Worlds Apart, Book One: Below
by Katia Davis and Stephanie Peters
Legal Disclaimer: The characters in this book are fictional. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is mostly coincidental.
©2000-2004 All rights remain with the authors. No reproduction of this material is allowed without the express, written permission of one of the authors.
Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3 - Part 4 (final)
Prologue: Parting Thoughts
The wind howled furiously, turning gentle snowflakes into icy needles that assaulted the two travellers. Thick cloaks and furs made them look like snow-covered, moving humps. Still the cold clawed its way through each layer of protective clothing, eating away at the two figures' dwindling strength.
All around them was white. The snow storm had whipped up a frenzied gale, obscuring their vision. The figures stumbled blindly through the nearly knee-high drifts, uncertain of their destination, all sense of direction lost. The only thing that kept them moving was the desperate thought that if they stopped, they would be finished. Nothing lived here, not for long.
Finally, the smaller of the two staggered to her knees, unable to continue. Immediately the other one was by her side, grabbing her arm and trying to get her back to her feet. The first shook her head. She leaned heavily on her companion. There was no way she could go on.
Blood seeped through the glove on the hand that was pressed to her abdomen, her face was distorted with the pain. Her lips moved, but nothing could be heard above the raging blizzard.
The taller one brought her face closer in order to hear. Still, she could barely make out her partner's words above the howling of the wind, and the injured woman's laboured, ragged breathing.
"Cair... remind.... me again.... why we're doing this?" She coughed, and a trickle of blood appeared at the corner of her mouth.
"Because we've got no choice," the one called Cair replied, hoping her voice carried well enough in the din. "If we turn back now, the centurion will catch us, and then we'll wish we were dead."
"I just don't want to walk anymore," the other woman said weakly. "I'm so tired." She was tiny, and of very slight build, but there was a suggestion of strength about her that belied her slender form. On the side of her neck, whenever the wind whipped back her voluminous scarves, an elaborate brand mark proclaimed her the property of one of the bigger houses in the Roman Empire - a runaway slave.
"It's the only way, Keara. You have to hang in there, we are going to find shelter, if I have to dig a hole with my own hands. We'll be warm, and safe. I promise." The taller one's face was hard, its planes and angles accentuated by darkly bronzed skin. Her own wounds were far from light, but her gladiator training allowed her to push them out of her mind. Also, she knew her little friend was in a much worse state. Trying not to let her worry show, Cair caught the smaller woman in her arms when Keara tried to get back to her feet and failed.
Stiff and sore from the cold, her muscles nearly gave out and she almost dropped her precious burden. With sheer willpower she held on, forcing her body to co-operate. Adjusting her trusted double-axe that hung from a loop at her belt - she would not want to injure Keara further by exposing her to its wicked blade - she even managed a reassuring smile when her companion looked up at her with a worried frown. Not that her soulmate wasn't aware of the truth, though. No-one knew her like Keara did; and no-one knew better than Cair that their chances of survival at this moment were slim at best.
The gladiator and the slave girl struggled on. After continuing like this for about half an hour, there was a break in the blizzard, just a shifting of wind, but it was enough to allow Cair a brief glimpse through the haze at a shadowy structure several hundred paces in front of them. It was an outpost, one of the usually deserted little cottages spread haphazardly throughout the colder reaches of this strange land they had come to. She pressed her lips together with grim determination, marvelling that they had managed to stumble across one.
"C'mon Keara, we're going to get warm soon." She received a weak moan from the slave girl. Cair put more effort into placing one foot in front of the other as she half walked, half dragged herself towards the safety of the outpost.
The building was nothing special, just a hut really, and snow had built up dangerously close to the roof on the southern side. Cair frowned at that, but pushed forward. She had to get Keara warm. Mars, she had to get herself warm; she wouldn't be much good to her friend otherwise.
She pushed her way through the snow and fought with the entrance to the small outpost. The drifts were piled well above her greaves against the wood. Thankfully, whoever had built the shelter had enough sense to erect an inward swinging door. She shifted the heavy bolt and nudged with her shoulder, stumbling into a small, dark room and taking a small avalanche of powdery, icy cold snow with her. With Keara held against her, the big gladiator almost lost her footing, but righted herself before she and the slave girl went down.
