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Excerpt for The Rovan Ruins by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

The Rovan Ruins

by Michael McCloskey

Published by Michael McCloskey at Smashwords

Copyright 2018 Michael McCloskey

ISBN: 978-0998569710


Learn more about Michael McCloskey’s works at

www.squidlord.com


Cover art by Stephan Martiniere

Edited by Stephen “Shoe” Shoemaker



Chapter 1


Telisa walked out onto her favorite balcony. A vast blue sky beckoned beyond the rubbery Celaran rail, but it was not real sky: it was an illusion created inside the huge space habitat. The Terrans called the habitat Blackhab after the troublesome Blackvines they had discovered here while hunting the Trilisk.

The dark green Celaran house floated a stone’s throw from similar ones where the other PIT team members lived. Now that Telisa knew so much about the Celarans, she could see their personality in everything around her: the bright sky, the circular windows, and the flexible cord that served her as a balcony rail, which was a roosting point for Celarans. The only thing missing the first time the PIT team had explored this place was the giant vines, but now the Celarans had started tens of thousands of the plants growing on the interior surface of the habitat.

She heard footsteps in the house behind her. The light, erratic cadence did not belong to Magnus. A part of her went on heightened alert, but she would rely upon her incredible reflexes in the unlikely event of an attack.

Sounds like Marcant.

A house service informed her of Marcant’s arrival, validating her guess. A tiny hope struggled to rise within her. Was he here to tell her of success?

“I’m outside,” Telisa called aloud. It felt comfortable and quaint to yell instead of sending a pointer.

Wouldn’t want to ruin this place’s charm.

“Ah, there you are,” Marcant said. He walked out next to her. Had he really found her without the help of the house or was he playing along with her old-fashioned facade?

“Do we have them back?” Telisa asked, skipping all niceties.

“No,” Marcant said.

Of course not. Our fallen friends are still gone.

“It’s not like you to make a social call, Marcant,” she said lightly, disguising her disappointment.

“I thought you might want to know that a Celaran probe has discovered alien ruins,” Marcant said.

“Really?”

Marcant retreated into the shade of the doorway, out of the light. Telisa supposed the habitat’s artificial starlight was uncomfortable on his pale skin. He did not have to worry about getting a tan—melanin formation was easily controlled with a pill.

“Of course really. Looks like dozens of sites across a planet with breathable atmosphere, gravity just heavy enough it would have made Siobhan grumble, and best of all—not water dwellers. No thrashing around underwater waiting for the next oxygen crisis.”

He mentions Siobhan so easily. It doesn’t bother Marcant as much that she’s gone because he’s a simulationist. As far as he’s concerned, she simply exited into the next reality on the stack.

“You’re selling this hard,” Telisa said.

In truth, she was already hooked. She was not built for sitting around waiting for artifacts to be reverse engineered and data secrets to be unraveled. It had only been a couple of weeks, but she craved action.

Magnus walked out onto the balcony.

“What’s up?” he asked.

“We have a mission!” Telisa said.

“Really?”

Telisa laughed at his identical response.

“The Celarans know about another extinct alien civilization. We can go check it out.”

“What about our missing people?” Magnus asked.

“The Celarans are working on it,” Marcant said. “We’ve shared everything we know. I think they’ll crack it, eventually.” He sounded confident.

“And the AI?” Magnus asked.

The Trilisk AI had started functioning again once they left Quarus Cora, where they used it against another Trilisk artifact, almost destroying the moon on which the struggle had taken place. Since then, the Celarans had been making use of the powerful alien artifact to re-establish themselves at Blackhab.

“We leave it here,” Telisa told him. “It came from their planet. They deserve it. It’s just what they need to get themselves set up here.”

“We could use it where we’re going. It could be dangerous,” Magnus said, doing his usual devil’s advocate act.

Telisa laughed. It would be very dangerous, no doubt.

“We’ll use it to stock ourselves up with supplies, robots, attendants... everything,” she assured him.

“Is everyone in, then? Lee, Maxsym, Arakaki... Barrai?” Magnus asked.

“We’ll see. Maxsym is the only one I could imagine saying no. He has so much on his plate he could probably work here for twenty years without looking up.”

“Good,” Magnus said.

“Get your robot parts together,” she said. “We’ll need a new army of them.”

Magnus’s mood lifted even further. He smiled.

Such an easy man to please.

“That’s true! We don’t have Shiny’s watchdogs to fall back on anymore,” he said.

“Team, something’s afoot!” she said on the PIT channel, having a little fun. “Meet me next shift, over on the Sharplight.”

Everyone acknowledged eagerly, even Maxsym. Telisa could tell they were all ready to go on another adventure.


***


Telisa arrived twenty minutes early on the Sharplight, but she found Marcant already waiting in the designated meeting room.

“I don’t suppose with all that’s happened you’ve had a chance to work out anything about shielding the AI,” she said.

“I have news. I see how the Trilisk control host bodies!”

“That’s great!”

“...Oh, no, it’s not that wonderful. I don’t know how to fix it.”

“Uhm. So you understand the problem now, but a solution eludes you.”

“Yep. Those bodies are set up to make their EM state remotely readable and settable. The same thing that makes them ideally suited for remote installation and removal of other consciousnesses is what makes them controllable.”

“But I’ve had my consciousness moved around, even from my original body.”

“I think Trilisks can do the swap at close range such as, say, in a Trilisk column, with any mind at all. But these host bodies are set up to be receptive at much longer ranges.”

As we found out the first time we visited Blackhab.

The other members started to walk in. Magnus, Arakaki, and Lee showed up within a few minutes of each other. Maxsym was the last to arrive. He had fully recovered from his poisoning episode resulting from GNI’s attempted espionage.

Telisa saw no reason to delay the news to the team members who had not already heard.

“Marcant brought an interesting development to my attention: The Celarans have passed along news of alien ruins to explore,” she told them. “It looks like a race we’ve never seen. If you’re game, I say let’s take a look.”

Telisa sent them a starmap pointer and let them look over the location information provided by the Celarans.

“It’s a long way out!” Arakaki said.

“It always is,” Magnus said.

“The planet has multiple sites with alien constructs, on the surface and extending below ground. There were also a handful of satellites in decaying orbits when this information was taken. Before anyone asks, the tunnels are pretty large, so we wouldn’t be crawling around on our hands and knees... or sending attendants into ratholes.”

