Hitchhiker

(Under Construction)


This is the first thing that comes to his mind as his mind begins to come together: something is very wrong.

That mind is still rudimentary, more of the gut than the head. The ephemeral scratchpad of the conscious self isn't yet big enough to hold more than this one idea: something is wrong. But time passes and that vague misgiving grows points and edges, acquires surface detail. It becomes aware of the reason for its existence:

Eriophora is decellerating.

There is something up ahead. A star. A dot. It swells and his mind swells around it, grows large enough to contain both imagery and insight. A boulder, a squashed, pockmarked ovoid tumbling with slow majesty against the stars. A boulder the size of a mountain.

An asteroid, strangely asymmetrical.

The rough curve of its horizon is flattened slightly along one facet, as if some capricious god dropped by with a belt sander and ground one cheek to the bone. There's something wrong about the way the object rolls through the heavens, too: a precessive wobble around some counterintuitive center of gravity that seems, itself, off-center.

A number pops into his mind, also counterintuitive: this thing is moving at over six hundred kilometers per second.

Not just an asteroid, then.

A ship.

The details coalesce in his mind as his mind coalesces from oblivion. He accepts them passively, uncritically: a self not yet fully restored, processing input as its operating system reboots. Morphometric profile consistent with UNDA Mobile Factory Araneus: Predrive mass 4.3 petagrams, sub-event drive mass 29.2 exagrams. 9243m along the major axis at launch, 6042m along the minor. Ion and isotope traces on outer surface consistent with catastrophic outgassing within the past 127–167 terasecs. No transponder signal. Mean ambient thermal emissions 5K.

Derelict.

"How are you feeling?" A familiar voice in the darkness. It brings back memories he would just as soon forget.

He moves a tongue like old leather. He tries to speak, fails, coughs. A helpful keyboard appears hovering in the center of his visual field. He saccades the letters: Like shit.

At least he knows who he is now. All the pieces have reassembled. He wishes they hadn't. If he had his druthers he'd go back to oblivion right now, sleep out eternity until something interesting happened.

He wills himself to decohere. He fails at that, too.

He sighs inwardly. Resigns himself to continued existence.

For the first time in two million years, Viktor Heinwald opens his eyes.

* * *

Finally he finds his voice: "We had a deal." It sounds like cracking ice.

The keyboard flickers and disappears. The ceiling beyond arches overhead in a vague collision of shadows and curves. One of Chimp's omnipresent cameras watches at the corner of his eye.

The coffin offers him a teat. He sucks gratefully.

"These are exceptional circumstances," Chimp says with a pinch of synthetic regret. "I need someone I can trust out of my sight."

"You— you want me to board Araneus."

"Yes. It is not responding to hails. It should not be here. It is a mystery."

"So send in the bots."

"I have. They can't function everywhere. I'm reading erratic high-amplitude voltage spikes in some spots, radiation pockets in others."

"You want to send me into a place that fries bots." It's a token grumble, not a refusal. Meat functions just fine under conditions that would lobotomize electronics in an instant. Just so long as your masters fix the cellular damage afterward, stitch the genes and glue the membranes back together before your insides slough out through your asshole.

"Who else you bring back?" This is obviously more than a one-man job.

"Sierra Solway. Ari Vrooman."

He doesn't know them. "What tribe?"

"There are no tribes."

"I—" But it only makes sense, he realizes. Chimp may not be the smartest chip on the board but he learns from his mistakes—and what are tribes, now, but a breeding ground for insurrection?

Eriophora's entire social infrastructure has been dismantled as Heinwald slept.

Not that he's got anything to complain about. He was the one who wanted the extended downtimes, after all. Still, he wonders what else has changed. He wonders what happened to the people who changed it.

"What about the others? Park, and Sunday, and…"

Oh God, Park. I'm so sorry. If you could only understand; it really was the right thing to do…

"We have come to terms," Chimp says.

"You didn't—deprecate them?"

"No. They've been on deck a number of times while you were in stasis."

He's silent for a moment. "I don't suppose they ever...well...talk about me..."

The Chimp remains silent. The Chimp isn't compelled to respond to anything that isn't phrased as an explicit question. It would be so easy to do that: Do they talk about those days? Do they talk about me?

Do they still want me dead?

Heinwald takes a breath, and rises from the grave.

