They paused before entering the cavern. It was illuminated with white light, and Brian double-checked the environmental readings from the limited set of sensors on his communicator for signs of moving people or machines, but there were none.
“The air is breathable and pure, and it’s forty-seven degrees Fahrenheit,” he said.
“Light and atmosphere must be from the probe.” Elwood looked up from his own com, and detached his helmet. “Might as well save on suit oxygen. Mmmm…smells just like Micah’s basement!”
Brian ducked beneath a row of wavy obsidian stalactites and followed Elwood and Evvie into the cavern. In a few seconds, his eyes adjusted to the bright light cast from the interior of the probe overhead by six arrays of floodlights. The wide ring, thirty feet across and lined with jagged teeth, emerged from the center of the ceiling like a monstrous chandelier. The cavern itself had an irregular shape, about sixty feet wide at its widest point, and a few corners evaded the floodlights behind walls of cracked pillars of rock.
Evvie pulled off her helmet, and she shook her hair free as she set it on the ground near the base of a pillar. Brian removed his own. The wet air and had no odor beyond the static smell that always accompanied running fields, and a warm current blew from the opening in the ceiling. Far above, in the black space behind the floodlights, the probe’s secondary hummed.
Evvie’s voice echoed from behind a dark corner. “What the hell? Another body.”
Between Brian, Elwood, and Byrd, the other edges of the cavern had been examined and found empty, so they gathered around the place where she crouched.
The body was thawing in the warm air, but it had been well-preserved until this point, frozen and dry. Its skin was taut, but intact, and its eyelids and mouth were closed gently as if it slept peacefully. The squareness of the jaw and frame indicated that it was a man. He wore a short tunic, boots made from unpolished leather, and a hooded cloak. Wisps of light hair emerged from the hood around his forehead.
Elwood held the edge of the cloak between his fingers. It was stitched with a pattern an inch wide that at first glance resembled a Greek meander, but the square segments of the pattern varied with differing heights, missing edges, and rounded or diagonal corners.
“These are runes of some kind,” Elwood said. “The only one that I recognize is the death rune.” He pointed to a character like an inverted Y with the center line extended to the length of the arms. It recurred every few inches in the sequence of runes.
Evvie levered the corpse’s pelvis aside. “He’s lying on something.” She reached underneath him and extracted a short sword. The blade was less than three feet long and straight-edged before angling a few inches from the point. It had a guard barely wider than the blade instead of a crossguard, and the pommel and blade were inlaid with bronze-colored runes. Its clean, burnished blade shone pale in Brian’s wrist light.
“It’s a Roman gladius,” Byrd said. “I wish Sarah could see this; she would know what era this design is from.”
Elwood peeled open the cloak. “There’s the scabbard!” He unbuckled the belt and slipped it off the body’s waist. The sheath was made from the same rough leather as the boots, and it had no decoration beyond the death rune engraved in the bronze mount and tip. He gently wrapped the belt around the scabbard and tucked it into his backpack.
“How old is that?” Evvie frowned. “If that’s an ancient Roman weapon…has he been here for twenty-six hundred years?”
Byrd laughed. “Obviously not. Even if it’s real—heck, even if the body is that old—it must have been brought on the utility miner. How else would it have gotten in here?”
Brian’s communicator vibrated at his hip, and Elwood’s beeped.
“Oh shit.” Elwood drew a quick breath. “RI is here.”
Brian paged through Martin Luther’s mapper readouts on his own communicator. A declaring ship—RI Panlong, operated by Rousseau International Water Mining Division—had appeared.
Byrd scanned the readouts. He whistled, and the sliding pitch echoed from the stone walls. “Big son of a gun.”
The reconstruction didn’t make sense at first. It showed a civilian design, some kind of freighter or carrier, but the mapper insisted that it had an enormous number of weapons: six streamer turrets, ten railguns, and racks of MIRVing microfusion missiles. Brian felt certain that the systems had analyzed the scan incorrectly—probably as a result of the strange noise around the moonlet—until he magnified the model and saw the rows of weapons himself. It was a mere five miles away, decelerating to dock on the probe.
“What the hell is a civilian ship doing with that loadout?” Evvie shouted.
“This was fun while it lasted,” Elwood said as he illuminated the corpse with his wrist light and snapped a series of photos with his communicator. “Time to leave.”
The whir of a fan echoed from the interior of the probe, and a ring of light just inside the metal opening flashed on. A thin, colorless mist flowed in front of the ring and dissolved into the cavern air. It smelled faintly sweet and fruity, like someone had opened a can of pear halves.
Byrd flipped on his helmet and lifted his com, then gave a thumbs up. His tinny voice came from Brian’s helmet on the ground. “Water vapor carrying organic compounds. Nothing obviously toxic.”
As they gathered at the opening of the passage, Brian realized that things were happening to his vision. Bright flecks of noise in the shadows grew larger until they blended together. He became aware of his focus jumping from object to object—the probe ring, the light reflecting from the edge of a pillar, Elwood’s face—and each jerk of his eyeballs came with resistance, like slogging through mud. Specular highlights on the probe’s cutting teeth left a network of black trails across his view. But the mist behind it moved. He fixated on the oval of light, and as the color returned, the noise warped and structure appeared: long fingers and claws receding inch by inch.
A hand touched his shoulder, and he heard Elwood’s muffled voice. He turned away from the center of the cavern, and the afterimage of the portal throbbed like a halo over Evvie’s head. Her eyes were red, and she stared into the mist. He lost his balance and fell onto his knees. A white flash engulfed his vision, and as it faded slowly, rows upon rows of geometric runes remained lit, lining the cavern walls ceiling to floor. There was another flash and the motion of a struggle in his peripheral.
Evvie’s voice cut sharply, unimpeded by the electric blanket over his senses. “But look at it!”
Someone thrust his helmet onto his head, and after a few seconds breathing pure air, his senses had defogged.
“My vision…what happened?” Brian wondered aloud. Elwood was trying to pull Evvie back into the passage, but she was framing a third shot with her favorite film camera.
After a final flash, she thrust her camera back into her pack and scooped up her helmet. The runes still glowed in the mist behind them as they climbed into the passage. Before he could confirm what he had seen with the others, the walls rumbled beneath his feet and fingertips, and wave of dust rippled past them.
Byrd stopped and raised his eyebrows as he read his communicator. “Well, that was the sound of the Saturn Systems utility miner breaking into a million pieces. We’re not getting out the way we came.”