“If you’re in, think about what supplies you'll need,” Magnus said. “We should draw up lists and try to fulfill our needs here before we leave the umbrella of the Trilisk AI.”

“What? Why would we leave that behind?” Arakaki interjected.

“That was the next announcement. It’s from their planet, and they need it. There’s more of them, too.”

Telisa paused. No one disagreed with her, though she could tell everyone wanted to bring it along. That did not surprise her—she felt it herself. The AI was amazing and it made life easier even though it was hard to use it to procure complex physical items.

“Those of you who are in, let’s plan on leaving in two days. Hit me with your questions,” Telisa finished.

“What ships are we taking?” asked Arakaki rapidly.

Enthusiasm!

“I think we’ll leave our Terran Iridar behind for Caden and Siobhan just in case any of the Celarans can get copies out of that column.”

Maybe even Imanol... Cilreth...

“Maxsym really likes to use the Vovokan Iridar for research, right?” Marcant asked. “Are we leaving that one behind for him?”

Eyes turned toward Maxsym.

“I’m coming along,” Maxsym said. “And yes, I’d prefer to be in the other Iridar as always.”

Telisa smiled.

“Maxsym has one or two adventurous bones in his body after all!” she said.

“Some of the ruins are underground?” asked Magnus. “Did the Celarans check against Vovokan signatures? Do they even know what Vovokan ruins would look like?”

“I don’t think they checked, but I gave the data a cursory look-over and I don’t think this is a dead Vovokan colony,” Telisa said.

“Thank you for leaving the Trilisk artifact on this vine,” Lee said through their links. “However, as a sunny day can turn dark, we should warn my friends: Shiny may learn of the vine’s amazing sap and come for a slurp of his own, or even try to drain it dry. He could steal the artifact and take it home to his own vine.”

“I’m hoping that with a Trilisk AI of his own, he’ll decide it’s not worth the risk,” Telisa said. “But you’re right Lee. We have to remind Cynan and the others that it has to be guarded carefully. And if Shiny comes for it by force rather than by stealth, they may even have to use the AI to defend themselves.”

“One last thing: I’m inviting Barrai to officially join the team and come along on this exploration. Some of you already know she is... formidable.”

Maxsym was not phased, but Marcant looked like he was going to groan. His sparring sessions had not been going well. He would just have to improve.



Chapter 2


Magnus watched Telisa bounce into the mess, brimming with even more energy than her host body usually provided. The new opportunity had her fired up. He drank in the sight of her.

So alive... vibrant... driven.

He suddenly wondered if she aged in the host body as he did. It would likely become obvious in another few years. He vowed to appreciate what he had.

If the skew between our ages becomes too great, we might be able to use a Trilisk column to give us bodies of the same age... any age. It’s theoretically immortality.

The entire team had been busy praying up supplies and moving back over to the Sharplight for their voyage. Telisa was the most focused and enthusiastic of all of them.

“Do me a favor and get Barrai on the PIT team today,” Telisa said, sitting next to him and starting in on a plate with four sandwiches.

“She’s going to accept our offer, I assume,” Magnus said.

“Unless you can talk her out of it. Try to scare her, Magnus. We don’t need her death on our conscience.”

Magnus almost told her she was being overly dramatic. It only took a moment of recalling their long list of dead friends to decide she was not.

“I will. I’ll warn her and tell her to think it over.”

Telisa nodded, her mouth full of food.

“How much should I tell her?”

“Mmm. Be vague about the AI, as usual. You can tell her how I knocked her flat if you want.”

Magnus nodded.

“Does she resent you? Is that why I’m doing this?” he asked.

Telisa shook her head.

“No. If she’s that sensitive, we don’t want her on the team anyway.”

“Right,” Magnus agreed. “We’ll know soon enough. Integrate her with our training schedule and see if she can mesh with the team.”

Telisa mashed another half-sandwich into her mouth and stood.

“Finishing preparations,” she explained to him through her link while she chewed.

He nodded and watched her rush out with the last sandwich in her hands. Magnus checked Barrai’s schedule. He decided it was possible she would come through soon, so he took his time.

Barrai strode into the mess five minutes later. No one else was on a schedule to be looking for food at that time, so they were alone. Barrai came up to where Magnus sat and lifted one leg over the bench, sitting sideways to face him.

“Hello, Lieutenant,” Magnus said. “Actually, are you still in the Space Force?”

“I am, though I take my orders only from you now. Or anyone on the PIT team, I mean.”

“I could call you Barrai if you don’t mind. We don’t really go by ranks around here as I’m sure you noticed.”

“Sure, okay.”

“I wanted to talk to you about the PIT team. You’ve already worked closely with us, but we could extend you a formal spot if you’re interested.”

As if we do anything formally.

“I am! Are we going to do another truth check?”

“No, that won’t be necessary. Today is more about what you want to do. There’s something you need to consider before joining us. Everyone on the PIT team dies.”

Barrai’s eyes widened for just a moment, then her face froze.

She’s waiting for me to say if I’m joking.

“You make it sound so appealing,” Barrai said.

“I’m serious. Work with us for long enough, and you’ll meet your end. Make sure this kind of life is worth it for you.”

Barrai paused.

“I’ll say yes, but I have a condition.”

“Yes, I’ll spar with you,” he said.

“Then count me in!”

Magnus suppressed a smile. Barrai was nothing if not predictable.

“Take more time and think about, say, getting eaten alive by an alien predator, or... dying in a meaningless accident as we arrive at a new world.”

“I guess you’re this grim because of ‘those who have gone before’.”

Magnus recognized the Space Force line about the sacrifices that allowed Terrans to become a starfaring species.

“That’s right. This is more dangerous than keeping the Sharplight in top shape. Which you would still be doing, by the way.”

“I have the spare cycles. That’s part of why I always want to work out with new people. It’s something I can do to push myself—and absorb a lot of hours in training.”

“Yes, we’ll be doing intense training that helps with the tedium of long trips. Anything you’d like to ask me?”

“I’ve picked up what I could, but I’m having a hard time separating the rumors from reality. For example, what skills is each person on the team known for?”

Magnus paused.

What an excellent question.

“Caden was our best with advanced weaponry. Siobhan was really useful for setting up working systems on the ground in record time. They were both learning all about Celaran technologies.”

