13 YEARS AGO
It was a new beginning, Sam Curtis thought as he stepped off the ship with his family. This was a new city in a new colony on a new planet, tucked away in a little corner of the Accord. It was organized based on the old principles of communism, "To each according to their need, from each according to their ability." A true commune. He'd asked around quietly, speaking to friends and friends of friends and it all seemed to be legit. There was no way that he was taking his wife and children anywhere in the Accord unless it was a step up. But to be honest, almost anything was a step up.
Oddly enough, hydroponics engineers weren't really held in high regard in his little slice of the Accord. Which was interesting, considering the fact that hydroponics was a major food source on Rigel 6, especially in The Nick. He worked long hours to make ends meet, him and his wife often working alternate shifts. Him in the hydroponics lab, her in the school where she was a teacher. They often only saw each other for a few minutes every day during the week, but that was ok. "We make sacrifices so that the kids can have a better life," they both said. "We bear it so they don't have to."
All that had changed when someone in Sarah's school had passed her a handwritten flier for a new colony on a planet way off the beaten path. One that was supposed to be run fairly, with the latest tech. A colony that was all that the Accord was supposed to be, but never was. Apparently some mining tycoon had bought the small planet, built a grand mansion, and then his stock had plummeted. He'd been forced to foreclose, and the colony had somehow gotten it. He didn't ask questions. Logging onto a private email address that was routed through nine separate servers before making its way to its target, Sam and Sarah held small hope that they'd get a response, or that this was even a legitimate colony. Imagine their surprise when they received an answer and three days later set up a video call. It had looked promising, and so they agreed to take a chance.
And it looked like that chance paid out. Big time. The air was clear, clearer than anything they'd experienced. They could see clouds, actual clouds in the sky, not smog. From orbit, they'd been able to see oceans and forests as well. They may as well have landed in Paradise. And now…now they looked around as someone yelled Sam's name. "Sam!! Sam Curtis!!!!", as another man ran up, smiling widely. "Yes, that's me," he said as he shook the others hand.
"Ben Olderfarber, pleased to meet you!! I'm the head of Hydroponics here, figured I'd meet you and show you around," the shorter man said. "We messaged each other a few times before. Welcome to Freedoms Blessing."
"Oh yes, I remember. This is my wife Sarah," and watched as they both shook hands. "And my kids are…. ,'' and he craned his head, looking around. "Yup. Sitting and watching the shuttles by the window there."
"Well, no time like the present. I've arranged for your luggage to be brought directly to your house. So…," and Ben smiled, a twinkle in his eye. "Want a little tour of Paradise?"
The "little" tour had lasted at least three hours, especially once the kids had begun clamoring for food. Ben took them to a noodle place where the youngest proceeded to get sauce everywhere, and everyone marveled at the food. "All home grown stuff. Whatever we can't grow in the lab or Hydroponics, we grow the old fashioned way. In the dirt. Hey kids… wanna meet a real farmer??"
They'd gone bonkers at the chance to meet a real farmer, with real animals, and by the time they were done, both kids were sleeping in the back of the hovercar. "Mighty fine tour," Sam said, "and thanks for tuckering the kids out."
"Oh, no problem. Me and the Miss had three of our own, so I know this rodeo pretty well. They might be a bit older now, but it's like falling off a horse. You never forget how, you know? And you're gonna love the school system here, Sarah," Ben answered. He'd even helped them transfer the kids over, smiling at them when they'd tried to say it was too much. "Hush. I've got no granbabies yet, and this is giving me life. Wait until they hear about the bunker complex under the City Hall. That magnate was terrified of nuclear war or hostile forces or aliens on his precious planet, so he built a huge underground complex. Thing goes down over five hundred feet, and has miles of tunnels. Good thing It's blocked off, or we'd lose kids in there." He wished them all a goodnight once the kids were sleeping on their beds, and Sam followed him out.
“I can’t thank you enough for what you’ve done for us,” Sam said, taking a deep breath of the cleanest air that he’d ever smelled. “But..umm..Question. What's the safety like? You hear stories, pirates and raiders. Is there..I probably should have asked before, but is there a defense force, or fleet, or whatever?”
