders had been simple:
>TO: LT CMDR MARTIN
>Search last known location of Cmdr Giovanni and report
>Mitigate all risk
>No further losses
I stood at the edge of the gaping pit, the only blot on a three hundred square kilometer canvas of white sand. Along the inside edge of the wide stone cylinder, ancient steps coiled down and out of sight, leaving a shaft in the center down which a person could fall for God knows how long. No further losses. This planet had claimed the lives of a dozen explorers in just the past three weeks: four by malfunctioning exosuits, four by crumbling ruins, two by radiation exposure, and two by ball lightning on a clear day. Now five people were missing. If the Exosolar Corps valued our lives at this point, it would only be thanks to scarcity.
I heard muffled footsteps behind me and turned. It was Lieutenant O’Malley.
She tapped my shoulder, keying the suit’s whisper function. “Basko ran every scan his equipment could do. The underground structure is massive, but well shielded. The whole thing just shows as a fifty-thousand cubic meter blank space.”
I nodded despite knowing she could not see my face through my helmet. “Nothing that the Commander’s team might have missed? This is clearly nothing like the other ruins.”
“No, sir. We’re just as blind as they were.”
I sighed. “I don’t like it.”
“One more thing. Radiation will be at lethal saturation in three hours. If we’re going back to base we need to leave now, or else take shelter in the ruins.”
“Tell Basko to pack up his equipment. We’re going in. I owe that much to the Commander.”
Progress down the stone steps was slow. Whatever beings built these stairs did not believe in safety railings, or at best had no need for them. Either way, the three of us proceeded with caution, using a system of safety lines and pitons. It was somehow encouraging to find the holes in the stone wall where Commander Giovanni’s team had done the same thing.
At last we came to the bottom of the steps. A dim shaft of light from the surface illuminated what appeared to be a colorful mosaic set in the center of the floor. A hole about a meter in diameter had been drilled near one edge of the mosaic. Set in the floor next to the hole was a piton with a safety cable trailing down.
Chief Petty Officer Baskoviski unhooked from the wall and knelt by the hole, shining his flashlight down it. “They cut diagonally with an excavation drill. Goes on for about twenty meters, but it looks like there’s empty space on the other side.”
I unhooked from my safety line and looked around. “It’s the only hole they drilled. Either they got lucky on their first try, or else they got a scan to work down here.”
Baskoviski stood up. “I’ll run a scan, sir. See if I can spot anything.”
O’Malley was examining the mosaic. “Sir, what do you make of this?”
I came up level with O’Malley and looked at the floor. Our headlamps made the vibrant colors dance. “It’s kind of like a kaleidoscope, just a random pattern of shapes and colors.”
“That’s what I thought, too,” she said. “But look longer.”
I stared for a few moments. Slowly, I began to discern something other than a random pattern: a set of symbols, perhaps, but I did not recognize any of them. As I looked at it I was reminded of a distant memory: I was eleven years old, lying on my back as a feral rottweiler attacked me, ripping the flesh off my arm. Presently, my stomach clenched and my blood went cold. I turned away.
O’Malley had been watching me. I noticed she was hugging herself, but I could not see her expression.
“You okay?” I asked. “What was that?”
“I’ll be fine.” Her voice was shaky. “You felt it too?”
“Yes. Fear. Dread. Brought back a bad memory from when I was a kid. What about you?”
“Same thing,” she said. “Except my memory was more recent—the attack on the Demeter. It must be the pattern.”
I turned again to look at the mosaic. I set my teeth as the feeling of dread returned. “Do you recognize the symbols?”
O’Malley stayed facing away from the mosaic. “No. They didn’t look anything like the writing from the other ruins. But then again, I’m no xenolinguist. Maybe Dr. Tillman…” she trailed off.
I gave her shoulder a light tap, both as a comforting gesture and to activate the suit-to-suit comm. “I’m sure she must have been fascinated by this. If we find her okay, maybe she—”
Baskoviski interrupted. “Commander! I’m picking up a weak transponder signal through the hole! It’s Chief Smith.”
O’Malley and I hurried to where Baskoviski had his sensor tripod set up next to the hole.
“Can we get to him?” I asked.
“I think so.” Baskoviski turned his tablet around for me to look. “This is what my scan shows.” He pointed with his stylus. “Here we are. Underneath us is a large corridor that extends for at least three hundred meters. The density of the stone stops my scan about there, but that’s the direction Smith’s signal is coming from.”
“No time to lose, then,” I said. “O’Malley, set a new safety line. The old one might have corroded.”
“Aye, sir!” she pulled out her piton gun and got to work.
Baskoviski tapped my shoulder to speak one-on-one. “Sir, just another odd thing I noticed, and I only noticed because it’s denser than the surrounding stone…” He handed me the tablet and tapped on the screen. “That mosaic is actually the top of a stone plug. It’s sealing off another set of spiral stairs that lead into the corridor.” He tapped the tablet again. “See? It’s even threaded to fit the stairs—like a bolt.”
“Any way to open it?”
