"Oh for fuck's sake!" Corrin bellowed from below the escarpment. "What have you done now?"
Better employees were also high on the list.
She descended the steep bank in a single long, slow jump, just thrusting herself forward and trusting the meagre gravity of this world to ultimately do its job. Skills forged by long years of micro-g experience helped her land right behind the loose knot of borderline malcontents that approximated her crew, at least until she had the money to hire people she could consider less than a complete insult to the phrase “grave robber”.
"What's going on?" she asked, her tone making quite clear that whilst she might well shoot the messenger, she would burn anyone who kept silent alive.
"Just a broken drill-bit, captain," Davis said hurriedly, his wide, creased face turned downwards so that his bald patch was clearly visible inside his helmet. Sandra loved that about him; that he was half again her size and yet so obviously terrified of her. It was the primary reason he kept him on despite his clumsiness and ignorance. He was the measure of her authority. She found it oddly endeared him to her.
"You fucking sack of week-old liquid shit," she yelled at him. "How long has this latest detonation of idiocy cost us?"
In truth, her frustration was not simply born of impatience, though that was certainly not a quality she lacked. Word had reached her that several of their competitor outfits had been caught mid-dig and massacred wholesale. The distance between atrocities and their sheer brutality argued against any local trouble with the law. Most likely this was one of their own, so much as tomb raiders could lay claim to having a “their own” in the first place. Current scuttlebutt had fingered Captain Kinami on the Ranger as being the villain responsible, a livid bruise of a man forever thrashing his way across the cluster as though swimming away from a school of sharks and towards the man who had fucked his wife.
Not that he was married. What spouse could survive him?
Whoever the true culprit, though, and however it was they were tracking other expeditions, Sandra wasn't going to be lingering anywhere for the foreseeable future.
"No time at all, Captain," Corrin said calmly. "Davies broke the bit pulling out; we're ready to go."
"Really?" Sandra allowed her crew to see her tart smile of grudging satisfaction. She gazed up once more at the gigantic doors to the tomb, at the ancient symbol carved deep into its metallic surface.
"The Kingdom of the Eight-Pointed Star," she said, with the closest a grave-robber could ever come to reverence. "This is it, people. The mother lode. All the wealth of a thousand worlds, plus one dead guy."
"I still say it doesn't look like a star", Corrin said. Unlike her captain's, Corrin's voice displayed its veneration unalloyed. As far as Sandra could tell, Corrin's family was rich enough that she didn't even need money. Her first mate was in it for the spectacle of space, for the chance to walk through history, and for the sniff of romance the landlocked seemed to be so sure characterised as sailor’s life since the days ships could only travel in two dimensions. For a while Corrin had simply bummed around various archaeological expeditions, until it finally dawned on her that nothing was so fun as looking at yourself in the mirror and seeing a pirate. Even if on occasion you had to squint a bit.
"What do you mean?" Sandra asked.
"If it’s supposed to be a star, then shouldn't the… arms, is it? Shouldn’t they taper to points?"
"Not necessarily," Sandra replied. "Think about an asterisk. That's just a star people write down when they’re feeling fancy."
"That only has six points, not eight," Forton said; he could never hear the captain and first mate discussing anything without sticking his nose in.
"They do when I write them," Corrin snapped back. “Don’t tell me how to draw a fucking star.”
"Gods, does it matter?" the captain asked. "It's four bars that look kind of like a squished asterisk, which is kind of like a star. Who cares? What matters is what the symbol represents; an ancient kingdom of colossal size and wealth. We've all heard the stories."
"Yeah," Forton said in his nasal tones. "My family was from there, way back when. On my father's side. They said the Kingdom forged their empire with the greatest technologies and intellects humanity ever produced. They brought illumination to hundreds of worlds. Their brains were artificially heightened, their subjects revelled in the knowledge their rulers provided, and their servants could work twice as hard as any other man-"
"That doesn't actually sound all that great for the servants," Davis pointed out.
"I heard their guns made the biggest booms," Takahashi said cheerfully, patting her own weapon as if in solidarity. “BOOOOM!” she shouted, clearly afraid her colleagues had grown rusty in their onomatopoeia recognition.
"Enough," Sandra said. "Open her up."
Davis bounded over to where he had been drilling a few moments earlier. He pulled open a small control panel beside the doors in a slow storm of rock dust left over from his handiwork, and pressed several buttons.
The gigantic doors began to slide slowly open. The sound they would have made in atmosphere must have been deafening, judging from the vibrations that started coursing through Sandra from her boots up. She genuinely had no idea whether it was that or the excitement that had set her to shaking.
"OK then, people!" she shouted. "You know how this goes! ROB THE DEAD!"
The whole crew responded, their bellows almost overloading the comm circuitry.
"BUT TRY NOT TO BECOME THEM!"
* * *
The six of them had travelled very little distance at all down the wide sloping stone corridor when they came across the body. Naked and pale, it caught the torchlight, the surrounding vacuum making its splayed limbs and contorted face seem carved from the surrounding rock and painted by some macabre artist. The lack of atmosphere had preserved the dead man perfectly; there was no way to tell how long ago he had breathed his last, but his emaciation suggested strongly that he had died before he was left in the absolute cold of space. Another of the ubiquitous stars had been painted on his face. Someone had crucified him by nailing him across the saltire arms of yet another eight-pointed star. They had had to break his legs at the groin to do so
Sandra heard the soft pop of suit comms being withdrawn from the net, allowing everyone to gag in private. She imagined they'd be off-line for a little while; vomiting inside a suit was not something easily dealt with.
