“I said don’t touch anything,” he repeated for the third time, annoyed she was ignoring him.
“Don’t worry Jack this place is a ruin, where exactly is the danger?” she asked, gesturing with her hands at the crumbling walls around them as they walked along the remains of some sort of roadway.
It was true, this place was very much a ruin, at least, most of it was, a single building remained reasonably intact. Jack didn’t reply, he simply raised his eyebrows and exaggerated a look around the building they had just stepped into.
She gave him a look, “Ok, a ruin apart from this very old and barely standing single building, I’ll be careful alright? I’ll look out for falling rocks” she finished with a smirk.
Jack frowned, “It may be a ruin but it’s an alien ruin, we have no idea what we’re doing.”
“Maybe you don’t but I do” she replied smugly, pushing her glasses back up her nose, “I’ve studied ruins like this before.” No sooner had they entered the building than she began fiddling with things again, examining symbols and a panel on one of the walls.
He laughed, “Studied? You’ve looked at some slabs of rock which may or may not have been alien, those symbols could have been scratched on by a child high on sugar for all you know.” He shook his head and wandered off to have a look at a curious looking circular platform, being careful of course not to touch anything. Gretchin was a brilliant engineer and scientist, but was easily excitable and didn’t have an ounce of caution in her. He’d once almost lost an arm saving her from begin turned into a popsicle, their engine cooling system had packed up and she had decided to crawl inside to fix it before it had safely shut down. Jack had to quickly re-direct the liquid nitrogen coolant, only problem being he had to reach his arm into one of the cooling chambers to do it, another couple of seconds and he was sure he’d have lost his arm if not worse. He sighed, there was no telling her, she’d just pretend to listen then wander off and find something else interesting to fiddle with.
“They were alien Jack,” she insisted, “they had lettering on them just like this, I even managed to translate some of it,” a hint of pride sneaking into her voice.
“Oh so you can read all this then?” he shot back with a smile.
“Well, no,” she admitted, back on the defensive, “but I can roughly understand a few words or meanings, for instance I think this symbol means power.”
As Gretchin’s finger moved towards the symbol Jack whirled round, “don’t press –“ he tripped on the edge of the two inch high circular platform and fell back, landing on his arse in the centre. At the same moment her finger reached the symbol, suddenly everything came to life, the panel she had touched lit up as did others round the room, circuitry seemingly running through the walls, and the strongest light came from the circle Jack was now sat on.
“Oops” she said, finally looking guilty and worried as the light surrounded Jack.
He just looked down at the platform then back at her, his face completely dead pan. “What have you done this time?”
As Jack awoke he felt the coldness of stone pressing against his face and found himself surrounded in total darkness, a chill spreading through his body. There was something odd about the floor on which he was laid, it was cold, as stone usually was, but it also felt smooth as he ran his hand across its surface, almost man made. Rolling onto his back and sitting up he gave himself a once over to check nothing was broken, nothing was, that was good news at least, but as he tapped his communicator he heard only static and was unable to contact his team. I must be too far underground he thought, that didn’t bode well.
Picking himself up off the ground and dusting himself off he strolled around in a circle, attempting to survey his surroundings, a difficult thing to do without the ability to see. He managed to pretty much determine he was in a cave, albeit an unusual one. Feeling the walls he could tell the whole area had a strange smoothness to it, where as a normal cave would have sharp edges, rocky outcrops and perhaps stalagmites and stalactites. This cave, or at least this section of it, was more of a dome shape with no random rocks or rough floors anywhere to be found, the walls continued in a circular shape, only broken by a singular archway that he presumed led to other parts of the cave as no light emanated from it.
If it had been any more perfect he would have thought it was a structure, but there were imperfections, the floor undulated continuously, it was not a perfect circle or dome, and the archway was more like a tunnel entrance that had intended to be an archway, having tried its best but having not quite managed it. In fact that was the feeling he got from all his surrounding, it was like someone had spoken to the stone and asked it to form certain shapes, the stone had tried its best but not got it completely right, it’s only stone after all he thought, you couldn’t expect a lot. But the thought that some ancient civilization had the power to do something like that gave him the creeps, what else could they do? And, the more pressing question, what else would he find here with him? He grew increasingly concerned the more he thought about it, his chilled feeling spreading, not entirely from the cold.