“It’s terrible what happened. They were heroes.”

“Yes, they were. But what we want from you is to help us discover new things, not die in combat against aliens or frontier gangs.”

She nodded.

“Maxsym is a xenobiologist. One of the best. He’s also good at tossing out theories the rest of us may not have considered. I’ve seen him solve a problem in five minutes that stumped other people for days. Marcant is great at bringing computing power to bear on complex problems. Arakaki is a military scout, ex-UED. She has combat experience. I guess I do, too.”

Magnus took a moment to consider Lee.

“Lee is brave and adventurous... for a Celaran. She’s newish, but we hope having an alien on the team will bring in new perspectives, and she’s fluent with advanced Celaran tech, not to mention that she can fly. She set us up with advanced cloaking that’s integrated with Terran link technology.”

Magnus stopped, thinking he was done.

“And Telisa?”

Magnus blinked.

“Who?”

Barrai laughed.

“What does Telisa bring? Leadership?”

“Inspiration. Energy. Yes, leadership. She has a formal education in alien studies, and she can hold her own in a fight.”

Hold her own? She kicked my ass so hard it still hurts. How did she defeat me?” Barrai asked. “I thought I was fast, but...”

“She cheated.”

“Really? How?”

“Alien technology,” Magnus said.

“I don’t suppose she would give me another go without it.”

“Sorry. It’s built-in.”

“Ah. Well, thanks for telling me. Makes my ego feel a little less bruised.”

“Having an ego is good as long as it’s not getting in the way of teamwork,” he said.

Barrai nodded. “I get what you’re saying. It won’t.”

“Okay. Think about it, and if you’re still in, we’ll fill you in with more details.”

“So what you have planned isn’t another military operation,” Barrai guessed.

“That’s right. We’re going exploring. Our primary mission type.”

“Yet your team is half combat specialists, and the rest are training to become one.”

“Well, things never seem to go smoothly,” Magnus admitted.

Nothing is ever easy.

“Team, we’re leaving in an hour,” Telisa sent them on the PIT channel.

“Here we go!” Barrai said.

Magnus nodded.

“Here we go,” he echoed.


***


A day later, the team gathered in a meeting lounge for their first in-transit training session. Magnus sat down next to Marcant and prepared to join their shared virtual environ. Everyone was present except Telisa.

“Seven of us on the roster,” Marcant said.

“At least for now, until the lovebirds rejoin us,” Maxsym said.

“And Imanol and Cilreth,” Marcant added. “Just think... there will be eleven people on the PIT team if we can get them back.”

It was wishful thinking to leave an Iridar behind for Caden and Siobhan, Magnus thought. Trilisk artifacts have eluded Terran understanding for decades.

“Do we really want Imanol back?” Arakaki said.

Barrai gave her a look of horror.

Everyone laughed, causing Barrai more confusion.

“Imanol made Marcant look like a charming social butterfly,” Magnus told Barrai privately. “But he was a solid team member.”

Barrai smiled and nodded to him. They turned their attention to Telisa as she arrived.

“We’re going for broke. We have no idea what to train for yet,” Telisa told them. “All we have to do is get used to the new team configuration.”

She said it mildly enough, but Marcant’s mouth tightened and Maxsym shifted uncomfortably. Arakaki looked down for a moment. It was a polite way to say ‘get used to our new team member and the loss of the old ones’.

Telisa initialized a scenario generator to create a new challenge for the team. They all joined the virtual environment.

They found themselves in a blue forest of straight spines growing from soft soil. Magnus stood next to Telisa. He noted that Marcant was missing a second before the mission directive went out: “Find your missing team member in the vicinity.”

And, of course, expect trouble!

They got to work.


***


Magnus disengaged from the last scenario of their training session. He had been shot, stabbed, and eaten by a huge living mass of rocklike material. The team successfully negotiated about forty percent of the challenges, mostly the easy ones at the start of the session.

Barrai smiled at Magnus.

“That was instructive,” she said. “Space Force training is a little more... structured. Or, maybe I should say: predictable.”

“I imagine so,” Magnus said. “It’s been a while since I served.”

“You owe me a sparring match,” she said, changing the subject.

“I do.”

“Got time?”

“I’ll meet you there in five,” Magnus said.

Barrai smiled and hurried off to change. Magnus left at a more leisurely pace. He mulled over what he had heard from the others. Apparently Barrai possessed elite speed and great stand-up prowess. His own speed was above average, but he doubted he could match hers, so he decided to cover and try out her ground skills. If she dominated him, so be it. He would try his best and learn whatever tricks she had.

He strode into the workout room and saw Barrai throwing a series of punches at a heavybag. His own body felt stiff from the hours of VR, so he ran around the perimeter a few times to get his blood pumping, then started to stretch.

After ten minutes, he met her out on the floor.

Barrai attacked boldly. Magnus circled and fended off her jabs, waiting to counter. Barrai mixed in rapid kicks and combinations. Magnus knew what to do in the face of her superior speed because he often faced Telisa’s superhuman abilities. He covered as best he could, sacrificing cover of his trunk to protect his head while circling and retreating.

Barrai launched another assault, drawing his guard high, then low, then high again. Magnus tried to take a low hit while protecting his head, but she connected with his temple anyway.

Expecting her to capitalize on her advantage, Magnus threw himself for her legs. Barrai sprawled furiously to avoid the takedown. Magnus used his superior strength to throw her back, apparently victorious, but she went with the momentum and rolled aside before Magnus could establish himself atop her.

Barrai, elated by her close escape, returned to the attack without missing a beat. She kicked him in the side, connecting solidly. Then she launched a fist at his face, but he covered and dipped his head. He used her sudden confidence against her, sweeping her lead leg as she pressed. This time Magnus managed to get hold of her leg and pull her in. She punched him smartly before he established control of the mount.

Now Magnus began a methodical assault. She planted a knee to stop him, but he passed her guard and managed to control her. Barrai punched the side of his head a few times, but Magnus trapped the arm and forced her to tap.

They stood back up. Despite the success, Magnus felt he was the worse for wear compared to his opponent. They were both in great shape. As the battle continued, Barrai landed many blows. Magnus managed to take the Space Force officer down two more times, but as expected, he was taking a beating on the stand-up.