“Negative. There’s no opening mechanism, at least none that I could find.” He gestured towards the hole, where O’Malley was uncoiling a safety line. “And it looks like the Commander’s team couldn’t find one either.”
“So it was never meant to be opened?”
Baskoviski shrugged with his hands. “Unless there’s a mechanism undetectable by our current technology, it seems most likely.”
O’Malley called out, “Line’s set, sir!”
I handed the tablet back to Baskoviski. “This is disquieting, Chief, but finding Smith and the rest of the team is our priority. We’ll discuss the implications later.”
We lowered ourselves through the hole and came out in a corridor big enough for three people to walk abreast. We jogged along, headlamps lighting the path in front of us. Finally, Chief Petty Officer Smith came into view, sitting up against the wall, his helmet off and resting in his hands. His face was pale, dried blood crusted around the corners of his mouth and eyes.
Baskoviski knelt next to the body and flipped down the diagnostic screen on the suit’s front. “Power still works. No suit malfunctions posted. Vitals show he’s been dead for three days.” He stood up and began waving his hand scanner down the corridor.
O’Malley pulled the helmet out of Smith’s hands and examined it. “The seal looks fine. He definitely removed it himself. But why? Why would he do that?”
I began tapping my arm out of anxiety. “I don’t know. But I—”
Baskoviski’s scanner beeped. “Sir, I’m picking up four transponders further down the corridor. It’s the rest of the team.”
A faint light appeared as we approached the end of the corridor. Hurrying, we entered into a massive cylindrical chamber. The source of light was a glowing crystal jutting out of the center of the floor. Scattered around the crystal, at varying distances, were four bodies.
“Oh no,” said O’Malley. “The whole team—Dr. Tillman!”
“No helmets,” said Baskoviski.
I held out an arm. “Careful, don’t approach just yet. ”
Baskoviski and O’Malley pulled out their hand scanners. We cautiously circled around the crystal, maintaining distance.
O’Malley had her scanner trained on the wall. “Odd. The sides are porous. There are thousands of holes, each varying in shape and depth.”
Baskoviski was scanning the crystal. “It’s emitting an electromagnetic field and some alpha and beta particles. But nothing threatening right now. We can approach it.”
I took a breath. “Okay. O’Malley, tag the bodies. Basko, check the crystal, but visual only. A deeper scan might trigger—whatever this was.”
O’Malley hurried straight to Dr. Tillman, Baskoviski crept toward the crystal, but something else caught my eye. “Hang on,” I approached the body closest to the crystal. This one still had its helmet on, but with a blood-stained folding pickax lodged in the faceplate. My heart dropped when I read the name tape. “It’s the Commander.”
O’Malley looked up from where she was kneeling by Dr. Tillman’s body. “What the hell is this place?”
My heart was pounding. “That’s it, we’re bugging out. Everyone—”
Music filled the room.
I was thirteen, sitting in the courtroom as the man who murdered my father was let free.
I was twenty-nine, standing by Laura’s hospital bed, holding her hand as she faded away.
I was thirty-five, watching the Earth fall away through the ship’s porthole, knowing I would never return.
I was thirty-eight, alone in an escape pod, waiting for rescue.
All these feelings returned, as powerfully and inexorably as the coming tide. I fell to my knees, blinded by tears and shaking. The music was simultaneously too beautiful and not beautiful enough. I wanted to touch the music, embrace it. I realized my helmet was getting in the way, muffling the sound. If I could just remove it…
Through my tears, I saw light fill the room. I looked up and saw…I don’t know what to call it. A creature? A being? A spirit? It floated above us like a cloud of glowing smoke, but not entirely shapeless. Within this cloud, there were denser, curving tendrils that gave the suggestion of a body, but not one I could recognize. Its tendrils waved gracefully through the air and I felt a wind buffeting me around. I realized the music was coming from the walls. The creature was manipulating the air currents through the myriad holes like a massive, cylindrical pan flute.
“Just for a second…”
“I need to hear…”
I turned. O’Malley and Baskoviski were fumbling with the latches at their necks. I yelled, but like a dream, I could only watch as they pulled off their helmets. For a moment, their faces showed total bliss before letting out rattling gasps and collapsing.
Through the fog of madness, a connection clicked in my mind. I crawled back to Commander Giovanni’s body and pulled the pickax from his helmet. Still half blind, I got to my feet, raised the pickax over my head, and brought it down on the crystal. It shattered and went dark. Instantly, the music changed.
I was twenty-three, dancing with Laura at our wedding. I stared into her eyes, which smiled more deeply than anything.
I was twenty-five, Laura’s voice came over the phone, telling me her cancer was in remission.
I was thirty-two, sitting in a jail cell, a police officer I never knew sharing his Christmas dinner with me.
The creature swooped freely through the chamber and the music swelled to an incredible crescendo. I could not hold out any longer. I pulled off my helmet and let the music touch my bones. My lungs and eyes were burning, but I did not care. The music faded with the light and, smiling, I embraced the darkness.