by Nick Wisseman
(Note: this is part two of an ongoing story. Check out the first part here.)
The bones looked even bigger in person. And more tragic.
“It’s like a bison hunt,” Mika whispered as the crew crept down the Mantis’s ramp, everyone except Rocket holding a scanner or a sequencing rifle (or both).
Neto tore his eyes away from the supersized charnel grounds ahead of them to glance at her. “You mean on yesterEarth?”
Mika hesitated. She hadn’t meant to make the comparison aloud—or remembered how sensitive the suits’ comms were—but now that she’d brought it up … “Right. In the old American West, when the settlers moved in. They killed bison by the thousands. Sometimes for their skins; sometimes to deprive the indigenous tribes of their primary food source; sometimes for sport. In their wake, the hunters left fields of bleached bones and mounds of skulls.”
“That,” Atalia proclaimed with her first step on the surface, “is some morbid shit.”
Neto shook his head. “I see what she means. This is … wasteful.”
No one argued the point. From the air, the standing skeletons had (literally) stood out, rising like mythic monuments. But from the ground, the view was consumed by chaos, blocked to what they’d designated as the “east” by jumbled mountains of mandibles, ulnas, vertebrae, and innumerable other remnants of titanic beasts who’d perished on an incalculable scale.
“Was this in your dissertation?” asked Kady while they waited for Desmond to secure the Mantis and Atalia to confirm that the solar sails were out of mirror mode and charging at full capacity.
Mika winced. “No. It wasn’t in my references either. But they were mostly secondary sources from people who’d never been to Virendell. My only significant primary sources came from the quarantined transport, and they were largely about its journey.”
What if she’d missed something, though? It was hard to imagine glossing over anything this awful, but she’d also been expecting to find a barren planet. And Professor Gellman had warned her not to romanticize Virendell and its lost colonists. Had she subconsciously set aside clues to this grisly cataclysm? Or worse, willfully ignored what would have been plain to someone making a more honest effort to be objective?
Like Desmond seemed to be doing. He was always clear-eyed, even now. “Atalia, lead the way.”
The pilot raised her rifle and forged ahead, Rocket trotting beside her in his adorable canine protective outfit.
Mika hurried to keep pace, bumping into Neto and mumbling an apology. Everyone else fell into position gracefully—Desmond even managed to fix an old-school bayonet to his rifle without breaking stride. Hopefully, she could at least fake that kind of instinctive belonging by the end of the expedition.
The walk to the factory looked longer now that it lay ahead of them. And more arduous. Atalia’s “trail-clearing” pass with the Mantis had seared a viable path through the dense vegetation, but enough stray shoots remained to make the way forward less than pleasant.
Mika wasn’t complaining, though. Desmond had wanted clear sightlines from the ship to the factory and the “boneyard,” as he’d started calling it; the little hill they’d landed on provided the best available vantage. Given the general macabre strangeness of all this, she didn’t blame him. Plus, it wasn’t his fault the fussy bureaucrats on the Fleet’s Committee to Investigate Improper Use of Resources had denied his request for even the smallest and most efficient of ground vehicles.
Desmond was, however, the person insisting they keep their suits sealed.
“I’m steaming up,” Kady muttered, wiping her visor with her shoulder. “Desmond, we’ve checked the atmosphere five times. And unless every one of our contamination scanners is broken, there aren’t any Strangler pods nearby. We followed all the guidelines. Can we please breathe some fresh air?”
“Seconded,” Atalia said. “My suit’s thermal capture is fucked too.”
“Thirded,” added Neto. “My climate control’s fine, but the solar wafers on my shoulders are flaking. Depressurizing would make it easier for the other clusters to compensate.”
Mika barely stopped herself from saying, “Fourthed.” Rocket might as well have—his bark was loud enough to echo.
Desmond let out a disgusted sigh. “Nice of Fleet to give us their usual quality gear. Fine.”
Kady sighed too, but in obvious relief. She and Neto had their suits depressurized, and visors raised almost immediately. Atalia dealt with Rocket’s outfit before her own. Desmond helped Mika remember the safety sequence for her releases (standing close enough to kindle some old memories), then triggered his.
“Just remember that the threat assessment is a lot murkier now,” he said. “Unless that boneyard is the result of a natural die-off—”
“Unlikely,” said Neto.
“—then something butchered a bunch of enormous creatures. Maybe it was the colonists. Maybe it was something else. Whatever it was, it could still be out there. So, for that matter, could a few of the creatures.”
Everyone else looked to the sky. Kady seemed worried. Neto seemed hopeful.
“The mithrol is our primary objective,” Desmond continued. “It was before things got weird, and it’s still our primary objective now. We find it and figure out how the colonists produced it, and we can move on to surveys—including one of the boneyard.”
“Yes, Dad,” said Atalia. “I mean, Desmond.”
He rolled his eyes and nodded at the factory. “Just find me our entry point.”
“I like the look of that hatch.” She pointed at a side door next to one of the empty loading bays they’d studied from the air.
“Then take us to it.”