Magnus knew that if she were his size, they would be roughly equal in a roll. She had physical advantages of her own; his arms and legs did not have the quick snap that hers did, and probably never would. Her legs were longer than his. He could not respond to her speed, but he was solid enough to take a shot as he positioned himself for strong counters, which usually involved trying to grapple. On the ground, he had a clear advantage. He knew many techniques, and when necessary, he could capitalize on his greater mass to overcome her in close calls.

They stopped at the end of a ten minute round.

“You’re good,” Barrai said, breathing hard.

She’s being gracious.

“You too,” he said. “You’re too fast for me. Let’s set up a regular time for this.”

“Sounds good.”

The workout continued. Magnus held his own more and more as they fought on; Barrai’s lightning speed slowed a little more than his own. In the end, they agreed to call it a draw, but Magnus felt that Barrai had proven herself to be superior—though by a narrow margin.

They showered in their undersheers, each in a niche attached to the workout center. On the way out, they stopped to clasp hands and clap each other on the back.

“Good first day. Glad to have you here,” Magnus said.

She smiled.

“See you for VR in two shifts.”

Magnus went back to his quarters, dropped some pseudo-VR gear off, and sought out Telisa in her room. He found her in a lotus position, eyes closed. He supposed she was absorbing input from her link rather than meditating.

“How did the sparring with Barrai go?” Telisa asked. She unfolded her legs and regarded him.

“She’s fast. Got some good shots in.”

“So who’s top dog?”

“I think I held my own. Judging from today, I’d say she’s better at stand up and I have the edge on the ground.”

“Mmmm.”

Magnus flopped into the sleep web. She was in one of her thoughtful moods, so he just lay there for a few minutes, resting.

“The training was weird today,” Telisa said.

Because Caden and Siobhan are gone.

“I felt it, too. We lost two friends and then added Barrai. It feels off, but—”

“I know. In two weeks it’ll be the new normal.”

Am I so predictable? I guess so.

“One of the dangers of relying on an older man for advice,” Magnus said. “Eventually, he starts to recycle all his old stories.”

“Repetition isn’t always bad,” she said, rolling under the sleep web. Magnus slipped his arms through the netting, wrapped them around her, and kissed her.

No. Not at all.



Chapter 3


Arakaki woke up in the middle of a sleep shift. She sat up naked in her sleep web. Her hand traveled up her torso and felt for the armor sliver.

It was not around her neck.

She told the room service to turn on a low light source. The room came into view. She spotted her necklace on a wall by the shower tube. The fragment of armor was held fast in a small ring that let her remove it when she wanted to chew on it.

I took that off three days ago.

Thinking of her ex only brought the weakest, most distant sense of loss.

Bout time you got over him.

Weeks of training had brought the new teams closer together. Typically they operated in three pairs—Telisa and Magnus, Marcant and Maxsym, and Barrai and Arakaki. Lee, as the only one who could fly, was logically the odd Celaran out, so she functioned as a scout more than anything.

Arakaki checked the ship’s status. As expected, the team had arrived above at their destination as Arakaki slept: a small system with only four planets, one rocky cinder close to a yellow star, one in the habitable zone, and two gas giants.

Marcant and Telisa had dispatched a small army of attendants to take the first surveys of the planet below. Arakaki took a few peeks at the progress. The planet was green, covered in vegetation that was not fundamentally different than Terran plants. She saw vast fields of something similar to grassland. There were stubby ‘trees’: meter-high masses of tough, gray growth that served as central hubs for dozens or hundreds of long green streamers like bright blades of grass that went on for meters.

Arakaki paced about aimlessly for a minute, watching the video feeds in her PV. She slowly realized there was a reason she was still naked. She had not slept with anyone incarnate in a long time...

What are you going to do? Invite Maxsym in here?

Of all the crew, Arakaki figured Barrai or Maxsym would give her the least entanglement in a sex partner, and she narrowly favored men, so Maxsym would be her best choice.

Magnus would really hit the spot, but he’s not interested. Should I settle? Ug. Does Maxsym even like women? I wish Caden...

Thinking of Caden made her feel sad. She lost the inclination to ask Maxsym over. She would have herself yet another virtual romp later, unless work prevented it. They were at the new planet, after all.

“So this is it,” Magnus said on the team channel. His tone indicated he was summing up the place as the rest of them must be doing.

“The third planet of the Rovatick Ailia System,” Telisa said.

“So what should we call them—the Ticks?” Magnus asked playfully.

“The Rovans,” Telisa said. “For now, at least.”

“The problem with ‘for now’ is that we’ll get used to it and the name will stick,” Magnus said.

“Rovans isn’t bad. Sounds familiar, even,” Marcant said.

“Because of the Romans,” Maxsym said with certainty.

“The who?” Magnus asked.

“An archaism,” Telisa answered for Maxsym. Arakaki imagined his frustrated look.

“It doesn’t appear to be dangerous down there,” Barrai said.

Arakaki snorted. She did not have her feed configured to send the judgemental sound through, so she responded more diplomatically.

“That just means the attendants haven’t found the bad places yet,” she said. “Trust me: it’s dangerous.”

“I’m picking up a few dozen artificial satellites in varied orbits,” Barrai said. “Nothing large, and there are no course changes in response to our arrival.”

“Keep watching them. We’ll leave them alone until we know more,” Telisa said. “If nothing else, we’ll have a few alien satellites to examine.”

“How does the microbiology panel look?” Telisa asked.

“The quick analyses look okay,” Maxsym responded. “There are a couple of micros that can eat us, but nothing we shouldn’t be able to handle. The chemical screen is similar. A few poisonous compounds here and there. Not worse than your typical life-supporting planet.”

A couple of microscopic things that can eat us. Nice.

Arakaki smiled. She wondered if Barrai was still eager to get down there in light of that news.

“Barrai. Your training has been coming along. Do you want to make landfall with us?” Telisa asked.

“What? I’m a city girl. You go rattle around in the weeds without me,” Barrai responded. “Now, if you find some hi-tech ruins you go right ahead and call me. I’d love to see alien spaceships!”

Arakaki raised an eyebrow. She had expected a nervous, ‘yes’. The straightforward pass was not nearly as fun.

“That’s weird. Marcant is coming and Barrai turned us down,” Magnus said privately to Telisa and Arakaki.

