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)
Chapter Two: Complications
"You can't be serious!"
"I'm sorry, Gabba, I...."
"Sorry my nose," Gabba flared. "You know good and well that I'm the best qualified person do examine her. What are you afraid of, that I might discover some truths?"
The man opposite her fidgeted.
"You realise this may be a matter of national security..."
"Oh right, national security! Come on Hackyll, what's Black Laddie going to do, get up and attack you with that weird weapon of hers?"
Gabba blushed a little, the veins in her forehead bulging slightly. "Yes well, it seemed... wrong... to simply call her 'the specimen'. I, um, I believe 'Laddie' is an ancient Abover word, I think it may have meant 'woman'." She cleared her throat loudly. "Anyway, what danger can a dead body be? She's been frozen solid for millennia, for crying out loud."
Hackyll did not reply immediately. When he did, it was grudgingly, "Just don't get too fond of that specimen of yours, Gabba, it's not safe, and I won't compromise the safety of this community. You realise I have to bring this to Aljye's attention, don't you?"
"Why bring the Ruler into this, Hackyll? Do you think she'd be interested in a frozen corpse? It can't talk back, and it certainly can't be banished...."
Hackyll rubbed at his nose briefly, "No, but she'd be interested in the activities of a research facility if she knew something was being kept from her."
Gabba stared open mouthed, "You wouldn't!"
"Why don't you try me? This project of yours is unauthorised."
"Then why don't you authorise it?"
"Why should I? It's a waste of resources, we don't need to know any more about Above."
Gabba's features hardened, "You're frightened of what I might find."
"You should be frightened, too."
And with that, he turned and stalked out of the room. He almost bumped into Flax, coming in.
Her anger having no place to go, Gabba turned on Flax, "Where have you been?! You knew I wanted to get started on this early!"
Flax scratched his head. He looked dishevelled, his clothes, as always, looked crumpled, as if slept-in, "Sorry, Gabba," he mumbled.
"You should be sorry, how am I supposed to get any work done with you coming in late all the time?"
"I ... I," Flax stuttered. He shuffled his feet nervously. Clearly something was getting to the scientist. After a moment he tried again, "Ah, I don't know, Gabba...I had a bad dream," he finished lamely.
"A dream, huh?" Gabba continued, somewhat placated. She could never stay angry at Flax for long, "What was this one about, rabid Lupides intent on destroying Below?"
Flax flinched as if from a blow. "No, Gabba. it was... about her." He indicated the body on the table
Gabba threw her hands up in the air, her anger stirring again, "Why is everyone so intent on making Laddie into some form of nightmare?"
"Don't you start," Gabba grumbled.
Flax opened his mouth to say more, but decided to step lightly, "How about if I just prepare some of the specimen containers?"
"What are you waiting for?" Gabba said gruffly, picking up a scalpel and a pair of forceps. She gestured Flax off to get some glass vials and labels for collection, while she continued her final preparations for entering the inner lab. A few controls needed setting, and then she stripped on the antiseptic clothing, watching Flax shrug into his before they stepped into the laboratory for their cycle's work.
"So, Flax," she said as she was cautiously lifting a scrap of brittle leather off the body's torso, "what about this... dream of yours?"
Flax halted in his preparation of a sample vial, "It was nothing, really."
"Aw come, on, I know your dreams are better that the best horror stories... give." She hid her grin by bending down so her nose almost touched Laddie's half-thawed skin.
"Well," Flax began a little nervously, "I dreamed that she killed a lot of people. There was blood everywhere, hot Abover blood. I think she's dangerous, Gabba."
"Hot Abover blood...." Gabba murmured as she worked, "you do have an imagination. Any blood that is left in this Abover is frozen solid, so I don't think you have to worry about her killing anyone."
"Well... you asked," Flax said a touch defensively.
"I suppose I did," Gabba said, drawing back a thin strip of dermis and placing it in a vial Flax handed to her. "Here, take that and prepare it for the microscope. I'll take a sample of hair and be with you shortly."
Gabba held the vial out to Flax, but the young man didn't move. He was staring open-mouthed at the body on the table.
"Did... did you see that?" he asked in a shaky voice.
Gabba followed the line of his sight and frowned, "See what?"
"Her finger, it just moved."
"Flax, Laddie's dead. It was probably just a delayed spasm from me removing a portion of skin. I could have hit a nerve, or pulled on a tendon."
Flax was shaking his head vigorously. "I don't think so, Gabba. I'm telling you I saw her finger twitch."
Gabba drew in a deep breath and fixed Flax with her firmest glare, "And I'm telling you that's just not possible. Just mount the skin on the slide and I'll have a look at it."
Flax backed away from the table, his head moving anxiously from side to side, "I know what I saw," he said, still unconvinced by Gabba's explanation.
Turning back to the table, Gabba sighed. Flax would be the death of her yet. He was a good assistant, when his imagination wasn't running away from him. Above and Below, that was all she needed now, for Flax to start seeing things!