With their suits decompressed and fitting more like regular clothing, the rest of the walk was more comfortable. It was also quieter. The only conversation came when Kady checked the display on Rocket’s lower back and read off the results. “Based on these projections, the planet’s mantle probably has a similar composition to the crust. Rocket’s not picking up any mithrol, but his sensors aren’t attuned to it any more reliably than the ship’s.”
“What about cultural strata?” asked Mika.
“Nothing obvious.” Kady shrugged. “Just layers of rocks. Sorry.”
“It’s okay. I doubt they built anything but this factory here.”
And built it well; aside from a healthy coating of moss and viny growths, the structure seemed to be in good shape. The exterior paneling was irregular—curving and inconsistent from one piece to the next. But everything fit tightly, and there were few signs of wear.
Atalia wasn’t impressed with the hatch’s locking technology, though. “This is some ancient fucking tech,” she muttered. “I’m not sure I have an interface.”
Neto took up a sentry position beside her while she crouched, set down her rifle, and sorted through her kit. “Can you rig something?” he asked.
“Give me a minute. Hacking this should be simple; I just need to cobble together a connection.”
While they waited, Mika studied the sign above the door.
Kady craned her head at the lettering. “What’s it say?”
“Authorized personnel only. In yesterEarth English. That fits, at least.”
“The fourth wave of the Exodus—the one the original Virendell ship was part of—came largely from the first incarnation of the United States.”
“Wasn’t the third wave too?”
“Yes, but that was a joint effort with China. The fourth wave was almost entirely American.” Mika looked beyond the factory’s lot to the wealth of plants snarling the landscape. Neto must be itching to take samples. “Most people think the fifth wave was the most harrowing. And they’re not wrong: yesterEarth’s climate was deteriorating rapidly by that point, becoming dangerous even to KI. But the fourth wave was nearly as chaotic. It’s a miracle the Virendell colonists made it to a planet with this much … life.”
“Until that happened,” Kady said, gesturing toward the boneyard.
“Right.” Mika winced again. There must be something in her research she could recontextualize. A stray line from Gable and Fuente’s A History of The Fourth Wave; a word or two from the Phoenix 10’s logs—anything that would foreshadow all this greenery and death.
She’d been thorough, hadn’t she? She should have found something.
“Got it,” said Atalia, accepting a high-five from Neto.
He turned to the other end of the loading bay and slapped his outer thigh. “Rocket, let’s go, boy!”
The dog picked up a thin object with his mouth, wheeled around, and bounded toward them.
Mika squinted as Rocket came closer. At first, she thought he’d filched a hollow stick. But beneath the grime, the irregular tube betrayed streaks of white. “Is that a bone?”
Neto knelt and extended a palm. “Give … No. Sorry, buddy, I need to see that.”
Atalia chuckled. “Real CI in action there.”
Mika raised her eyebrows. “CI?”
Neto held the tube up and peered at it through a scope attached to the side of his helmet. “I’m not sure this is bone. You see the end here where it’s broken? The outer layer looks more like periderm than periosteum.”
Atalia squeezed his hand. “You need to un-nerd that for us, babe.”
Neto lowered the tube and stared out at the boneyard. “Periosteum is the outer layer of most bones. Periderm is the outer layer of bark.”
Desmond tapped the hatch. “That is … intriguing. But let’s ponder it inside. Atalia, shall we?”
She reclaimed her rifle and flicked on its tactical light. “Sure. Can’t get any weirder.”
The hatch opened haltingly, sticking halfway until Atalia muscled it clear. Then she hesitated. “I was wrong,” she said, stepping aside to show everyone what her light had illuminated. “It’s fucking weirder.”
Ahead of them, cradled on either end by hefty U-shaped stands, stretched what looked to be a colossal humerus, reaching from just inside the loading bay to the opposite end of the factory. Other grisly remnants—a rib? A patella? A clavicle?—were laid out in front of the neighboring bays. And in the center of the cavernous space, a long line of clear piping ran perpendicular to the bones, tapping each from below with a tapered spike.
Kady whistled again, as she had on the ship when they’d first realized the “scaffolding” was something else. But this time, her breathy note sounded more horrified than awed. “What is this?”
And finally—after hours of waiting for the right memory to trigger—Mika realized what her subconscious had been trying to surface: a poem. “They cracked the giant’s ossein wire and found not marrow but verdant fire,” she quoted.
“It’s a line from a journal I found on the Phoenix 10. I thought it was just flowery imagery, but …” She shook her head. “I think the fire was mithrol. They found it in the bones—or the wood, or whatever it is—and extracted it here. This is probably a refinery, not a factory.”
Atalia focused her light on one of the taps. “Damn. Makes sense, though.”
Kady strode forward and pulled a sampling probe from her pack. “One way to find out.”
“Hold up.” Neto trained his light to their left. “What’s that?”
Mika gasped. Near the tap lay two relatively small corpses—easy to overlook when everything else was so immense. The exposed bones of the nearer body fit the general aesthetic, but the second still had most of its flesh.
“Seal your suits!” shouted Desmond. “SEAL YOUR SUITS!”
Mika scrambled to comply—she’d seen it too. These weren’t dead beasts; these were humans.
And the pinched neck of the less decayed corpse suggested it had died of Strangler quite recently.