“Alright Felix, how are we looking?” Kathryn asked, strapped into one of the shuttles.
“It’s a beautiful spring morning in the abandoned ruins of the great city of Vancouver,” Felix reported, feigning an overly stylized media presenter voice, “highs of twenty eight, and not a cloud in the sky. It’s a beautiful day to go sifting through dangerous ruins for a replacement body for your nearest and dearest disembodied simulant head.”
“Thank you Felix,” she replied, indicating she was adequately amused but not going to indulge him any further. “Patricia, are your explorers standing by for us to pick them up?” Both she and Molly’s head were in the shuttle with her.
“Yes Kathryn, they are waiting at the location we departed from the other day.”
“Alright then, take us down Jaren. Other shuttle, as discussed you will wait until we’ve picked up the rest of our party, and then depart to meet us at our designated landing coordinates. This shuttle will be designated Alpha, yours will be Beta.”
“Understood Alpha,” Irvina answered over the comms from the other shuttle. “We’ll see you there.”
Teresa, Deirdre and Terey were left behind with Felix on New Horizon while Kathryn, Patricia, Molly’s head and Jaren were the only ones currently in Alpha Shuttle in order to accommodate the six explorers they were going to pick up. This left Irvina, Reed, Xion, Nadelle, Francis, and Ana standing by on the second shuttle.
Alpha Shuttle raced away from the New Horizon and Kathryn, Patricia, and Molly took the opportunity to marvel yet again at the spectacular view of the planet below the projection of the exterior onto the interior surfaces of the shuttle provided, as Jaren focused on safely bringing the shuttle down to Molly and Patricia’s village site.
They approached the ground remarkably quickly, to the point that Kathryn could tell Patricia was becoming somewhat nervous before Jaren severely decelerated the shuttle, and then slowed down more gently towards a soft landing on the extended struts below the shuttle. The wall fell away to present a ramp, and Patricia welcomed the local explorers onto the shuttle.
“Don’t be afraid,” she told them, “they are friends.”
The explorers seemed rather taken aback at the site of Molly’s head sitting strapped into a seat above the sack her power source had been mounted into.
“Not to worry boys, all part of the plan,” she reassured them as casually as she could through her scroll speakers.
The men looked at each other and shrugged before being led over to their seats by Patricia, who assisted them to strap properly strap themselves securely into their seat harnesses.
“This is a great honour,” Patricia assured them. “Not only will you be blessed as I have to see the lands from the sky, but our task is to find a new body for dear Leader and help her be restored. Isn’t that wonderful?” She sounded genuinely honoured to be part of the effort.
The men didn’t seem much phased by the promise of a great view, perhaps they didn’t fully understand what she’d meant, but they brightened considerably and some of their tenseness seemed to dissipate upon hearing what their primary objective was. They loved their dear leader, and they knew how much Molly lamented what had happened to her body. The prospect of helping her be restored seemed a great honour, and what an unexpected additional blessing after only so recently being freed from her imprisonment in the damn!
Kathryn couldn’t tell to what degree Jaren took relish in terrifying their new passengers, but he seemed to take off and accelerate into the sky somewhat faster than he usually would or needed to. The men seemed on the verge of terror and when she saw the subtle smirk on Jaren’s face she understood. She hadn’t herself, but Jaren certainly recognized two of the men they’d brought onboard as ones who had been guarding Kathryn during his botched rescue attempt. Worse still, one of them was clearly the one who had cut her throat.
She’d already completely forgotten but Jaren clearly hadn’t, and although she doubted he’d do anything else, he was taking this opportunity to relatively innocently get back at them by making their ascent a little harder on them than it needed to be.
He climbed to a relatively high elevation, and signalled for the other shuttle to begin their descent to the surface. Their shuttle tilted to the side for a time as Jaren traversed the surface of the planet before beginning to descend again. The area they’d designated this time for landing and setting up camp was a relatively flat area on the water with a mixed sandy and rocky beach leading up a gradual slope to a relatively open and flat grassy area. Here there didn’t seem to be any danger of surface instability, and it allowed them the opportunity to see any potential threats coming their way before they fell upon them.
“How is the fuel holding up Jaren?” Kathryn asked as she undid her shoulder straps. The explorers began to do the same upon seeing her do so.
“Bout half, other shuttle’s probably the same, so another four or five return trips.”
“So if we needed to spend a few days or more here we’d want to set up camp here as opposed to going back up to the ship every night?”
“Yes, although… it’s a lot less fuel to go to the northern encampment than to orbit, if we’re welcome it might be best to spend the nights there if it comes to that.”
“You would be welcome,” Molly confirmed through the scroll.
Kathryn led the others down the ramp to wait for the other shuttle, and they were immediately able to see its shiny exterior high up in the sky, glittering in the morning sun. The all watched as it descended and finally came down to a landing beside them, including Molly’s head who was worn on the back of one of her men.
Irvina led the others out of Beta shuttle and nodded in acknowledgement of her teammates. “Jaren, Captain.”
“Irvina,” Kathryn acknowledged. “We were discussing that for the sake of fuel, if we need to spend several days or more here we’d be better off staying at Molly’s village as opposed to returning to orbit. If it looks like we’ll be spending weeks though, we’ll have to set up a formal camp.”
“Forgive me Captain, but if this is really going to take weeks then we are going to have to return to Kobol and resupply.”
“Good point. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.”
“Ok, Molly’s explorers please gather around.” Kathryn fully deployed one of the large scrolls and laid it on the ground so they could all stand around and see, though she squatted down to manipulate it with touch control. She looked up at the men though, and detected a sense of unease. “How are you all by the way, did you enjoy the flight? Must have been pretty exciting if it was your first time in the air?”
The men mumbled that they were well and that yes it had indeed been something to travel in a flying machine. They hardly had the language to even refer to what they had just experienced. She got the sense that they now just wished to get on with the mission and she was happy to oblige. “This… is a true aerial image of this peninsula. Molly tells me you’ve all been here exploring for equipment and supplies you can still use, that you’ve all been here at least once?” Some grunts and definitive nodding answered in the affirmative for her. “Right. Well, this is a road map overlay of the peninsula from the archives. As you can see, the gulleys generally map onto the ravines between the hills, but not perfectly. This general area,” she pointed, “is where Mol-, I mean your leader, says we might be able to find a place with things we may be able to restore her with. Can you lead us there?”
