((Co-written with Ciarente))
A room this colorless, with its few lonely, functional furnishings would have screamed 'poverty' back home. After long enough around Caldari, though, you picked up that sparse, dull, and probably really expensive was their idea of elegance.
Esbridar Otulker stared at the flowers on the desk and tried to put her thoughts in order, with limited success.
The summons from Captain Night was wholly outside her experience, and she would have preferred to be back in the lab, watching the chem-techs analyse the samples she'd brought back. Back in the lab or anywhere else. But too junior to have attracted the captain's personal attention before now also meant too junior to do anything other than head top-side at the double when the call came.
Didn't even comb my hair, she thought, checking her reflection in the polished chrome of side of the reception desk and smoothing a few unruly strands back into their place in her mohawk.
"You look fine," Haikiwa Panasen said.
Otulker shot him a glance. Someone's yet to explain to me what he's doing here, too. We have a section full of anthropologists with their cross-cultural-sensitivity seminars and crew-courtesy-course and suddenly we need another one, hauled all the way over from the Krenshaw Institute?
Still, he's nice enough, for someone who wouldn't know real science if it bit him in the ass.
"Thanks," she said grudgingly. "I should have changed when we got back from the surface, but I didn't think ..."
She glanced at the door in the far wall that must lead to Captain Night's office, and then returned her gaze to the flowers.
"A mutually satisfactory conclusion to our meeting," Panasen said.
He nodded at the flowers. Real flowers, Otulker realised for the first time. "That arrangement. The crossed stalks symbolise a meeting or discussion, the tieleto flower, in full bloom like that, means a successful outcome, and the fact that there's three flowers on each stalk, exactly the same size, says that the success will be equal for each party."
Otulkner looked at the pale blue flowers. "Is that what you teach at Krenshaw? Flower arranging?"
Panasen laughed. "No. That's a pretty common arrangement in offices. You'd be hard pressed not to have seen it, if you grew up in the State."
The young man behind the desk raised his head. "Dr. Otulker, Professor Panasen. If you'd go through."
Otulker stood, wiped sweaty palms on the side of her trousers, and headed for that unremarkable door.
If under-furnishing was what the Caldari saw as good taste, Captain Night’s office was less tasteful than the antechamber. Otulker felt marginally better at the sight of a desk with a little bit of clutter on it: datapads, printouts, a few actual, printed on paper and bound in dead-animal skin, books. Some of the languages the titles were in were familiar to Otulker, many of them were not. A small table holding a holo-call unit stood off to one side with chairs clustered around it. Potted kresh plants stood in the corners, and one wall was lined with shelves, holding mostly books with a few small knick-knacks interspersed between them.
Captain Night finished slotting a book back into its place – Otulker caught a glimpse of Gallente writing on the spine – and turned. She judged he was in his mid-thirties. Blandly good looking. Brown hair cut short, and grey eyes. A suit cut in a conservative, Caldari style. Something seemed off - Clone skin she realized. Ever-so-slightly too smooth, un-weathered, looking younger than those eyes. He smiled with a flash of white, even teeth and greeted them in a smooth, practiced voice,
"Dr Otulker, Professor Panasen. I trust you had a good flight up?"
“Yes, sir,” Otulker said promptly.
"What did you find? Just walk me through it, briefly."
"Sir,” Otulker said. “We didn't use the PARB lights, of course, as per Federation regulations on access to sites of possible historical significance. The lumols gave us enough light to find the branching tunnel that led down to the cavern more or less where the scans said it should be, in the area behind the door Commander Invelen described. There were three separate slopes, at one time or another someone'd cut steps into them, switching back on each other, and the cavern was at the bottom of the last one.”
“The steps were definitely the result of human action?” Captain Night asked.
“Sir, yes. No question.”
“Professor Panasen? Your opinion?”
Panasen, Otulker realised, had wandered over to Captain Night’s desk and started leafing through one of the books there. “What? Oh, yes. I think the wear is down to natural erosion rather than use but there were definitely tool marks in places. Your people have the images I took. Is this an actual first edition of Krenshaw’s Compendium?”
Captain Night inclined his head slightly. “It is.”
“Wow!” Panasen turned a page. “He printed these personally, you know, when no publisher – ”
“Indeed,” Captain Night said politely. “However, perhaps we might discuss the subject another time.”
Panasen closed the book with a sheepish smile. “Sure. Sorry. Where were we?”
“The stairs to the cavern,” Captain Night prompted.
“Oh, right! Yes. Definitely made. Impossible to say when without better climate records, but not recent, not at all recent. Not the tunnel itself, though, well, some parts opened up a bit, I got images of those as well, but it’s definitely an adaptation of a naturally-occurring access-way. Narrow as Heth’s mind and as cold as – what was it you said, Esby?”
Otulker felt herself color. “I don’t recall exactly. I remarked on the low ambient temperature.”
“No, that wasn’t – here, I made a note on the shuttle up, it wasn’t one I’d heard before –“ Panasen dug through his pockets. “I’m thinking of doing a paper on temperature comparisons in colloquial expressions, you know, I don’t think it’s ever been – oh, here we are. ‘Cold as Jamyl’s nipple’.” He beamed at them both. “And it was. Cold as Jamyl’s nipple.”
“There’s still snow on the ground in the area, sir,” Otulker said hastily to Captain Night. “The ground’s largely frozen, according to local reports. A low ambient temperature is to be expected below ground under those circumstances. Precisely how low is impossible to predict given the variables of soil composition, air movement and the different thermal absorption and retention rates of geological strata.”