Mumbling about unprofessionalism, Gabba turned her attention to the dark locks of hair that were matted against Laddie's skull. With infinite care she selected a few strands between her forceps and snipped them clear with a pair of surgical scissors. She held the sample up close to her large eyes for a moment and peered at them. She couldn't tell much about their make-up with her vision, but the shade was certainly strange. It was so dark, darker even than the creature's skin, and so different to her own, fine, stark white hair that she wondered if it had not been burned at one point in time. That would also explain why it was curled like a tunnel vine. Fascinated, she used a second pair of pincers to pull at the sample. When she released it, it sprang back into its original, coiled form, its glossy surface reflecting the overhead light. On second thought, it did not look charred, just... dark.
Gabba was interrupted from her musings by Flax, announcing that the skin sample was ready for viewing. Quickly she secured the strands of hair in another vial and carried it over to the work bench Flax was hovering by. She handed over this next sample for preparation.
"Mount this too, and then I want a good look at her eyes. You can retract her eyelids and secure them. I want to be able to see all of her optical organs. They're so small, she must not have been able to see very well." Gabba's mind was only partially on Flax as she glanced in excitement at the skin sample already positioned under the powerful microscope.
Flax let out a small sigh. Gabba was all business now. At least she wasn't picking on him any more. The task of mounting the strange hair on a new microscope slide took but a few moments. He placed the sample on a small rack and set it beside Gabba as she focussed her attention on the portion of skin she had removed.
"Fascinating..." he heard her mumble as she adjusted the fine focus.
Flax shook his head and moved towards the frozen body. He stopped a few paces short and cleared his throat nervously. He was certain that he had seen movement earlier, and something was turning over in his stomach. Things only turned over in his stomach when something was wrong, and he sensed that something was most certainly wrong here. Yet despite his instinctual warning, he gathered the tools necessary for his next task and positioned himself behind the specimen's head.
One thing Flax was good at was being careful. It came from working as a digger, he had to know just the right amount of force to put into his work to keep himself safe. Too close to the roof to Above and everything could come crashing down. Flax used the same care in this task as he did when tunnelling. With a steady hand he placed the retractor over the specimen's eye, making sure that it was properly balanced against her brow and cheekbone. Turning a small screw-like device, he lowered the arms of the implement towards the closed eye. Ever so gently, he positioned the metal flaps just so and began to work the release mechanism that stretched them apart. He didn't want to risk damage to the sample so he worked slowly, a fraction at a time. After several tense moments, the woman's eyelids began to open.
Flax saw little at first, but then, after a little more patience he was rewarded by a slit of white. He smiled to himself. He'd never seen so much white in eyes before. His own eyes were of a luminous hue, with large pupils and hardly any whites or irises worth speaking of, as were most of the Belowers' eyes. He had heard of a few strange cases of people with pale eyes, but they were generally blind. This one's irises were pale also, though not all white. Flax wondered if the specimen had been blind, perhaps that was why she died or had been chosen for sacrifice. Perhaps she had been a useless member of the community and she had been disposed of. He shuddered as suddenly the images from his dream the night before suddenly came back to him unbidden. Just as well the thing was dead. Firmly pushing the thought down, he focused once more on his task.
And then he saw it.
"Aljye's tits!" Flax threw himself back from the specimen to clatter noisily against an instrument cart.
Gabba jumped at the expletive, nearly knocking the microscope from its stand with her sudden movement.
"Flax!" she couldn't help but shout, "What do you think you're doing?"
"It moved, I swear Gabba, the thing moved!" Flax babbled nearly incoherently, pointing at the frozen corpse.
"Don't be ridiculous."
"It did, I'm telling you that thing looked at me. I was retracting the lids, and that eye just turned in its socket and looked right at me."
"You probably released an air bubble," Gabba said, rising from her chair and moving over to the table. "Besides, eyes don't move in their sockets. You know that." She poked the corpse in the side to see what would happen. Nothing did. "See, nothing. She's as dead as you will be if you don't stop fooling around. You're extrapolating imaginings from that dream of yours. Can you just get on with it, we have a lot of work to do."
Flax was shaking his head in a violent 'no', "Uh-uh, not me, Gabba, I've had enough. You can poke the thing all you want, but I know what I saw. I saw its finger move and I saw it look at me. That's enough for me." With that, Flax turned and high-tailed it out of the lab with an angry and perplexed Gabba staring after him shouting a belated, "Coward!" in his wake.
After she heard the outer door to the lab slam shut, her head shook in agitation, the movement exaggerated due to her consternation. How was she supposed to work now? She needed more than one set of hands to accomplish everything she had to do before she needed to refreeze Laddie. With a half strangled grunt of anger, Gabba turned towards the examination table and stared at the frozen corpse.
