“Are you crazy?” Commander Brink asked, his face turning an alarming shade of red. I’d never seen the commander so angry before. Woole was taking Brink’s rage in stride, keeping his face expressionless. He kept his hands in his pockets, his posture relaxed.
The three of us were standing before the hoverplatform. Everyone else was loaded up and ready to go. Woole and I hadn’t returned fast enough, and everyone had been waiting and worrying at the drop site with no clue where we had gone.
“A rogue spacewalk was one thing. You did your job and did it well, so I didn’t complain, but wandering off on an alien planet? That wasn’t a rhetorical question. Are. You. Crazy?”
“No sir, sorry sir. Just wanted to investigate.”
“And what was it? What did you find?”
“Just a C-Marine prank, sir.”
“Well, thanks for the gray hairs. You wander off like that again, and you’ll stay on the ship for the rest of the mission. We hardly need a linguist to explore a doggone hole in the ground.” He took a deep breath as though winding up for something.
“And you,” he said, turning to me. Then for some reason, he almost deflated as he locked eyes with me, shoulders sagging so slightly I nearly missed it. “You might think on the company you keep.” He spoke more softly than I’d expected, but it was clear he was still angry. “In life, there are followers and leaders. Decide which one you want to be.” He had a point. I had risked getting in trouble because of Woole twice now in one day.
The commander waved a hand towards the waiting platform, bowing slightly as he mocked us. “If it’s not too much time out of your busy schedule, you gentlemen could climb aboard.”
We hopped up a few stairs past a little pilot station where Jon Hadrex sat at the controls. Teena Mae was talking to Hadrex, twirling a strand of dark hair around her fingertip as she talked.
I made my way to the front of the platform, adjusting the straps on my backpack. I was grateful I’d left it ready to go at the drop site. If I’d forgotten it on the ship, I would have had to do without it. It contained snacks, a small lantern, a notebook, a bottle of water, and my gauntlet. These items could prove useful once we got down there.
The rest of the crew was up there, every one of them staring down at the waiting Pit with wide eyes. It yawned ever outward, a vast, empty darkness that stretched out of sight. The only one not paying attention other than Hadrex and chatty Teena Mae was Doc Taryn, who was glued to her tablet computer again. What she looked at all day was anyone’s guess, though Hondo had told me he thought the unsmiling, unfriendly doctor was keeping an eye on our vitals. I didn’t like the idea of someone that grumpy watching my heart rate, but I didn’t have much say in the matter.
The robots Gareth and Merc were strapped in near the pilot station. They were powered down to conserve battery since their solar panels would be useless down below. I liked Merc better shut off.
“You may begin, Jon.” Commander Brink told our pilot.
The hoverplatform jittered, the engine whining as the jets below lifted us into the air. Most hovercraft—like the hoversled we’d used for cargo—could only move a few feet off the ground, but this one was designed to float higher and descend at a comfortable speed. If we’d tried to use our hoversled to enter the Pit, it would be a much shorter and messier trip. Whoooosh, boom, splat, in other words.
We moved outward, hovering over the darkness. “Take us down,” Commander Brink ordered, nodding to Hadrex. The platform began to lower. The eastern edge of the Pit towered above us; the western edge lost somewhere on the horizon.
Entering the Pit reminded me of a trip into space. Flying a small craft into a huge darkness bound for the mysterious unknown. I was excited about the possibilities, but the glass statue and the warning weighed on my mind. Weren’t pranks like that supposed to be funny? I couldn’t help thinking we were missing something there, something important.
We descended for several minutes in silence. Even Teena Mae was quiet. We were awed by the size of the Pit and just floated downward together, taking it in. After an hour or so, the Pit narrowed. It wasn’t Delaware-wide all the way, it seemed. Soon we could see the western edge in the distance, then it was merely a few hundred feet out. At some point—maybe two hours into our descent—it was almost close enough to touch. Whatever the scope of the Pit had been initially, the Pitworlders had eventually scaled their plans down considerably.
