CHAPTER EIGHTY-THREE: THE LABYRINTH
“You look ready for a war, Davies,” Thammah said as she once more took in the Lieutenant-Commander’s hardsuit and accompanying weapons.
They were preparing to go into the labyrinth beneath the Moturin Compound in search of Gehenna. They were on the lower level where the database had been stored by a doorway that had long been locked and forgotten. But the little AIs told them that Gehenna was through that door and down.
Davies handed her a packet of some small flechettes that could be ejected at speed from various locations of her hardsuit with a sharp twist of her wrist. “This is your homeworld, Pyrrhus. I thought what we saw and experienced here would make you feel the same way.”
“What way is that?” she asked.
“Unsafe,” Davies answered.
She was surprised, as she almost always was, by a human’s willingness to name what they felt right out in the open. To expose themselves. Not every human did it all the time. But it was so unheard of in Thaf’ell society that it still startled her. Davies, being this clearly skilled and capable warrior, surprised her even more by his blunt honesty. Matzen, who was loading small, sticky explosives into his waist compartment, was pretending not to have heard what Davies said, but she was certain that he was listening carefully.
She wasn’t quite sure what to make of Matzen. He had ignored all protocol to follow Jack into the breach. He had served under Khoth with distinction. These two things should make her look upon him favorably. And they did.
But she didn’t trust him. Not yet. She’d have to see more of what he was made of to do that. She found it easier to trust humans.
She turned back to Davies and said, “Truthfully, I’ve never felt safe here.”
She saw Matzen freeze in his movements out of the corner of her eye before he went back to loading up his hardsuit with those graceful, economical movements of his.
“I thought the Khul had never breached Haseon before,” Davies said with a frown.
She shook her head “I’m not talking about off-world dangers. Thaf’ell society is highly-controlled, as you may have guessed. Not just in how one behaves–even if one comes from an artist family like myself–but also where one can go, how one is viewed, and more. It’s as if people are waiting to reject you at every turn for a wrong move.” Matzen’s head was down, but he was clearly listening closely. “I took pride in making wrong moves. So I always felt I was surrounded by enemies.”
“I have a feeling your penchant for making those wrong moves are why you’re so effective.” Davies gave her an easy smile.
“Only a human would think so.” She smiled back. “So it’s a good thing you’re in charge of this mission.”
“We’re going to have to work with lots of different species, Pyrrhus. We gotta see the benefit in each,” Davies answered smoothly.
“We are the first alien species you have worked with, no?” Matzen asked.
“Touche. That is if you don’t count the Pilot and the other Altaeth-blooded humans on Earth,” Davies answered.
Thammah watched closely for Matzen’s reaction to the fact that humanity was the holder of the last Altaeth. Matzen’s expression was mild. He appeared to have no thoughts on this, which was strange. Not that she expected him to have the worshipful aspect of Typhon or Amana, but to know that Altaeth still existed in the most unlikely spot… But Matzen appeared unmoved.
Davies continued, “But what I have had to do is command people from all over Earth. Different cultures. Different beliefs. Some of those were quite antithetical to my own. But you have to see what they bring to the table. And everyone does bring something to get the mission done.”
“That is logical and open-minded,” Matzen observed. He stood at attention. “So what is the mission, Lieutenant-Commander?”
Davies brought up his right forearm and his comm projected a three-dimensional view of the blueprints of the labyrinth beneath them that the AIs had been able to map out. There were lots of unknowns between them and their eventual location where Gehenna’s essence was trapped.
“We need to get our girl,” Davies said.
“Girl? Gehenna is an AI, are they not? An AI is without gender.” Matzen frowned. “Or is this a figure of speech?”
“No, Gehenna’s a total girl or woman, I should say,” Thammah chuckled. Whether Gehenna had chosen a gender for herself or was programmed with one was unclear, but what was clear was that she was all female-power and then some. “When you meet her, you’ll understand.”
Matzen’s frown deepened for a moment before he shook it off. “I will accept your judgment in this matter due to your greater knowledge of the subject.”
“How good of you,” Thammah said under her breath.
Davies’ eyes flickered to her. There was an unasked question in them. Was Matzen a problem? Maybe for just her? Or for them? She gave a brief shake of her head.
