Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Chapter Fifty-eight

Once Hyland was inside the opening, she took a moment to look around but there was nothing in it of interest. It was a long, narrow tube. She couldn't stand upright in it, but she could stand. There was a light, cool breeze coming from the interior and the almost undetectable odor of ozone. She thought of it as the smell of electricity.

She crouched down and turned, looking back out, onto the lava bed. She reached a hand out, as if she expected to haul one of the others up to join her inside. "Come on," she said. "Let's go."

Swain was still standing at the base of the wall, looking up at her. "What did you find?"

"Tunnel. Come on."

"Captain," said Swain, "I think we should get out of here now." He turned and looked at Price for support of his opinion. "Tell her sir."

But Price wasn't interested in getting out of there now. He was looking at the opening and Hyland. He knew what she was thinking. They had reached the Citadel. They were standing next to the wall with a way to penetrate to the interior of it. They had to proceed. It was an opportunity they couldn't pass up. The intelligence value of the mission was unprecedented. Besides, he had to know what was inside it.

"If you're not going," said Price, "then stand aside. I will."


Coollege was next to him. "Maybe we should think about this Tree."

"Put you hands together and give me a boost," said Price. He made it clear that he was issuing an order. "Monier, you have to come inside with us. The rest can stay out here as a rear guard."
"I'm going with you," said Coollege.

Price put his hands together and said, "Then let's do it. Sergeant Swain, you are the rear guard. You will stay here with the remainder of the force and wait for us. You will let no one in behind us."

"Yes, sir." The relief in his voice was unmistakable.

Price helped Coollege and the Monier up into the opening. Then, with Swain's help, he climbed up. Once inside, he sat back, against the rough stone of the wall and listened but the only sounds was the quiet rustling caused by the air flowing past him and a low hum that might have been distant machinery.

"I've only gone about fifty, sixty feet down here," said Hyland. "I don't see any problems."
"Except that it's pitch black and we have no sources of light."

"So we move carefully so that we don't walk off a ledge," said Hyland. "I'll take the point. Monier, you're right behind me."

"And I'll bring up the rear," said Price.

"What about the others?" asked Hyland.

"Posted as a rear guard."

"I wish you'd have let me do that, Captain," said Hyland. "Those are my people."

"Sorry. You can countermand my orders if you think it necessary."

"No, you're probably right."

With that they began to work their way deeper into the Citadel. Hyland was moving slowly, checking the footing carefully before she trusted the floor. In the distance was a shimmer of light. She had the impression of a large, domed area, but that was only an impression. She worked her way toward it slowly, stopped to let the others catch her and then started forward again.

They reached an area where a light producing lichen grew. The light was dull and green and did very little to illuminate the tunnel, but it did make it possible to see the floor under them. They could move faster even if the light was poor.

But after twenty minutes of walking hunched over, Hyland's back ached. She called a halt and slipped to the floor, leaning against the rough stone of the tunnel. She wiped a hand over her face and rubbed her eyes. She turned her attention to Monier. "Any signs of life?"

"No. Nothing."

College said, "How do we know that there's anyone in here?"

"Because we've always assumed..." Hyland stopped talking abruptly, realizing that there had never been a single shred of evidence that suggested biological life existed inside the Citadel. The important word was assumed. There had to be a sentient creature at the center of the Citadel because a computer program, no matter how sophisticated, couldn't respond to every single threat thrown at it. Computer programs couldn't think for themselves. They could come very close but they were never self-aware and that was why there had to be someone, something alive in the Citadel. At least that was her thinking.

"What about it?" asked Price.

Monier didn't respond. Instead she turned and placed her hands on the rough stone and let her mind go blank. When she had drained her mind and she let the impresions and feelings wash over her, probing with her mind, searching for anything. She felt the impressions build, but they weren't from the present. They were from somewhere in time, somewhere in the past... from the workers who had built the Citadel a long time before.

These were alien minds that didn't seem to relate to the beings she had seen as they had crossed the planet's surface. She didn't understand all of it but she could catch some of it when it was raw emotion. Words floated up to her. Strange words that had no meaning for her. But, she could understand the fear of those forced to build the Citadel. Or the hate. Hate directed to something unseen but powerful enough to compel them to construct the Citadel. The deaths of the workers didn't slow the progress. No time was allowed to mourn the dead. They were covered over, dragged out, or just incorporated into the structure. The only clear thing was that the construction workers were not from the same race that was forcing the construction.

She tried to reach out, beyond that tunnel, beyond the closest chambers, and deeper, into the center of the Citadel, looking for something alive. But she could find nothing. It was as if she was inside a giant computer. She could feel the electricity around her but nothing that came from a living, breathing creature.

Probing deeper, she began to feel things, feel the workings of the machine itself. She began to get impressions but nothing she could define. Then the only thing she knew was that there was nothing alive in the Citadel now other than the people with her.

She shook herself, as if to throw off the thoughts and said, "There's nothing in here."

"Then we get the hell out," said Coollege.

Hyland didn't say anything for a moment. "I think we should press on now that we've managed to get in. Captain?"

"I'd have to agree," said Price. "The enemy might, at any moment, realize its mistake. What worked once might not work again." He hadn't understood that Monier was telling them that there was nothing alive in the Citadel.

"And now that we're in," said Hyland, "maybe we should try to destroy it."

"With what?" asked Monier. "We have no weapons... no tools."

"Then we can test the prinicple that there are no dangerous weapons, just dangerous men and women."

"Shit," said Coollege.

"Aren't you listening to me?" asked Monier. "I said that there is nothing in here that is alive. Nothing."

"There has to be," said Price. "You're just not getting it... reading it."

Coollege said, "You have a nasty habit of ignoring that which you don't want to hear. Tree, she said there is nothing in here."

"Someone... something is controlling this thing," he said. "We've got to locate it."

"I agree," said Hyland. "I've lost too many people to let this opportunity escape us. We have to go deeper."

"Rachel?" asked Price.

Monier didn't respond. She twisted around so that she was on her hands and knees. As she crawled forward and said, "I think that I should lead the way."

"You have the point," said Hyland agreeing with her.

Monier crawled forward more rapidly, came to a branch, and reached out with her mind. She put a hand into the left tunnel and then selected the right. Over her shoulder, she said, "The left is a trap... a dead fall."

Price stopped and said, "A booby trap?"

Monier let out a low moan and fell forward.

Hyland scrambled to her. "What the hell is happening."

In a voice tinged with fear, she said, "The others are dead."

"Dead! What do you mean dead?"

"They have been killed."

"All of them?"

"Except Swain... He was sticking close to the wall. The others had drifted away from it... It killed them."

"That means we're stuck," said Coollege.

"That means," said Price, "that we now have no choice but to push on."

Hyland waved a hand. "Shut up and let me think." After a few minutes, she asked Monier, "Have you noticed any change in the activity in here?"


"Okay... okay, that suggests they may have tripped some kind of automatic defense. The dead fall you mentioned suggests there are booby traps. There are defenses that are independent of the main body of the Citadel."

"Great," said Coollege. "Maybe it's time to get the hell out of here."

"No!" snapped Hyland. "We've come to far to give it up now. We press on."

"Now?" asked Monier.

Hyland heard the strain in her voice and said, "No. We take a break first."

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