An Open Door

… continued from The Drowned City


Kepler 62f’s larger moon hung low over the eastern horizon, following the planet’s sun rising high into the turquoise sky. Gentle waves lapped at the sloped stone roof and washed against the stern of the wrecked trimaran, pulled up onto the rooftop out of harm’s way. A pile of meager belongings, retrieved from the boat, sat on the roof: a knapsack of food, a solar charger, a pair of handheld tablets, and the two e-suits, neatly folded with helmets sitting atop them.

Anna sat beside the pile and looked out at the water, at the broken rooftops and spires of the ancient city pushing their way above the waves, structures she had at first thought to be rocks and reefs, worn down by the ages and the frequent storms of this world. How far had the sea level risen here? How deep down were the streets and avenues these people had once walked? She could not tell.

She turned her gaze upward, following the line of the gleaming space elevator cable, reaching far into the heavens until it dwindled out of sight. The sun was near its noon zenith, so even with Kepler 62’s dimmer light she had to shield her eyes against the brightness of its light, and she could not make out the orbital ring at the elevator cable’s other terminus. Would this millennium-old artifact still work? She knew it was doubtful, but she had pinned their hopes on it, and now they were here. Only one way to find out. She turned and dropped her gaze to the building wall behind them, and the elevator’s base just beyond it.

“Right. I suppose we’d best find a way to get inside.”

Ca-Tren, ever industrious, was already exploring along the base of the wall. Laxmi, Jaci, and Anna joined her. Although the wall itself at first glance appeared to be rough stone, upon closer inspection it proved to be a form of concrete, weather-beaten until it was no longer smooth and uniform, but a straight, vertical wall nonetheless. It extended five or six meters over their heads, and there were no doors or windows to break up its surface, so they could not easily climb it. It was a good fifty or sixty meters wide, wider than the sloping roof they stood on, beyond the edges of which lay more water. Past the wall’s ends, the building continued, angling back in toward the center of the rocky island at a shallow angle, so that the building was not square, but perhaps hexagonal, though they could not see its far side to be sure.

“Anna, look at this.” Laxmi stood at the edge of their landing ramp, near to the wall’s right end. She pointed down into the water.

The others came over to Laxmi’s position, and Anna looked where she pointed. Below the surface, about six meters down, a patch of kelp fronds, waving gently with the sea’s motion, grew in parallel straight lines, leading away from their ramp and following the building wall. It was a road, Anna realized, or a wide pathway, and for whatever reason she did not know, the kelp grew along its edges. About ten meters away from them there was a break in the line of kelp on the side closer to the building, with a few fronds growing perpendicular to the road, reaching toward the wall.

“I think…”

With a splash Ca-Tren dove into the water and quickly swam down to the spot where the kelp met the wall. It was difficult to see details below the surface, but she was clearly examining the wall at that spot. A moment later she rose to the surface and swam back to the humans, squawking in excitement.

Jaci ran back to their pile of belongings and fetched his tablet.

“No need to translate,” Anna said. “She’s found a door.”

Anna dove in beside Ca-Tren, swam over until she was above the break in the road, then dove down to it. At the building wall she found the kelp growing close in to the structure. Barnacles, or something like them, completely encrusted the wall, so that below the water’s surface it was much more uneven and irregular than above. Nevertheless, when she pushed aside the kelp, there was a clearly delineated circular depression in the wall, about one meter in diameter, with a handle. In construction and design, it appeared to be almost identical to the hatchway Tak had tried to open in the orbital ring station, what seemed a lifetime ago, and at the far end of the forty-thousand kilometer elevator cable. It even seemed close in style to the door to Li-Estl’s observatory chamber on Ar-Danel, though upon closer inspection, beneath the barnacle encrustation, this door was made of steel.

Anna rose to the surface and swam back to the others. Ca-Tren had already climbed up onto the ramp, and Anna quickly joined her.

“There’s a steel door. It’s got a lot of growth on it, so we might need something to pry it open. Jaci, have a look on the boat, there’s nothing metal, but there are some strong wooden spars that might work. If nothing else, we can use them to break off the barnacles. Laxmi, let’s suit up. You can help me.”

“Suit up…?”

“E-suits aren’t only for space, you know.” Anna grinned. “This is why we’ve kept them charged up.”

She stripped down to her base layer, laying out her wet clothes on the rooftop. In the midday sun she dried off quickly, though her underclothes were still damp as she stepped into the feet of the e-suit and pulled it up over her hips. She pushed her arms into the suit, then pulled the airtight zipper up to the neckline and snapped the neck ring together. The air pack and power cell fit like a thin, snug backpack, with straps over her shoulders and around her waist, and an electrical and data connection to the suit itself.

Beside Anna, Laxmi finished hooking up her own backpack. Jaci returned from the boat with a pair of belaying pins, sturdy wooden pegs used for securing lines, sheets, and halyards under load, and an armful of tackle blocks, heavy pulleys for running those same lines.

“I thought these blocks might be useful as weights, in case the backpacks aren’t enough to give you neutral buoyancy.”

“Oh. Yeah, good idea.” Anna clipped a couple of the blocks to the utility belt at her waist, and Laxmi did the same. She then pulled the inner head covering with its integral mic over her hair, clipped it under her chin, and finally carefully fit the glass and steel helmet over that, mating it to the neck ring of her suit with a twist and latching the locking mechanism. When she did so, the data connection engaged and a heads-up display appeared in the lower left corner of her view through the faceplate. She pulled a hose from the side of the backpack and clipped and locked it into a matching connector at the rear base of the helmet. She heard a momentary quiet hiss, an electronic beep, and a green indicator appeared in the display.

“Suit integrity is good, all seals closed, full battery and full oxygen.”