The men nodded while one stroked his chin pensively. “Hills… unstable, but inside the hills are the best place to find valuables, but very dangerous to enter.”
“Yes, we figured. We have engineers who can assess structural integrity, and we have some equipment which should help when we need to enter one.”
The men looked at her blankly.
“How do you suggest we proceed.”
“Safest way is along the water, cave ins less likely, but more vulnerable to murdercat attack.”
“Yes,” Kathryn acknowledged as she stood and pushed the scroll closed. “We know that much. What is the best way to avoid the, um… murdercats?”
“Luck?” the one man offered.
“If we spot one,” he held up his blow dart, “we will try to stop it.”
“Thank you,” she said. “We have weapons too. If you alert us we can attack along with you.”
The man nodded his understanding.
“So, cave ins, murder cats, the occasional bear… anything else we need to worry about?”
“Explorers from other tribes.”
“You encounter them often?”
“Often, yes… but not always.”
“Do you ever get along?”
“Sometimes we make brothers. Usually we make war.”
“Which do you prefer?” she asked. They looked at her as though they didn’t understand the question, which she figured was fair enough.
“Alright, everyone listen up. Here’s the plan. We walk in twos, two explorers in the front, two in the middle, two in back. The rest of you pair off and find yourself a place in line. Person on the left watch your left, on the right watch your right. One of you look out for threats above and around, the other focus more on the terrain ahead of and beneath you. Everyone clear?”
They all formed into a line two by two and crossed the field towards the wasteland of once mighty skyscrapers and streets. Kathryn couldn’t shake the feeling of tiptoeing through a graveyard as they entered a covered area. Once in the city, a variety of leafy and evergreen trees quite thoroughly obscured the sky, and between the trees and the moss and grasses on the ground, everything she could see had a distinct emerald green hue to it.
As they walked along a creek the terrain was not forgiving. It was not a path they were traversing, it was wild land, with a deep ravine on one side of them and a steep slope going up the other. She knew that the hills were the remains of collapsed buildings, but only now did she realize that the creek on her other side was the remains of an underground tunnel under the roadway that used to exist there, now long caved in.
She tried to picture what this place must have looked like once. She imagined walking along a concrete sidewalk with a towering structure shooting up into the sky beside her, covered in glass and glittering in the morning sun. She imagined it must have been something like what she’d seen in the capital city on Kobol. She tried to imagine seeing cars of all sorts zooming by her on one side, subway trains rumbling underfoot… Her dreams of restoring Earth were not so grandiose or imperial as to want to exactly replicate in this space what had once been, but she found herself longing to be able to walk down this street for real, to know this city and its people as they had been, to know this world and its culture at its height.
It reminded her of home, although home was several hundred years of technological development behind Earth at the time of the plague, it occurred to her that Earth at some point in its past must have looked quite a bit like Haven did now, at least in the twin city. She imagined hundreds of years before the plague, her ancestors just coming to grips with the relationship between electricity and magnetism, and developing the early rocketry which would take them up to…
She’d stopped dead in her tracks, and the rest of the party was looking at her expectantly. Some looked up into the sky to try to see what she was looking at, but they couldn’t. From her perspective, a hole in the canopy of the forest serendipitously showed through the full moon as seen during daytime, a pockmarked blue white circle begging contemplation.
In that moment she understood something profound. The whole time her people had been on Haven, they had looked up in the sky and seen the New Horizon up there, waiting for them to return. Its presence there almost taunted them, derided them for having lost the ability to return and dared them to attempt it again. Haven had no large moon, only New Horizon, but seeing that moon from this planet, she understood that it must have elicited a very similar taunting to the people of Earth, that it must still today to the survivors. It demands notice, demands explanation and exploration, an ever-present challenge just out of reach up in the celestial sphere.
She knew a kinship with her ancestors in that moment, the first of many such moments, but the first would always be the most profound. She was able to directly relate something of her Haven experience to something of the experience of Earth, and that moment of recognition brought her to some sort of spiritual closeness with her deep roots as a human being. It was her first sense of truly deep connection, her first profound moment of deep understanding about of the ultimate unity of all human beings on all four worlds, they were not Havenites, Kobolians, Romans, and Earthlings, they were all just humans with different addresses, an extended family separated for too long. They were one collective force in the universe divided only in their minds.
“What’s up?” Irvina asked beside her. “Problem?”
“No, no problem… Sorry, let’s continue.”
Periodically they would find that the path they wanted to take was simply insurpassable. The hill too steeply gave way directly into the ravine, or they wanted to go one direction but could only go the other, and getting to where they wanted to go even just a few kilometers in from their landing site required a lot of backtracking and careful route planning.
They didn’t complain, but Kathryn was getting the sense that this was not how the explorers were used to operating, that they tended to reach the outskirts, and enter the first hill which presented promise and opportunity. Regardless, their experience was proving quite useful.
Kathryn and Irvina were directly behind the lead two explorers, and one casually fell back to walk with the two women. “We are being watched,” he said.
“By what?” Irvina asked. “From where?” The man pointed, but the two women could not see anything.
“They are rival explorers, but we cannot tell from which people. We can’t say how dangerous.”
Kathryn touched her PANEs. “Taking a nap Overwatch? Lead explorers report possible hostiles to the west.”
“Scanning…” Felix reported. “Sorry Captain, yes indeed. A dozen targets… one point two kilometers west south west. Patching infra-red into your PANEs.”