Ben smiled. “Well, we’re protected by anonymity. We’re in the middle of nowhere, we’re small enough that most corporations have no idea that we exist, and this planet was very carefully chosen for it’s lack of anything that anyone might want. Nobody needs timber anymore, same thing with fish and water. AND we’re off the beaten path enough. A defense force would encourage people to come looking for us, especially sales of weapons and stuff.” He smiled. “Trust me.”
“We’re as safe as safe can be.”
Januasai stood before a pile of sleeping Feralists, looking at her tracker. The building around her was a disaster, paint and other substances splattered on the walls. And she was about to have real fun, because something was coming at her. Grinning, she bounced on her vines, a dart ready to throw. She hoped it was one of those Terrans in the power armor she'd read about. Something that was a challenge. But nobody appeared, there were no sounds other than the sleeping terrans. She looked up and around, confused. The tracker clearly showed something moving, but now it was past her, and then she changed the display. Letting the machine triangulate, she frowned, tried recalibrating it, and then sighed.
"Hey, Baeira? This is Januasai Etheri. I need a favor."
"Hello, Januasai", a new voice answered. "What's going on?"
"I have motion on my tracker coming at me. And unless my tracker is wrong, the contact is also about one hundred meters below me. Any chance you can do a quick geological survey and tell me what you see?" she asked.
"Sure thing, just give me a moment to do a quick scan and we can see what we can see." A few moments later, they came back. "Januasai!!! You're never going to believe this!!"
"There's a horse stalking me?," Januasai replied and whoever was on the other end laughed.
"Horses?!?! Come on now, aren't you a bit old to be believing in Terran tales? Those didn't live underground, they nested in magma flows. No…You're standing on top of an underground complex that, as far as I can see, borders an underground lake and extends in more directions. It's…wow…there are miles of tunnels, and it extends down and it—," the voice said.
"Yes, that's really nice. But HOW do I get in there from my location??" she asked impatiently.
"Oh. Ummm…I don't think you can. It looks like there's only a few entrances that come close to the surface, and one in a building that…oh. Never mind, that one doesn't look intact."
Januasai looked up at the flower that was the Baiera, and sighed. "If there's some sophont down there, then they clearly need to be rescued. So…where's the closest entrance?" Right then the transport team came, and began to secure the sleeping ferals, each one going into their own little cocoon of webbing. Like an upright hammock, it would keep them safe and asleep.
"Well….about four miles northwest of where you are. Based on my survey, it looks like some kind of cave system that ends in a door."
Januasai nodded, and began to run. Many species like to think they could run, whether they be bipedal, quadrupedal, tentacled, or any other form of locomotion. But none of them held a candle to what happened when an Affini ran. Giant bounding footsteps somehow left no trace, brush and branches seemed to sway aside as Januasai ran, not blocking her way. The terrain changed from post-apocalyptic pirate chic to forests, animals and birds falling silent as she moved through their space.
And yet for all that, she broke no branches, moving as smoothly as the wind while leaving no trace of her passing upon the world. It took time, but finally the Affini on the other end of her communicator spoke again. "There should be a cave system on your left side. Go in, and take the left fork."
She walked in, eyes adjusting as her body began to glow slightly on its own. Taking the fork, she sighed and reversed when the other Affini said, "No!! Your left-er left!" Apparently it was a triple fork, the leftmost passage little more than a seam in the rock. Thankfully, she was able to get her core through with little effort. She followed the directions, moving downwards as she observed that the rock around her was worked. Disguised as it was to look natural, she was able to notice the marks of tools, and some non-natural angles. She HAD, after all, spent a few months exploring a cave system, and very rarely did rock make perfectly hewn ninety degree angles. Bats flew overhead, squeaking, hunting insects while lizards crawled on the walls.
She walked for what felt like forever to the impatient Affini, and was finally rewarded. A massive circular metal door with teeth like a gear stood in the face of the rock, an almost laughably concealed touchpad next to it. Cracking it open, Januasai connected her tablet to the processor. Some Terrans liked to think that their passwords were smart for having symbols, other languages, or even changing multi-phasic cryptograms. Yet to a race that had Domesticated thousands of species, these passwords were nothing but the most insignificant irritants.
