Book: Resistance



Resistance

Contents

Title Page

Copyright

Foreword

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two

Chapter Twenty-Three

Chapter Twenty-Four

Chapter Twenty-Five

Chapter Twenty-Six

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Chapter Twenty-Nine

Chapter Thirty

Chapter Thirty-One

From the author

Resistance

Relic Wars, Book 1

Max Carver

Resistance

(Relic Wars 1)

Copyright 2017 Max Carver

All rights reserved

FOREWORD

I hope you enjoy this story of space and monsters in the same spirit in which it was written. I had a hell of a lot of fun with it.

-Max Carver

Chapter One

“Your problem is, you never go to the whorehouse,” Bartley's voice crackled over Eric's earpiece. “You hardly ever drink, you don't smoke, and you live alone on the most miserable planet in the known galaxy. That's why you're all stiff and uptight. It's not healthy. Me, I head to the back district after clock-out every day, and I'm loose as a boiled noodle.”

“Yeah, you're a real fountain of sound health advice, Bartley,” Eric Rowan replied, annoyed that Bartley kept cutting in over his music. Eric liked to keep the music loud in his ears while the big drills mounted on his exoskeleton chewed into the glittering rock wall. Those glittering grains were quartz, caught in the high-powered beams of his exoskeleton's lighting array.

According to earlier surveys and soil samples, there was a high probability that a sizable vein of gold lurked within this gigantic quartz reef...but so far, they had found only quartz. Lots of quartz, and lots of worthless black volcanic rock. And pyrite. Plenty of fool's gold, but none of the real stuff. Geologists had been wrong before. If the mine didn't pay out soon, Eric could find himself out of a job, unemployed on this depressing, crime-ridden planet hundreds of light-years from home.

On the other hand, if it did pay, Eric could return home a wealthy man, maybe the wealthiest twenty-year-old on his home planet, Gideon. He'd be out of the shadows of his older brothers for once, and Suzette would have to take his marriage proposals more seriously.

“Look, I know you got your little honey-pot waiting back home,” Bartley rambled on, once again blotting out the Steel Guitar Classics playlist Eric had chosen for the day's work soundtrack. Technically, they weren't even supposed to be listening to music, but the long days working in dark, narrow tunnels hundreds of meters underground could swing between tedious and terrifying. Music evened things out. “But just today, brother, hear me out. In ten minutes, we hit the clock, I'll show you around Canyon City's back district. Show you the best of the girl palaces. I'm talking real, affordable, premium flesh-to-flesh here, no robos.”

“It's just not my thing. I'm trying to work here, Bartley—”

“I told you, call me Bark-Dog! That's what all my bros call me.”

“I just can't.” Eric pressed the pair of drills deeper into the rock. A steel mesh cage protected his head from flying rock chips and dust. The blasting tech, Naomi, had selected the points where Eric would drill. Later, she would prep these and blow open a new length of tunnel.

Hopefully, that would lead to an immense treasure trove of gold and giant bonuses for everyone involved. They worked for a small mining concern, one that provided equipment and relatively low wages in exchange for a relatively generous profit-share.

Of course, that was only a good deal if profits actually showed up at some point.

“You can't what? Call me Bark-Dog?” Bartley was a hammerman. He stood in another new horizontal tunnel down the way, smashing stubborn rock with an exoskeleton-mounted industrial hammer that looked like a massive steel battering ram. Bartley's tunnel ran parallel to Eric's and was several meters of thick rock away, but unfortunately they could communicate over fiber-optic cable.

“I can't hit Dirty Alley with you,” Eric said, thinking of Suzette in her summer-carnival dress. She'd been Melon Queen their junior year of high school; he could see her waving from a little horse-drawn wooden float that crawled along Main Street, her long strawberry-blond hair full of flowers. Gideon was a primarily agricultural planet, half again as large as Earth, nicknamed the “grass giant.” He missed the oceans of rich green prairie sprawling from horizon to horizon under Gideon's vast blue sky. He wanted to return there...but as a hero, not as the lone unfortunate weak sheep in a family of proud wolves. Suzette would relinquish her doubts and accept his ring.

If they would just strike gold.

“Well, hey, we can hit one of the robo joints, then,” Bartley said. “Machinery ain't adultery, you know. And you're not even married. Just engaged. Right?”

Not even that, Eric thought, thinking of his last conversation with Suzette. He was hardly going to explain it all to Bartley, a man whose ideal relationship lasted no longer than the amount of time it took him to put his pants back on. Bartley Flynn was a couple of years older, and had seen combat as a marine with the colonial rebels, before the current shaky armistice among the warring worlds.

Eric's older brothers were decorated war heroes, one a tank driver, the other a starfighter pilot. The rebel military had politely declined Eric's attempts to join. His legs had been badly deformed since childhood. He could stand only because of mechanical braces built onto the outside of them, wired into a data port in his lower spine.

Currently, his legs were unplugged, and lay like dead things as Eric sat in the mining exoskeleton's driver seat. Loose as a boiled noodle, Bartley had said of his own post-coital bliss, but he could just as well as have been talking about Eric's legs.

The neural cable on his back, which normally connected his spine to his leg braces, was also compatible with the mining exoskeleton. While most miners operated their gear using their hands on a control panel, Eric's hands were free even while he drilled and smashed.

The blissful sound of dozens of electric, steel, bass, and acoustic guitars with an accelerating backbeat filled Eric's ears for a moment, and then Bartley cut in again: “How about it, Row-man? Because I can guarantee your lady friend back home is taking advantage of some mechanical assistance while you're way out here digging for gold. In fact, you better hope she is, because if she isn't, then she's found some genuine skin-to-skin of her own—”

“Suzette isn't like that,” Eric said.

“This is why you're bad at making friends, Bartley.” Naomi Lentz, their team's blast engineer, had been listening in. They worked as a small, tight, heavily equipped unit.

“Lentz, are you mad I didn't invite you to hit Dirty Alley with us?” Bartley asked. “Because you're welcome to.”

“You're sick, Bartley,” Naomi replied.

“How about a beer, then?” Bartley's voice came back. “Just a beer after work. We'll keep it strictly midtown, no downtown. Irishman's honor, Naomi—”

“You still owe me fifteen credits from last time,” Naomi said.

“Do I? Are you totally sure about—” Bartley's sentence turned into an unintelligible shout. A shudder rumbled through the mine, as if some giant alien lurking in the black, rocky volcanic tunnels around them wished for Bartley to finally stop running his mouth for a second. If that were the case, the unseen giant alien was sure to be disappointed. Nothing would ever silence Bartley.

“Help!” Bartley shouted. “Cave-in! I'm trapped! Loader, get over here!” That last was directed to the semi-intelligent robotic mining vehicle that was in Bartley's tunnel. The loader's main purpose was to collect and haul away the rubble once Bartley was done breaking it down. It could also prop up the roof of a tunnel in an emergency.

“I'm on my way,” Eric assured Bartley over the headset, and Naomi said she was coming, too, though she sounded a bit reluctant—maybe wary of entering an unstable tunnel, maybe just not so excited to go visit Bartley in person.

Eric withdrew his drills from the bore holes he'd created. The process of retracting them, collapsing them, and tilting them upright was laboriously slow, but necessary for safety. For anyone else, the quicker course would have been to leave the exoskeleton and just run over to the emergency site on foot.

His legs were stiff and slow, though, so he waited until he could turn the entire exoskeleton, which was mounted on a pair of tracked treads. He drove it out into the larger, sloping main tunnel, then down to the entrance to the smaller, recently blasted exploratory tunnel where Bartley had been working to clear the heavy black rock.

When Eric arrived, the loader bot was already lifting a massive chunk of rock from the heap that pinned down Bartley's exoskeleton.

The exoskeleton lay across the narrow tunnel, with Bartley trapped inside. The rig was dirty and dented even at the best of times, with few traces of its original bright yellow paint remaining. The long, dense cylinder of the industrial hammer pointed straight ahead toward the collapsed end of the tunnel where Bartley had been working.

“Still alive in there?” Eric asked, rolling forward as close as he could on his treads. His exoskeleton wobbled back and forth as he traveled over rocky debris.

“Doing great!” Bartley gave a sarcastic thumbs-up inside his protective head cage. His thick mat of curly red hair and his bulldoggish freckled face were damp with sweat.

“Loading,” the loader bot said. It was boxy, its head and arms squarish, almost like a child's drawing of a simple robot. It was a head taller than a grown man, and wider. Its blocky hands were shaped like excavator buckets, and they were busy transporting the mass of debris over to a long, low-slung mining truck, dropping it into the dumping bed in back. “Unloading,” it announced, in case anyone was curious.

“Let me give you a hand,” Eric offered. He reached out with his drills, but didn't activate them. He nudged some of the larger debris pieces off of Bartley. Even with the robot's help, it would take a long while to clear the rockfall so that Bartley's exoskeleton could be righted again.

“Loading,” the loader bot announced, shuffling back toward Bartley and reaching out its massive, blocky arms.

“This would happen just before clock-out,” Bartley grumbled. The loader bot gradually lifted away two big scoops of the rocky debris that trapped him.

“If you're in a hurry, I bet Naomi would be willing to blast you out of there,” Eric said.

“True,” Naomi answered over the earpiece. Then she arrived on a tracked single-person scouting vehicle. She wore no exoskeleton, just a mining helmet, basic safety coveralls, and boots. She parked by the compact dump truck and jumped off, then slowed as she approached the crumbling tunnel with the fallen rocks. “We need emergency bolts and shotcrete down here,” she said, touching her helmet. Then she looked at Bartley and shook her head, her beaded braids clinking where they trailed out the back of her helmet. She grimaced down at him, her teeth white against her dark skin. “Told you to shut your mouth and work. I hope you don't expect overtime for this stunt.”

“Stunt? I'm the one trapped here. I was ready to head out, hit the party scene, pop a few happies...” Bartley cast a hopeful look up at Naomi. “You should probably try to cheer me up. Maybe by heading out to Dirty Alley with me—”

“Gross.”

“You didn't hear the rest of my plan—”

“I don't even want to hear the rest of that sentence,” Naomi said.

Naomi answered questions on her earpiece, assuring their boss they didn't need medics and had the situation under control.

Eric reached one of his exoskeleton's giant industrial arms to the storage slots on the back of his exoskeleton and shed the drill bit. He replaced it with a two-fingered clamp and extended that toward the rubble pile on top of Bartley.

“Man, it's still creepy watching you do that with no hands,” Bartley commented, shaking his sweaty, freckled bulldog face. “Just sitting there twiddling your thumbs.”

“Get yourself a backjack,” Eric told him, while carefully lifting a black boulder off his co-worker's toppled exoskeleton. “A lifetime of random back spasms and weird dreams is worth being able to tap your fingers while you work your rig's arms.” He set it aside. “Can you retract your hammer yet?”

“Probably worth trying, huh?” Bartley worked at his controls. After a minute, the two-meter-long battering ram began to drag across the floor, sliding back into its housing on Bartley's exoskeleton arm. Black rocks glittering with quartz and pyrite clattered to the floor as it moved.

“If I didn't know better,” Naomi said, “I'd say it looks like you were trying to bash your way deep into that reef, looking for gold, when I told you to break up what we already blasted.”

“Look, we're all trying to save time, strike it rich, go home,” Bartley said.

“But instead we're wasting time cleaning up your mess!” Naomi snapped. “I should let you stay here all night. Everyone else is leaving for clock-out.”

“Isn't Hagen coming around with the supports and shotcrete?” Eric asked.

“Don't get involved, Eric,” Naomi said. “I think it's about time I put together a report on Bartley's recklessness. Pass that up to Burt Reamer. What do you think the general manager would say about this, Bartley?” Naomi raised her pocket screen, taking snapshots of Bartley trapped under fallen rocks and looking generally incompetent. “We'll need a damage assessment on your exoskeleton, too.”

“Come on, don't get Reamer involved. That pock-faced bean-counter—”

“Shut up!” Naomi held up one hand. With the other, she pulled the radio plug from her ear. “You guys hear that?”

“I don't hear—” Bartley began, until she glared him into silence.

Eric heard it. Like drops, hundreds of drops. “That can't be rain, can it? We're too far underground—”

The creatures emerged from the broken heap of slag where Bartley had been hammering, and they spread out in all directions—up the walls, upside down on the ceiling, over the shattered rocks on the floor to the spot where Bartley lay trapped. There were dozens of pale, hairless, mottled creatures, each one the size of a small dog.

They resembled toads. Their vestigial eyes were blind and shrunken, and their mouths were huge and full of needle-like teeth. Their four limbs ended in suction-cup toes that enabled them to climb quickly through cave tunnels. Climbers, they were called. They were carnivorous and typically hunted the small blind mammals and lizards that inhabited the underground.

Climbers usually ran from humans...but Eric usually only encountered them one or two at a time. It looked they'd hit a hive, or nest, or whatever the climbers lived in, because these weren't fleeing. They were attacking, hissing and opening their toothy mouths wide as they moved out in a spreading swarm of pale white flesh.

A line of the creatures charged over the rubble at Bartley, who shouted a string of profanity at the sight of them. The climbers weren't so much venomous as filthy, their teeth filled with alien bacteria that could leave a nasty, deadly infection.

Bartley was shielded from rock debris inside his exoskeleton, but it was far from airtight. There were plenty of openings through which the climbers could reach him. The climbers looked hungry, too, gnashing their teeth, ready to tear him apart where he lay trapped, like meat in a cage.

While Naomi screamed for their security bot to come, Eric rolled forward and activated his remaining drill bit. He stabbed it into the nearest creature, the one almost close enough to climb inside Bartley's exoskeleton and start eating him.

The spinning tip of the drill punctured the climber's pale skin, sending black blood everywhere. The creature kicked and flailed its four rubbery white limbs as the drill bit tore through its chest. Its brushy needle teeth snapped and chomped at empty air.

The ugly blind toad-thing finally fell still, lying in a sticky puddle of black blood that was barely visible against the volcanic-rock floor.

More climbers crawled over it. That was one down, but dozens more remained, and even more boiled out from the heap of rock crumbs ahead with their jaws snapping and clapping, like angry fire ants intent on defending their mound.

Eric turned his drill toward a second one, but he couldn't hope to stop them all.

Chapter Two

“Security!” Naomi shouted, jamming her earpiece back into place. “We need bug bombs down here.” Then she drew a pistol-sized weapon with a bright orange plastic shell from her belt. Heavy weaponry was prohibited for a list of safety and insurance reasons. Miners were allowed to bring electrical shockers like the one in Naomi's hand, meant for running off hostile wildlife. No intelligent life had been found on this remote rocky world, nor in any of the dozens of solar systems humans had explored so far. Life seemed relatively abundant, but intelligence rare.

Naomi zapped a creature that was crawling on its sucker-toes along the tunnel wall toward her. Its mouth opened in a shriek, electricity crackling among its needle-teeth. The climber whipped back and forth, keeping its grip on the wall even as it belched up bloody foam, and then fell silent and still. It hung there like a gruesome decoration.

The smell of burnt ozone filled Eric's nostrils as Naomi zapped and fried one toad-like creature after another. Eric kept thrusting his drill. But it was no weapon. A climber could easily dodge it.

