Demen glanced at the clock. No, as he'd thought, he wasn't late – a precise sixty seconds early, in fact. Commander Invelen was clearly impatient to hear his report on what had happened on Annelle XI.
And she doesn't even know the half of it, Demen thought, nodded to the ensign, and stepped into the inner office.
“Keep an eye out, Gunny, and give the girl whatever help she needs,” was the extent of Demen's orders. He appreciated the trust, both in being put in charge of the detail sent to the Commander's sister's hometown and in the usefully wide latitude attached to it.
Still, looking at 'the girl', he wished Commander Invelen had been a little more specific. There was something about Nualla Aereth, an unexpectedly old gaze in a teenage girl's face, that made him wary.
So did the fact that she'd arrived in company with Captain Morar Santee, who'd earned his own entry in the Utopian Ideal's security files.
It didn't quite fit. And things that didn't fit, in Demen's experience, led to things that couldn't be anticipated.
Which wasn't good, when it came to the Commander's family.
Demen stopped in front of the desk and snapped a salute, eyes fixed on the wall. Commander Invelen had made a new addition to the artwork on her office walls since the last time he'd been here, vying for pride of place with the painting of plants in a hydroponics bay: a child's drawing of two figures, one in dark clothing with brown hair, bristling with weapons, the other with bright yellow hair in a bright blue dress, both with wide smiles. Camille's handiwork, Demen guessed as his gaze fell on it. Lucky she's better with a gun than with a pencil, given her ambitions.
"At ease Master Gunny,” Commander Invelen said. “Take a seat. And tell me what it was you weren't willing to trust to the comm system."
Demen glanced at the folder on her desk, a match for the one in his hand, as he sat down. His earlier report.
His earlier, incomplete, report.
“M'ser Morar must come as well.”
There was no room for negotiation in Nualla's voice. Demen's options were limited. She would go with or without a marine escort, that was clear. He didn't like the thought of her down in the tunnels with Morar Santee and no-one else, didn't think his orders extended to restraining a ReAw captain by force, either. Not even Captain Santee.
Private Nere and Demen himself could handle Captain Santee, if it came to that.
“Of course,” he told Nualla politely. “When would you like to go?”
“Given the report from the first team, how cramped they said it was, I'd planned to take just two marines,” Demen said, and Commander Invelen nodded. “With Captain Santee, that was down to one, Private Nere. That made four of us, all with respirators. We had therm-suits. It would have taken a couple of days to get one fit for the priestess, and the report indicated it wasn't cold enough down there to be dangerous, for a short period at least, so she rugged up warm and we went down.”
Invelen nodded again, lips thinning. She hadn't been with the team that went down on the most recent trip, but it was no secret she knew those tunnels from personal experience. Demen himself had been in a shuttle double-checking his underwater gear when the order had come to abort.
Just what exactly had happened, now, that wasn't something the crew knew. Gossiped about, yes, but knew,no.
Something bad, that was the only consensus. Something that had put both the Commander's sisters in medical, down-planet, that had made the Captain bring Dr Sanik to Annelle at priority speed.
He'd seen Captain Roth, after, when they'd brought her aboard for the medics to look at her.
Rumor was they'd been able to hear her screaming clear down to B Deck. No needles, please, no needles!
Something bad had happened in those tunnels.
Demen had guessed as much, before.
Now he was certain.
The twisted remnants of the metal door the Commander had described.
“This is not a good place,” Nualla said.
Demen felt it too, a crawling on the edge of his nerves. The briefing had warned him to expect it. “This is where we should put on the masks.”
“I made sure Ms Aereth's mask was properly fitted,” Demen said. “Captain Santee did not allow me to check his. In retrospect, I should have insisted.”
Stairs, past the twisted remnants of the metal door the Commander had described. A narrow, twisting slope where someone had taken the time to chip away enough of the rock to create a rough staircase. A turn, another, the hiss of the respirators the only sound.
Cold that had Demen turning up his therm-suit, and then turning it up again.
A ledge of rock, just as the report had described. And beyond it …
Black. A deep, thick, sticky black like nothing Demen had ever seen, so cold that even shifting to the infra-red spectrum on his optical implants couldn't reveal what was there in the dark, only gave the edges of the black a nasty, bruised, bluish tinge.
“The priestess, Nualla, she said she needed to see better. The regulations about historical sites ...” Demen shrugged slightly. “She seemed certain. And she said she was … a local authority.”
“She is,” Commander Invelen said shortly.
“We switched on the PARBS, and it gave us a better view, but not by much.” Demen indicated the folder on Commander Invelen's desk. “You can see for yourself. And the priestess kept saying she had to see, see what was in the water.”
Invelen flipped open the folder and eyed the contents. “It's not water, Gunny.”
“No, sir,” Demen said. “We were discussing it, when Captain Santee became … agitated. And removed his mask.”
Captain Santee could choke on the tainted air in the cavern, could stumble into the freezing liquid that surrounded them and drown, as far as Demen was concerned, but the man had a knife and the girl he's been sent here to help was standing far too close to him.
“Please step away from him, Ms Aereth,” he said, moving a little closer to her.
She ignored him, reaching out to Santee, towards the knife. “This place has taken enough, M'ser. Don't feed it.”
“Ma'am. Please step away from him.” The knife moved, and Demen tensed, felt combat 'plants flash to life, felt time slow that vital little bit.
Perhaps the girl's words got through to Santee, though, or perhaps the air was more dangerous even than the reports had indicated. The man stumbled away from the lake and sank down against the wall, shaking. “Stay away from me.”
Nualla studied him for a moment, and then turned back to Demen. “You were going to get more lights?”
