The Gate was little more than a stacked column of crumbling, lichen-eaten rocks, made smooth and undulus by eons of rain and the hissing tide that foamed along the grey sandy beach some dozen yards behind the primordial structure. It stood some two and a half meters tall and one wide, stubbornly dug into the landscape like a forgotten relic. The block of milky quartz at the apex of the leaning, haphazard arch had the rinsed remnants of scrawling runework, faded and incomprehensible. A group of birds, black as midnight, with three pairs of eyes scattered across harsh and angular faces, quacked ignobly from the top of the Gate as both suns began to peek over the horizon, stretching along the beach in twin rays of golden amber.
In a roar that boomed along the tide-rocks of the empty beach like thunder, the Gate exploded into life. Blue flame, cold as ice, whirled furiously between the stacked columns where mere seconds ago there had been only the sea and sky. The birds leapt gracelessly into flight, screeching in anger and surprise, wheeling higher and higher in the sky.
A man shot through the ice-fire, limbs akimbo, spinning like a top. The pack he clutched in one hand twisted around his writhing legs, tripping him as effectively as a noose, and he skidded along the sand, rolling to an ungainly halt on the beach where he lay still, groaning.
A moment later a second, smaller body burst through the blue flame, bouncing against the sand with muffled grunts of pain like a stone skipped across a still lake. A large satchel spun around the figure like a counter-weight, spinning him like a top. After three or four bounces, the small body lurched to an sudden, screeching arrest.
As suddenly as it had exploded into life, the flame disappeared from the eye of the Gate, leaving the beach silent except for the hiss of the tide and the quack of the midnight-birds.
The boy, Mallory, sat up first, spitting sand out of his mouth, and brushing it out of his eyes. He shook his head,dislodging showers of the cold stuff from his black curls.
They made it.
The man groaned hoarsely face-first into the sand.
Another, slightly less raspy, groan. Satisfied, the boy struggled to his feet, brushing sand from his tattered trousers and looked around at the new planet, awestruck.
The grey beach stretched along the coastline endlessly in either direction, studded with huge, grey boulders covered in some kind of fuzzy green plant. Behind the Gate (Mallory couldn’t even look at it without a shudder slipping through his spine; Slipspace was the worst way to travel) the sea crashed along the surf in filmy white rollers, hissing and spraying. Patrols of black birds gathered on the larger of the big rocks, quacking at him curiously.
Ahead of the Gate the horizon was monopolized by a range of huge, jagged mountains that clawed their way into the blue sky. Mallory had never even seen mountains before. His mouth dropped in wonder. They were just like the pictures. The beach ended abruptly in a line of gnarled, twisted trees surrounded by coronas of shimmering ivory leaves that fluttered in the early morning breeze off the ocean. Unseen birds called to each other from the contorted branches. Stubby grass rose in thick bunches between thick tree-roots that rose from the soil in powerful, knotted arcs.
The boy reached into his pocket and carefully removed a small, black notebook. He rubbed a gentle hand along the crisp cover before flipping it to the first page. Written in painstakingly even letters at the very top (he had worked really really hard on them, it had taken him nearly and hour. He hadn’t learned his letters before his parents gave him to Master Carlisle) it said:
The rest of the page was empty.
Not for long. The boy though triumphantly. He was with a real adventurer now. He’d probably need another notebook to log all the new places he was going to see.
He fished in his pocket for a stub of charcoal. “Master Carlisle?”
Behind him Carlisle was struggling to his feet, cursing under his breath and distangling his legs from the satchel. His rawboned hands fumbled for something around his neck, patting his shirt in relief.
“What’s the name of this planet?”
Carlisle looked around blearily, rubbing a hand against the perpetual three-day stubble that coated his sallow cheeks. His blonde hair hung around his lean jawline in heavy ropes, weighed by water and sand. The glow from the twin suns made the deep, black shadows beneath his eyes almost purple.
“Well, if I did the math right and we got the right Gate, this is Ares-4.”
The boy looked back at the shabby, leaning structure along the beach with a narrowed eye.
“That felt terrible. Like I was being torn apart.”
“Slipspace usually does that. I’d say you get used to it, but I’d be lying.” Carlisle pulled a laser-pistol from the holster on his belt. As his fingertips brushed the black iron, the batteries whined to life and a hard-light trigger and holographic sight materialized, glowing red. The tall man checked the sight through squinted, puffy eyes. The belt’s battery holders were half-full of the reclaimed batteries Carlisle had sent Mallory to buy some sol-cycles before.
Mallory clutched the piece of charcoal determinedly in his little hand, tongue sticking out in concentration as he began writing.
“A…R…hey how do you spell Ares?”
“A-r-e-s.” Carlisle said impatiently. He hefted the canvas satchel over one narrow shoulder, squinting as he looked at the mountains high above them.
“Pick up that bag, we’ve got places to be.”
Mallory finished his letters and walked over to the upturned bag in the sand, grunting with effort as he slung it along his back, bending slightly against the weight.
“Where we going?” He asked, fingers drumming against one leg in anxious excitement.
He couldn’t believe his fortune. Most kids from his neighborhood, when their parents couldn’t afford to feed them anymore, were signed to petty businessmen and tasked with jetting around the city carrying dispatches, getting their Masters oak-tea.
Carlisle walked towards the trees, his heavy boots leaving deep craters in the gritted sand. The boy followed. His Master might not talk too much, and he might be curt and mean at times, but at least he went places.
