Lume let the cut piece of wall fall into the borehole with a resounding clang. The sound bounced around the borehole and the newly opened chamber. The echoes gave a clear picture of the size and shape of the spaces to anything with good ears. The borehole was a perfect cylinder two metres across. The chamber was the top part of a significantly larger sphere.
"There's still a patch of sunlight at the top of the borehole," Lume said, sounding proud that he had delivered on his promise. "Not much, but the sun hasn't quite set. Get on your feet and we'll check this place out!"
"Yes, let's run into the hidden underground chamber with no breathable air. In real life," Jannit, said, with a forceful lack of enthusiasm.
"Hey, what's got you so down, Jan?"
Jannit made a sound somewhere between a growl and a snarl.
"Jannit? Did something happen?" Lume sounded mystified, as if he thought the rest of the world should remain unchanged in his absence.
"I was checking my VMs while you were cutting our doorway." Jannit was trying to keep her tone even, but her tone wavered significantly.
"And what? Was there a Celestial incursion? Those new moon fairies wrecked your favourite theme park? An Old One consumed a major business district?" He sounded disinterested and dismissive, but instead of taking the first step into the chamber, he sat down on the floor of the borehole and waited for his sister to explain.
"You were close with the first guess. One of the big pro-Celestial cults."
"Those 'senior squad' cheaters again? Where did they hit?"
"Vantibia," Jannit said, somehow fitting the weight of a mountain into that one word. "And they were thorough."
"Aw man, I know you put a lot of work into that place. That's really rough."
Jannit's response was almost a screech. "Rough? The whole town's been contaminated with Celestial energy. Most of my friends there are going to have to reroll!"
"I get it, this really burns. But hey, you can rebuild an even better town."
"Lume, most of the people in Vantibia aren't like us. They can't casually afford a reroll. But they can't afford to keep playing a badly weakened character either. This is gonna drop some of them straight into debt, and a lot of them will be stuck in serfdom for years. Some of the more mystical inclined townsfolk might even join the cult instead of rerolling. No one's saying anything directly yet, but I'm sure this raid was organised by Lord Pergus. This always happens to indie townships. If he'd played fair and sent his army we could have held them off. Stupid OP Celestial powers." The last part was a barely audible mutter.
"You know, you might get some sweet artifacts out of the ruins in a few years. The revenge-fuelled sort that can only be wielded by victims against their oppressors. That could be fun."
"It's not about fun, Lume. It's about giving people a chance not to be stuck on the serfdom treadmill forever. But if this dig doesn't pan out, there's no way I can afford to get a new township set up decently. Even with the boom in earthshaping work, juniors like us won't have funds available to splash around on risky investments. But starting a new town will be an actively bad investment now. It'll be next to impossible to find a decent spot and enough prospective residents. It was hard enough getting people to risk joining Vantibia. Now the worst has happened, so everyone will be playing it safe."
"All the more reason to spec a new character who can kick their sorry butts back to the Celestial plane."
"Um, you do know that characters optimised to use Celly power are good at resisting Celly attacks, right? Using a Celly weapon against them would be a complete waste of time. And there will always be more of them popping up and out-levelling the rest of us. Besides, I'm not rerolling."
"Festia's alright? But I thought you were in Vantibia last night. Did you change plans?" Lume sounded confused. "Or did your hireling flee in time?
"No, I was there. I didn't bother arranging a hireling to skill-grind for just a couple of hours though. So Festia's offline now though."
"But that means Festia will get a massive Celestial radiation dose the moment you blink in."
"Then why would you possibly want to keep playing her?" Lume sounded like a man wondering why someone would wear last decade's fashions.
"I... I decided it was time for Festia to start a family."
"Yes. Calm down, Lume."
"So you'll wait a few months, then reroll, right?" Lume asked, his voice laden with expectation as if he could force his world to make sense again just by giving the right explanation.
"I'm not gonna abandon my kid!"
"Your virtual kid. You already have a real son, in case you've forgotten."
"Me raising a kid in VIVID won't affect Mora. It won't make any difference to him what I do while I'm asleep."
"But... You're gonna stick with a hobbled character for years! Less power and progression means less loot. Can you afford that?"
"I guess we'll find out."
"Hm? Oh, you mean the chamber."