"There we go." she mumbled, letting her eyes adjust to the dimness of the room before she rammed the door shut. At least they were out of the biting wind. She spotted a wooden palette beside what she supposed was a fire place and settled Keara down gently. She could find no coverings of any kind so she removed her thick fur cloak and draped it over the small woman. In the process, she revealed an angular, dark face with striking, pale grey eyes. A large tattoo in the shape of a raven covered the upper left of her face, cleverly worked so that her eye seemed part of the bird. Long sleeves of her shirt failed to completely cover more tattoos, twined intricately around her lower arms and the backs of her hands.
Free of the garment, Cair shook herself vigorously, dislodging a shower of frozen snowflakes from her short-cropped, curly hair. Her body, previously hidden by layers of clothing, was lithe and strong despite recent hardships, muscles rippling visibly even under the fabric of the linen shirt and trousers she wore. All about her person were scattered sheaths holding assorted daggers and knives. A tiny hand crossbow dangled from her wrist where it would come to her grasp at a flick. The massive double axe with the two half-moon blades completed the picture of a walking arsenal - but the dark-skinned woman would have looked well-armed carrying nothing but her skin.
"Damnation!" Cair spat. Whoever had occupied the hut before them had not been very considerate of future travellers. They had left no kindling, flint or wood by the fire, not one splinter. In fact, now that her eyes had become used to the lack of light, she noticed that the hut was devoid of any kind of provision.
"Out of the frying pan, huh, Keara?" For she doubted, now that they had stopped, that she could get the other woman moving again.
"Cair?" the voice was weak and frantic sounding. "Caireann?"
"'Sokay, Keara, I've gotcha," Cair whispered, shuddering at the way Keara used her full name. She sat down on the cold ground and pulled the woman to her; wrapped her in strong arms, trying to share her body warmth. She clenched her jaw shut against the chattering of her teeth. At least her body was still working the way it was supposed to.
"Caireann?" the question came again.
"It's all right, Cair...you can have your coat, I'm not cold any more."
Cair swallowed hard and let out a steaming breath, "You must be cold."
"No, and it doesn't really hurt that much either, I'm just tired."
"Don't you say that! You stay awake and talk to me, Keara!" Cair rubbed her hands vigorously up and down the slave girl's arms through the thick fur.
A thin smile played at Keara's grey lips, "Funny... I don't feel like talking. Will you hold me while I sleep?"
"Oh no you don't, you're not sleeping, you hear?"
Cair shifted her position, pulling the small woman more upright against her.
"Just for a while... Cair... please..." Keara's eyelids drooped heavily, fluttered a moment struggling to open and then gave up the fight.
"Keara?" Cair said in a tight whisper.
"Keara?" She tried again, shaking her friend a little. Keara's head lolled against the gladiator's chest. Cair held trembling fingers against her soulmate's slightly parted lips...nothing.
"Don't you leave me, Keara!" She shook her again. The cold body was like a rag doll in her hands. "Please... don't leave me." Cair choked desperately, laying the smaller woman back down on the palette. She stripped off the furs and looked down at Keara's body, at the ugly, festering wound against her belly and the tinge of blue against her lips. Full realisation hit her.
"Don't leave me," she said softly against red-blonde hair as she settled herself down beside the still form and curled up against her. "I'm always with you, Keara," she finished in a whisper before allowing her own eyes to close. "Always."
Chapter One: Discovery
The insistent droning of the moto-digger drowned out all other sound. Flax was wearing ear protectors to dampen the noise so his sensitive hearing would not be damaged. His long, slender fingers guided the huge vehicle confidently through the widening tunnel. This close to the surface, one had to be extra careful to avoid shifts and slides. It would not be the first time a promising new territory was rendered useless by accidentally opening up a hole to the dread Above.
But Flax was an experienced tunneller, and he skillfully worked through the layers of earth and sandstone, the moto-digger's shovels and giant drill working with a precision born of years of practice in the field.