Trapped in his exoskeleton, Bartley had drawn his own bulbous orange shock pistol, screaming like a berserker as he zapped climbers who'd wriggled inside with him. One of them unrolled a long, sticky, whiplike tongue across Bartley's eyes, and the man howled, momentarily blinded.

Dozens of the creatures swarmed out. A clump of them charged along the wall at Naomi. Another group leaped toward Eric, landed all over his exoskeleton. He drew his shocker pistol and started firing, but the battery wasn't going to last. It looked like Naomi's shocker was drained, judging by how she'd stopped shooting it and was now using it to club the ugly climbers instead.

Frank Hagen arrived first. The middle-aged man was their supervisor, and also the team's ground support specialist, in charge of securing walls and ceilings in newly dug tunnels. He drove a compact-sized cement mixer with a small rotating drum. The moment he arrived, he drew the hose from the side of the mixer and began blasting spurts of quick-drying cement at the horde of little monsters. He hit them with splats of cement, knocking them to the dirt. Those he hit would squirm slowly, kicking and choking in the quick-hardening gray mush.

Eric dropped a couple more of the climbers with short-range electrical bolts, but the shocker's charge quickly depleted. He continued using the industrial arms of his exoskeleton, stabbing at the scurrying climbers with the drill, occasionally scraping or puncturing one. With the exoskeleton's other arm, he grabbed one of the pale creatures and crushed it, fighting revulsion as black blood and pale guts splattered everywhere.

It was a losing fight, with their shockers already depleted and dozens of the biting little creatures still left. Eric and Hagen did their best to pick the monsters off with their tools. Eric crunched another one under the treads of his exoskeleton.

Several climbers had invaded Bartley's exoskeleton, and he was fending them off with his bare hands, his eyes squeezed shut. Naomi pelted them with handfuls of volcanic rock and kicked at them with her boots. One tried to bite through her helmet, and she grabbed its leg and slammed the creature against the wall.

“This isn't working!” Eric shouted. A climber lashed its long sticky tongue at his face, leaving a thick stripe of lumpy residue on his cheek. He caught the thing and broke its neck, but more were climbing up the exoskeleton toward him, their jaws snapping. “We have to free Bartley and retreat—”

Then music filled the tunnel—it sounded like “Camptown Races,” played maniacally fast on a calliope, growing louder as it charged toward them.

The security bot was there to save them all from the swarm of ugly monsters, but Eric still couldn't help rolling his eyes a little as it arrived.

It rolled into the room on a unicycle, dressed in a garish crimson-and-yellow top hat and a matching coat, the coattails flaring out behind it. A fake blue flower was mounted in its lapel. The robot was juggling a single bright red ball, but its hands made a bunch of unnecessary extra movements, as though the robot believed it was juggling three balls instead of just one.

Its name was Malvolio, and it was a drama-bot, built for entertainment in the earlier age, the “Big Times” of initial expansion and unimaginable wealth, as humans quickly colonized one star system after another, before the war impoverished them all. He'd been designed to look like a tall, handsome man with an extravagant mustache that curled up at both ends. Now his colorful plumage-like garments were filthy and tattered. Chunks of his face were missing, revealing rubber and steel beneath, and one of his eyes never quite closed.

Malvolio was the security bot, but he definitely hadn't been built for that purpose. He'd been found at a salvage yard for a low, low price. His main job was to be a roving pair of eyes and ears, watching the mine for fires and intruders, especially when the miners were gone for the night. If something happened, he would call in the real security and emergency personnel from downtown. He was far from an intimidating fighting machine, but he was better than nothing. Slightly.

“Ladies and gentleman! The great Malvolio has arrived!” the drama-bot announced. He doffed his top hat and bowed, all without leaving the unicycle. Canned applause and cheers played from somewhere on his body. He caught the single red ball and made it vanish. Then he fanned out playing cards with the same hand. Several of the cards were missing, leaving noticeable gaps. “How may I entertain you today? Breathtaking magic? A heart-rending aria, performed a capella? Perhaps a stirring monologue from Death of a Salesman—”

“Bug bomb!” Naomi shouted, swinging at the ugly climbers with sharp rocks in both fists.

“As you wish,” Malvolio said, replacing his top hat. “For the audience is king, and humble players merely servants of the court—”

“Now!” Eric interrupted.

“Masks on!” Hagen added, pulling a bulky oxygen mask from his compact mixer truck.

Eric and Bartley strapped on the oxygen masks built into their suits. Naomi backed away to her small scouting vehicle to grab one.

“Gas in the hole!” Malvolio announced, then fired a thin, dense green streak of toxins at the climbers. The gas expanded into a thick fog of green.

The toad-like creatures groaned and tumbled from the tunnel ceiling and walls. Their squirming, poisoned bodies littered the floor. The cocktail of poisons, concentrated in a tank under Malvolio's long circus-ringmaster coat, was meant to kill any of the underground pests that miners might encounter on this world.

It worked, maybe too well. Their large, needle-lined mouths opened, and the toads began to literally puke up their guts—first just steaming green fluids, with small chunks of half-digested bones and meat from unidentifiable alien creatures. Then up came entire stomachs and the ropy tubes of their intestines. Black, yellow, and green liquids ran out of the gaping mouths and other orifices in the bodies of dozens of quivering, toad-like corpses.

The green cloud dissipated slowly. Eric kept breathing his canned air.

“Everyone still alive?” Naomi asked, her voice mechanical through the air mask.

“My eyes hurt like a jellyfish pissed in them,” Bartley announced. His eyelids were still squinted shut, and he rubbed them with the back of one big, freckled hand. He was covered in steaming climber guts.

Hagen squatted and opened the small first aid kit bolted inside Bartley's exoskeleton. He quickly found the eye wash and began to squirt it into Bartley's eyes. “Hold still,” he grunted as Bartley hissed and tried to nudge him away. “There isn't much of this stuff. Don't make me spill it.”

The main tunnel rumbled, and the mining truck returned with its payload empty, the loader bot squatted on the front again.

“Loading,” the loader bot announced. It began lifting the remaining rocks from Bartley's exoskeleton.

“Yeah, thanks a lot,” Bartley said, wiping at his eyes and blinking. “Loader, next time I get attacked, try lending a hand. You want me to die or what?”

“Unloading,” the boxy robot replied, dumping rocks into the back of the truck.

“Do not feel rejected by his taciturnity. Loaders are rarely talkative,” Malvolio told him. “They are single-taskers. Not like me!” His unicycle collapsed into the shape of a pie slice, then slid away inside his shredded yellow pants leg. “Perhaps you would like to be serenaded with a classic by the great Dan Fogleberg. I have a complete setlist—”

“Just help me up,” Bartley said. “Both of you robots.”

“And as we do, I could sing 'Lovin' You'—”

“No!”

Malvolio and the loader bot worked together to set Bartley's exoskeleton on its feet. Bartley grimaced, looking pale as he tossed ruptured climbers aside. Entrails dripped from all over his rig.

“I've never seen them swarm like that,” Frank Hagen said, putting away his shotcrete hose. More than a dozen of the creatures were frozen in blobs of the quick-drying fluid, already turning to solid concrete. “You must have hit a nest.”

“That's what we thought,” Naomi said. She glared at Bartley, but didn't repeat her threats of formal action against him, not with Hagen there.

“Where did they all come from?” Eric rolled forward, wincing at the sound of one climber after another crunching under his treads, coating them in alien gore. With his clamp-tipped arm, he began excavating the heap at the collapsed end of the tunnel. The loader bot worked with him, moving it all to the truck for eventual hauling.

“You should really clear out of here until I can harden the tunnel,” Hagen said, frowning up at the ceiling.

“We're just looking for...that.” Eric shoveled aside broken rocks to reveal the opening from which the climbers had emerged. It was a deep fissure in the back wall.

He pointed his light into the crack. It ran deep. Bartley's reckless hammering had split open some kind of cavity or cavern. Quartz and pyrite glimmered within it, growing thicker and replacing more and more of the black volcanic rock toward the back of the fissure.

“Looks like we hit a hollow spot in the quartz reef,” Naomi commented. She took a picture with her pocket screen.

“There's a room back there,” Eric said. “It'll take some work to dig it out—”

“No more digging until this area is secure,” Hagen interrupted.

“Move back, let me have a turn to look,” Bartley said. The tunnel was too narrow to fit more than one mining exoskeleton at a time. Eric would have to back out before Bartley could move in.

“We need to send in a robot,” Eric said.

“I regret to note that I, being a standard human-sized android, could not fit through such a narrow pass,” Malvolio said. “Else I would heroically volunteer, surely. Perhaps I could cheer us all up with a Slavic folk dancing demonstration—”

“We'll send in a porcupine. There's one on my scout.” Naomi turned toward her scouting vehicle.

“Everybody back out of here, before anything else comes crashing down,” Hagen said, looking at Eric. Reluctantly, Eric put his treads in reverse until he reached the main tunnel with the others.

“What did you see?” Bartley asked. His exoskeleton was freshly battered and had several new dents from the cave-in, but it appeared to work fine. It was dripping with climber guts, though. “You should have let me have a turn.”

Naomi set a small robot on the ground, prickly with cameras and sensors, about the size of the small mammal for which it was nicknamed. Its main purpose was collecting mineral samples, but it could be used as a scouting drone, too. Its pointed face, with black camera-ball eyes mounted on either side of a soil-sipping straw, was also reminiscent of a curious little foraging mammal.

The porcupine ran over the volcanic rubble and ruptured climber bodies. Its spiny tail whisked back and forth, sampling the air and analyzing its quality.

Naomi took out her pocket screen and grabbed two opposing corners of the square device. The outer frame of the screen split apart as she stretched it to the size of a cookie sheet.

Multiple viewpoints appeared on the screen, showing the video feeds from every side of the little scouting bot. Everyone watched in silence as the porcupine crawled into the narrow fissure and the glittering open cavern that lay beyond.

“Man, there better be gold in there,” Bartley said, finally breaking the tense silence. “I mean giant piles of it. Enough to make it rain gold, you know what I'm saying? Enough that I can go home and build a house out of gold, and sit around in my gold underwear and gold slippers, smoking gold cigars and blowing it in my cousin Sean's face.”

On the screen, the viewpoints advanced through the narrow cavern, past more climbers poisoned by toxic fumes. Clusters of bubbles were tucked into rocky nooks. It took Eric a moment to recognize that these were probably climber eggs. Small, snakelike larvae were curled inside translucent bubbles, illuminated by lights on the side of the little porcupine as it crawled past them.



The robot nosed its way forward on four stumpy mechanical legs.

It emerged into a large chamber in which every visible surface seemed to be quartz, of one color or another.

Murals covered the walls—plants with glittering green quartz stalks, flowers of rose quartz and amethyst. They glittered in the light cast by the porcupine.

“This is impossible,” Naomi whispered. “Nobody's ever dug here before.”

“That's not just digging,” Hagen said. “That's decorating.”

At Naomi's direction, the little robot paused in its randomized roving and shined its light along one wall. The crystalline rock reflected a dazzling array of colors as the light passed over them. While the quartz murals on the walls depicted a grassy, flower-filled meadow, the columns looked like tree trunks, with brown and black smoky-quartz trunks and more green quartz for leaves.

“What's that?” Hagen touched one of the circle-shaped video feeds on the screen and swiped it. This sent a signal to the robot to turn its head in that direction. “Would you look at that? Are you seeing what I'm seeing?”

As it tilted upward, the camera's view was filled by a gray oval shape, wider at the top and narrow at the bottom, with two large black crystalline eyes that seemed to look right back at them.

Eric felt his blood turn cold, like he was being watched.

“A face,” Naomi whispered. “It's a face.”

Then all the viewpoints of the little scouting bot turned black, and the words TRANSMISSION LOST blazed across the screen in glowing red letters.

Chapter Three

“Something ate our robot! Let's go get it!” Bartley looked from the screen to the narrow crevice. He raised his hammer arm as if he meant to go bashing his way in.

“Not until that tunnel's secure!” Hagen grabbed onto the exoskeleton arm. The older man was no physical match for the industrial mining rig, but something in his bearing stopped Bartley anyway. Bartley stared at the crevice, looking panicked.

“You saw,” Bartley said. “You all saw. It was one of the gray goblins. The aliens that kidnap people in their sleep.”

“Come on.” Naomi raised her eyebrows, looking at Bartley like he'd lost his mind. “You don't believe in that.”

“I saw that face,” he said. “My uncle told me about them, when I was a kid—”

“There are no known intelligent species on this planet,” Hagen said. “And most days, I would include humans in that statement. That chamber and those carvings must have been made by humans.”

“The first miners?” Naomi dabbed at her sweaty face with a rag. The volcanically active planet was always hot. “From Money City?”

“That doesn't really dutch for me,” Bartley said, frowning at her. “Why would they come two hundred kilometers north of Money City to build some wacky underground quartz...art museum, or whatever that was? The first miners were here for the same reason we are. To suck this ugly rock dry of heavy metals. Now you're telling me they were out here building a...a...whatever that was?”

“And you're telling me it's aliens?” Naomi crooked an eyebrow.

“It's well past clock-out,” Hagen said. “I don't know about the rest of you, but I didn't get any additional hours approved this week. I say we lock it up, head home, and I'll leave a message for Reamer. He can decide how to proceed, or whether we should leave it and go back to our assigned tasks.”

“Reamer?” Bartley snorted. “We're looking at evidence of real aliens, and you want to call that boring, snivelly little, uh...”

“Guy who approves our wage deposits?” Naomi offered.

“Well, yeah, that, but...man, we should be calling that Disturbing Mysteries show. You guys ever seen that? They showed it back on Gorrum.” That was the snowy, icy planet where Bartley and his apparently enormous extended family lived. “I still remember the abominable snowbeast one. They actually caught that creature, you know that? Big monster, like a giant shaggy white grizzly, but with horns and tusks like a boar. Lives up high in the mountains, hunting goats. And everyone said it was just a made-up story before that. Just like you're saying about these aliens.” He looked at Naomi and pointed at the crevice. “Think about it. The ancients, the ones who built all the wormholes. Maybe they built this, too! Maybe the ancients are the gray goblins—”

“I don't know what you're blabbering about, but it sounds like you're opposed to clocking out for the night. That can't be right,” Naomi said.

“Yeah, this cave is nothing,” Eric said, trying to convince himself it was true. “That weird stuff in there...probably someone from the early days. Maybe even a party retreat in the mountains or something, for an eccentric rich guy. The Big Times were full of eccentric rich guys.”

“Oh, indeed they were!” Malvolio spoke up. He lay his hand on his heart and cast a somber look at the ceiling. “Such festivals they had! Such parties! Such culture! But the war...it took so much. From us all.” He looked down at his tattered, dirty yellow-and-crimson tuxedo. “I haven't been back to Indus Rotronics for an upgrade in nigh upon forty years now, I am sad to convey.” He covered his face with both hands and crumpled low, as if crushed by sorrow. “Oh! The emotions I am experiencing.”