He was shaken from his dark thoughts as he heard a shuffling sound coming from the darkness beyond the archway. He stared into the absolute black but couldn’t make anything out, whatever it was it was getting closer. Backing off he drew his pistol as he heard the sound approach the archway, proceeding to aim it roughly in the direction of the archway he flicked off the safety with a click. The shuffling noise stopped suddenly, Jack cursed and made a mental note to make the safety switch silent or remove the dam thing entirely. He would prefer not to do the latter he thought, as annoying as the click was his Magnum X15 could do a lot of damage and he didn’t want it to go off in its holster, potentially leaving him unable to father children…or walk.
Both shapes stood still, shadows in the night, Jack too concerned what he might find to move, and the other shape seemingly unwilling to test Jacks marksmanship. There was a shuffling noise, it sounded like someone searching their pockets for something, then Jack heard a faint humming sound and all of a sudden a light appeared. It made him jump and he very nearly pulled the trigger, instantly thankful he didn’t as standing there in the doorway was a man, an old man, but a man all the same. Jack relaxed slightly and lowered the gun, examining the man’s appearance he had a hunched back, a walking stick and what could only be described as the entrails of his former clothes draped over or tied round himself. They covered him but barely, beneath them Jack could see a skeletal figure with very little muscle mass and zero body fat, his skin was bleach white and his hair looked almost ghostly and fragile. In his hands he held a device Jack knew well, it was an ELS, an emergency light source that was standard issue in all survival kits, but it looked like a very old model and was obviously low on power since the light it emitted barely lit up the man’s face. How long had this guy been in here?
Jacks eyes had adjusted quickly to the new dim light source but the old man seemed to be having some trouble, as if he’d been in the darkness for so long that his eyes couldn’t handle even this dim light. Finally he looked up and squinted at Jack, his eyes went wide and something akin to a smile appeared on his face.
“So long” he whispered hoarsely, “it has been so long.” He moved towards Jack, his footwork unsteady, he looked as if he may fall but he remained steadfast. He reached out a bony hand towards Jacks face, veins clearly visible below the ghostly skin, reaching out as if a touch would confirm what he saw wasn’t a dream.
Despite this man’s apparent age and frailty Jack’s instincts kicked in and he stepped back out of the man’s reach. He had been left severely stung before after assuming someone wasn’t dangerous because of the way they looked.
A sadness appeared in the man’s eyes as his hand fell short, but he shook his head and looked back at Jack as if only now was he really seeing him. “I’m sorry, I mean you no harm, it’s just…I haven’t seen another human being in a very long time.”
Jack wasn’t sure he liked the implications of that, “how long exactly have you been here?” he asked emphatically, “and where exactly is here anyway?”
The man nodded enthusiastically, “yes, yes, I will answer all your questions but we must move now” he said glancing around, a worried furrow appeared on his already wrinkled forehead. He turned and moved away, gesturing for him to follow, but Jack wanted answers first.
“Answer my questions first,” he argued, unsure of this man’s intentions, he seemed to have a quiet strength to him despite his frail appearance.
The man shook his head and waved his hand, gesturing again. “No time!” he said, with considerable vigour, “they will know we are here, they are attracted to the light and the noise, we must leave before the…others come”, fear appearing in his eyes as he spoke.
Weighing up his options Jack decided that he didn’t like the sound of these…others very much. He followed the old man back through the archway into a series of tunnels, the light beacon was switched off so Jack was following the old man as best he could. Keeping hold of one end of a rough piece of cloth he had been given, it was possible to follow the old man’s movements, but only just and within seconds he’d already banged his head and his knee on who knows what.
They had been out of the dome mere moments when Jack heard footsteps, they seemed to be heading in their direction but as they took a fork the noises moved away again. There is something odd about those footsteps he thought, much too short and quick when compared to a humans, and there was a faint scraping noise which went along with it, he didn’t know what that was but something told him he didn’t want to find out.