It was cold here, even the warmth of the thrumming engine and the thermo-clothing did little to diminish it. They'd been forced lately to expand into more and more inhospitable regions. Not everywhere was safe to tunnel, and build dwellings in. Once this dig was completed, it would be nicely insulated, and fit to live in. Now, it was a frozen hell.
He paused when something blinked off to the side, on the wall of the newly dug tunnel. Metals really weren't common at this level, and whatever veins there were here would not shine like this with hardly any light present. Curious in spite of himself, he stopped the engine and jumped out of the cabin for a closer look.
His eyes, large and unmoving like an owl's, were well adapted to the darkness of the underground, but he had to keep his head in constant, flitting, motion in order to obtain any kind of image. A small sacrifice to make to be the species with the most sensitive vision known on the planet.
The object that had caught his attention was a large, flat, symmetrical shape of metal, rounded on two sides but narrowing towards the centre where it was attached to a type of short pole that had shreds of rotted leather wrapping around it. The strange object dangled from a strip of something that was still buried in a layer of what looked more like pack ice than rock. He stepped closer to get a better look at that strip, and almost jumped out of his skin when it suddenly gave out, dumping the object, handle, leather wrappings and all, to the ground with an ear-shattering clatter.
Regaining his composure, he crouched down to examine the thing. While the handle looked ready to fall to pieces, the metal part - nearly a hand-span wider than his waist, he noted - looked like it had been buried there yesterday. It had a wickedly sharp, cutting edge around its outside. Hardly any trace of corrosion marred its gleaming surface. But it must have lain here for ages. No-one in his right mind would come here, and this section had been solid rock and ice only this morning.
His gaze wandered up the wall, to where the thing had been hanging, and he very nearly fainted.
Something was caught there, barely made out through the vaguely translucent surface of the ice. A humanoid shape, although too tall and too buff, dark and somehow very different. He could have sworn it was looking at him, but he was already scrambling back into the moto-digger, revving up the engine and starting his way back to the Outzone.
He knew just the person to tell of this discovery.
"You didn't touch anything, did you?" the woman had an excited gleam in her eyes. She was already starting to put together a few tools.
"Of course not, Gabba." Flax was trying to sound cool, although his knees still felt slightly weak. "Do you think I was weaned yesterday?" He neglected to tell her that he'd been way too scared to even think of taking the weird metal piece with him.
"Don't be smart, Flax," Gabba said tartly, throwing a few scrapers and borers into her micro-weave bag. "You don't know what the thing is, it could be anything...it could be dangerous."
Flax swallowed. He was even more glad of the fact that he hadn't touched it now. The words 'anything' and 'dangerous' did not sit well with him. Who knew what still lurked from Above?
"I said I didn't touch it," he mumbled.
Gabba gave the young male a long look, her head swaying slightly. "You say this thing could be a humanoid?"
The digger shuffled his feet a little, "Yeah, well it looks a lot like those..." he searched for the word, "reconstructions I help you with sometimes. Somehow... darker though. But I didn't get a really good look. I didn't want to stay in there with it," his voice sounded a little edgy. "I mean, I thought I'd better come back here and tell you straight away. This could be good for you, Gabba, you could get tunnel rights from the Council."
"Tunnelling," the woman shouldered the decidedly bulky pack, "is that all you ever think about Flax?" She picked up an ice probe and pointed at him with it. "If this specimen is what you think it is, it'll be a great discovery. Why, the only other well preserved humanoid recovered was lost in the Great Cave-In almost two centuries ago." A brief, wistful look crossed her prominent features and two, large translucent lids closed for a moment in reflection, as if Gabba was personally responsible for the disaster that had wiped out the majority of the Above World Museum.
Flax didn't quite know what to say. Gabba always took her work seriously, sometimes too seriously. She had something bordering on an obsession with the Above that was vaguely frightening, especially to Flax, who lived in constant worry of it falling in on top of him as he worked.
"Maybe they'll give me tunnel rights for the discovery," he said finally.
