“Here hold this,” Meron ordered juggling her gear. “We must be somewhere around here.” She pointed to the blank spot on the map.
“And with the collapse we are on the far side.” Gayle added leaning in close to their only light source, Meron’s comDev.
She traced a line across the map to a point in the yellow zone, “Here: water pipes. Looks like a major system and where there are major pipes‒”
“‒there are access tunnels.” He nodded. “So you’re thinking those pipes reach across here?”
“It’s a long shot.”
Gayle shrugged, “About as long as us surviving this place.”
Meron ignored the irony in his voice, “If they do, we can track across and enter the facility undetected.”
“You know what I mean.” Meron scowled.
The passage leading away from the collapsed chamber where they had escaped the savages appeared unnatural; it had clearly been hewn from the ice by machine – the tell-tale marks of rough ice drilling decorated the wall though they were worn smooth with age. Gayle guessed that it had been an early construction and, more importantly, it was a sign that they had returned to a part of the facility. The passage continued dead straight, into the darkness.
For about an hour they followed the passage without any deviation, though for all they knew they could have been walking in a big circle. The only hint that they had not been over the same ground was the occasional broken tool or similar sign that humans had once been this way. Gayle glanced at his watch.
“You’re arm’s gonna get tired if you keep checking that thing.” Meron said without turning.
“Someone’s got to keep track.” He grumbled.
“We’ll get there when we get there.” She replied, though her voice was forceful. After a moment she added, “What’s under your bonnet anyway?”
Gayle still had mixed feelings about the conversation he’d interrupted between Meers and her, “nothing, I’m just sick of walking.”
She paused to check the map, and in the dim glow she scrutinised his face, “We’ve got to work together Gayle.”
To Gayle this seemed an odd thing to say. Eventually after an awkward pause he felt he had to say something. “Yes.”
As soon as the word came out of his mouth Gayle could tell it was not the correct answer and he silently swore to himself. Dammit! Why did women have to be so complicated? He Thought.
Meron sighed and frowning turned away from him, “Never mind. Come on, let’s go.”
The passage eventually widened into a dimly-lit, square chamber about the size of Achilles’ hold. Rust-coloured water filled a reservoir in the centre of the room about five feet below a crumbling walkway that surrounded it on all sides. To the right was a large open pipe roaring with red-brown liquid that drained into the reservoir. On the walkway was a rusted-shut portal and on the opposite side of the room another passage led away continuing in line with the passage they had just traversed.
“Looks like some kind of drain?” Meron said.
With a tentative step Gayle tested the poorly-maintained gantry; it was rusted to the point of decay and creaked underfoot. “Will it hold our weight?”
“Only one way to find out.” Meron folded her arms nodding her head forward.
“Yeah, I don’t see you volunteering.” Gayle tossed back a loose dreadlock.
Meron returned his frown, “Just get a move on.”
Grumbling to himself Gayle eased his way towards the door, avoiding the most decayed parts of the gantry. Taking his full weight the gantry groaned and Gayle looked down into the water noting that it was moving across the chamber with some velocity, disappearing into a whirlpool. He guessed that it must be a submerged drain; otherwise the entire room would have been flooded.
A few steps later he was at the door and examined it, it was seized shut. He tested the handle which seemed firm enough at first glance but when he grabbed hold it snapped off in his grip. He held it aloft gingerly for Meron to see. His grin must have looked stupid because she did not seem amused. He thought about a good stiff drink.
Gayle cursed the original engineer, who hadn’t chosen more durable materials to construct this place, but as a mechanic himself he knew cost was always the driving factor; the person to blame had been holding the purse strings.
He took a step back and smashed his heavy boot into the door. Something cracked. He smiled until he realised that it wasn’t the door that had given way. Under him the gantry groaned and shook, then, in a series of shudders, slid backwards away from the wall. Gayle danced to stay on his feet.
Meanwhile Meron had come forward onto the gantry behind him and stumbled into the railing. Under her sudden weight it tore away from its moorings and she rolled sideways but was agile enough to grab hold of the rail. As it swung away she went with it into the water, disappearing into the rusty muck.
Gayle turned just in time to see her head vanish under the water, “Meron!”
The Gantry settled into a relatively stable position and Gayle climbed down as close as he could to where she had submerged. He squinted into the murk but couldn’t see her at all. The rail that had sheared off like a zipper was now dangling like a rope. As he watched it tugged a few times and became taut as if there were a great fish on the end of it. A second later Meron burst through the surface with a great gasp and Gayle dived to grab the rail but, in that instant, with a crack it tore from the anchor point in the wall. The loose rail tore through his fingers like a runaway train, the jagged bolt at the end taking a chunk out of his hand as he scrambled to contain it. Meron paddled for a second and all Gayle could do was catch her desperate look before she was sucked under.