“Marcant’s been training with us longer. Besides, he’s a simulationist, remember? He thinks if he dies out here, he just wakes up in some other reality,” Arakaki said.

“Okay, but if we get ourselves into trouble, you’re going to suit up and come save us,” Telisa told Barrai.

“Got it.”

Arakaki slid into her Momma Veer and looked over her arsenal. Judging from the density of vegetation, she would not need any long-range rifles, so she selected her favorite UED submachine gun and a laser pistol. She had a new breaker claw and a cloaking device, both produced by Celarans, and a pack with food and medical supplies. Two more packs held miscellaneous gear like smart ropes and tents for any base camp they might set up.

Arakaki grabbed everything and set off.


***


Arakaki stood in a small clearing behind the team’s shuttle, breathing heavily.

“This stuff is tough, almost like rope,” Marcant said.

She looked over at her pale teammate. He held a heavy cutting tool—not an ultrasharp—and stood atop mounds of the green streamers.

“This is much more passable for an attendant. I didn’t realize how difficult it would be for us,” Telisa remarked.

“It’s easy for me!” Lee exclaimed, darting by at high speed.

“Show off!” Marcant called after her.

Arakaki did not mind the extra work. Behind all that foliage were alien ruins. There would soon be something to break the initial grind.

She walked up to the edge of their clearing and examined the vegetation again from the open cross section that exposed everything below the streamers. Dead brown leaves hung from the trunks below the long green ones. It reminded her of the dead frond stumps on a palm tree below the new growth.

When danger comes—we won’t see it coming.

“Are you going to shoot something?” Magnus asked. Arakaki looked over and realized he had addressed the question to her. She had her weapon pointed toward the wall of plants.

“I expect I will, sooner or later,” she said coolly.

Marcant took her meaning and looked at the streamer trees with new respect. He took a step back toward the middle of the clearing.

Maxsym barely heard her. Oblivious to any danger, the biologist was on his hands and knees at the edge of the plants, examining first the streamers, then the cuts in the larger trunks, then grabbing tiny life forms and putting them into sample containers. He had brought no less than four bulging packs of equipment from the ship, which lay all around him. Three of them were opened with equipment spilling out to make room for the new samples.

Where Maxsym goes, the base camp follows.

“So did you drop us in the middle of a random jungle?” Magnus asked Telisa mildly.

“No! We have ruins to check out, forty meters in that direction,” Telisa said. She sent along a pointer.

“Cleared by attendants, I assume,” Marcant said.

“Nope. The attendants were blocked by set of ceramic doors leading into a low hill that could be a buried building,” Telisa said.

Marcant’s face pinched for a moment. Then he shook his head.

“Let’s start hacking,” Marcant said.

“Not the kind of hacking you’re used to,” Arakaki said.

“Unnecessary,” Magnus announced with an air of grandeur.

Arakaki turned with the others to stare. Magnus stood aside and pointed behind them toward the shuttle. Six long, thin legs emerged from an unloaded crate, lifting out an insectoid robot. The robot scuttled forward and unfolded four arms, which held up four sharp blades.

“This will do the cutting for us,” Magnus said. “We’ll watch it in operation and note any adjustments needed in the design.”

“Nice!” Marcant said, putting away his machete. “Are they...?”

“Ultrasharps? Yes. For your own safety, stand back.”

The team withdrew to allow the machine to pass. It attacked the foliage, smoothly cutting a path in the direction Telisa’s map indicated. The whirring and chopping noise receded as the machine worked its way deeper into the vegetation. Marcant and Maxsym nodded appreciatively.

“Oh, look how narrow a path it cuts,” Telisa nitpicked, but she could not keep a straight face. Magnus smiled back at her.

It bothered Arakaki a little to see them having so much fun, but she shook off her jealousy. It was a sunny day on a beautiful planet, and they were on a new adventure. It could have been another training simulation, but the knowledge it was real made all the difference.

The team walked in behind the machine once it had made its way thirty meters. Everyone stared to the sides at the plant structures that had been revealed. An occasional insectoid creature crawled among the streamers, never larger than her finger. Most of them were eating the plants. She assumed the ones not doing so were hunting the others.

The robot stopped cutting and turned to the right. Then it cleared away more streamers until it could halt out of their way. A concrete or ceramic terrace lay beyond. At the far side, massive doors were set against a black frame in the hillside. The portal was perhaps six meters wide and over two meters tall. Dirt and streamers covered the rest of the structure, which had either been consumed by soil and overgrowth or had been partially underground all along.

They must have been giants.

“A cave entrance?”

“An underground building,” Telisa corrected. “What could be more fun than finding out what’s inside?”

Attendants moved forward to scout the way for them but stopped short when they encountered the doors.

“How old do you suppose this place is?” Arakaki asked. She scanned the doors and their frame for sensor or weapon ports.

“I would say about...” Marcant paused. “...three hundred years. Could be as much as... well, a thousand years.”

No time at all on a galactic scale.

“Based upon what kind of scan?” Maxsym asked eagerly.

“I was just using my attendants’ observations,” Marcant said.

Maxsym stopped as if doing the same.

“I’ll watch for predators underleaf,” Lee said. “I’d rather not go into that dark root pit!”

“Good idea,” Telisa said. “Keep pinging us. I want to know if our signals will get out from down there, or if we need to maintain a chain of attendants to keep in contact with the surface.”

“The door has no manual mechanism I can see,” Magnus said.

“Perhaps it locks from the inside,” Maxsym suggested.

“The cutting robot might—” began Arakaki.

“No.” Magnus interrupted. “Even if it worked, it would ruin those blades.”

“Blow it open?” asked Marcant.

“We have tools for this back by the shuttle,” Arakaki said.

“I’ll swing by and drop off what you need!” Lee said excitedly.

She has enough enthusiasm for three PIT members.

“Bond cutter, please,” Telisa said.

“There are two robots patrolling around the shuttle,” Lee observed. “I see they’re part of our vine.”

“Yes, they’re guards,” Magnus said. “I’ve got two more coming this way. They might be able to help us pry something open.”

Arakaki watched everything happen through the attendant network. Lee swooped down to find a tool among their extra packs while two six-legged robots plodded toward the team through the tunnel cut in the vegetation. Attendants piped in views from inside the nest of streamers around them.

