Lucia just stared up at the man, unsure how to answer the question. “Wh- where is here? Where did I end up?” The man carefully climbed down into the cockpit, and offered her his hand to help her up. Lucia refused it, and got up on her own, easily.
The man stepped back and leaned against the floor of the cockpit, which was now vertical. “Here… is ground level. Under th’ city. You punched right through into Nether. ‘Least that’s what we call it.” He motioned toward the hallway and a woman stepped into the light. She was shorter than either of them, and was wearing a dark ragged shirt and pants. Her tan skin was covered in dirt, with one large scar across the entirety of her face. Her eyes were sunken and she looked as if she hadn’t slept in weeks. Her curly, dark brown hair was short and ragged, as if it had been cut with a dull knife, though a large amount of it covered one eye.
She stopped in the doorway and leaned on it casually. “Hey.” Lucia’s pulse quickened and she felt her cheeks heat up. “So, parkin' trouble?” She smirked. Her voice was low and husky, as if she’d been breathing in copious amounts of dust over years, which for all Lucia knew, she had been.
“Who are you people?” Lucia asked.
The man was smoking something wrapped in weathered paper, which had been lit at one end. “Salvagers, mostly. We take apart whatever we can t’ sell t’ others or use ourselves. Just what we gotta do t’ survive down here.” The man said, blowing out more smoke.
“We just happened to be the neighborhood when you blew through our sky in this rust bucket of yours.” The woman blew a lock of hair away from her face and stepped down into the cockpit. “I’m Lolanene, and you are?”
“Lucia. I take it you weren’t expecting to find a living person in here?”
“Not t’all, not after a crash like that. This thing stayed intact, though.” He banged a fist on the floor behind him. “They don’t make ‘em like this anymore.”
Lolanene looked to the old man “You gonna tell her your name? Or are you gonna wax nostalgic all day?”
“Right, right. Name’s Nolar. Got a full name, but y’ don’t need it. Anyway, mind tellin’ us just what the hell happened? How’d you end up crashin’ like that?”
“Can we get out of here first? This angle is the most comfortable for standing around in.” Lucia asked as she made her way to the door.
Lolanene gently pressed a hand to her chest “Uh uh, not till we know who you are and why you’re here. This ain’t a friendly chat we’re having, upworlder. Ships don’t crash down here. That just don’t happen. So why...” she poked a finger to punctuate her words “did it happen to you?”
Lucia grabbed the woman’s hand tightly and wrenched her arm into an uncomfortable position. “You don’t want to touch me again… I know how to break every bone in that twig you call a body, do not. Touch. Me. Again.” She released Lolanene’s arm and shoved her through the doorway. “We’re talking outside.” She walked past them both and through the hallway into the airlock.
She stopped at the cargo ramp as she saw that everything in the ship had been taken outside and neatly lined up and organized. It was all there, sitting in the dirt next to a massive sled-like vehicle made out of scrap metal. A large, bright white worm-like creature was attached to a harness at the front of the sled. It had no eyes. It seemingly had no legs. Or not, as Lucia looked closer, and realized it had hundreds of legs, almost looking like hair, along the center of its belly, which held it up. “You stole our things?! How dare you?!” Lucia felt anger building in her chest.
“T’ be fair, we did think y’ were dead.” Nolar had walked up behind Lucia. “In my experience, dead people don’t tend t’ care too much if y’ take their shit.”
Lolanene spoke from where she was leaning on the floor, further back in the hallway. “Could still make her that way.”
Lucia turned and drew her dagger “You could fucking try.”
Nolar put his hands up in a placatory gesture “Whoa, whoa let’s calm all jus’ calm down here. No need to get violent. Now Lolanene, this gal here jus’ crashed int’ Nether. Doubt she wanted t’ do that. She ain’t attackin’ us ‘r nothin’.”
“She sure as hell is, Nolar! She just pulled a fucking knife on us!”
“Only after y’ threatened ‘er life.
Lolanene sighed “You’re right… damn it, you’re right. Why are you always right?”
“Experience, Lola, same answer y’ always get.”
Lucia placed her dagger back in it’s sheath “If you’re both quite finished, I can tell you what happened.”
