CHAPTER EIGHTY-FIVE: RED EYES
Davies drew out his draagves and aimed it at the dozens of “eyes” rising up to their level on the lift. His head snapped back towards the door that they had just come from. Should they retreat? The “eyes” weren’t attempting to attack them. Not yet anyways.They craned this way and that as if they were on stalks.
“Lieutenant-Commander, what is our next move?” Matzen asked neutrally.
The Thaf’ell, too, already had his draagves out. He appeared completely calm. Not at all as if they were about to be in a battle. The uncertainty was only reflected in his question, but he appeared ready to take whatever course was necessary. Davies couldn’t help but admire the way that Matzen was “ready” but not frightened, or even seemingly, alarmed.
“They don’t appear to be hostile,” Thammah stated dryly.
She was aiming her weapon steadily downwards too. And despite her evident disdain for many aspects of her people’s rigid adherence to protocol and logic–and, he supposed, being brought up in an artist rather than warrior home–she was as “ready” as Matzen. These Thaf’ell didn’t even appear to have elevated heart rates or breathing.
Davies, on the other hand, being only human, had to control the adrenaline that coursed into his body as he prepared for fight or flight. He had learned over the years to harness his adrenaline when he needed it and ignore it when he did not. Still, he found himself wondering what it was about the Thaf’ell makeup–biological or societal–that allowed them to talk about an enemy mere feet away as if they were remarking on the weather.
Thammah had been jumpy when she’d heard–or simply sensed–people following them. But had relaxed when he’d pointed out it was, undoubtedly, the Moturin. They might trust and worship the Pilot, but they were going to verify that the Pilot’s people did nothing down here untoward. But now that Thammah could see their enemy approaching, she was as calm and unruffled as if they were admiring a very sunny sky.
“We hold the line,” Davies answered.
If they retreated, they could lose Gehenna. He couldn’t allow that. She was just too valuable to leave behind. Not to mention that the Pilot needed and wanted her. As much as the Pilot operated at a superior level than a normal human, and definitely different than what his life had prepared him for, Davies knew that Jace needed certain emotional connections to keep him stable. Gehenna like Khoth was one of those. So he would not fail in bringing her back.
So he prepared to spill some more alien guts. It was all in a day’s work after all.
The lift ground up, but the “eyes” did nothing but crane and look at them almost as one. So either, these dozens of glowing red dots were the eyes of a single creature–and my God, how big and what was it if that true–or of dozens of creatures that acted as one was unclear. Davies’ finger rested alongside the trigger. He could have ordered them to open fire. But training for working with alien species was surprisingly kicking in. What had they told him? Oh, yes, not to assume hostility simply because something looked hostile.
Finally, the light on their suits was able to determine what they were seeing. Davies blinked. He blinked again.
“Holy smokes, what are they?” Davies breathed.
The lift reached their level and the “eyes” which were lights on top of black stalks attached to round bodies. They weren’t made of flesh but calcanth. They weren’t eyes per se, but sensors and they were attached–one eye stalk per body–to a single creature. The creatures silently rolled past them. The eye stalks swiveled to watch them as if the creatures–or droids–were curious. They rolled through the doors that Davies and the others had just come through and headed up the stairs on spider-like legs that ejected out of their bodies. There was a faint plink–plink sound as the metal tips struck the stone. One of the creatures paused by Davies’ left leg. It stuck out a little vacuum-like device from its body rather like he’d seen R2-D2 do in the movies, and cleaned up some dust on Davies’ pants.
“I think we know now how the labyrinth is kept so clean,” Davies remarked as he was vacuumed and brushed before the little robot sucked back in its attachment and rolled on.
“Of course! It would have to be something like this!” Thammah laughed. “Jace had the AI make machines to clean up the Khul. These machines are just ones designed to keep the buildings clean. They were probably programmed long ago and they just keep running and doing their assigned tasks. Amazing!”
“Machines like these might also be why the machinery has continued to work so well on Altaeth worlds,” Davies mused as he slung his draagves over his shoulders again. “They likely have droids that service them.”
“Yes! You’re, undoubtedly, right!” Thammah’s blue-on-blue eyes glowed with excitement. “Those that have not just assumed the Altaeth tech is godlike have supposed that something like this must be keeping the machinery running. Some kind of self-repair protocol.”