The robots arrived and positioned themselves to the left and right at the edge of the terrace. The machines each had two weapon mounts: a laser on the head, and a grenade launcher on the torso.

Lee arrived suddenly, diving out of the sky and slowing at the last moment. She deposited a metal frame with a mobile arm holding a sophisticated cutter. Arakaki remained alert while Telisa and Magnus affixed the cutter to the door. They stood back as the device scanned the door and started to slice through the tough ceramic with an energy beam.

Arakaki did not watch the cutting; she kept her eyes on the forest. Experience had taught her to look where the rest of the team was not. A barely audible whine told her the device was working.

The largest creature the attendants had found was a one-meter-long serpent about a quarter of a kilometer away. It moved slowly among the streamers. Its body was colored to look like a long streamer itself, green with a single white line down the center, mimicking the fold in the center of the plant’s blades. She saw something that looked like a mouth on one end. There were four eyes atop each end, placed in a square configuration. It moved remarkably like a Terran snake. Arakaki supposed that made sense given its form.

Arakaki heard a clanking sound and the whine stopped.

“Finally,” Marcant said.

“Attendants first, robots second,” Telisa ordered.

Arakaki approved. She did not want to be the first one to step into that place, three hundred years old or not. She had seen too many people die doing things like that. Arakaki was aware that Telisa had additional reasons for the procedure: as a xenoarchaeologist, she wanted the attendants to scan everything before the team disturbed it. That way, the team would have a virtual reconstruction of the ruins’ current state which could be studied for contextual clues about the Rovans.

Arakaki turned to look at the open doorway. Darkness beckoned beyond the opening.

The soldier robots marched in, accompanied by four attendants. Telisa entered next. Magnus followed Telisa, then Marcant, then Maxsym. Arakaki scanned the vegetation one last time, noting Lee in the sky overhead, before entering last.

At first she perceived it to be pitch black inside. Arakaki took a careful sniff of the air. It smelled musty and metallic. Arakaki thought of the place as a bunker, though to an alien it might have been anything; a pleasant summer home, a kid’s playhouse, or a water pumping station. She wondered if it had been a safe place. Had it somehow failed to protect the inhabitants? Was that why Rovans no longer lived here?

She turned on her weapon’s light and swept the area. Four thick pedestals rose from the floor. She supposed they had once held something... perhaps tabletops. The floor was not clean. She saw bits of gray and brown material that could have been rotted clothes or personal possessions. The far side of the room, 30 meters distant, had a squarish opening leading into a dark, wide corridor. She checked the wall next to her. It had many panels of various shapes and sizes that she guessed to be the covers to wall cabinets or bins.

“Kind of anticlimactic,” Marcant said. “Are these bins? Let’s open one.”

Arakaki was ahead of them. She raised her weapon with her right hand and tried the panel’s edge with her left. It did not budge.

“Try that tab on the bottom edge,” Telisa said from somewhere. Arakaki thought they were opening another bin on the other side. She swept her light to the bottom of the panel and found a tab.

When she pushed up on the tab, the cover rose. She pushed it on up to open the bin. The panel seemed to bend back into the wall at the top as she lifted it. The inside was cluttered with several items of various colors and shapes, but before focusing on them, she swept the entire container with her light to make sure nothing moved. A fuzzy green mass lay in one corner. Arakaki’s beam lingered on it for a moment, until she decided it was an object and not a living creature.

About twenty hand-sized cylinders bent into L-shapes were scattered around two clear, rectangular containers filled with rotted bits of black material. She saw a smaller box and two metal shapes that she guessed were tools. Dozens of tiny beads of gray matter, little nails or screws, and emblems or jewelry lay around and atop it all. She nudged the fuzzy green thing with the barrel of her weapon. It yielded and flopped to one side like a piece of garish party clothing.

She heard others rummaging around from across the room.

“It’s full of... all kinds of stuff,” Magnus said.

“This one, too,” Marcant said.

“Stuff? These are alien artifacts!” Telisa said, exasperated.

Telisa had grabbed an orange object from a bin. It looked like a rubber planter. The outside was covered in studs made of the same soft material as the body. There were several others in the bin.

“What are these? Ideas?”

“Containers,” Magnus said.

“Toys,” Marcant said.

“Shoes,” Arakaki guessed.

“Shoes? Hey, they could be shoes,” Telisa said. She counted them. “This bin has two sets of four in orange and green.”

“Okay guys. There’s a lot of stuff—artifacts—here. Look for something we can recognize,” Magnus suggested.

Arakaki shined her light on the objects in her bin again. A familiar shape caught her eye.

“Aha!” she said. She brought out a cylindrical object with fins and a pointy end.

She held it up for the others. “I know what this is.”

Marcant took a step back. “Possible ordnance.”

Arakaki nodded. “True.” She placed the rocket back into the bin. “We can have a robot pick it up for examination later.”

“Here’s something,” Maxsym said. He held up a coil of red and yellow rope.

“Rope! So there are a few things we can recognize. They aren’t completely alien,” Arakaki said.

“It doesn’t bend,” Maxsym observed. He shook the rope, but the coil did not flex.

“Even better—powered down smart rope,” Telisa said. “We can search through it for the controller and learn about their cybernetics.”

“And their energy storage,” Marcant said excitedly. “If this does turn out to be a smart rope, we’ll be able to compare their tech capabilities to our own.”

Marcant held a shiny emblem or symbol in his Veer-gloved hand.

“I think I have... badges? Or markers...”

“These cylinders could be anything,” Maxsym said, looking deeper into Marcant’s bin. “Anything. This is kind of fun, but dangerous, too. They could be like sticks of explosive, or poison. We could all be dead in sixty seconds.”

“That’s the spirit!” Arakaki drawled.

Arakaki saw more bins along the walls. She took out a knife and held it before her as she opened another for a quick look.

“Looks like a lot of smaller containers. There must be a lot of stuff here... I mean, artifacts.”

“Okay, let’s finish exploring and come back here,” Telisa said. “Maybe we can get more context to help us figure out these items. Such as, what a Rovan looks like.”

“Searching for dead bodies?” asked Maxsym in an oddly hopeful way.

“Well I hope they’re not merely sleeping,” Marcant said.

“I think we should leave an attendant behind to scan and catalog all these items. It could screen for poisons and explosives,” Arakaki suggested.