* * *

To human eyes Araneus is a hole in space: a dark blot against the stars, its edges in constant flux as jagged topography rises and subsides across its horizon. Every now and then something glints from shadow, some surface bit of exposed crystal or alloy bouncing feeble starlight back into the void—but out here, lightyears from the nearest star, the omnipresent darkness drowns them the very instant they appear.

To Eriophora's eyes, though, the colors never stop moving.

A concentric rainbow, bands radiating from black to red to coolest azure, wobbling as the asteroid rotates: Araneus's grav contours, wrapped around the mad dense heart of the thing. Bright flickering staccatos of yellow and green, ephemeral as sheet lightning: electrical discharges, severed nerves, bits of primordial energy not yet bled dry. A translucent overlay of crags and hillocks—the radar profile, a crunchy coating of surface terrain rolling into view and disappearing back around the far side.

"There." Solway points at the shared hallucination in the tac tank and in their heads, where a dark jagged fissure splits Araneus's flattened cheek like a crack in a mirror. "That's pure torque. Wormhole must've opened offside of the Higgs, shear stress did the rest."

"That would explain the skewed ablation," Heinwald guesses. "COG displaces off the centerline, whole damn rock gets dragged forward at an angle. Blueshift sandblasts the new leading edge."

"How long would it take to sustain that much wear?" Vrooman lifts his eyes to the ceiling. "Chimp?"

"That would depend on cruising speed and density of the interstellar medium along the way. Both will have changed radically over time. I have no way of estimating those parameters."

"She didn't make it all this way at a measly six hundred kps," Solway remarks.

Vrooman won't let it go. "Guess, Chimp. Assume current velocity as part of an asymptotic decline."

"One hundred twenty-six terasecs. No meaningful confidence limits."

"That's bullshit. That's before we even shipped out."

Solway shrugs. "You asked, smart guy. You think he would've even got us out of bed if he had any answers?"

Obviously these two know each other. Heinwald remembers the same sort of good-natured bickering from his own past; it's not hard to read the history behind it.

Not hard to hate them, just a little.

He stamps down on the feeling, on the memory, focuses on the present. Obviously things changed over time. Araneus experienced a period of high-gee off-kilter acceleration, enough to sand down that surface. Obviously something put on the brakes. Obviously it's been coasting ever since.

"Chimp," he says. "Assume a purely inertial trajectory since the outgassing event. How far would Araneus have travelled in that time?"

"Nine thousand five hundred lightyears," Chimp says immediately. "Given mean travel time of 147 terasecs. Give or take 1,250 lightyears."

"So"—Solway takes a breath—"something pulled the rudder hard right and held it there until, what. Five million years ago."

"Four point seven." Vrooman says. "Give or take."

She waves off the nitpick. "Until Araneus was pointed here. Where we'd be. Intercept course."

"Uh huh." Heinwald feels small muscles tugging at the corner of his mouth. "Putting aside for the moment the question of why anyone would do that, how would they know, five million years ago, where we were going to be now?" It's a hollow challenge, of course. Solway and Vrooman know the scales and the odds as well as he does. Maybe his words aren't so much objection as appeal, maybe he's hoping against hope they might actually have an answer.

Solway shrugs. "What are the odds that in the whole wide galaxy, we just happen to run into each other?"

Evidently not.

An army of probes is already on-site. They broke and entered before Chimp even got anyone out of bed, forced their way in through corroded airlocks, slipped though myriad fractures in Araneus's crust. Most of them are MIA at any given time—the asteroid's mantle blocks any signal sent from the deeps—but every now and then one breaks the surface, flash-dumps its findings across the void, resubmerges for further reconnaissance. So far they've turned up three crypts (two wrecked, one intact, none with power), a piece of the secondary mass-interface bus, and a pile of rubble where the starboard lateral bridge used to be. More corridors and compartments and cul-de-sacs than anyone wants to count. The collated data float before them, a patchwork Araneus-shaped jigsaw whose pieces materialize at irregular intervals.

And yet huge parts of that puzzle remain stubbornly dark. The map is full of gaps and tumors: cave-ins, blockages, hatches welded shut by endless aeons of hard vacuum. Pockets of radiation to fry the most resilient bot down to the motherboard. Broken circuits, dying but not yet dead, drawing lethal energy from the singularity that still lurks indestructibly at the center of the hulk.

"What the hell could have done all this?" Heinwald wonders for the tenth time.