They moved hurriedly through the dark, the old man seemed to know exactly where he was going despite the distinct lack of light, meanwhile Jack was just trying to keep from knocking himself out. Eyes usually adjust to the dark, the irises expanding to pick up even the smallest light source enabling you to see to some extent, but there was no light here, only darkness. He tried to keep his other hand on the wall of the cave for reference but caught it several times on spiked bits of stone, also he could have sworn he felt claw marks scraped into the wall, it sent a shiver down his spine and after that he kept his hand by his side. Without a sense of his surroundings or where he was going Jack became numb to the passage of time, he couldn’t tell if they’d been in these tunnels for minutes or hours and the old man showed no sign of slowing. The good news was Jack could hear nothing to indicate they were being followed either, he decided this was far enough.
“Wait” he said forcefully, reaching out and grabbing the old man by the arm, pulling him to a stop, “I think they are gone, besides, nothing will find us in this maze.”
The old man moved close to him and whispered, “they will find us, they know the tunnels, they know every inch,” twitching as he spoke, then he paused and relaxed slightly, “but we should be safe here for now, just keep your voice low,” he finished taking a deep breath.
“Can we have a little light?” Jack asked, “I feel a bit silly talking to darkness.”
With a grumble the old man agreed, “but only a little, their eyesight is so sensitive to light that even the smallest amount will be visible to them throughout the tunnels.”
The old man reached for his pocket, but before he could get out his ELS Jack taped a few times on his wristband and slowly a faint glow began to appear. His wristband was useful for all sorts of things but using its display screen as a dull light source was probably the most mundane of all of them, nevertheless it gave off less light than the ELS so the old man seemed happy enough.
In the low light he could only just make out the old man’s features but it was enough, he didn’t feel like he was talking to nobody now. They smiled at each other, both of them taking a moment to relax and calm down. Finally Jack reiterated his first two questions, “how long have you been here? And where is here?”
Another faint smile appeared on the old man’s face, but this time there seemed to be a trace of amusement in it. “If I answer your first question it shall only prompt further questions, it would be much more straightforward to answer your second question first…but where is the fun in that,” a mischievous glint appeared in his eyes. “I don’t know for sure how old I am but when I left earth humanity was only just reaching beyond its own star system for the first time.”
Jack gaped incredulous, “but that was over 500 years ago!” he exclaimed. “How is that possible?”
The old man laughed, obviously amused by the confusion he was causing. “What did I tell you” he said jovially, then held his hands up in apology. “I shall explain, my ship was one of the first to leave the solar system, we were pioneers and immensely proud of it. For years we explored planets, charted gas giants and played chicken with supernovas, we liked to think of ourselves as space cowboys.” He looked away into the darkness with a sigh and a weary smile, “the good old days.”
“What happened?” Jack asked politely, trying to delicately approach an obviously prickly subject.
“Curiosity” he replied. “We found some ruins on a planet that looked like it could have been the home to a great civilisation once upon a time, we couldn’t help but take a look around.” Most of the buildings were just broken shells of what they once were, but one building remained mostly intact.”
Jack shifted his weight from foot to foot, feeling uncomfortable at the eyrie similarity of their situations. He had been unsure about exploring the ruins but Gretchin had been insistent, and he had to admit curiosity had gotten the better of him.
“While making notes a colleague of mine pressed something he shouldn’t have and the next thing I knew I was here, in that dome shaped section where I found you.
“But that was 500 years ago, how is it that you’re still alive? Although to be fair you certainly look good for your age” he said with a little laugh.
The old man laughed, “yes I suppose I do don’t I” he said smiling, “I’m not sure how but this cave has kept me alive, I don’t need to eat, drink or sleep, and I age considerably slower, although as you can clearly see, I do still age.”
The more Jack thought about it the more sense it made, he hadn’t felt hungry or thirsty since he got here, but he wasn’t full either, merely content. “So is this place some sort of spiritual retreat or health spa? If it is it’s gone downhill more than a little.”
The old man shook his head, “it is something far more sinister I’m afraid, you see there is no way out of this maze, it’s a prison. The ultimate punishment, life eternal but in solitude, in the dark, your body slowly aging beyond its natural state, until you turn into the…others.”