“Wow,” Kathryn said, startled to the point that she had to stop walking, so the whole party did as well. Now instead of what was in front of her, all she could see in her glasses was the red scanning map from orbit. She lifted the glasses up and rested them on the top of her head, and pulled a pocket scroll out of her pocket. She opened it up and muttered: “there’s got to be a more effective way to display… yes, there we go.” She tapped a few more times at the panel and then rolled it up and tucked it back in her pocket. “Much better…” she uttered as she pulled the glasses back down over her eyes. Now instead of the orbital imaging, she had the proper view out in front of her, but with targets marked with cursors off in the distance, superimposed on the true image. She was seeing every large heat signature besides their party through the glasses, complete with a range indicator above them.
“Setting F7B on your PANEs if you’ve got them,” she called back down the line.
One of the lead explorers grabbed her arm. “Waneta,” he warned. “I saw their colours, they are Waneta. We are in danger. If we have seen them they are already planning to attack!”
“How do they attack? What is the best defence?” she asked.
“They circle, attack from all sides.”
Looking all about her in every direction she could see figures slowly making their way into an encircling formation. “Is there any way to deter their attack, to make them reconsider?”
“They have never been seen without suffering attack,” he explained, obviously quite concerned.
“Damn,” Kathryn exclaimed, turning to Irvina. “We don’t have the space here to get into a defensive formation against an encircling attack.”
“I have a really bad idea…” Irvina offered, looking up the slope immediately beside them towards a clearing at the top of the hill.
“It’s a good idea,” Kathryn considered.
“Unless we all fall into a cave in and break our necks.”
“No more likely than being hacked to bits if we don’t,” she said with a shrug. “Oh hell, they’re almost in formation. Everyone up the hill!!”
Some seemed to hesitate or start to protest, but when they saw Kathryn and Irvian along with the two lead explorers all bolt at full speed up the hill they all sensed the urgency and followed.
“The head at the very top of the hill, New Horizon crew on your bellies facing out with weapons drawn, explorers out front! Stick to the ground at distance but if they get close enough, up on your feet for defence against swords!” Kathryn yelled as she arrived at the top of the hill first and got into position, quickly followed by all the others who obeyed her instructions without question and all properly got into formation.
“What’s your name?” Kathryn asked as she tapped on the boot of the explorer in front of her who had warned her about the Waneta.
“Kirby will they stop if they’re getting killed?”
“They would consider it a dishonour.”
A dart she never saw whistled past her ear.
“Balls!!” Molly cried out from the scroll in the bag below her. “Those bastards! My one good eye!!”
Kathryn looked back to see a dart embedded in poor Molly’s one eye, moving about with her eye as she moved it by looking around in disbelief.
Despite the stress of the situation, or maybe because of it, Kathryn couldn’t help but let out a mirthful grunt at the sight.
“It’s NOT FUNNY!” Molly yelled angrily at her, glaring at her with the dart pointed squarely at her in line with her stare. This of course only made it funnier, but the moment was broken when she saw one of the infra-red cursors manifest into direct line of sight, and she raised her printed handgun, took aim at his chest and fired.
She rarely missed, and this time was no exception. They all tried to storm them at once from all directions, but under Kathryn’s instructions they were ready for them. Before long they were all taken out long before they reached a range at which they could use their swords. Those who were shot were quickly dying if not dead already, and those who had been darted or struck by an energy blast from the Kobol wands were soundly unconscious.
Nobody seemed in a hurry to get back up to their feet after the event. Kathryn tapped Kirby’s boot and asked: “What happens when the ones still alive wake up?”
“If we are gone, they will leave. If they see us they will attack again. They claim these entire ruins for themselves.”
“I see. And how long will your darts knock them out?”
“Half a daytime,” he answered. She figured that meant four hours at least and probably no more than six.
“Is anyone hurt?” she called out.
“Yes!!” Molly cried out indignantly.
Nobody else called anything else out. Cautiously Kathryn pushed herself up onto her knees and dusted her hands before standing up and walking over to Molly’s head. She put her fists on her hips and looked down at her sympathetically as her eye along with its embedded dart looked up at her in return.
“Pull it out?” Kathryn asked.
“Oh no,” Molly answered sarcastically. “I like it this way. I think it might start a fashion trend.”
“Alright,” Kathryn sighed. “Hold still,” she advised as she bent down and put one hand on the top of Molly’s head to stabilize it, and as gingerly as possible slipped the dart out. Molly blinked her eye furiously several times and then looked up at Kathryn gratefully. “Are you damaged?” she asked the head. “Can you still see?”
“Surprisingly… yes,” she answered through the scroll in the bag below her. “It must have just missed the important optics.”
“Good. Alright, well we’d better WHOA!!” The whole hill most of them were still laying down on gave way and slumped, falling straight down, then stopped, then fell again, and then fell again, about two meters each time. Kathryn was just barely able to keep her footing the whole time and stayed on her feet.
“What was that??” she asked anyone able to answer.
“Cascade collapse,” Irvina answered, carefully getting to her feet. “The top floor fell onto the lower one, both of which collapsed onto the lower floor, and the next. We’re lucky we didn’t fall through.”
“Why didn’t we?”
“Probably too much debris and soil ontop of the top floor, the weight was easier to accommodate by collapsing floors of the original structure than to have something fall through.”
“Right.” Kathryn knelt down to address the head. “Molly, you’re gonna have to help us out. You said once you were on the ground you’d be able to guide us. Are any intuitions striking you? We’ve been wandering around too long, can you help us out?”
“I’m sorry, nothing looks anything like…” she looked around, “what it did before.”
Patricia approached. “If you could see inside one of these ruins, could it help you more precisely locate yourself?”
“That’s an interesting idea girl. It might. A lot of these buildings were residential and I wouldn’t recognize, but a lot of the residential buildings had businesses on the main floor I might recognize.”
Kathryn sighed, but then addressed Irvina and Francis. “What is the safest and easiest way to get into an interior of one of these hills?” she asked the engineers.
“Safest?” Francis asked. “There may be an easiest way, but there is no safe way.”
“Fine. Suppose we wanted to get into this structure specifically, how would you do it?”
“This hill we’re on?”
“The one that just collapsed several floors?”
“Yes.” She could tell he wanted to simply state that he wouldn’t want to, but he declined to.
