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Presumed Dead (Part 6)
by Rick Kennett
For a moment she puzzled over why the plants up ahead had all turned white and were sparkling under the sun.
Then, in a single step she left the warmth of the day and entered the cold of the island. A sudden, severe plunge in temperature, far colder than she’d ever known – colder still than the day she’d run, bare-footed and exposed, across the sands of Mars.
A thousand tiny ice knives jabbed her face and hands. Her breath fogged thickly and rolled from her nose like dragon smoke. She could feel her worn-out fatigues trying to adjust, the inner lining pressing closer while the outer material ballooned slightly, creating a layer of warm air. Collar and wrist bands constricted.
Gloves were fished out of the bag and tugged on with quickly numbing fingers.
The frost on the surrounding trees and on the ground seemed too thin for such intense cold. Something to do with a lack of moisture in the atmosphere? More likely the cold hadn’t been here that long.
“How you doing up there?” she said to the spider, the words broken by chattering teeth and face muscles growing numb. She reached up, stoking the spider’s hairy body with a gloved finger. Lazarus squirmed, but otherwise didn’t seem affected by the cold.
Further on the trees cleared and there in front of her was a shallow pit or crater, about three or four metres wide. At its bottom the rock of the island lay bare, coated with a thin layer of frost. In the centre was what at first looked like a black circle, and beside it a thick shiny wedge of something angled upwards at about forty-five degrees.
A scan of the surrounding trees and bushes on infra-red showed nothing. Cautiously she advanced.
The black circle was a hole in the rock, about a metre in diameter. The angled wedge was a hatch hinged back on the hole’s silver rim. She took Lazarus from her head and placed it on the frosty ground.
“Do you know what this is?” she asked the spider.
Her only answer was a dead stare from the lowered eyestalks.
Cy thought of a well or a water bore, like those dotting the red desert landscapes of home. But if a well, why this intense cold?
Perhaps – her heart leapt at the prospect – perhaps it was the business end of a massive weapon. Small arms didn’t do much for her, but the bigger the ordnance the more her interest grew. Could this be the opening of an old-style missile silo?
Some of those antiques, she recalled, used liquid oxygen as part of their fuel system. This might explain the cold. Yet she couldn’t see superior beings – if this was their work – still using something humanity had long since deemed obsolete. Nevertheless, the idea that it was a missile silo wouldn’t go away. That hatch might be its cap. The pit around the hole could be the result of muzzle blast.
But if not a missile silo then perhaps its near relation, the space-gun – the ultimate artillery piece, capable of firing small payloads into orbit. Liquid oxygen might play a part in a gun’s propellant. They’d been in common use before skyhooks – space elevators — had been invented and before the development of the gravity drive. Not that they were completely obsolete technology even now. Humanity and other interstellar civilizations still used space-guns, particularly on low gravity worlds. Mars had three or four sited in some of the larger equatorial cities.
Yet all this cold got in the way of that idea. If a space-gun, why the cold?
Squatting on the silver rim the spider opened and closed its claws. It raised and lowered its eyestalks and angled them onto the hole as if expecting something to emerge. Nothing did. So Cy risked her face and peered over the edge.
The hole was not bottomless dark. Its depths were clotted with shadows, but centred with a small circle of light far below. The sides were neither smooth like those of a well or missile silo nor rifled like those of a gun barrel, but roughly drilled stone sporting a descending ladder of projecting rings.
Cy almost laughed at herself for not guessing the obvious. Her hole in the ground … was a hole in the ground.
But a hole to where? A brightly lit something at the bottom, so it seemed, out of which issued cold. Cold and silence.
To find some pebbles Cy had to walk to the stony edge of the island, passing out of the cold for a few warm moments.
Returning to the cold, to the hole, she found Lazarus standing on the rim just as she’d left it with its eyes still staring into the shadows beneath.
“Anything happen?” she asked.