“Let's lock it up,” Hagen said again. “Reamer will probably kick this up to Alanna.” Alanna Li-Whitward was the president of the small mining concern that employed them—the aptly but blandly named Exoplanet Resource Development, XRD. It was owned primarily by the wealthy Li family of the planet Huayuan, one of the oldest colonies. Huayuan had been settled soon after the wormholes had been discovered, and had rebelled against the Earth alliance during the war. Under the armistice, it was nominally still part of the Earth system, but actually autonomous, like the other rebel worlds.

“I'm with Hagen,” Naomi said, scraping climber guts off the soles of her boots. “I'm ready to head home. Ideally, before anything else comes out trying to kill us.”

“I still say we should bash our way inside, see what took our little robot pal.” Bartley shook his head, looking frustrated. “Doesn't seem right, leaving him behind.”

“We'll be back tomorrow,” Eric told him. He was ready to leave, too. They were all exhausted from an eleven-hour work shift. And if something hostile was lurking in that chamber, he wasn't ready to risk his life fighting it.

On the other hand, he was curious to see what was in there. The ancients who'd built the wormhole gates had been gone for thousands of years. Most scientists believed that intelligent life was extremely rare in the universe, based on how few relics of it had been found.

No, the mysterious underground chamber had to be something left by the first generation of miners, the one whose city had been obliterated by Allied attackers in the war...and maybe it would bring them closer to the gold they sought.

Everyone headed up the slope. Eric and Bartley rolled on the treads of their exoskeletons, Hagen drove his shotcrete mixer, Naomi her single-person scout. The loader bot rode folded up on the front of the dump truck. Malvolio rolled on his unicycle again, whistling a cheerful tune and once more juggling his single ball as if there were three, hands tossing and catching two other balls that didn't exist, his programming as worn out as his overcoat.

They merged into a central tunnel, then reached the mouth of the mine. They parked all the vehicles inside the mine for the night, except for the cement mixer, which Hagen parked just outside the steel gate. He would take the mixer into Canyon City for cleaning and refilling overnight.

Reluctantly, Eric disconnected the mining exoskeleton from his spine. He felt himself grow suddenly much smaller, losing the strength and power of the giant industrial arms along with the easy mobility of the exoskeleton's tank-like treads. When he was plugged into a machine like that, his nervous system seemed to expand, giving him the illusion of being some kind of huge, strong animal. He'd enjoyed that feeling ever since his teens, when he'd started jacking into the family tractor and driving it around their sprawling ranch, hands-free.

As much as he enjoyed the feeling of strength and power, he hated unplugging from any big machine, whether it was a tractor or a mining rig, and plugging his leg braces back in. He could feel himself shrinking, once again slow and weak.

Sighing, Eric climbed down from his seat in the exoskeleton and stood on his own legs.

“This should go without saying, but we need to keep this absolutely quiet,” Hagen said. “Everything we saw tonight.”

“We can't talk about the climbers?” Bartley asked, shutting down his own exoskeleton and hopping out.

Naomi shook her head, hanging her helmet on her scouting vehicle. “The hidden room, genius.”

“Right. Yeah, that was my second guess.” Bartley used a compressed-air hose to blast the creature guts off his exoskeleton, and then Eric took a turn took blasting his own clean.

They stepped outside. Malvolio remained within the mine, balancing on his unicycle, as the steel mesh gate clattered down into place. The loader bot remained near Malvolio, folded into a boxy rectangular shape at the front of the dump truck, where he would wait until morning.

“Watch for anything unusual tonight,” Hagen told Malvolio.

“Yes, sir!” Malvolio saluted, rocking slightly on the unicycle. “I shall protect the mine with my life, sir. And should this prove my time of fate...should duty lead me into those great and terrible jaws of death...know that it was an honor serve you. To serve with all you.” His voice broke, and he took a nonexistent handkerchief from the torn, ratty breast of his jacket and mimed dabbing at his eyes. “Take care of Ma for me,” he whispered. “You know how she likes her grits.”

“I think that robot's flipped his can,” Bartley said to Eric. He used his hand to shield his mouth from Malvolio, but did nothing to lower his voice.

“Just contact me if anything happens.” Hagen shook his head and double-checked the mesh gate. It looked like the mine was a store in a shopping mall, closed down for the night behind steel bars, with Malvolio like a forlorn clerk locked inside.

Naomi rode into town in the small cement truck with Hagen. Eric caught a ride with Bartley, as he'd done for the last six months. Bartley drove a patchwork pick-up truck with no doors and only one panel of windshield, right in front of the driver, so Eric had to squint or close his eyes the whole way.

“Up for a beer?” Bartley asked, steering them around steep dirt roads at high speed. There was no guard rail, even at the tight curves, just a straight drop into deep, rocky canyon below.

“You're soaked in climber guts,” Eric pointed out.

“It'll air out.”

“I doubt it.”

Bartley clapped a hand, still damp with climber blood, onto Eric's shoulder and laughed. “You got me there, brother. We'll just run by my place so I can change my shirt. Cool?”

“You probably need to change more than that,” Eric said, but Bartley was accelerating, and the wind whipping through the windshield frame drowned out his voice.

They drove northward toward the multi-colored lights of Canyon City. Mining on planet Caldera was a miserable life but paid well, and sometimes people struck it rich. Canyon City offered every sort of means of separating miners from their money: drinking, gambling, drugs, prostitution, games and fights of every kind. It was a near-lawless town where vice and crime flourished.

Bartley was exactly the sort of man for whom Canyon City existed. Eric, on the other hand, hoarded and saved every credit he could, intending to build his savings and eventually return home with his pockets brimming full of money—not exotic venereal diseases.

They drove much too fast over bumpy, rock-strewn roads and around hairpin turns, dodging rock heaps and drop-offs along the way. The old truck's seatbelts were missing for some reason, and Eric did his best to hold tight against the danger of being flung out of the truck.

Had they gone south, toward the rocky planet's ocean, they would have passed open pit mines where people and robots worked into the night, and smoking refineries and foundries. Cyanide and other chemical waste ran straight into the river.

Even farther south, the river flowed through the twisted ruins of Money City, built by the first wave of settlers. Many of the essential metals and minerals used by the Colonial League, the rebels in the war, had come from this planet, and eventually entire ships were built at Money City.

The Alliance, made of Earth and Earth-loyal colonies, had bombed Money City to rubble, essentially salted the ground with depleted uranium shelling and a tactical nuke or two. The Alliance military really knew how to send a message.

Eric had never been to the old ruins, but he'd seen images of the city, both before and after. Before, it had a brick downtown lined with trees and gardens of imported flowers, not the leathery, thorny plants that grew wild here on Caldera. The first settlers had even put up some glass skyscrapers, now reduced to towers of bare twisted steel that stood like skeletons against the sky. Nobody went there, between the superstitious rumors of ghosts haunting the old city streets and the real concern about radiation left from the war.

The narrow dirt track widened and became paved, though cheaply and unevenly so. Canyon City lay ahead, mostly slapdash buildings of quick-pour concrete and metal salvage, illuminated by lurid holograms advertising everything from fried chicken to opioids to a hundred varieties of morally questionable entertainment.

“Wait here,” Bartley said, slamming his truck to a halt in front of his own apartment building, which was much pricier than Eric's—Bartley wasn't scrimping and saving, but enjoying his wages. It was a three-story apartment building with an adobe finish, lots of archways, all the exterior doors and windows caged to keep out the numerous dangers of the street. A row of lanterns glowed softly on the exterior now that night had fallen.

“I think I'll just walk home,” Eric said, starting to step down from the passenger seat.

“Come on, man. It's time for a night out!” Bartley ran up concrete stairs that zigged and zagged up the canyon side.

“Don't you go out every night?” Eric asked, but Bartley gave no sign of hearing. He just leaped over a junkie passed out on the steps and unlocked the gated archway beyond. The apartment building didn't offer real luxury—that didn't exist on Caldera—but did provide security against crime and sturdiness against the storms of hot ash and embers that sometimes rained from the sky, blown in from active volcanoes kilometers away.

Dark forms watched Eric from a nearby alcove. He reached a hand into his pocket, closing tight on a lump of hard lava with a sharp edge. He'd shattered his legs when he was twelve, a stupid attempt to cliff-dive into a river back on Gideon. Since then, he'd worn the braces, moved slowly and stiffly, and been a target for bullies, especially when his older brothers were away winning sports tournaments in other towns, and later battles in the war against Earth. Of course, Eric's brothers had done their share of targeting and ridiculing him, too.

He had learned to expect attack, and he'd learned to carry a weapon. Living here in the mining colony on planet Caldera had only sharpened his suspicions and heightened his awareness of danger.

The shadowy figures stood in the glow of iridescent graffiti. The largest painting was a simple eye, with pronounced eyelashes and a pentagram instead of a pupil, that seemed to watch over the street. He'd seen that one a few times—the sign of some weird space cult. KOZMA WILL AWAKEN, claimed the words sprayed below it.

“On we go!” Bartley announced when he returned. “Who's ready to dive balls-deep into some cheap tail? Uh, me!” He raised one meaty, freckled hand, as if he was a kid who'd been called on in class.

Eric shook his head, wishing he'd gotten out and walked home when he'd had the chance. But he knew from experience that if he went somewhere with Bartley tonight, the guy would stop pestering him about going out for a couple weeks. This night seemed as good as any. Besides, Eric had the feeling that the mysterious face sculpted out of crystal, the evidence of civilization that really shouldn't have been there, would linger in his mind long after his eyes closed for the night. Maybe a drink would settle his nerves.

“What do you think we're going to find when we break open that room in the mine?” Eric asked as Bartley stomped the accelerator. They bounced along the uneven blacktop.

“A million tons of gold,” Bartley said. “Enough so we can each buy our own planet. Or a nice little moon, at least.”

“Do you think we'll find real evidence of alien life, though?”

“Hell, yeah. Rich-ass aliens with a vault full of shiny noble metals.” Bartley charged down the road, then swerved abruptly to avoid a man leading a donkey across. Dirty hand tools were heaped in a basket on the animal's back. Hoofed animals were common on Caldera, where humans kept to the long networks of canyons, below the foul layer of sulfurous, chlorinated volcanic smog that covered much of the planet's surface.

“Move your ass!” Bartley shouted at the donkey driver, then swerved to avoid a motorcycle driven by a tough-looking old woman with the grimy look of a long-time miner. She responded with an obscene gesture.

Canyon City had little to no planning, as reflected in the narrow, crowded roads hugging the canyon walls and the questionable safety of the architecture. After the armistice, it had quickly sprouted from a small mining camp to a crowded gold-rush town. Nobody really wanted to live on Caldera, with its clusters of active volcanoes all over the globe belching hot, noxious gases. The surface was rocky, the plant life leathery and sharp, the local wildlife ugly and venomous. But the planet was rich in rare precious metals like gold and platinum, which were in constant demand by a range of industries. Extraction was lucrative, and things were revving up now that it seemed the Alliance wouldn't be returning to bomb Caldera's industry back to the Stone Age again, at least not within the near future.

“Let's go to The Tipping Point,” Eric suggested, since that was the bar closest to his own apartment. It would be a quick walk home if Bartley got drunk and vanished without explanation, as he tended to do.

“That place is miserable. Full of old war vets smoking and farting and staring into space.”

“Yeah, it's nice and quiet,” Eric said.

Bartley shook his head and drove on—straight into the back district, where the shabby concrete establishments advertised themselves with glowing neon holograms of scantily clad women dancing and scantily clad men fighting, with happy mugs of dancing beer and drowsy, smiling needles.

“Come on,” Eric said as Bartley parked. “Not the Pony Hole.”

A glowing pink unicorn hovered in front of a cinderblock building with barred, tinted windows. It winked at them and waggled its horsey hips as they approached. A few actual horses and burros were tied at the hitching post.

“I'll introduce you to everyone.” Bartley clapped his hand on Eric's shoulder as they climbed the rickety, steep stairs to the bar. Canyon City was full of steep stairs.

“You really don't have to,” Eric replied as Bartley nodded at the bouncer, an enormous man perched on a slanted stool by the cage door. He was covered in fire-red glowing tattoos of goats and snakes. Sharp metal implants studded his knuckles, which would enable him to stab and tear flesh in the event of a fight. Probably made going to the bathroom uncomfortable, though.

Inside, the place was dimly lit, crowded, thick with smoke. Somebody played an out-of-tune piano in one corner, most of it mercifully drowned out by a group of shouting men nearby. They were crowded around a cage where two creatures stalked each other. One was an armored cave scorpion native to Caldera, about the size of a cat, its tail dripping with lethal venom. Another was an elongated reptile with bony plates and horns jutting out around its face, sort of like a small alligator with a triceratops face. That one wasn't native, but had been imported just for fights. Men shouted their last-minute bets as the creatures faced off.

Eric ordered a beer while Bartley downed a whiskey. Soon Bartley was caught up in talking with other miners he knew, his voice raucous over the crowd.

Eric shook his head. He hadn't exactly made a lot of friends since arriving here. It was certainly nothing like his town back home. Wellspring wasn't much more than a hamlet, with a few shops, one public building housing the court and post office, a little church school for the surrounding farm kids. Eric had grown up in wide-open spaces, a gravity-heavy and oxygen-rich planet filled with huge hoofed beasts and the massive predators who hunted them.

Canyon City was a small town, too, compared to images and movies he'd seen of the huge megatropolis sprawls of Earth—or even Lightpoint, the capital city of Gideon, home to more than a million souls—but to Eric, this remote mining town was enormous, overwhelming, dangerous and full of strangers. He was used to peril from wild animals and bullies at school, but even bullies were people whose names and families he'd known, and underneath there had been a sense of community, of everyone knowing each other, that had kept things from going too far.

Here, everyone was anonymous. Everyone had traveled from worlds all over settled space, more than two dozen star systems. Many were desperate. Many were criminals on the run.

His twentieth birthday had just passed. There had been nobody here who knew about it, and he certainly hadn't mentioned it to anyone. He hardly expected the other miners to bake him a cake and sing him a song. Nobody would care except maybe Bartley, who would just see it as another excuse to encourage Eric to get debauched with him.

What am I doing here? Eric asked himself. He looked among the thick crowd of rough miners, drinking, brawling, shouting. He sipped his bitter beer. Surely his brothers had been in rougher places in the war, surrounded by more dangerous people, Samuel especially, serving for years in the infantry, fighting Earth and its allies on world after world. Fighting for freedom. Just like Abel, the oldest brother, the golden boy who'd been accepted into the fleet. Fighting to break free of Earth's senseless tyranny.

And I'm just here for the money. Fighting a war against rocks.

“Hey there, handsome. You sure look like you could use some company.” She emerged from the smoke and the crowd, slender and tan, dressed in a revealing red dress that looked like it belonged in a lingerie drawer. It took him a moment to realize what she was. Her fingers brushed his arm. “Those big muscles of yours need a girl to hold. I bet you've got another big muscle for me somewhere, don't you? Hee hee.”

He wasn't sure what to say. Her permanently smiling mouth was visibly slotted, like a ventriloquist's dummy. Her hair was long, yellow, and yarn-like. Her plastic eyes slid from side to side automatically as her mouth moved up and down. “Hot in here tonight, isn't it? I know I can't wait to get out of these clothes. Hee hee.” Her warm, rubbery fingers slid up and down along his arm. Her plastic face moved closer to his, her fake eyes trying to simulate contact. They might not have been completely fake—there were probably tiny lenses embedded in them, watching him. “What do you say, cowboy? Want to saddle up and go for a ride? Hee hee?”