Corrin clearly hadn't had any more problem than she had, though, because her voice sounded in her helmet almost immediately. "What's that written beneath him?" Sandra shuffled forwards, not wanting to overcompensate in the weak gravity and bound into a corpse. Now she was closer, she could see the star on his face had not been painted, but... indented, stippled on to his head by innumerable pin pricks clustered so close together they gave the illusion of filled shape. Her first mate was right, there was something written beneath the body. Large letters were stamped onto a thin sheet of hanging metal, almost completely covered in what she quickly realised was the dead man's shit. Gingerly she held the sheet by a clean corner and tipped it towards her. She could feel a faint crackle in her glove as the tiny temperature differential between suit and its surroundings caused long-immobile molecules to buck and shift.
"’Not’.... something", she read aloud. "Not something. What is that, an 'I'? No. A 'J'. A 'J' and a.. and an 'A'?"
Her resultant shrug was lost inside her suit, but she trusted her tone to carry her lack of interest.
"Whatever. We're not in the business of solving mysteries; we're in the business of unapologetic theft."
"Captain," Corrin started, her tone strange, "Do we not want to take a few moments to discuss how this man ended up so spectacularly fucked up and dead in a supposedly abandoned tomb?"
"I'm not much one for discussion," Sandra replied. "All I know is that he failed where we're going to succeed. His mates ran away and left him, or he was stupid enough to show up on his own. That's not us."
Angrily Sandra jabbed at the control panel on her left suit leg, cutting Corrin's link to the general comms system, closing the two of them in a private loop.
"Godsdamn it Corrin, you won't question me in the crew's hearing again!" she hissed. "I will leave you on this rock to suffocate, and then I’ll come back to string your body up like this poor bastard’s. I will throw your every possession through an airlock and cut out the tongue of the next person to say your name. I will have Davis as a first mate before someone who questions me in public.
"Is there a single microscopic part of what I' just said that's unclear?"
There was a pause.
"No captain," Corrin said at length, her tone vacuum-cold and more dead than the crucified corpse. "But now you've isolated us, might I be permitted to expand on my arguments?"
Sandra flicked off her own comm so she could sigh, long and loud.
"Look, Corrin. I get it. I do. I'm not ignoring your position on this. But do you really think there is anything you could say here that I won't see coming? You'll say this proves the tomb has some pretty advanced self-defence mechanisms, and I'll point out sniffing those things out is why we have Toolin and why we suffer Forton. You'll argue this guy could have been crucified by our competitors who might still be here, and I'll come back with they could have been gone a hundred years. Then you'll seize on that to say if they've been and gone they could have looted this place already, and I'll remind you that that's always a possibility in our gig and we go forwards anyway.
"How did I do?"
"Mainly you talked about seeing me naked for at least the next five years," Corrin replied. "Beyond that, maybe you could actually let me state my own case for once". She gestured at the frozen lump of flesh attached to the wall. "This poor mutilated dead man worries me, Sandra. He scares me. I'm not like you. I'm not in this for the money. I'm in it for the adventure and the sex, not necessarily in that order. I want to have fun, and I'll have absolutely no fun if either of us get our legs broken so we can get nailed to one of those damned stars. It isn't worth it, Sandra."
"It isn't worth it to you. This is what I do, Corrin. It's how I don't go to bed hungry. If you want to give up on this one, wait it out on the ship, you can do that. I won't blame you. But if you do that, you leave the rank of first mate here with us."
"So you can give it to Davis."
"That little tantrum is going to come up a lot from now on, isn't it?"
"Oh, I'd think so," Corrin replied.
"I was right, though."
"You can be right and not a horrific bitch at the same time. I've mastered this manoeuvre; if you're good I'll go through it with you some day."
"Not really the kinds of manoeuvres I look for from you," Sandra teased. She patched them both back into the general comm net, expecting it to be conspicuously quiet, as it usually was when the two of them were clearly fighting.
Instead she found herself partway through another conversation.
"-need to, Davis. The panel looks good. All we need is-"
That was Forton. "What did I miss?" the captain asked, interrupting him.
"Captain," Forton said, switching gears with the effortless of someone who's love of their own voice had given them the experience necessary to sail past any impediment. "There's another airlock just up ahead, and the control panel looks like it's working.
"I think the area beyond is pressurised."
* * *
"Everyone keep an eye on their oxy-patches," she said. "There's no reason to assume life support is actually working here. The instant anyone gets light-headed, put your helmet back on. We may use up what's here in a hurry."
"This place looks pretty big," Forton said, "We should be fine so long as we don't stay too long."
"You got the maths to back that up?" Sandra replied.
Forton stayed silent.
"No? Then stop wasting whatever air we have left down here. Let's go see what we can steal."
In simple terms of distance, the slow straight journey downwards was unremarkable, but then measurements of length are only ever the central concern of travellers before they set off, if then. Sandra would have gladly traded long, weary miles for almost any other aspect of their gradual descent. The cold, harsh, precise light of their torch beams rendering every edge they touched too sharp. The ache in her calves from each precisely controlled bound in the micro-gravity as she tried to get as far forward as possible with each leap without also braining herself on the tunnel ceiling. Her suit sloshed with trapped sweat, pooling around her feet, making her toes itch, but the processed air surrounding her was so cold that it condensed her breath, giving the impression of a constantly runny nose. Ramirez was stopping every few leaps and cursing as he tried to wipe away the dampness in his thin moustache.
And everywhere, every step they walked, there was another star. Walls, floor, ceiling - to the extent such distinctions were meaningful in so desultory a gravitational field - they were inescapable. Before they had found the crucified man, they had been symbols of pride, or at worst, vanity. Afterward, though, they had become markers of violence, gouged into the rock as evidence of the willingness and capacity to kill. Sandra knew it was beyond ridiculous to suggest the symbols were staring at her, but Sandra couldn't think of any more sensible way to phrase it. At the very least, she was convinced something was staring at them. It being the decorations was probably the best available option.