Master Carlisle had told Mallory that he’d been to at least twenty planets when he had been in the Navy, one night as they swung from their hammocks in Carlisle’s small room. The movement of the meteor that Zema-Bravo was built on made the woven nets sway gently as it hurtled around the planet Asan. Mallory had eagerly asked what the navy was like; he’d read about the mighty Outer Rim fleet, of course. The first armada organized by the joint continents of Earth Mark Two to colonize and protect the Outer Rims. Carlisle had stared into the sol-lamp that hung from the ceiling, flickering light reflecting in his hazel eyes.
“Best years of my life, kid.” He had said. He sounded sad. Mal had asked more questions, but Carlisle pulled out a bottle of blue liquid and ignored him. That night, the boy had dreamed about huge cruisers exploring the depths of space.
The warm glow from the suns quickly turned hot as the two walked through the twisted forest. Mallory wiped beads of sweat from his hairline and adjusted the heavy pack, quick-stepping to keep up with the rolling, shambling gait of his master. They headed inland, directly towards the mountains, weaving a route between the gnarled tree roots. Small birds, dyed brilliant colors, fluttered on stunted wings from branch to branch overhead, cooing softly to each other as they followed the strangers through the wood. Deeper in the stunted forest, where the light hadn’t touched the pooled shadows, a beast stirred as it’s forked tongue tasted hot meat borne on the wind. Two eyes, luminous orange, glinting with hunger and malice, opened in the darkness.
They walked for hours and hours, until the muscles in Mal’s legs twitched and bunched with each step, quivering with sharp effort. The slope, rolling and gentle where the woods met the beach, soon turned steep and rocky. The twisted ivory trees gave way to tall, burly trees with straight stout limbs covered in sharp needles, emerald green at the base and a deep lavender near the tip. A two-toned tree. Mallory shook his head as he walked past a particularly vibrant specimen, panting with the effort of keeping up with his Master. Crazy.
It was hot. Sweat soaked Mallory’s plain sim-silk shirt to to his back, and his shoulders ached something fierce where the backpack’s weight had settled. Carlisle had tied a faded and torn bandana around his dirty hair, and walked silently ahead. His canvas shirt was plastered to his back as well, and Mallory could see sweat glistening on the man’s skin beneath the ragged holes scattered through the ragged fabric. His Master wasn’t one for taking care of his clothes too much.
As the suns began to finally sink towards the ocean’s edge far below them, they emerged into a rough clearing. Carlisle ambled to a fallen long and fell to a half sit, half crouch. His legs, too, were shaking, and his face was red and sweaty.
“We’ll camp here.”
Mal nodded and collapsed where he stood, gasping like a bellows. Even in the shade cast by the towering trees, heat radiated from the twin suns like a ceaseless wave. He leaned against a tree trunk, elbows resting on his knees, head bent. His heart, galloping in his breast, seemed to beat through him, reverberating all the way out through his fingers and toes.
“Water.” Carlisle held out a hand, eyes closed. Mallory scrambled over to the bag and unclipped one of two plastic cylinders, walking over to his Master and placing it in his outstretched palm. Carlisle unscrewed the lid and took a few hearty gulps, wiping the droplets from his stubble with the back of a wrist. He threw the bottle back to the boy without looking at him.
The water was cool and refreshing. It tasted slightly of ozone, the dead, flat taste of the scrubbers from Zema-Bravo’s water reclamation tanks. Mallory tried not to think of where the water was reclaimed from. The meteor didn’t have any rain.
They had stopped on a flat shelf in the ridge that rose to meet the feet of the mountains. A hot summer’s afternoon wind rippled through the tops of the trees around them in a whispering moan. Mal could see the ridge roll and flatten into the beach below. The sea was golden in the setting sunlight.
“Are we going up to the mountains?” Mallory clipped the water bottle back onto the backpack.
Carlisle pulled a shiny metal flask from inside his satchel, unscrewing it and taking a swig. Whatever it was must not have tasted very good, because he gritted his teeth and exhaled sharply after he swallowed.
“The base of them. There’s a cave there.”
“Like a treasure cave?” One of Mallory’s favorite books during his brief time at school had been the Treasure Island, an ancient text from Earth Mark One, in which a band of mutinous (Mal liked that word; it sounded somehow rebellious and organic, like it would grow the more you said it) pirates found a treasure cache in someplace called The Caribbean. To the boy’s mind, any decent treasure worth it’s weight in credits was buried in a cave somewhere.
Carlisle took another, deeper swig from his flask, fixing Mal with an odd look. He nodded, slowly.
“Yeah. Yeah, something like that.”
“What’s in the cave?”
Carlisle took another drink, the veins in his neck standing out as he swallowed grimly.
“Again, if I’ve done the math right and this is in fact Ares-4, a working warp drive.”
“A what?” Mallory wrinkled his nose in confusion.
“A warp drive.” Carlisle stretched his legs, grimacing. “Lost One tech. It bends space, allows a large ship to warp huge distances in seconds.”
“A large ship, like a starship?”
“Aye. Even with the Navy’s tech, cruisers can only go at a fraction of light speed. Crossing galaxies takes dozens of years.”
“So are we going to sell it to the Navy if we find it?”
“Jesus boy, you ask too many questions.” There was a sudden harshness in the master’s tone and Mal looked at the ground beneath his feet, cowed. “Go and fetch wood for a fire. Thin logs too, not just thick ones, like we talked about back on Zema.”
“Yes sir.” Mallory bowed and left.