“I’d take detailed orbital ground penetrating scans and assess the least terrifyingly dangerous level and try to tunnel in from the side.”
Kathryn turned to the explorers. “What about you all? You must get into old buildings to scavenge, how do you do it?”
“Sometimes there are holes leading into them from the water.”
“Sometimes there are…” she shook her head in disbelief. “You see?” she scolded Francis. “That’s why we brought them with us! Let’s split up into three teams, each led by a pair of explorers, and see if they can find us an entrance into a building, any building.” She touched the side of her PANEs. “Felix, we’re going to need you to watch us very carefully, we’re temporarily splitting up.”
She assigned who was on which team, and allowed Kirby to lead Irvina, Ana, and herself down into one of the creek gulleys and follow the water along, looking for a cave in the wall which they claimed might lead them into a building.
“Teams be warned,” Francis said over the comms to all three of the groups, “there is a herd of large animals moving through one of the ravines near you. They appear from the descriptions offered by the locals to be a herd of the herbivores they called deer. Still no sign of any threatening animals.”
“Here,” Kirby said. He was pointing to an oval opening about a meter across which had a modest but steady stream of liquid running out of the bottom of it, down the rest of the wall, and into the stream.
“Oh I see, thanks.” She touched her PANEs. “Be advised teams, what Kirby has shown me I think is a drainage tunnel where the water that seeps into the building drains out into the ravines. We’re going to check it out.”
“Send one of mine,” she heard Molly strongly suggest over the comms. “That’s what they’re here for.”
Kathryn paused and considered. She wanted to go herself, and if it was just a matter of putting someone else’s life at risk instead of her own she wouldn’t have considered it, but the reality was that they were indeed much more experienced in this and would more readily understand the dangers they would find.
“Alright, here Kirby,” she took off her PANEs and put them on his face. These will allow you to see in the dark and send what you see back to this,” she said of the scroll she took out her pocket. “Just try not to touch it though, you might make it do something you don’t want.”
Kirby looked somewhat concerned at her wording. Might it blow up on his face if he touched it the wrong way?
“Just go in and have a look around. Your leader will see what you see and be able to tell if she recognizes anything.”
The man nodded, and bravely squeezed into the hole.
“Kathryn, heads up. I see what I think to be one of those murdercats in the area. I think it’s stalking those deer, but its close enough that it…”
“What? Talk to me Felix.”
“It’s veered off. I think it’s heading in your direction. It looks like it’s looking for an appropriate perch to look down on you, opposite side of the ravine from you.”
“I see it,” Kathryn said with a devious smile, drawing her gun and relishing the chance for some payback against the beast that had hurt her friend. It didn’t seem to matter to her whether or not it was actually the same animal or not.
The creature was hiding remarkably effectively in a tree, but its eyes gave it away when she looked right at it. She raised her gun and carefully took aim right between those two devilish eyes. But before she could squeeze the trigger, the life left its eyes and it seemed to fall out of the tree and out of sight. She looked over and saw that Irvina had rendered it unconscious with her wand.
Irvina was confused by the impression Kathryn’s expression gave her that she’d done something wrong, but Kathryn merely thanked her politely and that was the end of it. She went back to her scroll to monitor Kirby’s progress.
It was hard to make out exactly what was seen, especially with the red and black infra-red scanner image, but what could be seen was remarkably well preserved. Very little within was actually preserved of course, but the overall structure, the walls and such, were still intact. What the room used to be however, was practically impossible to tell.
“We found another entrance,” Xion reported over the comms, “we’re going to send one of our guides in, we’ll feed you all of the raw video directly.”
“Thanks for your help Kirby, you can come on out now,” Kathryn called into the black void as she brought up the other one’s feed.
“We’ve found another one here too,” Jaren said from the third team. “Want us to send someone in?”
“Wait until we’ve checked out this second one. No need to risk yours till we’ve checked that one out.”
“Everyone watched as one of Kirby’s colleagues slipped into the drainage way and shimmied his way through the darkness. He finally emerged into a much larger though still not terribly large open room with pillars holding up the ceiling. He spotted an entry way into a larger area and they watched as he proceeded into it. The second area must have been too large and open for his scanners to be able to pick anything up, and Kathryn listened as Xion explained in warning to the explorer that they were going to remotely activate the little lights on his PANEs and amplify the light he would see in his lenses, and on their remote viewing as well.
When they did so, a large cavernous area was revealed, and something about it seemed very familiar to Kathryn, but she couldn’t immediately identify what it was.
“It looks like the main central area from Orbital One,” Felix commented on the feed from up in orbit. From what she’d seen remotely of the station he was right, but that wasn’t it… She snapped her fingers. “Yes, and a larger configuration of the New Horizons dining hall as well!”
It was a large open area extending into the distance, with elevated walkways on either side on top of a series of open spaces along the main level such as the explorer had emerged from. The place was awash in debris, and in a number of places the upper walkway had collapsed into the spaces below, but all in all it was all remarkably intact.
“You know what else it looks like?” Kathryn heard Molly say.
“Oh my god I don’t believe it! I recognize it, I know that place all too well!” she laughed.
“What is it?”
“It’s the mall! My mall!” she laughed again. “It’s the damn Commonwealth Pacific Mall!”
“And does that help us?” Kathryn asked.
“Sure does! I spent way too much time and money in that place, and from there I can definitely direct you to where the simulant laboratory should be.”
“Oh thank goodness,” Kathryn exclaimed in relief. “Alright, get that man out of there and let’s meet up again to plan a route to the lab.”
“Warning Kat,” Felix communicated from high in the sky. “I see nine creatures headed your way from the east north east. They look a little different from the cat and they sure aren’t moving in a friendly way if you catch my drift.”
“Nine of them?”
“Inside,” Kirby said, pointing to the hole.
“Inside!” he insisted.
Kathryn didn’t protest and pushed her way into the small opening in the Earth, and the other four followed behind her. As she moved she called to the other two teams.
“Converge on our position, I have a feeling we may need your help. Be careful though, and advance with caution. Don’t let them get too close unless you have the clear advantage.”