He was a little surprised by how quickly she dismissed Captain Santee, but nodded. “Sonar might be more useful.”
She nodded, and turned back to the water. “I have to see.”
“We couldn't get visual penetration with the lights we had. She got a bit excitable, sir. Told me there were people in there and she had to find them. I thought she might be going to jump in and look for herself, at one point. So I called Dr Otulker and got the exact density of the liquid in that cavern. We ran a scan set to identify any variations.”
“That was good thinking,” Invelen said. “Find anything?”
Demen paused. “Yes, sir,” he said. “We did.”
Pale green lines sweeping back and forth over the display as the comp built up enough information to create an image. Watching as it slowly resolved itself into dark green for the lake, darker for the rock below and around it, and …
One fuzzy white shape, then another. Then a third, a fourth ... Demen counted past ten, past twenty, and looked up to see Nualla staring down at the screen.
She reached out and touched it with one gloved finger. "That … the pale spot. Is that ...?"
"It's the right size and shape," Demen said.
"It's true. They left them here, and they're still here. We have to get them out."
“I'm sorry, get them out?” Demen asked. “You'd like the bodies retrieved?”
“No one should be here,” Nualla said softly. “Retreive them, those poor boys. Take them back to the river.”
“It wasn't too different to recovery after a hull breach,” Demen said, and Commander Invelen nodded. “Easy enough to get the right gear. The main delay was just the lack of room. We set up one of the chambers in the main tunnels as a, well, as a morgue. I didn't think bringing the bodies one by one through the church all day would be the best look.”
“Nualla agreed?” Invelen asked.
Demen nodded. “She mainly just wanted them out,” he said.
“Yeah.” Invelen looked at the images in the folder again. “Can't say I blame her.”
It's not easy, handling a body frozen solid in a way that respects the dignity of the person who used to wear it.
Spacers learn how, though.
The marines brought the dead out as gently and carefully as if they'd been their own crew-mates, these long dead men – and all the ones Demen saw were men – withered a little with their long immersion but otherwise unchanged.
Hands and feet bound, all of them, with silver chains, and according to the medics examining the bodies, each with a silver coin pushed into their mouth.
The little priestess watching, as the bodies were laid out across the floor, warming her hands on the heat-pack Demen had gotten for her, her face as expressionless and her eyes as old as those of the corpses at her feet.
“There were twenty nine, all up,” Demen said. He opened the folder he held and slipped out a couple of pages, leaning forward to lay them on the desk.
“Ancestors open their arms to the poor bastards,” Invelen said, studying them. “All of them like this?”
Demen hesitated. “Not … not quite.”
“You should see this, sir,” Nere said quietly.
The note in Nere's voice gave Demen pause. He eyed Captain Santee. “I'm sure you can find your own way out, Captain.”
He'd judged the other man correctly: Santee stalked out.
Demen waited until he was sure Santee was gone before he went over to the covered corpse Nere had indicated.
“Not quite?” Commander Invelen asked.
Demen weighed the folder in his hand, and shook his head.
Recognition and rejection in the same heartbeat at the sight of that familiar face, one side scraped raw and the glint of silver showing between chipped teeth.
A face that had always had a smile for him, for Ciarente Roth was a kind woman.
Had been. Had been a kind woman.
Had been a kind woman and a devoted sister to the little girl who wanted nothing more in the Cluster than to be a marine, the little girl who'd soon have to stand by her sister's coffin and learn grief far, far too soon.
Had been Camille's sister, and Commander Invelen's, and that thought brought a brief, ugly memory of a small room in a station in Delve and a bound prisoner shot point-blank in cold blood.
Who-ever had done this to the XO's sister …
And then his heart beat again and rational thought cut through the shock. Ciarente Roth had left Debreth days ago and there was no way she'd come back without Demen knowing about it. No way he wouldn't have heard from the Commander if Captain Roth had gone missing, no way anyone had gotten down here without Demen and his team knowing about it.
The comm connection was made in an instant, the priority code going directly to Tanith Burke. “I need Captain Roth's location,” Demen said.
“She's in Lustrevik,” Burke replied.
“Are you sure?”
There was a pause, just a short one. “We have eyes on her in the Civic Park at BTA station. Is there something wrong?”
“No,” Demen said. “No, there's nothing wrong.”
That wasn't entirely true, he thought, looking down at what had to be some sort of clone. But compared to what he'd thought in that first second …
Compared to that, there was nothing wrong.
Demen took out two more pictures. Pictures that weren't in the original report, and now existed only as the hardcopy he held in his hands. He paused before he set them on the Commander's desk, "Two of the deceased were female. Clones, it seems."
He slid the images carefully onto the desk. Commander Invelen looked at them with a sharp intake of breath, a clenched jaw, and then a stillness of expression, "Clones. Once, twice, thrice lost... Very literal. What else, Master Gunny?"
"I released the majority of the remains to Ms Aereth." Demen continued, "Those two are in cold storage, though, pending your orders, sir. A facility in Annelle." He hesitated, then added, "Ms Aereth did request that they be treated gently."
The Commander nodded, "We will keep them in cold storage, but move them somewhere more secure." She collected the images and handed them back to Demen, "See that these are destroyed. No records. Nualla and your people are the only ones who know? Captain Santee left before..."
The Commander nodded curtly, "Good. Thank you, Master Gunny. Dismissed."
Demen saluted, and turned to leave.
As always, his salute was regulation crisp.
He was fairly sure, though, that Commander Invelen wouldn't have noticed if it had been no more than a casual wave. Her gaze was fixed on the child's drawing pinned to the wall, the two sisters, their stick-figure hands tightly clasped.
Demen doubted, though, that that was the image she saw.