There was fallen wood a-plenty on the curious flat shelf set into the ridge, a fact Mallory’s exhausted legs were thankful for. He had never gathered wood before. There had been forests on Zema-Bravo, of course, to help sustain the carbon-dioxide and oxygen balance, but they were tidy and meticulously well-kept. Not like these wild woods. The greens on Zema were open to the public and most importantly free, so his parents often took him and his four brothers and sisters there when his father had time free from work.
That had, of course, been before his father had gotten laid off from the reclaiming site. His parents could barely afford shoes for all the children as it was, and his mother was already working as a cleaning-lady full time. So Mallory, being the youngest, was signed to a Master. He didn’t mind; he knew that it was so his older brothers and sisters could eat and go to school. And besides, his father whispered tearfully to him in Delevigne Square, as they waited for Carlisle to come and pick up his charge, Mal would get to travel all over and see new worlds, wouldn’t he? His father had given him the notebook that morning, telling Mal to write down all his adventures in it, and one day when he could afford to bring the boy back they would sit down under the trees of the Downford Greens and read it together. Mallory couldn’t wait to tell his parents about the trees down by the beach, or travelling through the Gate.
Although to be totally honest, he might skip the Gate part. It still made his stomach turn in twists thinking about the sensation of travelling through Slipspace, of being squeezed like liquid through an infinite grate, being separated and stretched (but, like, feeling your muscles and bones stretch and pull like taffy) until you thought you were going to snap and pieces of you would be lost to the vacuum of space, never to be reassembled properly again.
By the time Mallory had a full armload of wood a chill had descended upon the ridge, and the wet spot on the back of his shirt was uncomfortably cool.
“About time. What took so long?” Carlisle demanded, looking up from the tree stump here he was laying out a pot and dehydrated food.
“Sorry.” Mal mumbled. He hadn’t realized he was dawdling. Master Carlisle was very strict about time. ‘A Navy man is never late’, he always said, frowning. Mallory chastised himself for lingering. He wanted the Master to like him, and he would never like him if he didn’t do a good job.
“Never mind.” Carlisle waved a hand, looking at the small pile Mallory had deposited. “That’s not going to be enough. Do another round, or we’re going to freeze tonight.”
Mallory’s legs grated and protested like poorly oiled springs and his arms were covered in red scratch marks and weals from the rough bark, but he dutifully turned and walked away without protest.
He got fifteen paces when the beast struck from behind a tree.
The boy heard a dull roar, felt a heavy body slam onto the ground and saw a flickering shadow lash from behind the closest tree as red-hot needles sank into his leg. He screamed in pain and fear as the needles pulled sharply. He was dragged face-first along the grass, scrabbling and grabbing desperate fistfuls of dry soil. His left hand closed on a stout branch and he lashed out at his leg, making strangled screeching sounds like a cat. The needles relinquished their bite and Mal was able to flip himself over and crabwalk a short distance away, staring at the–the–his adrenaline-fueled brain didn’t kick back a word to call whatever it was.
It had a squat, powerful body and stood on two strong, short legs. It was covered in coarse brown fur, like a bear, except on its chest where the color faded to a startling white. The beast had humanoid hands, but flipped the wrong way so the palm flexed powerful fingers away from its muscled chest. The scariest–most alien, Mal though with a hideous, hysteric laugh that clawed up his windpipe like a sewer rat–thing about the beast, though, was the muscular, snaking anaconda neck, supporting a flat, hissing head that glared at the boy with huge, orange eyes. A forked tongue slithered from between the snake-beast’s lips, tasting the fear that hung in the cool air. A sibilant hiss escaped from its mouth.
“Carlisle!” Mal shrieked, scrambling to his feet. He held the stick with both hands in front of him like he playing swords with his brother Slwyn. His left leg shook beneath him. He could feel blood pouring down his leg.
The thing took two short steps towards him, the flat snake-head weaving hypnotically on the long, scaled neck. Mal backed away in whimpering shuffles. He couldn’t look away from its eyes. They shone like the suns were reflecting in them, or they were lit from within with a sol-lamp, and they never faltered as the flat head ducked left, then right. The beast took a step, then another step.
Mal tripped on a log and fell, flailing and screaming.
The beast’s head shot forward and the massive jaws parted, revealing twin rows of glistening teeth as it lunged for the boy’s head.
The laser-pistol whined as it fired a shot. A red-hot, gaping hole appeared in the beast’s throat, edges still glowing from the heat of the bolt. The head recoiled, roaring in hunger and rage, but before it could strike again another bolt sizzled through one of the thing’s eyes. For a moment the alien stared at Mallory with one terrible, luminous orange eye and one the pale lavender of the setting sky. Then the snake-head collapsed heavily on Mal’s legs, sending the boy scrabbling backwards with terrified squeals.
“Oh for fuck’s sake, get up.” Master Carlisle said disdainfully from where he stood beside a tree. The laser-pistol was still in his hand. The flask was in the other. “It’s dead.”
Mallory stood up, shivering in earnest now. “Wh-wh-what is–was–that?”
Carlisle took a pull of the flask. His breath misted faintly in front of his sallow face. His eyes were hidden in the dark shadow of cold sockets and the fading light of the surrounding forest. He looked like a skeleton, Mallory thought, pushing down another wave of hysteria.
“Don’t know. The corpse will probably dissuade any potential followers. Grab the wood. Hurry up, it’s getting cold.”
