The Ruined World
June 15, 5343 (Earth Reckoning, Common Era)
The lift door opened, and Kalani Temblar stepped out into the wreckage of the ruined city. She had been working hard, but that wasn't what had her perspiring. It was fear of what came next, not the effort of what she had just done, that had drenched her brow and neck with sweat.
She did not attempt to wipe the sweat away. That would have been impossible, even had she been wearing an ordinary pressure suit, and the suit she wore was far from ordinary.
She stepped away from what was officially called the Emergency Evaluation Vertical Covert Entrance, Technology Storage Facility. According to the files, the last Chrono Patrol agents to use it, hundreds of years before, had simply called it the Dark Museum Drop Shaft. Whatever it was called, Kalani sincerely hoped she never had to go down it again. There was too much down there in the underground museum, too much in too many ways.
Still beats being out on the surface, she told herself. Best to be off-planet as soon as possible. She patted the bulge of the data recorder in her suit pocket. What she had recorded already in there would turn everything--everything--upside down. The evidence she had uncovered in the Dark Museum was going to give the Chronologic Patrol's Central Command fits. If she stayed alive long enough to get it to them.
She stumbled through the thrice-cursed cityscape. Mariner City had been abandoned to plague a thousand years before, then entombed by the murderous symbiote-mold--then wrecked by an explosion in the Dark Museum hidden underneath it. She made her way around the smashed buildings, giving as wide a berth as possible to the thicker clumps of symbiote-mold that covered everything. The old files said that, way back when, the stuff had been even thicker and more virulent outside the city. Unfortunately, she was about to have the chance to find out if that was still true.
Lurching and stumbling through the crumbling, mold-covered wreckage, she arrived back at her lander--and was disheartened to see that it had already acquired a thin dusting of mold. She could almost imagine that she could see it growing. She glanced at the arm of her suit and didn't need to imagine anything. The thin tufts she had first noticed a few hours ago were now plainly visible.
The lander was purpose-built for landing on, and traveling across, Mars: a short fat cone with three legs and thrusters in the base. Nothing fancy. The cabin wasn't even pressurized. No sense sending something sophisticated down to this place. The Interdict Law made it clear that any ship that landed on Mars had to be incinerated, for fear of contaminating whatever else it might touch.
Her pressure suit was actually two suits, one inside the other. Once she was off-planet and safely back in space, alongside the one-person Chrono Patrol transport that had gotten her to Mars orbit, the first thing she would do would be to beam all the data she had captured over to a datastore that wasn't hopelessly saturated with Martian contaminates. Then she would abandon the lander, sending it into a burn-up trajectory with the Martian atmosphere. Then she'd seal herself in a fabric bubble, pump in a pure oxygen environment, and ignite the outer suit. It would disintegrate completely, leaving her in the supposedly fireproof inner suit. She sure as hell hoped it was fireproof.
Watching from the inside as her pressure suit burned was going to be a new experience for Kalani, but the people she was tracking had done it, or something very like it. She was going to have to do a lot of the things they had done. She could see that now.
She climbed up into the lander and sealed the hatch. The hatch, and the hull itself, for that matter, weren't designed to hold pressure in but merely to provide a reasonably smooth aerodynamic surface during transit through the atmosphere. Even so, it felt good to have something between herself and that horrific landscape.
But she wouldn't just get to lift off and leave the damned planet. Oh, no. She would have to land one more time, in order to finish her investigations here and seal off a massive breach in security that had been there for at least a century before she was born. What was the near-ancient phrase--"closing the barn doors after the horses have already gone"--something like that. Still, orders were orders. The tunnel would have to be shut.
She strapped herself in and fired the lander's main thruster, not even bothering to calculate a flight plan. Her destination was so close that it wasn't worth the effort. She had the coordinates she needed from her suit's inertial-tracking system. All she had to do was fly up, fly due east five kilometers, and land again.
The lander jumped into the sullen sky and nosed over as it reached the apex of its flight. Kalani squirted the coordinates from her suit's tracker into the lander's flight systems, and told the lander to paint a bright red x on her heads-up display.
There, that six-sided building out in the middle of the mold fields. That must be it. She did a lock-in on the lander's flight systems, and told it to do a slow-speed approach and autoland fifty meters shy of the structure.
The lander took over the flying, and Kalani was able to concentrate on the landscape below. Time had passed, and the symbiote-mold grew quickly. Still, she could read traces of her quarry's visit. At a guess, she was about to land almost precisely where they had. It was also quite clear they had run into trouble. The surface was still broken and disturbed, and showed some signs of fire. The wreckage of several one-shot cargo landers, and the remains of the burned-off camouflage covers that had hidden them, were nearby. She made sure her recorders were running, getting a visual record of it all, just in case there was ever an occasion that the evidence might prove useful.
But it was the rough-hewn six-sided structure that drew her attention. It looked for all the world like a long-abandoned temple to some long-forgotten god.
Never mind the poetic imagery, she told herself severely. What matters is that it has to be the place I'm looking for. Just a few hours before, she had been in the tunnel that ran under that structure, and even walked up a flight of stone stairs that led to what had to be the inner chamber of that building, but the steel door between the inner and outer chamber had been locked against her. She had been forced to backtrack all the way through the tunnel, back through the wreckage of the Dark Museum, back out onto the surface, then fly her lander here, in order to get to the other side of that door.
She studied the area closely as the lander brought itself in but learned little more than she had seen at first glance. The desolation, the gloom, the symbiote-mold growing over everything; there was little she had not seen in the city. All of Mars was that way, in each place as in all places. The temple and the tunnel beneath it were the only novelties in the landscape--and it was her job to destroy them both.
The lander eased itself down onto the ground with one gentle bump as the craft set down. A perfect landing--but with a disconcerting sequel. The whole craft shuddered once, twice, then dropped another meter or so before coming to a final stop.
