“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.
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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.