“But it’s slowly breaking down,” Davies theorized. “The Pilot senses that. It needs resources probably to keep up systems that it’s run out of over time. And, I’m sure that there have been errors introduced that cannot be fixed by the AIs.”
“Strange, we've never seen them before,” Matzen said.
“People likely have. But have ascribed to them other attributes. They seem rather shy,” Davies remarked as the last one disappeared from sight.
“What do you suppose a fully operating Altaeth world would look like?” Thammah asked, looking enthused and curious as to what he thought.
“Shouldn’t you be the ones telling me that?” Davies asked gently, but with a lifted eyebrow.
“The Altaeth were gone long before we discovered Haseon and their other worlds,” Matzen answered. “In the beginning, we attempted to discover how the tech worked, but that just led to many pieces being irretrievably broken. As time went on and working tech became rarer, it became a crime to attempt to take apart or even fix broken tech.”
Davies blinked. “But if it was broken—”
“It was believed that the tech would right itself if it could be fixed. Multiple instances of such things occurring seemed to sustain that view,” Matzen said.
He had put his draagves away as well. That was the only indication that he was feeling anything different than before they had been facing an unknown foe. It was truly fascinating.
“That sounds…” Davies stopped himself from what he wanted to say.
“Strange? Odd? Illogical? Welcome to the Thaf’ell, Davies!” Thammah laughed. “We’re very good at creating random rules and following them. While Matzen is right that there was a reason behind not touching the tech at one point, now there are those who treat it like a religion. There are accounts of people being attacked for even trying to repair something.”
“Attacked?” More eyebrow lifting from him.
“Not on Haseon. But on worlds farther from the core,” Matzen said as if that somehow made it better.
“So in the sticks? I see. Yeah, we say that about our rural cousins.” Davies cracked a smile.
“It is where our ways are not strictly enforced.” Matzen stood at attention.
“You mean the Thaf’ell ways? Or the Alliance ways? Because you’re no longer in the Alliance and, while you’ll always be Thaf’ell and we welcome all different species and opinions aboard, you are crew of the Osiris first and foremost,” Davies reminded him.
Matzen really stood at attention then and nearly saluted. “I understand, Lieutenant-Commander. While I may not have spoken as forcefully as Flight-Commander Pyrrhus about how limiting some of Thaf’ell society can be, I am eager to experience the more open nature of the crew.”
His “eagerness” read the same as his “calmness” read the same as his “readiness”. While Khoth was subdued in how he expressed emotions, Matzen was almost completely colorless. But perhaps Davies didn’t know him well enough. He would have to learn each new member of the crew, especially those of other species so he could read them and understand them.
“Well, there’s certainly more openness,” Davies said, thinking that was an interesting word choice, “but we are disciplined and we get the job done no matter what. Is that understood?”
Both Thammah and Matzen nodded smartly.
“Now let’s get going. We leave no AIs behind and Gehenna is waiting for us below,” Davies said.
The three of them entered the lift. A hologram appeared in the center, sensing their movement. The droids probably didn’t need it to operate the lift, but the device recognized that they did. This, too, was interesting. A series of glowing symbols appeared. He frowned as the comm did not translate them for him. He looked again at his comm to where Gehenna appeared–a lone glowing dot–about three floors down. He counted down the symbols from where they started. Davies pressed what he hoped to be the correct button button. He seemed to have been successful, at least in part, as the lift began to lower again.
“What floor did you choose?” Thammah asked, looking over his shoulder.
“No idea. The translator can’t decipher these symbols at all so I made an educated guess,” Davies remarked.
“They are Altaeth symbols. Rare to find so many of them,” Matzen said as he drew near to the center hologram and began to take pictures of each.
“But isn’t all the technology in Altaeth? I mean, didn’t you have to translate them originally to use the tech?” Davies asked.
“The universal translator was one of the first pieces of tech we found,” Thammah explained. “It was almost as if the technology was wiped clean of all Altaeth personality and made to serve whoever came after.”
“That’s part of another theory of what happened to the Altaeth,” Matzen replied dryly. “That the Altaeth knowing they could not defeat the Khul–or perhaps choosing not to–having left the Seeded Species behind also left them the tech in a mode that they could use.”