"What am I going to do with you?" she muttered, coming alongside the body, "Do you know how much pressure you're putting me under?" Grabbing a pair of surgical gloves, Gabba eased her hands into them and gently smoothed at the dark hair that was lying wetly against the corpse's neck. With a deep sigh she set to work on continuing the task Flax had abandoned.
Her fingers worked at the mechanism of the retractor, fumbling slightly. When they slipped once again, causing the arms of the device to slide off the body's eye lids, Gabba tossed the instrument onto the tray with a muttered curse.
Her hands were shaking from her earlier anger, resurfacing now so that she was unable to work the retractor properly. She stepped away from the body and pushed angrily at the instrument cart. It rattled off to the side with a vaguely satisfying thump as it hit the lab bench. She couldn't risk damaging the specimen and she was only prolonging its exposure to the elements while she was fumbling around.
"Okay, that's not a problem, you're not going anywhere, are you?" Gabba spoke to the corpse, "You'll be here in the morning, and I'll be a lot calmer...maybe Flax will come back so I can skin the little tunnel waif alive." Gabba continued as she violently stripped the gloves off her hands and threw them into a contaminated waste container.
Taking one last look at the corpse, Gabba lowered the thermo-cooler over the body and set the controls. Soon Laddie would be safe again from exposure, wrapped in her chilled cocoon.
"See you tomorrow," Gabba mumbled closing the vacuum sealed door to the room and locking it with her ID key.
Hackyll, head of CMI, Central Military Intelligence, paced anxiously outside the doors to the main audience chamber. He'd been waiting for what seemed like an age and he was becoming irritated. The Ruler should listen to him. It wasn't like she had a multitude of intelligent advisors at her fingertips. Just as he was musing over the reasons for this, a side door opened and an attendant stepped out.
"The Ruler will see you now."
Hackyll was about to thank the man, but he was gone before he could open his mouth. The main door swung slowly open. There, before him was the audience chamber, complete with consultation table. Sitting at the head of the table was the Esteemed Ruler, Aljye, sifting through a variety of papers. She looked up when Hackyll entered the room and graced him with a thin smile.
"Good of you to join us, Hackyll," she said, with a slightly sibilant hiss. Her head swayed to and fro with mild agitation.
"Thank you, Esteemed Ruler," he muttered, bowing his head.
"You may sit."
Gathering himself, Hackyll scampered over to the table and dropped onto a stool opposite the Ruler.
"What's this I hear about that paleontologist and a frozen Abover creature?" Aljye asked, raising a few papers in a fist.
Hackyll's mouth opened to ask how she knew about this recent development, but he quickly closed it again. One should not question the Esteemed Ruler or enquire how she obtained her information. She was after all the leader of the community and no doubt had her sources beyond Military Intelligence.
Instead, he thought a moment before replying, "It was recovered from a tunnelling expedition, Esteemed Ruler. She seems to think she can find out more about Above from examining it."
"And why would she think that?"
"I don't know Esteemed Ruler," Hackyll said, bowing his head again.
"Hmm," Aljye mumbled, fingering her jaw line, "I assume you have a brain, use it."
Hackyll swallowed and took a deep breath, "She hopes to dissect the creature and piece together the life of an Abover from what she finds, Esteemed Ruler."
"I see...ardent little researcher, isn't she?"
"Yes, Esteemed Ruler."
"Did I ask your opinion?" Aljye fumed, slamming her fist on the table.
Hackyll looked bewildered for a moment, "No."
"Do we need to know more about Above through this creature, Hackyll?"
"Not from Gabba, Esteemed Ruler," Hackyll said, hoping that Aljye really was asking his opinion this time.
Aljye nodded absently, "And why not from her?"
Hackyll licked his lips and leaned across the table towards the Ruler, "You know, she's even named it? She calls the thing 'Laddie'. I think her personal involvement with this Abover specimen is getting out of hand, she's too emotional. We don't need this."
Aljye eyed the man across from her briefly, "You mean 'I' don't need this." She snorted, "And besides, Gabba doesn't know what she's talking about. I thought this thing was female, what's she doing calling it 'boy'?"
Hackyll smelled perplexed, "Boy?"
"Yes, Laddie is an ancient Abover term for a young male of the species. It comes from an old tongue spoken in a land once known as Scotland. She must mean 'Lady', which would be the term for a sophisticated female, back then." She gave a snort. "Sophisticated, yeah right."
"You amaze me with your knowledge, Esteemed Ruler."
"Any fool would have known as much. This just goes to show how inappropriate it is for this Gabba person to be conducting this project. Get rid of her Hackyll, quickly."
It was so cold, she could not move. All her limbs seemed frozen; even awareness was sluggish. Through the cold, a dim sensation of pain. She wanted to groan, but no sound came. Light flooding in; dim light, but seeming painfully bright after the darkness.
Then even that sliver of awareness receded as the cold claimed her senses once again.