Some time later, Mallory hunched over the fire that Carlisle started, rubbing his hands. Warmth curled slowly along his feet and legs from the blanket that Carlisle had given him, releasing tension from the shivering, aching muscles. The tall man set a pot of water by the fire to boil and dug in his satchel. He came out with two boxes. From one he pulled a white cylinder, small, the size of an InfoPad stylus. He, much to Mal’s curiosity, stuck one end of this in the fire and the other in his mouth. Thick plumes of white, aromatic smoke curled from his mouth like ropes.
“Wuzzat?” Mal asked, scooching closer to the fire.
“It’s a cigarette.” Carlisle said cooly, holding the stick between two fingers, examining the glowing red tip critically. “Made from tobacco. Hybrid-blend, half real stuff and half–I dunno, whatever the fuck those scientists put in the plants these days.”
He cocked his head, looking at Mal, his blonde hair hanging just over his jawline in messy strands.
“You know what tobacco is?”
Mallory shook his head. “Is it medicine?”
His Master smirked, rubbing his stubbled jawline with the back of one hand.
“You Outer Rim kids. Yeah. It’s medicine. Only for adults though.”
He stood and took a drink from the flask, staring up at the flickering firelight on the trees around the clearing. Overhead a spiderweb of stars twinkled between the black tree-tops. He inhaled another deep breath from the cigarette, this time exhaling the curling smoke through his nose. Mal thought it was ultra-cool, the way he did that. Carlisle cleared his throat and knelt back down, setting the other, larger, box on the ground in front of the boy.
“Let me see that leg.”
The box contained medical supplies. Carlisle kept the white stick tight in the corner of his mouth as he swabbed the half-dozen gouges that dotted Mallory’s calf with antiseptic wipes. He glanced up at Mal when he touched the stinging pad to the first wound, but the boy clenched his jaw and stayed silent. The Master nodded, satisfied, and cleaned the wounds with swift, practiced hands.
This close, he had a kind of smell about him. Beneath the heavy fumes of the cigarette, it was a sharp smell–kind of like the paint that they used in the apartment building Mallory’s family lived in, to cover up the bloodstains. It was probably from the flask, Mallory guessed. Whatever it was, it seemed to have relaxed Carlisle, who was humming to himself tunelessly as he bandaged the boy’s leg.
“What did you do in the Navy?” Mallory asked, to distract himself from the sting of the fresh bandages around the wounds.
Carlisle paused minutely, his hands trembling somewhat as they held two ends of gauze wrapping around Mal’s leg.
“I was a quartermaster, on a ship called Titan. A quartermaster is in charge of receiving and shipping supplies.” He answered Mallory’s question before the boy had finished drawing breath to ask it. He tied the gauze in a neat, tight knot and rocked back on his haunches, fumbling slightly for the ever-present flask. He swallowed and sat down across the fire, heavily.
“Why’d you leave?”
The man stared into the fire broodingly, cigarette and flask held limply in his hands.
“I didn’t. They stripped my rank from me.”
“Oh. I’m sorry.”
Carlisle sniffed, spitting off into the darkness between two towering trees. “It’s fine. It was my fault.”
“What did you do?” Any other time Mallory would have been terrified to even breathe the words and pry into his Master’s life, but Carlisle seemed to be…looser, almost like he was a tightly wound knot slowly unraveling; he was rocking slightly back and forth as he stared into the flickering flames.
“I stole a shipment of medicine.”
“What? No, actual medicine. My s–” The man broke off, clenching his jaw. “Someone I knew was sick.”
He took a pull on the cigarette, and sent a gulp of the flask down after it.
“If you needed it, why didn’t they just give it to you?”
In Zema-Bravo, the council who ruled the city-meteor presided over such decisions. If you approached the council and said your son was sick, but you could not afford the medicine, they would see to it that you got it, Mal was pretty sure. At least that’s what he overheard his mother saying at the dinner table. But then his father would say that he couldn’t just go to the council and tell them that he couldn’t afford to feed his family, that wasn’t a valid excuse, and then his mother would hold up a silencing hand and send the children to play in their room.
Carlisle huffed a humorless laugh, wiping his eyes. “That’s not the way the Navy plays it, kid. If you can’t afford something, that’s your problem.”
“That seems mean.”
The blonde man snorted, flicking a stray strand of hair out of his face. “Life is mean. Actually, life is a son of a bitch.”
He spat into the fire. “Life turns on you. One moment, you got it made, right? Great job, house on the base and a…a family.” He cleared his throat.
“And all it takes is one little thing. About the size of three microbes, to be specific.” Carlisle held up a finger and a thumb a razor’s edge apart. He squinted, cigarette tucked tight into the corner of his mouth.
“About thaaat big. That’s all it takes. Then before you know it, your son is throwing up blood instead of sleeping, your wife is screaming that she’s going to take him to live with her grandmother, of all fucking people, and you…well you find that you’ve moved full time residence inside a bottle, kid, because it’s safe and quiet in there. And then when Aloy–”
He bit off the word like it was poison, baring his teeth in a grimace, turning to face the darkness. After a second he turned back, his face cold as stone.
“Moral of the story; even if you need the medicine, it didn’t matter. Besides, I was tainted goods. No way they were going to help me out.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means maybe I re-routed some official stuff to some friends for a few credits, but I was in a bind a little and so…so–” The man took a deep pull from the cigarette. It seemed to relax him further as the heavy smoke tumbled from his lips. “So it didn’t matter. It didn’t matter that my life was going up in flames.”
