Here it comes…… Chapter 2.
If you’re following the tale then you know that Shale and Scar are about to take a dive…..
And if you’re not following, then you can catch up on earlier installments:
Anyhow, without further ado, its time for our heroes (and I use that word loosely) to take a trip in search of fame and fortune.
But what will they find?
II: Bottled Time
A pinprick of light bloomed in the darkness, the tiny blue-white star instantly mirrored by a twin upon the rippling surface of a wide, circular platform. Ancient machinery hummed and power fed into the burgeoning star.
The twins swelled and the radiance touched long dormant photoreceptive organisms which responded with a pale green phosphorescence. Bioluminescent light spread like an ink stain across the mishappened undulations of time tilted machinery organised in tiered, geometric rings around the platform.
The darkness retreated.
Slowing, the stars field tautened, crackled, then burst with an incandescent pop! to reveal ten arrivals dressed in white and black dive-suits. Their first movements sent a ice crystals drifting down from their suits into the water at their feet. With their torches ready and pistols poised, they scanned the vicinity, but nothing moved in the eerie spectral wash.
The party collectively eased and, without any immediate threats, took a moment to orientate themselves. They were in the vast, circular chamber, and their arrival had triggered the photoreceptive glow all the way to the periphery. Above them a huge, domed ceiling rose up to a dim apex where a deeper patch of darkness revealed a ragged hole open to a night sky.
And still nothing moved; no alarms were given, no calls of surprise. Deep breaths were taken, muscles relaxed a little more, and environmental data was checked.
“Says we’ve got clean air,” the party leader confirmed, “But probably best if you keep suited until we find out if this stuff is safe.”
There was general chorus of agreement.
“Okay, we’re on the clock so let’s get started. And keep alert! See anything – anything! – then call it out.”
The party descended the platform and fanned out to investigate the huge, obscured shapes which lay with a faint promise of secrets long forgotten. Gloved hands wiped away swathes of the glowing, organic matter to reveal cream coloured surfaces etched with rows of geometric symbols. With each moment that passed came an increased sense of safety as they settled into the labour of scraping and clearing the organism encased hulks.
All except one.
Shale stood on the lip of the platform with a disconsolate air as they scurried about below him. In his split second review of the situation Shale had concluded that this place had about as much potential as his kitchen sink. It certainly had something growing in it. Just what did they think they were going to find in this derelict shit-heap?
“Fuck me,” he muttered to himself, annoyed that his packet of Bonchesters would have to stay inside his suit.
“You coming down?” asked Scamorza.
“What’s that?” Shale replied, pretending to cup an ear. “Need my help Scar? Take it easy, there’s almost too much to cart off!”
“Ha ha. And what else you gonna do now you got us here?” said the gneblim as he followed after the others. “Might as well make the most of it.”
Damn, he’s still pissed, thought Shale and sighed. Scar had barely said a word during basic training. He couldn’t blame him, and with a shake of his head, Shale descended to the uneven floor. He prodded it with a foot. It seemed stable enough, so he followed the line of black footprints left in the team’s wake until he came up alongside Scamorza. The gneblim was using a small shovel to scrape the glowing life from whatever lay beneath. Shale watched until Scar stood back to examine his efforts.
“What is it?” Shale asked.
“Alien tech,” sniffed the gneblim. “Doesn’t look like we’ll be able to move it or even break it down. Pity, cuz it’s obviously advanced.”
“Obviously,” Shale replied flatly.
“Doesn’t lo0k mechanical though….” the gneblim mused, hands on hips. He fiddled some more as Shale stood in silence, watching as the team around him carried on clearing the derelicts to no avail. He blew out a breath and turned away. Not far from him a lone team member was digging into the side of a low mounds situated outside the perimeter of buried machinery. Bemused, Shale nudged Scamorza and wandered over with the gneblim in tow.
“Find something new?” Shale asked.
The man glanced up and Shale recognised Inbar’s face. He shrugged and flung a shovel load to one side. Beneath was a dark, mud-like slurry.
“Just thinking,” Inbar said as he worked, “This heap’s not like all that machinery stuff. Might be something different under here. Who knows, maybe some small bits of tech or something we can actually – ”
His shovel caught on something hard. Curious now, Shale unfolded his own shovel and helped while Scamorza focused a torch. From the slurry Inbar pulled a large oval shape which he wiped with a gloved hand, then held it up to the light. He dropped it almost immediately as if stung, wiping his hands frantically down the front of his dive suit.