Less than five seconds after she connected the tablet, there was a beep and a squealing sound. The door rotated counterclockwise, moved forward a foot, turned clockwise, moved forward two feet, then rotated counterclockwise again. Something else began to move behind the door, and Januasai saw that there was a cunningly hidden opening in the side of the solid metal cylinder. More chunks came, and then the door began to rotate in reverse, sliding back in.
Januasai didn't even have to think about it. She let her vines go, losing cohesion as she flew through the opening. Watching the cylinder rotate around her, she moved forward, noting how the opening stayed stable even as the cylinder turned. She burst out from the passageway, and listened as the echoes of metal screeching over rusted metal went on and on. Glowing brighter, she looked around, inspecting her new surroundings. Clouds of squeaking animals that looked like bats but with an extra set of wings wheeled overhead, disturbed from their rest, and a multitude of cave insects flew away from the bats.
In the distance, something that looked like a rat but larger and with five legs squeaked, and dashed away, having been granted a reprieve by the sound that had caught the attention of a far larger predator. A head turned up, sniffing as a sound, never before heard, intruded upon the quiet. With no sound, a living piece of darkness began to move.
Januasai stood on a platform of some kind, an obvious control panel at one end that looked like it had seen better days. She was no electrical technician, but even she could tell that it was trashed. Walking over to the edge, she concentrated, and the tip of a vine began to glow bright, and then brighter. Whipping the edge back and then forward with an audible snap, a blob of phosphorescent ichor flew from the tip and dropped. Januasai watched as it fell, counting the seconds, estimating the depth. ‘Great. About 80 meters. Hmmm’, and then she looked over and saw a ladder. ‘Probably for maintenance’, she thought. Walking over, she let her form dissolve slightly, and she jumped over the railing, a few vines stabbing downwards and wrapping around a strut.
At the height of her jump, she grinned, enjoying the feel of the wind in her vines as she dropped and began to swing. Other vines flew out as she dropped, latching onto lower rungs as the top set of vines let go and retreated into her body. She flew forward and down until the vines arrested her movement, pulling her down in an arc. As she swung down, more vines reached out and pulled her lower. In this way she made her way to the bottom of the shaft, exhilarated. She landed on the ground, not far from the glowing ichor. It would stay glowing for a few hours, before it dissolved.
“Baiera? Can you still hear me?”
“Jan…an ba…bre…ak…Can y…Whe….H…me?” the radio operator on the other side said, their voice fading in and out in crackles of static..
“Well, isn’t that just great,” she groused, and then put the comms device away. Taking a deep breath, she began to walk down the only tunnel that she could see. Without her natural bioluminescence, her surroundings were in complete darkness. But wait…they weren’t. A faint glow up ahead was some naturally bioluminescent lichen, making her smile. Even here, life found a way. Once her eyes adjusted, she began to walk forward with a bit more confidence, dimming her own glow. She cursed herself for not including a flashlight with her, other than the one on her tablet, but figured that she didn’t want to broadcast her position. Not until she knew who and what she was stalking. So she only had one option.
Beginning to glow gently, just enough for her to see, she walked down the tunnel. She found open rooms on either side, each filled with what looked like slowly rusting building equipment. Headlamps hung on hooks, but she wasn’t able to see any hardhats or any of the other types of equipment that Terrans needed to protect themselves. The types of equipment that many in the Accord didn't get, because life was valued cheaply, which upset her greatly. She’d read the reports from Xenia, compiled by a Terran named Gale Rossings. The horrific abuse made her cry, which was why she hunted these Ferals with as much gusto as she did. She imagined that each one getting domesticated was making the universe better. Thanks to her actions, even if each was infinitesimally in the scheme of things, it was still better.
The tunnel continued straight ahead for what felt like at least a mile, doorways on either side clearly storerooms of some kind. What they’d been meant to hold had moldered and decayed over time, the rustling of some kind of creature's evidence that their contents hadn’t gone to waste. She kept walking, hugging the side of the tunnel, just in case she was dealing with a Feralist with advanced weaponry, or night vision equipment. The ambient temperature was comfortable, slightly chilly without being cold, certainly enjoyable. Shame that it was like this, she’d have loved to explore this a bit more with the right equipment. Dousing her light each time she passed a patch of lichen, she soon came to a junction, and that was when she realized the first of her problems.
She had no idea where she was going.