The spider swivelled a single eyestalk up at her, then back into the dark of the hole. Anything could’ve emerged while she’d been away. Would Lazarus have alerted her? After the rations episode she couldn’t be sure anymore. Still, there were no prints but her own in the frost round about. She glanced down the hole to make sure nothing was climbing up its metal rings, then dropped a pebble over the edge.
It fell into the small circle of light below, tumbling out of sight. After some seconds a faint chink echoed up as it hit some hard surface far below. She watched and listened in the cold and the silence.
The hatch appeared to be made of some light alloy. It swung on its hinge with little effort, and nowhere either on it or the rim was there any locking device. The whole thing looked a simple affair of plain, possibly hurried manufacture.
“Storage facility?” Cy asked herself. It was as good as any other idea she’d come up with, and explained the cold and the ladder.
But why is it open?
Nevertheless the thought of a storage facility belonging to an advanced alien race was an exciting idea. Any food would be inedible of course. But what miracles and wonders might it contain? Machineries of silver gossamer and spun crystal, perhaps; objects of pure energy, made of pure thought and dream – the technology and artefacts of a race as far beyond humanity as modern humanity was beyond the apes.
The iron spike she’d once killed Lazarus with and had repeatedly used to murder her raft’s radio, she now jammed into the hinge, hammered into place with the other piece of iron. She pulled at it. The spike didn’t budge. She tried to swing the hatch close and couldn’t.
“Good. Lazarus, I want you to guard the entrance while I’m down there. Always secure your line of retreat: that’s one of the things Sergeant Kreeng taught us. If anything happens drop some of these down the hole.” She gestured to her pile of pebbles … and it occurred to her that this was the first direct instruction she’d ever given Lazarus in all their days together. She had no way of knowing whether the spider had ever understood a word she said.
She let her feet feel for a proper toe-hold on the topmost projecting ring, making sure it’d take her weight. Yet barely had she taken a single downward step when Lazarus scuttled across and grabbed at her arm.
“Let go!” She brushed the claw away. “What the hell are you doing?”
The spider reared onto its back four legs, for some seconds bug and human staring at one other, neither comprehending the other.
“Keep watch!” she said, and began her descent again.
A few rungs down she was in shadow, a few more and she was in utter darkness. Above was a circle of blue sky and two eyestalks peering down at her. Descending further she looked up again, but the spider had gone.
Each toe-hold had to be felt for, each rung held with only three fingers. They’d clearly been adapted to the needs of a being smaller and lighter than a human. Though she was speedily cramped in arms and back, she continued down with as quick a motion as possible. And all the while not a whisper of sound came up from below.
A dim light grew around her, growing brighter as she descended. A few seconds later Cy emerged from a softly glowing rock roof, climbing down a short length of ladder and stepped down onto a lightly frosted floor.
After all that climbing she’d imagined a much bigger chamber, a cavern at least. It was a room barely four by eight metres, a light layer of frost on all surfaces. And at either end was a glass box laced with ice-whitened tubing. Each box contained a small body, just visible as a vague humanoid shape through the blurred frosted sides.
That was all. Just these two cold boxes. No miracles, no wonders, no machineries of silver gossamer and spun crystal or objects of pure energy, made of pure thought and dream.
With a vague sense of disappointment she wiped frost from the upper surface of one of the boxes, revealing a grey face staring back at her. A face she’d seen before. The body bore injuries she’d seen before too, gashes and a crushed chest as reproduced in the fungi funeral.
Cy glanced from one box – or coffin as she now thought of them – to the other. A tomb, yes, but not quite a tomb. A tomb for the not quite dead. A waiting room against the day of medical resurrection when a cure for their deaths would be found.
After this planet, another project? And after that another? And after that another?
They might not pass this way again for years, decades, centuries.
The thin coating of ice on the glass, on the walls, on the floor, made her think. The frost here was as new as it was up on the surface. Yet this secret, frozen room had existed for a long, long time. The frost outside was new and thin because the cold had only recently touched the air. In here it was visa-versa: the air had only recently touched the cold. Until the hatch had been opened, this whole room must’ve been in total vacuum with no humidity to cause frost.