“A fucking skull! A fucking – ”
“Fuck’s sake!” Shale snapped as he bent down to pick up the skull. “Get a grip or turn your comms off.”
The bone was stained black-brown. Shale turned it in his hand and they saw that it had a high, elongated cranium with large eye sockets, a double row of small teeth and tall nasal cavities. Shale passed it to Scamorza.
“Well, certainly not human,” Scamorza noted, “Or gneblim.”
“Glad we could get your expert opinion professor,” said Shale.
Scamorza ignored him as he turned the skull over in his hand and peered into the hole at his feet. “Doesn’t look like there’s anything valuable here.”
“Yeah, and there was me thinking we hit the jackpot.”
“Keep poking Shale,” Scamorza said. “At least Inbar was using his head. You never know what might be under this stuff.”
“Yeah? So why don’t you keep digging and find out?”
Scamorza rounded on Shale with a wicked smile. “And you got anything better to do?”
Their eyes locked from behind their visors, then Shale gave the gneblim a sardonic grin. “Second time you made your point, Scar.”
Together they unfolded an extra shovel and began to clear more muck from the hole. Five minutes later they stood back, breathing hard.
“Just skulls,” Shale wheezed, “Skulls all the way down.”
“Definitely not good,” Scamorza remarked once he’d got his wind back. “Looks like a massacre or something.”
“Doesn’t mean anything, Scar. They could have died any number of ways. Perhaps a plague or something.”
“Plague?” said Inbar and held up his hands for inspection.
“Relax. The scanner said we were clear,” Scamorza replied, then to Shale, “And I suppose as they were dying of pox they just neatly piled up their own heads?”
Shale shrugged. “Okay, so they all got the chop. Big deal. We ain’t getting paid to solve any mysteries professor.”
“You’re the one wanted to go on this insane ride,” Scamorza shot back, and with a shake of his head he bent down and picked up a random skull. “Just think, these guys probably worked here, or used the gate back in the day.”
“You think they might be worth something?” Inbar asked hopefully.
“Maybe to some egg head researcher,” Scamorza shrugged.
“How much do you think they’d pay?”
“For this…..” Scamorza pretended to think for a moment and Shale could guess at the big grin growing on his face as he said, “You’d certainly get enough to pay for a couple of rounds of drinks when we get back.”
“Is that all?” Inbar was crestfallen.
“Remember what they told us? It’s only worth something if the Guild decides it’s profitable. I’m guessing that most of the Guild’s eggheads only get paid if they invent something useful. And this guy here,” said Scamorza as he waggled the skull for emphasis, “Well, all they’ll probably be able to do is write some papers guessing who he was. Or maybe just use him as a novelty paperweight.”
Irreverently he threw the skull back into the hole and together all three of them turned around to watch the rest of the team working on the derelicts around the platform.
“How long we got?” Shale asked.
“Still a couple of hours.”
“Well,” Shale’s voice grated, “This is fucked then. There’s nothing here.”
“You can’t say that for sure,” Scamorza replied. “It only takes a little luck to find something.”
“Pfff,” Shale waved a hand, agitated. He was about ready for a smoke as he watched Inbar wander back towards the heaped rings of ruined machinery.
“All just the same shit, Scar,” Shale continued. “They aren’t gonna find anything. This place is dead.”
Scamorza had nothing to say to that, and it was several moments before he realised that Shale had moved off in the opposite direction to Inbar.
“Hey, where you going?” he commed.
“To take a look around.”
“You don’t know what’s out there.”
He saw Shale pause, then the shoulders shrugged and he carried on walking.
“Moody bastard,” muttered the gneblim.
“I heard that,” buzzed the comms.
Then Scamorza heard a small, mute click as Shale turned it off.
* * *
Shale wandered across the glowing carpet and towards the perimeter, passing several suspicious mounds that suggested more gruesome repositories. He had no wish to investigate, of a mind that he was just killing time until the gate was fired up for the return trip. So, for want of anything better to do, when he came to the wall he wiped a hand through the algae. He was faintly surprised to find alien inscriptions. Absent mindedly, he ran a finger over the symbols. Was everything here covered in these hidden writings?