Matzen meant no personal insult towards her or Davies, but like most Thaf’ell, he, evidently, believed himself the true judge of what was and what was not. While his words irritated no more than a paper cut, and not even that really, Thammah had heard some version of them all her life and, instead of being innured to them, was hypersensitive instead.
It’s being back here. I could handle Khoth’s occasional folly on Earth and the Osiris. But being back on Haseon is dredging it all up again.
Davies continued on with the briefing. He held up a small metallic disc that was no larger than the tip of his pointer finger. “The Osiris tells me that merely bringing this near to Gehenna’s location will allow her to transfer her consciousness into it.”
“Jace so wants her home,” Thammah remarked.
“Definitely. I think we all do just to see what her next form will be,” Davies said. “While there are no Khul left on the planet, my understanding is that there are unknown creatures said to be lurking in the labyrinth.”
Matzen straightened. “Forgive my correction, Lieutenant-Commander, but these creatures have never been confirmed. They are, I believe the phrase you would use is urban legends.”
“No need to apologize, Matzen. This is your world and I’m just learning it,” Davies answered evenly, clearly not offended. “But I do have a question for you.”
“Of course.” Matzen straightened up even further. “Any information I can impart, I will do so.”
“Why have the Thaf’ell not mapped the labyrinth, let alone confirmed or denied the existence of any creatures living below their very homes? Feel free to chime in here, Pyrrhus,” Davies said.
“It doesn’t seem very scientific or logical, does it? That we would leave what’s below in the darkness it's shrouded in?” Thammah smiled thinly.
Matzen’s mouth tightened slightly. “Our people are stretched thin defending the Alliance. There simply are not the resources to map and explore what could be the equivalent of big, empty rooms and endless corridors.”
“The Pilot has pretty much shown us that this view is not correct,” Thammah pushed back. “The very machines that power much of our world are below us, Matzen. That’s been guessed at for grand cycles.”
“Why guessed at? I understand being stretched thin, but understanding your own world’s technology–”
“You are correct,” Matzen said softly. “We have behaved as if the machines that run our cities, our worlds, are to be left alone as if they are mystical shrines that must be undisturbed.”
Thammah lifted her eyebrows. “I don’t disagree with Matzen here. That’s exactly what the deal really is, Davies.”
“I see.” Davies turned off the hologram of their path. “Are we going to run into trouble with anyone going down there then? Not that it’s going to stop us. We must retrieve Gehenna.”
“If you think some of us worship Altaeth tech, imagine how they feel about a living Altaeth?” Thammah pointed out. “The Pilot is giving us a lot more leeway than we normally would have. Surely you noticed how everyone went stiff and weird when you told them where we were going?”
When they had told Typhon and Amana about it, the two siblings had gone absolutely still. Amana had been the first to recover with a slight smile.
“The Pilot requires you to go below?” she’d asked.
Davies had inclined his head. “We need to retrieve another of his AIs. She’s been located in the labyrinth below your compound.”
“Your sole intent is to retrieve her?” Typhon had asked, stepping up closer to his sister’s side. “Not touch any of the equipment you may find below?”
Thammah had guessed they were wondering if another database might be there. Of course, the Moturins would want that for themselves.
“We have no interest in anything other than Gehenna,” Davies had responded.
Thammah hadn’t wanted to tell the siblings at all about their plans to rescue Gehenna. Jace could have overridden the security protocols that kept the door to the labyrinth closed, plus shielded their locations without anyone being the wiser. But Jace wanted them to act with respect. So they had. The Moturins had allowed the access, of course, but there was a lot of whispering afterwards that Thammah had not been fond of.
Davies gave a short nod. “I did, which is why I thought the creatures were real. Maybe we will just find dusty hallways and empty rooms.”
He then turned towards the sealed door. He extended a hand towards it and a red shield sizzled under his fingers indicating that the door was locked and out of limits. The shield turned green and faded away. There was a series of thunks as large bolts disengaged and a grinding sound as the door opened.
Thammah leaned forward while also coming up onto her tiptoes to see what was beyond. The labyrinth had always fascinated and repelled her. Going down into it was forbidden. Of course, it was.