She did not know. But slowly, ever so slowly, feeling was gradually returning to her. When it did, the pain was intense; so intense she wanted to scream. The only thing that kept her from it was the fact that she did not remember how, at first. Her mind was a lump of sluggish thoughts that refused to connect and form a memory.
Gradually, her awareness became more focused. There was a smooth surface underneath her that was uncomfortable not so much because it was cold - hardly colder than her own body, really - but because of the dull pressure-pain where her body rested on the hard material.
With the return of blood flow came the shivering. Uncontrollable, even more painful than the cold. And it began to occur to her that her being alive was nothing short of a miracle. The last thing she remembered... was a howling blizzard, numbing cold, and despair. There was more, but she could not grasp it yet.
Instinctively, she remained as still as her shuddering body permitted, vaguely realising that her life had depended on this more than once. If an enemy was near, she must surprise him. So, she waited, until she thought she could trust her muscles to function at least marginally.
But Gods, it was so cold!
"Leaping lupides!" Gabba exclaimed when the alert buzzer in her living room woke her. She had been in the middle of a rather pleasant dream about being rewarded the Medal of Honour for her studies on Laddie. Coming back to reality was a chore, but the insistent flashing of the bright bulb on the communicator brooked no delay. How long had it been since it started? She could not tell.
A more explicit curse escaped her when she read the notice that had come through, an automated message from the lab, proclaiming a power loss in the central cooling unit.
All thoughts of fame flown from her mind, Gabba jumped into one of her robes, and hurtled out the door, snatching up her ID key in passing. There was no time to lose. If Laddie thawed now, all would be lost.
With agonising slowness, the commuter strip moved along the pavement, making her fidget. In truth, it was moving at a goodly speed, but Gabba felt the minutes drip away like the water off Laddie's body. Every drop meant less chance of preserving the find of the century.
She would have sprinted for it, but the streets were crowded with Third-Cyclers doing their shopping, and a few Second-Cyclers taking a food break. Everything was well-structured here; you had one cycle to sleep, one to work and one for spare time, all of even length. This meant that one third of the population was sleeping, one was working and one was relaxing at any given time. It was an efficient system.
Minutes later, after what seemed like an eternity, Gabba was sliding her ID key through the lock of the outer lab. Here on the outskirts of the inhabited regions, there were far less people, and the air was cooler, smelling of earth rather than concrete and metal.
She rubbed her shoulders briskly against the chill before she stepped inside, not waiting for the door to slide shut automatically with a swish and a sneeze. Even this temperature would be deadly for Laddie, if the cooling unit was down. Figuratively speaking.
The corridors were far from empty, a Second-Cycle shift was there doing their jobs. However, the inner lab, and her research area, was for authorised personnel only. No-one besides the head of the facility, herself, Flax and a select few of her students had access to her lab. The door to Laddie's room, however, was coded only for herself.
Gabba could tell by the bustle of voices that something was going on; apparently the failure in the cooling unit had been discovered already. She almost bumped into Nexia, one of her students who was doing a thesis on ancient Abover ground stones. The girl beamed up at her, head swaying. Nexia always beamed at her. She was irrepressible.
"Hey, Nex," Gabba greeted her curtly. "Up past your Cycle, aren't you?" Before Nexia could reply, Gabba continued, "Do you know what's been going on here? I got word there was a problem with the CCU."
Nexia nodded, and a frown creased her forehead, although she still managed somehow to look as if she was beaming up at Gabba. "They haven't been able to find the problem yet. Power's on, looks like it's all properly connected, but all it's producing is a mildly chilly wind." She giggled.
"You mean..." Gabba began. Her mouth worked silently, but Nexia was speaking again.
"I've heard someone say they think it may have been sabotaged," the girl said in a conspiratorial whisper. "But why would any-"
"You mean it hasn't been fixed?"
"I don't -"
But Gabba was already rushing past her, through the lab, and towards the heavy glass door behind which her prize lay. Nexia looked after her, looking dumbfounded and, for once, not beaming. There was a thick mist of condensation on the other side of the glass, obscuring the room beyond. Not a good sign. Not a good sign at all.
Gabba had to fumble several times before she could make her ID key slide through the lock, and then she had to retry because the idiotic machine claimed the data was unreadable. Barely constraining herself not to actually yell at the thing, she complied with measured slowness, although it taxed her nerves dearly.
When the door slid open, she expected only the worst. Puddles of slush greeted her before she had a chance to actually look into the room. Bracing herself for stench and decay, for chunks of quickly rotting flesh having dropped off the specimen and the cruel end of her dreams, she only hesitantly peeked in.
What she saw, however, would have made her run screaming, if her knees had not betrayed her.
There, on the table, rubbing her forehead and blinking in disorientation, pale eyes glittering in the faint light, sat one very alive, very wet, pre-holocaust Abover humanoid named Laddie.
Chapter Three: Awakening
Hardly missing a beat, Gabba stumbled backward out of the examination room and slapped the 'close' button hard enough to make her palm sting. The door slid shut obediently, and Gabba turned and leaned against it, closing her eyes and trying to still her ragged breathing.