"I don't know," the Chimp replies with endless patience, "but this could be significant." He throws a snapshot front and center: rough rock walls, ground-effect deck plating, a vast heavy hatch blocking the way. A grainy still image, shot through with static. None of the clarity and detail that Eri's bots have been serving up to now.

"Where's this from?" Solway wonders.

"Uncertain. I'm trying to derive a fix." The jigsaw fades to near-transparency: a cluster of tiny crosshairs brighten in its depths, in one of the dark zones. They dance flickering around each other. "The image isn't a direct feed," the Chimp reports. "It's a crash-dump from one bot to another, boosted and retransmitted through the structure."

Solway frowns. "What, without waiting for a clear line-of-sight?"

Vrooman: "Are you in contact with those bots?"

"No." The crosshairs are converging to a common point, not so much dancing now as jostling, elbow to elbow. "The booster lost contact with the source immediately after transmitting this image, and the source was too deep for direct contact. It would not have tried to transmit under such poor conditions if it expected to encounter better ones. The source transmitter is likely offline, possibly destroyed."

"Big surprise there," Vrooman grunts. "Whole thing's a hazard. Fucking death trap whether you're meat or machine."

Solway shakes her head. "Ari, It didn't just trip over a wire and face-plant. It sent that snapshot before it went down, that was the last thing it did. It must have thought it was pretty damned important."

Evidently Solway is given to anthropomorphism. Bots don't nobly sacrifice their lives to send vital intel back to HQ with their dying breath. Still, she's not exactly wrong. It's safe to say that transmitting even this crappy image must have maximized whatever state variable the bot considered paramount at the time.

"Chimp, can you clean up that snapshot at all?" Heinwald asks.

"Yes. Just a moment."

The crosshairs have finally converged: a point about halfway to the core, maybe 0.8 gees down. According to the fleet schematics in Eri's historical archive, Araneus kept a forest behind that hatch. Back when it shipped out, at least.

Now, who knows?

A long, low whistle from Solway. "Will you look at that."

The image still isn't great. But it's clearer than it was, even if bits of dark static persist along certain features. Around the edges of the hatch, for example. Along the seams.

Of course, if that was static Chimp would've cleaned it up along with everything else. So those dark streaks are real.

Scoring. Scorch marks.

This door wasn't sealed by time and space. It was sealed by lasers and acetylene.

This thing is a barricade.

Heinwald sighs.

He won't be getting back to oblivion any time soon.

* * *

Chimp printed a diving bell while they wondered and quailed: a magical contraption of graphene and ceramic and programmable matter not so much built as spun. It carries three 'spores—each cocooned in its own suit of armor—and three beetle-shelled bots in its belly. The shuttle births through one of the Von tubes and Chimp remote-pilots it in a slow mad tumble: all arcs and conics and off-center pirouettes, a trajectory from a stable decelerating mass to a coasting eccentric one, the speck between doing its best to segue smoothly from one to the other. Araneus swells ahead like a black thunderhead, a vast dark mountain rolling through the cosmos. By the time the bell brushes up against one of its docking ports, it blacks out half the sky.

The hatch is vacuum-welded. They burn through and open a hole into a deeper airless darkness that surrenders to radar and the sweep of headlights: a prep compartment, suits still hanging in alcoves, hand tools and EVA prosthetics arrayed neatly on their racks. If not for the vacuum you could almost expect the lights to come on, some fresh-faced complement of 'spores to round the corner and welcome you aboard.

At the far end of the compartment, the inner hatch gapes.

Heinwald goes through the motions, finds a power coupling, runs a line, reports back: "Nothing." Solway grunts. Vrooman doesn't even do that. They're both busy lugging pieces of taxicart from shuttle to corridor. The components are prefab and lightweight—and the grav's barely point-two gees here anyway—but there's still something vaguely comical about the two 'spores bearing such outsized burdens on their shoulders. Ants in spacesuits, carrying ten times their weight without a second thought.

Heinwald moves into the corridor and starts putting the cart together while the others hump a three-bottle O2 cascade in from the shuttle. Once assembled, the cart's designed to fit through any opening at least as wide as a standard dropgate. It can be taken apart in a snap, should it be necessary to portage through rougher terrain—a safe bet, based on advance intelligence.

The corridor fades to black in either direction. Solway, on Nav, checks her map for last-second updates and points right. "That way."

