… continued from Chef
The shore of the central island proved to be quite different from that of the atoll on the fringing reef. Away from the reef and closer to the island, the lagoon lost its pale green color, shifting to dark blue as it became much deeper, right up to the steeply-sloped rocky beach. The beach itself was narrow, quickly giving way to thick vegetation rising toward the base of the mountain half a kilometer distant.
Anna guided the raft between two boulders, cutting power to the small electric motor just as the nose crunched into weedy sand. Laxmi jumped ashore and tugged the raft farther up, then the two of them secured the painter line around a sturdy tree. Anna shrugged into the straps of her backpack, handed Laxmi her own, then looked up at the steep mountain, towering above them, before clicking the mic on her radio.
“Jaci, Anna. Radio check.”
“Five by five, Anna. I have you in sight with the binoculars.”
“Very well. The raft is secure. We’re heading inland. Talk to you again in an hour.”
Laxmi followed Anna’s gaze toward the slope.
“What is it you hope to find up there? That terrain looks pretty tough.”
“I’m not sure. I saw something the other night, a reflection in the sunset. It’s probably nothing, a trick of the light, perhaps, but…”
Anna trailed off, following the ridgeline with her eyes. At the higher elevations the angle turned steeply vertical, knife-edge ridges and fluted couloirs, verdant and inaccessible. Midway down, however, the angle moderated, and right in the crook of that bend is where Anna thought the flash originated. It would nevertheless be a steep climb, and they were both still acclimating to the heavier gravity. She turned back to Laxmi.
“Ok, let’s get going.”
For the next hour the two women cut their way through tangled vines and heavy brush. Unlike the sandy atoll, the ground tended toward damp and dank mud beneath a thick carpet of mossy green, and soon they were both soaked and soiled to their knees. The moist, heavy air carried the odor of decay and decomposition, redolent of rot and rebirth.
“Well, clearly this planet has healthy bacteriological processes at work.” Laxmi wiped her brow, streaking mud across her sweat-stained forehead, then reached down and cut a sample from a fallen creeper near her feet. She examined the vine for a moment, then placed it into a pouch slung across her front.
“You could collect those on our way back, you know. You’re going to have to carry that up and down.”
Laxmi said nothing, but made a notation on her hand tablet, then continued hacking her way forward. Anna shook her head and followed.
The going was slow, but when the ground began to slope upwards it became drier and less overgrown. Soon after they began to find clearings where they could see farther than just the three meters in front of them. Anna looked back and picked out the shuttle on the far side of the lagoon. She keyed the mic on her radio.
“Jaci, radio check.”
“Still five-by-five. Where are you?”
“We’re just starting to break out of the jungle and make our way up the slope. We’ll check back in another hour. Anna out.”
She looked upslope, getting her bearings.
“Ok, this way. I think I see a route we can follow.”
Laxmi zipped up the pouch with her latest sample and gave a thumbs-up.
The footing and route-finding were now easier, but the increasing steepness negated any advantage. Their progress continued to be slow and laborious. As they inched their way higher, meter by meter, Anna retreated into her thoughts, ruminating on all that had transpired. She wondered what she could have done differently, looking for the less-than-obvious mistake she must have made to put them all into their current predicament. By coming to the surface, she had almost certainly doomed them all, yet she could not find an alternative that didn’t kill them more quickly. Was there some means by which she could have brought them back to Aniara? If there was, it was closed to them now.
Takashi was dead, David was probably dead, and eventually the rest of them would be dead, too, and Anna could not shake the sense of guilt over it all. Years of preparation, years of journeying to get here, and it had all gone wrong nearly the moment they arrived. They should have surveyed the station longer before approaching, they should have found another way to gain entry, they should have…
She should have parked Aniara in a higher orbit. If she had, there would have been no issue with the tether counterbalance, slowly gaining on the ship. Three months had seemed like plenty of time, but now it was not nearly enough. In a little more than two months from now, if Anna hadn’t yet found a way back to the starship, the advancing counterweight would slowly yet surely crush their only way home.
If she had parked in a higher orbit, perhaps the ship would not have been impacted by the station’s reactionary shot, and David would still be able to help them. He could have come for them in the lander, the bigger cousin to the orbital shuttle, another spaceplane, yet one fitted with powerful boosters. The lander, included in the mission as the vehicle for reaching and returning from the surface, as opposed to the shuttle intended only for intraorbital transfers. The vehicle Anna didn’t choose, because this was supposed to be a quick investigation of an orbiting station, not a trip to the surface.
The lander, still presumably nestled in its bay in the starship, and given the right equipment, enabled for remote piloting.
Now Anna realized her mistake.
She spent her time on the radio trying to reach David, but when that proved unsuccessful, she should have shifted to trying to talk to the ship itself. To the ship’s computers. To the AI which could have sent the lander to fetch them.
The AI which perhaps still could.
“Is this what you were looking for, Anna?”