Yes, that makes sense. But then how did the hatch open if there was a vacuum down here?
She examined the ceiling, the floor, trailed her gloved fingers over the thinly-frosted walls in search of cracks. Nothing showed that a quake or structural failure had damaged the room’s atmospheric integrity.
So the hatch must’ve been opened, its vacuum seal broken.
Who? The Xenoid? The Xenoid was dead or way to the east with its humming vehicle that had passed her in the night. So it must’ve opened the hatch days ago before continuing on its way.
Gloop senses were different, as she’d learnt in dissection classes. It could’ve seen the cold seeping up from below or felt it through the ground and dug down to the hatch. The hole around the hatch did look like it’d been excavated. Yes, very plausible.
And yet something wasn’t quite right with this theory.
She crossed to the other coffin and wiped frost away. The large wrap-around eyes beneath the glass were closed, the slit mouth hung open slightly above an almost invisible chin. It was almost as if it were asleep rather than dead for untold years.
If these beings have souls as humans are supposed to, where are the souls of these two right now?
Though she wiped frost from the walls in various places, no writings, images or any sort of decorations were revealed.
Returning to the first coffin, Cy took another look into the face of its occupant. In the couple of minutes since she’d originally wiped it clear, the glass had already gathered a faint whitening. Her footprints were already beginning to frost over. Her initial boot marks by the ladder were well blurred. In an hour, she guessed, all trace of her ever having been here would be gone.
“What’s the temperature in here?” she said to herself, the words coming out slurred by a mouth half frozen. “Must be below zero. Must be well below zero.”
She slackened her jaw and let her teeth chatter with the cold — then clenched her jaw as a thought struck.
Frost. That was it. At the rate it was forming in this room and up above on the ground … it couldn’t be more than a day at most. Possibly only hours. The Xenoid wasn’t in the mountains, it wasn’t in the east –
A sound, vague and distorted, echoing down the hole.
Cy stared up the ladder, and for an instant thought a shadow had momentarily eclipsed that small circle of sky far above.
She knew her voice couldn’t possibly carry up the hole. And only silence answered her from above.
She began to climb.
Again a noise, heavy and loud, echoed down the hole. Again that circle of sky above blinked. She climbed faster, quicker than she would’ve thought possible, her hands and feet catching, slipping, catching and catching in the little climbing rungs.
Another sound reached her from above, a sound clear and definite — the whistling howl of a Xenoid.
Cy paused on the ladder, horrified and excited by the sound. Her heart raced. She no longer felt the cold or the ache in arm and back muscles. Her blood burned with a murderous fever, a need to destroy.
She swarmed up the ladder again, just as fast as she dared.
The Xenoid howled again, the echo shrilling down at her, spurring her to climb even faster. Her teeth were clenched and her eyes burned with a fearful need to kill.
Once more the thing howled, but this time speared through with a sharp, unmistakable note of pain. Immediately after came a short metallic screech. Cy, eyes upward, expected to see that circle of daylight wink out as the lid came slamming down. It didn’t. The silence following the screech lengthened and she climbed.
Something hit her arm, bounced across her face and gone.
A spider claw.
“Lazarus!” she yelled, and the last three metres of the hole yelled back Lazarus … Lazarus … Lazarus.
Something began to inch across the entrance above, the circle now an ellipse, the ellipse now a crescent, gradually cutting off the light with the sound of something heavy dragging across metal.
Gripping tight to a rung, Cy dangled in space, frantically feeling in her tunic for her flare pistol. A moment more and it was in her hand.
A white pulse blasted from the barrel, up the hole, hitting the object half filling the entrance, hitting its edge and ricocheting out and away. Almost at once the crescent glared like the blade of a burning scimitar.
A surge of heat rushed back down the hole and beat on her upturned face as Cy hung there, swung there by one arm from the climbing rung.
Somewhere above the Xenoid screamed again, its howl echoing in the bellowing confines of the hole, mixing with Cy’s maniacal, incoherent cursing. Her feet found toe-holds again. She clenched the pistol’s stock in her teeth and started to climb.