Trying to keep her mind occupied, Sandra spent her time trying to understand why the tomb's builders had made the tunnel so long, and so wide. Hiding a facility deep inside an asteroid made sense in terms of protecting it from scanners or collisions with other rocks, but with gravity so feeble one could simply bore a corridor straight down. Why make so long and shallow a tunnel to get to... well, wherever they were headed.
Eventually, the exhausted Sylvan crew found themselves exiting the tunnel into what must have been the central chamber of the mausoleum. The instant they did so, the answer to Sandra's questions became obvious. The tunnel they had come down was one of at five that she could see. The entrance they stood beside sat between two others far wider, both immediately adjacent. Just after each of those stood yet another entrance, each of the same dimensions as the one they'd just left. There was no chance that Sandra wouldn't recognise the configuration, not now. The central chamber was one more eight-pointed star.
"Fucking hell," Davis murmured. "Can anyone even remember what a circle looks like anymore?"
Sandra let her lips curl upwards at that, but in truth the tomb's centre displayed as much variation as she had seen since stepping off her ship. In front of them, taking up much of the space the Kingdom had carved out of this asteroid and presumably blocking their view of three more tunnels, was a structure stolen from darkest myth; a haphazard collection of wide, low, cylindrical towers connected by long rectangular sections, with the whole enclosed by a wall perhaps eight metres high assembled, absurdly, from individual pieces of stone. The eight-pointed star was there too, of course, but here it was limited to a single flag atop the tallest tower, held in place by a wire to give the illusion of catching some hypothetical breeze. Elsewhere the dominant shape was a cross; thin cross-shaped windows broke the rough surface of the surrounding wall at regular intervals, and cross-hatched windows stared from the towers and the structures connecting them. Most were void-dark, but a few shone with a pale yellow light.
"When the lights are on..." Corrin murmured, the start of a common tomb-robber mantra.
"...Then someone's likely home," Forton finished, because of course Forton would.
To the right of the assemblage of stunted towers was an entirely different edifice, snatched from a completely different history, a pyramid ludicrously stretched into a shape tall and thin as an upturned knife blade. Where the other building cast a wan yellow glow from large windows, this structure was stippled with pinpoints of fierce light, red and yellow, as though a fire had somehow become frozen within. Mirrored panels on the structure's surface reflected the colours in strange ways. The combined effect of the tomb was of two entirely separate times smashed carelessly together without the slightest nod to aestheticism.
"Just imagine having the kind of mind that would see the designs laid out for this and think 'Yep; that's where I hope I'll be once I'm dead'," Corrin said.
"It could be worse," Sandra pointed out. "I'm not seeing any dead bodies. Which reminds me; let's start looting. Forton, I want you to take Davis and check out the walls of the... fortress, I guess. Check for traps, check for ways in. Corrin, take Rodriguez and head round the back. Keep clear of the walls until Forton's checked them, but I want you to confirm there are three more possible ways in and out of here. It does no harm to be thorough, and I'd like to know why if there are so many ways into this place, we only found the one.
"Toolin, you and me are going to check out the pyramid. I want everyone back in their helmets so we can keep track of each other."
There was a chorus of ayes from all save Toolin, who simply nodded - getting her to speak was usually like trying to hold forth with a rock you've accidentally insulted - and the three pairs peeled off to begin the treasure hunt. Forton and Davis reached their destination first, and immediately began to bicker about concepts Sandra had not the first clue about and more than half-suspected had been invented on the spot to make the two of them appear useful. She and Toolin had not quite reached the elongated pyramid when Corrin called in to confirm the existence of the other corridors beyond the fortress; this room took exactly the shape they had all suspected.
"Do you want us to check out any of the other corridors?" Corrin asked.
Sandra considered her options as she and Toolin made the last bound to the foot of the pyramid, finding themselves in front of the glass doors that led inside. Now she was closer, Sandra could see that the bottom two levels of the pyramid were smaller than the third, as though the whole building was designed to be plugged into a square hole in the ground no-one had ever gotten around to digging. Whoever had designed this monstrosity clearly had no fear of being thought an idiot.
"Check in with Takahashi topside first; make sure everything is quiet. Then yes, I want you and Ramirez to check the nearest of the wider corridors. There might be something of worth or use up there, or at least the possibility of a back door should we end up needing one."
"Captain," Forton announced, his tone insufferable in its self-satisfaction, "We've found the entrance to the surrounding wall, and checked it for traps; it's clear. You want us to head inside?"
"Hang on for a second. Toolin, will you need a second opinion on that door?" Toolin shot her a wounded glance through her helmet. "Yes, gentlemen, you're good to go. Let me know as soon as possible how happy I should be, and-"
"A moment, Captain," Corrin interrupted, her tone clearly broadcasting that she remembered what happened last time she'd spoken up, and that she was damn well going to do it again anyway. "I can't raise Takahashi topside, or Urion back on the Sylvan."
Dammit. "Takahashi, this is the captain. Takahashi, come in. Come in, Takah - fuck it. Yeah. Yeah, she's not there."
Losing contact with the surface, as every half-decent grave-robber knew - and Sandra liked to think of herself as very half-decent - was not good. There was too much that could go wrong too quickly inside partially-hollow asteroids. Plus, her greed notwithstanding, Sandra had to admit that this might be more true than usual on this particular trip. Just because she wouldn't let a mutilated corpse stop her from pursuing profit didn't mean it had no effect on her. A little extra caution at this point couldn't go amiss. And Takahashi's team had all the best weapons up with them, because twenty minutes ago the biggest threat was that Kimani had tracked Sylvan's engine emissions or cracked her fake flight plan.
Her calculations had changed rather a lot since then, of course.