This. Was not. Good. Those were the only words she could form clearly in her mind, although the truth of the situation would not quite sink in. What she had seen in there MUST have been an illusion; this creature could not possibly be alive after millennia of being frozen and squeezed into a block of pack ice. That must be it - she was still dreaming, this was not really happening!
Only, the low hum of voices and the sounds of people bustling all around her suggested that this was very much real. Mechanics were shouting to each other, still trying to make sense of the inexplicable failure of the CCU.
Trembling uncontrollably, Gabba staggered to the communicator and brought it to life with a quick, spoken command. An orange light came on and a mechanical voice dutifully proclaimed the device online.
"Call Flax," she told it.
A few minutes later, she could see Flax's dishevelled face blinking sleepily at her in the device's small colour display. "Whassup Gabba?" he said, obviously less than half awake.
"Come to the lab, quickly," Gabba said. When Flax drew a breath to speak, she added quickly, "Please, there's no time for explanations. Just come as quickly as you can!"
Flax nodded doubtfully, but he was already groping about for his clothes. "Okay, Gabba, I'm on my way."
With a sigh of relief, Gabba terminated the connection, and sank into a nearby chair. She needed to think, and think quickly. No doubt word of this would get around faster than a tunnel could collapse, and she needed to be prepared for them. Terror Above, she needed to be prepared for Laddie! There was no telling what the creature would do, disoriented, frightened maybe, and looking a good deal stronger and fiercer than today's average human. Not to mention the various diseases and Abover germs she might be carrying - potentially devastating despite their microscopic size.
"What have I done?" she whispered to herself. "Oh Mercy, what have I done?"
It turned out that her fears were justified - before long, Hackyll entered the lab followed by one of his sergeants, both men dressed in the official uniform of the CMI. Gabba cringed; she had hoped she would have more time to figure out how to keep them from harming or destroying Laddie.
"I hear there has been some trouble here," he said, one corner of his mouth twitching sardonically.
"A little power loss," Gabba said, trying to sound nonchalant. "Nothing to worry about."
"Yes, certainly. But, I am also aware that you have potentially hazardous material in that room over there, and I am here to ensure that it poses no threat to the community." There was a disconcerting gleam in his eyes, as if he knew something Gabba did not.
"It's sealed, and we will be re-freezing it as soon as the CCU is working again," Gabba said nervously. "It's limited access, so no-on can get in there by acc-"
"Open that door," Hackyll snapped, rapping against it sharply.
"I- I can't," Gabba said quickly. He couldn't possibly know Laddie was alive; and he most certainly must not find out! She walked closer to a discarded instrument tray, hoping the sharp sting of the antiseptic would cover the nervous aroma coming from her. Modern cosmetics minimised it, but smell remained a large factor in judging a person's mood.
"Oh? And why not?"
She had to extemporise. "Because... contamination! Do you have any idea what a corpse looks like that has been waiting to rot and decompose for ages, literally? The stench is phenomenal. I'm sure that chunks of dissolving flesh are fairly raining off of it."
Hackyll's companion looked suddenly ill. Hackyll, on the other hand, seemed inexplicably triumphant. "We'll flood the room with UVS to make sure there will be no surviving organisms that could cause an epidemic. I'm sure you will agree that this is the prudent course of action, won't you, Gabba?"
Gabba's heart sank. UltraViSon, or UVS, was a combination of ultraviolet light and ultrasonic waves, either of which on its own was sufficient to wipe out most life forms. There wasn't an organism known today that was likely to survive a combination of both. If the sound waves did not destroy the cellular membranes of any bacteria, the ultraviolet light would burn them to a crisp. Furthermore, the procedure was a clean one, leaving behind no chemical waste, poisonous gases or other problem material - just a lot of dead life forms that could be disposed of easily enough.
He was right about the epidemic, of course. Such a thing had to be prevented at all costs. Should she tell him the truth? What would that mean for Laddie? Flooding the room with the rays would certainly mean death for the ancient creature, and she could not allow that. The loss would be irreparable.
"All right, then. Get to work, Gantar," Hackyll told his sergeant, who walked over to the climate control panel - all the laboratories were equipped with UVS emitters for just such emergencies - and pushed a few buttons. When he tried to operate the slider that would set the procedure in motion in the sealed off room, the panel locked. "Command requires authorisation," the electronic voice announced. "This is a level A restricted operation."
Gabba's relief only lasted until Hackyll stepped up to her. "Would you be so kind, Gabba?" He indicated the panel with a head gesture.
She saw no way out - if she refused, she would be arrested for opposing the authorities, they would discover that Laddie was alive, and that would be the end of the specimen. If she complied, Laddie would die from the UVS, and she might still be arrested when it was discovered that she had nearly unleashed a prehistoric monster. Either way, this wondrous being from the past was doomed before they had had a chance to get to know it.