“Yes,” Telisa said. “The attendants can scan it all and Magnus’s robots can carry it back. The items that aren’t clearly dangerous can be loaded onto the shuttle and taken back to Sharplight for careful study. I bet Adair is great at figuring out what artifacts do.”

“And the items that are deemed dangerous?” Marcant asked.

“We’ll set up a camp here somewhere. Maybe even in this room, actually,” Telisa said, looking around again. “It has the space. We would need more light, of course. Magnus, have the robots put in lights, run a line outside, and hook up a few solar panels.”

Everyone put the artifacts back into their bins. There was only one exit from the room, the one Arakaki had spotted early on, leading the opposite direction from the door they had forced.

The attendants had mapped the whole place while the team examined the items. Arakaki loaded their map. It displayed fourteen rooms. The place was at least as big as their old Iridar. The map had confusing narrow lines running in parallel groups between the larger rooms. Maxsym beat her to the question.

“What are all those... open pipes connecting everything?” he asked.

“We can examine some just ahead here,” Telisa said. She pointed toward the dark corridor. The opening was wide enough for four people to walk side by side. Telisa led the way down the corridor.

After only fifteen or twenty meters, their lights revealed four round openings sitting near the floor on the right side. Each was about a third of a meter in diameter, and about a meter apart.

“That’s creepy,” Marcant said.

“Not helpful,” Telisa replied.

“The complex is riddled with these. Are they vents or what?” asked Magnus.

“Those could be to bring in water,” Maxsym theorized. “Maybe these creatures were amphibious. This could have filled the lower part of the floor with water.”

Arakaki knelt before one of the pipes and shined her weapon’s light into it. The inner surface was coated with dirt and peeling flakes of gray material. Her gut did not like what she saw. Instinct warned that danger would arrive from the dark opening.

Is that paint? Or the remains of whatever used to flow here?

“I’ll take a—” Arakaki started, then she saw that Maxsym had already placed several of the flakes into a tube. “Never mind.”

They continued down the corridor into another room. Long, curving shapes rose from the floor that she thought must be alien remains—an analogue of bones. The shortest pieces were straight, about the length of her forearm. The longest piece she saw was over a meter long. They were wrapped in black hide.

She knelt to rap on one with a knuckle. It was softer than ceramic, like a resin.

“These things are not mechanical as far as I can tell,” Marcant said.

Maxsym moved in to examine one of the objects with a sampling device. “From the looks of these scans... if these are bones, the aliens form them in ways unique to our experience,” he said. “I’ll take a sample just in case.”

“It’s furniture,” Telisa said.

Arakaki looked at the shapes in a new light. She decided Telisa might well be correct. The material she had thought of as alien hide or skin was probably the remains of whatever softer materials may have been wrapped around the structural components. Exactly what kind of things might have lounged on those strange curves, she could not guess, though they may have been large—or would dozens of smaller things have played atop each piece?

As they descended, the complex became dirtier. A rupture in one of the tunnels had allowed plant roots and a flood of mud to enter a room, destroying it.

They clambered over the roots and mud. A few more low-tech-looking items lay on the floor: a mud-streaked cone-shaped thing the size of her hand and a broken cup or container. Everyone eagerly moved on.

Soon they entered another large room. The remains of furniture or equipment were arrayed against black-streaked walls of gray. Ten of the pipe openings were placed near the floor, five on one wall and five on another.

The team spread out to search through the debris. Arakaki felt like she was looking through a disaster site for survivors. She lifted up a square piece of carbon mesh to uncover an oval frame a half-meter long. Complex machinery lay inside the frame. It looked like a gruesome cross section of an android head.

“Something here...” Arakaki said. The others came to look.

“I have no idea what that is, but it looks to be in good condition,” Telisa said. She carefully brought it out of the garbage surrounding it and held it up. The frame had several round holes in its side and a smooth underside.

“It looks unfinished,” Magnus said.

“A work in progress?” Marcant guessed.

“Or maybe a repair in progress,” Magnus said, putting the artifact into a pack.

The team did not find anything else that looked interesting in the room, at least nothing intact that they felt warranted investigation. Telisa led the way down a gentle incline.

Arakaki half expected to see a huge alien corpse. She wondered what the Rovans had looked like. If Maxsym’s theory was right, maybe they would find an enormous salamander-thing.

Their lights revealed another room, about twenty meters on a side. Three of the walls held low alcoves that were only half as high as the ceiling of four meters. The alcoves were about six meters long, with a maroon coloration. The bottom of each alcove was filled with an irregular gray material. An eight-legged table or stage sat less than a half meter high at one end of the room. Black spirals the size of a Terran forearm lay across the top—perhaps twenty of them.

“Beds,” Magnus said, looking at the alcoves. He sounded confident of his guess.

Arakaki supposed he might be right, but there was not enough to go on.

Maxsym stopped near the spirals. He pointed a scanner at them and paused.

“This is a complex material,” he said. “But homogenous. Probably a food item.”

“You can say that already?” Telisa asked.

“It’s a polysaccharide,” Maxsym explained. “Chemical energy. I see the repetitive bonds suitable for digestion by low-temperature processes with enzymes... nothing weird here, just hydrogen, carbon, oxygen, calcium, chlorine... I think it’s food.”

“Alien spaghetti,” Marcant said. “Any takers?”

“That’s it for the big rooms,” Arakaki summarized.

“No bodies,” Maxsym said, finally looking away from the table.

“You said something about not having to crawl around on our hands and knees?” Marcant said, indicating one of the open pipes.

“We won’t be,” Telisa said. “But the part I said about not sending attendants into ratholes was apparently incorrect. Sorry, no refunds available.”

“There’s something important to note here,” Marcant said. “You see this room, this one, and this one on the map? According to the attendant’s data, these rooms are only accessible via the small tunnels. There are no larger corridors leading there.”

“What’s in those rooms?” Magnus asked. He stared at the wall blankly, accessing the map.

Arakaki brought up imagery of the inaccessible rooms the attendants had collected. One of the rooms was empty, though the walls had strange rows of small niches on them like staggered shelves with smooth depressions instead of rectangular storage holes. Another room held a stockpile of the black spiral material, Maxsym’s theorized food source. The third room was filled with a perplexing maze of closed pipes that ran through several larger boxes. Rigid groups of even smaller pipes or conductors connected it all, often running in diagonal pathways. Arakaki guessed it might be the nerve center of the building, or at least a heating or cooling unit.

