A single beam of light shone through the deep, murky waters. A single spot of azure in a sea of darkness. The light stopped perhaps two or three yards beneath the surface, and in its path, nothing moved. On the surface of the water, a shiny substance swirled in a rainbow pattern then floated away. The colors were like nothing that had been seen in nearly a thousand years.
There was a dank, musty smell at the water’s surface; it was only noticeable from a few inches away. It was a decaying smell, one that came from decomposition lasting many years. Above that, the air was fresh and clean, almost pleasant.
Blackness stretched for miles around without anything in the heavens or on the earth to break the monotony. The flashlight’s thin beam skated over the flat, barren surface. Only the water’s soft lapping gave any indication of movement on the planet. The flashlight’s range was long, but it showed nothing but what had already been seen. It was like being dropped into a black hole. Nothing moved, nothing lived. The quiet that pervaded the air only added to the eerie atmosphere.
Cambria inhaled sharply, comforted by the sound of her own breath. She’d thought she would be used to this now, the wrongness of entering a planet that was not her own. She’d been wrong. Even without another sign of life, she felt as though she were intruding on someone else’s world. God, she loved it.
She took another deep breath and counted slowly to ten, then looked down at the instrument on her watch. It was a good thing the device was lighted on its own. The lamps they had been provided with barely gave off enough light to see. She focused in on the glowing green light, reading with careful attention.
Oxygen. Nitrogen. Hydrogen. Carbon. Good, everything they needed to survive, and in the right levels too. She waited a few more seconds, but no gases that were toxic to them flashed across the screen. With a sigh of relief this time, she eased the helmet off her head. Her light hair tumbled down her back as it was knocked loose.
She took in a deep breath, this time not to comfort herself, but to feel the fresh air. The air in the matchbox sized enclosures they called shuttles was always stale. She’d spent enough time on them to know. It felt good to breathe again.
"Akaela?" she asked, tasting the words on her lips. Everything sounded different on the different planets. The name was no exception. Her second in command saluted her sharply and slipped her own helmet off. Cambria smiled, amused by her insistence to follow protocol so far from the place they called home and in so foreign a world. She wanted so badly to stretch and just feel the world around her, but her sense of duty forced her to make sure the rest of her crew had adapted as easily as she had.
She quickly counted heads, assuring herself they were moving. Kedrien was there, next to Christiano and Gage. She felt relief flood through her when she realized they’d all made it. Kedrien nodded briefly at her before turning his attention back to the equipment.
They were all so predictable, she thought, watching them. Not that she was complaining about that. It helped her to know their attention would be on their respective jobs so soon after landing. Christiano was already setting things up. She knew she had him to thank for even the scant amount of light they did have. It would have been the first thing he thought of on impact.
She sighed. Her crew. Unique in their different ways and always so reliable. She didn’t know what she’d do without them.
She crouched at the bottom of the platform that extended away from the pod they had arrived in. It was slippery from the water that had splashed over it, which could only mean one thing. Oil. Excitement bubbled up inside her. To have found oil here, in this planet of only water, would mean more to them than anything else. They’d heard so much about oil in the programs and transcripts they’d been able to decode, but no one had ever really seen it. It was supposed to be a good fuel source.
She laughed then. A fuel source? As though they needed more of those. As though anything could be a better energy source than the sunlight they already had. But, oh, variety… It would be such a novelty to recreate their ancestors’ machines, as antiquated as they were.
Shaking her head, she turned and rose all in one lovely, fluid motion. She needed to check on the gear in the lower compartment. Hopefully they hadn’t forgotten anything and would all be able to go down beneath the surface. She inched carefully across the deck, knowing better than to fall into the water. The air might be safe, but they didn’t yet know what exactly was in the water. At least they knew that it was water.
"Captain Mihlovic," Gage said as she passed him, saluting her with respect. "The pod survived the landing safely. All components are working correctly."
She sighed softly. What was it about this crew that kept them insisting on such formality? She’d worked with them for nearly six years. She didn’t know how many times she’d asked them to call her by her first name. It almost wasn’t worth the effort of asking anymore. "Thank you, Gage," she responded, ignoring his title pointedly.
He nodded briefly at her before turning his attention back to the pod. She didn’t think he’d even noticed. She began moving to the door once again, passing Christiano on her way. He’d finished assembling the equipment and was now performing various tests on the water. If they were lucky, there wouldn’t be anything in the water that would destroy their suits on contact.
They were always lucky, though. She’d heard horror stories about crews who had all died from similar experiences. To date, she’d not lost a crew member yet. She prayed this voyage would be the same.