It was nothing more than the left overs of a dead civilisation, just like the heaped skulls were. Scar had said something about it all being advanced, but Shale’s reaction was a sneer of derision. Obviously not advanced enough that they were still around; just food for the life-form that was the only thing prospering in this forgotten shit-hole. Shale nursed the bitterness that he had come all this way to nowhere, rolled the dice and found nothing. He could hear it now, the words that would be offered in sympathy: “Well, at least you didn’t get yourself killed.”
It was small compensation when Destiny decided to rip you off. He’d damned well prayed, and what had Sveciaost done for him? It wasn’t mean to be like this. He and Scar were meant to find something big, something that would put them on a luxury pad on the Charolais.
And on top of all that he couldn’t even have a smoke.
“So much for good fortune…..” he mused.
He set off walking, a gloved hand trailing through the glowing fungus, the grooves of the alien writing sensed as bump after bump after bump. To his left he saw an occasional search light slice up into the air, revealing a haze of particles that might have been spore.
The surface beneath his glove had tripped with a sudden static. He swung the torch up to a blank, exposed surface in the wall. As he peered closer a layer of rime prickled to life on the exposed surface.
A tingle of excitement shot through him.
It didn’t take long to uncover the extent of the surface, an arch seemingly sealed with a strange membrane. When he pressed against the surface, it gave like a viscous liquid rubber, then sprang back. The ice crystals curled like oil on water. Fascinated, Shale pushed harder until it gave abruptly. He sprawled to the floor beyond, immersed in darkness, and in a panic jumped to his feet and swept the torch around. The light revealed a long, empty corridor. At it’s far end he now saw a distant, soft illumination. Behind him, Shale could see the search lights in the chamber as if through a frosting of glass and the thought popped into his head: Can I get back?
With a careful push the mercurial barrier ripple, as pliable as before. Shale braced himself against the sudden pull and let him arm move through, then withdrew it as he smiled to himself. Pistol ready, he set a quick pace toward the distant light. Eager fantasies of fabulous loot blossomed in his mind, and he had covered more than half the distance before he thought of Scamorza. He switched the comms back on.
“Scar? You hear me?”
Dead static answered. For a moment he was torn, but it was further to return than to go on and they only had limited time.
I’ll check it out first, Shale told himself. After all, might be nothing.
Yet deep down he could feel a thankful prayer to Sveciaost forming as the light ahead of him resolved into another arched barrier. Prepared this time, Shale pushed his way through with pistol poised. He swept for targets, but the place was deserted.
He stood in an antechamber, and through this he moved into the centre of a circular, domed hall. It was perhaps forty paces across with cream coloured walls and graceful stanchions supporting tiered platforms. Elegant staircases and walkways connected the platforms while the illumination came from some indeterminable source, a radiance that suffused the room and the tunnels leading away from it at regularly spaced intervals. Shale could see far rooms, each as warm and bright as the one he was in.
“Wow,” he breathed, then spun, pistol ready. He could have sworn he heard a voice…..
Just his imagination, perhaps?
He shrugged off the unease and moved on. In basic training they had mentioned dive hallucinations, that alien environments and stressful situations took a toll on the mind. The place was certainly eerie, as if it had been abandoned only a moment before Shale’s arrival. It was so tidy, so clean. Shale ran a finger over a large table, but there was no trail left where dust should have settled.
And this time he didn’t imagine it. Someone laughed, so close that Shale cried out in alarm and spun around, pistol shaking as he sought a target.
Greetings traveller. The words formed in Shale’s brain, bypassing his ears.
There was amused tittering as Shale’s heart hammered in his chest. He swept in a full circle, but he was alone.
The voice spoke again out of nowhere, it’s tone edged with mischief, I am sorry if I startled you.
“Where are you?” Shale demanded.
Perhaps the question should be ‘when am I?’
“And what the fuck is that supposed to mean?” Shale snapped.
There was a pause as if the voice were thinking, then it asked, From whence do you hail?
“What? Whence I what?”
There seemed to be a sigh and the voice spoke again, Where have you come from?
“Uh-uh,” Shale said with a shake of his head. “Show yourself first, then we talk.”
I am here, it said as if it were obvious.
“Where?” Shale snapped. “I don’t see anyone!”
My my, you are a feisty one.
“Keep talking shit-head,” Shale said, breathing hard.
Are all your kind so rude?
“Not all of us,” Shale replied. “Why don’t you come out and we can talk about it.”
As I said, I am present.
“There ain’t nothing here but an empty room.”
Ah, I comprehend the misunderstanding. I am the room.