Carlisle’s speech seemed to be unwinding with the rest of him, becoming rougher and more informal. Some of the words were slurred, now, blending into each other on the edge of incomprehension.
“I gave them everything. And now–” He scratched his eyebrow with a thumbnail. “–now, I have nothing. Youanme both, eh?” He snickered.
Steam was escaping the lid on top of the pot at the edge of the coal-bed, now, and Carlisle nodded to the food on the stump.
“Go on and get the food started. I’m goinnagoferr a piss.”
It was some time before he came back. When he did, he was visibily tighter, more closely wound.
Mallory ladled the soup into a bowl, handing it to the Master with a spoon, head bowed. The blond man tossed the stump of his cigarette into the fire and accepted without a word. They ate in silence. The boy sprayed the dishes with degreasing antiseptic and wiped them down, leaving them to air-dry on the stump. He unpacked and unfurled the two bedrolls tied to the bottom of the heavy pack he carried, rolling himself in the thin blanket Carlisle had purchased for him. The night air was cool, but the fire was warm. In the darkness, birds called to each other softly. Mallory remembered the ivory trees down by the beach with a smile. He’d try and wake up before the Master tomorrow and draw them in his notebook.
Carlisle pulled a heavy black coat from his satchel. It was of good make, and looked warm. It had two loops over the shoulder pads, decorated with red hoops and silver stars. It was an Outer Rim Navy officer’s coat; Mallory recognized it from the men coming and going from the barracks on Zema-Bravo. It was immaculate; not a speck of dust or dirt on it. Carlisle dusted it critically before carefully spreading it over himself so it didn’t rest on the ground.
“Goodnight.” Mallory said cheerfully from his bedroll. “Another day of exploring tomorrow, right?”
He was ultra-excited. Treasure cave.
Perhaps it was a dream, later, when Mallory cracked open his eyes and saw Carlisle sitting up, staring at the fire intently. He was toying idly with something at the end of a string that hung around his neck, something that glinted in the orange flames. Twin bands. One was large, unadorned save for a band of yellow metal that ran through the middle. The other was smaller, slimmer and glimmered with gemstones.
It could have been Mal’s imagination as the boy slipped back into sleep, but it almost looked like his Master had tears in his eyes.
They found the cave the next day, in the late morning. They followed a rough trail that wove through the tall trees, leading up the ridge. Carlisle, back to his snappy and curt self, ranged to and fro over the ridge, looking for something, and Mallory followed unquestioningly. They rose out of the forest onto a grassy plateau that ended at the steep, rocky slopes of the mountains, now huge and dizzyingly vast up close. After what seemed like hours, they found it.
The cave gaped black and wide like a mouth at the base of the mountains. Mallory felt his heart beat faster as they approached.
“Is that it?” He asked.
Carlisle nodded, wiping sweat from his cheeks. It was another hot morning, as the last had been. “I think so. Looks right.”
It was cool and dark inside. Carlisle flicked on a bio-lamp and led the way, washing the rocky walls and ceiling of the short tunnel in blue light.
“A door!” Mal said excitedly, pointing ahead. His voice cracked and echoed around them, a dozen young boys, cawing in a fever pitch.
A double door, built into the solid rock of the tunnel itself, had been pried open and weighed with large boulders. It was made of metal, and unstained or rusted with age. Beyond was a large room, and a proper room, not a chamber carved from rock. Mal gasped in silent astonishment. It was a real treasure cave. Someone built this.
“Stay behind me.” The Master warned as they edged through the pried-open door. “It’s dangerous in here.”
The room was empty save for a single squat pillar with a oddly smooth rock sitting atop it. Carlisle crept into the room cautiously, swinging the bio-lamp in sweeping arcs, one hand on his pistol. The walls and ceiling were bare, the floor around the pillar littered with a circle of long, thin rocks. Rock-dust laid heavy on the floor and pillar, glimmering yellow in the lamp-light. A single door was set into the far wall. The air smelled cold and stale. Mal peered around Carlisle, curious. What kind of rocks looked like–
They weren’t rocks.
They were bones. Human bones.
Mal fell backwards with a frightened yelp as the breath whooshed from his lungs, pushing himself with his legs as far away from the skeletons as he could, scrabbling against the metal wall. Carlisle jumped at the sudden noise, drawing his laser-pistol and whirling about.
“What is it? What?”
“Th-they-they’re d-dead.” Mal stuttered, pointing at the ring of skeletons poised around the pillar. He had seen pictures of skeletons from his short time at school, of course, but those had been in books, not lying on the ground in front of him.
Carlisle holstered his gun with a disgusted huff. “Of course they are. They’re not going to hurt you. Get up, stop gibbering like a baby. For fuck’s sake.” He moved towards the door, keeping his distance from the pile of bones.
They had died. A bunch of people had died right there. Mal remembered the stories his oldest brother, Tomford, told at night about ghosts that rose to haunt and hurt people around their death-sites. A scared whine built in his throat, raspy and hoarse. The skeleton’s backs were arched and their limbs arranged wildly, finger-bones clenched tightly. Their jaws were open, like they were screaming and he just couldn’t hear it. Yet.
Carlisle stopped and looked back at the boy. “Come on.”
Mallory tried, he really did, but his legs were shaking and he couldn’t get his feet beneath him. His hands shook as he stared unblinkingly at the bones.
The blonde man sighed and crept back to Mal’s side. He set the bio-lamp on the ground gently.