Desperate, she tried to stall.
She looked at the CMI officer sharply. "You're behind this, aren't you?" The moment she said it, she realised that it was quite possibly true.
Hackyll hardly missed a beat. "Accidents happen," he said matter-of-factly. "You can be sure that the cause of the problem will be found and dealt with accordingly. Now, if you don't mind... the authorisation?"
Her throat constricting, she approached the panel. There had to be a way to prevent this!
This time, she was saved by Flax, who came rushing into the lab, his fine white hair unkempt, his large eyelids still heavy and swollen with sleep.
"Okay Gabba, this had better be good... calling me in the bloody middle of my bloody sleeping cy-" He broke off when he saw that she had company, all of his carefully worked-up ire vanishing in a puff of mortification.
"Greetings, sir," he mumbled, looking back and forth between his feet and a horribly distraught Gabba.
"We had a power outage, Flax," Gabba told him. "The CCU is malfunctioning. The ... specimen ... has been... thawed."
Flax just gaped.
"You're just in time to watch, Flax," Hackyll said with a sadistic smirk. "Gabba?"
Fervently, Gabba hoped some tunnel would collapse somewhere, or another calamity require Hackyll's immediate attention. But, of course, nothing happened. The room was quiet, waiting for her to comply. Flax was studying his feet, still not quite sure what was going on.
The scientist sighed. There was nothing left to do.
With stinging eyes, Gabba bent close to the microphone and said with a shaky voice, "Authorise", while she slid her swipe card through the panel's slot. She barely heard the machine acknowledging a positive voice identification, or the ominous whirring as the UVS emitter began its ghastly work.
This was a very strange place. Wherever she was, it was unlike anything she would have imagined even in her wildest dreams. She was not sure how she knew this, because certainly her memory of who she was and what had happened was still more than fuzzy.
While her mind was still numb and disoriented, her reflexes and instincts were quickly kicking in; every nerve in her body screamed 'danger'. Rubbing her shoulders - the cold seemed as unnatural as the clean, sterile walls of the room she was in - she glanced around for anything to use as a weapon. There was very little light to see by, coming from nowhere in particular as far as she could make out. Reaching to her side where her axe should be fastened, she found only emptiness. She must have discarded the weapon before settling down.
Water was forming large puddles on the tiled floor, and some of it, barely above freezing temperature, was still running down her clammy skin in icy rivulets. The fur draped around her shoulders smelled rank. Heavy with half-frozen water, it was useless for warmth, so she shrugged out of it. With a wet Thwap! it slid to the floor.
At that moment, with an unreal screech, a section of the wall over in a corner slid to the side, and a human figure slowly stuck its head in.
That is, at first it looked human. She caught a brief glimpse of a too large head and even larger, red eyes, before the... thing... stumbled backward with a strangled exclamation. The wall closed up again, and she was alone once more, before she even had the chance to jump to her feet.
The brief glance of the creature was enough to mind her of the tales she'd heard growing up, of those mythological creatures called gnomes, or kobolds. Perhaps they weren't fairy tales at all - perhaps that was what these were - gnomes. Their skin, so pallid as to appear almost grey, certainly seemed to fit the description. Not only was their skin even paler than that of the Romans she had grown up amongst - these things were also phenomenally ugly!
Her fighting instincts took over. She needed to get her body warm, and in working condition. A weapon would be nice, too; although if necessary, she was the weapon. The creature had not looked particularly dangerous, but then, neither did a Centurion in bathrobes. Maybe it was no gnome at all but something even more sinister, potentially deadly. A fuzzy memory surfaced of never having put much store in old wives' tales, but somehow she felt that now was not the time to doubt. She must be on her guard.
She noticed a metal container sitting beside the strange, smooth table she had been lying on. Movement was still slow and painful. Her muscles screamed with cold as the blood slowly started circulating again. Sliding over to the container to have a closer look was pure agony. Gritting her teeth, she leaned over and peered in.
She found herself looking at assorted shiny clean metal tools, none longer than a handspan. Some weaponry! There were knives and tweezers and forceps, and countless other implements she could not begin to imagine the use of. She picked up something that looked like an extremely short-bladed knife with a long, thin handle. The blade was pointed and impossibly sharp. When she touched it gingerly with a finger, it drew blood. Hefting it experimentally, she found its balance hopeless for throwing or fighting. She decided to hold on to it anyway - anything this sharp would surely come in handy at some point.
Carefully tucking the instrument into her belt, she noted that her leathers were in need of mending - one flap of material fell away when she lifted it, and landed with a splat on the floor.
She could not see anything that could be used as a blanket, unfortunately. She would just have to endure and hope her shivering would warm her up sufficiently. Her stomach rumbled; she wondered how long it had been since she had eaten. There had been little food in that desolate, frozen waste... A pang of memory flashed briefly and was gone again, leaving only a vague sense of a terrible loss.