Gabba made a disapproving noise in her throat and pushed past Flax to the exit of the laboratory, "C'mon, you can moto me out there so I can have a look at this humanoid of yours."
"You'll need to put these on," Flax said as they approached the bulky moto-digger.
Gabba took the proffered thermo-jacket and ear protectors. Once the 'digger entered the tunnel proper, the sound of the engine would be too great. Many a tunneller had become deaf through laziness or an unwillingness to wear the cumbersome head gear. Flax, however, was not stupid.
Gabba threw her pack into the driver's space and shrugged on the thermo-jacket. The last thing she needed at a time like this was skin damage from the cold. She slid the band of the ear protectors over her head and hoisted herself up before settling into the spare space behind the driver's seat of the 'digger. The vehicles were really designed for one occupant, but the space Gabba squatted in was suitable for another person as well as tools.
Flax followed suit, swinging on the overhead bar, he threw himself feet first behind the controls of the 'digger. He ran through the safety protocol before starting the engine. Suddenly, the enclosed space was filled with the roar of the moto-digger's powerful thrusters.
"Ready?" he asked, looking over his shoulder, but Gabba was lost in thought, examining some sedimentary feature in the tunnel wall. "Hey!" Flax tapped the woman on one of her ear protectors and she jumped slightly, coming back to reality with a start.
"I said are you ready?" the tunneller repeated, mouthing the words and gesturing carefully so Gabba could understand.
"Yeah, let's go."
Flax grinned. Gabba was in his world now, and despite his unsettled thoughts about what awaited them, Flax was sure of one thing, he was a damn good moto-digger driver. He shifted the beast into gear and set the sweepers running. It was policy to continually clear the tunnel floor before the final sealing took place, otherwise the debris from small slides and falls could halt work indefinitely until they were cleared.
The hulking piece of machinery lurched once before establishing a rhythm. Flax liked to drive. He knew the tunnels he had dug like the back of his hand and could manoeuvre the 'digger like it was an extension of his own, slender body. In this untamed environment, the machine was his friend.
The temperature dropped steadily as they made their way through the network of passages. Gabba pulled her thermo-jacket more tightly about herself and kept an eye on the changing stratigraphy. If it was this cold here, she hoped that the specimen would be well preserved. Perhaps they would finally be able to fill some of the holes in the data record. That was assuming, of course, that the specimen was a humanoid to start and Flax had not been spooked by shadows.
"The ice starts here," Flax yelled needlessly over the thunder of the engine. He pointed to one side of the tunnel wall, high up near the ceiling.
Gabba followed the line of his long fingers to where the sandstone rock facing changed to a deep, almost luminescent crystalline hue. She let her head sway slightly to get a better look as they progressed.
'Old', she thought, 'very old'. The ice could only look like this through ages of compaction. If this was the material the specimen was preserved in, she had little doubt that it would be squashed flat. Yet, the age of the ice encouraged her. Perhaps it was a prehistoric humanoid that Flax had uncovered!
Not long after, Flax slowed the moto-digger down to a halt and cut the engine. The noise level dropped dramatically and he felt it safe to remove his ear protectors.
"It's over there, Gabba."
But the astute woman had already spotted it and was clambering out of the 'digger, dragging her pack behind her.
"Terror Above me..." she whispered as she scrambled over the vehicle's sweepers, all the while focussing and refocussing on the scene before her.
"What?" Flax asked, hanging back a bit, remembering the 'anything' and 'dangerous' from when he had told Gabba about the find.
"Flax...we need to seal off this tunnel, " Gabba demanded.
"We'll never get that authorised. I don't have level B clearance..."
He let his words trail off when he saw that Gabba wasn't listening. She was crouched down on the floor of the tunnel peering at the metal thing Flax had described. She'd never seen an artefact like it in her life. All she'd ever had the chance to study were rotted plastic bits, rusted metal and and pieces of tools, ancient computers and weaponry that made very little sense when their background was so obscure. Her head movements became more agitated as she took in the sight.