They climb into their saddles; Vrooman in the driver's seat up front, Solway and Heinwald behind and to either side. The cart's headlight flares to life, illuminates an unremarkable strip of deck angling left and ever so slightly down. The bots rise into standard escort formation: one ahead, one behind, one waiting off their shoulder to move in and take the place of whoever dies first. Solway watches them line up, turns to Heinwald, her face half-masked by the reflection of his faceplate in hers.

No sound but breathing.

They head out.

* * *

They lose the first bot ten klicks in, around the point-four isograv.

They're taking a breather after a slip fracture that snapped the passage like a broken spine and pushed the deeper segment two meters to the right. It's taken them over two kilosecs to clear the rubble from the small gap that remains, break down the cart, ferry the pieces through, and reassemble them on the other side. Comms is still echoing with helmet breath when Heinwald sends Point Bot on ahead to scope out the terrain. The drone floats serenely forward, disappears into the darkness around a corner. Ten seconds later a flash of blinding light spikes across Heinwald's faceplate and the channel goes dead.

"Hey, did anyone see—?" Vrooman was looking forward. "Something lit up the corridor down there…"

They creep forward. Eventually it comes into view around the bend: a rent in the bulkhead, a junction box, torn open no doubt by the same seismic shift that split the passage behind them. Blue lightning sparks fitfully in the wound, soft, silent, almost pretty. Point Bot's carcass lies on its back like a great charred beetle a few meters further along the deck.

"Must've got too close," Vrooman says. "Arced."

Heinwald looks back over his shoulder, where Solway has been wisely keeping a safer distance. "Sierra. Any other way in?"

"Not on the map. Map's full of holes, of course; you wanna backtrack, we're gonna have to start going down blind alleys and hope we get lucky. Or go back the surface and see if Chimp's got any updates for us."

"Our suits are shielded," Vrooman points out. "Nothing exposed but ceramic and plastic, once we zip up the antennae." Which is true enough; their attire doesn't have any of those messy ground-effect plates that make bots so vulnerable to ambient electricity.

Still…

"We'll have to bag all the the electricals on the cart."

"Don't really need them anyway," Solway points out. "We could pedal the rest of the way."

"Riiight." Heinwald can hear the eye-roll in Vrooman's voice.

"Only another thirty kliks or so. You got something against a little exercise?"

"When it eats into our O2 supply, damn right I do."

"Look, it's simple enough," Heinwald says. "We either go on, go back, or wander around blindly in unmapped territory hoping for another way in. You want to run through our O2, that's the way to do it."

They ditch one of the surviving bots in deference to the cart's limited carrying capacity, leave it powered down to await their return. They bag the other and strap it onto the cart. The cart itself is mostly plastic, designed with an eye to energetically-volatile environments; it's a simple matter to strip out its rudimentary electronics and dump them into Faraday bags along with anything else that can carry a charge. They tamp down and zip up every conductor on their own suits, and—still vulnerable to old-fashioned mammalian superstition—press up against the far side of the corridor as they creep past those torn sparking cables, both pushing the decorticated cart and hiding behind it.

They make it past without incident. Of course, with no bot running point, the next loose wire could still fry the vehicle and anyone along for the ride. So Vrooman relents; they agree to leave the cart without a nervous system, resort to mechanical backups and just pedal the damn thing like Victorians from a historical novel. They keep their antennae down and communicate using hand gestures—or, when necessary, by the age-old fallback of pressing their helmets together. Mostly, though, they don't talk at all. They creep quietly through the guts of this dead airless wreck as though afraid of some predator hiding in the dark, still holding its breath after five million years.

They cross chasms. They tunnel through cave-ins. They follow Solway's piecemeal map down the well, gaining weight with every meter. They come across a dead bot—quite possibly the one that lured them here with its last cry—wedged between a coolant pipe and a long-dead roach fused to the deck: downed, apparently, by some transient EMP that came and went and left no trace. Heinwald keeps one worried eye on the cart's O2 cascade, cringes inwardly whenever someone bleeds down the pressure to replenish a suit tank. He's half-convinced they're burning through their air too fast, that they'll be well into the bottom half before they even reach their destination.

Finally they turn one last corner and there it is: a great ridged frame embedded in rough-hewn basalt; a great biosteel slab embedded in the frame. Their headlamps send bright ovals sliding every which way across every surface, fractal bedrock, Euclidean alloy.