The HUD in her suit let her know that Corrin had switched to a private channel, presumably to offer more predictions of doom. Cutting out everyone else was a message in itself, not just that Corrin thought what she was about to say was best not heard by the rest of the crew, but also that she could have warned Sandra about losing contact with Takahashi without informing the others, and she had deliberately chosen not to do that. That was, she reflected, rather a lot of information to get across with a single button press, but then that was Corrin for you.
"Do we head back now?" was all Corrin asked.
"Please don't start," Sandra asked, trying to sound placatory, though she knew she lacked practice. "I mean, you're right. I know you're right. But..."
"But?" The word was hard and tight.
"But you being right isn't going to stop me doing this." Glancing at Toolin and seeing her tall form still bent over as she manipulated controls on the device she had attached to one of the pyramid's glass doors, she switched back to the general circuit. "Forton? Davis? You inside yet?"
"Yes captain," Forton replied. "I don't now how to describe what we've got in here, but we've got a lot of it. Paintings mainly, and other sorts of wall art. Candle-holders that look like they're just gold, but the craftsmanship might be worth something. It's all very... very..."
"First Earth," Davis finished for him. "About a millennium before the Prime Exodus."
Sandra was a little taken aback.
"You showing hidden depths, Davis?" she asked, letting her amusement carry in her voice.
Davis snorted. "I assume what you're actually asking is whether I've turned out to not be quite so useless as you tend to assume, so - what the fuck is THAT!?!"
"Davis?" Sandra asked urgently. "Davis! Forton!" In front of her the door Toolin was working on clicked as it opened outwards.
"That wasn't me!" Toolin said. The red light emanating from the door was blocked for a moment as something moved towards them.
"Captain?" Forton chimed in, his voice barely a whisper. "There's something in here with us, it's... it's..."
Sandra could already see what Forton and Davis were facing. The figure staggering toward Toolin was a geometrical nightmare. Stark naked, it was close to human, though bald and fish-white, and its steps were too small, made with stiff, thick legs. It was the arms that horrified; four of them splayed radially from the body and bending only at the wrists; its hands reached forward, fingers wiggling as though grasping for Toolin but the arms stayed splayed and fixed like the wings of some hideous crushed beetle.
"Jaaa....." it droned as it shuffled forward, its blank face baring fused teeth. "Jaaaaaaaaa...".
It was so badly-formed it should have been laughable. It was so pathetic it should have been pitiable. Instead, Sandra's lizard brain settled on terrified revulsion. Toolin stumbled backwards in shock, tripped and began to topple, absurdly slow in the micro-gravity. She tried to right herself by pushing down with the balls of her feet, but she overcompensated, pressing down too hard and sending herself careening through the air. Sandra couldn't see what happened after that through the restriction of her helmet and the haze of horror surrounding the creature growing ever closer, but a loud crash and ugly scrape of metal on rock suggested Toolin had collided with the fortress wall. Sandra scrabbled for her pistol - little more than a stun gun, really - and had it out and trained on the stumbling creature when she realised it wasn't actually headed for her.
"Davis," she said as she watched the monstrosity shuffle past her. "Your tongue working again?"
"Sorry captain", Davis said. "But we've got the weirdest fucking... thing in here with us."
"Four-armed shuffling nightmare? Same here. Our's doesn't appear hostile, at least. What's yours doing?"
"It's heading deeper into the structure," Forton reported. "We're following it to see where it goes."
"Good. Keep doing that, and I'll tail this one. It's headed for the fortress in any case, it may well be headed to the same place. Corrin, you and Rodriguez get back down here. I don't want us split up now I know this place is haunted."
"On our way," Corrin confirmed.
Sandra took a few moments watching the shambling figure - Shufflers, she decided she'd call them, until she found out more about them or her brain stopped pumping all its blood to her flight response and let her use her imagination again - and tired to calculate how long it would take to reach the fortress. It's shuddering almost-waddle seemed to be serving it well in the near total-lack of gravity, but its progress was still slow. She gave the retreating figure one final, suspicious glare and, fighting the urge to shudder, leaped over to where Toolin lay, struggling to rise.
"You OK?" Sandra asked, trying to pull Toolin up slowly enough that she wouldn't be launched into the air again.
Toolin nodded as she stood, motioning to her torso.
"Winded," she got out, waving away her captain to demonstrate she could stand unaided.
"Ok then," Sandra said. "Let's head on over to the Shuffler disco."
Then began a strange chase, with the two women alternately bounding forward and waiting impatiently while the creature shuffled far enough ahead for them to make another leap without overtaking it.
"Sit-reps people," Sandra called, as she waited for her next chance to jump.
"We're still following ours," Forton said. "It's not moving too fast, and those arms are making things difficult for it in places. I assume these things have to have been genetically engineered, but whomever put them together clearly didn't put too much thought into practicalities."
"Maybe we should hold off judging how well-designed they are until we know what they're actually for," Corrin suggested. "We'll be at the fortress any second, Captain."
In fact, Corrin and Rodriguez were stood waiting when Sandra's Shuffler rounded the wall and approached the tall arch that formed the entrance to the fortress. The four of them watched as it slowly make its way inside, before following it into a long hall filled with tall portraits, wide frescoes, and the fortress' occasional patches of faint yellow illumination. The candle-holders Forton had mentioned stood in every corner.
"We're inside with ours now, Forton" Sandra said. "What's your one up to?"
"It went down some stairs, and it's head into some kind of dungeon," Forton replied. "Real horror-vid material, though not an especially original one. There's chains on walls and assorted spiked devices and - wait a minute."
"Yeah, that's not right," Davis added. "Those don't fit. Captain, there's some kind of series of alcoves in the far wall. Definitely not period-kosher. They look like they're shaped to fit our new friends - yeah. Yeah, hideous shambling beastie number one is very gradually clambering into the rightmost slot and - my God."
"Davis?" Sandra said, desperately resisting the urge to open fire on their own creature if only to see if she could coax it into a decent pace.