Lolanene slid herself down the floor and sat on the wall. Nolar said nothing and didn’t move. Lucia reached up and touched the pendant still hanging around her neck. “My girlfriend and I were at Loriol Ninina’s compound, up in Mid-District. We were there to steal this'' she indicated at the pendant “back for its former owner, Yildebrund Brocktazrolo. He hired us for the job. And we thought we were ready. But it didn’t go as planned. I found the damned thing, but my girlfriend… Niarith. She was… captured. Not just physically, but mentally, they’ve done something to her mind. Ninia is controlling it somehow. I ran away to try and plan a way of getting her out of there, but I was caught. Though I got away, they had anti-ship weaponry, and I was shot down, and thus, crashed. As for why it was here and not higher up, I don’t know. Down to luck perhaps. But that’s my story. And I need to get out of here and get Niarith back.”
Nolar nodded politely. Lolanene blew her hair out of her face and just stared. For a long moment, no one said anything. The creature pulling the sled made an odd gurgling noise.
“So uh, you crashed here, because your girl’s new boyfriend shot down your ship?” Lolanene said.
Lucia simply stared at her for a few moments, anger rising throughout her entire being. She began breathing more heavily, her hand drifted toward her dagger, but she forced herself to calm down. She simply blew out a long breath, and said “No. She is not in her right mind. She is being conditioned. Brainwashed. And the longer I stand around talking to you two about it the harder it’ll be to get her out. Now kindly get out of my ship and let me be on my way.”
Nolar put up a hand “This ship ain’t goin anywhere unless it’s fixed. Do y’ know how to fix it? Do y’ have the tools y’d need? I’m gonna guess y’ don’t. But me, Lola? We do. And I’m willin’ t’ help ya out. Lola here won’t say so, but she is too. We’ll help y’ get yer stuff back in here once we right the ship. Which we’re gonna need Ol’ Rusty out there for.” He pointed to the worm creature.
Lucia placed a hand on her hip and sighed “Alright then. Let’s get started.”
They made their way outside, and Lucia got her first glimpse at Nether itself. It was a dark expanse of dirt and fungus. It was too dark to see the ceiling, though Lucia knew it was there somewhere. Massive mushrooms extended like trees up from the earth. An ecosystem entirely adapted for complete darkness. It must have been like this for a long time. She looked to where her ship had crashed through, and saw only a pinpoint of light. The hole she had made was so high up and far away it was hardly visible. “How did the ship survive that?” she thought. The only light came from several large floodlights that Nolar and Lolanene had set up. They lit the area where they’d gathered Lucia and Niarith’s belongings, as well as the ship itself. Little beyond that was visible at all, just a seemingly blank expanse of darkness.
“Don’t wander out the light, Lucia! It may look empty out there, but it ain’t!” Nolar called as he made his way over to ‘Ol Rusty’ and disconnected his harness from the sled. He walked around to the front of the thing and grabbed its lead. As he brought it around the mass of items sitting in the dirt, Lucia saw that it had a bright white chitinous exoskeleton, and on the sides of it were more of the disturbing hair-like legs she’d caught a glimpse of before. Lucia watched as Nolar brought the creature around to the side of the Epsilon VI and attached his harness to the hull. He then called out “Lola! Need a light here, he’s gonna have to pull into th’ dark!”
Lolanene carefully began to move one of the large floodlights, Lucia walked over to help her, careful to stay in the light of the other lamps. They got it into position after minutes of careful, slow movement, and placed it on the ground again. Nolar delivered a swift but gentle kick to Ol’ Rusty’s side, and he began slowly skittering forward into the newly lit area. He struggled against the weight of the Epsilon VI for several minutes, and Lucia began to wonder if the thing was capable of moving that much weight. Just as she was about to say something to that effect, the ship shifted, and turned upright. It looked worse for wear, but not as mangled as Lucia had expected after the crash.
As the ship slid neatly into the furrow it had made, it shredded through a cable no one had noticed. The cable was powering the floodlight Lucia and Lolanene had moved. The light was suddenly pulled violently backward, then went dark. It had been lighting all three humans, as well as Ol’ Rusty. Lucia felt someone grab her arm and haul her back toward the light as Nolar called out “Go, damn it! Get into the damn light! Now! I’ll get Rusty!”
