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“That wasn’t rock climbing,” Blake grit out two hours later, when they finally reached the top of the cliff. Hauling himself over the ledge, he anchored the lead and started helping everyone else. “That was a goddamn expedition.”
Sida kept her pussy comment to herself, knowing he’d just counter with something like: “you offering?” He always had an inappropriate comeback. While most people needed inspiration or opportunity for their minds to slide into the gutter, Blake’s owned real estate there.
“Holy stars,” Ketha exhaled, when Blake helped her over the edge first.
Once everyone was topside, they detached their harnesses and took a moment to drink in the sheer megalithic size of the deserted city. Every building, statue, fountain and pillar put them right into familiar territory. It was unnerving. Sida’s gaze followed the cracked remnants of a toppled column about twenty yards ahead and to their left, completely blocking their path. She nearly ordered everyone to put their climbing gear back on, since that might be the only way to get over it.
“And it’s still a long way to the summit,” Blake exhaled, his gaze rising to the top of the tallest stepped pyramid in the distance.
“Bad Jack,” Sida snapped at him. “No more magic beans for you.”
He chuckled, rolling his shoulder with equal parts unease and determination. “And here I thought space was the only thing left to make us feel small and insignificant,” he remarked, before flashing that hidden grin at her again. “Guess next time you’ll take the bottom like a good girl.”
Sida patted the butt of her rifle, which was still on her favorite setting despite the engaged safety. “You wanna be the bastard, Yarring?”
Blake snorted. “Cap, I’ve never not been the bastard.”
“You keep giving me reasons to agree with you, it’s going to confuse the hell out of our crew,” she warned.
“There seems to be an actual source of vegetation up here,” Isiah interrupted, too used to their banter to be fazed.
“Just keep an eye on the mine shaft below, let me know when we reach the heart of the city,” Sida ordered. “We won’t find any answers until we can clear this road block, though, so let’s get a move on.”
“I thought the Maya had the whole stairway to heaven thing in the bag,” Ketha muttered, when they reached the downed column.
Due to its massive circumference and smooth surface, they really only had two choices; either bust their way through it or waste several hours walking around it. It was a tough call for a group of scientists. Fortunately, while Sida was still contemplating, they came across a section that was already partially broken and crumbling. It took little effort to carefully blast their way through just the already damaged area by using a relatively weak setting on their rifles. Pausing on the other side, Sida snatched Blake’s binoculars from his vest to get a closer look at the city, now that the view was completely unobstructed.
“Commander, I see glyphs,” she grinned.
“On it,” he reciprocated, running ahead.
“Ensign, where are we in relation to the mine now?”
“Higher than before,” Darling answered. “There’s definitely a steady sloping grade from the surface to the lowest point in the mine, which is the bend. From there to the entrance, it’s almost completely flat.”
Sida hooked the binoculars on her belt and looked around. “That doesn’t make any goddamn sense. A single shaft well should indicate a Qanat system, but there’s only one access point and it’s at the highest elevation, not the lowest. Unless they had gravity-defying water, I think we need to find more evidence behind the true purpose for this mine.”
“I agree. Another three klicks and we’ll be at the city center, Captain,” he replied.
“Good, any readings on what kind of ore we might otherwise be dealing with?” she asked.
“I’ve got trace amounts of the usual recipe, but nothing concrete. We’ll have to dig into deeper sediments for samples.”
“There should be aqueducts,” Sida noted aloud a moment later. “Every civilization had advanced water systems in place by the time they were building cities of this magnitude. They had rain basins, diverted rivers, something to bring fresh water to the citizens.”
Minnows glanced over her shoulder, though they could no longer see the ledge. “That trench could have been a river at one time, which might explain why only part of the city caved in.”
Sida nodded in agreement, though none of them had seen any evidence of that from below. There would be natural markers, different levels of sediment lining the cliff walls like artwork from the water slowly drying up over time. Unless it evaporated all at once. That was an eerie thought, but then so was the very Earthling-like city they were marching toward.
“Or, perhaps water hadn’t been a necessary part of their diet,” Isiah suggested. “It’s kind of sad when you think about it.”
“Then don’t,” Sida suggested.
“Can you imagine our planet dying before we’d even made it out of the iron age?” he persisted.
“Yet, he does it anyway,” Sida grumbled to herself. “Yarring, what have you got for me?”
“Obviously, they made it off this planet, so logically, they were far more advanced than we ever were during our iron age,” Ketha debated with Isiah.
