10 - Necropolis

A fetid stench—rotting vegetables with a hint of cat piss—woke Carmen. She’d broken her fall on the snow before slipping down the crevasse. Her hands had raked at the algae. Chris is probably... a new kind of pain, deeper, more overwhelming. Not now; she focused on her surroundings.

Inches from her face, the ground fell away. A few feet beyond the cliff, the canyon ended in a wall of white ice covered with strings of vegetation. Something cold and solid lay behind her—another cliff. She was lying on a thin ledge. Another ledge, wider than her own, ran along the opposite wall. Ragged strands of algae lay over her, torn from the bare ice wall behind. Twenty metres above her, sandwiched between ice walls, was a strip of blue sky blemished by wafting black smoke.

Carmen tried to sit up. Feeling the ice beneath her through the torn fingers of her gloves. Pain shot through her left arm. She gingerly touched her shoulder; it was slack, distended. Dislocated. Well that’s just amazing.  

She settled back on the ledge and felt her body for other injuries. Something flat and hard occupied her front pocket—the tablet. Miraculously, the device seemed undamaged. Powering it on, she turned the camera on herself.

Her face was a collage of scratches and bruises. Strips of algae had lodged in her broken fingernails. Otherwise, she seemed fine. I was lucky. She opened the drone control panel and selected one of the observation drones and, lying back, told it to fly to her.

 As the drone flitted over the island she caught sight of the wreckage of Roderick’s shuttle—a gutted hulk smoldering at the end of a black smear. Charred pieces of twisted metal and half burned clothes were strewn on the ice around it. No survivors, she thought, but she knew better than to stare into the sun. Not now, she turned towards the crevasse.  

Her initial plan was to wedge herself between the drone and the wall, and walk out. That plan was a nonstarter; the drone wouldn’t hold steady.

Her dislocated arm ruled out climbing.

She briefly toyed with the idea of hoisting herself out with both drones, but she had no rope, and she doubted anything made from algae would hold. She sat, legs dangling into the chasm.

Something moved in her field of vision. Carmen flattened against the wall, heart thumping. But it was only an algal mat across from her flapping stiffly into the cliff-side, pulled by some internal breeze. She smiled. That breeze has to go somewhere. A tunnel—or cavern—probably leading to the surface. 

She tried to gauge the gap between the two ledges, considering a jump. The space was only three feet wide, the crevasse disappearing down into thick fog. It’s a risk, Carmen thought, but I’m dead either way.

Taking a deep breath, Carmen stood, fixed her eyes on the wall ahead of her, and jumped. Air rushed past her. For a second, she thought she’d missed, that she would relive her fall. Then she crashed through a curtain of algae into darkness.

****

He looked up. Everything above him was grey, fading to indigo at his peripheries. That’s not normal, he thought. He began to wonder what was normal. Have I woken up like this before, he asked, shifting his arm. He was met with a sharp pain; he tried his other arm, pain again. Is this normal for me, he wondered, am I just a person whose arms hurt?  His legs felt numb—not my legs as well—but then again, he realized, everything was numb. Where am I?

Ignoring the pain, he forced himself to sit. He was sitting in an expanse of ice and snow—a frozen lake? The shores were covered in snow-laden pines. It all looked so familiar. Memories flooded back a name—Chris—and a place—Planet 8192.

Above him a trail of smoke cut a sky that was filling with heavy clouds. Something’s burning, he thought, as a breeze filled his nose with an acrid stench. He looked towards the source of the smoke. A smear of wreckage cut across the ice, ending in a smouldering pile of metal. I was in a crash, he realized.

That notion filled him with a panic. Roderick! He scrambled to his feet. Almost immediately an overwhelming onrush of pain brought him back down to his knees. The snow in front of him was blotched with pink spray. Steeling himself, he tried to clench his left hand. The pain became unbearable. He tried to scream, but the hoarse moan that escaped his lips disappeared, swallowed amongst the snow and pines.  

His left glove ended in four bloody stumps—torn fabric matted with frozen blood half covered bones peeking white from within. Chris stared at it, fascinated. It was as if someone had chopped them off with a carving knife.

Though his right hand also hurt, it was intact. Moving each finger raised a dull ache and its stiffness told of an older injury.

Chris looked to the smoke and thought again of Roderick. He may have survived, he thought. He stepped forward. His foot plunged into the snow in front of him and he pitched forward. Gritting his teeth, he forced himself to take another step, and another. Gradually, the snow got shallower.