Within seconds she was up against the obstruction, a large rock almost completely blocking the top of the hole, leaving a space too narrow to squeeze through. She peered out through the gap but could see nothing but part of the pit, hear only the fizz of the flare dying somewhere in the fungus grass beyond.
She pushed at the stone with one free hand. It wouldn’t move.
Gripping the rim of the hole Cy brought her legs up several rungs, pushed her hands and shoulders against the rock, and uttering a deep-throated grunt, pushed.
Her body shuddered, her shoulder muscles bunched and swelled. The stone shifted slightly. Cy paused a moment, took a deep breath through her nose and with a yell of exertion pushed again. The rock shifted a little further, then teetered, threatening to fall back on her.
Scuffing her feet up the to the next rung, she grated, “You will move!” and pushed again, feeling her biceps and deltoids bulge with utmost effort, seeing the gap widen, feeling the rock shift some more and then some more. She was only vaguely aware of the pistol stock cracking between her teeth.
The rock tilted back, hung a moment, its weight immense on her shoulders and arms, then fell away with a heavy thud.
Gasping, Cy flung herself half out of the hole, her body feeling like one enormous bruise, cramped and aching, the flare pistol with its bitten stock still clenched between her teeth. She slapped hands onto the frosty metal rim, trying to get a grip.
The Xenoid some twenty metres away bore down on her in an odd, stooping shamble, a huge nightmare shape, its purple and red fur squirming as though alive with a million maggots. A glistening pale blue orb bulged from its hairy forehead. Only one upper limb was visible, a thick arm of glistening fur extended, ending in a meaty mitt holding something that glinted in the sunlight.
As Cy spat the pistol out onto the rim the Xenoid shifted the glinting thing in its hand — a laser with a glass barrel.
Her hands scrambling for the awkward shape of the flare pistol, she watched death pound down on her, watched that glass barrel level at her, watched the being’s thin, long fingers flex against the trigger –
The gun jerked again in the huge, hairy paw and again nothing happened.
The arm moved up, the glistening orb swiveled down to stare at the gun in almost comical astonishment.
But now Cy’s hand was around the flare pistol and her finger found the trigger.
The flare went wide, rocketing over the trees behind the Xenoid, exploding in a mini nova, the trees darkening in momentary silhouette.
The Xenoid, its pale blue orb bulging, hurled the laser, hitting her arm, throwing off her aim. Before she could get the flare pistol levelled again the monster did something Cy had only thought was legend.
With a loud squishy sound of liquid under pressure it erupted in height, became taller and thinner. It rose up on two uneven thin, narrow legs, pivoted on a single point like a ballerina, hung lopsided a second and stilted madly for the trees.
The second flare, fired with more deliberation, hit the fleeing monster squarely in the back. It staggered, regained its balance and ran on, taking huge steps with its sword blade legs. The flare itself bounced into some mushroom bushes, detonating in a shower of stars.
Cy levered herself out of the hole and crouched, swinging herself around, flare pistol ready. She was alone now and in possession of the battlefield.
At her feet was what the Xenoid had thrown at her – and she laughed aloud, a short, sharp bark of contempt. It was her own laser pistol. The one with the dead power pack.
So it’s found my raft. So it lacks weaponry and needs to steal. Interesting …
Not far from the laser, by the rim of the hole, were a few spots of shiny goo. Over to her right more spots led out of the pit.
“Gloop blood,” she muttered, remembering how it had howled, its stooped running. Injured … but how?
Recalling the dismembered claw falling by her, a chill swept through her that had nothing to do with the cold surrounding air.
She found most of the spider behind the hatch where it had fought to defend the iron bar still tightly wedged in the hinge. Cy knelt by the little body, or what was left of it. One claw, the right, was still there, still partly attached. In its pincers were strands of hair, purple and red, matted with goo. She gathered together as much of the scattered bug as there was on the frosty stone, then searched about in the grass beyond the pit, finding over here a leg and over there an eyestalk, opaque now and blind. She gathered them all together in a rough re-assembling of the spider in the hope it would once more perform its miracle of regeneration.