About fucking time, Solway mouths. Heinwald checks the cascade and relaxes a little.

Sixty-three percent remaining.

* * *

No naked circuits that anyone can see. No rad fields or frayed capacitors primed to discharge without warning. It's safe to break out the electronics, which is just as well: that hatch isn't going to breach itself.

Antennae emerge from protective envelopes. Comms crackle back to life. Vrooman leans up against the barrier, runs a gloved hand along a puckered metal scar. "Definitely welded. Someone keeping something in, or someone keeping something out."

"I'm guessing that first thing," Solway hazards. "Given that it's welded from the outside and all."

"Bot could've done it. Could be welded from both sides for good measure."

Maybe it was a mutiny, Heinwald thinks. Maybe they rose up, and their Chimp came down hard, and this was their last stand…

Vrooman breaks out the torch. Solway unbags their last bot and wakes it up. Heinwald unpacks a microseismometer and plants it onto the metal, calibrates it for the thickness of the hatch and sets a ten-second countdown. Everyone stands back and stands still; the device is pretty good at compensating for ambient vibrations, but there's no point in making it work any harder than it has to. At T=0 it begins drumming its fingers, fast: sixteen little pile-drivers arrayed in a grid, a multibarreled bolt gun hammering on the metal hard enough to deafen if there were any air to carry sound. As it is, the assault is a silent, rapid-fire blur.

It ends as quickly as it began. All those lightning-fast fingers just stop in the same instant, some still pressed against the alloy, others raised and poised for another strike. The microseismometer reads the echoes, thinks for a moment, serves up a verdict.

Heinwald reads it. "Positive pressure."

"Shit, really?" Vrooman leans in to see for himself.

"Couple hundred Pascals. Pretty close to vacuum. But not quite."

"Must've been a lot thicker when they sealed it up," Solway surmises. "Probably just—seeped away through the rocks or something in the meantime."

"At least we don't have to worry about anything breathing on the other side." Absurdly, Heinwald feels a kind of relief at the thought. He's not sure why: of course there's nothing breathing on the other side, you idiot. It's been terasecs. There wouldn't be anything breathing in there even if there were anything left to breathe.

Vrooman fires up the torch and sketches a slow circular track, burning at an oblique angle to carve out a conic—small opening on this side, wide on the other—so the excised plug will slide back and out of the way instead of just sitting there like a lump. It's slow going. The hatch is deep and dense, and the torch's fuel cells are built for efficiency over output. It takes almost a kilosec before Vrooman closes the circle and the metal within falls away. A two-meter hole gapes in the center of the hatch, a dark portal limned by a thin crescent highlight glowing white where the beam last touched. The merest whiff of vapor appears in their headlamps and vanishes in an instant.

The metal cools to red, to dull dark gunmetal. Solway sends the bot through. Intel begins scrolling across Heinwald's faceplate: radar and thermal, slices of light and shadow as the bot pans the near interior.

Twisted shapes. Trees and teeth and empty staring sockets of bone.

"Fuuuuck," Solway murmurs. Vrooman doesn't speak; the hiss of breath across his teeth says enough.

Heinwald keeps a queasy silence. These glimpses of a forest once inhabited, of a forest inhabitant, hit a bit too close to home.

They stand without speaking for a few moments. Finally, Solway climbs through. Vrooman follows. Heinwald, hanging back, almost gets the sense that they're forcing themselves: that curiosity has given way to apprehension, that they no longer proceed from desire but from sheer grim force of will. That freed of all duty-bound constraints, they'd just as soon turn back and leave this cavern to its secrets.

Maybe he's just projecting.

The darkness in the tunnel presses closer; Heinwald's lone headlamp is too weak to keep it at bay. He takes a breath and bends down, climbs into the breach, crabwalks the meter to the other side. Vrooman and Solway's beams fence with each other in the gloom beyond. They make no mention of past reminders or leaning glades. They do not speak at all.

Surely they would, though. If they knew. Surely this would remind them.

He emerges into a vast dim mausoleum. Three pools of sharp-edged light slide across cracks and ledges in the near distance; the cavern's upper reaches are lost in shadow. Monstrous boles rise from one into the other: roots as thick as thighs, dead twisted trunks that split and branch and fuse together again.

