“Hey, careful, rookie!”
I jumped as a hand grabbed my shoulder, startled from staring down into the depths of the Pit. “Whoa man, calm down,” Hondo said. “We need to get back to the ship. We got equipment and supplies to unload.” He didn’t move, though. His eyes were glued to the Pit.
I looked around and saw that everyone had followed me. Most of the crew was standing nearby—though no one as close as Hondo and I—all looking down into that vast emptiness. Everyone but the ship’s doctor, Taryn Jacks. She still stood a few feet from the ship, studying a tablet computer. Either she wasn’t interested, or she wanted us to think she wasn’t. She was like a mirror of cheerful Teena Mae, who tended to be glued to her tablet. The main difference was that Teena Mae was actually nice.
“Glory be,” Wallace Darkson murmured.
“Speaking of careful,” I said, giving my friend a playful shove, “probably best not to startle someone standing at the edge of a giant pit.”
“Oh, you’d be fine. Little kids bounce.”
“Har har. If I fall, I’m pulling you with me,” I replied.
“Works for me, At least I’d have your head for something soft to land on.”
“You know what—” I began.
“Interns!” Doc Taryn called. In addition to being medic for the crew, Taryn Jacks was also quartermaster. This meant she kept track of everything we’d brought for the expedition. We would mostly report to her, at least for the first leg of the mission.
Lena stood next to the boarding ramp where the doctor was waiting for us. Tall and severe, the Doc had her hair tied up in a bun that looked painfully tight.
“Yes, Doc Taryn?” Hondo asked, clasping his hands behind his back.
“Interns, start hauling out the supplies.” Doc Taryn was the least friendly of the adults on the crew. No matter which of us she was talking to, she always addressed us as “intern” or “the interns”. She had a sharp voice and rigid posture, and she never looked comfortable about anything, anytime, anywhere.
“Yes ma’am,” I said.
“Get the hoversled out of the cargo hold,” she added. She never pried her eyes away from her tablet, never looked at us as she gave us orders. “The C-Marines set up a temporary camp during their exploration. I want everything moved there.”
“I’ll come with,” Donald Woole said, running a hand through his short, sandy blond hair. “Y’all might need my help. The hoversled was acting up the last time I tested the antigrav.”
Moving boxes wasn’t exactly my idea of a good time, but we had to earn our keep. We stepped aboard the ship and made our way to the rear of the vessel, where the cargo hold lay. The hold was packed floor to ceiling with hefty silver crates. Near the back was a second boarding ramp large enough to handle a hoversled loaded with boxes.
“Have we arrived at last, then?” a voice called from the wall near the cargo ramp. Our Knight clomped forward, silver body almost blending in with the stacks of crates. Gareth the Knight was a security robot, brought along as a precaution, should the Pit prove more dangerous than expected. His model were called Knights because, oddly enough, he had been built to resemble a medieval suit of armor. No one on the crew seemed to know why, but the result was intimidating enough. His name didn’t seem that intimidating to me, but apparently, that was borrowed from a knight, too.
“Of course we have,” a second robot said, rising from the hoversled. “Can’t you tell the engines have stopped, you Dark Age monstrosity?” Mercury was a sphere the size of a basketball. Capable of flight, the little robot was blessed with two small arms, a wealth of mechanical knowledge, and a surprisingly sour attitude.
“Now Merc,” Lena said. “Be nice to your buddy.”
“He’s not my buddy, he’s my ball and chain,” the little robot said.
“Stop sulking, little one,” she replied. For some reason, the girl had become fond of the grumpy little mech.
“Plenty of cause for good cheer, companion,” Gareth said. Despite his frightening appearance, the Knight was polite and cheerful to a fault. Robots with personalities were a new invention. I couldn’t help thinking they needed a little work. The security robot seemed peaceful while the mechanic and messenger was a sour jerk.
Woole lowered the ramp, letting a fresh breeze stir the air in the cargo hold. We went to work, loading supplies into the hoversled. When we were finished the little sled was loaded nearly ten feet high. I clambered on top of the pile so I could ride it down the ramp.