“Live,” she said. “Live!”
The remains lay there, the furry body oozing yellow pus.
Give it time, she thought. But, biting at her lip, she had a feeling there was no more time for Lazarus.
She stood, wincing at a momentary pain in back and shoulders.
Moving off across the clearing and out of the zone of cold, Cy followed the shiny goo trail of Xenoid blood marking the direction thing had fled.
When you Assume you make an Ass of You and Me.
Assuming, she now saw with bitter self-reproach, had almost made her a dead ass. That it was an ancient saying made her all the more angry for assuming that the enemy had left this area, for assuming the vehicle that passed her all those days ago had been a Gloop transportation vehicle. There were any number of explanations for what it had really been, none of them mattering now in the least.
The blood trailed across the island. There was less now than there had been back by the hole, and the drops were spacing further and further apart. The footprints – what she could make of them in the dirt and in crushed fungus grass — had changed as well: larger, wider and the stride had reduced. The thing had not only slowed, it’d compacted its legs and splayed out its feet.
Cy knelt and looked closer at the sticky drops painting the fungi grass. Was it blood or could it be the Xenoid’s natural hydraulic fluid? Something a xenobiology instructor once said came back to her: “The limbs work by fluids pumped through a network of veins … Xenoids are things without bones.”
The Xenoid had been stooping as it’d come at her, most likely sagging, its hydraulics on one side punctured by a spider claw.
Every now and then she sniffed the air. The breeze blowing from almost straight ahead carried no tell-tale odour of the enemy. Its tracks bore straight on.
The fungus eventually petered out into stony ground and Cy lost the trail, picking it up again a moment later when she found a few more spots of goo glistening among the stones. Immediately after this she heard the distant sound of something hard slamming into and crunching something breakable. Pointing her nose dead ahead she took in a good lung-full of sea air – and with it the smell of a Xenoid, faint but unmistakable.
Following the smell, following the sound, Cy scrambled up a rise – and only just managed to pull herself back from the edge of a cliff.
Getting down on all fours she crawled back to the edge again peered over.
About fifteen metres straight down was the natural harbour surrounded by high cliffs she’d almost entered earlier. What she saw now from above that she’d been unable to see from outside on the ocean was that there was a gorge cut into the left-hand cliff. It was a short, narrow slot where the water dead-rolled out of rhythm to the sea outside. Beached on shale at its end was a raft of plaited fungus fronds and strips and angles of some dark metal. A couple of metres further up this shale beach was the Xenoid.
Inconsequently it occurred to her that had she not changed her mind and entered this harbour as she’d originally intended, she might’ve saved herself a lot of trouble. Or come to a sudden end.
Viewed from above, the being looked like a big hairy ball. It was either sitting or crouching as it hammered a stone into one of a number of unidentifiable objects scattered about it. Splinters of plastic or metal flew as the rock, wielded in a thick, furry arm, smashed down again and again and again.
Then, as Cy watched, the Xenoid seemed to blur. A fleeting impression of its arm melting, stretching, of something whip-like lashing out – and it rock-hammer whizzed by her head.
She pulled away from the edge then wriggling back, just in time to see another rock launched at her. Again she pulled back and the rock whizzed through the space where her head had been an instant before.
Snatching up a stone from the cliff top she stood, sighted the Xenoid shambling towards its raft, and threw.
The stone hit its shoulder with a hard thwack as it pushed its raft into the sea. By the time another rock was in her hand the Xenoid had kicked off from the shale beach and, lying flat, was rapidly paddling towards the open sea with all four limbs wide and curved like flippers.
Her stone hit the raft. Her next stone, flinty with sharp edges, hit the Xenoid in the back, though without apparent effect. A moment later, flailing and splashing like a berserk paddle-wheeler, it rounded the corner into the gorge. Cy ran with an armful of rocks around to the top of the little bay’s entrance, but the Xenoid was already out to sea and out of range.