“But not understand the tech’s creators?” Davies shook his head.
“Perhaps they feared whatever instructions they left behind would be read by the Khul,” Thammah suggested. “Or they had no real advice to give us. Following in their footsteps might have been impossible or ill-advised.”
“I get why the Thaf’ell stopped asking questions, but what about the other species?” Davies pressed. “Surely, not everyone lacks curiosity.”
“The Neenda seek to know the past,” Thammah said. “That’s how we located the Osiris, I believe, in the first place. And there are other species whose view on the Altaeth is not as… strict.”
“Anyone who joins the Alliance must abide by Thaf’ell law. The Neenda have been allowed to continue their research, because it does not require the destruction of any tech. They have an empathic ability that allows them to read the past from objects. Some deem it little more than sophistry, but they have led us to finds like the Osiris that cannot be explained otherwise,” Matzen answered. “But, for the most part, the Thaf’ell ways of doing things has been respected and viewed as superior.”
“Except when it comes to things like figuring out our past, among other things, so many other things,” Thammah retorted almost sweetly and the edge to her voice told Davies she’d had this argument with others before.
Matzen’s brows furrowed. “Have I said something to upset you, Flight-Commander?”
Thammah crossed her arms over her chest. “No. Yes. Okay, yes! You mouth the platitudes of joining the Osiris, but you’re still acting like Alliance!”
“Not everything that the Alliance has been based upon has worked as intended, but it is still a wise governing body. I would bring some of that to the Osiris,” Matzen answered, of course, neutrally.
“Are you sure that’s really the truth?” Thammah pushed. “We have certain beliefs. One of which was that the Khul would never dare enter Alliance space, let alone attempt to infest Haseon. But they did. Today. And we would have lost to them with ease if not for the Pilot and humans like Davies.”
“What if all these supposed benefits of the Alliance were simply un-pressure checked ideas? Basically, we thought them true, because the Khul never proved them false? Not because they couldn’t! But because they had no need to,” she said. “Think about that, Matzen.”
“I will do so, Flight-Commander. And I hope we can have further discussions,” Matzen answered.
Davies saw Thammah’s jaw clench, but she made a tight nod and turned away from Matzen. Davies could have intervened, but this was an argument about ideas, not how the Osiris was run, who was in charge or the current mission. So he allowed it. Keeping in the hostility wouldn’t eliminate it. It would only allow it to fester.
The lift jolted to a halt as they stopped outside another platform three stories down. There were still floors and floors, unexplored, below them. Wind whistled up from the depths and stirred Matzen’s long hair. It was surprisingly fresh. The urge to explore further did not fill Davies. He was intent on getting Gehenna and getting out of here.
Despite the airy corridors and large lift, he felt the weight of the structures above them pressing down. And he also felt an almost atavistic fear of this place. He wasn’t sure where it was coming from. The droids had been harmless. They’d seen no marks or spoor to indicate wildlife. Though the droids would have likely eliminated that along with the Altaeth’s rotting furniture and other materials. And what was there to eat down here? Nothing. Stone and metal and machinery. Nothing any flesh and blood creature could survive on. Still, he felt the skin between his shoulder blades pricking and the weight of unseen eyes upon them.
He checked his comm and gestured for them to head through another set of doors on the platform. “She’s this way about two hallways down to the right.” He unholstered his draagves and aimed it at the center of the doors while indicating for Thammah and Matzen to open the doors from either side and stay out of view of whatever was behind those doors. “I don’t see any movement on the comm, but let’s continue being careful, shall we?”
The two Thaf’ell strafed over to the doors. The sensor pad was on Thammah’s side. She brought her comm near it and the key-software that the Pilot had placed upon it had the sensor going from red to green. The doors slowly opened. Davies held his draagves up and ready to fire. He controlled his breathing. His finger was on the trigger.
No predator came into view. But unlike the floors above them, this hallway was in a state of disrepair. The light crystals that did work were dim and flickering on and off. Electrical sparks could be heard and the reflection of their hot, white light seen in one of the doorways to the right. Their snap and sizzle had the hair on the back of Davies’ neck standing on end. There were pools of water from broken pipes sitting on the floor that was covered in debris and dust. It wasn’t a thousand years of disrepair, but clearly this level had suffered damage and had not–or could not–be repaired.