Looking around, she didn’t see anything that could possibly be detrimental to their mission. In fact, it looked remarkably similar to her own planet. Or at least to one of the oceans on her planet. Her planet had just a bit more land than the one she was one. Which could be because this planet didn’t seem to have any at all.
But then, one never knew… They hadn’t even gotten around to exploring it, and there had been a few small things the radar had picked up that could be small islands. Very small islands, but islands nonetheless. She was surprised they hadn’t seen any life yet. But then, this was a very old planet. Maybe there had been life at some point. They just didn’t know.
She hoped they weren’t in for any nasty surprises.
The door leading into the pod slid open with a low hiss in front of her. She made her way into the small holding area that served as the decontamination area, at least on most of their voyages, and pressed one of the many buttons on the wall. The door glided shut behind her. Without even a rumble, the room shifted down. She waited impatiently for it to stop. When it did, she almost ran out of the makeshift elevator and into adjoining room. She couldn’t wait to see what was below the surface.
She moved over to the cabinet that held the equipment they would need: larger oxygen tanks, the dive suits, and an assembly of various other things. Good. There were five sets of each, which was exactly what they needed. She checked each over carefully, not leaving anything to chance or to the carelessness of others. When she was satisfied they were all still working as they should be, without holes or weak spots, she quickly stripped out of her heavy outer suit, shedding all but the necessary garments. The dive suit went on over top, followed by the straps and buckles that secured her air tank. She caught a glimpse of herself in one of the reflective surfaces and grinned. She looked like a character out of one of those cheap movies. Oh, well. They all had to wear them, so there wasn’t any reason for her to feel self-conscious.
Snagging a mask from the shelf, she went back to the small chamber she’d entered from and pressed another button. The room spun around and headed back to the top of the pod. She exited it as soon as the doors opened, facing the dim light and surrounding blackness with something like exhilaration. Gage leaned back from the object he had been taking apart and looked at her expectantly. She signaled he should also get suited up. He stood and followed her earlier path into the shuttle, disappearing almost as soon as he stepped inside.
Christiano addressed her without bothering to look up from the screen in front of him. "The water is safe. There’s some sort of metal deposit between the ground and us. I’m not sure what it is exactly. Maybe iron?" He typed a few more lines into the keyboard. "The ground itself looks close. Maybe seven or eight hundred feet away. We picked a good spot."
He still hadn’t looked up at her, she noted. He must be finding this far more interesting than the last planet, which had bored him almost to tears. It had been all she could do to keep him interested enough to finish his job. Maybe it was the planet’s close resemblance to their own that intrigued them. It was hard to tell.
Especially with Christiano. He was probably the most private member of their little family—and it had become a family. After six years of working so closely together in such a small group, there wasn’t much that they didn’t know about each other. Each of them had a story, and most of the stories weren’t pleasant. This was their escape. She knew it was hers.
All twenty-seven years of her life she’d been escaping, and now was no exception. She didn’t know how to live when she wasn’t running away. From the time she’d been little, there had always been something. For as long as she could remember…
It had started with her abusive father at age five. Her mother had remarried after the death of her first husband. Her new husband was a middle-class construction worker. He would come home some nights too frustrated with his job to deal with it on his own; some nights he would be too tired or injured. Whatever the reason, he had started to turn to alcohol. The nights he drank had become more and more frequent, until it was a miracle to see him sober. Eventually he began to beat them. Neither Cambria nor her twin siblings had escaped his wrath. She had done what she could to protect them, but to no avail. When he was finished with her, he simply moved to them. Her mother ignored it, saying she loved him and he loved her and her children. Of course he wouldn’t do anything like that. Cambria’s jaw tightened in memory. Of course he hadn’t… At least not in front of her. He had been too careful. Her mother had believed him when he’d told her one of the twins had fallen or they had been playing too hard the day before. She had had no reason not to. Later on, her parents had told the people at the hospital the same thing. They hadn’t believed them, but there wasn’t really anything they could do. None of the children would admit their stepfather beat them and they had no real proof. They had released them back into his custody with a sad smile and the hope that they wouldn’t see the children again. Which, of course, they had. Far too many times to count.
Finally her stepfather had died from a heart attack with a bottle of whiskey and a bag of popcorn at the kitchen table. They had hid their relief while comforting their mother. She had been so overcome with grief that they had hospitalized her. The doctors said that she had died of that grief, but Cambria knew better. She had overdosed on the pills they had let her keep in her room. They had found her dead during rounds one morning. They thought no one knew, but Cambria did. And she knew it was for the best. Her mother wouldn’t have lasted on her own. With the man she had married, she had at least had the illusion of happiness. When he died, she didn’t even have that.