She tripped and fell into the open area, and Irvina tripped over her and fell to the ground as well. They managed to scramble out of the way to avoid the other three following close behind.
“Light?” Kirby asked, and Kathryn unrolled the scroll and set it to beacon mode, both sides of the screen lit up remarkably brightly, and the whole area they found themselves in lit up.
“Weapons.” Kirby said, pointing to the hole they had just come out of, and she understood. He had forced the animals into a bottleneck if they wanted to come for them, and that is exactly what they seemed to have in mind. Ana was unarmed, but Kathryn with her gun, Irvina with her wand, and the two explorers with their blow darts took turns putting down wolves one after another as they came through, but the third one managed to get by them, shelterd from their attacks by the bodies of the previous two. In their panic the fourth one came through, but the explorers, having survived such an attack before, kept targeting the wolves in the tunnel until their still bodies plugged the hole too tightly for any more to push their way through.
The women frantically danced about trying to avoid being bitten by the two which had made it in. Irvina relative quickly put down one of them with her wand, but Kathryn was too afraid of hitting one of her teammates if she wildly shot at the remaining one in the small space. Instead when it came for her she reared back and kicked it square in the jaw as hard as she could, and knocked it back as it let out a yelp of pain. She then advanced on it and kicked it several more times in the head before finally stomping it as hard as she could several time, crushing its skull to be sure that it was dead in a horrible bloody mess.
Completely lit up with pulsing adrenaline she turned back to the others and frantically yelled in excited anger tinged with frustration, “is EVERYTHING on this fucking planet trying to KILL US!!??” She breathed heavily, her chest heaving in and out with the excitement in her veins and the sudden exertion of energy.
“Nope,” Irvina answered with a smirk and a twinkle in her eye, also quite excited and worked up but nowhere near as much as Kathryn, who had just gotten so up close and personal with the predator. “Only the things that aren’t afraid of us.”
From both sides of the narrow access tunnel, wolf bodies were removed from the clog of flesh now blocking the passage between the outside and interior of the ruin. When the last was pulled out, Jaren was the first through. He asked if everyone was alright, but the burning inquiry in his eyes was pointed squarely on Kathryn. Clearly he was most interested in her well-being first, but out of consideration and responsibility had to ask more generally of everyone.
“We’re fine,” Irvina answered him, choosing not to be offended by his clear primary interest in Kathryn. “Pretty lucky to be actually.” She did her best to brush dust and dirt off of her pants, but not meeting with much luck. “Captain Barnes here turns out to be quite a beast, I’m impressed!”
Kathryn looked at Jaren with an expression meant to convey that she was quite fine and that he needn’t worry. “What do we do with these dead wolves?” she asked.
“We normally use the skins and eat their meat,” Kirby answered. “But if we leave them here, they will be consumed by other animals.”
“Alright, let’s just do that then. Everyone else is outside?”
“Good, we can all head to the final site together.”
Kathryn made her way through the tunnel and greeted the rest of the teams on the other side. Some offered handshakes, others embraced her in lingering hugs before she could offer anything less. She turned one of Molly’s men around to address the head sitting on top of the backpack.
“So, based on what you saw in there you think you can direct us to the lab where you were built?”
“Yes, absolutely. Now that I have my bearings and understand better that these ravines were streets and such, yes. It’s actually not very far from here.”
“Okay, where do we head.”
“Well, the direction you’re looking two blocks, then turn right for three blocks and its right there. Er… well, that’s where it used to be anyways. Now I’m really nervous that we won’t find anything other than useless debris and wreckage. Before we go there there is hope, but if we find nothing… then all hope is gone.”
Kathryn nodded that she understood. “We felt the same way when we came back to Earth not knowing if we’d even find any still living humans, let alone…” she looked at Jaren for a moment, then declined to finish her thought. “Okay, where’s Kirby?”
Kirby was just poking his head through the entrance to the ruins as he emerged.
“Kirby, you’re my guy. You take point and lead us over there please. Your leader says where we need to go is two blocks that way,” she extended her arm to convey the direction, and then three blocks that way,” she bent her arm and pointed with her finger to indicate the cross direction. “Same two by two configuration we initially took. Felix, you have eyes on us?”
“Yes ma’am, things look clear for several kilometers around you. The remaining wolves seem to have gone back to wherever they came from, and none of the survivors from the tribe that attacked have moved at all so far. You’re clear to move on.”
And so they did, with Kathryn following Kirby and his fellow local. The serenity of the location resumed its deceptive quality. Birds chattered and playfully fluttered through the tree tops above their head, and animals they could never quite get a look at fluttered about in the ravine below, seemingly hard at work with the business of survival in the wild.
The ravine water was only a little less than waist deep and although it had a minor flow to it, it was soft enough that when they needed to cross from one island city block to another, they could relatively easily climb down the embankment on one side, wade through the water, and climb back up the other side to resume their hike. The only variable of consequence was how easily the embankments lent themselves to traverse. Sometimes they could directly engage where they’d approached and wanted to cross, other times they’d have to make their way quite an irritatingly far distance up or down stream to find a section more suitable for crossing. This and the lack of a beaten down path along the banks of the water ways made for frustratingly slow going.
Finally though, they came to an embankment adjacent to the area where Molly had indicated.
“Does every ruin block have an entrance like we saw at the other mounds?” Kathryn asked Kirby.
“If you look hard enough, yes. There will always be at least one drainage hole, though they are often not large enough for us to pass through.”
“I see. Have you ever tried to dig such a passage larger?”
“Only once. We lost two brothers that day.”
“I understand. Okay,” she forcefully called out after turning around to address the rest of her party. “Fan out! Get in the water and look all around the base of this mound for an entrance like we’ve seen before. Kirby says there’s got to be one, but it may be too small to enter. We’ll deal with that if and when we need to, but first we need to find it.”
As the teams spread out they investigated the entire perimeter. It didn’t take long before Ana called out that she’d found something. Kathryn joined the others in looking at the hole in the side of the ravine somewhat dubiously. It was narrow, too narrow, well… just barely wide enough for some unlucky soul to shimmy their way through it.