And, of course, Gehenna is smack in the middle of it.
“Down there. Third door to the right. Watch your footing,” Davies advised as he entered the hallway flanked by the two Thaf’ell warriors. “What the Hell happened here?”
“Perhaps some kind of earth movement? Or structural collapse? The Khul did not make it down here,” Thammah suggested.
Not this time anyways, Davies thought.
Had the Khul come here after the Altaeth abandoned this world, but before the Thaf’ell colonized it? If they had, this damage wasn’t caused by them. It was too fresh from what he could see. Gehenna had her draagves still out but she was scanning their surroundings with her comm so they would likely know more when they returned topside. She had also left a mark for them to know their way out.
We’re a little like Hansel and Gretel.
“Surprised those little droids didn’t try and clean up this place,” Davies muttered.
“Too big of a job?” Thammah suggested.
They picked their way past fallen blocks of stone and leaking pipes. They passed by darkened rooms where showers of sparks emitting from eerily flickering machines. Some were shaped like the cube that had held the database. Others were triangular shaped and stacked one on top of the other rather like Tetris blocks. More of the Altaeth symbols glowed and snapped in the darkness.
“If we had but had the nerve to descend under our homes and look,” Thammah began as Matzen took yet more photos and video of the Altaeth symbols, but she did not finish her thought. Instead, she simply shook her head.
Davies could not quite believe that the Thaf’ell in power hadn’t investigated this, let alone other species who had joined the Alliance. How many treaties had all the countries on Earth entered into to not experiment with, and certainly not to use, viral warfare? All of them. Yet all of them also had labs that were feverishly working on weapons and vaccines to be used in yet another Chemist’s War.
He simply didn’t believe from what he’d learned of the Thaf’ell already that they didn’t have something similar going on with Altaeth tech. While he was certain that neither Thammah or Matzen knew about such research, he was just as sure that it was going on. He would have to talk to the Pilot about this.
There was a faint ping on his comm. He looked down and saw that a message had managed to get through from the topside. He quickly looked at it. He carefully schooled his expression when he saw who it was from. It was from Intoshkin.
They had long ago realized that any communication they tried to send would be monitored and tracked by the Osiris and Gehenna. So trying to set up fake accounts would be discovered and serve as red flags to the crew. Therefore, the general would communicate with him openly, but in code. It would sound superficial, as if they were two good friends reminiscing about the past and their current predicaments, but it meant something altogether different.
The general’s email was chatty, informing him that he had landed and was looking forward to a good dinner. He spoke briefly about the battle with the Khul and how everyone on his ship had fared. But he read the code. The general wanted an update on the Pilot’s physical and emotional condition. He wanted to understand how the Pilot had been cut off from the Osiris and what long term effects, if any, there had been.
Internally, Davies grimaced and his stomach churned. He hadn’t forgotten his other mission, which was to spy for the United States of America and humanity, in general. Even though nothing had been communicated via electronic communications, they had guessed his activities as a spy might already have been discovered. But Intoshkin had wanted to take this chance.
But the more that Davies had learned about the Osiris’ capabilities, let alone Gehenna’s, and then about Jace himself, his desire to stay on mission had, for the first time in his entire career, cooled. He hadn’t stopped wanting to keep the United States of America safe, let alone humanity, but he had come to believe that those two mistresses were better served by simply being loyal to Jace.
Yet he hadn’t quite told Intoshkin that.
Or revealed he was a spy to Jace.
Those things would come.
After the battle, he had been certain of his decision. He just hoped that it wouldn’t destroy his chances of serving Jace.
They’d reached the door to the chamber where Gehenna allegedly was. It was closed and locked unlike the other rooms. He gestured for the others to take their places behind him. He moved his comm near the sensor. It went from red to green and the door whooshed open. He strafed inside, weapon raised, only to come to an abrupt and terrified stop.
The room was circular. In the very center of it was a cage that was surrounded by one of those green force fields. But it was what was inside of that which had him opening his mouth and no words coming out.
It looked like a wolf, if a wolf was about four times the size, made of razor wire and had a ten-foot tail tipped with blades. Oh, and then there were the red, glowing eyes that were staring straight at him.
Red eyes. Begin with them and end with them.
The irony was not lost on him.