Captain Night nodded. “And the cavern?”
“Contained what appeared to be an aphotic lake, sir, but …” Otulker trailed off. Appeared to be. Nothing had appeared in that thick, heavy darkness that swallowed the dim glow of their lumols and seemed to grow fatter on the food.
She cleared her throat and tried again. “On closer observation it became evident the body of liquid was not water, sir, not H2O, I mean, or at least, not without a significant additive of some sort. Samples are currently undergoing analysis in the lab, but it was clear immediately that it was more viscous, and liquid at a temperature several degrees below the freezing point of water. Volatile, too. And there’s the color, and refractive qualities.” Captain Night raised an eyebrow and Otulker realised he had not seen the sample. “Uh, it’s black, sir. I don’t mean, dirty, muddy. It’s black. And doesn’t seem to reflect much light back, not much at all.”
“Quite extraordinary,” Panasen said. “Like a black hole in liquid form, almost. Imagine, Captain Night, a cavern of that size, which is not all that small to begin with, in which everything but the smallest ledge of rock at the entrance is awash with this stuff, black as pitch, unreflective, coating the walls near the waterline so the horizon line vanishes. The place just seemed, subjectively, huge –“ His enthusiastic illustrative gesture caught the tip of one of the stems in the arrangement on Captain Night’s desk and the whole thing wobbled precariously as Panesen grabbed at it. “Whoops! Sorry. Oh, my, is this – it is, isn’t it, a Choysen original? I didn’t know there were any in private hands – “
“Professor Panasen,” Captain Night said.
“Yes. Sorry. The cavern.” Panasen set the vase carefully upright. “Where was I? Oh, yes. Huge, subjectively. Infinite, even.”
"Any signs that people had been there previously? Signs of ritual use?"
Panasen nodded vigorously. “A ledge near the entrance, again, tool marks indicating a natural feature of the rock had been enhanced for use. I found traces of a substance that didn’t appear to be naturally occurring in the cracks, too, samples at the lab. At a guess, and it’s just a guess, mind, I’d say some sort of wax, possibly a soap, but more likely a wax.”
“As in candlewax?” Captain Night asked.
Panasen beamed at the Captain as if he were a particularly bright student. “Exactly! As in candlewax.”
“Yes,” Panasen said, turning serious. “There was a sense of … a presence. Of some sort.”
Captain Night frowned slightly “A presence?”
Panasen nodded. “A malevolent one, too. We weren’t welcome there.”
“Dr Otulker? Do you concur with Professor Panasen’s assessment?”
“No, sir,” Otulker said. I’m a scientist, not some touchy-feely let's-all-learn-to-get-along anthropologist. I look at the evidence, not hides my head under the pillow because there are shadows under the bed.
There’s nothing there in the dark that isn’t there in the light.
Usually a comforting thought, today it reversed itself immediately. What’s there in the dark will still be there in the light. Nameless, shapeless dread seized her, like a fist as cold as that cavern closing around her heart, and her vision blurred and dimmed as icy sweat sprang out on her face and neck.
She blinked, blinked again, and saw Captain Night studying her as Panasen rattled on.
“Oh, come on, Esby, you felt it too,” he said.
“Felt what, precisely?” Captain Night asked.
“Fear,” Panasen said simply. “A sense of … dread, a certainty of impending doom. And before you ask, Captain Night, I’m not claustrophobic and I’m not afraid of the dark. And Esby’s a geologist, I bet she spent half her life down holes in the ground when she was a student. There’s something down there, and it doesn’t like us, and it doesn’t like being disturbed.”
“Sir,” Otulker said, and had to swallow hard and try again. “Sir. I … felt something similar.” The faint susurration of the thick, black liquid that stretched out from the edge of the circle of light into unfathomable distance and depth, the darkness so dense it seemed to press against her face, trying to fill her mouth and nose with every breath … the effort of courage it took to walk a few steps and drop the sample jar down, then beat a hasty retreat. “It wasn’t the sort of place you’d want to hang around, sir.”
“I see,” Captain Night said. He glanced aside for a moment, and then looked back at Otulker. “I have instructed the lab technicians to treat the samples you retrieved as biohazards, Dr Otulker. And you will both, along with Sergeant Jaedald, report immediately to medical.”
“Sir,” Otulker responded automatically, and then: “Sir?”
“There are a number of neurotoxic chemicals that produce exactly those symptoms Professor Panasen described, Dr Otulker,“ Captain Night said. “You will be screened for exposure to any of them."
It was clearly a dismissal. Otulker saluted and turned to the door, then turned back. "Professor. Come on."
"Oh? Oh! Of course. Sorry." Panasen hastily put back the book he'd picked up from the Captain's desk and obediently followed Otulker to the door.
She took the precaution of holding it open and gesturing for him to preceed her, just in case he spots something else interesting.
Panasen stepped out into the cheerless antechamber. Otulker followed him, with one glance back into the room she'd never seen before and if I'm lucky, never will again.
Captain Night seemed to have already forgetten them, turning back to his desk. He picked up the book Panasen had been so excited about and opened it, frowning slightly.
"The darkness no light can pierce," Otulker heard him murmur. "The silence no sound can break. Nameless and forgotten."
The hair rose on the back of her neck.
She turned smartly on her heel and left the Captain there, with his pod-pilot implants and his priceless vase and with whatever nameless dark that book described, headed straight for medical, where they would test and name and treat whatever that cavern had held.
A toxin. Just a toxin.
Absolutely nothing else.