“No, thanks. I'm just here for a beer. Then heading home.”

“That's too bad. I looked all over this room and you were the guy I wanted.” She moved even closer, sliding an arm around his waist, rubbing a silicone breast against his arm. “Don't you want me like I want you?”

Eric felt weirdly embarrassed, and also kind of sorry for the cheaply built robo-hooker trying to seduce him. The big screws at her shoulders and elbows were plainly visible, reminding him of the Army Andy action figures he'd played with as a child.

“Sorry, I'm not interested.” Then he had a bit of insight. “Also, I'm flat broke. I don't have any credits in my account, and I spent my last cash on this beer.” It was far from true, but hopefully it would make her disengage.

“Maybe I'll see you another time, honey.” She released him and moved on, her head panning back and forth as she scanned the crowd for another mark.

He wondered what had made her approach him. Maybe she had some kind of algorithm for detecting loneliness and need in human faces. Maybe he looked desperate.

Bartley, his ride home, was already throwing back shots with his rowdy miner friends, already getting blotto for the night. Eric recognized his chance to escape and took it.

Eric left the way they'd come in, making his way down the steep, litter-choked stairs. He trudged through the usual slurry of waste in the road, past crowded bars and clusters of people whispering outside them.

He stopped at the window of a trailer-bodega lashed to the canyon wall with steel cables, where he bought a couple of burritos and a bottle of Penguin Pop. The cola reminded him of home, of birthday parties as a kid.

As he finally approached his own apartment building, the screen in his pocket buzzed. He checked it, hoping it wasn't Naomi or Hagen summoning him back to work—or worse, Bartley drunk-calling to demand he return to the bar.

Instead, he saw a text message from his apartment building's management center. He wondered whether he'd forgotten to pay rent, but when he opened it, he saw that he had a package waiting. An actual parcel of physical mail.

That could only mean one thing—mail from home. Maybe one of Suzette's gift packages. Usually she sent a video of herself along with it.

Suddenly energized, he hurried toward the ugly concrete-and-waste-metal building, eager to see her again.

Chapter Four

The apartment complex had a low concrete shed with a rusty tin roof that it called the “community center.” It consisted of a couple of vending machines and a screen where you could lease an apartment from the automated system or try to argue with it about your rent.

He headed for the ten metal lockers at the back, used when tenants had deliveries larger than their mail slots allowed. He pressed his thumb against the scanner for locker 7, as the text message had directed. The locker beeped and the square metal door popped open.

Eric knew it was from her as soon as he saw the brown package decorated with a couple of glittering heart and star stickers. The first package Suzette had sent him, about a month after he'd arrived on Caldera, had glowed with overlapping animated stickers of thumping hearts, shooting stars, and teddy bears giving a thumbs-up. It looked like her arts and crafts supplies had dwindled, or maybe her university classes were getting tougher and more demanding now that she was a sophomore.

He grabbed the box and darted outside, up the narrow concrete steps two at a time, then up a steep ladder. The ladder was loosely bolted into the canyon wall and rattled as he climbed.

His apartment waited at the top, one of several of old cargo-drop containers that had been welded together and repurposed into low-quality rentable rooms. The main lock to his apartment opened with his thumbprint, and then he unlocked the extra padlock he'd added himself for when he was away. It was a rough neighborhood. Rough town and planet, too.

Inside, the apartment was just a single rectangular gray room, unless you counted the booth-sized water module in the corner, which was basically a shower stall with a sink and a toilet. One vent in the corner filtered the smoggy volcanic air from outside, rendering it somewhat breathable.

He hastily tore open the package and dumped its contents onto his low single bed, eager to see what Suzette had sent him from home.

There was a Lightpoint University t-shirt, with their mascot, the firefly. Lightpoint was the oldest, largest city on Gideon, with just over a million people, the planet's capital. It was also home to the planet's largest university, founded a century earlier, well before the war.

A dozen pink-frosted cookie hearts spilled onto the bed, vacuum-sealed for the long shipping journey, from wormhole to wormhole, star system to star system. It was a major expense to send something as simple as sugar and flour across the galaxy, but seeing the cookies warmed his heart.

He ripped open the vacuum seal and the sugar-cookie scent immediately took him back home, to warm fires on cold Christmas nights when the snow had piled high in the fields. One Christmas Eve night when they were fourteen, he'd taken Suzette riding on his big gray Percheron horse, Ranger. His family kept huge draft horses; their size was necessary to get the attention of the native Gideon devilhorn, hoofed beasts that dwarfed the buffalo of Earth. His family owned a herd of them.

They'd galloped through snowfall, thousands of white flakes streaking past on either side as they raced across the moonlit prairie.

“It's like stars,” she'd whispered. “Like flying away through the stars. Go faster!”

They'd made out pretty heavily that night, at least by Suzette's prim religious standards. Riding the giant, obedient horse had made him confident, had made him feel strong and fast, instead of stiff-legged and slow. He was always closer with the horses than his brothers had been for just that reason, spending hours riding alone across the prairie.

Now, alone in his metal apartment, he shook off the memories conjured by the sugar-cookie smell. He bit into one of them as he lifted out the most important item in the box. It was a little square, just large enough to check his thumbprint, decorated with a cartoon rabbit placing a carrot-shaped envelope into a mailbox.



Eric pressed the square against one wall of his apartment, the one that had been spray-coated with a digital display screen. When he wasn't actively using it, ads for nearby business floated quietly but noticeably on the wall.

Now the wall turned solid blue from floor to ceiling. It flickered, and then Suzette appeared, more than double life size. Her strawberry-blond hair was pulled back into a ponytail, and she wore a shirt that would have scandalized her mother back home—it looked like a grid of shoelaces and strings, leaving most of her torso bare. She sat cross-legged on a bed in her dorm room.

“Hey, Eric!” She smiled and waved. Her blue eyes reminded him of the bright skies back home, so different from the constant low volcanic smog of Caldera. “Hope you're doing great up there. Sorry it's been a while since my last message. It's so busy here! But hey, big news—look at this.” She turned around to display a firefly tattoo on her back, glowing the bright green luciferase color the insects used to attract mates. Its wings beat, and it flew a few centimeters up her back, then went dark and drifted back down again. “Cool, right? I'll have to hide it from Mom. She'll freak if she sees it.”

“Yeah, she will,” Eric agreed. He wasn't sure what he thought of the tattoo, but he was drinking in the sight of her nearly bare back, her low-slung yoga pants. He wished they were home again at that moment, kissing and pawing at each other in her hayloft.

Suzette couldn't hear his response, of course. Travel between star systems was only possible through a system of wormholes humans had discovered, built by an unknown civilization that seemed to have vanished. The wormhole system was a relic of a time long before humans, like the ancient Roman roads and aqueducts that remained in Europe thousands of years after the empire collapsed. That was the clichéd example, the one all the teachers used. Eric didn't know much else about the Romans, but he sure heard a lot about their roads.

Each wormhole gate could only connect to a few other star systems, but each system seemed to have at least two gates. Each star system with gates was a small node in what appeared to be a vast network all along the spiral arm, and perhaps reaching even farther, to distant points in the galaxy.

Communication between star systems was slow and unwieldy, dependent on an unreliable and convoluted system of orbital relay routers positioned near the wormholes. Back in Sol system, where humans had originated, a signal had to travel for hours from the router at the Saturn wormhole gate to the one at the wormhole gate orbiting Neptune. Signals could take days to cross multiple systems.

A voice call from Caldera to Gideon was out of the question; every time he asked Suzette a question, he'd be waiting weeks for her reply. Signals broadcast into an open wormhole often vanished anyway, never even emerging on the other side.

Real-time casual communication between star systems wasn't an option, so interstellar communication tended to be in large chunks, like letters or videos, rather than the quick exchanges of voice calls and texting.

On the screen wall, the giant version of Suzette was still peering over her shoulder at him, showing off her new tattoo. A wicked smile crossed her face, and she swayed her hips from side to side, her black yoga pants clinging to her skin.

“Do you miss me, Eric?” she asked. She licked her lips. Then her overdone seductive smile faltered. She turned around to face him. “I miss talking to you. You always made me laugh, no matter how bad I felt. And you would always listen to all the junk going on in my mind. I've been thinking a lot, about a lot of stuff...”

While she spoke, he stepped into the shower module, rinsing a layer of black volcanic dust off his skin. He kept the water pressure low so he could hear her—not that high water pressure had ever been a problem in this apartment, anyway. Some days it was barely a trickle. That was what he got for scrimping and saving, for living at the very aptly named Budget Box Apartments.

“...so I know I always said I wanted to major in Zoological Engineering, right?” she continued. “And we talked about doing an experimental ranch, maybe on my family's land or yours, you know, see if we can create gentle-tempered devilhorn.” The mammoth-sized ungulates were valued for their beef, believed to be the finest anywhere, putting to shame even the famed wagyu cattle that produced top-dollar Matsusaka and Kobe beef. Gideon was about 1.4 Earth masses, with a thicker, more oxygen-rich atmosphere, and those conditions had something to do with the size of its wildlife.

But the devilhorn were called that for a reason—the delicious monsters were ill-tempered, with enormous horns, hooves big enough to crush a man's back, and they were prone to fighting and stampeding. Giant draft horses were needed to drive those cattle, to even get their attention.

“...lately, though, I've been thinking Urban Design. Like maybe even...colony planning? I know your dad always says the peace won't last, but right now, with the armistice, people are saying there could be a whole new age of exploration. Like the times before the war, like we read about in school. I could end up designing entire cities! Can you imagine? A little country girl from Wellspring traveling out across the galaxy, planting cities the way Grandma plants herbs in the kitchen garden. Like...Alexander the Great. Only bigger. Wouldn't that be something?”

Eric felt a prickle of uncertainty, and the early edges of fear. This was different from the shared future they'd always talked about, sometimes after making out in her hayloft, the night breezes stirring the scents of leather and straw.

His current gold-hunting venture was only meant to be temporary, something to make up for being declared too handicapped for the military and too mediocre a student for the university. Gideon didn't offer a lot of opportunities for higher education, anyway, and going to another star system for college was so expensive that it didn't bear discussion. His older brother Abel hadn't had to pay anything to attend the fleet academy, but Eric was doubly barred from that option by his legs and his middling college entrance scores.

So, after high school, he'd remained at the family homestead, preparing himself to gradually take on his father's responsibilities over time. Someone had to, and his brothers were off serving in the military on other worlds. Armistice hadn't meant a formal peace treaty, thought it had brought some demobilization and disarmament. Many people, like Eric's father, expected the war to resume in time.

The Earthlings and their allies will be back after they rebuild and reload. We should be doing the same, Roy Rowan often opined at the dinner table, a hefty plank slab on the screened-in back porch, typically heaped with tomatoes and greens from their gardens, and of course the finest beef in the galaxy. In his younger years, Eric's father had fought in the Colonial League infantry. He'd joined the day he turned eighteen, not long after the war's inception, when Gideon and ten other worlds formally withdrew from the Earth Alliance and declared themselves free.

The government and special interests on Earth had not responded well to that, and so the war had begun.

Ever since the accident ruined Eric's legs at age twelve, Eric had lived under the shadow of his father's disappointment. It was unspoken yet palpable, as if Eric's hopelessly wrecked legs and clumsy braces were a sign of weakness. And weakness in the son could indicate weakness in the father. Eric's rejection from the service seemed to seal it—Eric was the disappointing son, by far.

Meanwhile, Suzette had gone off to the big college in the big city, more than a thousand kilometers from their rural hometown. Eric had grown restless and felt useless, inferior to his brothers, miserable to be the one who stayed home and accomplished a lot of nothing.

He was here on Caldera to seek his fortune, but he intended to use that fortune to sweep the girl on the screen off her feet, to give her a beautiful mansion, a beautiful horse, anything and everything she wanted. To finally convince her to marry him instead of dancing around the subject. To see him as her lifelong mate, not just a going-nowhere old boyfriend who still lived with his parents.

“...hope you're coming home to Gideon for Christmas,” Suzette said. “You know I'll be back at the home place for that. We can do cider, horseback rides...like old times. I'll just have to keep my backside covered when Mom's around!” She turned to show Eric the firefly tattoo again. “But not when I'm alone with you, Eric...” Suzette hooked a thumb into the waistband of her yoga pants and slid them lower along one hip, thrilling him as she exposed more of her tight, curved—

“Suzy's doing a strip tease!” someone shouted from off-screen. Someone male. Suzette blushed and tugged her pants back up, though she didn't seem too hurried about it.

“Get out!” Suzette yelled, but she seemed close to laughing.

“Maybe we should all strip for her boyfriend!” A guy ran into the frame, dressed in a beaded-shell necklace, palm-print boxer shorts, and nothing else. Suzette pushed him back, but he resisted. Their fingers intertwined in a play-wrestle that made Eric's own hand ball into a tight fist.

“Stop it, Chet!” Suzette squealed.

“Leave off!” a young woman's voice called, speaking with a heavy, tropical-sounding lilt. She moved into view, an athletic-looking young woman with rich caramel-toned skin, dressed in a purple sports bra and matching jockey shorts. “Come along, Chet. Leave off her. We're going to be late.”

“Thanks, Rafaela,” Suzette said as the other girl pulled the guy out of frame. Suzette finally looked back at Eric, and she was blushing. “Sorry. And hey, this is not what it looks like, Eric!”

Eric wasn't sure what it looked like. The scene was puzzling and unsettling.

Suzette turned her screen to show him her new dorm room, which was much more spacious than the one she'd had her freshman year. And much weirder. The room was circular, with six beds, most of them messy and laundry-strewn. An open sitting area was at the center of the room, furnished with patched bean-bags and an old couch. The guy and girl that had wrestled with Suzette earlier, Chet and Rafaela, were now starting to dress, taking clothes out of cupboards above their beds.

“We've moved to a pan-gender, open-plan co-op dorm,” Suzette explained. “It was voluntary. I admit it was kind of freaky at first—we grew up so traditionalist-normative back in that little town, you know what I mean?”

“No idea.” Eric sat on the edge of his bed now, dressed in shorts and t-shirt for the night, trying to figure out what she was talking about, what exactly was going on in that dorm. She angled the screen back to herself and her own bed. The girl called Rafaela squealed and laughed somewhere out of view. Horsing around with Chet.

“Anyway, it's been an adjustment, but it really does help you develop a more communitarian state of self-transcendence,” Suzette said, sounding nothing like the girl he'd grown up with. “You start to feel like part of the bigger picture. Not so isolated and alone.”

He frowned. Maybe he'd been wrong to leave Gideon. She hadn't asked him to stay behind—had encouraged to get out there and try if he wanted to—and none of her messages in the intervening months had indicated that she'd been hurt by his choice to go. He missed her, but he was starting to wonder whether she missed him.

Eric looked down at his weak, misshapen legs, veined with the stiff steel curves of his braces and scarred all over by the surgeries that had installed them. His back throbbed, too, right around the jack implant. It often did. Gideon wasn't a rich, heavily urbanized planet. The hospital had done the best they could with what they'd had.