Jack shivered at the thought, their unseen nature making it worse, only noises in the dark, what horrific creatures did humans become if they lived forever. He stopped himself, he was letting his imagination run wild and that wasn’t helping. Focus he told himself, deal with the problem at hand. “As pleasant as they sound I think I’ll skip the introductions, did you say there is no way out?”
“I thought so for a long time, but after a couple of hundred years I found a crack in the cave wall, no light came through it but I could feel a faint breeze.”
“Wow that was a lucky find, in all these caves in the dark, the odds must be astronomical!”
“Perhaps, but being stuck here for 500 years with nothing to do but explore certainly slims them down a bit. Sadly I have nothing that could break through the wall, so the closeness of my freedom simply made my imprisonment all the worse.”
Jack smiled, “I have an answer to that problem” he said patting his holster, “just show me the way.”
The smile beamed across the old man’s face, “fantastic, it’s not far – “
Something hit the old man in the side, hard, and he went down. Jack momentarily lost sight of him in the gloom, then spotted him several feet away in a heap on the floor. He seemed larger than usual until Jack realised that it was two shapes on the floor not one, whatever had barrelled into him was now on top of him doing who knows what.
Instinctively his hand went to his gun, but in the low light he couldn’t be sure of not hitting the old man, instead he charged over and grabbed what he was hoping was the attacker’s neck. He came up lucky, closing his hands around its throat he yanked it back and threw it off. Kneeling to check the old man’s condition he was barely able to see if he was still moving before something slammed into his chest and knocked the wind out of him.
The creature was on him immediately, clawing at him, Jack took a slash across the neck before he managed to effectively block the slashing claws, winded as he was. He could see it now in all its horrific splendour as it tried to rip his throat out, it was similar to a human, or had been at some point, having a head, two arms and two legs, but its limbs seemed to have two joints instead of the usual one and its head was a lot wider. These oddities produced two results, firstly any arm lock Jack tried to employ it got out of easily, and secondly the wide face had a permanent blood curdling smile etched on it, with rows of razor sharp teeth. It was strong as well, not overly so but strong enough despite its withered body being quite light, like it didn’t realise how weak it should be, Jack was barely holding it off. He winced as something raked down his shin, claws on their feet too, that explains the scraping sound.
As horrible as the situation was, it gave Jack one very important advantage, it took away the fear. He knew what he was facing now, they weren’t just sounds in the dark, they were real. Determination replaced fear, the determination to live.
Jack managed to get his hands through the swarm of claws ever so briefly, enough to push them hard against the creatures chest and throw it back a few feet. The creature was fast to recover though and sprang back onto jack within seconds, all the time Jack needed to draw his pistol and level it with his chest, so when the creature again pounced on him the barrel was flush against its abdomen.
Watching the creatures teeth open and close inches from his face Jack said dryly, “Sorry but I don’t kiss on a first date”, squeezing the trigger.
The bullet slid out the barrel of the gun and instantly entered the creature’s chest, a split second later the creature exploded into a dozen pieces and flew off in different directions. There was surprisingly no fluid spray like you’d get if you did that to a human, no red mist, no stomach or bowels content, Jack wondered if that was a result of the place or their species. As a result however Jack was able to stand up and dust himself down with minimal effort.
“You were saying” Jack prompted, but the old man was just staring into the space where the creature had been moments ago. There were a few remains of the creature caught in his ragged clothes and his face looked a little paler, although after being in the dark for this long it was more a question of degrees of pale. Jack clapped his hands twice in front of the old mans face, “hey, I think maybe we should get going, I just made one hell of a noise.”
Finally recovering from his reverie he said, “yes, they will already be on their way, come, come.”
Killing the light he assumed the same routine as before, letting the old man pull him along while he tried his best not to bust a kneecap on a rock or give himself concussion. Soon he began to hear those same foreboding sounds in the dark, the oddly paced footsteps, the scraping. They could be explained now, Jack could imagine exactly what was making them, however they were still dangerous and the noises still sent a chill up his spine.