“I’ve got just the thing,” Irvina offered as she pulled off her backpack and rummaged through it. She produced something like a cube a quarter meter across. “This is a multi-form drone, it can convert to a helicopter form, or like this.” She placed the cube at the mouth of the hole and pointed her wand at it. The cube deconstructed itself into the shape of a segmented snake and began slithering down the hole. “It has a video feed you can all access, its band theta four, unencrypted.”
Kathryn processed this and then, realizing she could pick up the feed on her PANEs pulled them out of her pocket and put them on, using her pocket scroll to switch them to the channel Irvina had indicated. She was still marvelling somewhat at the utility of the device, watching through its eyes as it worked its way into the interior. It seemed that the hole was about six meters long, but maintained the same narrowness the entire length if maybe getting a touch wider the further in the drone slithered. Finally the snake reached the end and waited ahead of the soil mound in front of it on the floor below for further instruction.
“I’m going to switch it to flight mode and set it on an automatic search and scan mode,” Irvina explained.
The drone folded back up into a cube, and then configured itself into a flat triangle with mini antimatter thrusters at each point, and then got to work mapping the accessible interior. Kathryn watched the video feed, but then put the image onto the top left of both lenses so she could keep an eye on it while she went to talk to Molly.
“What do you think?” she asked the head, who was watching on a scroll one of her men was holding up in front of her immobile head so she could see.
“Hard to make out…” she admitted. “I’m certain we’ve got the right building, but… this area appears to be an empty large area… oh, right! This is the parking garage for the Road Pods in the basement of the building.”
“What are Road Pods?” Kathryn asked.
“Well, they were pods which uh… travelled on the road,” Molly awkwardly answered. “They were a primary component of our transportation infrastructure, you just get in, think at it where you want to go and it would take you there, charging your accounts for its use when you were finished with it,” she explained. “This was one of any number of storage lots where Road Pods not currently in use would sit idle, waiting for the next summons. It also doubled as a parking area for the few weirdos who still had antique vehicles which required a driver, as well as those wealthy enough to afford their own private fancy pod.”
“I see. What should be above this level?”
“Ummm…” Molly’s head looked up into the sky with its one eye, searching for the answer. “As I recall… the level above this was ground entrance commercial, shops and restaurants which opened onto the street for pedestrian traffic and, of course, anyone arriving from below in Road Pods.”
“And the simulant laboratory?”
“Three or four floors above that.”
“Three, or… four,” Kathryn repeated, dismayed with her inability to be more specific.
“How can I help?”
“Molly says that the level the drone is currently in is a basement level, above that was street entrance commercial and the lab three or four floors above. What can the ground penetrating sensors show of the internal structure of this particular mound?”
Kathryn waited with Molly looking right at her. She didn’t have the luxury of turning her head away, but also seemed content to continue to stare at her as though she were assessing her, surveying her, for some reason trying to absorb every feature of her appearance, while Kathryn was politely trying to look elsewhere.
“If this doesn’t work out,” Molly finally said, still looking unblinkingly at Kathryn, “it’ll take a long time for the Mormons to figure out and perfect simulant technology, but eventually if they keep at it they should be able to create for me any kind of form I’d like. I always imagined I’d like to have my original form restored, but I’ve been daydreaming since you all showed up with so much promise and possibility for me. I could be a woman of any appearance I could want, I could custom order any kind of beauty I want. I could have yours!” she exclaimed with a mischievous smile, to which Kathryn frowned quite profoundly.
“Oh not to worry child, I know that would be unfair, especially with you humans aging the way you insist on doing… or hey, I could be a man!” The novelty seemed to initially tantalize her, but she quickly changed her expression to one of dismissal of the idea. “No, no I don’t suppose I’d like that at all.”
“I suppose if you didn’t want to, there’s no reason why you’d have to look entirely like a human at all,” Kathryn offered, keeping the conversation going while they waited. “You might discover a form that suited you even better than a human one.”
“This is true, why I never thought of that, but you’re right aren’t you? Why I could be a three meter tall bronze skinned monster with laser eyes! Or I could be an angel with large beautifully delicate wings, or could be a barrel chested silver robot with arms and legs like robotic elephant trunks or something, anything I want!”
“I would imagine so, yes.”
“Hunh… when I was made, back in the day… the whole point of simulants was to replicate living humans as precisely as possible. That was the pride in them, how indistinguishable they were from the real thing. It never became in fashion to make things deliberately unreal… though I suppose eventually we’d have gotten there. We made everything from house cats, to dinosaurs with human minds in them, to toy elephants the size of cats… that was about as imaginative as the builders got before the fall.”
“Okay I’ve run the scans,” Felix said over the comms.
“And… there is nothing above the first floor.”
Molly looked down and away in disappointment for the first time.
“Explain,” Molly commanded.
“It looks as though most of the top of the buildings broke off and fell away long ago like all the others, and they are all in various stages of the remaining floors collapsing down on top of each other. In this structure every floor above the main original ground level floor has collapsed into one large mass. If there’s anything of interest in there for us, it will take an archaeology crew to conduct a lengthy and meticulous excavation layer by layer from the top, something well beyond the capabilities of a general exploration mission such as ours.”
Kathryn sighed. “Alright, thank you Felix.” Kathryn looked down sympathetically at Molly, who had heard the exchange. “I’m sorry,” she said softly. “Eventually such a team will be dispatched here, but even if, well… whatever’s left in there will all have been crushed. I’m sure what they find there will help get the Mormons jump started in their research, but I doubt there will be anything in there that can properly restore you, certainly not that we can access today or with this mission.”
“I understand,” Molly somberly replied. “I appreciate your efforts Captain, and I trust you will do whatever you can to help me. When appropriate I will volunteer everything I can think to tell you regardless. You have proven your intent to help me; I see no reason to hold anything back anymore.”
“Thank you,” Kathryn offered sincerely.
“Captain Barnes,” Irvina called out to her.
“What is it Irvina?”