Even with the sun straight overhead—as it was when we reached this last narrowing—it soon grew pitch-black in the Pit. Running lights on the hoverplatform lit the area well enough, but they could only push the darkness back, not drive it away completely. It felt odd to see the darkness that way, as something to press off. This far underground the feeling of being pushed down on grew and grew, as the darkness and the dirt soared ever higher over our heads. That cheery, Earth-like world receded like a strange dream.
Four hours in and we reached the bottom.
We hit the ground with a light thump as Jon Hadrex brought the hoverplatform to a stop. The Pit widened at the bottom into a clearing about a hundred feet wide. The tunnel we had flown through to get here was a little blue circle high above our heads.
For a moment, we were all quiet. I could hardly contain my energy, though. I hopped over the railing and off the platform, landing not on a rock, but dirt. I took one step and tripped over something thick and branch-like, nearly falling. A vine.
“Prometheus Jones!” Commander Brink called, using my full name in his anger like a scolding parent.
“I’m okay,” I called.
“I don’t care if you’re okay! We disembark together,” he said. A hint of amusement in his tone ruined the scolding words. Feeling stupid anyway, I came around and waited by the gate while everyone stepped down from the hoverplatform.
“Why’d it widen here?” Commander Brink asked Darkeson.
“I suspect this is a natural cavern, though I’ll have to get a closer look at the walls before I can say for sure,” the geologist replied, nibbling at a thumbnail as he finished the words.
“You mean they tunneled into an existing cave?” Hadrex asked.
“It would appear so,” Darkeson said.
I scanned the Pit floor as I waited for everyone. It was so dark, the edges were almost lost in shadow. The running lights on the hoverplatform could only penetrate so far. I made out arching patches of darker shadows. These, I assumed, were tunnels leading outward from the Pit floor.
Woole and Hadrex descended last; laser rifles slung over their shoulders. The sight of weapons struck me as odd. Why bring guns to explore an empty pit? The place had been cleared by the C-Marines, explored and declared safe.
“Why do we need guns?” Lena asked, apparently thinking along the same lines. She stood by my side, taking everything in with careful eyes.
“Just a precaution,” Commander Brink assured us. He laid a hand on, but did not draw, a pistol strapped to his belt. It was half hidden by the thin coat he wore, but I’d seen it when I’d first arrived at the drop site, a sleek energy weapon that could burn from a distance. He seemed to be reassuring himself it was still there.
I was half-tempted to double-check on my own weapon. I had a gauntlet in my backpack, a treasure gained from a previous adventure. It could shoot energy beams like a pistol. I’d used it to save myself from robots before. I didn’t like to wear it, though. I preferred less violent weapons when I needed to defend myself, and I saw the gauntlet as a last resort.
The expedition spread out, the adults interested in different parts of the Pit. One by one we activated our lanterns and flashlights, pushing the darkness a little further into the recesses of the cavern. Over the next several minutes we wandered away from the hoverplatform.
Teena Mae crouched to examine the vines that slithered across the floor. The plants were fat and purple, with small leaves sprouting here and there along their length. As Hondo had said, broken glass was scattered among the curling vines. It glimmered in the light of the hoverplatform and the lantern light.
Darkeson studied the walls. He murmured to himself as he walked, holding his lantern high above his head and peering closely at the smooth, stone surface.
Doc Taryn paced near the hoverplatform, only occasionally glancing up at from her tablet.
Hadrex and Woole chatted several paces out, near one of the caves leading away from the bottom of the Pit.
Commander Brink examined a small device from his pack near the middle of the Pit, standing right below the hole to the aboveground world. His expeditionary job was studying alien technology. “Can’t get a read from the old Pitworlder satellites down here,” he mumbled to himself.
Hondo, Lena and I wandered. I counted the tunnels leading away from the Pit. Seven. We were on the expedition to help as needed. This sometimes meant going from extreme busyness to extreme boredom when the adults had no work for us.
I was examining one of the arching tunnel entrances when Teena Mae approached. She walked in a goofy, squatting position, picking up a vine as she went and studying underneath, then moving on a few feet, picking it up again, and peering underneath, then shuffling forward and doing it all over again. Honestly, she looked ridiculous, but she didn’t seem to mind. She had a little smile on her face, her eyes intent on her work.