“Well, that clears that up,” Shale said without relaxing. “What are you? A computer? And how come I can hear you in my head?”
Computer? the voice chuckled to itself. I suppose that will suffice as a description, and my purpose is to oversee the operation of this facility. With regard to our mode of communication, to that end I have made a connection directly to your mind.
“Not sure I like the sound of that…..” Shale said, easing up with his pistol. After all, there was nothing to shoot at. For now. “So you can hear my thoughts?”
‘Hear’ is a rather crude term, and it chuckled again, Much like your thoughts.
Shale grit his teeth. “So what am I thinking?”
You are thinking something rather impolite. Forgive me. I did not mean to overly offend you.
You wish to consumer a ‘cigarette’ in order to calm your nerves.
“Big wow,” Shale could almost laugh. “That’s pretty messed up.”
You may smoke if you wish. This medical facility’s sterile field is operational.
You will find the environment quite safe.
“Right…..” Shale rolled his eyes, his wariness returning. “So I remove my helmet and then what? I get some face melting plague on me, and the last thing I hear is you laughing?”
As crude as your company is, the voice explained with a wry note, It is somewhat preferable to loneliness. I must say you are a most cynical creature.
“Well, I’m from the Bierkase,” Shale said with a shrug, “And here I am, alone with a strange computer. Who knows what might happen.”
I see your point, but rest assured, it is against my protocols to harm a living being.
“Ah, so you are a computer then?” Shale said.
As I said, of a sort, although I was once organic. Your simplistic language is insufficient to explain.
“Yeah? And how comes you can speak it anyhow?”
We are communicating via the facility’s medical field. It is rendering meaning directly to your brain.
“Well, that explains that,” Shale sniffed.
Shale thought of the cigarettes and wondered just how far the voice could be trusted. Whatever it really was, it appeared to be all too amused by her, and it so far had shown no sign of any hostile intent. He checked his suit’s environmental readouts. It confirmed that the atmosphere was green. He came to a conclusion and holstered his pistol.
Shale unclasped the locks on his helmet, releasing it with a hiss of air. He took a tentative breath and waited in anticipation of sudden agony. When he didn’t die screaming, he unzipped his suit and fished out the packet of Bonchesters. A moment later he blew smoke and watched in fascination as the smoke curled, turned in upon itself and disappeared.
In my capacity as a medical adviser I should probably warn you of the damage to your health with prolonged use.
“Go ahead if it makes you happy.”
There was a pause.
One should not waste time speaking to those without ears.
Shale shrugged and started walking, the excitement returning now the initial shock had worn off. This place certainly had a damn sight more promise than all the crap back in the arrival chamber.
Ah, so you arrived via the gateway system then?
“You reading my thoughts again?”
I do not ‘read’ them. You are effectively talking out loud. You arrived in the transit chamber, but if I understand you correctly, it is in a state of disrepair.
“Yeah, you could say that,” Shale chuckled, “If you mean it’s a total ruin covered in glowing fungus.”
I should not be surprised. It has been….. some time since there were any inhabitants here. I assume, therefore, that your kind has claimed one of our gatehouse cities.
“Gatehouse? Guess that makes sense,” Shale nodded. “We have a story about the Guild. They found the city abandoned with all this tech lying about, so they claimed it as their new home and got the gates working.”
Shale stopped at the icy edge on those words.
And what do they name their city?
The voice didn’t reply.
Shale wandered on through a series of high ceilinged chambers like the first, all with multiple levels reach by stairs and walkways. Certain of these contained smaller rooms. In one Shale found beds wreathed in an alien apparatus resembling finely wrought golden cages. Beside one of these sat a trolley loaded with implements. Shale picked one out at random: What did it do? Was it valuable? Shale was no engineer. How was he supposed to know?
Medical equipment, the voice explained.
“I guessed that,” Shale replied. “But what does it do?”
Would it amuse you if I were to explained?
“Why, is it amusing?”
No, but I detect that the motivation of your questioning lies outside of simple curiosity.
“You got that right.”
But to answer your question: Our physiognomy, although not necessarily dissimilar as biological creatures, required specialised instrumentation due to a certain condition that afflicted us. Most of these items were designed to probe the details of that condition.
Shale put it down. “So, not much use to me.”
However, if it is value that you seek, then perhaps I can guide you to something a little more interesting.
Was it Shale’s imagination, or did the voice sound ever so slightly sly? He stubbed his cigarette out in an oddly shaped dish and lit another.