“I see something that I… think might take the drone up to the next level. It looks like an emergency stairwell or something? Should I send it up to check it out?”
“Sure,” Kathryn said, leaving Molly and heading over to Irvina. “Can’t hurt, may as well explore what we can of the interior while we’re here. Felix please flag this building on the maps for later expeditions, as well as the mall Molly claimed that other structure was, I’m sure that would be just as interesting to archaeology teams.”
“Interesting…” Irvina muttered as she watched the video feed from the drone.
It powered its way through a door frame which must have originally been closed with a heavy fire door and found itself in a main lobby area. There was broken glass and rocky debris and rubble everywhere, to the point that one rarely saw the floor in the video feed. Like in the first building they explored there were just empty cavernous spaces where one business or another once occupied.
“Wait!!” Molly cried out. “Stop the drone!”
Irvina cancelled the drone’s automated search pattern and commanded it to simply hover in place.
“Slowly pan it back around to the right please,” Molly requested, uncharacteristically polite.
Irvina did as she was asked and relayed the command to the drone. They all watched as it slowly rotated and they all strained to see what Molly had thought she’d seen.
“Okay stop. Zoom in on the base of that rubble pile there.”
Irvina did so.
“Do you see that?”
“See what?” Kathryn asked.
“That… large object sticking out of the rubble.”
“Oh. Oh yeah, okay I see what you’re talking about, what do you think it is?”
“Doesn’t it look to you like something you’ve seen on the ship? In the lab where you removed my head?”
“I really don’t uh….”
“Oh for God’s sake Kathryn, it’s a simulant packing crate!! You had four embedded in the wall of New Horizon’s sim bay for long term storage of your founder sims. I knew it!! Simulants are such expensive products to manufacture that their shipping containers are virtually indestructible in order to protect the valuable cargo within.”
“And you think there may be… what, an intact simulant in there?”
“There’s a chance,” Molly implored them.
“Alright,” Kathryn shrugged. “Irvina, does that thing have x-ray?”
“Sure does,” she answered and began instructing the drone to move towards the case and activate its x-ray scanners. What they saw, seemed impossible. They couldn’t make out the outward appearance of the simulant, but the x-ray clearly made out a skeletal structure rather like an overall human’s, but not quite as intricate as a human’s would be and thus clearly something else.
“YES!!” Molly loudly exclaimed.
“I understand your excitement Molly, but there’s a lot we don’t know about what’s in that case. It may be incomplete. It may house an intact brain whichat may be unfair to purge just to put you in it,” Kathryn suggested, attempted to reason with the head.
“An incomplete simulant wouldn’t be crated up like that Kathryn, only one ready to ship. And, after so long without a power supply, there’s no way there is anything left of the brain, it’ll surely have lost all of its data, so bam! A blank but working brain for Mormon scientists to study as well!”
“Okay, okay, but… it’s still going to be hellishly dangerous to try to drag that thing out. I mean… besides getting crew all the way through to that thing, it looks like trying to pull it out could bring down the whole rubble pile it’s embedded in. If we… if we go for this now, it’s a big risk Molly. We should wait, bring out an archaeology team to properly dig down from the top and get down to it safely.”
“I have waited for this day for six hundred years. If you resist I’ll just send my people in there and hope for the best, but it’ll be safer and have a far better chance of success if you help me. If we can’t get it out we’ll have to wait for the eventual excavation anyways, but I have to try in case we can get our hands on it today.”
Kathryn sighed heavily. “Okay Molly, okay… But, I won’t subject any of my people to the danger, and if I think you’re subjecting your own people to unacceptable risk I will cancel the op and call them out. Agreed?”
“Yes, agreed,” Molly answered quite eagerly.
Molly walked over to Jaren and Francis to consult with the engineers. “Thoughts?” she asked them.
“It’s dangerous,” Francis offered with a shrug.
“Yeah, I figured,” Kathryn answered impatiently. “The locals said that when they tried to widen one of the drainage holes somewhere else there were deaths. Do you think we could do it more safely?”
“In theory, yes,” Jaren offered. “We could reinforce the tunnels as we dig them out. I’m afraid to say that it would be less dangerous for someone to just crawl through the tunnel as it is.”
Kathryn shuddered. She wasn’t claustrophobic, but she was a living human being who had deep seated instincts to keep her that way, and which warned her against crawling through tight unstable spaces which could so easily entomb her alive. She turned to Kirby who seemed to be listening in.
“What do you think? Could your people be brave or foolish enough to try to crawl through that hole?”
“Yes, but the hole is too small to pull that box out if we are successful.”
“Damn good point,” she remarked to the engineers as she turned back to them.
“Take it out of the box,” they heard Molly’s voice call out to them from the scroll in Kathryn’s pocket. Kathryn rolled her wrist to acknowledge to the others that this was a solution which could work.
“Do you think you can do this in relative safety?” Kathryn asked Kirby. “I suspect you would follow your leader’s instructions even if you thought it was a suicide mission, but I can’t allow that.”
“We are concerned about removing the box from the pile, but we believe we can safely get to it and back.”
Kathryn nodded and turned to the engineers. “Suggestions?”
“A fast winch,” Francis offered. We could set it up in the stairwell and connect it to that box, and we could try pulling it out gently but if it looks like the place is going to come down we could just whip it back towards the stairwell and hop it avoids the cave in. That way if the stairway remains intact it will just be there at the top waiting for us.”
Kathryn nodded, and then opened a channel to the entire team including Felix above. “Okay, here’s the plan. We’re going to equip Kirby’s team with a fast winch and if they feel they safely can, they’re going to crawl through the tunnel, up the stairs and to the package. They will set up the winch, and then get back here outside before we start trying to extricate. If successful they will go back in to open the package, remove the simulant body and drag it through this tunnel here to us. We can use the winch for that as well. Everyone clear?”
She was answered by a chorus of nods and verbal acknowledgements.