"Captain, this thing is melting. Just collapsing in on itself. There's a field of some kind around the indentation to keep what's left from slopping out all over the floor, but still; this is not a sight I ever needed to see. This day isn't really going the way I'd hoped."
"We're on our way," Sandra promised him. "This thing is just so damn slow."
"Does anyone want to try guessing just what the absolute unholy fuck is happening around here?" Corrin asked. "Actually, no. Let's skip that and move straight on to why we're still inside this rock? We don't have contact with our people on the surface, and we do have contact with a bunch of terrifying shambling monsters. That sounds like the initial stages of a very unsuccessful heist."
"We'll talk about all that once we've gotten to Forton and Davis, " Sandra said.
"Why not just pull them out now?" Corrin demanded. "We shouldn't wait to see how much worse - oh, bollocks. Never mind."
Sandra was mid-leap when she heard this, but the cluttered surroundings were keeping bounds short and low, letting her grab at an opulent table to stop herself, turning as she did so.
There were six more of the Shufflers following them. Three walked forward with their tiny steps. The others were faster, crawling along the ceiling, their hands a blur as they dragged themselves forward, fingers and toes finding sufficient handholds in the almost absent gravity.
"Captain," Forton came through low and urgent. "Something else is happening here. The offal that thing left behind is starting to boil, it looks like, and-"
Forton's voice disappeared, replaced by static.
"Shit!" Sandra threw her gaze between the horror they were following and the horrors following them. "Corrin, take Toolin and find the others."
"But-" Corrin started.
"GO", Sandra said, "Don't wait for that thing, just find this dungeon and get our people out. Ramirez, let's clear ourselves an exit."
She wrapped her legs around an exquisitely carved chair and grabbed hold of a windowsill with one hand as she raised her weapon with the other. Rodriguez did something similar on the other side of the room. Sandra and Corrin shared one last look before the first mate threw herself forwards and past the creature they'd been following, Toolin close behind.
"Ready?" Sandra asked.
Rodriguez smiled, the smile he only wore on the days when circumstances allowed him to shoot at living things with a more or less clean conscience.
"Ready," he said.
"OK. Wall-crawlers first. FIRE!"
Bolts of blue energy careened towards the monstrosities crawling above as Sandra and Rodriguez started shooting. At this range they could hardly miss; the three creatures off the ground were each hit multiple times, falling from the ceiling as uncontrollable spasms shuddered through them. With those dislodged, Sandra and Rodriguez switched their targets to those advancing on the ground. They too were sent sprawling, their hands jerking comically as their nervous systems were smothered by external jolts of power.
For a moment Sandra allowed herself to believe they were winning, until the Scuttlers they'd hit reached the floor and just kept on crawling. They didn't even bother to stand up, just scuttling forward like pale gigantic insects. Whatever these things were, they weren't even human enough to fall down properly.
"We need a new plan!" Rodriguez shouted over the din of their weapons fire. The sound of his voice seemed to draw the scuttling things toward him. Sandra watched her crewman panic, blazing away desperately at the advancing nightmares, targetting abandoned in the rush to shoot everything before it could reach him. Each one he hit began convulsing, throwing themselves into the air by the force of their ugly, uncontrollable dance, but the instant they made contact with another surface they were once again on the move. More of them were appearing in the room with every second, dozens of them scurrying across every available surface. Sandra lent the weight of her fire to his, but it was hopeless. They were too determined, too many, and all of a sudden, somehow too fast.
"Let's fall back to-" was all Sandra had time to say before one of the Shufflers landed directly on top of Rodriguez, its rigid arms trembling horribly like the wings of a gigantic murderous moth as its fused teeth bit deep into his skull, Rodriguez screamed unbearably as blood, bone and brain matter began to curve upwards in long arcs from the deep hole in his cranium. Sandra shot his attacker in the face and it went spiralling away with the pieces of her friend's head, but Rodriguez was already in convulsions, firing randomly. His screams had become choking moans. More of the creatures were headed for him, still more were filing through into the room. Sandra managed to fire twice more before her gun started generating nothing but clicks.
"I'm sorry," she whispered, and fled.
It took only a few seconds to catch up with the Shuffler she had first been following. Had everything really happened so fast? She used the micro-gravity to push off a wall and sailed over its bald, wrinkled head. She reached down and grabbed a handrail that followed a staircase down into darkness, pulling herself forwards and lower one arm-length at a time.
"Corrin? Corrin, what's happening?" she shouted into her mouthpiece, but all that came back was static. Frantic, she scrambled downwards faster still, a desperate monkey searching for its mate. A voice swam from the comms system, almost completely submerged beneath the snow of white noise. "Corrin?" she asked, but she knew the tone was wrong."....ashi....tain....ttack...lost am....ward...state loc... peat... loc."
"Takahashi?" Sandra said. "Urion?" But silence returned for the scant seconds she was still not at the bottom, and once she was, everything changed utterly.
The staircase ended in a tall, stone archway that gave way to a dark room with a low ceiling. There were five figures in there that Sandra could see; she assessed them in strict order of importance. Corrin seemed fine, as did her three other crewmen. All of them turned to her when she entered, but it was clear that until her arrival their attention had been focused on the final occupant of the chamber.
He was a tall man, toned and steady, wearing no more clothes than the Shufflers outside that Sandra could still faintly hear shambling towards them. One half of his chest was dyed blue, the other was flayed, raw and red and weeping. His flesh was so pale it could never have seen daylight, or even the pathetic approximation of it that dragged itself this far into this system. The eight-pointed star was emblazoned across his face, still dripping blood. He stood perfectly still, as stone-carved as his fortress, save for his eyes, which flitted from each of Sandra's crew in turn before returning to her.
"Who is this?" Sandra asked, glancing sideways at the new arrival.
