K ira lay where she was, stunned.
The impact had knocked the breath out of her. She tried to fill her lungs, but her muscles wouldn’t respond. Not at first. For a moment she felt as if she were choking, and then her diaphragm relaxed and air rushed in.
She gasped, desperate for oxygen.
After the first few breaths, she forced herself to stop panting. No point in hyperventilating. It would only make it harder to function.
In front of her, all she saw was rock and shadow.
She checked her overlays: skinsuit still intact, no breaches detected. Elevated pulse and blood pressure, O2 levels high normal, cortisol through the roof (as expected). To her relief, she didn’t see any broken bones, although her right elbow felt as if it had been smashed by a hammer, and she knew she was going to be sore and bruised for days.
She wiggled her fingers and toes, just to test that they worked.
With her tongue, Kira tabbed two doses of liquid Norodon. She sucked the painkiller from her feeding tube and gulped it down, ignoring its sickly-sweet taste. The Norodon would take a few minutes to reach full strength, but she could already feel the pain retreating to a dull ache.
She was lying on a pile of stone rubble, and the corners and edges dug into her back with unpleasant insistence. Grimacing, she rolled off the mound and onto all fours.
The ground was surprisingly flat. Flat and covered with a thick layer of dust.
It hurt, but Kira pushed herself onto her feet and stood. The movement made her lightheaded. She leaned on her thighs until the feeling passed and then turned and looked at her surroundings.
A ragged shaft of light filtered down from the hole she had fallen through, providing the only source of illumination. By it she saw that she was inside a circular cave, perhaps ten meters across—
No, not a cave.
For a moment she couldn’t make sense of what she was seeing, the incongruity was so great. The ground was flat. The walls were smooth. The ceiling was curved and dome-like. And in the center of the space stood a . . . stalagmite? A waist-high stalagmite that widened as it rose.
Kira’s mind raced as she tried to imagine how the space could have formed. A whirlpool? A vortex of air? But then there would be ridges everywhere, grooves . . . Could it be a lava bubble? But the stone wasn’t volcanic.
Then she realized. The truth was so unlikely, she hadn’t allowed herself to consider the possibility, even though it was obvious.
The cave wasn’t a cave. It was a room.
“Thule,” she whispered. She wasn’t religious, but right then, prayer seemed like the only appropriate response.
Aliens. Intelligent aliens. A rush of fear and excitement swept through Kira. Her skin went hot, and pinpricks of sweat sprang up across her body, and her pulse started to hammer.
Only one other alien artifact had ever been found: the Great Beacon on Talos VII. Kira had been four at the time, but she still remembered the moment the news had become public. The streets of Highstone had gone deathly quiet as everyone stared at their overlays, trying to digest the revelation that, no, humans weren’t the only sentient race to have evolved in the galaxy. The story of Dr. Crichton, xenobiologist and sole survivor of the first expedition to the lip of the Beacon had been one of Kira’s earliest and greatest inspirations for wanting to become a xenobiologist herself. In her more fanciful moments, she had sometimes daydreamed of making a discovery that was equally momentous, but the odds of that actually happening had seemed so remote as to be impossible.
Kira forced herself to breathe again. She needed to keep a clear head.
No one knew what had happened to the makers of the Beacon; they were long dead or vanished, and nothing had been found to explain their nature, origin, or intentions. Did they make this as well?
Whatever the truth, the room was a find of historic significance. Falling into it was probably the most important thing she would ever do in her life. The discovery would be news through the whole of settled space. There would be interviews, appearance requests; everyone would be talking about it. Hell, the papers she could publish . . . Entire careers had been built on far, far less.
Her parents would be so proud. Especially her dad; further proof of intelligent aliens would delight him like nothing else.
Priorities. First she had to make sure she lived through the experience. For all she knew, the room could be an automated slaughter house. Kira double-checked her suit readouts, paranoid. Still no breaches. Good. She didn’t have to worry about contamination from alien organisms.
She activated her radio. “Neghar, do you read?”
