Our transport to the surface had been arranged beforehand. Nearly two thousand kilometers of the journey would be covered in an hour if everything went right. The last two hundred kilometers would take four days.
“The Artifact has it’s own circulatory system that keeps the interior alive. The magnetic field of the planet is channeled through the poles creating a solar wind collector one hundred and eighty thousand kilometers across. The magnetic field channels the energy into the poles and into the collector wells, each one thousand five hundred kilometers across and twenty seven thousand kilometers deep. The collectors use the radiation to turn helium into superheated plasma. That plasma is channeled in a magnetic bottle through conduits that deliver that plasma to the incremental cities this provides access to any point in the Artifact.
The conduits have channels that are used to transport material on large Antigrav trains. The Chezbah and the Kelrath use a majority of these trains but some are the property of the Scimrahn. We will be ‘hitching’ a ride on one.” Kronquist had a way of answering simple questions with complex answers.
Crowley apparently didn’t mind the detail. “So how does a train bring us to the surface? Wouldn’t we be traveling up?”
“Yes sir,” she answered with a little smile “As I said the train is an Antigrav vehicle so it can travel anywhere it wants. It still uses a track, but primarily to guide the vehicle at high speed. The train can actually operate independently from the tracks, but it is easier to use them when traveling through the conduit.”
“And you’re with this detachment to study the train. Why not just study the freighters that the Scimrahn use?” Crowley probed.
“The Trains use a more advanced technology than the Antigrav used by the current population of the planet. It affects inertia along with gravity. This train happens to be one of the old trains. The Scimrahn say that it is over three thousand years old.”
Crowley’s eyebrows went up and his lips puckered. “That doesn’t sound right. How could any machine last that long?”
“Sorry sir, I can’t answer that question, not without proper clearance. Not even the Scimrahn know what my team in Helsinki has found.” She smiled a defiant smile.
“Very well Kronquist, but your orders are to continue with us, why not just continue on with the train?”
“I would have liked to, but it appears our pledge to assist the Scimrahn is taking precedence over scientific study. I couldn’t get a detachment to stay with me, Command said they were too short on manpower for something they perceived as trivial.” She complained.
“But what can you do with only an hour? Wouldn’t you need a day or even a week?” Crowley puzzled.
“Well without revealing too much, I am only here to gather more data on something we missed initially, I’ll be done quickly.” Kroquist reassured him.
The convoy rumbled through hex after hex. Some were open and barren like a dessert at night. Much of this planet is decaying. The systems that light and breathe life to the underground are millennia old and most have not seen any repair, by most estimates for the last three to four thousand years. The fact that any work at all is a testament to the incredible engineering that was employed to build the planet.
In hexes that are powered there are oasis’s of life where trees and plants grow wild. Where there are plants there are animals. Strange reptile like animals would run from our convoy hiding beneath vegetation and peering at us through oversized eyes as we rolled through one of the hexes.
“What are those Hadolko?” I asked.
“Seeter. They are not a danger to such a large group but we should be careful not to leave anyone alone until we get to the train. The Seeter will follow us for days before they give up.”
“So how are they dangerous, they look pretty small.” Each animal was only the size of a dog but with an oversized head.
“One is not very dangerous, but there may be many of them in this Greir, maybe as many as four for every man in this convoy.” He warned. ” As the Seeter move they consume everything they find from small to large. But they must outnumber large prey by a great deal or they will not attack animals like humans.”
As Hadolko said, they only watched us from a distance, following us and observing as we passed from hex to hex.
Some Hexes contained great mountainous pyramids possibly two kilometers tall both rising from the floor and hanging inverted from the ceiling. Kronquist identified them as mammoth filtration systems that clean both the air and water underground. Some contained hundreds of tall cylindrical buildings for human habitation. Hadolko advised us to avoid these hexes as the buildings are deteriorated and if they have not fallen already, the movement of vehicles could cause a collapse. Others contained thousands of boxes one hundred and fifty meters or more wide. Each with what appeared to be a large garage door on the front. Hadlolko called them “Hosent” A kind of intelligent self contained factory. The majority of hexes were open with five meters of dirt covering the floor. Hadolko identified these hexes as where food is grown underground. Most of the underground was unlit, not powered and hovered at a frigid four degrees Celsius
After three hundred kilometers of travel we entered a hex that lies in the center of hex clusters. In it’s center, of this hex a column of machinery two kilometers tall stretched from floor to ceiling and eight kilometers across. This hex was warmer than the surrounding hexes by a full twenty degrees at least. This was because of the plasma energy that coursed through this hub.