"Magnificent," she breathed before digging into her pack for a probe. She prodded at the object and it shifted slightly. She gasped, but nothing untoward happened. Retrieving a pair of large forceps, Gabba gently manoeuvred the artefact into a protective bag. As it dropped, its metal edge cut through the plastic as if it was water, and the object fell through and landed noisily a fingernail's breadth from Gabba's bent knee. Flax gasped.
"Wicked," Gabba whistled under her breath as she tried another bag, easing the thing inside with more caution. The plastic sagged and stretched under the considerable weight, but held this time. Gabba stowed the bag quickly, hardly looking where she put it. Despite her curiosity of the thing, there was still the specimen itself. That was her priority.
She stood slowly and examined the ice. It was dense as she had expected, but in one area, the colouration was different. Here she saw what Flax had been talking about. Whatever it was, it did look humanoid in form. Her excitement mounting, Gabba attacked the area with a scraper, and after a while she stood back for a better look and blinked twice. She shifted her position in case her vision betrayed her. No, she was right.
"Have you sealed the tunnel?" she asked Flax, who was still standing nervously by one of the moto-digger's sweepers.
"I can't, I said I don't have the authority." He sounded like he'd just been scolded.
"Then find someone who can." Gabba paused a moment, "Look at this." She indicated the cleared portion of ice, "It looks like there is some type of structure here above the specimen," she looked at the tunneller, "it's protecting it. It's an ancient Abover structure, there's no telling how close this is to the surface, and the specimen itself, it's perfect, completely preserved." Gabba's voice rose with her level of excitement.
"Wait!" Flax cut in, his voice a touch too shrill, "You're saying this is really close to Above? Not just close, as in 'potential proximity of air pockets and fissures', but close as in... close?"
"Yes, that's exactly what I'm saying. We need to seal the tunnel, get a team in here with light-glasses in case the structure collapses and work on removing this specimen."
"No, no, no, no, no, I don't want to work that close to Above, Gabba." Flax babbled, backing away from the area. If he'd known the danger before, he probably wouldn't have agreed to work there.
"Flax," Gabba tried to be calm, "the tunnel needs to be sealed...this could collapse at any time...without warning."
The young man frowned and paced back and forth a moment. She was not helping his fear any. He hated being put in these positions, yet somehow he always seemed to get himself into them. His long fingers curled and uncurled in agitation.
"Go on Flax, find someone to seal the tunnel, I'll stay here with the specimen," Gabba assured him.
"No buts, just do it."
Gabba watched carefully as her team of workers sealed off the tunnel section. Heavy barricades had been erected, and the tunnel now looked more like a demolition area instead of a construction site.
"No! I said we needed that space to move the specimen, a corridor of sorts, you can't put that there." Gabba jumped in, earning herself a snort from one of the tunnellers.
The woman was like a whirl-wind, seemingly everywhere at once as she organised the equipment necessary for the excavation of the strange humanoid shape encased in ice. After a frustrating period of time with Gabba arguing relentlessly with the tunnellers, the site was finally secure and a team of specialist workers was assembled to begin cutting into the layer of ice in order to remove it en bloc.
Of course, Gabba insisted on beginning the careful outlining of the frozen shape herself. It wasn't that she did not trust the workers, of course. Never that! It was that she wanted to get a feel for the specimen, to understand it. It was one of the things that made Gabba one of the leading professors in the field of Abover science - she cared.
Gabba put on her light-glasses. If the specimen was very close to the surface, the weight of the ice as they cut through it could cause the roof to crack or even collapse. With beams and sturdy nets protecting them from the worst, a collapse was unlikely to injure them seriously, but she was not about to blind herself and her fellow workers through stupidity. The light-glasses were essential. If a cave-in did occur, their photosensitive eyes would be protected from the sharp light of Above. At worst, they would suffer temporary glare injury.
Taking an ice probe from a selection of tools, Gabba turned it on. It was shaped like a thin rod that came to a sharp point. There was a hand grip at one end with temperature control. A current ran through the body of the rod, heating it. This would be inserted into an area of ice to melt it and then to cut around an artefact. The process of heat cutting took a long time, but it was much improved on the archaic methods of a few centuries ago where scientists would saw through blocks of ice, sometimes damaging precious specimens and artefacts in the process.