Kirby consulted with his five compatriots and they decided that the three smallest of them would go in, which did not include Kirby himself. He would be staying out with the others. They equipped each man going in with PANEs for their own benefit as well as to enable the rest to monitor their progress and see what they saw. Irvina switched on all of their small lights on their PANEs so they could see the inside of the tunnel as well as what they’d see on the other side. The first man climbed in and disappeared into the darkness of the hole, and Kathryn shuddered with same instinctual dread which she had at the mere thought, but much stronger now at actually seeing someone do it for real.
The second man climbed in, then the third, and then not long afterwards the first man exited the tunnel on the other side, followed by the other two. “We’re inside,” one of them said over the comms. “We’re making our way over to the stairway.”
Aside from the video feeds from their PANEs, they were also monitored from a distance inside by Irvina’s drone, and Kathryn was monitoring all four video feeds simultaneously on her scroll. She watched as the men carefully climbed the bare concrete walled staircase to the next level. They then crossed the expanse of the main building lobby towards the simulant box. When they reached it, Kathryn cringed as she saw one of them give it a gentle tug to see how firmly it was embedded.
“It’s pretty in there,” he reported, “but I think it can be pulled out with enough strength. Very worried about cave in though.”
“We understand,” Kathryn assured him. “Please set up the winch as instructed.”
There was a thick half ring embedded in the short side of the casing material sticking out of the rubble. Kathryn wondered what kind of material it was, since metal would have decayed in the intervening time. She surmised that it must be some kind of advanced synthetic polymer and figured the ring should hold up to the strain of the winch since it seemed to be the natural hoisting point while being shipped.
They connected the heavy steel cable to the half circle ring and laid the cable down all the way back to the reception area down the stairwell. They then set about wrapping the winch anchor wire all around the railings in the stairwell, the thick concrete beam anchoring the stairwell, anything sturdy in the area they could see, while leaving the winch mechanism inline of the cable, resting about a meter away from the doorway to the stairwell. Reporting that they were finished and ready to go, they returned down the stairwell, through the Road Pod parkade, and out again through the narrow drainage hole.
“Good work,” Kathryn acknowledged , patting them each on the shoulder as they each came back through the hole. “I think we’re ready,” she told the others.
Jaren helmed the winch controls while Irvina piloted the drone, holding it steady in the doorway to the stairwell, poking out just enough to be able to see the simulant case in the dark distance.
“Like we discussed, I’m going to try to ease it out gently, but if I see a cave in starting, I’m going to hammer it full power.”
Kathryn nodded her acknowledgement and put her hand on his shoulder as she stood behind him, watching him control the winch as he watched the video feed from the drone. Little bursts of power to the winch did seem to nudge the case, but it would result in rains of dust and the occasional chunk of concrete rolling down on either side of the case and tow cable.
Jaren shook his head. “You see where this is going, don’t you?” he asked her.
“I do,” she answered. “Just do what you can.”
“Just a few more nudges…” Jaren muttered to himself, “to make sure it’ll come free… and snap.”
He depressed the control fully and the case shot out of its position in the rubble pile and across the lobby all the way down to the stairwell door where it made a terrible racket, crashing into and off of the walls there. It made such a terrible noise that they all heard it from where they were standing outside.
“Hunh,” Jaren said. “How anti-climactic.”
Kathryn could see what he meant on the drone video feed. Some loose rubble had filled in the void where the case had been and while there was a noticeable amount of settling and debris shaken loose, it was not as climatic a cave in as they had feared. “Well, let’s just call that a win,” Kathryn said with a smile as she clapped him on his shoulder. “Okay men,” she said to the explorers who had laid the winch. “Back at it. Don’t worry about retrieving the winch if it’s inaccessible, and I’ll leave it to you to figure out if you want to take the simulant body out where it is or carry the box towards the drainage hole before doing so. Use your best judgement.”
“Understood,” one of them said, and then crawled back into the hole. Kathryn was getting used to the sight at this point, but it still made her shudder slightly.
The three men exited the other side and made their way to and up the stairwell. She heard them briefly discuss how they wanted to proceed, and they settled on carefully bringing the case down the stairs and carrying it to the hole before removing the contents. As they did so Kathryn looked down at Molly and noticed that she was nervously biting her lip. She must be concerned about damage from whipping it across lobby the way they had, but she had said that those cases were practically indestructible and she had approved the plan. Hell, that was why it was still around for them to find.
With only a few cringe inducing bumps and drops of the heavy case, they successfully manoeuvered it down the stairs and across the parking garage. “How do we open it?” they asked.
Kathryn laughed out loud. “Damn good question! Any suggestions Molly?”
“Emergency release on the opposite side from the lifting ring,” Molly answered uncharacteristically seriously. “There’ll be a panel you can already break, well… which means it will probably have been broken away, and a handle underneath. Crank the handle several times until you break the seal and can remove the lid. Make sure it’s right side up, you should be able to feel the lip of the lid even though it’s sealed.”
The men realized that it was upside down and flipped the case over. Sure enough the breakaway panel was long gone but the handle was intact, and as instructed they yanked on the stiff lever repeatedly until they heard a pop and were able to remove the lid. They removed the top packing material and got to work removing the lifeless figure, laying it on the bare soil ground before the hole. They tied a loop of rope around the figure’s chest to allow them to drag it out through the hole, and then tied the other end of the rope to one of the men’s feet. He then climbed into the hole and the others lifted the body into it behind him so that he could pull it along behind him. On the other end he was helped out by Kathryn and the others, and they then carefully pulled out the body he pulled behind him, gingerly resting it on an alter they’d built out of the water to keep it dry.
It was a simulant of an elderly woman, easily in her mid sixties, thin and somewhat short, with long and full bone white hair. She was naked of course, and as they laid her down and looked on her, she seemed almost like an angel rescued from the depths of the Earth.
Patricia lifted Molly’s head and attached backpack up so she could see it, and for what seemed like a long time Molly was speechless as she looked the body up and down. It was hard for the others to accurately gauge the expressions on her face. Not only were they somewhat cryptic, not only did she only have half of a face left for them to read, but it also seemed as though her expressions often changed and shifted through different phases.
After what seemed like a long time she was finally able to utter: “She is… beautiful. I love her.”