The expanse of ice was unfamiliar, I must be a little bit away from the house. He furrowed his brows and studied the smear of wreckage. It ran southwest so, barring any twists and turns, the house was somewhere north west of where he was. I’ll check the wreckage, and walk back to the house.

A few feet later, he found the first finger. It was lying in a little crater of pink snow. He picked it up. Good thing it’s cold, a part of him thought. Holding the finger, he realized he had nothing to put it in. I need to keep it cold, he thought. He slipped the finger into an empty pocket and scooped up a handful of snow, packing it into the pocket with the finger. Then he continued toward the smoke.  

*****

Carmen fell on her good arm but the impact still hurt. Brushing shreds of algae from her face, she appraised her surroundings. Light filtered through the entrance, revealing finely chiseled walls arcing around her. The tunnel was over four metres wide but her head grazed the ceiling. Its floor sloped downwards, disappearing into the depths. A breeze flowed over her, originating from somewhere deep in the darkness.  

Taking a few paces into the tunnel, she called the drone in after her. Its searchlight pushed her horizon out hundreds of meters ahead of her. The distances became a glistening spiral. 

Carmen coughed—the exhaust had already began to choke the air. She would have to keep moving. Otherwise she would suffocate then freeze. She began to walk.

All natural light faded. Carmen trudged through the tunnel, pushed on by the searchlight and smog of the drone that tailed her.  

Gradually the tunnel flattened out. Heartened, Carmen strained her eyes, searching for a sign that the passage curved upwards. But an ascent failed to materialized and, as she walked on, she began to worry that it led nowhere. She scoured the darkness ahead for some glimmer of hope. Pushed on by the rising stench of the drone’s exhaust, she stumbled deeper into the bowels of the glacier.  

After what seemed to be an age, a faint glimmer of light winked in the distant. Carmen picked up her pace, forcing herself to jog, wincing at each jolt to her shoulder. The ice rushed past as she broke into a sprint, the light expanded to embrace her and...

She slid to a halt.

Ahead of her the tunnel ended but it wasn’t the exit she’d hoped for. Rather, the tunnel ended in a small ledge, and beyond that, a cavern. An enormous space stretched out beyond sight on either side and hundreds of meters down to a floor. Columns festooned with algae— resembling enormous, square trees—thrust from the floor, stopping just short of the ceiling. More columns loomed in the half-light, evenly spaced, a grid across the space. Shafts of light illuminated the distances, steaming from patches of translucent ice above. Where they caught on the mist the rays flowed in the breeze.

To her left, the mist and the perfect grid were broken by a jumble of jagged blocks of ice. As she looked, Carmen saw more and more evidence of breaks in the order: toppled columns, chunks of wall and ceiling interrupting the pattern like burns on a text-filled page.

To her right and left, slim paths cut into the sheer walls, disappearing down to the cavern’s floor.

Carmen pulled out the tablet and stepped aside. The drone roared into the gulf, leaving a tangle of turbulence in the mist. A full thirty seconds later its echoes returned as a whisper. By the wind speed and vector readings of the machine’s instruments, the breeze seemed to be coming from ahead, and to the right.

She took the rightward path.

The first section of the cavern floor she came upon was a maze of ice boulders, strewn with lank, algal mats. She clambered over the jumbles of rounded ice—the remnants of shattered columns, melted together, fusing into a frozen waterfall. In the cramped, switchback alleys, the stench of algae drifted over everything, the matts tangled in the melted rubble.

The debris petered out. In the open cavern, boulevards flanked by columns stretched out on either side and ahead. From below, the scale of the columns was clear, each reaching hundreds of meters into the heavens. She listened, other than the whisper of the drone the cavern was silent—a familiar silence. It’s like a library, she thought, the quiet and orderthis is far too neat to be natural. Each column was almost the same height and width. Each had the same fur of algae.

Frowning, she pulled up the left cuff of her coat and the sweaters beneath, and rubbed her skin against the ice. Within seconds, she began to itch. A smattering of small red blisters spread across her wrist. Alkaline burns, she thought, that’s why there’s so much algae. A warm breeze caressed her face, filling her nose with the heavy stench of rotting eggs —Sulfur dioxide? No that would react with the lithium hydroxide, something else. The air was too warm to have come from outside. It was negative twenty on the surface, if the temperature had not dropped further. However, this wind was barely below zero. What if that breeze wasn’t from outside, but from somewhere else?