But there were valid reasons for that. Comms sometimes failed to work and it was thought many explorers had failed to return, because they’d gotten lost in the dark. There had been a half-sized door into the labyrinth through her own family’s home. She’d thought often enough of tying the end of a ball of string on something in her home and unspooling it as she walked wherever the labyrinth took her. She’d be able to retrace her steps and get home by following the string.
Yet there were other reasons to stay out. The creatures that Davies had mentioned. No one had any images or vids of them despite other hysterical explorers coming out of the labyrinth, wild-eyed and blubbering, claiming they’d seen them slinking away around a corner. Things with long jaws lined with razor sharp teeth and milky white eyes.
So Thammah had stayed out, finding other things topside to keep her interested. But now she had a chance to see the labyrinth and walk it. She thought about mentioning the ball and string to Davies, but she had no idea where they’d get some. Instead, she closed her hand around a marker in her pack. She’d mark their passage so they could get back even if their comms failed.
As the door fully ground open, Davies had a hand on his sidearm, but he kept it in the holster. Matzen was loose but ready. She was betting he was excellent with blades. Before them was a stairwell that appeared to end in blackness, but light crystals started to glow at the bottom like far stars. They grew in intensity once the three of them started down the stairs. A trickle with excitement mixed with unease ran through her as she made her first mark outside this door.
“No dust,” Davies remarked as he gestured towards their feet on the steps.
There was no dust there to be disturbed by their footprints.
“Maybe there’s a draft,” Thammah offered.
“Altaeth structures are often found to be without dust or signs of decay. At least, not as much decay as there should be,” Matzen remarked.
He kept his voice low, which Thammah found interesting. The sepulchral silence of the labyrinth was affecting him too. Yet her head whipped around, looking up towards the top of the stairs where they had just been.
“What’s wrong, Pyrrhus?” Davies asked.
“I don’t know. I thought I might have heard something,” she admitted, but no one was there. “It could be the locking mechanism on the door. Settling.”
“I am surprised that the Moturins did not request to send someone down with us,” Matzen said.
“Yes, interesting that. Fall in.” Davies made a gesture over his shoulder for them to follow him. He had taken out his side arm.
Thammah kept her hands free. She wanted to be able to react to whatever it was in front of her with the appropriate weapon. Matzen silently padded down the steps, also weaponless, but he had reached back towards the hilt of his rahir that was strapped on his back.
“We’re not here to sightsee so let’s keep to the path,” Davies said as the staircase opened up into a spacious, arched corridor that they could easily walk three abreast.
The air was surprisingly fresh. Cool currents whispered across Thammah’s cheeks and stirred the short hairs at the base of her neck. There was no scent of age either. Though this hallway had never been used by the Moturins, at least in living memory, it seemed as bright and usable as the floors above.
Doors studded this broad hallway whose arched ceiling flew over their heads in shades of ochre and bronze. Like most of Altaeth architecture the walls were smooth and unadorned. It was as if the task of making something perfect straight or the perfect arch was what transfixed them rather than sculptures or carvings. But it was all part of the Altaeth paradox.
“Do you know that we find Altaeth tech, but never any furniture?” Thammah asked Davies.
He frowned slightly and asked, “Did it rot away?”
“You see their ability to build with stone and metal all around us, but there are no sculptures or engravings that would have stood the test of time,” she answered. “Not even slumped, indistinguishable pieces.”
“That is strange. But maybe the AIs the Pilot discovered explain that,” Davies said as they passed by a door that was taller than the others and had a high arch at the top rather like one of the gothic cathedral doors she’d seen pictures of on Earth.
“How so?” she asked.
“They cleaned it all up like they did the remnants of the Khul. Anything that rotted, they swept it away. Reused it. Recycled it.” Davies shrugged. “And maybe their art was ephemeral too. Stone and metal were only used for buildings. Or maybe their buildings are their art.”
“You could be right. But we don’t have any writings from them either. I mean there are some. But the Neenda and their ability to read the past by touch has been our main method of knowing the Altaeth,” Thammah explained.