Lucia felt Lolanene’s grip of her arm slacken “What?! Forget about him, Nolar!”
Nolar called back “God damn it, girl, get int’ the light! We ain’t got time to argue!”
Lolanene’s grip tightened again as they made it into the lit area again. Lucia heard strange noises, loud whistling chirps and the sound of many thousands upon thousands of skittering legs. Red lights began to appear out of the blackness, like flashlights, only they were in pairs. Lucia followed the path of the light back to the source and saw the awful truth. They were eyes. Many, many pairs of glowing red eyes. She couldn’t see what creatures they were attached to, only momentary glimpses of writhing masses of legs, lit by intense red light.
“Nolar! Get your ass over here, now!” as Lolanene spoke, Lucia glanced at her, and saw a look of utter and complete terror on her face. She stood helplessly at the edge of the light, seemingly trying to will Nolar into existence in front of her with sheer desperation. Lucia watched in the dim red eyelights of the creatures as they found Rusty, and began climbing atop and around him. The creatures covered him in a roiling mass of insectoid legs. Rusty made a strange, very loud gurgling noise, then fell silent. The creatures atop him were long, tube shaped animals, covered entirely in wriggling legs. Their heads tapered to a dull point, with their glowing red eyes situated at the top of that taper. All at once they skittered off of Rusty, who was lying on the ground, silent and unmoving. They lifted their heads and began secreting a foul smelling liquid onto Rusty’s exoskeleton. Where the liquid hit it, the exoskeleton smoked and melted, not entirely, but it was weakened significantly. The creatures then forced their heads into the weakened portions of the exoskeleton and kept them there, more foul smelling smoke curled up from the edges of the many ragged holes.
Lucia looked over at Lolanene, who was staring with her hands over her mouth, tears streaming from her eyes. But she wasn’t looking at Rusty. She was looking slightly behind that spectacle, at the singular creature that had ignored the larger prey in favor of a smaller meal. Nolar. It had done that same to him as the others had done to Rusty. Its face was buried in his chest cavity. Lolanene seemed unable to tear her eyes from Nolar’s corpse. “Lolanene? He’s gone, Lolanene. There’s nothing we can do.” In response to that, Lucia received a swift punch to the face, knocking her to the ground. Lolanene climbed atop her, and stole her pistol from its holster. She immediately began firing at the creatures that had killed Rusty and Nolar. The things made unpleasant squealing whistling noises and scuttled away into the dark.
Lolanene watched the red lights disappear and proceeded to smash Lucia in the face with her own gun. “Why the fuck didn’t you do that before they killed him?! What is wrong with you? You just fucking stood there and watched a man die! And then you had the nerve, the fucking audacity, to tell me there’s nothing we can do! Fuck you!” She dropped the pistol on Lucia’s chest, and stood up. She walked over to the side of the Epsilon VI and sat down, sobbing loudly. Lucia simply laid there, unsure what to do. Unsure how she felt about what had just happened. Her face was a burning mass of pain, and she could taste blood, but pain was the least of her worries at the moment. She had been distracted by the spectacle. She could have acted. Yet she didn’t. Her instincts didn't kick in, because she had been honed for killing, not for protection. She hadn’t saved Nolar, even though she’d had the tools to do so. She simply stood, retrieved her pistol, and entered the ship.
She walked through the airlock, and into the hallway, which had a small crack in its ceiling, scorch marks around the edges. She entered the bedroom, which was now empty of anything but carpet. Lucia sighed, laid down on the soft carpet, and thought. I didn’t save him. Why didn’t I think? Why did I get so caught up in watching what was happening? Now I’ll never get this ship repaired, Niarith is gone, and a man is dead. I’ve failed. I’ve failed Nolar, failed Niarith, failed Lolanene, failed myself. As she lay there, berating herself over and over, one singular thought entered her mind, one word, one name. “Mirideth.” She sat up, sudden realization overtaking her. Mirideth… she’s inside Niarith. The nanites in my brain… it might kill me to try, but what else have I got to lose? I can use my nanites to contact Mirideth! She can help! I’m certain she doesn’t want to be enslaved to Ninia forever. With that thought, hope arose in Lucia, and she set to clearing her mind of anything but the idea of contacting Mirideth through her nanites.