Suddenly Teena Mae let out a little shriek and crab-crawled backward. I looked up and jumped myself. The biologist had dropped her flashlight on the vine-swathed ground. It shone onto another glass statue. We’d both been startled by the sight. Our nerves must have been raw from the tension of exploring a dark, unknown place. The light was scattered behind the statue into colorful prisms, creating an eerie, backlit effect. Another insect-man like the one Woole and I had seen.
“What is that?” Lena asked.
“Them,” Commander Brink said, striding forward.
“It’s a statue,” Woole pointed out. “We saw one above.”
“Yes, but it’s a statue of one of them,” Brink added. He licked his lips and stooped to pick up Teena Mae’s flashlight. “Images of the Pitworlders were classified.”
“Classified from us?” Teena Mae asked. “We’re part of the first expedition to understand them!”
Commander Brink hesitated. For once, he didn’t seem in control. In fact, he appeared nervous.
“How do you even have pictures of them?” Woole asked. “I thought the planet was empty.”
“The C-Marines found computer archives. We have some data on their history, just nothing about the Pit or why it was being dug.”
“I thought you said the Pitworlders didn’t like their image being captured,” Hadrex said. “From what I read, Pitworlder culture considered photographs and video taboo, and that’s why we don’t know what they looked like.”
“That’s true.” The commander licked his lips again. “They don’t. We didn’t find any pictures of them. For all their technology, the Pitworlders don’t have cameras of any kind.”
“Then how. How do you know what they look like?” Woole pressed.
Commander Brink took a deep breath. “The C-Marines encountered a few of them down here.” He sighed, ran a hand through his hair, licked his lips, then continued. “The C-Marines found two dying Pitworlders upon descent. The soldiers didn’t learn much before they ran. The platoon came under attack by some unknown force and was forced to flee back to the world above. Fearing for their safety the C-Marines quickly left the planet.”
“So you mean . . . ” Woole asked.
“We were never supposed to come here. This planet is not safe.”
Cries of outrage burst from several of the adults, but I barely noticed.
Behind me, I heard a soft, musical sound. A tink-tink-tink of something clattering against a stone.
I remembered the warning then, the one from the beehive house above. Don’t follow the sound.
We didn’t need to.
The sound was coming to us.
“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.
From space, the planet looked like it had been shot with a giant cannonball. One continent—the second largest—had a massive crater bored just north of the center. A round, black hole that was far too perfect to have been caused by any asteroid. It was several miles wide, so big you could stand on one side and not see the far end.
“How?” I asked, raising a gloved hand towards the Pit. I was outside our ship, the Endeavor, making repairs with our mechanic, Donald Woole. I’d been told about the planet, even seen pictures, but being confronted with the Pit directly made it more real.
“That’s what we’re here to find out, rookie.” The voice of Hondo, an older boy on the crew, crackled in my earpiece. “Stay focused; you’ve got a job to do.”
I nodded my helmeted head and turned back to the instrument panel where Woole, was working. He was the ship’s mechanic. Like all six of the adults on the crew, he had multiple jobs and was also a linguist, an expert on languages.
He grunted as he twisted a spanner over a bolt. “Hondo’s right,” Woole said. “Best get this ray shield running. Be a shame to come all this way just to burn up entering the atmosphere.” Despite the grim words, he grinned through his visor. The mechanic always seemed to enjoy his job. “You should hand me a smaller spanner. This one’s slipping.”
I reached for the toolbox tethered to my hip. Every tool inside was individually strapped in, so they couldn’t go floating off. I grabbed the one he’d asked for and handed it over, doing my best not to look down as I did.
Because there was no down.
There was nothing above, nothing below, nothing to the left or right. Just a sea of stars, a mechanic, and a boy. And before us, a planet with a hole punched halfway through it
As Woole worked, I focused on the planet, dubbed the Pitworld, to take my mind off the weightlessness and nothingness. The Pit lay smack in the middle of a green swath of prairie that spread across most of the continent. The black grid of a large city sprawled to the east of the crater. The Pit was the size of Delaware, a place on Earth. In planetary standards, Delaware wasn’t very large, but for a pit it was huge.