Only gradually, she became aware of a commotion outside the walls; it seemed to come from all around her, a low hubbub of human voices, but the words were garbled by acoustics, and she could not make out anything except a general feel of urgent activity.
Easing herself onto her feet - the feeling had not quite reached her toes yet, but she could move them a little - she sloshed carefully towards the spot on the wall that had opened up earlier, and cocked her head, listening.
The voices seemed clearer from this point, but she still could not make out any words at all. This part of the wall seemed of a slightly different material; not quite translucent, but flitting movement could be seen through it, not enough to tell her anything. She wished there was some way to see more; this utter isolation was disconcerting. She was anxious to find out who her captors were, and how she had gotten here in the first place. Her life might depend on knowing.
Closer scrutiny revealed that the wall was covered with beads of condensation; as a matter of fact, one rivulet was already running down the smooth surface. Surprised, she found that through the thus cleared area, she could see the room beyond like the bottom of a stream through clear water. There seemed to be more of the creatures in the other room, but they were outside of her vision for now. She decided against wiping away more of the moisture in order to see; no sense in betraying her position. Perhaps she could surprise them when they came back, as they undoubtedly would, with reinforcements.
Cautiously, she ran her fingers along the wall, hoping to find out how it had been opened. Never before had she felt anything this even and smooth. She wondered who had made this building, and how. Her questing hands encountered a thin, straight slit in the wall. At that moment, a high, dizzying sound started up all around her.
Instantly, her skin was burning, and a jab of sharp pain shot through her head. Her knees buckled, but she never felt herself hit the floor.
The process was completed in a few seconds - UVS was as quick-acting as it was effective. Gabba stared blankly ahead - her life's dream had just been shattered, an innocent life form destroyed, and she had not been able to do anything but watch helplessly.
Hackyll, on the other hand, appeared insufferably smug. "Gantar, seal that door. No-one is to enter until we send in a cleanup squad."
Gantar nodded briskly and walked to the closed door. He pulled out a small handheld device and pointed it at the door opener. The touch of a button sent out a stream of a purple, gooey substance that effectively disabled the door opener as it settled across the card slot and hardened instantly. He pushed at it experimentally; it did not budge. After giving the control panel the same treatment, he pocketed the sealing gun and returned to Hackyll's side.
Both men turned sharply on their heels, Hackyll giving her a mock-salute before he did, and left the laboratory.
Gabba sank into a chair and buried her face in her hands. Flax fidgeted; he was not good at dealing with such things. Clumsily, he patted his friend's and mentor's shoulder. "What's going on here, Gabba?"
With a toneless voice, Gabba told him.
Flax made a strangled noise. "You... you mean... you're telling me... I was right?" He squeaked. "That thing in there is alive?"
"Was alive," Gabba corrected him bleakly. "Hackyll took care of that. And I helped him, lupide-bitten idiot that I am."
"You had no choice, Gabba."
"Doesn't help Laddie, does it?" She looked up at the young man, her head swaying slightly. "You were right, Flax. I'm sorry I made fun of you."
Flax scratched his neck. "'Sokay, Gabba. I know I have a bit of a... wild imagination sometimes." He peered at the sealed controls, and the sealed door. "What are you going to do?"
Gabba shook her head. "I don't know... wait for the cleanup-squad, I suppose. All is lost anyway, so what's the point in doing anything at all?'
Flax shuffled his feet. "You don't usually give up this easily. There is still an Abover specimen in there to be examined." He cleared his throat. "Besides, she's survived - how many years? - frozen in ice... she must be pretty tough..."
Gabba perked up instantly. "You mean she could have survived the USV?" But then she shook her head. "That's impossible, Flax."
"But we should check," Flax offered nervously. He did not like the notion of getting close to the thing again - recently deceased or millennia dead made no difference as far as he was concerned! But, seeing hope returning to Gabba's face was worth it.
"I guess we should." She sighed. "I suppose there's still the body... which is all we had expected to have in the first place. But that we should be responsible for her death... what have we done?"
She straightened and got up from her chair, new, hesitant purpose in her bearing. "I guess we should make sure that at least her death did some service to science. But I don't have to like it. Okay, Flax. So, how do we get that door open?"
Flax bit his lip. "That would be a problem," he said, embarrassed. "Nothing I know of can neutralise the plastimer, except-"
"Except this!" Both turned at the new voice. Nexia was standing in the doorway, beaming at them while hefting a small, palm-sized object. Gabba stared. It was the sealing gun!
"Nexia! How did you... where... ?"
"Well, I'd like to say I built it myself, but unfortunately, I've had to resort to second-class pocket-picking." She sauntered over to them smelling extremely pleased with herself.
"You realise you'll be in big trouble, don't you?" Flax said uneasily.
Nexia flinched at his words and looked ill at ease, but she squared her shoulders bravely. "Do you want to have a look in there or not? I could still run after him and pretend he dropped the thing..."