Together the three of us hauled the supplies to the drop site while the adults gawked at the Pit. That’s not entirely fair. We gawked at the Pit too, but we did it while we took the hoversled over to a site that had been put in place by the C-Marines. A few weeks before our arrival, they’d checked out the city, the houses nearby, the abandoned digging equipment, and the Pit, all to make sure the place was safe for us to study.
I noticed one of the alien digging machines as we neared the drop site. The hulking thing towered over a hundred feet into the air. A massive, saw-blade like contraption quietly rusted into red dust against a cheerful blue sky. The dark vastness of the Pit stretched beyond.
The drop site consisted of a small pop-up shed, a heavy duty hoverplatform not unlike our cargo sled, and an abandoned pile of crates and garbage the C-Marines had failed to haul out. We parked near the shed and began to unload boxes.
“Why couldn’t we just land down there?” Lena asked, waving a hand toward the nearby dropoff. “The Pit is huge!”
“The C-Marines said not to,” Hondo said. “Told the commander it wasn’t safe. The Pit narrows eventually, and there’s vines and broken glass scattered around the bottom.”
“Vines?” I asked.
“Broken glass?” Lena added.
“Yeah, I guess there’s these fat purple vines all twined around shards of glass.” Hondo’s eyes grew wider as he told his story. “The Marines couldn’t figure out why. No sunlight, no obvious water source for the vines, and no sign of what the locals might have been up to.”
“Are we saying we trusting the word of C-Marines?” Merc asked. He floated near Lena’s shoulder. I was not sure why he’d come with us. The little robot slapped a hand at an empty metal crate. “They couldn’t even be bothered to pick up after themselves!”
“That doesn’t seem like C-Marines,” Hondo said. ‘They’re usually tidy to a fault.” He stared at the pile of trash and frowned as though puzzling it over. It looked to me as though they’d left in a hurry.
“Vines and broken glass,” Lena said. “How strange. We better wear good boots.”
I shrugged. Vines I could make sense of. Plants can grow in all kinds of strange environments, but what was the glass from?
“We’ll see soon enough,” Hondo said, studying the drop site. For now, our work here was done. I didn’t know how soon we would be back for the trip into the Pit. The commander had wanted to decide on a schedule after landing. I hoped it would be soon. I was eager to get down there and start exploring.
We flew the now empty hoversled back to the Endeavor. It zipped over the green grass, pushing the tall, waving stalks down as it flew over them. When we neared the ship, I slowed to let Lena and Hondo off to find out what our next task would be. It only took one to pilot the empty hoversled, which was little more than a floating platform with guardrails and a tiny piloting station.
Donald Woole was still in the cargo hold. An access hatch in the floor was open. Being in the back of the ship, the hold was near the engines, and some of their inner workings could be accessed through the floor.
As I parked the sled, Woole stood, replaced the cover, and wiped hands black with grease on an old rag.
“Everything okay?” I asked.
The mechanic nodded. “Just wanted to take a look. Still don’t fully understand what made the ray shield fail. Thought the engines might have been affected too.”
I nodded. “Glad she’s still working,” I said. This planet seemed nice enough so far, but it was also empty and creepy, and I didn’t want to be stranded.
Lena raced up to the ramp as we stepped down. “Commander Brink wants us ready to enter the Pit in twenty minutes!” she told us, then ran off as fast as she’d come, already on another job for a member of the crew. We were often used as messengers by the adults. I could tell Lena was excited. I began to feel it too, a jittery, palm-slick sweat kind of feeling, like being on a rocket about to launch.
I walked a few steps toward the Pit before I noticed Woole wasn’t following. I looked back and saw he was still standing near the Endeavor; head cocked to the side. He hadn’t even acknowledged Lena’s message. He looked like he was listening to some far-off sound.
“Something wrong?” I asked.
The older mechanic held up a single finger to quiet me. “Do you hear that?” he asked.
I shook my head, not having noticed anything. I tilted my head and closed my eyes, listening.
I heard . . . .
No. After a few seconds, I noticed the faintest tinkling of . . . music.
“I hear music,” I said, wondering how that was possible. The C-Marines had been adamant that every city on the planet was empty. They’d scanned the entire planet—as had we—and checked out the city near our landing site.
