“We made it,” said Kira. After so long spent traveling, arrival hardly seemed real.
Falconi popped his buckles. “Time to say hi to the natives.”
“Not quite yet,” said Koyich. He stood. “Eyes and ears, you ugly apes. Exos free to disengage. Grab your battle rattle and get me a sitrep yesterday. And keep those drones outta the air until I give the order. You heard me! Go!” Around them, the shuttle transformed into a bustle of activity as the Marines readied themselves to deploy.
Before popping the airlock, they checked the atmosphere for unknown risk factors and then scanned the surrounding area for signs of movement.
“Anything?” Koyich demanded.
One of the Marines from the Darmstadt shook his head. “Nossir.” “Check thermals.”
“Already did, sir. It’s dead out there.” “Alright. Move out. Exos take point.”
Kira found herself crowded between the two Entropists as the Marines assembled before the airlock.
Veera said, “Isn’t this—”
“—most exciting?” Jorrus concluded.
Kira tightened the grip on her blaster. “I’m not sure that’s the word I’d choose.” She wasn’t even sure what she was feeling. A potent combination of dread and anticipation and—and it didn’t bear thinking about. She’d save her emotions for later. Right now there was a job that needed doing.
She glanced over at Trig. The kid’s face was pale behind his visor, but he still looked stupidly eager to see where they’d landed. “How you doing?” she asked.
He nodded, keeping his eyes fixed on the airlock. “All green.”
The airlock broke with a loud hiss, and a crown of condensation swirled around the edges of the door as it rolled back. The dull red light of Bughunt streamed in, casting an elongated oval on the corrugated decking. The lonely howl of an abandoned wind became audible.
Koyich signaled with his hand, and four of the armored Marines scrambled through the airlock. After a few moments, one of them said, “Clear.”
Kira had to wait until the remaining Marines exited the shuttle before they signaled for her and the Entropists to follow.
Outside, the world was split in half. To the east, the rust-colored sky held an evening glow and Bughunt protruded above the tortured horizon—a swollen red orb far dimmer than Epsilon Indi, the sun Kira had grown up with. To the west lay a realm of perpetual darkness, shrouded with starless night. Thick clouds hung low over the land, red and orange and purple and knotted with vortices driven by the ceaseless wind. Lightning illuminated the folded depths of the clouds, and the rumble of distant thunder echoed across the land.
The Ilmorra had landed on what looked like a patch of cracked paving stones. Kira’s mind automatically categorized them as artificial, but she cautioned herself against making assumptions.
Surrounding the landing zone were open fields covered with what looked like black moss. The fields ascended into foothills, and the foothills into the bounding mountains. The snow-mantled peaks were rounded with age and wear, but their dark silhouettes possessed a solid bulk that still managed to be intimidating. Like on the fields and the foothills, glossy black vegetation grew upon the sides of the mountains—black so as to better absorb the red light from their parent star.
The buildings she had identified from space weren’t visible at the moment; they lay farther up the valley, behind a flank of the neighboring mountain, perhaps two or three klicks away (she always found it hard to judge distances on new planets; the thickness of the atmosphere, the curve of the horizon, and the relative size of nearby objects were all things that took some time getting used to).
“Dramatic,” said Falconi, coming up beside her.
“It looks like a painting,” said Nielsen, joining them. “Or something out of a game,” said Trig.
To Kira, the place felt old beyond reckoning. It seemed unlikely it had been the homeworld of the Vanished—for a sentient, technologically advanced species to evolve on a tidally locked planet would be extremely difficult—but she had little doubt the Vanished had settled there long ago, and had stayed for a long time thereafter.
The Marines rushed about, setting up auto-turrets around the shuttle, tossing drones into the air (which zoomed skyward with a nerve-scraping buzz), and posting sensors—active and passive—in a wide perimeter.
“Form up,” Koyich barked, and the Marines assembled in front of the now-closed airlock. Then he trotted over to where Kira stood watching with Falconi and the Entropists, and said, “We’ve got two hours before the Jellies make orbit.”
Kira’s heart dropped. “That’s not enough time.”
“It’s all the time we’ve got,” said Koyich. “They’re not going to risk hitting us with bombs or missiles or rods from god, so—”
Falconi answered: “Kinetic projectiles. Big heavy lumps of tungsten or something like that. They hit almost as hard as nukes.”
Koyich jerked his chin. “That. The Jellies aren’t going to risk destroying you or the staff. They’re going to have to come down here in person. If we can get into the buildings you spotted, we can fight a delaying action, buy you some time. Hold out long enough and the Darmstadt might be able to give us some reinforcements. This ain’t going to be a fight won in space, that’s for damn sure.”
“Guess we can forget about proper containment procedures,” said Kira. Koyich grunted. “You could say that.”
The first officer barked a few commands, and within moments, their group set out marching at double speed across the broken stones, each step of the fourteen sets of power armor thudding like dire drums. Two of the Marines from the Darmstadt stayed behind with the shuttle. When Kira looked back, she saw them moving around the vessel, checking its heat shield for damage.
The wind provided a constant pressure against Kira’s side. After so long spent on ships and stations, the movement of air seemed strange. That and the unevenness of the ground.
She did the math in her head. It had been close to six months since she had last stood on Adrasteia. Six months of closed rooms, artificial lights, and the stink of close-pressed bodies.
Patches of black moss crunched under the soles of her boots. The moss wasn’t the only vegetation nearby; there were clusters of fleshy vines (assuming they were plants) growing upon nearby rock formations. The vines tumbled like locks of greasy hair across the face of the stone. Kira couldn’t help but note different features: leaf-like structures with veins that formed reticulated venation, similar to Earth dicots. Staggered branching, with deep ridges on the stems. No visible flowers or fruiting bodies.
Looking was one thing, but what she really wanted was to get a sample of the plant’s cells and start digging into its biochemistry. That was where the real magic was. An entirely new biome to explore, and she didn’t dare stop to learn anything about it.
They rounded the flank of the mountain, and by unspoken consent, the nineteen of them stopped.
Before them, in the low hollow of land at the head of the valley, lay the complex of alien buildings. The settlement was several klicks across, bigger even than Highstone, the capital of Weyland (not that Highstone was particularly big by League standards; there had only been eighty-four thousand people living there the year Kira had left).
Tall, spindly towers stretched skyward, white as bone and laced with a caul of the invading moss that had insinuated itself into every crack and flaw in the structures. Through broken walls, rooms of every size were visible, now drifted with dirt and obscured by opportunistic vines. An assortment of smaller buildings huddled in the spaces between the towers— all with tapered roofs and lancet windows empty of glass or other covering. There were few straight lines; naturalistic arcs dominated the design aesthetic.
Even in their half-ruined state, there was an attenuated elegance to the buildings that Kira had only seen in art or videos of pre-planned luxury communities on Earth. Everything about the complex felt intentional, from the curve of the walls to the layout of the paths that wound like streams throughout the settlement.
The place was undeniably abandoned. And yet, in the light of the endless sunset, beneath the shelf of burning clouds, it felt as if the city wasn’t dead,
just dormant, as if it were waiting for a signal to spring back to life and restore itself to the heights of its former glory.
Kira breathed out. Awe left her without words.
“Thule,” said Falconi, breaking the spell. He seemed as affected as she was.
“Where to?” said Koyich.
It took Kira a moment to clear her mind well enough to answer. “I don’t know. Nothing jumps out at me. I need to get closer.”
“Forward march!” Koyich barked, and they continued down the slope toward the city.
Next to Kira, the Entropists said, “We are indeed blessed to see this, Prisoner.”
She felt inclined to agree.