All the same she threw one, then a second, token gestures as both fell well short. She dropped the rest at her feet, one stone at a time, grimly aware of the absurdity of an interstellar war reduced to rock throwing.
Back at that other cliff top she examined the edge but couldn’t figure how the Xenoid had got down the sheer ten or fifteen metres. Had it shifted its limbs into membranous wings and para-glided? Had it clambered down the rock face vertically like a giant insect?
After some searching Cy found a part of the cliff face further along where it was not as sheer as the rest. The Gloop’s descent had not been so extraordinary after all. Within ten minutes of careful climbing from rocks to ledges to short slopes, her hands and boots sometimes slipping on goo, she reached the shale beach and its collection of mysterious objects.
Most – though not all – were jumbles of technology too smashed up and too alien to even guess at their purpose. One thing she did recognize was part of the computer from her raft, torn out raggedly from its housing. As she expected and feared, its memory module had been detached. A lot of human knowledge was now in the possession of the Xenoid. A dangerous thing. But her immediate concern was that the memory module would tell of the various supply cairns cached about this planet, in particular the closest: Charlie-Sierra. The Xenoid would be able to use the cairn’s materials and weapons. And although it would not be able to eat the cairn’s food, it could deny her that food.
Cy surveyed the destruction. It’d been pretty thorough. All the items scattered across the beach were either completely wrecked or were so badly damaged they were probably unusable. One that had suffered relatively little damage – a crack across its screen and some dents to its casing – and was recognizable to the human mind was a hologram projector. It showed a static, low angle image of two flat walls of what looked like compacted soil meeting in a neat square corner. At the top right of the hologram was a patch of blue sky with just a touch of cloud. Studying it, Cy was haunted by the idea that this weird scene was somehow familiar. But from where? When?
Suddenly it came to her. It came to her on memories of feeling foolish and laughing at herself. It was a view from the bottom of the oblong pit back on Enigma Beach. But why did the Gloops want to look up from the bottom of an alien refuse pit? And what was transmitting this odd image?
Halfway back up the cliff, climbing from slopes to ledges to rocks, an idea occurred to her that might answer those questions. The thing that had passed her days ago in the dark, flickering by the stars low on the horizon, had probably been an automated probe, rolling east. And when it got in among the shipwrecks …
For a short time Cy lay on one of the ledges, helpless with laughter. Her mind was screening an absurdist movie of the Gloop machine wheeling triumphantly in among the wrecks, lights flashing, antennae spinning, all doors opening and shutting -– I’ve arrived! Kiss me! — only to be unceremoniously picked up by the Kreeng spiders and dumped into the oblong pit like so much rubbish.
Thought of spiders sobered her. She sat up and thought once more of Lazarus, certain now the heroic bug had died for the last time.
From the cliff top she could just make out the Xenoid on its raft. It had stopped paddling and had put up a mast from which flapped a sail.
It was sailing west towards the Charlie-Sierra cairn.
About the Author
Rick Kennett has had horror and SF stories published in several magazines, anthologies and podcasts including Dunesteef, PseudoPod, and Cast of Wonders. He won two Parsec Awards for podcast stories in 2013, a year that also saw the publication of his novel The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea. One of those Parsec Awards was for Cast of Wonders Episode 71, Now Cydonia, one of the several Martian Ranger Cy De Gerch stories.
When not toiling at the day job in the transport industry, he can be found wandering cemeteries – necrotourism – or working as the podcast reporter for the Ghosts & Scholars M R James Newsletter.
About the Narrator
Marguerite Kenner (she/her) is a California transplant living in the UK city named after her favorite pastime.
She runs Escape Artists with her partner Alasdair Stuart, and practices as a technology lawyer in London. She loves to voice minor characters in podcasts and play video games, often where people can watch.
Her contributions to genre fiction include being a 2021 Hugo Award Finalist, editing Cast of Wonders from 2013 to 2019, project groups for too many industry orgs to count anymore, community organising, mentoring, and teaching business skills to creatives.
You can follow her adventures across various social media platforms.