They weren’t in the tunnels for as long as before and the old man soon pulled them to a stop. He moved away from Jack and said, “this one, quickly we must escape,” presumably while standing next to a wall.
“Hold on a sec” Jack replied reaching for his wristband, if he was going to blow a hole in a wall he needed to be able to see what he was doing. Just as he activated the band he heard a noise in the tunnels that made him spin round, they were getting closer. “Alright let’s get out of here – “
He felt something strike him hard on the back of the head and the next thing he knew he was laying face down on the floor, his head pounding, the collision with the unforgiving floor not having helped. He tried to rise but as he did he felt the familiar feeling of a gun barrel pressed against the back of his head.
“I’d stay down if I were you” an unmistakable voice said. “You’ll make a lovely distraction for the others while I make my escape.”
Jack couldn’t see anything and couldn’t move, but right now he was more concerned with making sense of the sudden betrayal. They could have escaped together and the creatures weren’t close enough to have caught them, at least they weren’t before. Then it clicked, “your crew didn’t accidentally trap you here did they?” he said matter-of-factly, this was planned from the start, all he had been waiting for was the right moment, this was premeditated betrayal and premeditation suggests previous.
“How very clever of you, you are of course correct, apparently they didn’t agree with my brutality and constant backstabbing. So when we deciphered some of the text in the ruins they thought it was a good way to be rid of me.” The gun pressed harder against Jacks head, pressing against the bruise, making him wince. “And they thought I was a back stabber” he growled angrily though grated teeth. His voice levelled again, “but it was so good of you to bring me a way of breaking out of this accursed place.”
Having recovered enough from the blow and the following fall, Jacks mind managed to fit everything together. They could have escaped together he was fairly certain of that, but this man would never have gone through with it, betrayal is part of who he is, and the prison wouldn’t have made his state of mind any better. Jack couldn’t fathom being in the dark for 500 years, but it was no excuse for this man’s action, what Jack had to focus on now was how to escape. Wait, the dark, he thought, there was an idea, now he just needed a distraction.
He got it the very next moment, growls and chittering became suddenly very close and loud as if they were in the same chamber or very close. Jack felt the gun move off his head slightly and he could imagine the old man looking up towards the noises. It was now or never, either his plan would work or he would die here, overwhelmed and torn apart.
The old man felt a slight movement in Jacks body as he grabbed something out of his belt and flicked it at the wall, “Don’t move!” he yelled.
Jack just smiled, “you know old man, you’re looking a bit pastey, what you need is some sun.”
With that the wall exploded and bright sunlight flooded the chamber, exposing everyone to the harsh natural light of day. At the same moment Jack rolled away, he didn’t want to take the chance of the old man firing in a literal blind panic.
Springing to his knees and giving his eyes a second or two to adjust he could see his gamble had produced the desired effect, the old man was screaming about his eyes and had even dropped the gun so he could clutch them with both hands, desperately trying to block out the burning sunlight scorching his retinas. Some creatures had made it into the chamber, but they were now in a similar position and no threat to anyone. The creatures that had yet to enter seemed to be keeping their distance after seeing what happened to the others.
Jack casually walked over and picked up his gun, whispering to the old man, “nobody betrays me and gets away with it.” The old man yelled and swung at him wildly, but Jack simply stepped out of the way.
“I had your gun, I had the way out, you said it was our way out!”
Walking out the hole he had blown in the wall Jack smiled mischievously, “for a start I didn’t say anything, I indicated that my gun was the solution, and it could have been, but I always like to have a backup plan.”
“If you like I’ll give you a demonstration of what my gun can do”, Jack said pointing it to the roof of the cave. “You seem to like the dark, so let me get rid of this light for you.”
The old man’s scream was cut off as the roof exploded and filled up the hole created only moments before.
Jack sighed in relief, it was over and he had been very lucky. Firstly he’d had no idea if he would hit the right spot with the detonator, and second it could have been night outside, in which case he would surely have ended up dead.
He clicked on his emergency locator beacon and sat, his crew would find him, but until then he was just going to lay there and enjoy the sunshine.