“Yeah?” he asked. “Like what?”
A means to an end.
“Would that be a means to lots of cash?”
Ah, you of course refer to mere coin. It chuckled to itself.
“Nothing wrong with mere coin,” said Shale, blowing smoke.
What I have in mind will certainly assist you in its accumulation.
“And what did you have in mind?”
Well, did I mention that this facility houses a great treasure?
“You shitting me?” Shale stopped. “Why didn’t you say so?”
Please define ‘shitting me’?
“It means, er…. that you’re making a joke.”
Oh, I think you’ll find this is far from a joke.
“So, where is this great treasure?”
* * *
Guided by the voice Shale cut through the complex, and five minutes later stood before a pair of imposing doors set within a grand arch. Upon the surface of the doors were etchings of long-skulled figures performing in collage of epic scenes.
“So that’s what you guys looked like,” Shale remarked as he traced a finger over the depictions, but it was only an absent thought as his mind raced with just what such an epic portal might be erected to protect. The fact that the doors might have been solid gold wouldn’t occur to him until years later. “How do I get in?”
As if prompted the doors parted in silent grace, swinging open to reveal the chamber within.
Behold! the voice breathed with reverence.
Shale scanned the room.
The water of life!
“So you were shitting me,” Shale sighed, deflated and ripped off.
Ha! You have no idea what it is, do you?
I suppose not. But let me enlighten you! This! This is the greatest achievement of my people.
“Uh huh.” Shale stared up at the chamber’s centre piece, a colossal tear drop suspended in a geometric tapestry of gold filigree that was reached by a wide stair that lead to an encircling gantry. and Shale guessed it contained a liquid from the faint crystalline radiance, and the occasional bubbles which percolated through it.
Of course, you could always ask me what it is.
“I can see what it is. It’s a giant bottle of water, right?”
The liquid is but a medium.
“This is what you brought me here for?” Shale entered the room. “Your largest water urn?”
You requested great treasure.
“Yeah, and what do you do? Lead me all the way here for a drink of water!”
I think that you will find the experience….. fulfilling, to say the least.
“Not unless it’s going to magically make me rich!”
Well, that was what I had in mind.
“Oh, so it’s magic water.”
Ha, sarcasm again. It chuckled to itself, and Shale sensed that the voice could barely contain its glee as it spoke again. Once you have acquired immortality I imagine that you’ll have all the time you require for the acquisition of material wealth.
“Wait? What?” Shale shook his head. “Did you just say immortality?”
Yes. That is exactly what I said. Immortality. Life everlasting.
“I know what it means,” Shale said. “I just thought you were shitting me.”
A joke? Oh no. No joke. All you have to do is drink.
Shale shook his head. “Not until you explain.”
What more is there to explain? It is bottled time.
“Bottled time?” Shale stopped at the bottom of the stairs and ran a hand over his head.
Why do you hesitate?
Shale considered the tear drop, shrugged and took a step onto the foot of the stair. “I’m just not sure I believe you.”
You doubt me?
“Wouldn’t you?” he replied, climbing.
I am beyond doubt. I once drank of the water and lived a thousand lives.
“Yeah, right….. So how come you’re just a voice haunting this place?”
Maybe I’m just a ghost…. the voice whispered. Then it wailed mournfully.
“Funny,” Shale replied as he reached the gantry. He circled to the left, staring up at the huge container, then almost tripped over a body that lay forlorn upon the platform. Its head had been cut cleanly from its shoulders, but there was no blood, not even on the robe that the corpse had worn. The head rested on its stump not far away, eyes open and staring. Shale shivered. It looked so fresh, as if it were simply waiting to be reattached.
“What the fuck?” he hissed. “Who’s this?”
The voice affected to clear its throat. That, it said sadly, Is me.
Indeed. Not the end I had in mind of course, but unfortunately it had become something of a necessity.
Shale took a deep breath, wanting to turn those staring eyes away, but instead moved gingerly past it.
“What do you mean anyway,” he asked, “A necessity?”
I was….. ah, afflicted by a rather curious ailment.
“One that could only be cure by decapitation, huh?”
Something like that…..
Shale was about to probe this mystery, but as he rounded the gantry he came across a large pile of dust, out of which protruded an ornate red cylinder. It was banded and capped in finely worked bronze.
“What’s this?” Shale asked as he crouched down. It certainly had the prospect of value about it.