Laxmi parted the creepers before her, clearing a path onto a rocky outcrop, a ledge at the base of a nearly vertical cliff. The cliff wall was dotted with numerous small openings, holes or caves, or… windows. The openings were all circular, close to a meter in diameter, and spaced at regular intervals in the cliff face. They were almost exactly the same shape and size as the hatchway in the ring station that had stymied Takashi’s efforts to open. Some of them appeared to be filled or blocked with a crystalline material, shiny and translucent next to the dull tan of the rock face. It was this crystal, Anna realized, that had reflected the last light of the setting sun and caught her eye.
“I think we’ve found our station builders’ home, Anna. Whoever they were, they liked round doorways and windows.”
Anna followed the line of openings up the cliff face with her eye. The nearest was a good ten meters off the ground.
“Whoever they were, they didn’t care much for easy entrances,” she said, shrugging off her pack and opening it. “We can use that crack to climb up to the lowest one. But… Laxmi…”
Laxmi paused to look at her.
“I think I’ve figured a way out of this. Something I should have thought of much sooner. As soon as we get back to the shuttle, I’ll program the computer to contact Aniara and send the lander down in drone mode.”
“I thought we didn’t have any contact with Aniara.”
“We didn’t have any contact with David. But in all the excitement, I never thought to setup a computer-to-computer interface. Even if David is… even if he’s dead, too, the computer could still be able to respond to remote commands.”
“I know. We could have done this while still in orbit. We never had to come down here. I’m sorry, Laxmi. I screwed up.”
“Anna, no. Maybe that’s true, but you were incredible, you saved our lives. And who knows what might have happened otherwise?”
“Takashi would have thought of this right away.”
“Takashi was already gone, Anna. And besides…”
Laxmi looked around, taking in the sweeping view, green mountainsides, blue lagoon, and ocean stretching to the far horizon, where it faded to a hazy, indistinct line between sea and grey-green sky. Far to the east cumulonimbus clouds towered in serried ranks beneath twin moons. A breeze lifted a lock of her hair, and she brushed it away from her face.
“If we hadn’t come down here, we wouldn’t have had the chance to see this. I wouldn’t have been able to examine the plant life, to collect my samples. As a biologist, this is my life’s dream, Anna. Takashi and David would still be dead, but we wouldn’t have experienced this. We wouldn’t have found that.” She pointed up at the cliff face, with its remnants of a long-dead civilization waiting to give up its secrets. “Though how we’re going to get Jaci up here to investigate it is beyond me. You know he’ll want to see this up close. This is his life’s dream, too.”
Anna turned from the sea to the cliff, then back to face Laxmi, and smiled.
“You’re right. Thank you. Ok, we’ll sort it out when we get back to the shuttle. Meanwhile, you’re also right that we should make the most of it while we’re here, and that Jaci will be very unhappy if we don’t come back with something to show for our time. Let’s get up there and see what’s inside those ruins.”
Anna reached into her pack and pulled out a harness and a shoulder strap encumbered with a selection of cams, nuts, and other climbing tools, while Laxmi pulled out her own harness and a thin rope.
“So, still remember how to do this? It’s been three years, after all.” Anna grinned as she cinched and secured the waist belt about her hips.
“Do you remember how I showed you the fastest route up that rock face at Peshastin? Need a reminder now?”
Anna’s grin widened. She secured the rope to her harness with a bowline knot, then surveyed the cliff before her. She reached up to the first obvious handhold.
Three years of weightlessness and the impossibility of rescue together nudged them to greater formality. The rock face would not be a difficult climb, but they could not afford an injury here. Anna ascended only a matter of a few hand and footholds before placing her first protection, a cam wedged into the crack she followed, and clipped the rope through its carabiner. Below her, Laxmi fed the line through a friction device on her own harness, ready to belay instantly should Anna lose her grip. She had anchored herself to both packs, the extra weight serving to slow any fall in a more elastic manner, rather than a sudden stop that might shake a cam loose from its crack.
Anna did not fall, however. The vertical crack proved as easy to climb as it had looked, and she placed only three more cams along the way, the last one just below the lip of the round opening that was her goal. She avoided looking into the yawning darkness of the entrance, not allowing it to distract her from ensuring the final cam was secure, yet unable to shake the awareness of proximity to something constructed by utterly alien hands.
The opening Anna targeted did not have a crystal facade, but instead gaped like the mouth of a cave. A cave mouth perfectly round, however, hewn with precision from the surrounding rock. Peering into the interior gloom, Anna could make out the cracked, rocky, yet smooth walls of a tubular passage penetrating only a handful of meters inward before opening out to some much larger, and darker, chamber. A draft of air brushed her face, much cooler than the sun-heated atmosphere outside, carrying a musty, dusty scent, a scent redolent of untouched ages.
She scrambled over the beveled lip of the entrance, noting a gap in the rock of about a centimeter’s width, traveling in a perfect circular line completely around the roof, walls, and floor of the tube. Most likely this gap once anchored a crystal window, she thought, much like the other holes in the cliff face that remained closed, or perhaps a door of some kind. Whatever it may have been, it disappeared long before. Anna surveyed the tube, briefly peered into the darkness of the inner chamber, then secured three cams in the cracked walls and anchored herself to them.
“Belay on!” she called out, then heard a fainter “Climbing!” from below.
… continued with Stormfront
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