She examined the drone feed. It was flitting over a continuous grid of columns. Here and there, fallen icebergs marred the formation, columns tumbled around the gigantic chunks of ice like toppled bowling pins. Ahead, the cavern’s roof and floor curved toward each other, ending several feet apart. Beyond, the cavern opened into another space hidden from view. Is the exit that way, she asked herself.   

As the machine approached the brink, Carmen began to notice irregularities in the cliff face beyond. Rather than a gently undulating but basically flat cliff face, the outside edge of both the floor and ceiling dipped in and out at right angles like the spines of books on a packed bookcase.

What is this place? She shivered, and slipped her tablet into her pocket. She dug her hands deep into her pockets, trying to regain some warmth. Her adrenaline was waning and she was more aware each second that if she did not get somewhere above zero within an hour she would most probably experience hypothermia.

As she crept from column to column, she glanced left and right down the lanes for any hint of movement. But the place felt empty. Her thoughts turned back to the creatures. What were those things? FrontEx creations? The creatures ripped a hole in the shuttle, but they couldn’t get in through our door? Then they kill dozens of Cravens, but when the birds break into the house, the creatures just sit back and wait for us to be rescued? If they wanted to kill us, they had plenty of opportunities.

In the distance, the mist had become faintly yellow, the scent of rotting eggs building on the growing breeze. Carmen picked up her pace, jogging between columns, winding around those that had fallen. Her footsteps resounded through the silence.  

When she was only a few dozen metres from the cliff, she checked on the drone. It was hanging where she had left it, a few hundred metres to her left. She eased it beyond the lip. For a moment, glare overwhelmed the feed so she watched the wind speed and direction readings instead. The wind appeared to be coming from below, and to her right. A gust of warm wind raced by her and a stench washed over her. Then it died down. The readings now told her that the wind was coming from above and to the right. The exit is above and to the right, but there was also something below.

Just then the feed resolved itself, and she found herself looking through a thin, yellow mist at a wall of ice. A sheen of water covered the cliff, growing as it disappeared down into darkness below. That’s the far wall, but what about the cavern? She turned the cameras to face back, towards her, and gasped. She stared at the feed, bewildered.

The wall was broken by a kilometer-long gash. The columns beyond this laceration made it look like a mouth filled with needle-thin teeth. A fretwork of ruler straight indents and square, rectangular, and triangular blocks of ice, sprawled on either side of the gap, as though carved by some titanic hand. Here and there the pattern collapsed, overwhelmed by waves of smooth ice, crumbled and crushed by falling chunks of cliff face.

Carmen slid the tablet back into her pocket, and took a step forwards. Crack, Carmen felt the ice beneath her buckle. She ran. Crack, this time it was louder. She felt the ground behind her crumple, giving way as she thrust herself towards the cliff.

Then she was sliding down a chute, her back against ice walls, air whipping past as she careened downwards. She tumbled onto a ledge, fell backwards and found herself looking down into six glittering eyes and a pair of barbed mandibles.  

****

Chris found a second finger at the edge of an expanse of blue ice, lying just a few feet in. Stooping to retrieve it, he followed a vague intuition and skirted the edge of the blue ice, sticking to the shallow snow of its edge. 

He found his third finger at the end of a smear of pink snow at the shore of the blue ice. Now he was only missing his pinky, which wasn’t the worst case all things considered. He tried to list the things he couldn’t do without his pinky but came up short.  

His hands did not hurt. His cheeks and nose prickled, as though brushed by pine needles. He tried to blow into his hands to warm them up but felt nothing apart from the sticky smear of cooling blood. Still he trudged on towards the smoke.

The fire was dying. Each moment, dark puffs of smoke grew lighter, dissipating into a sky now crowded with black clouds. As Chris reached the end of the runway of the wreckage, the first snowflakes began to fall.

“Roderick?” he shouted, “Roderick?!”

He began to run, kicking up splatters of snow as he forced his way towards the rising smoke.  A smouldering hulk loomed out of the falling snow. Fire smoldered within, wisps of dark smoke disappearing into the sky. He veered to the edge of the slush-trail.