Eric's worst fear had been that Suzette would leave their flyspeck town, go off to the big city, and realize that she could do much better than the poor crippled boy back home. Maybe their whole relationship had been based on nothing more than her lack of options.

“So, my roomies are great.” Suzette slung an arm around the underwear-clad girl called Rafaela, pulling her into view. Chet came up behind them and draped his arms over both girls. Another guy passed in the background, tall and muscular, dressed in just a towel, his long hair concealing his face. “Maybe we can all get together sometime when you're home. I think you'll really like Chet.”

Chet winked. Eric felt like punching Chet's teeth back into his throat.

“And now we're officially late.” Rafaela drew on her blouse.

“Say bye to Eric,” Suzette said.

“Bye, Eric.” Rafaela waved. “Have fun...being a miner.” She giggled, and the guys in the room snickered.

Suzette rolled her eyes. “Bye, Eric.”

The wall turned black. After a few seconds, an ad for Jimbo's Pharmacy and Plastic Surgery appeared on the screen, floating slowly like a cloud. The words OPEN LATE! ASK ABOUT OUR FACE & FINGERPRINT SPECIAL! flickered like old-timey neon over the doc-shop's logo, the words vanishing and then re-spelling themselves again and again, one letter at a time.

With the video ended, the room was mostly dark again, lit only by the floating ads on the wall, which he couldn't turn off.

Eric sat on the edge of his bed, trying to process what he'd seen. Suzette was certainly changing fast. The old her had been aghast about living with a single female roommate when she'd first gone off to college, horrified to have so little privacy. Now she shared a bedroom with an assortment of guys and girls, all of them basically strangers compared to the folks back home. Life at the university sure was different from life on the farm.

Eric's fists were already balled up tight. He punched the reinforced particle-plastic wall beside him. It hurt. His knuckles stung. It felt good. He did it again, then again, pounding his frustration and confusion into the wall, feeling suddenly lost, suddenly unsure of his direction. All he knew was that he wanted to get his hands on that Chet guy and pound him bloody.

“Cut it out!” someone shouted from the next apartment over.

Eric stopped punching the wall. His knuckles were swollen and battered. It wasn't nearly enough. He could've kept punching that wall all night, could have challenged his unseen neighbor to fight outside. His emotions were all violent.

He sat in the dark and seethed. He couldn't sleep. He just hoped there was plenty of solid rock for him destroy when he headed back down into the mine the next morning.

Chapter Five

Bartley picked Eric up well before daybreak. Bartley seemed reasonably conscious despite his late night. He'd probably taken a hangover pill. They eroded the human liver and kidneys, but Bartley ate them like popcorn.

“Good times last night, huh?” Bartley asked, as though unaware how quickly Eric had left. “Did you check out that brunette with the broad shoulders? Lots of guys aren't into the muscular mine-worker chicks, but that's just more pie for me to slice, is what I say...”

Eric tuned him out. News of Bartley's tryst in the bathroom of a bar made him think of Suzette back home. She was the only girl he'd ever dated, and they hadn't done quite everything together, either. She'd been saving certain things for marriage. He hoped she was saving them still.

They bounced up the dusty, bumpy, steep, narrow roads of the canyon. The dark sky overhead grew less gloomy as the sun rose, backlighting the gray volcanic smog.

“...told her I wanted a turn on top, but she just pinned me down and tightened the handcuffs...what the jimmy-jack is going on?”

Bartley stopped in view of the mine entrance. The gate was already open. Malvolio stood just inside, on his own crimson-slippered feet for once instead of perched atop his unicycle. He was stiff, arms crossed, imitating the stance of a gruff cop or armed security guard who took his duties very seriously.

The reason for Malvolio's extra-professional stance sat on a rocky shelf nearby. A compact black scouting helicopter parked there, a light, thin four-seater designed for rapid flying in narrow spaces like cities, canyons, and mountain passes. The Exoplanet Resource Development logo, a glittering-gold XRD, was stamped on the side.

“Uh-oh,” Bartley whispered, parking alongside a few other personal vehicles and killing the engine. “She's here. Don't forget to cover your balls.”

Eric stepped down from the truck, staring at the black-tinted glass of the helicopter, unable to tell whether she was still inside or not. Alanna Li-Whitward, it was rumored, had once grabbed a male employee by the balls and squeezed until he'd been hospitalized for a ruptured testicle. Alanna's mother, Candace Whitward, had been a famous model and movie star a generation ago, and was now the fourth wife of trillionaire Li-Jianyu, who was invested in virtually every major industry. He owned companies on multiple planets, including their employer, XRD.

“Mister Reamer and Miss Li-Whitward have arrived,” Malvolio told Eric and Bartley, opening the gate to the mine as they approached. “So have Frank and Naomi. You're to go down and join them the moment you arrive.”

“We aren't late, are we?” Eric asked.

“We're not that late,” Bartley said.

“If you're later than the boss, you're late,” Malvolio said. He lowered his head, shifted his eyes from side to side, and said in a whispering, mock-gangster voice: “And the boss don't like it when you're late. The boss might just decide you'll sleep with the fishes tonight.”

“Don't quit your day job, bro,” Bartley said as he and Eric hurried to their exoskeletons.

“Entertaining was my day job.” Malvolio slumped, sounding pained. “For the first eighty years of my existence.”

The loader drove by, folded up on the front end of the dump truck, taking out another payload of broken rock slag from the previous day. The arm of a climber hung out one side of the heap, its suction-cup fingers limp, dripping black blood.

“Unloading,” the robot said, by way of greeting.

“Unloading,” Eric replied solemnly. He waved one giant industrial arm at the loader, while opening and closing the clamp hand.

The loader bot halted the truck and rotated its boxy head to regard Eric with its big round camera-ball eyes, set just above the boxy protrusion that housed its mouth speaker.

“Unloading,” the loader finally replied, then swiveled its head to face forward again. It drove on out the gate, destined for the older, dead-end shafts that now served as slag disposal pits.

“Okay, then,” Bartley said. They started rolling down the shaft single-file, gunning the tracks of their exoskeletons as fast as they would go down the squarish spiral of the decline, racing down deep under the surface. Eric fought to keep his balance—he'd never driven the exoskeleton so fast, but they couldn't afford to keep the bosses waiting. They'd just made some kind of hugely significant find. It was a bad time to get fired over something stupid like tardiness, but it could happen. The company would probably love to find some last-minute technicality to cut out any of the workers' contractual share of the profits.

They reached the main tunnel and braked as quickly as they could when they saw three layers of supervisors and bosses waiting ahead. Naomi stood there, arms folded, scowling under her mining helmet as Bartley and Eric's braking treads kicked up a cloud of black volcanic dust from the floor.

The dust drifted forward, slowly but inevitably coating the coveralls worn by the balding, diminutive general manager, Burt Reamer, who bore more than a passing resemblance to the video game character Mario. Reamer closed his eyes and turned away as the black dust cloud flowed over him.

It also struck a chubby man in an expensive croc-skin suit, with shimmering golden rings and precious gems adorning his ears, eyebrows, and lips. Next to that man stood the president of XRD, representing the owners, who happened to be her own family.

Alanna Li-Whitward looked even more out of place in the grungy, dusty mine than the man beside her. She wore a muted gray designer suit jacket full of unnecessary buckles over a black knee-length business skirt. Her knee-high boots were reasonably practical—the materials were probably too expensive and delicate for the rough, filthy environment, but at least they weren't high heels.

Alanna had platinum-blond hair, coiled into elaborate braids at the back as though she'd just left a fancy dress ball before stepping into the helicopter. She wore dark glasses, which seemed inexplicable underground, but they probably had nightvision and other features.

“What are you two hambones doing?” Reamer shouted, stalking toward them. “Look at this mess you stirred up.”

“Malvolio said you wanted us down here as fast as possible,” Bartley said.

“He was very dramatic about it,” Eric added.

“He's programmed to be dramatic!” Reamer shook his head. “You're both three minutes late. I should initiate termination procedures on both of you. Claw back your shares—”

“Please, Burt,” Alanna spoke up, her voice strong but measured, polished but firm. She was in her middle or late twenties, the seventeenth child of her famous and powerful father. Her father had been just over a hundred when she was born, Eric had heard. And he remained alive today.

Alanna looked at Eric and Bartley. “Who found the concealed chamber?”

“That would be me, ma'am,” Bartley hurried to raise one hand. “Used this hammer right here.”

“Dexter.” Alanna gestured at the jeweled man in the croc-skin suit. He removed a digital tablet from a pack strapped to his side.

“I'm Dexter Prentice, attorney for Miss Li-Whitward,” the man said. He looked to be in his mid-forties. “I need to verify that neither of you have spoken to anyone else about this matter.”

“Uh...” Bartley scratched his head. There was no way he could remember all of his conversations at the bar the night before.

“We haven't,” Eric said, answering for both of them before Bartley stumbled into saying something that got him in trouble or fired. “We worked late last night. I caught a ride home with Bartley. Straight to bed for me. Pretty sure for him, too.”

“Oh, yeah.” Bartley nodded quickly, following Eric's lead. “My grandma always said, late to sleep, early to weep. And also that a hill witch would kidnap and eat children who made too much noise after bedtime.”

“You'll need to sign nondisclosure agreements,” Prentice said, approaching them with a light pen. “You cannot speak of this find without express written consent of Exoplanet Resource Development, LLC—consent which, I assure you, will not be forthcoming anytime soon.” The chubby jeweled man chuckled to himself as though he'd made a clever joke. “But seriously. Sign these now.”

Eric shrugged and signed. So did Bartley. The lawyer smiled and shook their hands.

“They called us in early,” Naomi said, pointing to the new side tunnel where all the action had happened the day before. “Hagen's almost done.”

Finally, Eric was able to roll forward and look into the smaller tunnel. Bartley hopped out of his exoskeleton's seat to check it out on foot.

The loader bot had cleared the remaining debris and climber bodies. Hagen had driven meters-long steel bolts into the sides and roof of the cave to secure them. Now he was wrapping up, spraying everything with a layer of quick-drying concrete. The graying, fiftyish man nodded when he saw Eric and Bartley had arrived. He stood at the mouth of the narrow tunnel, operating a rolling sprayer unit connected by hose to the cement truck in the main tunnel.

He hadn't sprayed any concrete on the back wall, where the open fissure led into the mysterious crystalline room beyond.

“Any more problems with the climbers?” Eric asked Naomi.

“Not this morning. I'm ready if they come back.” She touched a small tank of the bug poison clamped to her belt.

“Rowan!” Reamer shouted, and Eric turned to see the manager approaching him, looking surly. “Switch that clamp for a roadheader attachment. Flynn, put a chisel head on your hammer. Be delicate with your tools today, like you're sewing a silk flower onto your grandma's favorite pair of panties.”

Bartley opened his mouth as if he wanted to say something, but couldn't quite put together a rejoinder to that.

“The word of the day is careful,” Alanna said. “If there are...strange artifacts in there, something rare, we don't want to destroy them.”

“I still think it's just some weirdo stuff built by the first wave of miners,” Naomi said. “The people who built Money City built this. Nobody else has ever lived on this planet, except some really gross animals. That's what the geologists say, right?”

“We...might have been wrong about that.” The voice was so small that Eric wouldn't have heard it if Hagen hadn't just shut down his cement-pumping hose, which now retracted slowly toward the mixer truck, like a fat boa constrictor creeping across the floor.

Eric turned to see who had spoken. The woman was short, with quick, dark eyes and long, glossy blue-black hair spilling out from beneath her mining helmet. She wore the same kinds of coveralls as the mine workers, but the patches on her sleeves showed a pair of crossed rock picks, which meant she was a geologist.

“These images are...unlike anything I've seen.” The small woman held up a tablet displaying the final transmission from their scouting robot: the face sculpted from quartz, the one Bartley had quickly identified as belonging to the gray space goblins of myth and lore. She seemed at a loss for words. Her voice remained soft. Eric had no idea where she'd emerged from—maybe another side tunnel, maybe the shadows beyond the cement truck and the parked scouter.

“This is Iris Zander,” Reamer said. He wasn't much taller than the slight woman. “Supposed to be one of the best in the biz.”

“I only hire the best people,” Alanna said. She removed her sunglasses, revealing eyes rimmed with bright gold, either cosmetic contacts or surgically tinted. It was a startling effect in person, either way. Eric had only seen eyes like that on models and celebrities. “And I expect the best work in return. And I expect it fast. I'm bored with standing around already.” She snapped two fingers at Prentice. He scrambled to retrieve a jeweled cigarette case from his suit pocket. He handed her a long pink cigarette and lit it for her.

“Uh, ma'am,” Reamer said. “There's no smoking in the mines. It's a safety hazard.”

“Oh, go whine to my lawyer. That's what he's for. Are we ready to go in yet or not?”

“The shotcrete's almost dry,” Hagen said. He peeled off his disposable, shotcrete-spattered gloves. They thudded to the ground like stone hands that had been lopped off a statue.

“So we can go in?” Alanna asked.

“When the cement hardens, Naomi's going to use some very light explosives to get us most of the way through that wall. Then we'll clear the rest of the way with Bartley's chisel and Eric's roadheader.” Hagen nodded at Eric's exoskeleton.

Eric was already replacing his drill with the roadheader, a vicious-looking rotating drum studded with dozens of steel cutting teeth. The tool was for tunneling through solid rock, whenever drill and blast was too risky, or to widen and neaten after initial blasting.

“Then get to it!” Alanna snapped. “I didn't rush down here this morning just sit on my butt all day.”

“Miss Li-Whitward has a tight schedule,” added Prentice. The lawyer adjusted his tie and looked bored.

“Double-time, people!” Reamer clapped his small, hairy hands.

“Make it triple,” Alanna said. She sighed and began to lean back against Naomi's scouting vehicle, parked nearby, then grimaced at its dust and dirt and stood up straight again, brushing off the back of her business skirt. Her lawyer reached over as if he meant to help brush off her skirt, too, but she bared her teeth and he backed away.

Eric and his team worked as fast as they could, though it quickly became apparent they'd never be fast enough to satisfy the constantly complaining Alanna.

Naomi used glowing green paint to mark spots on the wall, and Hagen double-checked their positioning for safety. Reamer made a show of giving them an extra examination himself, clearly trying to look useful in front of the owner.

Eric drilled holes at the marked spots, using his smallest bit, then rolled back out of the tunnel. Naomi packed each of the new little holes with explosive gum.

“Blast shield!” she barked as she emerged from the short tunnel.

“Finally,” Alanna said, looking furious at how long she'd waited already. “Then we can go in.”

“Not quite, ma'am,” Reamer said. “There will be more clearing, and then—”

“I should've gone to the spa this morning!” Alanna snapped. “Not that there's anyplace on this planet to get a decent facial and massage.”

“I know a good massage parlor—” Bartley began, but Hagen wisely cut him off, jabbing his elbow into Bartley's gut.

“We happen to have an old entertainment bot on gate security,” Hagen said. “If you like—”

“Call it down here!” Alanna said.

“I have to warn you, he's a little old, and most of us find him pretty annoying—”

“Send him now!”