“Look at me. Hey.” He snapped his fingers. Mal turned his head. Carlisle’s deep hazel eyes were calm. Not warm, not understanding, but not angry.
“They’re just skeletons. They can’t hurt you, not with me right here.” The master’s voice was deep and slow. “We’ll walk around them, just you and me, and it will be just fine. Come on, we can’t give up this early in the treasure cave, right?”
He smiled a rare, yellow-toothed smile. Mal nodded jerkily, closing his eyes and feeling his heart hammer in his chest.
“Good lad. Come on, on your feet.” Carlisle hauled the boy upright, dusting his shoulders brusquely. “With me, we’ll go together.”
They crept around the ring of the dead, Mal clutching the back of Carlile’s ragged and torn shirt in one small fist, looking back over his shoulder.
“What happened to them?”
“A trap. Some kind of energy pulse, probably. You’d think after discovering a body or two around the pillar, the rest would leave it well enough alone.”
The door at the far wall was closed. Carlisle used his sweat-stained bandanna to dust off a small box set into the wall.
“What’s that?” Mal asked.
“It’s a lock.”
The boy considered this for a moment. “Do we have a key?”
The tall man stuck a hand in his satchel and pulled out an old, battered InfoPad. He flicked on the display, illuminating the his sunken cheekbones and puffy eyes in a wash of harsh blue light as he tapped the screen, navigating through a series of encrypted files, muttering to himself.
“Alright, LaFountain, you girthy piece of shit; let’s see if your info was worth three thousand credits.”
Mal blinked, confused. He must have misheard. Three thousand credits was nigh-impossible sum; he and his brothers only made half a credit a week for their allowance. And Mal had to scrub the toilets in the bathrooms, the boy thought distastefully. Tomford only had to vacuum the two rugs in the living room. Mal hated cleaning the bathrooms.
Carlisle held the InfoPad’s screen to the box. Mal felt a deep hum from somewhere deep in the wall, and a green light glowed along the wall. With a heavy reverberation and much grinding of old gears long gone rusty, the door slid back from the wall. A corner of the master’s mouth twitched in a smirk and he slip the InfoPad back into the satchel, motioning Mallory to follow as he slipped into the next room, bio-lamp held high.
Mallory felt better having a barrier of some kind between himself and the circle of bones, even if it was just a few inches of metal. He turned with a sigh of relief and his jaw dropped.
His voice was lost in the sprawling expanse of the immense hall. Pillars, as thick around as the mighty oaks in the Downford Greens back on Zema, stretched high into the obsidian darkness overhead. The hall seemed to go on forever. Twin spiral staircases rose to balconies that ran the circumference of the room, high along the wall. Stacks of boxes and crates, barrels and chests rose dozens of feet high, creating leaning and chaotic alleyways leading into a stygian labyrinth. Overhead, long metal claws built into hanging assembly lines stood poised along the hall.
Mal knew a maze when he saw one. Now this was a treasure cave.
“What is this place?”
“It’s a data-vault.” Carlisle’s normally harsh voice seemed small in the gaping vastness of the long, dark hall. “Built by Lost Ones.”
Lost Ones. The Ones That Came Before. Mallory scooted closer to Carlisle, surveying the darkness. He had heard about the Lost Ones before, in muted conversations between adults that ended as soon as they caught sight of a child. They were aliens who built things, buildings and weapons and ships and computers. They rose in a vast, swarming empire that reached into the furthest, coldest stars.
Then they vanished.
Humans (the Good Guys, Mallory’s education and upbringing insisted) stumbled on the vestiges of this ancient tech in the first Colonization two hundred and fifty years ago, light-years ahead of what their own science had been capable of. Now there were Lost Ones scholars who travelled between the Rims, going on archeological digs and such, uncovering things so far beyond the province of science they might as well be magic. Lost One tech powered the grav-beams that kept Zema-Bravo in orbit around Asan.
Data-Vaults were rumored to be dark crypts of knowledge, tech buried and hidden on distant stars and planets, incredibly difficult to find. The master, apparently, had found one. Mallory grinned. His Master was the best.
Mal had wanted to be a Lost One scholar, some years before. A scholar had come to his school when he was still there, talking about excavations on Demeter and Hephaestus-Nine. He had even brought his plasma-beam and let everyone have a turn carefully removing objects from a sandbox in the playground. Mallory had removed a teddy bear from the deepest corner, earning a high-five and a ‘well done’ from the scholar. But then he had to quit school. But that was ok, he reminded himself sternly. He got to travel with Master Carlisle, and that was just as good.
Carlisle lead the way into the dark maze, holding the bio-lamp high in front of him. The corridors of the boxes and crates soon swallowed them as they made their way around the twisting corners, leading deeper into the vault.
The deep hum from the locked door followed them into the long hall, thrumming gently underfoot as they soft-stepped along the dark alleyways.
“How did you find a Date-Vault?” Mallory whispered.
“I, uh, tracked it down in a…a library.” Carlisle peered ahead intently.
“That must have been really hard.” The boy said enthusiastically. “How’d you do it?”
“Oh, you know. Just…followed some clues.” Carlisle wiped a bead of sweat that rolled down his pallid cheek. That was odd; a chill emanated from the dark, cold metal walls of the great hall. Mal suppressed a shiver.
“No more questions, kid. I’m trying to concentrate.”
“Oh. Right. Sorry.”