"Of course I mean the chamber. Did you forget why we're here?"
"I was trying to help... never mind. Right, we'd better go in." Lume easily pushed himself up to his feet, ran a check of his safety gear, and stepped over to the freshly-cut doorway. "Uh..."
"Really, Lume? You didn't realise the cable in the middle of the doorway would be a problem?"
"I... can fix this! Just need to send the hummingbird up to check the fittings and..." The hummingbird darted around overhead like an angry hornet. "Yeah that should pull loose, no trouble." The hummingbird returned to the floor and its tiny motor fell quiet. Lume grunted with effort. A soft snap was followed by silence.
"You broke something!"
"It's just a plastic clip, Jan. No big."
"A centuries old plastic clip that was keeping a data cable running securely across the ceiling and down the wall."
"And now the cable's not in our way. All good!"
"If this somehow costs us a fortune, I'm gonna kick you so hard, your VIVID characters won't even be able to adopt kids."
Lume sucked his breath in so sharply he narrowly avoided choking on his tongue. "That doesn't even..." After several deep calming breaths, he cracked his knuckles and took a step into the chamber. "It'll be fine."
Jannit was not impressed. "You're standing on someone's desk."
"You're welcome to drill your own tunnel and cut your own entrance. Maybe you'd rather jump through the ceiling?" Lume's boots met the floor with a solid metallic note. "Very industrial flooring. This was not some cosy office."
"We already knew that," Jannit said as she climbed down more carefully beside her brother.
"There's two hatches against the wall on opposite sides, dividing the ring of consoles into two semicircles. There's a third hatch closer to the centre, by the umbilical cables."
"I see it too, Lume."
"Shh, I'm narrating my observations for the recording."
"Stop wasting time!"
"Fine, fine. I'll see if I can get any data off these consoles."
"Don't you think that maybe powering up an ancient control console is maybe a spectacularly bad idea?"
"I'm pretty sure it's a monitoring console. But no, I'm just going to see if I can open something up and find how they store their data, and if it can be easily removed and sent topside."
"I suppose I'll get one of the hatches open."
"Good idea. The central one's probably a maintenance hatch for the cables. To get at what's below, try one of the outer hatches."
The siblings didn't speak for the next few minutes. Their progress was marked by occasional clicks, clatters and grunts as they opened more things which had remained closed for centuries.
The sputtering hiss of oil droplets was followed by the near-silent gliding of lubricated metal against metal. "I've got the hatch open. Without damaging anything. How are the computers?"
"Uh, well they're a fourth era design."
"Or technically lack of design, since their primary design principle was 'connect parts together until they work well enough', as near as anyone can tell."
"And yet the most powerful systems in the world today were built in the fourth era."
"That's not a fair statement. They were first built in the fourth era, and have been continually upgraded since."
"Okay, I get it. Does that mean you have no data?"
"There's no 'main data storage unit' I can pop out and stick in my bag. It'll be a job and a half for the real experts to boot them up safely, if that's possible."
"Pity. Well I'm ready to check out what's below. And then I'll be more than ready for sleep. Long past ready, thanks to time zones messing everything up."
"I'm sorry about that, alright? I had to throw this trip together really quickly so the other families wouldn't realise I'd found something big."
"I know, I know. It's just... the timing's not great with everything else that's going on. But that's not your fault. You had no idea anyone would attack Vantibia."
"You would have been there."
"Yes, and I would have fought for the town! I would have made it cost those—"
"Exactly! Everyone would have expected Festia to defend Vantibia. But she didn't. The powers behind the attack would have noticed. Someone will be wondering where you are."
"Then we had better hurry." A new note of urgency had entered Jannit's voice. "If we can prove you've found something worth protecting, we'll have the full force of the family protecting this site. Otherwise, we're just two Oji juniors on a lark."
"We should really send the hummingbird down first," Lume said as his sister's boots clanged softly against metal rungs. "At least set up your safety rope."
"I'm not going to fall off a ladder, Lume," Jannit called up to him. "And we'd need to set up multiple pulleys to feed the rope down here. There's no time to waste!"
"You're meant to be the cautious one," Lume muttered.
"Don't just stand there! This ladder was clearly designed to support more than one per—" CRACK
The fading scream of terror was cut off by a combined thud and crash.