"He wouldn't respond to anything we asked," Forton added. "All he's said to us is.-"
"I am Jack."
Sandra took a step towards the newcomer. "Excuse me?" she asked.
The sarcasm was wasted. "I am Jack", he repeated, running his index finger along his blood-soaked torso and absently sucking it into his mouth. "And what are you?"
"Oh, so now you're talkative all of a sudden?" Corrin snapped through her suit speakers before Sandra could stop her.
"I was waiting," the man who called himself Jack said. "One does not start choosing cattle until the pens are full."
"Cattle?" Sandra repeated. "I think you should be more kind to people with guns."
Jack shrugged, the motion tightening his chest, making it weep all the faster. "A joke, only. I apologise. I get so few visitors."
"This isn't the time for jokes," Sandra said hotly. "A friend of ours is dead. Dead because your... things out there murdered him!"
Jack frowned. "Your friend attacked my servants."
"They didn't leave us any choice!"
"Of course they did. You simply chose impatience. You chose fear."
"Yes, what could possibly have made us fearful?" Corrin sneered. "How about that man strung up on the way in to this horror show? Did you give him a choice?"
"In a sense," said Jack. "Not everyone was meant to receive our gifts."
"Your gifts?" Sandra asked. "You're saying you killed him because, what? You didn't want to hand Rodriguez a picnic hamper? And what about us? Are we going to be worth whatever you condescend to hand out?"
There was not a hint of contrition in Jack's gaze as he stared at her. "That remains to be determined."
"And if we tell you we've not the slightest interest in anything you might offer us?" Sandra said, disgust dripping from each word. "If we want to get off this particular fairground ride? What then?"
Jack lowered his gaze as if downcast.
"Alas," he said, sounding genuinely upset, "It is not so easy for us to lay down our burden. Begin."
That last word was directed at the creatures massing at the foot of the staircase. Immediately they began to advance, their bodies angled so as to prevent their outstretched arms tangling.
"Grab your guns, people!" Sandra said. It was an automatic command; she found she could put no real hope into it.
"Always repeating the same mistakes," Jack said sadly as he watched them scrabble for their weapons. "That is why we must bring you a better way."
"Spare me the self-involved philosophical musings," Sandra said "They won't fire unless I ask them to. And I won't ask them too unless you give them no choice. That seems to be a situation you think it's important to not leave us in."
She glared at Jack with as much heat as she could manage.
"Assuming that wasn't all bullshit, of course."
"Oh, there is always a choice," Jack said as half a dozen Shufflers filed past the Sylvan crew, heading for the slots in the walls. "But it will go more happily for you if you choose co-operation. The Kingdom has such wonders for you. We have so much that we can teach you."
Each of the creatures that had passed Sandra and her crew stepped into an. Immediately, they began to dissolve. Shimmering fields sprang up to keep the resulting fluids from escaping. The spectacle was horrific, a bubbling crimson nightmare of sloughing flesh and collapsing bone, but still Sandra found it impossible to not look away.
"We can re-sculpt your entire world," Jack continued as though naught was amiss.
"Really?" Corrin said. The sarcasm was obvious; Sandra thought she alone was picking up the fear.
"What if we like our world sculpted exactly the way it is?" added Forton.
The swirling liquid tempests inside the sealed alcoves began to coalesce into taller forms, lacking the additional limbs of those that had died to create them.
"That would be profoundly unfortunate", Jack said, as if discussing the refusal of a child to finish eating their vegetables. The reconstituted forms inside the wall were beginning to stir as the whatever process they were undergoing began to reach its end. "It is not, however, necessary to acquire your approval. " Skin began to appear on the new bodies, patches of it springing into being and blossoming across wet flesh. In tone it was the same mushroom white as Jack's skin, save for the right side of the chest, which was coloured blue, and the left side, which remained raw and glistening. From the top of each container a metal assemblage packed with tiny plastic tubes descended to forehead height. The tubes began to fling themselves forward in a bewildering sequence, punching tiny needles into the brand-new faces of those inside the chambers. Tattooing their stars.
Jack seemed to somehow draw himself higher. "One cannot stop improving others simply because they cannot see how much they need to be improved," he announced, as though outlining his own obsessions somehow constituted an act of sacrifice. The glittering shields around the freshly-grown figures disappeared, and as one they stepped out onto cold flagstones.
"I am Jack," they said, in perfect unison.
The original model smiled broadly.
"Let us see if you can be too."
There was simply no way, Sandra decided, that any reasonable person could disagree on that being quite enough. "FIRE!" she yelled.
The pistols her companions were carrying were not particularly powerful; when you spend most of your life in structures surrounded by the void, you need to think carefully about carrying weapons with much capacity for piercing and/or boasting even a half-decent brisance. That said, even with such unassuming firearms, blazing away with four of them in an enclosed environment and striking their targets at almost point-blank range could generate a truly impressive amount of light, and sound, and no shortage of physical harm.
The Jacks stood there as though wondering whether the drops of water breaking against their bodies boded ill for their afternoon picnic. Looking closer, Sandra could see that the blue bolts of power weren't even reaching their targets, instead they splashed into nothingness just centimetres from the Jacks' skin.
Personal energy-dissipation systems.
"This is going spectacularly badly!" Davis howled belatedly.
"Switch targets!" Corrin yelled. "Let's punch a hole!"
It was precisely the wrong thing to do. Sandra's crew spun round, but not one of them had the chance to loose so much as a single shot. The Jacks moved with unbelievable speed, four of them stepping forward to grab Corrin, Forton, Toolin and Davis. A fifth grabbed hold of Sandra before she had time to so much as take a breath. She struggled against the grip of the Jack holding her, but he was horrifyingly strong.