Vrooman pans his headlamp up the nearest monstrosity as Heinwald catches up. (Solway's already forging further ahead.) "That's not like any shipboard plant I've ever seen."

"Some kind of mutation," Solway suggests.

Heinwald shakes his head. "Engineering. They had to amp up photosynthesis. Usual ecosystem wouldn't keep them breathing for long."

"They'd have needed a big honking light source."

"They probably had one. To start with."

They.

He glances down, despite himself. Steels himself as his headlamp moves, almost of its own volition, to settle on that small shocking thing the bot showed them when it passed this way. One of them: skeletal, crystalline, arched and twisted across a basalt outcropping. Heinwald kneels, lays a gloved hand against a femur. It doesn't budge. He pushes, gently. Less gently. Nothing. The bone and the bedrock have fused, the skeleton gone to mineral.

Vrooman's at his side. "You're saying they lived here."

"I'm saying they tried to."

"That's insane."

No hint of precedent. No indication, here in the wreckage of one vessel, that they've heard of the misdeeds that nearly wrecked their own. The small knot in Heinwald's gut—a knot, he realizes now, that's been clenched ever since he first met these two—eases a little.

"I'm not suggesting they had a choice," he says. "Or even that it worked."

"It worked for a while," Solway calls back. "You guys should get over here."

They abandon the fossil and follow in her footsteps. Heinwald grabs feeds: Solway's visual from up ahead, the bot's radar from even further. Shapes grow in his HUD, ragged bits and pieces that somehow cohere into structure: things glimpsed piecemeal in the gaps between trees, things built out of trees, things grafted against trunks or secured in the forks of branches or just standing unsupported on the ground. Wide-eye windows and gap-mouth doorways and thatched roofs older than species, sitting endlessly patient in the dark and the cold. Seeing light for the first time in aeons.

"Why would they build roofs?" Vrooman wonders softly. "It's not like they had to keep out the rain. Nothing but rock up there."

"Maybe that's what they wanted to keep out." Heinwald closes his eyes, imagines a life so constrained that you have to block the view just to imagine a sky overhead.

"What?"

"Nothing."

The three of them spread out, their beams dividing the darkness. Vrooman finds a fire pit. Solway discovers a depression in the rock, rimmed with hand-chipped bricks, that looks like it might have been some kind of cistern. Heinwald's headlamp plays over a patch of squat fossilized lumps, vaguely organic, planted in rows.

This far in, none of them can venture more than a few steps without tripping over sticks and stones with arms and legs.

"Twenty-five kliks from a displacement drive," Solway murmurs invisibly from some hut across the village square. "Less than a day's walk from a tame singularity. And they were living in the Middle Ages."

"It doesn't add up," Vrooman says.

"Adds up to me," Heinwald tells him. "Something cracked Araneus like a walnut and they ended up here. Last airtight pocket on the whole rock, maybe. Only one they could get to, at least."

"This forest couldn't have provided oxygen for more than three people, tops."

"They overclocked the flora."

"Something did. But that took a lot longer than these people would have had before they suffocated."

Solway's beam reappears around some corner, bobs through the void toward them as she chimes in: "There'd only be a few 'spores on deck anyway, any given time."

"Normally. You're saying this was normal?"

"Maybe—" Vrooman hesitates. "Maybe whatever happened here, maybe they saw it coming. Had time to prepare."

"Or maybe they didn't," Solway says, rejoining them, "and they just started with what they had on hand." She raises her hands, brings the thing she's holding into the light.

A tiny human rib cage.

Heinwald hasn't seen a real child since he was one, but these bones couldn't have been more than four or five when the flesh around them cashed in.

Solway drops them. They shatter in silence, fragile as crystal.

"They bred?" Vrooman whispers in disbelief.

"It's what people do," Solway reminds them.

"It's what people did, and look where it got them." Vrooman sounds personally offended. "They fucked up a whole damn planet with their breeding. Why in God's name would anyone do that in a cave? How could they do it, even?"

He's got a point. Spores can't breed. UNDA considered that option, certainly: send out ships with smaller rosters, let them make up the difference by pumping out replacements en route. But the costs were too great. All those perfectly balanced genotypes, optimized for exile: diluted, shuffled, degraded with each new generation. The drip-drip-drip of cultural entropy, the erosion of vocational training by forgetful teachers and indifferent students and the inevitable drift of priorities down through time. Not to mention the strain of a fluctuating population on finely tuned life-support systems. Once you factored in all the costs and benefits, it just made more sense to invest everything up front, train the whole damn crew right from the start, dole them out as the universe ran down.

