“Right,” Sangat said. “We’ll have the robot grab the book but no one is touching it until we’re sure it won’t affect people the way the Rune affected Mei.”
“We should have Mei have a look at it,” Doctor Mensah said. “Maybe it’ll be able to read their language. Our chances of reading it otherwise are slim to non-existent.”
Sangat tilted his head thoughtfully, then nodded. “You’re right, but I don’t want Mei touching it either. It might aggravate its condition.” He looked over at the technician with the remote. “Can you grab that book?”
“Of course.” The technician fiddled with the control and a hatch on top of the robot opened. A long grabber arm unfolded from it and reached for the book. Immediately a beam of light came down from the ceiling between the robot and the book and a semi-transparent projection of one of the alien creatures appeared. It seemed to stare directly into the robot’s camera â€“ at least Amanpreet assumed the blue orbs near the top of its barrel-shaped body were eyes â€“ and made what was clearly a come here gesture with two of its arms. Then the camera feed from the robot went blank.
There was a cracking sound and the technician in charge of the remote made a pained gasp. Amandeep looked over â€“ he was clutching his bleeding hand and the remote control was in shattered pieces around his feet.
“What the hell!” Doctor Mensah said. “What happened, Hiro?”
“It shattered just as the cameras went off,” he said.
“Probably caused by whatever they did,” she muttered. “Did we lose the sonar feed as well?”
“We did,” the Mez said. “I think that proves they are hostile.”
“I don’t know,” Amandeep said. “They might not have considered this to be hostile. The doors were all open.”
“Am?” Sangat said. “What are you thinking.”
Amanpreet rubbed at her forehead as she tried to chase down the odd feeling. “Strange,” she said finally. “Somehow it seems I can understand that… I think they had no real concept of privacy or private property. This is just them saying if you want to explore this place you have to do it in person. They might still be hostile and even if they aren’t, it might still be too dangerous to go down there given their boundary issues.”
Doctor Mensah and Sangat exchanged a look.
“It’s possible,” Doctor Mensah said. “It certainly did seem to be inviting us down. And you know what? I know it’s stupidly dangerous but I want to go down there.”
“Yes,” Sangat said after a long moment. “So do I. It’s like an itch.” He frowned suddenly. “You know what, Emma, I think that it’s affecting us as well. Not the same way it is Mei but it’s pulling on us somehow. I think we should all go back up to the station and hope this effect can’t reach us there so we can figure out what to do with a clear head.”
“I concur,” the lead Mez scientist said. “Now that you mention it, I am feeling the same thing.”
Amanpreet didn’t like leaving the Whisper on the surface but she didn’t really have any choice. It would be at least another day before the damage had healed and the ship’s reserves were replenished.
Vanna was obviously thinking the same thing. As they headed towards the small transport, she paused and looked at Sangat.
“I should stay with the Whisper to monitor the repair cycle. It’s halfway across the planet so it should be safe.”
“I don’t know,” he said. “I was thinking of calling the Ishtari engineers in as well. I’m not sure we should leave anyone on the surface until we know what’s going on.”
“Well we can’t leave the Whisper unattended,” Vanna said. “And I’ve been here for less time than the Ishtari engineers so I’m less likely to be affected, right?â€
“That’s true.” He paused on the steps up to the transport’s door. “Though we really don’t know that for certain. Are you sure you aren’t feeling any urge to go down into the underground city?”
Vanna tilted her head and pursed her lips consideringly. “No, not really. I’m curious about the place but who isn’t? I certainly have no desire to get myself killed by facing down the still-functional technology of a possibly hostile extinct species.”
Through his breathing mask Amanpreet could see him chewing his lip. “Okay then, it should be safe. But if you do start feeling anything, call us immediately so we can talk you down from doing anything stupid. Can you pilot a shuttle?”
“I can,” she said. “Should I take the one we used to get here?”
“We do need to return it,” he said.
“Okay!” She broke away from the group and ran over to the shuttle as the rest of them climbed into the transport.
As they waited for take-off, a feeling of static filled the air and the transport’s engine whined strangely, stuttered for a moment and died. The pilot tried to restart it but the same thing happened again. There was silence for a moment then the pilot emerged into the passenger compartment.
“There was some sort of power surge and the engines are completely dead.” She frowned at them. “Do you think this is related to what happened to your robot?”
“Almost certainly.” Sangat stroked his beard. “Which means that if we call in another transport, it’s likely that the same thing will just happen again. They must really want us to go down there.”
“So what should we do?”
“Well, I want to check if Vanna got off the ground before that surge hit,” Amanpreet said. â€œI don’t want to think about her being in the air when it did.â€
â€œShe didn’t,â€ the pilot said. â€œThe shuttle was visible from the cockpit and it seems grounded as well.â€
“We should check on her,” Doctor Mensah said. “And then it looks like we’re going to have to go down there. We need to find whatever is stopping us taking off and neutralize it at the very least.”
“I agree,” Sangat said. “But first we need to discuss how to approach this and see if we can contact the station and tell them what is going on.” He unbuckled himself, stood up and pulled his breathing mask back on. “Let’s go.”
Vanna was standing by the shuttle scowling at it when they reached her.
“I don’t know if these people are hostile,” she said. “But they are really intrusive and rude for dead people.”
“That’s an understatement,” Sangat said. “Come on, we’re going to discuss what to do next.â€
They gathered back at the dig headquarters and replayed the footage the robot had sent before they lost contact with it looking for anything that might help but there was nothing. After it finished, Sangat sighed.
“Well, it was worth looking. I don’t I think I need to tell everyone not to touch anything.” He looked towards the hole. “Emma, you stay here and monitor us. Anyone else who doesn’t feel comfortable carrying a weapon, stay with her. I’ll go first. Can you take the rear, Am? I know you won’t get trigger happy with your gun.â€
â€œOf course,â€ she said.
Vanna, Kane and a handful of the scientists stayed on the surface with Doctor Mensah as Sangat led the rest of them down into the vast cave. As they emerged onto a ledge above the underground city, crystals embedded into the walls began to glow softly. As the light spread through the entire cave, they could to see it was a perfect hemisphere and that apart from the place the diggers had broken through, there were no entrances or exits â€“ nor any sign that there had ever been any.
Niobe gave a low whistle. â€œHow did they get something like this down here without any way in or out? Did they have access to hyperspace and some way to use it safely on a planet? And if they did, why didn’t they escape when the disaster happened?â€
â€œThat’s a good question,â€ Sangat said. â€œI can think of a number of reasons but that would be speculation. Let’s go and find out.â€