"Enlighten the first," First Jack said, and the Jack holding Forton began to frogmarch him towards the alcoves. Forton yelled, tried to dig his heels into the dry, rough stone of the floor, but his captor was vastly stronger than he was.
"This is a pathetic, tragic mistake!" Sandra shouted, hoping to somehow forestall whatever was about to happen. "I warn you; we're not alone out here!"
"No more than are we," First Jack said. "Silence the chattel, gentlemen."
The Jack behind her shifted with such speed she didn't even realise she'd been released before she was trapped once more, this time in a full nelson. The Jack used his hands to twist off her helmet, and then immediately moved his hands, holding her head steady and her jaws clamped shut. The shift in focus gave her the opportunity to lever herself upwards and kick back at her assailant, but if he even felt the blows, he gave no sign.
Sandra could hear muffled grunts coming from elsewhere in the room - her crew must have been similarly held - but with her head kept immobile as it was she could see only Forton and the Jack pushing him forward. Forton too had lost his helmet and was being silenced the same way she was, through the tyranny of thumbs, but once they reached the indentation which had birthed him, the Jack altered his hold, giving Forton a few brief moments to speak whilst he was bundled into the device.
Had she been given time to think about it, Sandra might have expected Forton to plead, to beg, or even offer to sell someone else out. Enough years of endless petty infractions can lead you to simply assume there was something rotten under the surface, as though the most minor crimes were somehow additive. If the skin on an apple has enough spots, after all, it is hard not to conclude it is rotten.
But all Forton said was this: "I'm sorry. Get off this rock and blow it apart.
"And tell her I loved her."
The force-field shimmered into being. Sandra felt her eyes burning. The mechanism of tubes and needles descended, stopping in front of Forton's face. She wanted to look away, but that was impossible. All she had left remaining to her was the decision to close her eyelids, to shut out the sight. In in the end, though, she simply refused to.
It was the only choice she had. It was important that she get it right.
Just as she'd expected begging before the shield came up, she expected screaming afterwards. Instead Forton twitched, just once, as the first needle punched into his skull, and then stood slack in the alcove, as immovable as the Jacks, as the remaining needles were thrown towards his face. Sandra tried to keep down the contents of her stomach as the eight-pointed star began to swim into focus on Forton's face, an optical illusion born of tens of thousands of tiny holes.
Once the machine had finished its violent work, it returned to its hiding place above the alcove, and the glistening shimmer of the field holding Forton in quickly dissipated. Slowly, Forton turned his head, blinking repeatedly as his vision slid off each of those in the room, as though he trying to focus but had so much to process that he had forgotten how.
"Are you Jack?", First Jack asked. Forton stared at him, vacant and silent.
"Are you Jack?", First Jack asked again.
"Jaaa?" Forton slurred through lips that barely moved. "Jaaa..."
He fell like a ruined man out of the alcove and onto the ground. He didn't even try to ward his face with his hands, and his head slammed hard against the floor. Blood splattered across the stones, with Forton at the centre of it, laying quite still; not as though dead, but as though being dead made no difference. Were he not still murmuring, Sanda would have assumed there was nothing left of him.
"Not Jack, then," First Jack announced. He turned to his twin, the one who had briefly been Forton's captive.
"Take itand test it for servility," he said, turning his back on Forton's crumpled form. "If he fails in that too, string him up as a warning."
"They serve as servants or they serve as lessons," the other Jack said, apparently quoting some mantra.
First Jack approached Sandra, stopping only when to come closer would mean their height difference would preclude eye-contact.
"A shame," he said, as if having learned of the death of a distant family member, never met. "Still, not everyone can be Jack. The success rate is somewhere below nought point nought two percent. We try so hard to lift you up, but you have so very, very far to go."
With no other form of disruption open to her, Sandra began screaming with rage between her locked jaws. She thrashed her legs so hard she feared she might dislocate her hips. Perhaps curious, perhaps amused, First Jack glanced over her shoulder at the one holding her. "We should let her speak, so that she might learn. Education is our cause, after all."
"What the fuck did you to Forton?" Sandra demanded the instant the pressure on her head was released. "What the fuck did you do to my crewman?"
"We enlightened him," Jack said, as though amazed Sandra couldn't answer her own question. "Or at least we tried to. There is so much information in that device. So much history. Poems, and plays, and places long gone. Bringing you to our level is close to impossible, for all that it is our duty to imprint our culture onto you."
"Any everyone who doesn't measure up ends up enslaved or dead, is that it?" Sandra spat with all her remaining strength at First Jack, though he dodged it easily even without gravity slowing it down. "So, what, Forton ends up one of those four-armed zombies? If he's lucky? And you do this to everyone who comes knocking, even though by your own admission it almost never works?"
"You came to steal, not to knock," First Jack pointed out. "And in any case, it will not be this way forever."
"Then when does it stop?"
"When you become better."
"Better?" Sandra screamed. "How can we become better when you keep lobotomising us?"
The First Jack cocked his head to one side, a predatory bird sizing up its prey.
"You have a questioning mind," he told her, almost warmly. "Perhaps it will be able to hold our answers."
He looked once more at the Jack behind her.
"Enlighten this one."
Sandra had been so unambiguously terrible at guessing Forton's last words that she had assumed that she'd have no idea about her own epitaph until she actually started speaking. As it transpired, though, she never got to find out, because the forced march to her fate had yet to take a single step when a shattering explosion blew her, her Jack, and everyone else in the chamber off their feet.
For a brief moment the advantage was hers. However strong the Jacks were, it was a safe bet they'd never been thrown through the air in asteroid gravity by a surprise detonation. For Sandra, though, this was basically a Thursday. She twisted herself in mid-air, brought her legs up, and smashed both boots into the nose of her former captor. The resulting crunch was almost drowned by the ringing in her still-outraged ears, but there was enough of it to satisfy, especially given the eruption of blood that burst from the Jack's face. That really helped to get the point across.