“Check,” Laxmi replied over the radio intercom. “All indicators green and levels full.”

Jaci gave them both a final visual inspection, then a thumbs-up. Then they each picked up a belaying pin, stepped to the edge of the rooftop, and one after the other, jumped off into the water.

Anna found she had a very slight negative buoyancy, so that she slowly drifted down to the kelp-lined road six meters below the surface. As she did so, she quickly checked the HUD readouts again, ensuring no breach of the suit’s integrity. A moment later, her feet touched down on the roadbed, and Laxmi came down beside her. Without fins, swimming in the e-suits was clumsy, so she jumped forward and leap-skipped her way between the waving kelp along the road. Moonwalking, she briefly thought.

The visibility was excellent under the mid-day sun, extending clearly for many dozens of meters, if not more. From this vantage the artificially constructed nature of the stone edifices around them became even more evident than it had been from the surface. More roads and pathways, also kelp-lined and thus obvious now Anna knew what to look for, stretched away, sloping down toward dimmer, darker depths. The sea level rise here must have been more than just a few dozen meters, perhaps more than a hundred or greater, as clearly she now stood at what once must have been the top of a hill in the midst of an ancient town or city. Rooftops and tower spires stretched away down the submerged hillside, fading into the darkness beyond sunlight’s reach. What mysteries lay waiting to be discovered down there? That would be for another explorer, and not her. Anna turned her attention back to the wall beside her as she and Laxmi arrived at the door with a final bounce.

Now that she had a helmet on, and the luxury of air to breathe, Anna could see that there were windows beside the door. These were also round, small like those back in Ar-Danel. Some still had crystal glazing filling them, while others appeared to have broken out over the ages.

“I guess we know that there is water behind this door, then,” she said over the intercom to Laxmi. “That should at least make opening it easier.”

Near the center of the door, offset to one side, a recessed handle lay in a hemispherical depression. It was small, but Anna was able to fit her hand around it. However, it was also barnacle-encrusted, and she did not want to risk tearing a hole in the fabric of her suit glove, so instead she gave it a whack with the belaying pin, scraping off as much of the encrustation as she could into a cloud of debris drifting away in the water. She kept at the scraping until the metal handle was mostly clear, and then she was able to safely grip it. She tried twisting it clockwise, then counter-clockwise, but it didn’t turn. It did, however, move slightly under her hand.

“The handle’s not completely frozen in place, which is sort of amazing. Hard to say just how many centuries it’s been underwater.”

“Try pulling on it instead of twisting.”

Anna gave a tug, resulting in perhaps a millimeter of movement, but nothing more. She gripped it with both hands and braced her feet on the door just below. She tugged again, and this time the handle pulled out a couple centimeters. After that, it easily turned clockwise a quarter-rotation, and with an audible clank that Anna could feel through the handle, something inside the door gave way and a small gap appeared around its edges.

“I think we’re in.” She looked briefly at Laxmi, then used the belaying pin to scrape more barnacles off the door itself, clearing a space where she could push. “Brace me.” With Laxmi adding her weight behind, Anna pushed at the door, and with a metallic groan of rusty hinges it laboriously swung inward to reveal the dark interior of the building.

Anna switched on her helmet light and peered inside. The scene that greeted her was so eerily familiar that at first she didn’t quite recognize what she was looking at. The room was roughly oval in shape, and near the far wall a blocky rectangular cube extended up from the floor about half a meeter. On the floor in front of that were a pair smaller cubes with slightly indented top surfaces. Another of the smaller cubes lay on the far side of the larger block.

It was a desk with chairs.

“I think this is some sort of reception area, or an office.”

On the far wall, behind and to the left of the desk, was another doorway, but this time the door itself was missing. No, not missing, but recessed sideways into the wall, like a pocket door. A few other doors also led away from the room, but those were closed.

“I’m going in.”

“Be careful, Anna.”

Anna ducked and half crouched, half swam through the meter-high main door they had just opened. The ceiling was low, so she couldn’t moonwalk over to the far side, but instead shuffled her way over to the open pocket door. Beyond was a narrow space, just wide enough for two of them to fit inside, but with no ceiling. Looking upwards, Anna saw that it was a shaft of some kind, and several meters up she could see the surface of the water. Sunlight played on the surface, so she knew there had to be a window or something similar up there.

“It’s an elevator shaft. I’m going up.”

She kicked off the floor and clumsily swam up the shaft. When her helmet broke the surface, she gripped what appeared to be a utility ladder set into the side of the shaft and used that to pull herself the remaining half-meter up to an opening which led into another chamber.

This was a much larger room, shaped like a curving ellipse that wrapped around some interior section, with higher ceilings, and many other doorways. Being above the water, and in an enclosed space protected from the weather, the interior was in much better condition. Anna could see more desks and cube-like chairs, as well as what appeared to be control panels of some kind, the first real evidence of a technological past she had seen since Li-Estl’s observatory, though unlike the observatory with its archaic telescope, the equipment here appeared far more advanced.

She had entered through an opening in the outer curving wall of the ellipse, and across the room from her, set in the inner wall, was another door with windows to either side. Shining her light through one of the windows, she could see that it was a double wall of some sort, and on the far side was a semi-circular chamber not quite twenty meters wide and eight across at its widest point, with more windows set around its circumference, though all were dark. The door beside her appeared to have a matching door set in the inner chamber’s curving wall, closely aligned with but separate from the outer door. The chamber was also well equipped with chairs and even couches, though any cushions that had once existed appeared to have rotted away long before. The far, non-curved wall had several doors set into it, though no windows.

She knew what this was. She had found the elevator cab. She was standing in what had to have been a departure lounge. The only question was, would any of this equipment still work?


… continued with Circuit Breakers

header image credit: user:cottonbro / via Pexels License

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