They continued through the darkness, following the twists and turns of the sprawling corridors. Every now and then they would approach a junction where two or even three alleyways split into the darkness. At these the Master would pause for a moment, sniffing the air, and lead the way down one of the branches. Left, right, left, right, right, second left…Mal soon forgot which direction they had come from, and lost track of the number of lefts and rights they had taken. He kept close to his master; if they became separated he’d be hopelessly lost. He tried not to think too hard about being alone in the gloomy, decrepit hall.
After what seemed like hours, they emerged from the labyrinth, at the far end of the great room.
The barrels and boxes had been cleared in a circle some ten metres around, butting up against the wall that faded into the darkness high overhead. Mal looked around as they entered the clearing. There were no other avenues into the winding maze. A disc of dark black metal was set into the floor, three meters wide. Against the wall was a large door, far larger than the other two they had already come through. There was no box on the wall beside it.
Carlisle approached the door slowly, holding the bio-lamp over his head, brow furrowed in a heavy frown.
A single handprint was set into the dead center of the door, like someone had stuck their hand in wet cement.
“What’s that?” Mal asked, hiking up the heavy backpack on his shoulders.
“Could be a lot of things.” Carlisle said slowly, rubbing a hand against his stubble. “A fingerprint reader. A keyhole. A trap.”
Mal instinctively looked around like something was going to pop out of the darkness. He remembered the skeletons in the first room and shivered again.
Carlisle set down the bio-lamp on the floor beside the door, facing outwards so the clearing was illuminated in the harsh, blue glow. He shrugged off his satchel, staring hard at the handprint, seemingly lost in an internal debate. After a moment he inhaled sharply in decision.
“Alright. There’s only one way to find out. Here.” He unbuckled his laser-pistol belt, unlocked the sights and trigger with a thumb and handed it to Mallory. “Hold this. If anything pops out of the door and attacks me, shoot it.”
“But I’ve never fired a gun before.” Mal protested. The firearm was surprisingly heavy, and warm from the nuclear batteries in the handle.
“See that red dot there?”
“Point it at whatever’s eating me and pull the trigger. To reload, pull this lever, slide a new cartridge of batteries inside, lift the lever. Continue pulling the trigger. There, you’re officially trained.” If he was joking, he didn’t show it. “Take off that backpack. We may need to move fast.”
Mallory set the backpack on the floor beside Carlisle’s satchel, his heart beginning to thump heavily. He didn’t like this. He assumed a stance beside the tall man, pointing the gun at the door.
“Ready?” Carlisle asked. Mal nodded, breathing shakily.
Carlisle gingerly set his left hand into the handprint, bracing himself.
As soon as his fingers touched the cold surface, two things happened at once.
There was a deep-set click in the wall so loud that it echoed deep in Mal’s chest.
Lights flickered to life in a circle around the disk of black metal set into the floor, wavering as the circuits felt the surge of electricity for the first time in centuries. Mal’s was blinded by the sudden light.
“Wha–” Carlisle twitched in shock. Mallory raised the gun in a rush, eyes flitting fearfully along the shadows that seemed only darker in the new light. Carlisle’s hazel eyes went wide with sudden panic, but calmed down after a second.
“It’s ok.” He breathed deeply, slumping forward slightly. “I think it’s just a locking mechanism. I can still use my hand, see.” He pulled his hand from the handprint, shaking.
They stood still for a moment. Carlisle rested his head against the door, closing his eyes and breathing heavily. A vein throbbed against his temple. Something beneath his chin caught Mallory’s eye.
“There’s something on the d-door.” Mal swallowed hard, gesturing with the gun barrel, held in a death grip in his hands. He could feel his heart reverberating in his fingertips, like he had been running for a long time.
Straight, angular words were carved into the cold metal of the door, just above the handprint. The tall man leaned back, eyes narrowing as he read aloud:
If you throw me out the window,
I’ll leave a grieving wife.
Bring me back, but through the door,
You’ll see someone giving life.
What am I?
“I think it’s a riddle.” Mal said helpfully.
“Obviously.” Carlisle snapped impatiently. He rubbed his sweaty, pallid forehead and read the words again. “It’s probably the way through the door. Answer correctly and it opens. You probably…” He pressed his hand back into the handprint, tentatively this time. “Have to have your hand in the reader for it to count.”
The Master pursed his lips and read it again, eyes flickering swiftly through the scrawled script.
He licked his lips. “A bird?”
With a screeching slam the flat metal disk in the center of the clearing opened, panels sliding outward and disappearing into the floor, revealing a pool of dirty brown water that undulated with disturbing silence. Through the flickering lights that wavered in the depths Mal could see shadowy shapes moving sluggishly. The hum that had followed them from the first room rose, thrumming through the walls and floor, sending a fine tremor through Mallory’s worn leather boots, a gift from his mother on his last birthday.
“Oh fuck.” Carlisle whispered irreverently. “That can’t be good.”
Mallory stood frozen, rooted to the spot with intrinsic, primal fear. The gun trembled violently in his hands. He thought he might throw up.
With a sickening splat, an arm emerged from the filthy water, grasping for purchase along the worn metal floor as something attempted to lift itself from the pool. The livid pink skin that covered the long, ropy muscles was covered in boils and pustules, weeping a sour, milky pus that along the floor in rivulets. A head followed the arm, bald and scarred beyond hideous. White eyes gaped from within sunken sockets over bulging cheekbones. A grotesque howl of rage and hunger rasped from a horrible mouth full of jagged stumps of what once may have been teeth. The beast pulled itself from the pool, rising on two whipcord-thin legs. It had no discernable sex. It’s feet ended in twisted, attenuated claws that scraped eerily against the floor as it staggered towards Mallory.