Woole grinned at me, then headed back inside the ship.
“What are you doing?” I asked, moving closer to the loading ramp.
“Getting a weapon,” he said. “We’re gonna go find out what’s making that noise.”
“But we’re supposed to go down into the Pit,” I said, waving a hand towards the giant fissure.
“We’ll be back in plenty of time,” Woole said. He dug through a cupboard set into the wall near the ramp controls. “It can’t be far, not if we can hear it.” I thought the sound was pretty faint and had to be some ways off, but I wasn’t sure that objection would get me anywhere.
“Shouldn’t we tell Commander Brink before we head out?” I asked.
“He’s busy,” Woole said. He pulled out a laser rifle and checked the meter on the side. Satisfied, he let it rest on one shoulder. “You coming, kid?”
“Yeah, I’m coming.” I was curious too, and I couldn’t let him go out alone. “I just don’t want them to go down into the Pit without us.”
Woole laughed. “They won’t! We’ll hurry!”
“Can I get a weapon?” I asked.
“We’ll be fine,” he replied. “And like you said, we need to hurry!” He started to jog across the grass toward the nearest of the beehive-like houses.
That’s not exactly what I said, I thought to myself, but I followed. I looked back once to see if anyone noticed us slipping away. Our escape was blocked from view by the elongated shape of the Endeavor. I couldn’t see our crew mates, and they couldn’t see us.
After a few minutes, we stepped onto a street made of loose, black gravel. Houses ran in a meandering path that followed the road. Each one was identical to the next. A beehive house, a small green lawn, and what looked like a badly overgrown garden enclosed by a white picket fence. Once again, the similarities to Earth were eerie.
The music had grown a little louder.
The road ran to our right and left, but the sound seemed to be coming from dead ahead. Instead of following the gravel lane, we walked across it. I got a strange feeling as we passed the nearest beehive house. I felt certain someone would walk out, someone would yell at us for crossing their lawn. I expected dogs to bark and birds to chirp, things I remembered from an early childhood spent on Earth. And yet, nothing happened.
Nobody stepped out of the house. No animals made noises. No shadows peered at us through the round windows of the beehives on either side of us. We just kept walking undisturbed by a quietly abandoned world.
We stepped onto a second gravel lane. The stones of this lane were a vivid purple. These were the bands of color I’d seen from the Endeavor. That explained why they’d been spread out like roads. They were roads.
The music was much louder. It sounded familiar, but I couldn’t put my finger on why.
I glanced at the array of beehives on this street. One of them was different from the others. There was a glass statue out front, and words had been painted in vivid red over the rounded door. I couldn’t make out the words from where we stood. The music was definitely coming from inside. The sound was still faint, but distinct enough now to pinpoint a source. It sounded as if I ought to know the tune.
Woole checked the energy reading on his gun again—a nervous habit, perhaps—and walked toward the strange beehive house. The crunch of our footsteps on gravel seemed amplified by the extreme silence of the Pitworld neighborhood. The glass statue on the front lawn was an insect-like being. It was as tall as a man, with wings tucked against its back and four agile-looking hands with thin fingers. Woole kept his gun trained on it until he seemed satisfied it was just a statue.
“I don’t remember glass statues in the C-Marine report,” Woole said in a low voice just above a whisper. “Thought we didn’t even know what the Pitworlders looked like.” I could only shrug at this; I hadn’t been allowed to read the report.
We were close enough now that I could read the words scrawled on the beehive house. They were painted over the house’s rounded doorway.
DON’T FOLLOW THE SOUND
“Do you think it’s a warning?” I asked. I whispered too. It felt a little silly after being assured the planet was empty, but this was such a strange, creepy place.
“Probably a C-Marine,” Woole said. “Advising us the music is a waste of time. Written in our language, after all.”
A good point.
“May as well go inside,” Woole said. He lowered his rifle and casually walked toward the beehive house’s wooden door. Beyond its bell shape, the house was constructed like any home on Earth, with wooden siding, a slate tile roof, and even decorative brick in a frame around the doorway.