“Shit!” In a panic he looked for something to help but there was nothing and only one option: to go in after her. He tossed his gear free behind him and dived in. Why the hell does this stuff happen to me?
The water was surprisingly warm. It swirled around him as he bobbed back to the surface. Immediately though he felt a tug on his heels, an undercurrent was dragging him down and away towards the far wall and the whirlpool. He bobbed down in the water and tried to open his eyes to see if he could find Meron but it was impossible to see anything and for his trouble he found debris stuck to his eyeballs and returned to the surface screaming with pain.
He swam blindly to the far end of the room where he thought Meron may have been dragged and took a huge gasp of air then dove down again. Under the water he waved his hands about in blind hope of finding her. After about a minute, his lungs bursting he returned to the surface. Already his muscles ached and he knew time was running out for Meron. He dove again, this time he ventured closer to where he could feel the pull of the water. He had an inkling Meron had been pulled to the drain and feared she might be stuck there. Reaching into the current he felt around a wide rim and noted with horror that there was no grating, if she had succumbed to the current she would have been sucked into the drain and ended up who knows where. There was little he could do with his strength fading fast and his lungs burning. He had to save himself now. He tried to swim away but the current was like a thousand tons roaring at his ears, forcing him back. He clawed at the floor to try to drag himself free but found it covered in a slippery moss and he couldn’t get any grip. He realised he’d badly miscalculated his ability to get back to safety, now it was only a matter of time. You’re done for Gayle-boy, He mused as his muscles gave in and the world closed around him.
Gayle came around as he fell uncontrolled through the air. A few seconds later he hit icy water like a brick, landing on his back. It was like being hit with a baseball bat. He would have given up then and there from the shock of it but he felt something brush against his leg. Somehow he bent in the water, ignoring the searing pain and felt for what it was. It was a narrow wrist, still warm, and it could only be that of one person. How many others had been sucked down the drain in the last few years?
He pulled her limp body towards him and wrapped his arm around her from behind, his lungs raging for air. He must have drifted down with her added weight however as his feet touched firm ground. It was a godsend for he was able to push off from it using his remaining reserve of strength.
They burst through the surface and bobbed for a moment. Gayle glanced about to orient himself. Lit by a scattering of permaLights, now dimmed with age, was a confusion of metal beams. Towers rose out of a lake of water, and above this open scaffolds disappeared into the darkness. They were in some kind of base, which was now partially flooded but may have once been the heart of some great industry.
Gayle put one arm around Meron’s chest, so her head was held above the water, and paddled crab-like with the other. He spied a nearby stairwell that disappeared below the waterline and headed for it. It was heavy going trying to swim and haul a body after him; he was completely spent by the time he reached safety. At the stairs as water streamed off him, his legs buckled and he fell forward. He could barely roll over let alone lift his arms, but even so he hauled Meron’s body up alongside.
Fighting for air he rolled onto his back and with one last effort he reefed Meron’s unconscious form on top of his own body, so that she would be safe from drowning or drifting away. Moments later the world left him.
Gayle woke with an urge to spew. He turned his head to the side to let the muck pump out of his spasming stomach, “Urghhh.”
The dead weight on top of him groaned and he remembered he’d dragged Meron to safety. She began to stir and unexpectedly nuzzled into his half-bristled neck. To this he didn’t know how to react; he fancied her, no doubt, but she’d made it clear she wasn’t interested in him – hadn’t she? Yet here she was tucked under his arm, nuzzling into his neck; her smell intoxicating him; he froze under her.
With alarm he realised that he couldn’t feel his legs; they were both still in the water. Experimentally he wiggled his toes. Good, they aren’t beyond salvage, he thought. Gently he lifted his head so as not to dislodge Meron, but his world careened; his heart pumping fanatically in his chest.
Meron pressed against him, “Where have you been?” The words were slurred, her voice an inviting rasp; the tone had lost its usual terseness.
He opened his lips to speak but couldn’t. Perhaps he was afraid to break the spell.
She continued in the same dreamy voice, “thought you were dead…”
Like an ice-pick in the back of the head he realised she wasn’t talking to him. She wasn’t awake and she was dreaming of her dead husband, the pilot, or whatever he was. He went to shake her awake but paused; part of him was incensed as if he’d been purposely spurned. Another part of him felt pity for her and wanted to let her stay cradled on his shoulder for a few moments more. His head swam with his mixed feeling.