“Jesus, boy, shoot it!” Carlisle bellowed, turning to face the door.
A hysteric screech burst from the boy’s chest, hot and painful against his vocal chords. Adrenaline surged through him in a dizzying rush. He held the gun in front of him and pulled the trigger, hard, eyes squinted at the thing. The recoil hammered painfully against his shoulder, but he paid it no mind, pulling at the trigger again and again. Bolt after red-hot bolt slammed into the thing, making it shudder and shake like it was made of rubber. A smoking, stinking hole the size of a fist dug clear through its leg, another through the meat and bone of its shoulder. Black, coagulated blood fell from the steaming wounds. One bolt missed and struck a wooden crate, exploding in a shower of sparks. A yellow glow started among the boxes.
Another thing gasped as it’s scarred head burst through the surface of the dark water, hauling itself to a standing position.
The first thing reeled from the force of the laser-bolts but didn’t fall, and continued to shuffle with that otherworldly (but wasn’t everything otherworldly if you were on another world, a cold dry voice murmured in the back of the boy’s head) moan, like a man in the throes of a nightmare. Or was it Mal having the nightmare?
“In the fucking head! Shoot it in the fucking head!” Carlisle shrieked. He looked back at the door, slamming it’s cold metal with his other hand as spittle flew from his thin lips. “A dead man’s doctor! Open, goddamn you!”
Mal, his heart skidding and hammering in his chest so hard it shook his vision, squinted down the sights of the gun and pulled the trigger twice. The thing’s head disappeared in a spray of black powder that misted through the air like dust motes in a sunbeam. It collapsed to its knees, jerking like a marionette with its strings tangled. In the filmy light, flickering and uneven, he could see two more of the things headed towards him and Carlisle. He backed up until his back was pressed against Carlisle’s legs.
He was definitely the one having the nightmare.
Mallory aimed and shot, aimed and shot. Behind the black pool a fire was spreading through the centuries-dry wood with unbelievable speed, leaping from barrel to box to crate, yellow fingers cracking and snapping. Smoke billowed in heavy clouds.
Another thing pulled itself from the pool.
“Loyalty! It’s loyalty!” Carlisle screamed, terrified eyes flickering back over his shoulder at the scene behind him.
Mallory screamed and screamed until his throat ached and his voice trembled, his hands shaking so hard he dropped fumbled with the lever on the pistol and dropped a fresh cartridge before he got the gun loaded again. He closed his eyes and pulled the trigger again, blowing a thing’s head off even as it reached close enough to pull at his clothing before it keeled over. There were four of the things now, or maybe five. Fear choked his brainstem too much to allow counting. Pull the trigger. Protect the master.
He aimed and fired, aimed and fired. Perhaps he reloaded, again. The corpses piled up, closer and closer to him.
The fire grew around them, devouring the crates with joyful destruction. Mal could feel its heat against his skin, already soaked in sweat.
He pulled the trigger at the closest thing as it groaned at him. The trigger clicked uselessly.
“Master.” Mallory whined. His voice was high and keened with fear. He was scared. He wanted to go home. This wasn’t fun anymore, exploring and going on adventures. He wanted to be with his parents.
“Master, I need help. I can’t do it. I need help.”
“Keep shooting, boy.” The Master gasped, pressing his head against the door. “I can figure this out. I can. Just buy me time.”
“I’m out of–”
The thing slapped the pistol from Mal’s hands with enough force to send him reeling sideways. The gun skittered across the metal floor as the holographic sights and tigger flickered once and died. Until Carlisle touched it again, it was a useless lump of metal.
The thing lunged at Mallory, groan rising to a bellow. They rolled to the floor in a heavy thud.
“Carlisle!” Mallory screeched, thrashing wildly. Sour pus dripped slithered along the skin of his hands and forearms as he struggled against the thing, keeping its gaping mouth away from his face. “Help me!”
His Master didn’t answer. His eyes were squeezed shut, his mouth moving silently.
Another thing tackled Mal by the legs. It closed its mouth on Mallory’s left ankle.
Pain like nothing the little boy had ever felt rose through his muscles in a wave of anguish. His calf seized and bunched into useless ropes of taut muscle. He shrieked in agony. He kicked wildly with his other leg, but there was another thing grasping for his right foot, powerful clawed fingers grasping his boot tightly.
“Master! Master, please!”
“I’m sorry!” The Master cried, tears rolling down his sunken, stubbled cheeks. He turned, hand still pressed desperately against the door.
“I need to get that drive! It’s for my boy! My wife–” He gasped, choking on the hot smoke rolling through the great hall. His face was covered in soot. “–it’s salvation, don’t you see it? Don’t you understand?”
The thing cracked Mallory upside the head with a backhand and the boy heard a roaring noise and his vision flashed white. He felt himself being dragged along the cold metal floor.
“Master Carlisle, please! I don’t want to die! I don’t want–”
His voice broke abruptly as one of the things bit into his throat. He choked on the warm spray of his own blood. He didn’t scream anymore. The muscles in his legs and chest jerked and twitched as the things scrabbled at his warm flesh.
“The letter ‘n’!” Carlisle bellowed, slamming on the door with one hand. “That’s it! That’s the answer!”
The last thing that Mallory saw in his short life, as the last of his blood drained through his tattered and ruined throat, was Carlisle stumbling backwards through the door, looking at the dying boy with terrified eyes.