"Jannit?" Stunned disbelief.
A pained gasp for breath from below was barely loud enough to reach Lume's ears.
"Jannit!" Sheer relief, but also panic.
Jannit finally got enough air in her lungs to produce a vein-chilling scream. "Haaaands!"
"What's happening?" Lume's voice had shifted over to a confused variant of disbelief. "Jannit?"
"They're everywhere! They've got me!" Jannit's wild words were punctuated with the sounds of even wilder flailing.
"What's got you?"
"The hands! Get them off me!"
"Is there someone else down there? A creature?"
"So many hands! They're... Oh." The note of panic vanished, replaced with realisation.
"They're just... ha! Loose arms! Haha! Detached arms! Hahah— Ow!"
"One's stuck into me. Ooh that's not good. I'm bleeding."
"Where? What's stuck into you?" Lume finally unfroze himself to begin setting up the pulleys as he'd previously recommended, as evidenced by the hurried jangling of metal parts.
"Lower abdomen. I fell in some kind of... vat. Of artificial arms. This is gonna... leave a scar."
"A vat of prosthetics? Why is there a... no, gotta stop the bleeding. How deep is it? Are we talking 'nasty gouge', or 'will bleed out in a minute'?"
"The former. Think it'll be... alright. Just stick a... Oh wowwww."
"Haha. You wouldn't believe what's down here." Jannit sounded uncommonly mellow given the ordeal she was going through.
"More body parts? Er, are you feeling alright, Jannit? Anything broken? Did you hit your head?"
"Bit dizzy. Yeah, there's suuure more body parts. Braaaaains! Hahaha."
Lume's rig beeped in confirmation as he manually ordered it to pay out more rope. "You don't sound alright. What's your oxygen level?" He was trying to keep his words and movements calm and calculated, and was mostly succeeding.
"Jannit... why is your voice not muffled?" The young man's voice wavered, and the rope slipped from his fingers, landing on the metal floor with a soft rippling thud.
"Mask got ripped off. Ow. But look... at all the brains. Thousands and thousands. Better make the caaaaall. Call Auntie Belopa."
"Find it and put it back on! I'm about to come down to you, alright? By rope, because the ladder's broken loose. I didn't want to comment earlier but have you been putting on weight? Not that it's your fault. Well it is, because you shouldn't have trusted a centuries-old ladder without a safety line." His words and tone meandered as he forced back the uncomfortable silence for a while, then gave up. "Jannit, are you there? Say something!"
"Hey Auntie, guess what we found!" Jannit said, speaking more conversationally rather than shouting up to her brother. She was still a little too loud, lacking full control of her voice. "It's gotta be... valuable so... secure the site. Right. Right away. Brains are ooooours. Auntie? Oh good! Hey Lume, the medical team!" She was yelling again. "Dispatched, cos of low oxygen. Oops."
"Get your mask on, now!"
"Mask's bust. Caught on something... on the way down. Be careful, you! You, bro. Brother you! Ooh, the brains are spinning! Slowing."
"No, no, nonono, Dad's gonna kill me. Jannit, I'll be right down, but you have to find your air hose and breath from it, okay? Think of little Mora waiting for you at home." Lume clipped the rope to his harness and ordered a descent as quickly as was safe.
"Eeep! Oh. Wow! Lume, the arm shocked me! Weird. But still dizzy. And sleepy. Where air? Oh, no reach."
"Get your pack off so you can reach your oxygen bottle, okay? You can do it. I'm almost down to you."
The sound of metal sliding against lines of tiny teeth indicated the unzipping of Jannit's pack. "Gotta find it," she muttered.
"Maybe there's some breathable air in there, but you need the bottle," Lume said, getting steadily lower and closer. The whine of the motor masked the much louder sound from outside the borehole, for a while. "Is that... Jannit, I hear helicopters! It must be the rescue team. Hold on a little longer, alright?" Some part of Lume crashed loudly against a rung of the ladder, but he made no audible reaction to the inevitable pain.
"Gonna sleep. Need cap. Vvvv... VIVvvv..."
"Jannit, don't... Oh, maybe that's a good idea?" He was almost to her now. Close enough to hear the final soft words she spoke to him.
"See soon. My ba..."
|You are Dead|