Judging a good span above the specimen in order to protect it, Gabba attacked the block of ice high up near the ceiling. She had to climb atop a small step ladder in order to reach it - the tunnel was tall, and the specimen towered above her. She inserted the hot ice probe and applied pressure until it sank in up to the handle. Slowly the ice began to melt and small rivulets of water trickled down the face of the wall and pooled at her feet.
She worked for what seemed like an eternity. All around her the workers milled, or stood watching uneasily as the shape they were to retrieve slowly became more distinct. Finally, Gabba's initial work outlining the specimen was complete, and she stood back from the wall. Her thermo-clothes were soaked. Thankfully, the interior layer was waterproof so she would not damage herself. Already the water that had pooled around her had a thin film of ice snaking across the surface.
Now the outline of the specimen was clear, Gabba ushered the other workers in to complete the task. One thing the scientist did realise from cutting around the frozen form was that the specimen was huge, even larger than they had first assumed. Based on size she would have thought it must be a male, but somehow the flattened features that stared out through the ice seemed more female in form. Still, there was no way of knowing for sure until they had removed the block completely and it was defrosting under controlled conditions in the laboratory.
Gabba sat on one of the barricades and allowed her large lids to drop closed for a moment. She thought about the strange metal thing with the handle and what looked like a cutting edge on both sides. If the specimen was a female, what would she be doing with that? The object was almost like a weapon. Gabba could think of no other use for it, and it was ornamented. Perhaps it was part of a ritual sacrifice, something to do with religious practices. They knew little about the religion of the ancient Abovers, to finally have something concrete would be well worth her tiredness now.
"They're almost ready to lift it, Gabba."
The woman nearly jumped out of her thermo-jacket when Flax's excited voice boomed in her ears. She looked about, her head movements nervous after being caught drifting.
"Never do that to me again, you tunnel waif," Gabba hissed to cover her embarrassment.
She soon forgot the remark when she glanced over at the excavation area. The majority of ice had been removed from the vein, leaving only a large solid block containing the specimen. At the base and sides of block, strong steel beams had been wedged. These would be levered carefully back and forth until the block broke free from the ice behind it. This was the tricky part...the part where loosening the heavy ice could bring down the roof to Above, or the block could fall and shatter to the ground, ruining the location of any small artefacts or damaging the specimen itself.
Meanwhile, some of the workers had brought a moto-trolley carrying a large, oblong cask, like a coffin made from heat-proof plastimer, meant to transport the specimen to the safety of the lab. Gabba was glad now she had picked one meant for large creatures such as lupides, rather than the ones commonly used to secure humanoid remains. She doubted this hulk would have fit into one of those; as a matter of fact, she hoped this container was large enough.
The scientist scrabbled off the barricade and over to the sodden excavation area. They really should have brought water pumps in, but it was too late for that now. Her workers greeted her with proud smiles as she examined the block of ice. With a grin of her own she gave permission to start moving the metal beams.
The men set to carefully, inching the beams back and forth. At first nothing seemed to happen, but then the block of ice moved ever so slightly.
"Careful now," Gabba warned as a cracking, popping sound rumbled deep within the ice. It was giving way. She prayed that the ceiling to Above would not collapse, and adjusted her light-glasses just in case.
She need not have worried. With a final nudge and a giant splintering sound like a thick piece of wood being broken in two, the block of ice broke free from the vein. It slid a moment and righted itself before it could fall forward to the ground.
Gabba let out a sigh of relief and the workers stood stunned. They had done it. Now the danger was over. Carefully, the workers withdrew the beams from around the block, while Gabba ordered over the moto-trolley holding the cask and positioned it beneath the vein of ice. Using the controls, she extended the telescoped legs to bring the metal platform to the height of the block.