It took Kalani a moment to understand. The lander had set down on the "surface"--but the surface was merely the outer crust of the symbiote-mold. The weak and crumbly stuff was like crusted-over snow. Break through the outer layer, and the decayed mold underneath could provide no solid support. The ship only came to a complete rest when it reached the underlying solidity of rock and soil.
Kalani refused to indulge in the obvious by framing a metaphor for the Chronologic Patrol, or the state of things in general. She had work to do. She pulled the charges and detonators out of their locker, stuffed them into a pocket on her suit, and got moving.
She climbed out of the stubby little lander and stepped gingerly down onto the mold-crusted surface. The stuff looked even nastier from ground level, and, sure enough, it was even more unpleasant than in the city. The mold was a crumpled, wrinkled, dirty grey-green blanket that covered the world. Here and there the crust had broken open, and a cleansing wind had blown long enough to expose the actual surface of stone and soil. But it was plain to see such flaws soon healed themselves, the mold quickly swallowing up the land again wherever it showed itself
Strange things grew up out of the mold--great obscene brown mushrooms, reddish fanlike stalks, orange spikes, clusters of long knobbly fingerlike stalks, the hands of blue-grey corpses reaching up from under the mold to grab her and pull her down.
Kalani tried to get her imagination under control, even as she promised herself not to get too close to those finger-things. She started walking, moving carefully toward the temple. With every step, she could feel the mold crust giving under her feet just a little, creaking and groaning as she passed.
Almost against her will, she paused and looked around now and again as she made the short walk toward the temple. She dutifully recorded the views from each position, getting detailed shots of the wrecked landers and the temple from various angles, and of patches of surface that plainly had been torn up and had mold grow back over it.
They must have kept damned busy while they were down here, Kalani thought. It looked as if they had been dragging gear from the abandoned one-shot landers to their own ship. She could see bits of discarded equipment here and there, and a major collection of junk strewn right about where she figured their lander had set down. It looked very much as if they had been dumping hardware overboard in order to shed weight, and doing it in a hurry. There was obvious fire damage to the dumped equipment, and to the mold surface, and to the old one-shots. But there wasn't enough oxygen in the current Martian atmosphere to support much in the way of combustion. You'd have to dump oxygen into the atmosphere in order for anything to burn. What the hell had gone on here? How had they even stayed alive on this planet long enough to do so much? From all the evidence, it seemed clear that they had been in burn-off suits like hers, albeit less sophisticated ones, with more limited duration.
Which reminded her to check her own suit's status. She had to scrape a film of mold spores off the wrist display before she could read it clearly. She'd been in the suit for nearly three days, and slept in it twice. Even for a military-specification pressure suit, that was getting close to the duration limit. The displays said she had about eight hours left. She had no desire to spend anywhere near that much more time in such a hideous place.
She moved forward, hurrying a bit, toward the steps of the six-sided temple. She stepped on a thinner patch of mold crust, and her boot broke through. She fell, facefirst, into the miserable stuff. She pushed herself back up with both hands and came floundering out of the broken, crumbling, grey-green nightmare. She knelt there for a moment, calming herself, making sure that she wasn't going to panic. The spores that were now all over her helmet and suit would kill her quickly, but most unpleasantly, if they reached her skin or lungs. They'd start digesting her before she was actually dead. But they hadn't reached her skin or her lungs. They were safely on the other side of her suit. A whole four or five centimeters away, she told herself. Isn't that comforting?
She gave herself a few more seconds to settle down, then stood back up, brushed herself off as best she could, and moved on toward the temple. The best thing she could do for herself was get out of here as soon as possible--which meant getting the job done as soon as possible.
The steps leading up to the temple itself were all but completely buried in mold, to the point that it was difficult to see where they were. She moved carefully onto the upper platform on which the temple itself stood, and walked around it, searching for a way in. She spotted it on the western side of the structure. One wall panel had a handhold on one side and hinges on the other. She pulled hard on the handle and got exactly nowhere. She tried again, and started wondering what sort of tools she had on the lander. But on the third try the door finally shifted, grinding against the sand and the mold and opening about a quarter of the way before jamming up hard, completely immobile.
Never mind. It was open far enough for her to get in, even if she had to edge in sideways to manage it. She powered up her suit lights and went inside.
She stopped dead just inside the entrance, and started up full-image recording. They'd need to see this back at HQ, or else they'd figure she had imagined it. There had been faint marks on the floors down in the tunnel, but nothing this clear or distinct.
Footprints. Living footprints. Three sets of them, if she was reading it right, leading directly from where she stood straight to the solid wall on the far side of the room. Their boots must have picked up spores outside and planted them inside. The mold must have grown since where the boots had left the spores. She was undoubtedly about to plant her own set of spores with her own boots.
So, three of them got this far, at least, she thought. And then back out again. Now that she knew what to look for, she could just see fainter traces of three sets of prints pointed toward the exit.
If she had needed any evidence that there was something behind that wall, she had it now. One set of prints ended exactly at the wall, with a bootmark that was cut off just ahead of the heel, and the front of the foot missing, as if the owner had simply walked straight on through.
She recorded it all, then walked to that wall, looking for the way in. She spotted it quickly enough--a handle set into the middle panel, the hinges set so it would swing to the left. She pulled it open and found a massive reinforced vault door behind it.
She checked the display on her inertial tracker and nodded. About eighteen hours before, she had stood on the far side of this door--about a meter east of her current location. It had required a hell of a backtrack to move that one meter, but she had done it. Now she had to make sure no one else ever did.
Excerpted from The Shores of Tomorrow by Roger MacBride Allen. Copyright © 2003 by Roger MacBride Allen. Excerpted by permission of Spectra, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.