Kira tried again, but her system couldn’t connect to the shuttle. Too much stone overhead, she guessed. She wasn’t worried; Geiger would have alerted Neghar something was wrong as soon as the feed from her skinsuit cut out. It shouldn’t be long before help arrived.
She’d need help, too. There was no way she could climb out by herself, not without gecko pads. The ceiling was over four meters high and devoid of handholds. Through the hole, she could see a blotch of sky, pale and distant. She couldn’t tell exactly how far she’d fallen, but it looked like enough to place her well below ground level.
At least it hadn’t been a straight drop. Otherwise she would probably be dead.
Kira continued to study the room, not moving from where she stood. The chamber had no obvious entrances or exits. The pedestal that she had originally believed to be a stalagmite had a shallow, bowl-like depression in the top. A pool of dust had gathered within the depression, obscuring the color of the stone.
As her eyes adjusted to the darkness, Kira saw long blue-black lines cut into the walls and ceiling. The lines jagged at oblique angles, forming patterns similar to those of a primitive circuit board, although farther apart.
Art? Language? Technology? Sometimes it was difficult to tell the difference. Was the place a tomb? Of course, the aliens might not bury their dead. There was no way of knowing.
“Thermals up,” Kira murmured.
Her vision flipped, showing a muddy impression of the room, highlighted by the warmer patch of ground where the sunlight struck. No lasers, no artificial heat signatures of any sort.
The room could be studded with passive sensors, but if so, her presence hadn’t triggered a noticeable response. Still, she had to assume she was being watched.
A thought occurred to Kira, and she switched off the scanner on her belt. For all she knew, the signals from the device might seem threatening to an alien.
She scrolled through the last set of readings from the scanner: background radiation was higher than normal due to an accumulation of radon gas, while the walls, ceiling, and floor contained the same mixture of minerals and elements she’d recorded on the surface.
Kira glanced at the blotch of sky again. Neghar wouldn’t take long to reach the formation. Just a few minutes in the shuttle—a few minutes for Kira to examine the most important find of her life. Because once she was pulled out of the hole, Kira knew she wouldn’t be allowed back in. By law, any evidence of alien intelligence had to be reported to the proper authorities in the League of Allied Worlds. They would quarantine the island (and probably a good portion of the continent) and send in their own team of experts to deal with the site.
That didn’t mean she was about to break protocol. As much as she wanted to walk around, look at things closer, Kira knew she had a moral obligation not to disturb the chamber any further. Preserving its current condition was more important than any personal ambition.
So she held her ground, despite her almost unbearable frustration. If she could just touch the walls . . .
Looking back at the pedestal, Kira noticed the structure was level with her waist. Did that mean the aliens were about the same size as humans?
She shifted her stance, uncomfortable. The bruises on her legs were throbbing, despite the Norodon. A shiver ran through her, and she turned on the heater in her suit. It wasn’t that cold in the room, but her hands and feet were freezing now that the adrenaline rush from the fall was subsiding.
Across the room, a knot of lines, no bigger than her palm, caught her attention. Unlike elsewhere on the curving walls, the lines—
Kira glanced toward the sound just in time to see a melon-sized rock dropping toward her from the opening in the ceiling.
She yelped and stumbled forward, awkward. Her legs tangled, and she fell onto her chest, hard.
The rock slammed into the floor behind her, sending up a hazy billow of dust.
It took Kira a second to catch her breath. Her pulse was hammering again, and at any moment, she expected alarms to sound and some hideously effective countermeasure to dispose of her.
But nothing else happened. No alarms blared. No lights flashed. No trapdoors opened up beneath her. No lasers poked her full of tiny holes.
She pushed herself back onto her feet, ignoring the pain. The dust was soft beneath her boots, and it dampened the noise so the only sound she heard was her feathered breathing.
The pedestal was right in front of her.
Dammit, Kira thought. She should have been more careful. Her instructors back in school would have ripped her a new one for a mistake like that.
She returned her attention to the pedestal. The depression in the top reminded her of a water basin. Beneath the pooled dust were more lines, scribed across the inner curve of the hollow. And . . . as she looked closer, there seemed to be a faint blue glow emanating from them, soft and diffuse beneath the pollen-like particles.