Davies wasn’t exactly relaxed as they walked the silent corridors and spoke. He was still radiating readiness, but he conversed easily. She wasn’t sure if that meant he believed them safe or if he was always on alert.
“The Osiris, Gehenna and these other small AIs that the Pilot can speak with must know all about the Altaeth and the Khul,” Matzen supposed.
“I don’t think so. They weren’t designed as history teaching AI. At least not in the strict sense,” Thammah answered. “The Osiris appears to be made for war against the Khul. And Gehenna… well, she does train the Pilot, but she may have adapted herself to that.”
“What are the theories about the Altaeth’s disappearance?” Davies asked as he checked the map and led them down another set of stairs, which Thammah marked.
“They left this part of the known universe by gates we haven’t discovered,” she said.
“They were assimilated by the Khul,” Matzen offered.
“Yes, that’s a popular one in certain circles,” Thammah agreed.
“Some say that they uploaded their consciousnesses and eliminated the need for a material form,” Matzen said.
“That’s an interesting one!” Davies nodded.
“Is there any chance that the Osiris and Gehenna aren’t AIs, but uploaded Altaeth?” Matzen asked.
“Not that I’ve heard,” Davies responded dryly. “But I’ll ask the Pilot.”
“So all the little AIs could be ghosts of Altaeth too?” Thammah gave a shiver.
Matzen shrugged. “We know nothing of these beings but what they tell us. Perhaps they are lying. Or they don’t know what they are any longer.”
“Any other theories?” Davies asked.
“Yes, one last one,” Thammah admitted.
But before she could say it, Thammah was jerking her head around to look behind them. No slavering monster trundling after them with jaws agape. No white-eyed creature with claws moaning for their flesh. Nothing at all but the empty corridor.
If there really were creatures down here, what would they eat? Not enough explorers go down to make a reliable meal, she reminded herself.
“Pyrrhus?” Davies asked softly.
She dragged her gaze back to him. “Hearing things.”
“No, I heard it too,” Matzen said softly. “So there is something to hear. But I see nothing on our comms to indicate another presence.”
A chill ran through Thammah. “Do you think…” She stopped herself. Asking if he thought creatures really were tracking him was absurd.
“I imagine that we’re being followed by some Moturin people,” Davies answered. “Let’s not worry about them. I don’t believe they mean us harm. And if we do run into something we need an extra arm for, we’ll have them.”
“Of course,” Thammah muttered, feeling foolish for thinking a creature was following them.
She turned back and they hurried down the stairs. They reached the bottom and there was a set of large metal doors. The moment they set foot on the landing, the doors began to grind open. They were all tense as they waited to see what was beyond this.
“The map is sketchy here,” Davies indicated. “Gehenna is located somewhere beyond these doors and then directly down.”
Again, Thammah found herself peering intently into the space between the doors, but she saw mostly darkness. Hot air whooshed through the opening. She lifted an arm to shield her eyes. She blinked away irritated tears as the doors finally thunked into place.
Ahead of them was something far different than what they had seen so far. There was a gangway surrounding the outer edge of a gigantic circular shaft. There were red lights at intervals of over twenty-feet stretching along the sides of the shaft. Air rushed out of it.
“Gehenna is down there?” Thammah asked.
Davies strode onto the gangway and leaned against the metal railing to look down. Instead of answering her, he asked, “What was that final theory about the Altaeth?”
“Ah, you want to know that now?” Thammah laughed.
“Yeah, I do,” Davies answered.
Davies continued to lean over the railing, staring intently at something below. Matzen went over and joined him, but Thammah hung back. She wasn’t sure why. There was a hum as heavy machinery moved things down below. A hum growing louder and louder.
“The last theory is that the Khul are the Altaeth,” she answered. “An evolved form of them. Or a devolved form. Something like that.”
“Is that–that movement on the lift?” Matzen pointed down into the shaft.
“There’s a lift?” Thammah forced herself over to the railing, too.
She hung her head over the side and saw that a lift that filled the entirety of the shaft was rising from the depth. And there were red lights all over the width and length of it. When she squinted, she saw that the lights were moving. Not just getting closer. But moving. Individually.
“Those aren’t lights,” Thammah said. “Those are eyes.”