That is the Hand Of Eskelephos.
“Can you be a little clearer?”
It is a weapon of….. mercy.
Shale reached out to pick it up. “A weapon, huh?”
Do not touch that!
“Wow, don’t get pissed! I’m guessing that it must be worth something.”
Are you not content with the gift I have presented to you?
“Gift? A drink of some old water that’s been here half of forever?”
Ah-ha! I sense that you do not believe me when I say that the water will grant you immortality. It is rebirth, the greatest of gifts. You will be made anew and have a span of years undreamed of by mortals.
“Uh huh. I think you’re probably still shitting me.”
I do not ‘shit’ you at all. Why are you so suspicious?
“Just seems too good to be true,” Shale replied, keeping his mind on the conversation as he surreptitiously stashed the cylinder into a satchel, albeit with a nervous glance at the head in case it was watching.
I suppose it does, the voice conceded. If I were in your position I too might be too simplistic to believe that the greatest medical achievement of an unknown people could heal with one drop, could rebuild a mortal frame in an image of perfection, and bestow upon them the gift of life everlasting.
“Yeah, that about sums it up,” Shale replied, his eyebrows arching. “After all, you and everyone else appears to be dead.”
Dead? Dead! It was mercy!
“Mercy? Now you’re really making me nervous,” Shale said with a frown. It was damned double talk, that was what it was. Still, the idea of immortality wasn’t something to be sniffed at. A long, long life would certainly give him enough time to make a lot of money. He finished his circuit of the container and his eye came to rest on what was obviously a spigot. He put a finger to his lips in contemplation.
Could he possibly be that lucky?
I told Scar that we were destined, didn’t I?
You have nothing to fear. I promise you that I have nothing to gain by deception.
Shale nodded slowly. What was there to lose? There was nothing else here that was going to make him a fortune, and nothing waiting for him back in the Bierkase but that two hundred and fifty credits……
That and the recollection of Enebro’s smug face.
“You say it only takes a drop?”
You have but to consume a small mouthful.
Bottled time, Shale thought and his face lit up in a smile. He found a sample flask from his belt and filled it from the spigot. Living forever was one thing, but living it with unimaginable riches was another. How much would they give him if it all turned out to be true? He and Scar would no doubt need several life times to spend all the riches that a bottle of eternal life would earn them back home.
This was it. This was their destiny.
Shale tucked the sample flask into his belt and laughed aloud for the sheer thrill of it all, then bent to the spigot and took a long draw on the cool liquid. It tasted faintly salty, but clean.
“Is that it?” he asked.
Is what it?
“Am I immortal now?”
“Funny, I don’t feel any different.”
It is working on you already, deep in your core, in your blood.
“How can I be sure?”
Take your knife, cut yourself, and you will see the truth of it.
Shale considered as he lit another cigarette, then pulled the knife from his belt and removed a glove. He nicked the end of a finger. Blood quickly welled.
He did so. The cut was gone.
You will not age, nor can you be killed by mortal wound or poison.
“But I can still die?”
Certainly, but it would require extreme trauma, such as incineration in a furnace. The healing process would be arrested enough to end your life.
“Well, I wasn’t planning on getting into a furnace any time soon,” Shale laughed, barely able to contain his excitement as he punched the air and cried out, “This is gonna be worth the fucking mother-lode when I get back!”
Please define ‘mother-lode’?
“It means a lot! More money than I can count! This is my ticket out of the Bierkase.”
Ah, we are back to the topic of mere coin once more.
“What else is there?”
I suppose we will find out, the voice replied. I sense that you must leave.
“Shit!” Shale checked the suit’s timer and sped off without another thought, down the stair and back through the door, pulling on his gloves as he went. The voice said nothing more. Shale retraced his steps, pelting through empty rooms until he was finally back at the barrier. He pulled on his helmet and fastened. With one last glance over his shoulder he offered the facility computer a thank you.
No need to thank me. I was happy to assist you, although no doubt you will one day come to regret your decision.
Shale felt a chill as the voice replied. It seemed to be speaking to itself, After all, everyone else did.
Then it laughed, and a creeping wave of unease ascended Shale’s spine at the approaching hysteria in its tone. Shale tarried for a moment, told himself that he didn’t have time, and stepped back through the barrier and into the passage. The laughter died abruptly, leaving only a startling silence punctuated by the sound his own breathing.