They marched back up to the first room and paused. Magnus’s machines had installed four light bars in the corners, illuminating the room comfortably. Two of Magnus’s robots were loading artifacts into cargo containers.

“What are your initial impressions?” Telisa asked the team.

The others traded looks. Arakaki waited one second, and when no one else spoke up, she said, “They were small, or at least some of them were. They used those narrow tunnels. The water theory is wrong because these small tunnels connect three different levels. The water would completely flood the lower levels but leave this level dry. Besides, there are so many redundant tubes without any valves or caps. Why would they need that for water? Any one of those pipes could carry enough water to quickly flood these rooms.”

“Perhaps they were partially aquatic,” Maxsym said. “Or maybe only their young were aquatic. The lower levels could have been completely flooded while this level remained only partially underwater. Multiple tubes are to allow multiple individuals to be swimming back and forth at the same time.”

“The easiest explanation is that they simply had pets,” Marcant said. “There are only a couple of rooms that are only accessible via the pipes. Maybe the pets slept there.”

“The design is very pet-centric, wouldn’t you say?” Telisa asked.

“Yes. But they’re aliens,” Arakaki said. “The amount they were willing to design their houses around their pets is different than how much Terrans do so.”

Marcant’s eyebrows jumped and he became more animated.

“Or, the pets could have been artificial. Servants, like our attendants. Or like Magnus’s robots.”

“Magnus?” Telisa prompted.

Magnus’s lips compressed. Arakaki figured he did not like being put on the spot.

“I think that there were large individuals moving in these wider tunnels, and small individuals moved through the pipes. The pipes weren’t for the young, because there would be a continuum of sizes, not just two. I think there may have been different genders with different final sizes. Or maybe a large one lived in here, like an ant queen, and the smaller ones were like worker ants, crawling through the tunnels and supporting it.”

A lot of great guesses. But only guesses.

“Your turn,” Magnus said to Telisa.

“I don’t have much to add. We’ve observed there are two sizes of tunnels. That means, either the Rovans fit into the smallest sized tunnels, and they were all small, or, there were two sizes of... things that lived here. We have a good array of possibilities: at least two genders of different sizes, or perhaps young that go through a transformation into adulthood, or a kind of asymmetric system where the small ones were pets or servants of the large ones... I suppose we have to at least consider the possibility that the large ones served the small ones too. The large ones might have been the ‘pets’. And yes, the pets might have been robots, but, with pipes being such a fundamental component of the entire place, and the redundancy, I’d have to say this started in their distant past.”

“It’s too bad we didn’t learn more,” Arakaki said. She had been looking forward to discovering what the Rovans had looked like. She knew Maxsym must have been even more eager to know.

“This is a big win,” Telisa said. “Marcant has a rope he can check for controllers, Maxsym has a lot of samples to check for traces of the creatures long gone, and we have a ton of artifacts to pore over. I’m encouraged.”

Arakaki knew Telisa was right. The job took patience. With all the aliens dead or gone, the process of learning would be slower.

“We’ll stay here tonight. Get this room cleaned up. Lee, I won’t ask you to come down here with us if it makes you uncomfortable, but if you don’t, you should stay in the shuttle.”

“Yes! I would stay on a familiar vine during an alien night. The shuttle will keep me safe, I think.”

“I’ll join Lee in the shuttle,” Marcant said. “I’m not a fan of camping in dilapidated bunkers.”

Telisa nodded. “Suit yourself.”

The robots finished scanning and photographing the artifacts. The cutting robot cleared away room for a small camp beside the shuttle, but Telisa decided to move the equipment into the bunker with the team.

Arakaki kept a sharp eye on the video feeds from above ground and below while Marcant, Magnus, and Telisa argued over whether the scans had discovered anything dangerous about any of the artifacts. The item of most contention was the missile-shaped object.

“This is propellant,” Magnus was saying, referring to networked scan results they examined in their PVs.

“It’s a missile, yes, but without a warhead, it’s not too dangerous to take back to the ship,” Marcant argued.

“We don’t really understand the payload, though,” Telisa said. “Until we know what it is, we can leave it in a container outside.”

“What if we cut it open and remove the payload?”

“Not in here,” Telisa said.

“I’ll have a robot do it in an isolated location,” Magnus offered.

“Fine,” Telisa said.

The team got the camp straightened out by the time the sun outside started to set. Their landfall had been only ten hours ago. The full day on the planet lasted about seventeen hours. Everyone stayed busy. The day had been short, so they all remained wide awake and eager to learn more.

Arakaki remained vigilant. She paid less attention to the artifacts, though she pondered one here and there while focused on the attendant feeds. As a result, she was the first to notice changes in the feeds.

“Something’s happening outside!” Arakaki transmitted. “A strong wind is rising through the leaves or vines or whatever those things are.”

“Be careful, there might be a kind of storm coming in,” Telisa transmitted. “Can the Sharplight see anything? If there’s a major weather event, maybe Lee and Marcant need to come in here.”

“Nightfall has brought an uptick in wind, but there’s no precipitation in your area,” Adair reported from a geostationary position on the Sharplight.

“Life forms are moving in,” Arakaki snapped. “Dozens of them!”

“Wait. Are we under attack?” Marcant asked incredulously.

“If we are, they’re in for a surprise,” Telisa said.

“Animals, I believe,” Arakaki said. “Six-legged creatures, approximately 300 kilograms each. No signs of any tools or weapons.”

“Let’s investigate in person,” Telisa said.

The others hesitated.

“Yes I know it’s dangerous. I’m doing it anyway. Join or stay as you please, but activate your stealth if you’re coming.”

Telisa rushed for the door. Suddenly she had a stunner in her hand. Magnus followed her immediately. They dropped out of sight.

“You going?” Marcant asked Arakaki, but she had already started for the door. Maxsym was not far behind. They flipped on their stealth spheres.

As they approached the doors, Arakaki saw green streamers reaching for the dusk sky. The tightly packed miasma of impossibly long leaves around the terrace had untangled itself. A stiff breeze blew up the slope, causing the leaves to flap upward in long strands that rose five meters into the air.


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