I tore my gaze away from the great pit to examine the rest of the planet. Large green landmasses set against deep blue seas, with clumps of fluffy white clouds dolloped about. The planet looked so like Earth. The similarities between this planet and our home made the differences seem all that much stranger.
We were there to explore the planet, myself, my sister and our friend, and a crew of six scientists. We were interns, there to run chores so that the team could focus on official expedition business, cracking the secrets of the Pit. My sister and I had been on the crew for just a few months, the time it had taken to travel all the way out here.
The planet had been discovered recently. Universally speaking, it wasn’t far from Earth. Just one spiral arm over. The system had been missed during earlier mapping explorations due to a sort of interstellar electrical storm that had made the area dangerous for decades. When it had cleared a planet had been discovered, an apparently perfect planet. The locals had been thriving, too. In terms of spaceflight, they hadn’t progressed far, but they’d spread across and conquered most of their planet and both their moons.
And they were all gone.
People on Earth were eager for a new planet to colonize, so we’d been sent to find out whether it was safe to send worldships here.
Where had everyone gone? Had they been attacked? Had they all died? That was the mystery of the Pitworld. A popular theory was that the Pit had been dug to escape some sort of cataclysm. But if that was the case, why was it so big? And why had the people not come back out?
“Theus? I need the screwdriver.”
But if that was the case, why was it so big?
“Theus, I need the screwdriver!” Woole repeated.
“Yes, sir,” I said, fumbling with the toolbox. “Sorry, sir.” I still had the larger spanner in my hand; I’d never put it away. I strapped in the spanner and grabbed for a screwdriver.
“No, the flathead,” Woole said with a tone that suggested I was about a half second from being sent back into the Endeavor.
Glamorous as they may sound, spacewalks are dangerous and uncomfortable. One wrong move and you could fly off into the darkness. And even worse, there’s no way to go to the bathroom until you get back inside. I handed him the flathead. I was about to refocus on the Pit when a shadow moving across the roof of the Endeavor caught my attention.
“Did you see that?” I asked, looking at Woole.
“See what?” Woole’s attention was fully absorbed in fixing the ray shield.
I glanced up again. The shadow was gone. I struggled to make sense of what I’d seen. I wanted to say the shadow had looked like a person, but that was impossible. It was just the two of us out here, in an abandoned solar system far from civilization.
“What did you see?” Hondo asked from inside.
“It’s nothing,” I said, feeling silly. “Just my eyes playing tricks on me.” I tried to rub my eyes, but of course, my helmet was there, preventing me from clearing away the sweat dripping down my forehead.
“Done here,” Woole said. “Let’s head inside.” I’d never heard better news. I’d had the urge to pee within about half a minute of my suit getting zipped up.
We used a tether to guide ourselves back to the airlock. The second the tiny room pressurized and oxygen levels were normal, I tore my helmet off and rubbed the sweat from my forehead.
“You fixed the ray shielding?” Hondo asked Woole as the older man took off his own helmet. Hondo had been monitoring our walk from inside to make sure we were safe.
Woole nodded. He seemed more relaxed than me, less desperate to do all the things you can’t do on a spacewalk. He tugged his gloves off a finger at a time. “Housing just came loose. If I didn’t know better, I’d say it was sabotage!” He laughed as he said it, and Hondo and I chuckled along. The nine-person crew of the Endeavor were the only people around for millions of miles.
“Glad it’s fixed,” Hondo said. “Now we can get on with the mission.”
“Just a few loose bolts,” Woole assured him. “Space gremlins. Happens during these long voyages between stars. I’d be more surprised if we didn’t need at least one spacewalk after a crossing, honestly.”
It was a common joke on starships out of the Roseworld, blaming a failure on phantom space gremlins. Songs had even been written about the space gremlins.
Hondo took my helmet and helped me unstrap my space suit.
“Were there any asteroids or space debris while we were out there?” I asked.
“Did you see something?” Hondo asked. “There wasn’t anything on the scopes.”
“I’m sure it was nothing,” I said with a shrug. “Just my eyes playing tricks on me, maybe the sweat in my eyes.”