At the core of this was a column that allowed passage from level to level. We were roughly a thousand levels below the surface of the planet. This was our route to the surface.
We entered into the transport hub and saw the train for the first time. It clung to the wall of the hub. The train was three stories tall, ten meters across and we could not see it’s end. It stretched downward until it disappeared into the darkness.
“Alright listen up Company!” one of the Lieutenants barked. “This is Warrant Officer Kronquist. She will brief you on boarding the train and loading up the equipment.”
“Thank you Lieutenant. You are about to enter a zero gravity, zero inertia environment. Many of you have not been trained in zero G. You may experience some disorientation when entering. The most important thing to remember is visual cues as to where you are going. The top of the train is domed while the bottom is flat. Load all heavy cargo on the bottom in case of a power failure.
What none of you have been trained for is a zero inertia environment. You should not feel anything unusual other than cold and when trying to move it will feel as if you are moving through water. Remember this before anything else, if you push off of the wall you will not continue to move, the friction of air will allow you to swim very slowly around but the best method of movement is to hold onto the handrails and pull yourself along. You will be able to move the heaviest object with minimal effort. Move slowly and cautiously when moving objects into the train. I will direct the loading of the vehicles. That is all.”
Entering the train was truly nothing short of bizarre. There was nothing inside of the train cars. Stepping in, I at first experienced what at first felt like resistance, but after a moment I realized that my body was not moving into the train because there was no gravity to pull my foot down. It took some effort to compensate for this effect initially but once inside the effect felt like floating in water. I quickly pulled myself along the side of the train car to make way for those behind me. The movement was disorienting, although I could see my arms pulling myself and the resulting motion, but I felt no resistance and no sensation of movement. It was difficult to co-ordinate body parts that were not in full view and I missed the handholds several times resulting in an immediate stop.
We took our places in the train and found that there was little need for the handrails. Unless actively pushed, a body stayed in the same place. The air felt cold, but what appeared to be an array of infrared panels kept surfaces warm. The Lack of inertia in the room caused molecular vibrations from heat to slow down much faster than normal. This caused a cooling effect that the infrared light counteracted. Sounds also seemed muted inside the cars. A conversation only a few feet away was inaudible.
The train was underway for ten minutes when we found out that we were moving. The men with us were exploring this new environment. Some tried to play football but found that they had to make up the game afresh because the mechanics that the game relies on were absent. Slowly the game evolved into a contest of who could get a ball that consisted of a jacket and a shirt rolled up, across the car without using the handholds. Throwing or batting the ball had no effect, it would simply stop moving millimeters past the thrower’s fingers. Soon the teams had set on building human ladders and relaying the ball up the ladder while the opposing ladder tried to knock the other ladder loose.
The cavernous interior of the train car gave me a yawning sense of vertigo. Without a definite up or down and hung in mid air it was easy to become disoriented. I found myself closing my eyes to avoid this and soon I had dozed off.
It was only a gentle bump that woke me, yet nothing in the car was near enough to have touched me. In the distance I heard a low roar towards the bottom of the train. I moved myself methodically towards the front of the car. I moved with all the speed I could manage but I was clumsy in this odd environment. I made my way into the engine car.
I could hear faint noises in the pilot’s cabin over the hum of the engine. My hands nearly froze to the handholds as there were no infrared heaters in this tunnel. I did my best to expatiate my movement. As I approached the front of the train, the noises raised themselves to an awful din.
The Pilot’s cabin was sheer bedlam! A hole was ripped into the side of the cabin three meters long and a meter wide. Fire and sparks poured into the cabin from the outside. Crowley was taking instructions from an old grey haired Scimrahn who apparently spoke no English. Kronqust had a control panel torn apart and was frantically trying to hold onto her work as the cabin bucked and weaved. From the view outside the forces being felt inside the cabin were muted compared to what the train was experiencing. The train was ricocheting off the walls of the tunnel with alarming frequency.
The train was traveling up a vertical shaft. The engine would lurch and fall crashing into a wall of the tunnel, then Kronquist would struggle to get the engine back on line. The pilot would then attempt to straighten out the train and the engine would fail again. If the engine failed completely we would plummet down the shaft until the train was pulverized from striking the walls on it’s way down.