Several sets of strong hands guided the frozen block towards the trolley. The water melting from the ice provided ample lubrication for the heavy object and the block soon settled with the trolley giving a brief sneeze of pneumatics under the considerable weight. Gabba lowered the platform and swallowed as she looked over the ice encased specimen that was now in her care. It was now that the real work began, the exciting work. Once the specimen was in the lab it would reveal secrets she had only ever dreamed of exploring.
Gabba turned away from the work station. She had set the environmental controls in the isolation room to defrost the specimen some time ago. The majority of the ice block had melted and drained away through special filters set up at the rounded corners of the metal examination table. These filters would be checked later to recover any minute artefacts or plant spores that were preserved in the ice.
"How long before it's ready, Gabba?"
The scientist ran long fingers through her near colourless hair and turned her large eyes on Flax. She had let him come back to the lab with her since he sometimes worked as her assistant in reconstructions. She thought this opportunity would be good for him.
"It's not food, Flax, it's science," her head swayed slightly as she punched in the security code to the isolation room. She opened the glass door and looked encouragingly over her shoulder, "Coming?" she asked Flax, who scrabbled out of the chair he had been lounging in. Far from keen on seeing a decomposing body up close and thawed, he nevertheless was caught up in Gabba's infectious enthusiasm. Plus it was he who had found the thing, after all. Maybe he'd be famous...
The air in the isolation room had turned decidedly chilly despite the dull warmth radiating from a semi-cylindrical tube that hung over the specimen. With the block of ice gone, Gabba could make out the form of the specimen with greater clarity. It was indeed humanoid, and she had been right. It was female, with very pronounced mammaries and a gentle curve of the hips, seeming like a grossly exaggerated caricature of present-day human anatomy. But she had known before this that the physical attributes of their prehistoric ancestors had been much more prominent. It was utterly exciting to see for real what she had only read about in textbooks before! She frowned. If it was indeed female - what, then, of the weapon? Could their ancestors have been that barbaric?
But there was more than just the weapon to puzzle about. Approaching the still shape, the ice now nothing more than a thin rime resting lightly on skin and mottled garments, she noticed for the first time how dark the creature's skin was - it could be a side effect of its mummified state, as some texts seemed to indicate. She had seen pictures of old corpses with black skin in her text books.
Yet, the corpse seemed otherwise too well-preserved for that to be the explanation. She would need to take a skin sample to study the pigmentation.
She shuddered with giddy excitement. She was taking the first ever actual skin sample of a creature that had been extinct for millennia! Pulling herself together, she let her gaze wander over the sharp planes of the face. She noticed a gross discolouration over one eye and part of the face.
Before continuing her study of the body, Gabba quickly hoisted the heat generator up and away from the specimen. The tissue must not thaw completely, or it would decompose and be rendered useless in a matter of hours.
She gestured for Flax to bring her some implements so she could touch the body without causing it too much damage or risking contamination.
With a thin probe, she lightly lifted tangled, black hair from the flat features of the humanoid. She grimaced, they were such ugly creatures. In all her attempted reconstructions, she had never managed to capture the exact deformity of the features, yet now, this specimen was almost perfect, the deformities clear.
"What is it?" Flax asked, noticing the disgusted curl of Gabba's lips.
"Look at this. Her nasal cavity is one of the best we've ever seen. Of course, it was not functional; nothing that small could smell a thing." Gabba prodded at a nostril a moment before taking a better look at the discolouration she had noticed earlier. It looked like a set of dark lines, almost like a drawing of some sort, showing black against the only slightly lighter skin.
Gabba gasped, causing Flax to start nervously. It was indeed a drawing! But of what, she could not be sure. It resembled some of the prehistoric creatures she had seen in the textbooks. Experts seemed to think the forelimbs of these creatures must have been used for moving through thin air - a concept Gabba found hard to grasp. Fossilised evidence of these strange things had been found close to Above.
What did it mean? Taking a small scraper, she gingerly tried to remove a bit of paint, meaning to run a spectral analysis on the substance. However, all she succeeded in was scrape off a few skin particles - the drawing itself remained untouched.