Hagen opened the bright yellow box on the wall of the main tunnel, near the area where they parked their vehicles. A fiber-optic cable connected it to the front gate, since radio communication deep underground was far from reliable. “Malvolio! Secure the front, then come down and entertain Miss Li-Whitward. Do a...song or something.”

The drama-bot's mustached face appeared on the screen inside the yellow box. He appeared to be beaming. He touched his heart. “Truly, this is the greatest order you have given me, my liege—”

“Shut up and get down here.”

Soon Malvolio arrived on his unicycle, and immediately began belting out in a soaring soprano voice a song that, judging by its refrain, must have been called “That's What Friends Are For.” Alanna and Prentice watched the performance, looking nonplussed by it.

The loader bot returned from dropping off the last load of slag and unfolded from its spot at the front of the dump truck.

“Raise the blast shield, loader,” Naomi told it.

“Loading,” the loader bot said as it raised the collapsible blast shield for her. It was made of leaves of tungsten that could be unfolded and fitted to the irregular edges of a freshly hacked tunnel. This made it a solid barrier against explosions, but also impossibly heavy for a human being to set up alone. The loader used its excavator-bucket hands for the bulk of the work, then extended a slender, flexible third arm from its back to fire anchor bolts into place. “Loaded,” the loader announced.

Naomi and Hagen quickly checked the robot's work, making sure the shield was anchored and would hold. Reamer re-checked, again for the benefit of the boss watching him. It would probably be the smallest explosion Eric had witnessed during all his time in the mines, just enough to crack up the wall.

“Fire in the hole,” Naomi announced, then clicked the detonator control in her hand.

A light thump sounded against the opposite side of the blast shield, as if a salesman had politely knocked on it. Small puffs of dust curled out around the edges of the shield and faded out of sight.

“Didn't it work?” Alanna asked.

“Loader, take down the shield,” Naomi said.

“Unloading.” The quiet, hulking robot removed the anchor bolts and folded down the blast shield.

In the small tunnel, a thick cloud of dust filled the air, and large chunks of rock littered the floor, glittering with freshly exposed quartz and fool's gold. Much of the back wall looked broken up and scooped out now; it was a tribute to Naomi's blasting skills that she'd tore it open so deep without penetrating all the way to the chamber beyond, where there could be valuable artifacts.

“Loader, clean it up,” Naomi said.

“Loading.” The robot soon transferred the larger chunks of debris from the tunnel to the dump truck, then returned to hold up the newly exposed tunnel ceiling until Hagen secured it with bolts.

Then it was Eric's turn. He rolled up to what remained of the wall and began working the edges of the existing fissure with the roadheader. The rotating drum rumbled as it turned, studded with dozens of cutting teeth in a spiral pattern. Tiny jets sprayed unfiltered river water on the outside of the roadheader as it spun, helping to cool it while transforming the rock dust into a wet slurry that glopped to the floor; otherwise the dust would fly out in blinding, choking clouds of dry volcanic particles. It would almost have been like breathing the smoky air up on the surface, up above the canyons and caves.

When he was done, the narrow fissure that had only been large enough for climbers to wriggle through had become a fairly smooth-walled passageway, enough for people to pass through single file. Vehicles and exoskeletons wouldn't fit, but it was clear Alanna's patience had long since worn away. She'd been pacing the main tunnel, chain-smoking and cursing.

So as soon as the passage was walkable, Eric backed out of the tunnel. The loader bot moved in, first clearing debris from the area and moving it to the dump truck, then propping up the ceiling over the widened fissure and locking itself into place as an added brace.

“Loaded,” the big robot said when it was in position.

Eric parked his exoskeleton along the far side of the main wall, in line with the vehicles. Bartley had already parked his own and climbed out, ready to join the others on foot. Eric disconnected from his exoskeleton and reconnected his leg braces, feeling the usual disappointing sense of shrinking and slowing.

“I'll lead the way, ma'am,” Reamer volunteered. He started down the tunnel, switching on the light of his mining helmet.

“This better not be a waste of my time,” Alanna said. She followed him, trailed by Prentice, who looked with trepidation at the low rock ceiling above.

Iris followed quickly, tablet in hand. The small geologist looked excited, biting her lip and trying to contain herself.

The remaining four people, the team of co-workers who spent every day together in these tunnels, looked at each other.

“I'm going with them.” Bartley clicked on the light of his own helmet, which he'd just put on after leaving his exoskeleton. “I'm not missing out on this. Whatever it is.”

Eric, Naomi, and Hagen followed after, Eric still strapping his helmet into place. His legs moved stiffly, as always, and he walked at the end of the line.

“Shall I come as well?” Malvolio asked.

“Guard our equipment,” Eric told him.

Malvolio gave an overdone sigh, complete with a broad and pointless sweep of one arm, and then sank to his knee in the main tunnel, head bowed low under his top hat, as though completing a scene.

Eric continued on through the newly widened passage, trying to catch up to the others.

“Whoa,” Alanna breathed up ahead.

“This is...amazing,” Iris whispered.

Eric emerged from the passage he'd just carved, then stopped and gaped at the chamber around him. Even Bartley seemed awed into silence.

“It didn't look this big on the screen,” Naomi whispered.

The vaulted roof of the quartz chamber curved high above their heads. Shining quartz tunnels, large enough for a person to crawl through on hands and knees, led away through the ceiling. Each crystalline tunnel was a different color, one dark purple, one a soft hue of blue, another smoky orange.

“This...is...amazing.” Iris studied the hieroglyph-like wall engravings under her helmet light. She drew on a steel-framed pair of thick glasses and adjusted knobs at the sides. The lenses moved forward and back within their frames like the objectives of a microscope. “When you look up close, it's crude, even primitive. These murals are composed of small, irregular fragments of colored quartz, cemented into place on top of the quartz-reef walls here. But when you back up and take the wide view...” She shook her head. “This could potentially have been carried out by a Paleolithic-level culture, I suppose, if they had sufficient labor, organization, and focus...”

Eric looked at the wall closest to him. It was impossible not to admire the detailed figures. Besides flowers and insects, there were also birds that looked fearsome and predatory, with long, thin, pointed beaks and fire-red eyes rendered in intricate detail by hundreds of little quartz fragments.

“You gotta admit, somebody knew what they were doing.” Bartley belched, then clapped Naomi on the shoulder, drawing a scowl and a hard shake-off from her. “You still think the Money City miners did this?”

“None of this makes any sense,” Reamer said. The general manager folded his arms, looking personally offended by the chamber. “This is all supposed to be one big raw quartz reef. Goes on for hundreds of kilometers. How could...where did this come from...who built...” Reamer looked angrier with every question he asked. “Someone should have told us about this!”

“I don't think anyone knew,” Hagen said. He was a man of hard work and few words, which made it difficult to ignore him when he did speak. His eyes were fixed on the last image they'd seen, the gray face with the big black quartz eyes, the one they'd glimpsed just before their robot's transmission ended.

“Would you look at that?” Naomi gestured toward the rest of the statue to which the sculptured quartz face belonged. “I didn't expect to see that in here.”

“That's not human,” Alanna said. Finally, for once, she did not seem the least bit bored. Her eyes seemed to glitter, reflecting all the shiny surfaces around them. “What have we found here?”

Nobody had an answer. The face of the statue, which they'd only glimpsed over the camera, belonged to neither a human nor a gray-goblin alien of yore. The face had large, dark eyes and a pair of antennae growing out of the top. The antennae hadn't fit into the porcupine's camera frame.

The gray head was mounted on a long, slender neck, attached to winged thorax with six legs. The front two legs were extended to the sides, each one ending in three curved claws. Altogether, the insect statue was about the size of a horse, standing on an elevated pedestal of deep red quartz, like a sacrifice on a bloody altar.

Chapter Six

“So...bug worshipers?” Naomi said. “That's what we're dealing with? Some first-wave miners were really, really into bugs, and built a...praying mantis shrine?”

“I'm seeing a lot of bugs on these walls, now that you mention it.” Hagen pointed to the colored-quartz designs nearest him.

“There's a lot to admire about bugs, really,” Prentice said.

“Why would people build all this and then abandon it?” Alanna asked. “Seems like a big waste of cash.”

“They didn't abandon it on purpose,” Hagen said. “The Allies bombed Money City to the dirt during the war. Left no stone standing. It was their punishment for freely trading with the rebel planets, selling them all the gold they needed for their electronics and communications. Eventually there were factories here, building ships and selling them to the Colonial League...and that was that. The first wave of miners and settlers either died in the nuclear attack or they fled. Some of them made it to other worlds and died slowly, withering away from radiation poisoning.”

Eric shuddered.

“But where's our porcupine? I still say aliens,” Bartley said.

“He...may be right,” Iris said, her voice little more than a whisper. She looked up along the curved colored-quartz buttresses that supported the ceiling, intersecting with curving crystal walkways on their way up to steep, almost vertical crystal tunnels above.

More passageways curved out of sight at ground level, past smaller statues of bugs and crystalline plants mounted sideways on the walls. Even more tunnels sloped away out of sight, heading deeper underground, in darker hues of red, blue, and green quartz than the tunnels overhead, as if darker meant lower, and brighter meant higher.

Every surface seemed inset with more tiny, colorful quartz designs. Vines and leaves made of splinters of vermarine supported flowers made of flakes of rose and sun-colored quartz, all of it worked with enough skill that the forms looked soft and organic from just a few paces back.

The tree-trunk columns branched out into a canopy of limbs far above, creating what looked like a network of narrow, intersecting walkways, though with no signs of rails or any concern for safety. The thin rock walkways were gently arched over and under each other, the shape probably making them sturdier. Romans and their roads, Eric thought again. Their aqueducts, their arches.

“If it was aliens, it must have been the ancients, right?” Naomi asked, looking at Iris. “The ones who built the wormholes. Had to be. Right?”

“No. The creations of the ancients are much more...advanced. This could have been done by any sentient species with plenty of rocks to break and time to spare.”

“How do you know so much about aliens?” Bartley asked. “Ever seen one? They say the gray ones come out of your closet at night, take you up to space and probe you.”

“I studied under the Antikytheran Society.” Her voice was quieter than ever as she said it. The room fell silent—not that it had been loud before, really, but most people stiffened and looked her way when she said those words. Only Alanna and Prentice continued murmuring to each other and taking images of the room around them, including selfies with the horse-sized insect statue.

“You're a gatekeeper?” Eric asked, astonished. Gatekeepers were the people who studied and learned to operate the wormhole gates built by the ancients. Without a gatekeeper, a starship pilot couldn't safely activate a gate, nor select a destination. Gatekeepers were powerful, secretive types who mostly kept to themselves, almost mythic figures who made interstellar travel possible.

“No, I am not a gatekeeper,” Iris said, and it clearly pained her to say it. “Only about five percent of those admitted to the Society become gatekeepers. There is a great deal of study, even for those with the ability. Most of us end up in support roles—astrophysicists and engineers trying to understand the wormhole gates. There are xenoarchaeologists trying to understand the ancients who built them, and continuing the broader search for signs of extraterrestrial intelligence, alive or dead. And, obviously, some of us become geologists and biologists to help study and understand all the worlds we're discovering. We are devoted to knowledge.”

“The Antikytheran Society is the rebel gatekeeper society, isn't it?” Hagen asked. The older man seemed to be watching the geologist carefully, evaluating her. Frank Hagen had been a sergeant in the Allied infantry in his younger years, making war on the rebels. Eric had grown up on a rebel planet. His father had served in the rebel military, his brothers were still serving. He'd always felt distant from Hagen because of it.

“It's true,” Iris replied. “The Antikytherans broke off from the older Ptolemaic Society, the original gatekeeper organization. The war broke the gatekeepers into two opposing factions, along with the rest of humanity. Each side needed loyal gatekeepers to transport its military ships between systems.”

“So you've seen stuff like this before?” Bartley asked.

“No. This doesn't exactly match any civilization we've noted so far,” Iris said.

“Wait,” Naomi said. “Just how many alien civilizations have you 'noted'? Besides the ancients?”

“Ah...” Iris shook her head. “That's not my particular area.”

“But you know something,” Alanna said, suddenly engaged in the conversation. “What have the gatekeepers found out?”

“Just...fragments, mostly.” Iris was looking nervous, wrapping her arms tightly around her slight frame. “Occasional ruins with symbols. Sometimes pottery. We haven't found any live civilizations. Intelligence seems to be rare, civilization even rarer. And it doesn't seem to last, either. Things fall apart.”

“That's reassuring,” Eric said. “Bright future for the human race, huh?”

“If the ancients with all their incredible tech managed to go extinct, that doesn't leave much hope for the rest of us,” Hagen commented, scratching his graying beard stubble.

“This is enough standing around,” Alanna said, looking agitated. She had a restless nature, Eric thought. “Let's search these tunnels and see if there's anything valuable in here.”

“More valuable than signs of a lost alien civilization?” Naomi asked, her eyebrows raised.

“Gold or platinum, let's hope. I'll take even take silver as a booby prize.” Alanna started toward one of the curved passageways, this one lined mostly with purple and midnight blue quartz. “Iridium would be lovely...uranium, an unexpected bonus...”

“Wait,” Hagen said.

Alanna looked back at him, eyes blazing. Beside her, Prentice echoed her look, appearing miffed at Hagen on her behalf.

“I'm in charge of safety down here,” Hagen said. “We don't know anything about where these tunnels and hallways lead, but we know this quartz reef had an estimated area of millions of hectares and extends kilometers below us. We could get lost.”

“What do you want us to do, leave a trail of bread crumbs?” Reamer asked. The diminutive general manager shook his balding head.

“Something like that,” Hagen replied, keeping a measured tone against Reamer's sarcasm. “We should make preparations first.”

“As long as you hurry,” Alanna said. “I've done enough standing around today. My screen doesn't even get a signal down here.”

“We could call in Malvolio—” Hagen began.

“Please. His jokes were old when the war started, when the ink on the Declarations of Separation was still fresh.”

“Let's make it happen.” Reamer clapped his hands, as if that would help anything. “Don't keep Miss Li-Whitward waiting.”

The eight of them returned to the main tunnel, where Alanna waved off Malvolio as he gleefully attempted to demonstrate his not-that-impressive one-ball juggling act. Eric wanted to ask where the other two missing balls had gone, but he was afraid it would trigger some kind of overdone histrionics from the drama-bot.

“We need to widen that passageway until the exoskeletons can fit through,” Hagen said. “And secure it. Should take a few hours. Maybe tomorrow—”

“Out of the question,” Alanna said. “I want to see what's in there now. You can do the boring stuff tomorrow without me. I don't even know why I came back out here.”

“You're making her angry,” Reamer said, scowling at Hagen.

“We need a spool of fiber to take with us,” Hagen said. “That'll mark our path back, and keep us in touch with the security bot, who will remain out here.”

“Security bot?” Prentice looked confused.

“Did someone call for me?” Malvolio unicycled closer and gave Prentice an over-the-top imitation of a salute. “Reporting for duty, sir!”

“Oh,” Prentice said. “Right. Could we not afford anything better?”

“Not on our current budget,” Reamer hurried to reply. “It was this entertainment unit or an old bartender-bot. If you like, we can go shop the local salvage yard—”

“Everyone is wasting my time,” Alanna said.

