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Worlds Apart, Book 1: Below

by Archaeobard and Verrath
Part 1 - Part 2 (final)

Prologue: Parting Thoughts

The wind howled furiously around their ears, turning gentle snowflakes into icy needles that assaulted the two travellers. Thick cloaks and furs made them look like snow-covered, moving humps, and 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 any more.

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, leaning heavily on her companion, but unable to go on.

Blood seeped through the glove on the hand she was pressing 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.

"Xena... remind.... me again.... why we're doing this?" She coughed, and a trickle of blood appeared at the corner of her mouth.

"It's the only way, Gabrielle. You have to hang in there, we should be close to the outpost. We'll be warm, and safe." The warrior's face was hard. Her own wounds were far from light, but she knew her little bard was in a much worse state. Trying not to let her worry show, Xena caught the smaller woman in her arms when Gabrielle tried to get back to her feet and failed.

Stiff and sore from the cold, her muscles nearly gave out and she almost dropped the bard, holding on with sheer willpower, forcing her body to co-operate. 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 Gabrielle did. And no-one knew better than Xena that their chances of survival at this moment were slim at best.

The warrior and the bard struggled on. After continuing like this for about half a candlemark, there was a break in the blizzard, just a shifting of wind, but it was enough to allow Xena a brief glimpse through the haze at a shadowy structure several hundred paces in front of them. It was the outpost Xena had been hoping for. She pressed her lips together with grim determination, marvelling that they had managed to find it.

"C'mon Gabrielle, we're almost there." She received a weak moan from the bard. Xena 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. Xena frowned at that, but pushed forward, she had to get Gabrielle warm. Tartarus, she had to get herself warm; she wouldn't be much good to the bard otherwise.

The warrior pushed her way through the snow and fought with the entrance to the small outpost. The drifts were piled to her shins 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. With Gabrielle held against her, the warrior almost lost her footing, but righted herself before she and the bard 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 the bard down gently. She could find no coverings of any kind so she removed her thick fur and draped it over the small woman.

"Damn it to Hades!" Xena spat. Whoever had occupied the hut before them had not played by the rules. They had left no kindling, flint or wood by the fire for the next travellers. 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, Gabrielle?" For she doubted, now that they had stopped, that she could get the bard moving again.

"Xena?" the voice was weak and frantic sounding.

"'Sokay, Gabrielle, I've gotcha," Xena whispered, sitting down on the cold ground beside the bard, pulling the woman to her. She 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.

"Xena?" the question came again.

"Yeah?"

"It's all right, Xena...you can have your coat, I'm not cold any more."

Xena 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 Gabrielle!" Xena rubbed her hands vigorously up and down the bard's arms through the thick fur.

A thin smile played at Gabrielle'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, bard."

Xena shifted her position, pulling the small woman more upright against her.

"Just for a while...Xena...please..." Gabrielle's eyelids drooped heavily, fluttered a moment struggling to open and then gave up the fight.

"Gabrielle?" Xena said in a tight whisper.

No response.

"Gabrielle?" She tried again, shaking the bard a little. The blonde's head lolled against the warrior's chest. Xena held trembling fingers against the bard's slightly parted lips...nothing.

"Don't you leave me, Gabrielle!" She shook her again. The bard was like a rag doll in her hands. "Please...don't leave me." The warrior choked desperately, laying the smaller woman back down on the palette. She stripped off the furs and looked down at Gabrielle'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 blonde hair as she settled herself down beside the bard and curled up against her. "I'm always with you, Gabrielle," 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 Above.

But Flax was an experienced tunneller, and he skilfully 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 ring of silvery metal, inset with gold, that 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 circular object to the ground with an ear-shattering clatter.

Regaining his composure, he crouched down to examine the thing. It had a sharp, cutting edge around its outside, and looked like it had been buried there yesterday. 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 his breath caught.

Something was caught there, barely made out through the vaguely translucent surface of the ice. A humanoid shape, although too tall and too buff, 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 pretty metal ring thingie 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 like those..." he searched for the word, "reconstructions I help you with sometimes. 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."

"Land," 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.

"Huh?"

"I said are you ready?" The tunneller repeated, mouthing the words 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 like the back of his hand and could manoeuvre the 'digger like it was an extension of his own, slender body.

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 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 blue. She swayed 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 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.

"I can't authorise that."

Gabba wasn't listening. She was crouched down on the floor of the tunnel peering at the round shiny thing Flax had described. She'd never seen an artefact like it in her life. 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 forceps, Gabba gently manoeuvred the artefact into a protective bag. 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 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 nearly shrill, "You're saying this is really close to Above?"

"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. 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.

"But-"

"No buts, just do it."

*****

Gabba watched on 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 were 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, 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 collapse. She was not about to blind herself and her fellow workers through stupidity, so 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 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 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. Based on size she would have assumed it was 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 round thing with what looked like a cutting edge. 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.

Gabba 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 workers 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.

Yet Gabba 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. The workers carefully withdrew the beams from around the block while Gabba ordered over a moto-trolley 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 was soon settled. 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. He would have given his moto-digger to see the thawed out Humanoid up close.

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. She frowned. What, then, of the weapon?

Gabba quickly hoisted the heat generator up and away from the specimen and leaned over the metal table. 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 Gabba's recoil.

"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 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 circular weapon?

"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 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 a dull red... 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 electro-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.

 

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?"

"Black Laddie...?"

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?"

"Laddie...?"

"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.

"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 even as Gabba was trying to explain it away, "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. It simply was not possible for Laddie to have moved in this partially frozen state.

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 colouring was certainly strange. It was so dark and different to her own, fine, stark white hair that she wondered if it had not been burned at one point in time.

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 swallowed convulsively. 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 effort 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 steadily 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 blue. He smiled to himself. He'd never seen blue in eyes before. His own eyes were of a luminous red, 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. 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.

"Aljye's tits!" Flax suddenly swore and 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 when its 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 hightailed 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, and it was only resurfacing now 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 and 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 hunched down opposite the Ruler.

"What's this I hear about Gabba and her 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 above 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 jawline, "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 looked 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 Gabba to be conducting this project. Get rid of her Hackyll, quickly."

*****

Cold.

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.

Darkness.

How long?

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 red bulb on the communicator brooked no delay. How long had it been since it started? She could not tell.

A more colourful 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 door behind which her prize lay. Nexia looked after her, looking dumbfounded and, for once, not beaming.

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 molten ice greeted her before she had a chance to actually look into the room, this was not good. 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, blue 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!

"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.

"Uh..."

"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 lid 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 behind her back where her scabbard was, she found only emptiness. She must have discarded the blade 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.

Her warrior instincts took over. She needed to get her body warm, and in fighting condition. A weapon would be nice, too; although if necessary, she was the weapon. The creature might have been deformed, or some monster she had not met before. It had not looked particularly dangerous, but then, neither did a Banshee. Maybe it was a vampire. The pale skin and thin body seemed to point to that. In that case, she would certainly have to 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. It was not her stomach that did the growling, most times. 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. She wished there was some window to see through; 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.

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, and an innocent life form destroyed, and she had not been able to do anything but watch helplessly.

Hackyll, on the other hand, looked 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 looking 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.

"How-?"

"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 artifact 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' to-do 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. Even now, Laddie's skin was a strangely dark pink-bronze colour, 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 blue-tinged 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 red 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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