They had been put in foster care then, without any family willing to take them. And there was another four years of running, until she had turned eighteen and was free to live on her own. She couldn’t count the number of times she had run away. But finally, she had been free. She had adopted the twins as soon as they had let her. They had suffered, though, during their time as foster children. They had grown apart from her and didn’t trust her like they used to. It had saddened her, but she had accepted it. She’d had to. At eighteen, it was hard to deal with finding a reliable job and managing a set of fifteen-year-olds, especially without help.
It was then she had met Trevan. Trevan had been just like her father. Had been. She didn’t know what he was like now. It had taken him about two years to show his true colors. When he had, they hadn’t been pretty. She knew better than to fall into the same trap as her mother. It had only taken that one beating to convince Cambria to get away.
It had taken three years to actually do it.
The twins had been gone by then, having left in their separate directions. Maybe they had gone together. She didn’t know. She hadn’t seen them since they had become legal adults. The day before their birthday, they had been there, as sullen and withdrawn as ever, and the next, they had just been gone.
They hadn’t even said good-bye.
A sudden prickly awareness danced up her spine, pulling her out of her reverie. Kedrien was watching her. So was the rest of her crew. They were all suited up now, regarding her quietly and expectantly. She flushed a dull red, embarrassed at having been caught in her memories. She only hoped her face hadn’t expressed the emotions she had been feeling. She wanted to keep her past where it was: in the past.
She moved in front of her crew, pushing the last painful thoughts away. "Are we ready?" she asked calmly, waiting to make sure she knew they were all prepared, both mentally and physically.
When they nodded or responded affirmatively, she knew they were ready. Her crew knew better than to lie to her about something so important. They waited when it was necessary. She didn’t bother going over the necessary precautions or the steps they needed to follow. All of them had been on voyages before. So many times, in fact, that it was unnecessary to explain most things to them. They’d already done them enough to know and remember.
They worked well together, she thought as she slipped the mask down over her eyes to cover the only part of exposed skin on her body. Almost too well. She didn’t know what she would do if she had to take part in a mission without them.
She really needed to start concentrating on what she was doing. It wasn’t getting any lighter out—for that matter, it wasn’t getting any darker, either. But they were still wasting time that could be spent on other things.
She checked once more to make sure she had everything she would need under the water, flipping on her air tank as she did so. Cool, clean oxygen flooded into her mask, fogging it slightly before it melted away. She breathed deep, then reached down to grab one of the cables lying on the platform. It was perhaps two inches thick and made out of a heavy yet flexible metal. She attached it to her belt and then turned back to face the darkness. Around her, she could feel her crew following her example. Suppressing her excitement as best as she could, she held herself back for just a moment. Her muscles tensed in anticipation.
Then, letting the full import of what was going to happen hit her, she dove into the water as gracefully as was possible. The cable trailed behind her, slack and heavy, keeping her attached to the boat. Just in case. Somehow, she needed to find her way back.
Something told her the precautions were necessary.
There was a splash before the icy chill of the water closed around her. She absently adjusted the temperature of her suit to a more comfortable level as she switched on the lights that were attached to her gear. The black immediately lightened to a cool blue around her, allowing her to see three or four yards around herself. There was nothing but water now, but eventually, maybe even soon, they would see something. Some premonition told her it was going to be important.
Beside her, another light clicked on, extending the area of visibility. She looked over to see Akaela signaling they were ready to go farther down as the rest of the crew members turned on their lamps. She signaled back in understanding before tapping the button on her headgear that allowed them to communicate with each other.
"It’s cold down here," Christiano’s strong voice had a metallic, tinny sound to it, like he was talking into a tin can. She could hear his awe at the same time. Good. He was definitely not bored.
"Adjust your suit," she heard Gage reprimand him mildly. There were faint scratching noises as Christiano groped for the button. A quick sigh of relief. She grinned to herself. The same thing happened every time they did this.
"I’m going down," she told them, knowing they would follow her. She pushed herself through the water at a decline. The suit automatically adjusted to accommodate the changes in pressure as she went deeper into the ocean. The water flowed smoothly around her, as though she were swimming through silk.
It was incredibly clear below the surface. The water held a crystal clarity that came from years of being undisturbed. She guessed the range of visibility was maybe three hundred feet, although she couldn’t be sure, because all she could see was water. Besides, their lights didn’t reach that far. She wanted to be surprised when they found the seafloor anyway. It made the exploration that much more exciting. She was slightly disturbed by the fact that they still hadn’t seen any life. There should have been something. It was the perfect atmosphere to create life. That much was obvious. After all, it was almost identical to their own.