So 'spores don't breed. Officially. But Heinwald has always suspected that that particular switch might be flipped on again, under the right circumstances. In the event of some apocalypse that wiped out most of a standing crew, growing one back from scratch might be the only alternative to mission failure.

An apocalypse like this one. Whatever this is. Solway's discovery is fairly telling as circumstantial evidence goes.

Heinwald looks around with new eyes, his headlamp painting the walls and windows and facades of this half-assed troglodyte civilization. "How long?" he whispers, awestruck. "How long did this place last?"

"Maybe right up until their sun broke," Solway says. "Maybe until they inbred themselves to death."

Centuries, maybe. Millennia. Hundreds, maybe thousands were born, lived out their lives, died in this tiny bubble in the rock. A stagnant relic of Humanity, buried alive between the stars.

This was everything to them. He feels a little sick inside. Their whole universe was eight hundred meters across…

"—have to find the other crypts," Solway's saying. "All of them."

"Sol, the whole grid's fucked," Vrooman says gently. "It's been fucked for terasecs. Even if we had a hope in hell of getting to them, you want to guess the odds that any crypt on this wreck never suffered a single power failure during—"

"I dunno, Ari. What are the odds that a bunch of 'spores in a cave could stay alive for centuries using stone tools and spit?" She waves an arm, takes in the whole dark tableaux. "This is what's impossible. These people didn't just run in here and start building huts. They re-engineered their whole damn ecosystem. That took time. If they had time to do that here, someone somewhere else could've had time to rig a few coffins for long-term standalone operation."

If you only knew, Heinwald thinks, pathetically relieved that she doesn't.

"There could be others still alive," Solway says.

"There aren't," something whispers.

Heinwald frowns. "Ari? Was—"

"Wasn't me," Vrooman says.

"I've been over every square meter of this rock a thousand times," the voice continues. "I've had a hundred fifty terasecs to look. No one made it."

It trails off, thin as a dying breeze. Every hair on Heinwald's body stands to attention.

He checks comms. Whatever it is, it's using their regular voice channel.

"You made it," Solway says softly. "Whatever you are."

"Yes." Toneless, asexual. Somehow organic, though. Somehow—alive…

"What are you?" Vrooman asks. "Is this Araneus? Are we speaking to—"

"I'm just a, a hitchhiker."

"Hitchhiker."

"Maybe tourist would be a better word. This isn't my first language." A soft hiss: a pop of static, a carrier wave. "I would have come by sooner, but it took me a while to wake up. Things move so slowly out here…"

Three headlamps, one bot, panning back and forth in the darkness: seeking some kind of telltale motion but only making their own as shadows grow and leap and dwindle in the sweep of their beams.

"Where are you?" Solway demands. Heinwald's impressed despite himself; he can barely hear the quaver in her voice.

"I'm just outside." Wind through reeds, through glass pipes; sadness, somehow. "They never let me in."

"Show yourself!" Vrooman cries and Heinwald thinks No, don't. Stay hidden, stay out, leave us alone, go away go away go away— but it's not going away. It's coming in through the entrance they made for it, hatch must be sixty meters back but still their lights pick out that shadow curling in through the hole. Heinwald can see wispy attenuate limbs snaking into view and pulling a body after it, he can see the whole obscene spectral mass clamber across the face of the hatch and up into shadows where rocks and fossil trees and occasional protrusions of dead machinery block the view no matter how hard he cranks the zoom, no matter what wavelengths he uses to pierce the darkness.

Doesn't matter, though. He saw enough in transit: the ring of eyes, those raked pulsing cuts (gills? What possible use could gills be here?) along an undulating boneless thorax. Appendages that seem utterly wrong in both form and number, although now—mere moments later—he's at a loss to remember exactly how.

Naked, though. He remembers that much. No suit, no protection from the vacuum and the cold.

In here with them, now.

"Well, Ari"—Solway spares a sideways glance at Vrooman—"you always wanted to meet an alien."

Vrooman says nothing. Heinwald says nothing. On comms, a hiss of static modulates and flexes and somehow conveys a sense of laughter.

"Whatever gave you that idea? I'm more human that you are.

"I'm more human than you've been for sixty-eight million years."



(...To be continued)