“What happened?” I shouted.
Crowley turned only slightly to answer “A booby-trap set on the tracks! Help Kronquist!”
Kronquist darted her eyes at me. “Do you have a QLC emulator?”
“Not installed! What do you need?”
“A QLC emulator! The engines are registering the damage and are trying to shut down! I need to keep that from happening!”
I pulled myself to the front of the cabin and to the aging pilot, gesturing to a device on his arm. “Lachaz kelahz.”
“Cheeg!” He nodded while straining to control the train.
“You know how to use that?” Kronquist inquired.
“It’s voice activated, I think I can get it to do what you need.”
The palm sized device was called a Comm/Comp, short for Communicator/Computer a Scimrahn device designed to interface with many computers on The Artifact.
“Where’s the main bus?” I asked Kronquist.
She pointed to a bundle of contacts and I attached the Comm/Comp to the communications bus of the train’s main computer.
“Chawtorma, gomb pel!”
A list of the current jobs to do sprang up on the Comm/Comp.
“What did you do?” Kronquist asked.
“I asked it what it’s doing. What process monitors the engine is doing?”
“What are you thinking of?”
“I’m going to shut it down, but I don’t know what to look for.” I explained.
“No, no, you can’t shut it down or the engine will overheat. There is a sub process that handles guidance, which should buy us the time we need.” Kronquist leaned over and pointed to one of the process trees. “This one, shut down this one.”
“You sure that’s right?” I had to make sure.
“Mostly, I can’t read Scimrahn well but I’m almost certain.”
“Okay. Chawtorma! Toctoc u’ chetoc, shtor pel!”
“Ahiz ke keboah!” The Comm/Comp replied.
“It wants a password. . . Keth!”
“Cheeg!” The pilot answered.
“Reshpel. Ahiz ke gomb.” I asked him for the password.
“Chaz Ub Eahme. Ahiz!” The Pilot shouted.
The engine surged forward and the pilot was able to stabilize the train with great effort. After an excruciatingly long minute and twenty seconds, a horizontal access tunnel came into view. The pilot slowed the train and entered. Finally the train came to a safe rest and the pilot shut the engines down.
Despite the chaos in the pilot’s compartment, the passengers in the cars behind us had barely noticed that anything was out of the ordinary. Some of the men had noticed a slight jerking as the engines would shut off but most were unaware of it and none knew that it was at all unusual.
Climbing out of the train, the true damage to the engine was realized. The original boobytrap must have been a mine or some other explosive. The blast marks blackened the front quarter of the engine. The left side of the train had gashes that ran down three quarters of the train, presumably from impacting the walls of the tube. The pilot’s compartment and three cars had been ripped open.
“I want a status report, now! Lieutenants Barret and Sullivan take your platoons and scout the perimeter. Levine! Get an inventory.” Crowley barked.
Kronquist climbed out of the pilots compartment. “We won’t be able to get the train moving again sir, the core is cracked.”
“How long will it take you to fix it?” Crowley asked.
“Um, I won’t Sir. No one is able to fix an old train like this except the Chezbah and they’re not going to help us.”
Crowley turned to me. “Onix, we have to report this delay back to base. Set up a line of communication, but wait until we have a full report to transmit.”
“Yes sir!” I set out to find the closest terminal.
I started down the tunnel into the transport hub. While the train was in sight I could see from the lights around it. I knew that there would be a terminal I could patch into in the boarding platform the question was would it be functional. As I reached a boarding platform, I started to realize how dark the underground could be. The border between the faint lights reflecting down the tunnel and the untouched platform loomed in front of me like a wall. I removed my flashlight from my pack and dispelled the wall with the push of a button.
The darkness of the enormous platform seemed to consume the light of my tiny torch. At one time millennia ago this platform may have serviced five thousand travelers. Now only dust was left. As my feet fell on the ancient floor, fine clouds of dust floated into the air. The absolute stillness belonged to a sunken ship deep under some ocean.
As the guiding beam of my flashlight danced over the walls I began to make out strange features, what appeared as a gray cloth draped down the wall and gathered on the ground a hundred meters in the distance. My terminal was somewhere in that direction.