The doorknob was in the middle of the door. Woole grasped it and gave a solid tug. It swung open easily. The bottom of the door was damaged. As we crossed the threshold, I saw that the bolt for the door slid down into the floor, rather than into the wall like on Earth and the Roseworld. The door had been forced at some point, probably by an investigating C-Marine.
The music had kept up all this time, growing louder the closer we got to the house, and then when we stepped inside. It stopped.
Woole and I both froze. The hair on the back of my neck stood up. Woole raised his rifle, but there was no one to shoot. We stood in an empty room. Oddly shaped chairs framed a rounded brick fireplace. Two egg-shaped doorways led out of the room, one to the left and one straight ahead.
“How?” I breathed, barely daring to speak.
“Motion sensor, maybe.” Woole said, speaking so quietly I could barely hear him.
We stepped forward. Woole pointed his gun into the room to the left. A staircase led up into darkness. The room straight ahead was a kitchen full of appliances I couldn’t recognize. There was mildew on a few of them and mold on the walls. Signs of a home rotting away.
“Up the stairs?” I asked. We needed to keep moving. We only had a few minutes left before we were due back at the Pit.
He nodded, and we walked up the stairs. Stairs seemed like a waste for a being with wings, but whatever. I guess we couldn’t assume that glass statue outside actually represented the aliens that had left. Not until we found photographs or video records, or anything visual. We would have to explore the planet itself eventually, but for now, the priority was discovering the purpose of the Pit and what dangers it might hide within.
After a climb up short, narrow steps we stood on a landing with three more egg-shaped doorways—all with no actual doors—into bedrooms with oddly shaped, cocoon-like beds. Apparently, the Pitworlders were not big on privacy.
“These houses aren’t in bad shape,” Woole said, knocking on a wooden wall. There was no paint; so far nothing alien-made on the planet had been colorful other than the gravel streets.
“You thinking maybe . . . ” I began.
“Yeah, what if the colonists just moved in? I would say that—”
The music started up again, cutting Woole off and making both of us jump. The mechanic’s rifle snapped up, and I grasped at the air uselessly. Unarmed.
The music came from a small table in one of the bedrooms. A little circular window overlooked the street we’d walked down. In the distance, I could see the sprawling shape of the Endeavor and the black lip of the Pit, which stretched north and south out sight.
A small device lay there, attached to a solar panel. When the sun hit just right, the device received enough power to blast its music, which I now realized was classical music from Earth.
“That’s Mozart,” Woole said. “This is weird. Why go to all this trouble to get us out here?”
“Could it be a joke?” I asked. “A C-Marine prank?”
“That’s my guess. We’re going to have to talk to the commanding officer of that platoon.” He sounded kind of angry at having his time wasted coming all the way out here.
“We better hurry,” I said. “Only a few minutes till we’re supposed to be back.”
“You’re right, Theus. Let’s get out of here. If we run it won’t take long.”
We hurried out of the house. I closed the door behind us, just in case Woole was right about the houses being livable someday. I found myself staring at the glass statue as we raced by. It looked so lifelike. Why was there just the one? The Pitworlders, at least the ones who lived in these houses, seemed to live so simply. The statue just didn’t quite fit. Perhaps in all the chaos of abandoning the planet, it had been stolen or left by some rich insect-man on his way into the Pit. A glass statue didn’t seem important to me, but the aliens would have a completely different culture and history, different views and different values. What made sense to them might not make sense to me.
What drove them to build a giant Pit in the first place? What drove them all away?
The sudden and complete emptiness of the planet struck me again.
Where was everyone?
A haunting tune played on violin followed us all the way back to our spaceship and the waiting Pit.
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A mysterious world is discovered with a massive, miles-wide pit torn through one continent. The planet is strewn with the remains of a fallen civilization. What happened to the locals, and what were they digging for so desperately? A young intern assigned to the first expedition into the Pit will be among the first to find out...
J.L. Ender was born on planet Earth, third planet in the Sol system, which is located in a spiral arm of the Milky Way galaxy. Ender enjoys coffee, Mexican food, and devastating robot apocalypses. He has tamed a member of the local wildlife, a thing called a dog. In a fit of confusion he named it Bear and often finds himself walking the creature.