"It must have been etched right into her skin," Gabba breathed, ignoring her companion's gurgling gasp. "How barbaric! Probably part of the ritual. If it was a ritual. It must have been. They can't have done this while she was alive... that would have been too painful..." Saving the skin particles in a small plastic bag, she turned her attention to the body as a whole.
The humanoid seemed to be draped in some kind of fur. Using the probe again, Gabba reflected the clothing back carefully and gasped at what it revealed. Encasing the torso of the humanoid was some kind of harness or protective clothing made of ornate metal and what looked like cured skin. Gabba became excited again, this was certainly some form of ritual sacrifice for religious purposes...what else would be dressed in such a fashion and carrying a decorated archaic weapon? Also, she noted more of the strange drawings writhing around both lower arms. Those depicted a serpent, done so lifelike that their fangs seemed to drip saliva. Its eyes seemed to stare right at you. Serpents, of course, were eyeless, which made the image on the corpse's arms all the more disconcerting. Cleverly, part of the snake's body was on one arm, while head and tail were on the other. It was easy to see that they would come together to form a whole if the arms were positioned next to each other at a certain angle. But why at that particular angle? More questions. Perhaps the arms had been in the correct position at death but had shifted with time. Perhaps a reconstruction of the body's original position could be done by looking at blood clottings and pressure sores under the skin.
"How did she die?" Flax's voice broke into Gabba's thoughts. The young male was staring more wide eyed than usual at the figure on the table.
"Undetermined, but her clothing, those skin markings and associated finds indicate a ritual death of some kind... Let's see if we can find other evidence of that, shall we?" Gabba looked with a wide grin at Flax and saw the tunneller swallow convulsively and nod. For all his bravado and desire to be helpful, he was a little squeamish.
Gabba eased the thick fur further back. She noticed that there were spaces for the arms, but the covering was simply lying over the body, as if someone had placed it there. There, what was that? The scientist looked a little closer. Yes, on the upper arm, there was some form of contusion. She prodded at it and the flesh glistened dully... blood. It was a large gash, left by a sharp blade. Gabba quickly gathered a sample of congealed, defrosted blood from the area of the wound and sealed it in a sample container. She handed the container to Flax who could not label it quickly enough and put it in storage.
Surveying the rest of the humanoid, Gabba discovered yet another gash on one leg and numerous scrapes and small cuts on the knees. She took swabs of all of these. Who knew - there might have be some telltale evidence of what had caused the wounds. A reconstruction was forming in her head...the woman had been chosen for sacrifice, dressed accordingly and gone through a ritual battle so she would die with glory. The only problem was that none of the wounds she had located should have caused death. There were no ligature marks about the neck or any other evidence that she was strangled or smothered. The humanoid just simply appeared to have... died.
Gabba shook her head and replaced the instruments she was using on a tray that Flax held out to her.
"I don't know how she died. Maybe we'll have more of a chance at discovering that with the stomach probe and the scans." She closed her eyes a moment, "But that's for tomorrow, she has to be cooled down again, if she gets too warm, she'll start to decompose."
Flax grimaced, "You don't need to tell me things like that, Gabba."
"C'mon, we both need a break." the scientist said, taking the instrument tray from Flax and placing the individual items in an ultrasonic bath to clean.
Flax nodded and shuffled out the door to the main office area. Gabba soon followed and readjusted the environmental controls to bring the temperature down once more. Powerful generators rumbled under the lab's floor, and within seconds, the specimen was shock-frosted. She would keep forever this way.
Gabba took one last look through the glass at the figure lying cold and alone on the table in the isolation room. She shook her head sadly and wondered who the woman had been. Sighing, she slung an arm around Flax's shoulder and headed for the exit, promising to buy him a late meal.
"Tomorrow, we're going to check out her eyes, Flax. I want know how they were able to see Above without going blind. Oh, we'll learn so much about the Above... And of course, I'm going to run a full genetic analysis. I'm sure I can prove my theory at last..." Her chattering faded slowly into the distance, with Flax just grinning and shaking his head at his friend's and mentor's unusual excitement.
On the metal table, the dark, mysterious figure lay silent and frozen, chiselled features vaguely outlined in the darkness.
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