When they’d made it down almost two hundred feet, she finally saw something move. It was small, granted, but still, it was life. The fish-like creature glided past her without even stopping to look at her. She wasn’t surprised. She assumed it wasn’t used to creatures like her. It wouldn’t see her as a danger.
The colors in this world were amazing. There were so many different hues of each color of the spectrum and even ones beyond that. She’d never seen anything like it. There were colors there she couldn’t even put a name to because she’d never seen them before. It was so blue. Of course, they were underwater, so that could have something to do with it. Especially since water was blue.
Laughing at herself, she continued down. More fish floated by. They were all approximately the same size, no bigger than her hand span. There were a large variety of them, many of which she’d never seen before on any of the planets she’d visited. And what were those things on their backs? Another type of fin? The fish on her planet had only two of them, one on each side. How odd…
And that was just one of the things. The fish were blowing bubbles from curious slits on the sides of their bodies. One’s entire body shimmered with a sort of silvery sheen over a base color that was somewhere between blue and red. Its opaque black eyes stared vaguely in front of it and it continued on its path, unseeing.
It seemed very lifeless, except for the thing it was doing with the air. And that it was moving. Twitching, to be more exact. It moved jerkily from side to side in something like spasms. It wasn’t smooth at all, not like the fish she had seen in her lifetime. Maybe it wasn’t really a fish. She made a movement that would have passed for a shrug outside of the wet suit. They’d find out soon enough.
Another hundred feet passed by quickly. Still no change. She was eager to see what was at the bottom. They were now almost four hundred feet below the surface. There were more fish now, hundreds of them. They swam in schools around her.
"This is amazing," Gage said into her ear. She knew he was addressing all of them, but it somehow seemed like it was meant just for her. It was incredible. Of all the planets they’d encountered, they had never seen any with life so close to the kind on their own. If only it weren’t immersed in water, it would be exactly like their planet.
"The metal deposit is close," Christiano answered, more interested in his job than in what they were seeing around them. She glanced in his direction to see him focused on the instrument he held in his hand. She sighed, forgetting it would be echoed through the communications system.
Wishing he would stop being so uptight and just explore, she shoved her excitement aside and asked, "How soon will we see it?"
He was a moment in answering. "It’s one hundred and fifty three feet ahead. It should come up a little to the right. We won’t be able to miss it. It’s huge."
She didn’t answer. Her attention was back on the fish that swam around her. The farther down they went, the more numerous they became. Except for their size, they seemed to be a very developed life form. Then, realizing she had to focus on her job, she turned her concentration in the direction the deposit of metal was supposed to be. It wasn’t long in coming.
It rose out of the darkness like a giant hulking ship, looming at them with all the grace of a mountain. Cambria’s breath caught in her throat as she stared at it in wonder. The sheer size of it amazed her, not only because of its deformity, but also because it just wasn’t possible.
"It can’t be," Akaela breathed in her ear. "How…?"
She heard Kedrien gasp as he saw it, then Gage’s reaction, followed by Christiano’s silence. That could only mean one thing; they were as shocked as she was. Her gaze traveled over the smooth lines and carefully constructed contours and then over the details that simply couldn’t be there.
"Cambria?" Gage turned his body toward her, his bewilderment evident in every move he made. "Please tell me that isn’t what I think it is."
She understood. Everything they’d thought about their lives was being changed this very minute. And there was nothing they could do about it but accept it. Every story they’d been told, every myth they’d heard—all of it was suddenly true.
"It was true," she heard Kedrien whisper in disbelief, echoing her own thoughts. Christiano didn’t say anything at all. She knew better than to think he wasn’t affected by it. His silence told her he was.
They hung there, suspended in the water, staring at the object in front of them. None of them were sure how to react to this discovery, which was more monumental than any discovery they had made before.
A building. On a planet a millions of miles from where they came from. On a planet that was unexplored. It really wasn’t possible. But the evidence loomed before them, unable to be explained and proof that couldn’t be ignored.
She felt chills dancing up inside of her. All the stories she had been told as a child about the effect her actions could have and all of the horror stories about destroying the planet suddenly came back to her. She willed herself to calm down. She didn’t need to jump to any conclusions right now. This could be explained in a hundred different ways. Couldn’t it?
She certainly hoped so.
Then Christiano, always practical, asked something that hadn’t had a chance to occur to any of them yet. "Do you think it’s stable?"