Under her weight he felt himself stir, he was a man after all. He tried to think of anything else, he imagined stripping down Achilles’ main drives and rebuilding them from scratch but in the end that only made matters worse as his mind drifted back to the first time he’d seen the crate, just after he’d ridden with her on the gravBike. What the hell else could he do? He felt ashamed; the moment really wasn’t his, it belonged to some dead pilot he’d never met and he was intruding. He wondered whether it was wrong to let the moment go on and whether his intentions were pure. The thought made him laugh to himself – he was hardly a saint.
Meron’s body became more insistent, grinding feverishly at his hip, her arms and legs clutched at his body. She whimpering half-syllables feverishly under her breath, her eyes darted chaotically under closed lids. Then her pale lips came searching for his though they were poorly aimed and skirted his neck and jaw. That was Gayle’s limit. If only he didn’t know about her past he could have taken her like others before. Disgusted with himself he pushed her off with more force than necessary.
Meron awoke instantly with a grunt as she hit a rail behind them, splitting her lip. “What the…”
Gayle winced and sat up. He blurted out turning away, “We made it.”
Meron wiped her lip and looked at him confused. “The gantry collapsed… I fell in the water.”
“Yeah, you got sucked down the drain.” Gayle pointed to the waterfall pounding behind them, “Came out here.”
She held her forehead for a heartbeat, wiping away sweat beaded there; a quizzical look flashed across her face.
His response came out overly loaded, ”I… I dived in after you.”
She glanced over at him and nodded, “I owe you then, thanks.”
He looked away from her as he shrugged, “Don’t mention it.”
An awkward silence descended between them. Meron pulled herself up by the rail ending the moment but the sudden exertion must have sent her head spinning as she stumbled backward on the step. She would have plunged back into the water if Gayle hadn’t been quick to react. He snatched hold of her wrist snapping her back just in time and, in turn he was pulled to his feet. No more than an inch apart his eyes met hers and for a surprised second they held each other’s gaze until finally she squeezed his hand gently.
“Take it easy.” he stuttered, his mind buzzing now that she was really with him. His other arm he placed at her waist as added support. He tried not to let the sudden pain in his legs reflect in his expression, holding it back with uncharacteristic determination.
She averted her eyes though she didn’t immediately try to escape his hold, her voice faltered, “What…what is this place?”
Gayle didn’t look away from her, stuck in the deep brown pools. “I think it was some kind of launch facility.”
Meron’s eyes flickered back to his; she said quietly, “We better get on.”
Gayle nodded and let his hands fall from her. She climbed the stairs onto the platform. He winced as he tried to follow, his legs frozen from the icy water.
Meron glanced back, “Are you coming?”
Gayle waved her forward with a pained expression and when she turned away he rubbed his legs trying to get some feeling back in them.
“There is a walkway connecting this platform to another,” Her voice echoed.
As feeling dimly return to his toes he wiggled them in his boots. Watching after her he thought, she can’t stay still for a minute can she? He trudged up the stairs.
In the distance, through the forest of pillars, a red glow flickered reflecting off the surface of the glassy water. They became aware of a bass drone filling the space.
“Looks like someone’s home.” Meron said.
“A glasshouse?” Gayle whispered as they crouched behind a ring of barrels.
Meron stared incredulously at the odd building; it was a haphazard structure built of debris that Gayle guessed had been salvaged from materials discarded in the facility – bits of old pipe, rail, and wire. The entire superstructure was covered in tinted plexiGlass, allowing the green interior to be seen through the walls.
The way through the pillars had turned out to be easily negotiated as fallen beams had been arranged as walkways connected each platform, though as they came closer to the light these walkways became more elaborate, with railings and decorative pieces of spiralling metal work. The designs reminded Gayle of a label off cans of beans he’d eaten as a child, winding and twisted patterns covered it and strange pod-like protuberances dangled like fruit; he’d asked an old timer about it once and was told it was the original plant that had once grown on Earth upon which beans had once grown.
“Who the hell are you?” A quavering voice demanded behind them.
Meron and Gayle turned on their heels to see an old man, waving a twisted hand at them. He was bent over with age, white-haired and unshaven. His skin was translucent and shrivelled like shrink-wrap over bone and he wore a fluorescent green T-shirt with the words, “Green is great!” emblazoned in an oversized boot-camp font. On his back he carried a makeshift pack that protruded with bits of scrap that he must have been salvaging from somewhere.
“Err, we’re lost.” Gayle offered.
Meron jabbed him in the ribs with her elbow, ushering him out of the way, “I’m Meron Landar, Captain of the freighter Achilles delivering spare parts to Icarus base. We got a little off-track and found ourselves at the mercy of a bunch of cannibals.”
“Ah, those mad bastards!” The old man waved dismissively. He tapped his head, “Nothing going on, no mind left at all!”
“So you know of them?” Meron asked.