Sida rolled her eyes. “Commander!”
Why did she always get stuck with the kids, while he went to play in the rubble? Something was seriously wrong with that setup.
“You guys aren’t going to believe what I’m looking at,” Blake’s voice finally came through the comm links in their mini-masks. “These NTs…they’re humanoid.”
“Yarring, have you ever seen the Bremm?” she scoffed. “Ogres would be considered more humanoid.”
“These aren’t Bremm, Cap,” he returned. “If I didn’t know any better, I’d swear I was staring at the tomb walls of one of our own ancient sites. I’m seeing similarities to all of them. They kept record of everything in the same fashion, too. Farming, fishing, ceremonies, battles…wait–”
“Commander?” Sida prompted, when several moments of silence ticked by.
Sida arched a brow. He did not just shush her.
“I found the city center events,” he finally spoke again.
“And?” she snapped.
“There’s some kind of procession, NTs climbing onto a platform from an underground chamber right in the heart of the… fucking Christ,” he cut himself off. “It’s an auction block, the bastards were slavers. There’s something extremely off about these glyphs, Captain. Not only are the slaves also humanoid, they’re depicted as being much larger than the citizens.”
“Define much larger,” she replied, peering around at the ginormous city.
“A whole other race kind of larger,” he answered. “And judging by the monoliths used to construct these megaliths, I wouldn’t be shy about labeling them giants.”
“Starblood,” Sida said, looking at Isiah. “Any trace?”
“Not on the surface,” he answered, eyes a little wide. “Giants, Captain? They enslaved giants to build all of this?”
“Yeah, I think they did,” Blake answered for her.
“So much for your advanced theory, Lieutenant,” Isiah remarked to Ketha. “If we find Starblood, no one left this planet by ship.”
“We need to get into that mine,” Sida intervened firmly. “I prefer my facts to be of the non-speculative variety. Why don’t we have a reading on this supposed chamber under the city?”
“I’m not showing any cavities other than the mine, itself, which abruptly stops about a hundred yards below the surface,” Darling confirmed.
“Could have been a cave-in,” Minnows suggested, pointing to the crumbled roads. “These aren’t exactly Imperial quality.”
By the time they reached the city center, Blake was just meeting up with them. “I didn’t find anything depicting the Bremm and I’m really starting to doubt they were ever here. Maybe this isn’t Molta Cremyss, after all, but a completely unknown planet. None of the glyphs I found are pointing toward the apocalyptic event that caused everyone to abandon the home world, but I’m willing to bet all of my gambling debts there’s a lot more where those came from.”
“That’s a lot of negative credit, Commander,” Sida smirked, reluctantly amused.
“I’m a giving man, Cap,” he shrugged. “We need to find their version of a Valley of the Kings.”
“Assuming they buried their dead,” Ketha interjected. “Many ancient civilizations used funeral pyres.”
“I love how scientists are always looking on the bright side of things,” Sida grinned. “Darling, run a perimeter scan fifty yards out and see if you find anything interesting.”
“Got it, Captain.” He didn’t get far, before he was waving them over. “Hey, look at this.”
They all approached the broken, rectangular pattern he was dusting off in the rocky dirt. Crouching at various sections, they all started doing the same, revealing a kind of lip about fifty-five yards long and twenty yards wide.
“This was the auction block,” Blake stated first, studying it more carefully. “Or at least the foundation of it.”
“Which means, this had to be where the entrance to the underground chamber was,” Sida pointed to a large area of the ground that bowled toward the center. “Looks like cave-in wins the pool. Good call, Minnows.”
“If that led to the chamber, and its somehow connected to the mine shaft, we could be looking at trouble,” Blake swore under his breath. “What do you want to do now, Cap?”
It was another tough decision. They were already topside, had spent two hours getting there and another making it to the city center, yet the chance of there being Starblood underground pulled at her.
“What we always do, Commander,” Sida decided. “Find the door to the next planet. Back to base, crew.”
Rising to her feet, Sida peered around the city of ruins once more, suppressing the desire to say the hell with protocol and go racing right into every building, turn over every stone, and learn everything she could about the NTs who’d lived there, because the similarities to Earth couldn’t be ignored. They could very well be standing right in the middle of a missing link in their own evolution. Their own origins. To say she was intrigued was a cosmic understatement. She wanted answers five minutes ago.
First, they needed to solve the mystery of the mine.
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