Sandra grinned. "Look like I imprinted you with my - oh, never mind, you're probably unconscious."
She reached the ceiling, pushed herself back down with her hands, and looked around to take in the situation. Corrin was free too, her Jack clawing ineffectually at her with the one arm she hadn't broken. Davis and Toolin though were still firmly in the clutches of their Jacks. Sandra would happily admit that this was far from ideal, but her first glance towards the staircase suggested that it wasn't her crew that was running out of time.
In fact, it was almost impossible to make out the stairs at all, such was the density of blood; it hung in the air like red fog. Amongst the droplets body parts began their long trajectory downwards, and Sandra was grimly pleased to note there were twice as many arms as legs.
Rapidly advancing through the floating waterfall of crimson liquid were three figures in Sylvan spacesuits. Each one of them was carrying a very big gun.
"Yeeeeeeaaah!" Takahashi shouted. "Come on out princesses, you're getting rescued! Oh, and Davis too. Er, you're the mushroom."
As one the five Jacks still undamaged abandoned their struggles with their captives and leapt for the newcomers. Takahashi's team fired their weapons once, twice, and the Jacks were spinning backward, hideous mangled messes of blood and bone.
"Everyone find their helmets!" Sandra said, "And sound off whilst you're doing it!"
A chorus of affirmatives demonstrated that everyone was still alive and conscious - except Forton, of course. Sandra bounded for her own helmet, wiped out the blood that had pooled inside it, and reattached it to her suit.
"Thank God you're here, Takahashi" she said brightly. "Now why the hell did you abandon your post?"
"The post isn't there anymore," Takahashi said, suddenly somber. "You were right; it was the Ranger all along. They used the rocks as cover to creep up on this place; they took out the Sylvan before we even knew Kinami was there. Urion's dead, Captain."
Sandra sighed. Blood on her gloves, blood on her hands.
"With our ship gone, there didn't seem any point in making a stand topside. We figured our best chance was to rendezvous with you and set up an ambush; take out as many of Kimani's people as possible. Only we couldn't contact you the whole way down;we just ran into some of those beetle people and followed them here."
"Captain", broke in Al-Bashir, one of Takahashi's team, "Kinami can't be far behind us; he'll be coming slowly, expecting a trap, but once he's past the choke-points, that's it. He'll charge forward quick as you like. And there are more of those... those things following us too."
Sandra nodded. "Right. Al-Bashir, set up at the bottom of those stairs and tear up anything that comes down. The rest of you, Takahashi's ambush plan made sense at the time, but this place is too full of those creatures for it to work. We're going to - do you still have those blasting charges, Davis?"
"Good. Take McConnell and set them up in here. We're going to blow this room to fucking pieces, But there might be others like it here, or in the pyramid. We have to get out of here before the ammo gets too low and the Jack count gets too high."
"Jack count?" Takahashi asked.
"Never mind. First order of business is getting hold of Forton."
Takahashi cheered at that. Everyone else stayed conspicuously silent, the only other sound was the regular barks from Al-Bashir's weapon.
Sandra ignored both the silence and the shots. "Three teams, then; each with someone packing serious firepower. Corrin, you're-"
"Captain," Corrin said softly. "No."
"NO?" Sandra almost couldn't believe it, though of course if anyone was going to force the issue. it would be her. "Didn't we go over the penalties for mutiny earlier?"
"Who cares?" Corrin demanded. "What can your threats possibly matter if we're all dead? Or worse, turned into those things? And it's not like life as a Jack strikes me as any fun either. Forton's gone, Sandra. You dragged him into a trap, and they stabbed him in the brain, and there's nothing left!"
"YOU DON'T KNOW THAT! You can't POSSIBLY KNOW THAT!"
"Please," Corrin begged. "You didn't let me talk you out of your greed. Please let me talk you out of your guilt."
Sandra clamped her mouth shut, ground her teeth. She couldn't trust herself not to say something that would take things too far, that would burn every bridge she had left. She hated everything.
No. That wasn't it. She hated herself. It was just that hating everything took less effort.
Corrin was right. God, Forton. Urion. Corrin was right. Sandra kept having flashes of her lover staggering from an alcove, the eight-pointed star marring her smooth black skin, hands flapping uselessly against a fate she never deserved and couldn't understand. Yes, that was all the reasoning she needed to justify rescuing Forton. But somehow it seemed an even stronger argument to get the people who remained to her safely out of the abattoir.
"OK then," she said, keeping her voice level mainly through volume. "New plan. Davis, is this place ready to blow?"
"Remote timer is up," Davis said. "Give the word and this room will be on fire, then buried, in that order. Once the rocks float back down, that is."
Sanda nodded inside her suit.
"Right. This is what we do. We fight our way up those stairs, then find the back way out of this place. There might not be a door in that huge wall on that side, but who cares with the gravity so low? Corrin-" she paused momentarily as her voice threatened to break - "Corrin, was that tunnel you explored unblocked?"
"No," her first mate replied. Her voice sounded no less steady. "We didn't get far, though."
"I'll take it", Sandra said. "So, we charge up that tunnel, and we leave every single smear of shit round here for Kimani to deal with. Maybe that last Jack gets him, maybe more of them spring out of the stonework, maybe the Shufflers munch their way through his people. Whatever, it'll be his problem. Let's go."
"Captain," Corrin said. "I'm not going to pretend to not be a fan of most of that plan, but we don't even know the tunnel you want to head up can get us out to the surface."
"Not to mention the fact we're stuck on this rock with our way home a burning wreck," Davis added.
"Patience, people," Sandra replied. "You haven't heard my entire scheme yet. I don't think tomb-raiding has really worked out for us as a career plan."
"Who wants to be in the business of stealing spaceships"?