“Aye, they are lost people, exiles from the base above. People who broke some law or other I don’t know, now they are driven to scavenge whatever and whoever they can. They leave me well enough alone however, in exchange for some scraps of food – besides I wouldn’t make much of a meal would I?”
Meron half-smiled, “After a few wrong turns we ended up here. What is this place?”
“I’m caretaker here, though I’ve no doubt I’ve been long forgot by those above,” the man hobbled towards the glasshouse and opened a door made of heat shielding. “Care for a cup of tea?” He held the door open.
“Ladies first,” Gayle smirked allowing Meron to pass into the enclosure ahead of him. Gayle was amused with the fellow who didn’t seem a part of Icarus base bureaucracy.
After passing through an airlock they entered a great chamber filled from floor to ceiling with thick, healthy plants, Gayle stood agape taking it all in. Though he had seen the odd plant here and there he had never seen them growing in such abundance. Here they were from floor to ceiling.
“These are my friends.” The man turned back and winked at Meron.
“I’ve never seen so many plants before. These must be worth a fortune!” Meron said.
“Oh, I don’t know about that.” The man bent down and picked a browned leaf off of one plant. “Money is no use to me down here.”
“How long have you been down here? Mister?”
“Oh, forgive me!” The man tapped Meron’s hand kindly. “My name is Norton Wipple, you see I forget such simple pleasantries as I’ve been on my own so long and my friends here have no need to know a name, they need only sun, water and earth.”
“Most foods throughout the system are produced through biomechanical processes without the need of these things.” Gayle squinted at the lights blazing warmth down on them and the sprinklers spraying a fine mist over the miniature forest.
“Pah! That tasteless shite.” Norton sneered. “They program it to taste anyway you like but it’s basically the same muck grown in vats.”
Gayle didn’t reply he knew exactly what the man meant. It had been one of the many lowlights of his career when he’d been relegated to fixing food dispensers for the company mess; he’d been shocked to discover that the same bag of biomass went into the machine regardless of whether the ‘Strawberry soufflé’ button was selected or the ‘bangers and mash’. Gayle had learnt the hard way that no one appreciated knowing this fact.
“The fruits of the earth are masterpieces of nature! No mere engineer can reproduce the complexity of such flavours.” He reached into a small tree and withdrew a round red fruit about half the size of his palm. “Here, try this.”
Gayle took it tentatively and turned it in his hand, gently squeezing it between his thumb and forefinger. It was soft and the colour was extraordinary, a blend of reds from dark to brilliant. He placed it under his nose and sniffed and was rewarded with a sweet, tingling sensation like none he’d smelt before; his eyes sparked with wonder, “What is it?”
“It’s called a plum, once a common fruit but on account of its large seed fell out of fashion – That’s the same story with many of these plants.” Norton threw open his arms.
Gayle bit into the soft, smooth skin. The sharp taste surprised him and he pursed his lips; involuntarily he raised his eyebrows.
“Packs a punch eh?” The man smiled, “there’s far more surprising things here.”
Meron piped in, “I don’t understand, How do you keep this place running? How do you stay alive down here.”
“This place pretty much looks after itself, all I do is help it along a little and it provides the nourishment I need.” Norton shrugged.
“Don’t the folk in the base above come and check on you?”
“Once in a while an inspector turns up but they have little interest in this place – it is one of many abandoned hollows you see – and they wander back to their superiors. They are always looking over their shoulders waiting for those cannibals to appear I suppose.”
“So what exactly are you caretaking? All I see are a bunch of old launch platforms.” Meron’s eyes twinkled.
“Well, there’s not much here now, but once great ships lay here.” he replied. ”One day they’ll return, but I don’t know…”
“The colony fleet?” Gayle asked.
The man looked at him a little surprised, “Yeah, you know about that?”
“Sure, but that’s a myth,” Meron jumped in, covering up that they knew more than they should. ”I mean it’s something all kids grow up getting told bedtime stories about.”
The man seemed almost angry, “Oh no, it’s no myth and I can prove it to you in a moment.”
“What do you mean?”
The man leaned in closer, “I shouldn’t tell you this, but they left one behind.”
“Left one behind?” Meron’s eye grew large and to Gayle it was clear she was trying (but failing) to hide her excitement.
“Yes, a ship!”
“Can…can we see it?”
The man laughed.
Meron frowned,”I don’t understand.”
“You’re looking at it my dear! Or a small part of it, the rest is below the waterline.”
Gayle turned around and tried to look past the obscuring vegetation, was it possible? He started to make out bulkheads, supporting structure, ducts and vents. There was a power conduit and the airlock door…how could he have missed it?
Meron’s eyes were almost leaping out of their sockets and she moved to one of the walls lovingly laying a hand over the surface. Her voice cracked, “This has been here for two hundred years?”
The man nodded, “This is the last colony ship.”