She was snapped out of her initial shock. She pulled herself together slowly, letting her eyes run over the glass and metal that composed the building one more time. "Get a reading on the supports," she said, knowing that the one whose job it was would respond.
Gage answered her almost immediately. "It’s stable," he responded. "Whoever or whatever built this did a damned good job."
Which meant it had clearly been an advanced civilization. It was too well constructed to have been an accident. And from the look of it, it had been there for quite a long time. They didn’t know the growth rate of the plants that were growing on all sides of it, but if they were anything at all like the ones on her planet, it would have taken decades for that kind of buildup. Given the other life she had seen, she was assuming that it was like theirs.
"Let’s go in," she suggested.
That was all her crew had been waiting for. Kedrien started toward it immediately. He was being cautious, but she could feel his excitement at the prospect of exploring the work of such an advanced civilization. Christiano and Gage followed him more slowly, both checking their computers for different things.
Cambria and Akaela swam toward it as well. "Wait," she told them. "I go in first."
None of them argued with her. They’d already lost the argument too many times before to try it again now. They also understood. Any commander that allowed their crew to go before them wasn’t much of a commander. But if the commander was willing to die before they did, then that was a commander worth having. Because then they didn’t have to worry about their own safety. Their commander wouldn’t let them enter into anything she wasn’t willing to do herself.
Gage and Christiano were right behind her, however, protecting her as best as they could. Just because they appreciated the fact that she would put herself in danger for them didn’t mean they wanted her to get hurt. That was something they tried to avoid.
They waited just long enough for her to get in front of them. It was only that long they could hold themselves back.
She swam toward the only broken window in the building, which was located in the middle of the top floor, but once she was there, she hesitated. The possibilities of what could be in there were endless. Then, steeling herself, she swam through the opening and its halo of shattered glass.
It was a room, and a large one at that. Debris littered the floor around objects… Objects that looked like furniture. A delighted laugh escaped her. There was furniture. It was somewhat crude compared to what she was used to, but it was still furniture. She could pick out something that resembled a chair and then there was a desk… It was amazing.
"What is this?" Kedrien asked. He looked around the room with the same awe she was displaying, but there was something like fear in his gaze as well. He couldn’t comprehend the enormity of what this meant.
"It’s furniture," Akaela answered, her voice as subdued as the look on her face. The hollow echo of her voice through the communications system did nothing to hide her emotions.
He sighed somewhat impatiently. "I know that. I want to know what it’s doing here."
Cambria answered him, slightly annoyed. "We’ll find out, won’t we? It makes sense that there is furniture in the building. What doesn’t make sense is the building itself, or the fact that there’s a sign of civilization at all."
Her earlier question had been answered in more detail than she had expected. They had found a sign of life on the planet all right. But more than that, they had found a civilization almost parallel to their own, if not quite so advanced.
"It’s not a priority right now," Christiano jumped in, coming to Cambria’s aid. "What we need to do is keep exploring."
His shadowed blue eyes were fixed grimly on the desk and its contents. She had the feeling he had come to a decision of some sort, but what it was about she didn’t know. At least she had one ally in the group. It helped her just a little.
"Then let’s go," Gage added, making an effort to soothe the situation over. He pushed himself through the water towards the narrow doorway.
Cambria followed him quickly. She still wasn’t convinced that this excursion was going to be safe. The strange little premonition nagged at her...
"Cambria, do you see it?" Akaela gasped through her microphone. "It looks almost like a computer!" She propelled herself forward toward the bulky object.
The object was small, a pale color somewhere between gray and tan. At the front--what she thought was the front--was a solid black block of color. Sitting at the base of the large box was an oblong, flat object with...
The device was a computer, all right, complete with all the features of the ones at home. It was larger--maybe a little bulkier--than normal, but they couldn’t deny what it was. She stared at it, amazed, while one phrase repeated itself over and over in her head: What if it was true?
Gage’s voice was urgent. "Cambria, let me take this back to the ship. I want to see if I can get it working again. If it works..." He let his voice trail off.
If it worked? The machine had been buried underwater for god knows how many years. They didn’t know if it was anything like the computers they had at home. Just because it looked like their machines didn’t mean anything.
"No one goes anywhere alone," she said finally. She had to admit her curiosity was piqued, but she still doubted. She still didn’t want to think what this could mean to their civilization. The implications were impossible. She didn’t want to think about it.
Akaela made that unavoidable. She had been examining the computer, but now she stopped and turned toward them. Quietly, her voice more serious than any of them had ever heard it, she asked, "Is it possible that this could be... Earth?"
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