“We should split up into teams,” Reamer said. “We'll explore the rooms faster that way, and we can zero in on anything of real value.”

“Everything in there is of great value,” Iris said. “There are signs of a civilization never before discovered—”

“Yeah, but I mean really valuable. Like gold or platinum,” Reamer said. “Anyway, we'll be tripping over each other and wasting even more of Miss Li-Whitward's time unless we break into teams.”

“There could be drawbacks to that,” Hagen said, scratching his gray stubble. “We can't assume it's safe in there. It could be unstable, there could be more cave-ins. We should focus on securing first, exploring later. And that doesn't even get into the wildlife we could encounter, maybe more cave climbers, maybe rock scorpions—”

“It looks safe enough to me,” Alanna said. “The roof is supported by rock pillars.”

“Yeah, it may look safe to you, someone who's never worked as a ground support and safety technician—” Hagen began.

“Watch yourself,” Reamer interrupted, flushing red as he glared at Hagen. “Remember who you're talking to, Hagen. We do what she says. So here's the plan: we split into two teams. Miss Li-Whitward, her attorney, and myself will go together, down whichever path she wants to explore. The rest of you will be the second team.”

Eric understood now. Reamer wanted more face time with Alanna, more chances to schmooze with the boss, with fewer people around to interrupt and distract. That was more than fine with Eric; he definitely felt safer on the second team, which had all the experienced miners plus the geologist, who seemed like a nice enough person. She was timid, but she clearly had studied alien civilizations to some extent, or at least their relics.

“That's acceptable, but I want one of these mine workers with us,” Alanna said, perhaps thinking what Eric had been thinking; Reamer was an office overlord who didn't know a pick ax from a pitchfork. She might have been restless and easily bored, but she was no dummy.

“Oh, smart idea,” Prentice said. “In case there's manual labor involved.”

“Flynn, with us,” Reamer said. The short man snapped his fingers as he pointed at Bartley.

“Heck yeah! You all can just call me Bark-Dog, like my bros do.” Bartley held out one freckled hand, offering Alanna a fist-bump, which she declined. He offered it to Prentice instead, but the jeweled lawyer just frowned, the ruby studs in his lower lip jutting out, like weird fangs or small tusks. Bartley was undeterred. “If rock climbers show up, Bark-Dog will smash 'em to stew for you.”

“I want the quiet one,” Alanna said quickly.

“Eric, you're with us,” Reamer said, waving Bartley back.

Eric nodded, but had a sinking feeling inside. There were all kinds of ways to get into trouble with the bosses here. He was as curious as anyone to look into the strange complex of colored quartz rooms and corridors, but he recognized that exploring a newly discovered underground labyrinth on a volcanically active, tectonically loose alien world was dangerous enough. Now he'd have to be distracted by the egos of his inexperienced bosses along the way.

Still, he was at the bottom of the totem pole here, in no place to refuse. There was more than wonder and danger waiting inside the crystal complex, there was also immense opportunity. Eric's contract entitled him to a certain small percentage of any finds. It was the only way for the mining companies to attract reasonably sane human beings to prospect for gold on a remote, barely civilized planet best known for earthquakes, eye-burning volcanic smog, unpleasant levels of heat, and almost nothing else. Drilling exploratory tunnels was dangerous work, especially when the bosses wanted to invest as little as possible until actual valuable minerals were found.

Fortunes had been made here on Caldera. Eric had seen it himself more than once: the haggard-looking guy struggling to pay for fried bread at the bar one day, then buying a round for the house the next. Some of the lucky strikers blew it all locally, on the range of lowbrow entertainments and risky pleasures on offer in Canyon City. Others kept digging for more, and still others would pack it up and head home.

Eric wanted that more than anything else—to get rich quick and get back home to Suzette. Even an eyeless cave climber could see that she was changing, pulling away from him, and heading down a strange path.

If this discovery paid off, he could go home, straighten things out with her, resume his duties on the farm, and return to normal life, but it would be better than ever. He'd use some of his fortune to build the most beautiful house Suzette had ever seen.

He knew just the spot where he would build it, a flower-filled meadow about a kilometer from his parents' house. The meadow sloped down to a spring-fed creek brimming with fish, turtles, and frogs. Eric and Suzette had camped there together with friends countless times. He could still smell the campfire when he thought of it, hear Korey Perzwalski playing his stupid sitar while everyone laughed, and taste the homemade blueberry wine and corn liquor, which had probably added to the laughter.

In his mind, the house would be huge, made of local stone and brick. A henhouse for fresh eggs, a stable and corral for horses, orchards, a vegetable garden, and their own herd of devilhorn out on the range, tracked by GPS tags. And children. Plenty of them. Why not? Gideon was full of wide open spaces.

All this played and replayed in Eric's mind as they prepared to enter the crystal tunnels.

Each four-person team had a spool of fiber-optic cable, connected in a Y junction in the main tunnel so they could communicate with each other as well as Malvolio, who'd be waiting by the yellow com box in the main tunnel in case either team called for help.

At the same time, Hagen hurriedly added a couple of bolts and some concrete to the newly widened passageway, so the loader bot wouldn't have to stand around bracing it against cave-in any longer.

“Loaded,” the big bot said, then reversed out to the main tunnel and parked next to its dump truck, waiting for more orders.

They assembled in their teams and performed a last equipment check, which made Alanna tap her foot impatiently.

Reamer had, not surprisingly, appointed himself leader of the team with Prentice and Alanna. He called this group “Team A.” Reamer carried the fiber cable spool on his belt and the portable screen to which it attached. He'd be in charge of all communications. Everybody carried an orange stunner in case of nasty critters. Prentice curled his lip a little as he strapped the dusty holster belt over his designer suit.

Their team advanced first, through the passageway and into the crystal-forest room they'd already studied. Alanna glanced into each of the six different paths out of the room, not including the steep tunnel entrances on the ceiling.

“This one,” she said, pointing to a corridor lined with deep blue quartz. Her voice was low, as if impressed with what she saw ahead. “Definitely.”

Then they were off, while Team B—Bartley, Naomi, Hagen, and Iris—set off down another corridor, lined with orange citrine rock.

“Let's find some aliens!” Bartley said as the teams separated.

Reamer led them into the deep blue tunnel, trying not to look nervous, but his bald dome gleamed with sweat, and he was twitching. Alanna and Prentice followed behind him, with Eric taking up the rear.

The quartz was midnight blue where they walked, even darker beneath their feet, but gradually moved to a lighter hue the farther Eric looked up the wall.

“The ceiling's too high to see,” Alanna said. “It looks like it goes up and up...but it can't be that high, can it?”

“Could be an optical illusion,” Prentice suggested.

“Look at this,” Alanna breathed. The corridor widened, and suddenly it was decorated as intricately as the first room had been. Murals of undersea life in every hue of quartz adorned both walls. Eric saw golden fish with fins that resembled large deciduous leaves, long predator fish with saw-like teeth, and strangle alien creatures with mats of tentacles and grape-like clusters of dark eyes.

Columns decorated to look like kelp and green-and-purple anemones supported the ceiling. More fish, crabs, and turtle-like creatures with six legs hid among the branches of the aquatic life. As in the previous room, the walls, columns, and floor were raw quartz, still embedded in native volcanic rock, but with murals of quartz fragments cemented over them.

The room widened even more, and the kelp column-sculptures grew so numerous and dense that they couldn't even see the walls anymore. It was a cramped maze, with tight corners and narrow spaces, walled with green quartz kelp and pink quartz coral. The undersea creature sculptures grew larger and more threatening as they advanced, with larger claws, teeth, and tentacles, sharp and spiky shells, and fewer adornments. The larger creatures were crudely sculpted from big lumps of raw rock with thick quartz veins.

“Stay close,” Reamer said. The short manager repeatedly dabbed at himself with a handkerchief, because he was sweating hard. The tan mine-worker coveralls he'd donned for the day had enormous dark stains around the armpits. The man was scared, either of being deep underground or of the strange artifacts all around them.

Eric was nervous, too, mostly about the possibility of a cave-in, or more climbers or rock scorpions. He kept one hand near the fat orange shock pistol on his belt. He was glad to be in the rear, since his legs moved stiffly and slowly anyway. He wished he had the speed and strength of his exoskeleton.

The rock-kelp seemed to close in around them as they advanced, until they found themselves ducking low, almost crawling through a narrow tunnel with stone branches pointing out at them.

“This is a mistake,” Alanna said. “We should go back—”

“There's something up here.” Reamer, despite his small size, had to drop to his hands and knees to continue onward.

“Let us know what it is.” Alanna came to a full stop, which meant Prentice and Eric had to stop, too. There was certainly no chance of squeezing around her, even if they'd been inclined to try.

Reamer crawled on ahead while they waited. Eric could see nothing; the passage ahead was blocked by Prentice and Alanna, hunching below the tunnel's low peaked ceiling of kelp-shaped rock.

“Um...” Reamer finally called back. “Wow. Everyone? Wow.”

“You're not being very specific,” Prentice called ahead.

“Come on up here,” Reamer said. “You'll want to see this.”

The three of them followed, Prentice grumbling about the filthy floor ruining his suit.

When they reached the end and stood up, though, all grumbling ceased.

“Is that real?” Alanna asked, nearly breathless.

“It's uh...” Reamer cleared his throat and looked at Eric. “Rowan, I'd like a second opinion.”

“You never gave a first opinion,” Prentice pointed out.

Eric stepped forward for a look.

“It's real,” Eric finally said, his heart racing. “It's all real gold.”

In his mind, he was already packing his bags to fly home.

Chapter Seven

The narrow tunnel widened into an open area encircled by the stone kelp on every side.

Sea scorpion sculptures the size of bulldogs faced out toward the kelp like a ring of guardians. Like the other large and threatening sea creatures the group had passed, they were crudely carved from the local quartz-laden rock. They looked just like the rock scorpions that inhabited the caves of Caldera, except their eyes were large and dark, not blind and ingrown.

The scorpions' backs had been hollowed out and filled with gleaming starfish and seahorses made of solid gold, with the deadly stingers curled forward as though to protect the treasure.

A heaping pyramid of treasures rose within the ring of scorpions, supported by anemones decorated with a rainbow of precious stones. Crudely made silver sharks were mounted on the anemone branches, not particularly large, but impressive. Within their sharp open jaws lay mounds of golden fish with sapphire eyes. None of the little gold fish-coins were particularly large, but there was an enormous number of them.

Well above the silver sharks were smaller aquatic creatures with bulbous heads, a kind of marine mammal like the whale or dolphin. These were made of gleaming white platinum.

Above and behind all of these floated an enormous black statue of a bug the size of an elephant, with four long, long legs that reminded Eric of the water-walker bugs in creeks and ponds back home. This one was carved of black obsidian. The heap of gold and gems seemed to have been set at the bug's feet like an offering.

“Bug worshipers,” Reamer muttered, shaking his head. “This has gotta be worth...what?”

Enough, Eric thought. I hope.

“I can't believe it.” Prentice wandered forward as if hypnotized by all the precious metals. He passed the scorpions, and his hand trembled as he reached into an open shark mouth heaped with treasure.

“Be careful,” Eric said, reluctantly speaking up because nobody else was. “There could be some kind of trap. In case of thieves.”

“This isn't a movie, kiddo.” Prentice began grabbing handfuls of golden starfish and seahorses and jamming them into his pockets. Given his penchant for expensive jewelry, maybe he was planning to wear them. “Look at all this,” he whispered, shaking his head.

“Do I need to remind you that all of this falls under my claim?” Alanna asked, raising an eyebrow at him.

“Well, no, of course not,” Prentice said, but he blushed and stopped greedily scooping up handfuls of gold and gems. “It was just...we need samples...for testing.”

“Let me see one.” Eric accepted a golden seahorse and looked at it carefully. As Iris had said about the murals, the artifacts were impressive from a distance, but more uneven and crude-looking up close.

He drew a quick gold-testing kit from a pocket in his coveralls. He scratched the surface of the seahorse with a copper blade, then poked it with the tip to see how it crumpled. He sniffed it—nothing. Then tasted it.

“Still seems real to me,” Eric said. “Don't forget my percentage. It's in my contract—”

“We take contracts very seriously,” Alanna told him.

“This is great,” Prentice said, admiring golden fish in both his hands. “Worth crawling through that filthy tunnel.”

“Did you guys hear something?” Reamer stepped out past the ring of scorpions, looking into more of the stone kelp beyond.

“Like what?” Eric asked.

“Maybe a scraping, or a slithering—” Reamer leaned forward and peered through the stone forest.

Eric heard it then, too. A rapid scraping sound, like something was scratching its way across the stone floor, unseen in the shadows of the dense sculptures.

Reamer screamed and backed up as fast as he could. He tripped over the extended claw of a sea scorpion statue and landed on his ass on the rock floor.

Everyone else shouted when it emerged from the kelp forest, slithering rapidly toward Reamer, a couple of meters long, snakelike.

“Gas masks!” Eric shouted. Hagen had drilled Eric and the other miners repeatedly in quick responses to underground creatures, but Reamer and the other two had only had quick demonstrations. They all wore air masks around their necks for this mission, just large enough to cover their noses and mouths, ready to draw them up at a moment's notice, since cave climbers were a known threat down here.

This was no climber, though, but something serpentine. Eric pulled his mask up into place with one hand. With the other, he drew the nozzle of the industrial-strength bug spray that had wiped out the climbers. He advanced on the snakelike invader, hitting it with quick, controlled blasts of the concentrated green gas. He hoped everyone else had their masks on.

The creature slithered right through, undeterred, its front end rising from the floor as it approached Reamer, who sat on the floor, eyes wide behind his own mask.

It curled up into something as tall as a man, in the shape of a slender metallic question mark, and now Eric could see that it wasn't a creature at all. It was some kind of long, serpentine robot. The tip of it was a large black lens, which gazed down at Reamer. Four long, thin metallic triangles jutted out around the black lens like pointy eyelashes.

“What?” Reamer asked, holding up a hand to defend himself. “What is that?”

“I have no idea—” Eric began, and then Prentice threw a handful of golden fish studded with precious gems at the snake. Most of them missed and hit Eric, Reamer, or the floor instead, but a couple connected with robot snake's body with audible clinks.

Uh-oh, Eric thought.

The snake whipped around and looked at Prentice, who was rearing back with another handful of precious stones and metal figurines to throw.

The long triangles around the snake's tip came together in front of the eye, forming a pyramid shape with a sharp tip. It began to spin at high speed, whining like a drill.

Then the snake whipped right past Eric, on its way to defend itself against the onslaught of rocks. Prentice threw his second handful—again hitting Eric and Reamer more than he hit the snake—then he cringed, waiting for the thing to arrive and start drilling its way into his flesh.

Eric grabbed the metallic snake's body as it raced past him, trying to save the guy's life. An instant later he realized his mistake: he was about to die for some rich lawyer he barely knew, while his own family was back home, waiting for him to return.

It was too late. The snake's head whipped around, the drill charging right toward Eric's face, toward his eye, like it planned to drill through his optic nerve and into his brain.