Her curiosity surged. Bioluminescence? Or was it powered by an artificial source?
From outside the structure, she heard the rising roar of the shuttle’s engines. She didn’t have long. No more than a minute or two.
Kira sucked on her lip. If only she could see more of the basin. She knew what she was about to do was wrong, but she couldn’t help it. She had to learn something about this amazing artifact.
She wasn’t so stupid as to touch the dust. That was the sort of rookie mistake that got people eaten or infected or dissolved by acid. Instead, she took the small canister of compressed air off her belt and used it to gently blow the dust away from the edge of the basin.
The dust flew up in swirled plumes, exposing the lines beneath. They were glowing, with an eerie hue that reminded her of an electrical discharge.
Kira shivered again, but not from cold. It felt as if she were intruding on forbidden ground.
Enough. She’d tempted fate far more than was wise. Time to make a strategic retreat.
She turned to leave the pedestal.
A jolt ran up her leg as her right foot remained stuck to the floor. She yelped, surprised, and fell to one knee. As she did, the Achilles tendon in her frozen ankle wrenched and tore, and she uttered a howl.
Blinking back tears, Kira looked down at her foot.
A pile of black dust covered her foot. Moving, seething dust. It was pouring out of the basin, down the pedestal, and onto her foot. Even as she watched, it started to creep up her leg, following the contours of her muscles.
Kira yelled and tried to yank her leg free, but the dust held her in place as securely as a maglock. She tore off her belt, doubled it over, and used it to slap at the featureless mass. The blows failed to knock any of the dust loose.
“Neghar!” she shouted. “Help!”
Her heart pounding so loudly she couldn’t hear anything, Kira stretched the belt flat between her hands and tried to use it like a scraper on her thigh. The edge of the belt left a shallow impression in the dust but otherwise had no effect.
The swarm of particles had already reached the crease of her hip. She could feel them pressing in around her leg, like a series of tight, ever-shifting bands.
Kira didn’t want to, but she had no other choice; with her right hand, she tried to grab the dust and pull it away.
Her fingers sank into the swarm of particles as easily as foam. There was nothing to grab hold of, and when she drew her hand back, the dust came with it, wrapping around her fingers with ropy tendrils.
“Agh!” She scrubbed her hand against the floor, but to no avail.
Fear spiked through her as she felt something tickle her wrist, and she knew that the dust had found its way through the seams of her gloves.
“Emergency override! Seal all cuffs.” Kira had difficulty saying the words. Her mouth was dry, and her tongue seemed twice its normal size.
Her suit responded instantly, tightening around each of her joints, including her neck, and forming airtight seals with her skin. They couldn’t stop the dust, though. Kira felt the cold tickle progress up her arm to her elbow, and then past.
“Mayday! Mayday!” she shouted. “Mayday! Neghar! Geiger! Mayday! Can anyone hear me?! Help!”
Outside the suit, the dust flowed over her visor, plunging her into darkness. Inside the suit, the tendrils wormed their way over her shoulder and across her neck and chest.
Unreasoning terror gripped Kira. Terror and abhorrence. She jerked on her leg with all her strength. Something snapped in her ankle, but her foot remained anchored to the floor.
She screamed and clawed at her visor, trying to clear it off.
The dust oozed across her cheek and toward the front of her face. She screamed again and then clamped her mouth shut, closed off her throat, and held her breath.
Her heart felt as if it were going to explode.
The dust crept over her eyes, like the feet of a thousand tiny insects. A moment later, it covered her mouth. And when it came, the dry, squirming touch within her nostrils was no less horrible than she had imagined.
. . . stupid . . . shouldn’t have . . . Alan!
Kira saw his face in front of her, and along with her fear, she felt an overwhelming sense of unfairness. This wasn’t supposed to be how things ended! Then the weight in her throat became too great and she opened her mouth to scream as the torrent of dust rushed inside of her.
And all went blank.
Copyright © 2020 by Christopher Paolini
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