Commander Brink strode down the corridor. The tall, gray-haired man was followed by Wallace Darkeson, a geologist. He would be charged with studying the actual formation of the Pit. A stern, gloomy man, his shipboard job was flight engineer. He monitored the ship’s instruments and made sure everything ran correctly. The job seemed to stress him out all the time. He always seemed to be biting his nails or chewing his lip. And he was almost always angry with Woole, who was in charge of fixing whatever broke on the Endeavor.
“You should have told me you were going on a spacewalk,” Darkeson said to Woole before Brink could speak. “I’m the Endeavour’s engineer. It’s my job to know what’s being repaired and why.”
“Now you know. Besides, I was confident we could get things up to snuff on our own,” Woole said. His posture and tone were relaxed. He didn’t seem at all bothered by Darkeson’s anger. He never did.
“Snuff?” Darkeson asked, rubbing at his smooth scalp. “Snuff? What does that even mean? I’m responsible for monitoring the Endeavor; you know that. We’re scientists on an expedition into unknown territory. ‘Up to snuff’ won’t cut it! We need to be able to trust you!”
“Look, I’m sorry,” Woole said, still untroubled. “Won’t happen again.”
Hondo glanced at me. We suspected that wasn’t true. Woole tended to do what he wanted.
“Thank you.” The geologist seemed appeased, though not happy. He slinked away, nibbling furiously at a thumbnail.
“Everything good to go?” Commander Brink asked. I could tell he was giving Donald Woole his best stare. He had a way of stopping everything and staring someone in the eye intently. The commander did that stare with almost every question, as though the answer were the most important thing in the universe. And in a way, it was. If the ray shielding failed, we would burn up on our way through the atmosphere and land on the Pitworld crispy fried.
“Yessir,” Woole said. “Ray shielding should be operational.”
“Should be?” he asked, raising an eyebrow.
“Is, sir. Everything is in order,” Woole corrected himself.
“Great, I want everyone on the bridge and strapped in. We’re preparing for landing.” Commander Brink turned and strode off back the way he’d come from.
“Yessir,” Hondo and I said.
“Aye, sir,” said Woole.
We strode to the Endeavor’s bridge together. All nine members of the crew were there, waiting for us. Commander Brink settled into the pilot’s seat. The bridge was small. There were four chairs up front where the piloting controls lay. Two more seats were behind these. Off to the sides, these were for diagnostics and other shipboard systems. These were all taken up by the adults of the crew.
“Bring us in for landing, Jon,” The commander said to the pilot.
Jon Hadrex was a friendly man who seemed to loved nothing more than flying spaceships. For the expedition, he was an expert on alien cultures and would try to learn what had become of the people who had once lived on the Pitworld.
We’d circled the whole Pitworld twice, scanning the planet and both moons, searching for any signs of life. Other than a few ancient and badly battered satellites, there’d been nothing to find that suggested recent activity. The Commander had tried to connect to the satellites and get a signal, but they weren’t broadcasting as far as any of our systems could pick up.
With the ray shield fixed and the planet quiet, we were all set to land. The ship turned, so we were aimed directly for the pit. Teena Mae, the Endeavor’s copilot, and a biologist, sucked in a sharp breath as the enormous hole filled the viewport. “I never get used to seeing that,” she said. “It’s crazy.”
“Come on, rookie,” Hondo said, pulling on my shirt. “It’s about to get bumpy. Time to strap in.”
Two benches lined the back of the bridge on either side of the door. My sister Helena—or Lena as we usually called her—was already strapped into one of them. Hondo fumbled with his straps as he sat down. Hondo had been our friend for years. Commander Brink’s nephew, he’d gotten us our positions on the mission. I appreciated his help in landing us the internship, even though he was using his experience on prior expeditions to call us both “rookie”.
I sat down and strapped in. I was grateful for the ship’s artificial gravity that allowed me to actually sit. Being weightless was strange. It had been amazing on the first spacewalk, but with each additional walk I’d gone on, the shine had worn off. Gravity could be a hassle, but at least you could count on it. Weightlessness made everything so unpredictable.
The bridge viewport was obscured by the crew in their seats, but the portholes next to our benches gave a small but unblocked view of the outside. Now that the ship had turned, all I could see was starlight, which faded as we descended. One of the Pitworld’s moons, a lumpy brown sphere, slid past our view. It was about half the size of Earth’s moon.