He set of at a jog, turning the voice’s words over in his mind. Yet what was there to regret? His future was a done deal. He slowed to a walk, pulled out the flask and held it up to his visor; this, this was a dream come true! So he thrust the unease from his mind and let the excitement carry him down the tunnel, back to his friend.
For sure, Scar was going to flip when Shale told him what he’d found.
* * *
“Scar? You there?”
“Shale? Where in the six hells have you been?”
“Take it easy,” Shale replied, trying to contain his glee. “I was just exploring.”
“Fuck’s sake! The team’s been calling you for nearly two hours. Recalls’ in ten minutes,” then he heard the click as Scamorza changed channel. “It’s okay, he’s here.”
“Thank fuck,” said the party leader. “Didn’t want to have to explain that when we got back.”
“I’m touched by your concern,” Shale snorted as he came jogging back, bursting with the excitement of seeing the look on Scar’s face. They would get back, sell this miracle to the highest bidder, and live the rest of their lives out on the lake with all the other super rich bastards.
Closer now, Shale could see the team milling about the platform, could sense the general dejection of the team. They were all bare of any obvious finds. A few waved as he came up.
“Find anything?” someone asked.
“Just more junk,” said Shale with a shake of his head. “What about you guys?”
“Sweet fuck all. Just these machines, whatever they were.”
“Dive’s a bust,” someone complained.
“Still, at least we’re all alive.”
“Pfff,” Shale snorted. “That’s not much good if you’re gonna end up back in the Bierkase, right?”
“I can request another dive for us all,” the dive leader offered.
There was a general chorus of reluctant agreement.
“Okay, well, everyone ready? According to my timer we’ll be jumping in a fraction over two minutes.”
While they waited Shale turned aside and gave Scamorza a surreptitious signal to switch his comms to private.
“Won’t need another jump Scar.”
Shale lifted the flap on his belt-pouch, careful not to let anyone see the faint glow of the flask, and pulled up for Scar to see.
“What is it?” asked the gneblim.
“Something that will make us low tier Kashkaval.”
Behind his visor Shale could see the gneblim’s eyebrows rise in incredulity. “Glowing water? What’s it do – quench your thirst?”
“Ha! Funny!” Shale shot back. “You’ll be kissing my arse when it buys us a luxury pad on the Charolais.”
“Sure…..” Scamorza nodded. “So what is it?”
“On the far side there was a door to a some sort of medical centre. There was a computer, some sort of automation that told me – ”
A flurry of activity made them turn. Someone was pointing into the dome and Shale switched to an open channel. Anxious warnings were cutting through the chatter. As he looked into the purpled sky beyond the hole a swarm of creatures came floating through, tendrils twitching and lashing languidly beneath great bulbous sacks like nightmare balloons. They descended rapidly. The first shots rang out without any obvious effect.
Panic set loose around them. More shots. Someone lurched into Shale and the flask was jolted out of his hand. It bounced and rolled through the veneer of water. Cursing, he pulled his pistol and fired blindly over his head as he gave chase.
Shit shit shit!
The flask was nearly within reach as Shale spared a glanced at the creatures overhead. A tentacle was curling straight for his face and with a cry of fright he threw himself down into the shallow water, rolling onto his back and firing up. Beneath him a faint tremor ran through the platform.
The jump point was about to activate.
Dissuaded, but apparently uninjured, the creature hovered as a blue-white pinprick came to life, the coruscation of a miniature star rendering the horrors about them in brilliant relief. Water droplets began to rise past Shale’s face as he rolled and scrambled to reach the flask.
A scream cut directly into his head, slicing over the comms. One of the things had Scamorza, its tendrils lashed about his helmet, tearing through the fabric to reach the skin of his face, absorbing flesh and blood, pulsing up the side of his head…..
The platform shivered, the star expanded, and Shale leapt for the one thing that would be the difference between unbelievable riches and abject poverty, all sound and motion in the world reduced to the background. He hit the platform, his hand closing –
– and he was lying prone, arm outstretched alongside other divers in disarray, all at the business end of Guild carbines. Scamorza was still screaming, his cries mixed with shrill alien keening as the creature was cut to pieces in a hail of bullets.
Slowly, Shale turned his hand over and his fingers uncurled.
Everything became periphery.
And for a time there was nothing in the world but the sight of his empty palm.
Want to find out what happens next? Then stay tuned because the final chapter of Part 1 is on its way next week.
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