I tried to make a sound to break the silence, but the huge hall gave no answer back. I expected an echo from huge stony cold walls, but there was none. I waved my light around me to try and make out what was absorbing the sound. The room looked different than the cold monolithic walls I had seen elsewhere in the underground. I could not make out any detail in the distant faint light that reflected back to me. Only gray soft contours that folded down the wall. I pressed on to approach the enigma in front of me.
As I closed the distance eerie forms loomed in front of me tall shadows hid from my flashlight. Then my foot fell on something other than the hard ground. I looked down and scrutinized the strange soft material.
What appeared to be a flat grey sea sponge had been glued to the floor. I kicked it to loosen it and it crumbled under the strain kicking a dry choking dust into the air. The dust further obscured my vision.
I continued on and found more patches of sponge attached to the floor each one bigger than the last. As I traveled, the cold darkness warmed and the air quickly grew hot. I was approaching the wall of the platform closest to the plasma conduits.
I now was literally tripping over the Sponges that rose twenty centimeters from the floor and completely covered the floor in a soft mat. In front of me, spires of these sponges loomed at first a meter and then two and three meters tall eventually forming a forest of sponges above my head. The space between each was barely enough to squeeze by. Whenever I brushed up against a sponge a thick billowing dust cloud would fill the air. I hoped that the choking cloud wasn’t noxious. I had no idea what I was dealing with.
I started to see movement in between the sponges, large centipede like bugs seemed attracted to the dust I was kicking up.
I reached the far wall. The sponges continued up the wall all the way to the ceiling. I realized that the terminal I sought was buried under this mat of sponge and there was no way of me knowing exactly where to dig to find it.
I made a vain effort to look for some sign that would tell me where to find the terminal but it was a useless gesture. I began to get used to the clouds of dust given off by the sponges as brushed against them and as I became more careless, I saw larger and lager swarms of the large centipedes gather on the sponges I had scraped.
Then, a piercing scream like a swarm of cicada filled the air and all the centipedes scurried for cover. Unnerved by the sudden din, I resolved to abandon any attempt at finding the terminal and head back to the train. By now my flashlight only lit a few feet in front of me because of the forest of sponges and the dust. I set out cautiously at first, but a buzz like a hive of bees soon added itself to the screaming unnamed wail. When I felt the breeze of the wings that accompanied the buzzing on my shoulder, I quickly swatted some huge thing away, but not before it had stung me.
The bite stung for a moment, but quickly passed. I thought little of it until the burning started, not at the bite, but in my fingers and toes. It’s poison was fast acting, I could feel it burning up my arms. My fingers were numb already.
I radioed to the train. “This is Onix, I’ve been stung by some kind of poisonous insect. I need to talk to Hadolko!”
I heard the buzzing descend on me again and before I could strike out, it had stung me in the back. The pain made me convulse and I plowed head first into the sponges in front of me. Now as the burning passed through me, I lost all feeling in my extremities. A huge cloud of dust billowed out around me from three sponges I knocked over.
I tried standing and found that the poison was causing a loss in equilibrium. I staggered into another sponge, releasing more dust.
“. . . Onix, Onix, respond. . . “ cracked the radio.
I fumbled with the radio and finally found the button. “This is Onix. I been stung again, I’ve lost feeling in my arms and legs.”
“Understood Onix stand by. . .” came an anonymous reply.
At that point everything spiraled inward. For a moment my world shrunk to a single point and then faded.
I woke to a fire in my temples and the feeling that my brain had been replaced with a cinderblock. The world jolted all around and my eyes pealed themselves open. As hangovers went this one was one of the worst I’d had. I was in a transport that was driving over what felt to me like a corduroy road but that was probably just the hangover.
An unidentifiable form passed over me and said “Get some more rest sir, your in bad shape.”
When I woke again, I felt well enough to try and sit up. A medic and a driver were in the front of the transport joking about something. I was lying next to a Private that looked like he sustained a severe head wound. The medic noticed that I had roused and climbed back to assist me.
“How are you feeling, you lost a good deal of blood.”
I nodded to acknowledge him, my voice was not coming easily. “Awful.” I croaked. “Blood?” was all I could get out to ask.
“Your bugs, they’re little bloodsuckers they nearly sucked you dry by the time we found you.”
As I recovered I learned that the company had lost a lot in the train crash. Two light tanks, twenty transport trucks and two heavy trucks were now at the bottom of the shaft. The rest of the trip would be on foot for most of the company. I had been out for two days. It was another three before I was well enough to walk.