"Give me that," Gabba said quickly. With a half-grin, the student handed her the sealing gun. "Umm... Nexia... the... specimen in there... "
"Is a prehistoric Abover humanoid, I know."
"Huh," Flax said intelligently.
"I spend a lot of time studying here. I catch stuff others don't. And you've certainly been more excited than a weanling on his first day out, ever since Flax took you out on the moto-digger."
"That was to recover an ancient artefact and a couple of bones," Gabba said guardedly.
"I know, I know. That's the word you had them put out. But I've worked in here for a long time. You haven't been this enthusiastic about anything, ever. It must be more. Easy to put one and one together."
Gabba threw up her hands. "All right. But there's not just an ancient rotting corpse in there... There may be danger."
Nexia shifted her head around. "Anything is better than poring over starch residue on some Abover piece of rock or other all the time."
Gabba sighed. "Fine, then. But you realise you're breaking the law if you stay with us? Flax and I are about to commit an act of defiance of the authorities."
Flax cleared his throat loudly, and Gabba gave him a sharp look. He shrugged apologetically, and managed not to back away from her. Breaking the law was not something high up on Flax's priority list.
"What are we waiting for?" said Nexia. She watched Gabba contemplate the sealing gun for a while. "The flap on the side of the handle puts it in reverse mode," she said with a crooked smile.
"Thanks," Gabba said. Within seconds, the plastimer on the controls and the door opener was vaporised.
"Nice toy," Flax remarked.
All business again now that she had something to do, Gabba went over to the supply closet and took out three face masks. "Here, better put these on. And, we'll all have to go into the disinfection booth when we're done.
"Uh, Gabba..." Flax said. "Didn't you say the UVS should have taken care of... any life form?"
Gabba shrugged. "Just a precaution. There could still be spores and such. Ready?"
Flax shifted nervously as he pulled the mask over his mouth and nose. "Okay, Gabba, let's do this quickly if we're going to. The cleanup squad should be here soon."
Gabba gave him an affectionate punch in the shoulder. "You're such a rebel, Flax. I'm proud of you." Moments later, the inner lab door slid open once more.
The young man just rolled his eyes and followed after the two women.
They found Laddie's lifeless form in a twisted heap on the tiled floor by the door. Strands of her strange, dark hair were floating like deep water weed in the puddle that had gathered around the body, seeping off still damp clothing and running down bare skin. The steady drip, drip, drip of the water was loud in their ears, above the low, helpless hum of the defective CCU.
"Mercy," Nexia whispered. "It's... monstrous."
Gabba smiled indulgently. "Listen to yourself! You've read the books, Nex, you've seen the pictures, you should have had an idea what to expect. Although I'll admit the colouring is unlike anything in the books." She looked down at the motionless shape, taking in the strangely dark skin, very much unlike the translucent white that was normal for a human being. She thought fleetingly that she had not yet had a chance to examine this phenomenon.
"Well, it looks... different." Nexia groped for words. "Fierce. Dangerous. I'm glad it's dead."
Flax murmured something that sounded like "got that right", but Gabba suspected he had not meant for her to catch it.
"Don't say such a thing," Gabba said with more fervour than strictly necessary. It was not clear who she meant, but both smelled duly guilty.
She crouched down beside the body to get a closer look at the angular face. Reports existed of tall, ancient statues found buried in layers of rock that bore faces similar to this one - harsh and cold, with very small eyes and long noses, although she had seen in her earlier examination that their actual nasal cavity was pitifully underdeveloped. She wondered if they had relied on smell at all; today, it was an important way to determine a person's mood. It would also aid orientation in total darkness, and was invaluable when identifying the different types of rock and earth that the tunnellers encountered in the more barren regions.
She noted that Laddie's lips were pale and very full now that they had completely thawed. Her dental ridge seemed more of a collection of individual pieces rooted in her jaw than a pair of ribbed chewing plates.
"Gabba..." Flax said, sounding agitated. "Maybe you should-"
"Shh," Gabba hissed absently, thoroughly engrossed in the study of the being. It looked hideous to her, but ah, it was so beautiful. What a waste to kill it. What a horrible crime!
"Uh, Gabba... how did it get over here...?" Nexia asked, looking at the examination table halfway across the room that still had smears of blood and shreds of fabric on it from Gabba's work on the specimen. The fur that the creature had been wrapped in had nearly decomposed and was lying in a sodden heap on the ground underneath it.
"You know, funny - she still doesn't smell of..." Flax began.
Nexia gave a frightened squeak and jumped backward into Flax when a clammy hand shot forward from the body, grabbing a fistful of Gabba's hair and pulling her down.
The student and the tunneller could only stand and watch open-mouthed as the presumed corpse sprang up and came to its feet pointing a scalpel at Gabba's throat. The sealing gun the scientist had still been holding clattered uselessly to the floor.
"... decay," Flax finished, slack-jawed.
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