The Endeavor bucked as we approached. The ray shield began to glow red hot from the heat of entering the Pitworld’s atmosphere. Lena groaned. She didn’t like flying and especially hated any kind of turbulence. Just getting her to come on the Pit expedition had taken a little convincing.
“Lena, you can’t let one little crash ruin your whole perspective on flight,” Hondo said.
“Sure I can,” she replied through gritted teeth. Lena could be a little stubborn. She grabbed my hand, though, in a grip tight as a vice. Hondo shook his head, smirking.
Eventually, the heat of re-entry eased off, and the turbulence along with it. Lena didn’t relax even then, keeping her grip tight as we flew. Ignoring the pain in my hand, I focused on the viewport. At first, all I could see was green and black. The green was fields and forests; the black was the cities. Here and there were splashes of bright blue—lakes and ponds—and ribbon-thin bands of brighter colors. The bands came in every color of the rainbow and were sprawled about like roads, but I couldn’t make out what they were made of.
The ship approached the the eastern curve of the Pit. We landed with a light bump in a grassy meadow near the outskirts of an abandoned metropolis. My last sight before I tore my eyes away from the porthole was of distant skyscrapers overgrown with vines, and nearer to the ship were rows of smaller buildings.
“You can let go now,” I said to Lena, unbuckling my safety harness. She released my hand, and we exited the bridge. People always said we looked alike, but I never saw it. Lena was a year older than me, a few inches taller with dark hair.
As we walked down the main hallway, all I could think about was that alien landscape waiting outside. I’d spent the last few years living on a colony on the Roseworld, a planet encased in a protective glass sphere tinted pink. No blue skies there. Then six months aboard the Endeavor. Our ship was large compared to most research vessels, but after weeks of interstellar travel, it had begun to seem cramped. No blue skies there either.
“You’re sure it’s safe?” Lena asked Teena Mae as Hondo lowered the boarding ramp.
“Safe by every standard known to man!” she confirmed, not tearing her eyes away from a small tablet computer.
I was the first one to step outside. I bounded down the ramp the second it touched down on that soft, green grass. I wasn’t the first to set foot on the planet; that honor went to a C-Marine. A platoon had checked out the area and even gone down the Pit before we had been sent out.
The grass was overgrown, coming up to just above my knees. The rest of the crew ranged out behind me, taking in the sight. The small buildings I’d seen from inside were beehive-shaped houses, clustered neatly in little neighborhoods. All the skyscrapers in the distant city had the same shape too, wide and rounded in tiers that got smaller as they neared the sky.
An immense blue sky dotted with clouds stretched above us. It’s easy to take a thing like the sky for granted. We had grass and open spaces on the Roseworld, but it wasn’t the same. It wasn’t Earth. This planet felt so much like Earth it struck up a profound homesickness in me.
I could see the Pit a few hundred feet off. Just seeing the edge of it made me dizzy. Without thinking of the danger, I started toward it, tearing through the tall grasses of the field. I didn’t notice if the rest of the team was following me or not. I walked right up to the edge, so close I kicked a few pebbles down. There were no fences, just a sudden drop like a black hole. The rocks I’d disturbed clattered against the edges of the Pit for a few seconds. I never heard them hit the bottom. Wherever the Pit ended, it was a long way from here.
I stared down. The sides of the Pit were smooth. Dirt and loose rock for several hundred feet, then solid rock, and then darkness. The Pit yawned out to either side. Except for where it stopped right at my feet, I couldn’t see where it ended in any direction. It seemed endless, an eternal mouth opening to swallow us all
I shivered. Not in fear. I was eager. It was the anticipation.
We would be going down there.
Right into the throat of the planet.
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Portal World (Portal World 1)
A giant pit has been discovered on a mysteriously abandoned planet. When the expedition sent to explore meets with disaster inside the Pit, Theus Jones finds himself stranded on another world. When he sets out to find his missing crew, he soon finds himself enmeshed in the strange story of a series of worlds linked by one impossible portal after another.
Prepare to enter...
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.