He felt as though he was sobering up from a heavy night; his head ached, and the pain in his hand returned in force. Nausea overwhelmed him, he puked. My hand, oh my god my hand, his heart stuttered in his chest, and for a moment he spun. I need to find Carmen, either she needs my help or she can help me.

As he came around the side of the gutted cabin, he saw the creature. It was dead, crushed beneath the wreckage. Only a third of its body emerged from beneath the vessel, its head slumped in a pool of blue liquid, its mandibles slack, all six eyes closed.

Something moved. He narrowed his eyes, scouring the creature, the cabin, and the snow. A grey wormlike thing, a foot long, but almost invisible in the blue-gray snow beneath the creature’s face. It seemed to be waving up at the creature as though it were expecting something. As he watched the little thing sway back and forth, Chris remembered the grey bumps on the creature's back. I don’t have time for this, he turned towards the cockpit.

****

Carmen clamped her hands over her mouth and swallowed her scream. The creature did not react. She shimmied sideways; neither its eyes nor its head tracked her. She squinted.

The space between them looked off, as though she was looking at a screen. Cautiously, she extended her hand down towards the creature. She felt a cold, hard surface which continued to her left, and her right. The creature is dead, she realized, or at least trapped.

She examined her surroundings. A path, sandwiched between grubby walls of white ice, struck out for several metres before ending abruptly in a cliff and, beyond, a space filled with yellow mist. Ruler-straight shadows cut the mist. 

The surface beneath her was clear—though enclosed by the same walls that hemmed her in—a corridor of clear ice dropping into darkness. Frozen in place, the creature legs still clung to the cliff. Beyond it, half-hidden, several more of its kind were suspended in disarray.

Carmen pulled the tablet from her pocket. The drone hovered where she left it. She had it scan for the tablet and walked towards the open cavern. The drone located her as she reached the corners of the white walls. She’d fallen a good fifty metres. But, as she flew the drone towards her, she realized she was on what seemed to be a clear, straight path across the wall.

Carmen stepped out onto a ledge. She blinked in the light and looked around. The ledge she was on ran off into the distance, disappearing into the mists. Chutes led down to lower ledges, cutting halfway into its width every ten meters. Cliffs overhung the ledge turning it into a walkway just tall enough for her to stand. Halfway between each chute downward, chutes leading from above cut the overhanging cliffs. The path ahead, however, was nothing compared to the cliff faces sandwiching it.

Great crystals of ice encrusted the cliff face. Struts of ice jutting into the gulf, arrayed like brickwork. The nearest, extending easily twenty metres into the gulf, was dwarfed by those more distant. Dim in the yellow mist, massive limbs of ice, propped up by gigantic buttresses, stretched halfway across the cavern. What light fell through the mists hit every surface and the whole construction sparkled. It reminded Carmen of an enormous gothic cathedral.

Carmen tilted her head, rotating the view 90 degrees. Suddenly, she knew what she was looking at. The ledge was a road, the ice extruding from the cliff face were buildings. This was a city.

She followed the ledge, peering gingerly down each chute she passed and eyeing the gaps in the overhanging ice. As she passed each jutting mass, she found dark doorways, maws leading inside. But all was empty, all silent. In places, as though struck from above, the builds ended in jagged, shards of ice. Some had clearly broken in the thaw, others seemed to have been swept away. Everywhere there were signs of flood; dead algae clung to the walls and floors and rivulets of ice disrupted every pattern.

Carmen walked for what felt like an age, her shuffling footsteps sowing whispers in the silence. She shivered, digging her hands deeper into her pockets and kept her eyes fixed on her path.  Around her, the buildings swelled and along with them the frozen signs of chaos grew. Here were shattered chunks of building, there were doorways sealed by stalactites of ice. The stench of algae suffused everything, and warm gusts from below brought a swelling stench of decay.  

Pausing by the ruins of what might have been a tower, Carmen sent the drone down towards the cavern floor. The machine descended for a full five minutes before the mists parted beneath and she saw the cavern floor: a lake of dark water, bubbling slightly as though heated from below. Volcanic vent, she thought, probably the same system that heats the house.

As the drone continued to close in, she began to see shapes in the water. Clicking on the drone light she swung it across the surface of the lake. She stared at the screen in horror. A sea of rotting flesh filled the screen. Rafts of bodies, shattered carapaces, and broken mandibles gleamed in the harsh light. Some had clearly suffered blows from great chunks of ice. Others, it seemed had drowned, still more probably just killed by the fall.

Carmen looked from the pile of dead bodies to the city and back. Could they have built this, she wondered, if not them, what? What happened here? But Carmen knew the answer. She had seen the thaw and the lakes on the surface draining into the bowels of the ice. She had seen them die; she just hadn’t known.

****

The cockpit had broken from the craft during the crash. Its remnants sat a few dozen metres distant down a trail of compacted snow. Reaching it, Chris tried to work out the best way in. There was little fire damage but the force of impact had warped the metal beyond recognition. He ran his right hand over the remnants of the door. Thunk, something moved inside.

“Roderick?” Chris called.

“Mr. Beckford!” came Roderick’s muffled reply. “I am so glad you came to my aid. I believe my legs are broken.”

“Okay sit tight, I’m going to try and get you out.”

“Fantastic,” while muffled, Roderick’s voice lacked any strain indicating pain. “I’ll just unlock the door.”

There was the sound of a grating mechanism and a section of dented metal popped open an inch. Through the crack, Roderick’s eyes glimmered.

“Great,” continued Roderick, “I was scared you were one of those creepy-crawlies.”

“Megapede,” Chris said instinctively, he reached into the gap with his right hand and tried to slide the door open, gritting his teeth.  “And I called your name, they can’t speak.”

“Megapede—that’s a great name. You should be a writer or something.” Roderick giggled to himself. “A bright future in advertising, market… marketing.”

The door jerked sideways. The gap opened to a foot, releasing a puff of warm air laced with the acrid smell of burnt electronics. Roderick smiled at Chris, drool dripping down his cheek; his eyes were glassy, unfocused.

He’s either in shock or high on something, Chris thought. Ignoring Roderick’s babbling, he examined the gap where the door slid into the wall. The door’s metal was folded, crumpled. Its width was far larger than the hole it was supposed to slide into. There was no way the door was opening any further.  He turned back to Roderick, who was humming the Repellant jingle.

“Roderick, can you move?”

“I’m afraid not, Becky-boy.”

“Don’t call me that.”

“I’m sorry Beck—oops I did...”

“Shut up, and listen,” Chris peered into the cabin. “I’m going to need to lift you out of the cabin, this may hurt quite a bit.” 

“Oh don’t worry about me, I’m comfortably numbed,” replied Roderick amiably. “Pull me up Beck—ah... I’m really sorry.”

Ignoring Roderick’s earnest apologies, Chris reached down and grabbed Roderick by the armpits, gasping at the ensuing flood of pain. Roderick giggled, and squirmed away from him. Clenching his jaw, Chris tried again, this time gripping the other man firmly.  He closed his eyes, and took a deep breath as another wave of pain hit. Then, propping Roderick on his side, he slid the man out of the cockpit.

It was only when Roderick was fully out of the confines of the cockpit that Chris realized just how badly the other man had been injured. Both his legs hung limply, clearly broken in multiple places. His blood-soaked trousers left a smear of pink across the snow.  There is no way he’s going to be able to walk, Chris realized, and I doubt I’ll be able to carry him.

Roderick gurgled, and chuckled at some private joke, his head lolling back. He’s definitely on something, thought Chris, so there has got to be some kind of medical pack in the cockpit. He turned back and leaned through the door, its metal pressing tightly against his chest. A large case lay open on the co-pilot seat, its contents in disarray. Closing the case, Chris pulled it out.

He rummaged through pill bottles, vacuum packed syringes, alcohols, a series of unidentified liquids, sobriety aid, and spray-on plasters. Come on, there has to be something. He dug deeper. His hand hit metal, a cylinder. He pulled, upending the contents, and found himself looking at two short cylinders of metal wrapped in a thick, synthetic material. A stretcher, thank god.  

The handles extended with a series of satisfying clicks; the material unfurled revealing a rank of straps. He moved the medical case out of the way, and laid the stretcher next to Roderick. Then, taking a deep breath, he pushed the other man onto it. Roderick giggled to himself. He did not help, but he did not try and hinder Chris either.  

Roderick safely secured on the stretcher, Chris picked up two straps and pulled out as much slack as possible. Clasping the straps together, he pulled them over his head and  turned away from Roderick so that they pulled tight across his chest. Then, staring out into the blizzard, he tried to find some trace of land. In the distance, he got the faint impression of pines. He stepped forward, dragging Roderick across the snow behind him.