Eric dropped the useless bug-spray nozzle and reached for the big zapper holstered on his belt, but there wasn't time for him to draw before the spinning tip of the snake's drill reached him.

It bored into Eric's cheek, and the pain was intense, between the sharp cutting point and the friction of its high-speed rotation against his skin. The robotic snake also spat some kind of fluid all over his face as it bored into him, a foul-smelling lubricant.

Electricity arced across the room, hitting the metal snake and crackling along its segmented shell. Some of the juice conducted right through into Eric's arm, jolting him. He got a simultaneous dose in the face, too. He managed to let go of the crackling snake before another bolt struck it, then another.

Alanna approached, firing shot after shot with the orange stunner they'd given her, cranking up the blasts to max power now that the metal wasn't touching Eric anymore. The metallic snake writhed on the floor, its electrical systems overwhelmed.

Eric unlatched the poison-gas tank from his belt and hurried over. He slammed the heavy base of the steel tank down on the writhing snake's head. There was a satisfying crunch and the crack of glass breaking, and the robotic creature finally fell still.

Prentice pelted it with a handful of golden starfish and jeweled crabs, which mostly hit Eric.

“Would you stop doing that?” Eric snapped at the lawyer. “You're not helping.”

“Well, sorry! I don't know how to use this thing.” Prentice drew the orange stun gun and waved it at Eric, his finger right on the trigger, his hand shaking.

“Then give it to her!” Eric shouted, and fortunately Prentice did, passing the stunner over to Alanna, who'd fired her own until the battery depleted. “Nice shooting, Miss Li-Whitward.”

“Thanks. You're gushing blood from your face.” Alanna said it without much concern, as if noting the shape of passing cloud.

“Oh, here!” Prentice rushed forward, drawing a thick silk handkerchief from his jacket pocket. “We have to stop the bleeding.” He attempted to press it against the hole in Eric's face, but Eric caught him by the wrist.

“There's no snot on there, right?” Eric asked. Coppery blood ran into his mouth as he spoke.

“It's clean! I promise! You need to get to a hospital.”

Eric took the handkerchief and pressed it against his wound. “There's first aid kits back in the main tunnel. I'll just staple it back together.”

“You'll be scarred for life,” Prentice said. “But I can recommend a fantastic plastic surgeon—”

“Reamer, you okay?” Eric looked over at the general manager, who was gaping at the robotic snake on the floor like he expected it to jump back up any moment.

“We gotta get out of here.” Reamer stood, looking pale, his eyes darting around in a panic. “I don't belong down here, people. I've got three kids and two ex-wives to support back on Huayuan. Before my transfer here, I was in charge of catering and entertainment purchasing for Li Airlines. I had an office with glass walls and a nice apartment. This place...is like a punishment...”

“It is a punishment,” Alanna said. “You had a poor performance review and at least four sexual harassment complaints from your underlings. I didn't want you here, either, but my father wanted you away from everyone else.”

“You have to transfer me back!” Reamer raised his orange shocker at Alanna, drawing a gasp from Prentice. “You have to give me back my life, everything your father took from me—”

“You could have quit,” Alanna said, coolly.

“And start over somewhere else? At my age? I'd end up cleaning the burger-flipping machine at a Greasy Gary's.”

“Perhaps you should have kept your comments about women's legs to yourself, then,” Alanna said. “And your hands.”

“Hey, guy, you might have problems, but I have a big bleeding hole in my face right now, and I'm calmer than you are.” Eric was still pressing the blood-soaked silk handkerchief against his wound. “Can you please put down the shocker and let me go hit the first aid?”

“You're against me, too?” Reamer turned the orange shocker at Eric. He backed up, giving himself a better shot at all three of them, in case any of them tried to move closer. “That thing was no accident. Alanna's people set it up, sent it down here to kill me—”

“No,” Alanna said. “I've never seen equipment like that before. It was most likely Caffey Industries. They're disputing the claim boundary.”

“Like I'm going to believe that.” Reamer was really sweating now, shaken up, like the mine was driving him crazy. Maybe he had claustrophobia, and that was why he never came down, just monitored everything via remote feed from his office. He looked ready to zap someone, maybe all of them. “Like I'm going to believe this was all a coincidence—”

Then the world shook, and Reamer's personal beliefs suddenly mattered a lot less.

For a moment, Eric thought it was an earthquake, which itself was never a pleasant experience when you were already deep underground.

Then the wall exploded. Shattered kelp sculptures erupted behind Reamer, flinging chunks of stone towards all of them. Rocks rained down on the treasure trove, one caving in the head of a platinum marine mammal near the top, another bashing a silver shark's jaw sideways, making it disgorge its golden seahorse and starfish, which rained down to the floor like a jackpot paying off in gold coins.

Eric dove to the floor as rocks pelted the ground around them. Some of the smaller chunks punched him in the back. He glimpsed Alanna hitting the floor, too, cursing a mile a minute.

Then a thick cloud of rock debris rolled out, obscuring everything. Eric was glad he still had the air filter strapped over his nose and mouth, or he would've been coughing out dust for a month.

When the ground stopped trembling, and the rocks stopped flying, Eric stood and cranked up the light on his mining helmet, trying to penetrate the haze of dusty fog.

“Everyone okay?” Eric asked. He was trying to get his bearings. “I think someone blasted that wall.”

“Caffey,” Alanna said. Her silhouette was barely visible in the dirt fog as she pushed herself to her feet. “Had to be them. Blasting in our claim. I can't wait until my lawyers sink their teeth into his throat.”

“I second that,” Prentice croaked from somewhere in the dust cloud.

“Where's Reamer?” Eric drew his shocker and stalked toward where the man had last been seen.

Reamer was gone, but the fiber cable that had been unspooling from his belt was still visible on the floor, among the shattered kelp and sea creature sculptures.

Eric followed the cable through the rubble, still having trouble seeing a more than a meter or so ahead in the thick dust. The cable led him ahead into the unknown, but he didn't dare give up now, in case Reamer was waiting to jump out and attack them again.

“We need to get out of here,” Alanna said quietly, completely out of Eric's range of sight now. “Tell that miner guy to come back.”

“Miner guy!” Prentice barked at Eric. “Come back!”

“Wait.” Eric continued, losing sight of the cable where it ran underneath a heap of raw quartz rubble. He wished for the powerful arms of his exoskeleton.

He found the cable again, but it quickly ran away into a mound of dirt almost as tall as Eric himself.

Eric had reached the wall—or the spot where the wall had once been, until something blasted a huge hole in it very recently. Chunky volcanic soil had poured in after this section of the wall had been destroyed.

The cable ran right into the huge mound of rocky dirt.

Eric frowned. Reamer had been standing a few meters ahead of here, in the kelp-forest clearing with the heap of treasure.

“Miner guy, hurry!” Alanna snapped. “We don't know if Caffey's done blasting yet or not.”

“This doesn't make sense,” Eric said. “He wasn't here when the wall exploded. How could he have run back here fast enough to get buried in all this dirt by the wall? And why would he? You think something dragged him?”

“Who cares?” Prentice asked.

Eric kept looking at how the cable ran along the floor, under the huge mound of dirt. He couldn't puzzle it out. Finally, he picked up the cable and began to pull on it. It was heavy, but it slid as he pulled. He took a few steps back, towing the weight with him. Then it stopped moving, as if it had been caught against something under the dirt.

“Come give me a hand!” Eric shouted to the others.

They didn't reply, and he couldn't see them. It wasn't hard to imagine Alanna and Prentice running back the way they'd come, abandoning him.

Then two forms emerged from the dust. Eric was shocked at the sight of them—coated in rock dust, colorless, like ghosts. He looked down at himself and saw the same. They were all lucky to be alive, and they were pressing their luck by not running away immediately.

“Just help me pull,” Eric said.

Alanna let out a long, annoyed breath, then nudged Prentice's arm. “Go help him.”

“I'm hardly dressed for this kind of work,” Prentice protested, even as he took up the cable in both hands.

“The greatest dry cleaner in the universe couldn't help your outfit now,” Alanna said.

“Why are we even helping this guy?” Prentice grunted, while he and Eric dragged more of the cable back out of the dirt mound. “Wasn't he just attacking us?”

“Don't think of it as helping him,” Eric said. “Think of it as making sure he's not hiding somewhere waiting to attack us again.”

“Now that I can get behind.”

Eric pulled harder. The cable suddenly seemed to tighten up, and he and Prentice both grunted as they gave one big, hard tug.

Then Reamer’s screaming head popped up out of the dirt, followed by his shoulders.

His mining helmet was gone, and his coveralls were shredded. Deep red slash marks had been carved into him from his nearly bald head, down his face and neck, and across his arms and torso. The blood mixed with the dirt that coated him, turning it into a muddy brown sludge. The man looked like he'd been battered inside a rock tumbler, or maybe thrown into a giant blender. He was misshapen, as though every major bone in his body was broken.

Reamer's mouth had been slashed open from the left corner all the way to his ear, and his jaw hung at an odd angle, as though the hinge joint on that side had been snapped. Reamer kept screaming; it looked like he couldn't have closed his mouth if he wanted.

Eric kept pulling, but Reamer seemed stuck in the dirt up to his chest, jutting sideways out of the shattered wall. It didn't help that Prentice reacted by dropped the cable and backing up, adding his own screams to Reamer's.

“What's happening?” Eric shouted at Reamer, but the man slumped, falling silent. Now Eric saw the gaping hole in the back of Reamer's skull, bone and dirt clogging his exposed brain. He was dying, maybe dead already.

Eric dropped the cable and reached out to grab him by the hands, but Reamer was instantly sucked right back into the wall of dirt. Eric grabbed the cable again, but couldn't hold it. The cable was rushing ahead into the wall, like a fishing line caught on a great white shark that had no intention of slowing down. It was moving fast enough to burn his hands. Again, Eric wished for the strength of his exoskeleton. He felt helpless down in the mines without it.

The cable kept whipping past at unbelievable speed. Eric backed away from it, and so did the others. All three watched it in silence.

Then the cable went taut, smashing through more of the thin kelp statues in the process.

A loud, repetitive crashing sound echoed from behind them, from the path they'd taken through the ocean room. Eric turned and saw something yellow banging across the floor like a stone skipping across a pond. He managed to dodge out of the way as the yellow com box from the main hallway came skittering across, dragging one severed fiber-optic cable and another intact one.

The hard yellow plastic box hit the dirt and slurped away out of sight. The intact cable continued to follow it.

Another clattering sounded, and Eric turned, pointing his shocker. Something metallic banged toward them through the stone kelp sculptures.

The end of the cable arrived. The spool of cable that had been attached to Hagen's belt was attached. Eric didn't have to time see whether it looked like it had ripped free or been intentionally removed.

The fiber-optic spool vanished into the wall of dirt.

Then the room fell quiet, except for the soft pattering of dust from the recently shaken ceiling.

“Let's go back now,” Alanna said. “That's an order.”

Eric had no desire to argue.

Chapter Eight

Eric, Alanna, and Prentice made their way out of the ocean area. Eric found himself in the lead, not because he wanted to be, but because the other two fell in line behind him, as if trusting him to know best how to navigate the underground world. They weren't wrong, he supposed. He'd been on Caldera working the mines for less than a year, but out of the group, he had the most experience.

Of course, putting him in the lead didn't mean Alanna and Prentice trusted him. It could also mean they hoped he would bear the brunt of any additional robo-snake attacks.

Eric's wound bled openly. He'd lost Prentice's silk handkerchief at some point, but the thing was probably filthy with dirt anyway. Prentice certainly hadn't asked for it back.

Dazed, and more grateful than ever for the air filter over his nose, Eric led the way, shuffling forward through the rocky cloud.

“Something wrong with your legs?” Alanna asked.

“Nothing that wasn't wrong with them yesterday,” he replied, but didn't elaborate.

They emerged into the first chamber, the one built to resemble a flowery meadow with trees. It looked like the impact had rippled this way, too, because the walls and the tree-like columns had cracked. One column lay in pieces on the floor, and the ceiling above was still crumbling and leaking dust, like it would collapse any moment.

“Hagen?” Eric called. “Naomi? Bartley?” He couldn't recall the geologist's name in his shaken state. He'd only just met her, and he wasn't great with names under the best of conditions.

“Iris?” Alanna called out.

No answers came from the citrine tunnel where the other team had gone.

“We'd better get out of here.” Eric pointed to the weak spot in the ceiling.

“You don't have to tell me twice,” Prentice said, and he and Alanna started toward the recently widened crack in the wall.

“We're going back to the main tunnel!” Eric shouted, in case anyone could hear him, then he followed the others through.

“Sir, you're injured!” Malvolio called out, unicycling over.

“Unloading,” the loader bot added, gesturing with one excavator-bucket hand at the blood pulsing from the hole in Eric's cheek.

“Yeah, I'm unloading blood fast,” Eric agreed. He walked to Hagen's cement truck, which had a larger first aid kit. He removed the medical staple gun. “Anybody want to help?”

“Of course,” Alanna said. “Dexter, go help.”

Prentice nodded and approached Eric. “I'm pretty sure you're supposed to clean the area first,” he said, finding a pack of sterilized wipes.

“Probably,” Eric said. “I wasn't going to ask for that many favors at once.”

Prentice cleaned up the wound. Then he injected a local anesthetic into Eric's face before stapling it back together. Prentice looked a little ill throughout the episode, but he got the job done.

The other team's voices approached, coughing and wheezing. They emerged from the tunnel—Hagen first, then Naomi, Iris, and Bartley, all of them coated in dirt, coughing, barely staying on their feet as they held on to each other. It looked like they'd had a similar experience, only without their air-filter masks on. They collapsed to the floor of the tunnel, though the air wasn't much clearer here, either. But there was more room for the dust to spread out and settle.

“What...the hell...happened?” Bartley asked between coughs.

“I think it was Caffey Industries,” Alanna said. “They're backed by one of my father's rivals. And they've been arguing with us over the boundaries of our claims along this quartz reef. I never thought they'd resort to murder, though.” Alanna shook her head, spilling dust from her hair.

“Murder?” Naomi asked.

“You don't think the blast was just a mistake?” Hagen asked.

“We encountered a weird robot probe just before the attack,” she told him. “They knew we were there. And then Reamer...”

“Yeah, where is old bone-dome, anyway?” Bartley looked up and down the main tunnel.

“And what happened to the cables?” Hagen asked. “Thing dragged me halfway across the room before I got it off my belt.”

“We...don't actually know,” Prentice said.

Hagen scowled at the bejeweled lawyer, then looked at Eric.

“Reamer got dragged off,” Eric said. “Took the whole cable with him. And the com box.” Eric pointed up the main tunnel to where the yellow box should have been.

“Dragged off?” Bartley looked from Eric to Alanna and Prentice, then back again. “Dragged off by what?”

“We didn't really see. The wall got blasted open, and he got sucked inside.” Eric shrugged. “His skull was ruptured. There's no way he survived. And that's all we really know.”

“It must have been some sort of mining equipment,” Naomi said. “Right? Somebody blasts the wall—our area got hit pretty hard, too, by the way—then Reamer gets caught in their loader, maybe, and hauled off to the slag heap.”

“Loading?” the loader bot said, turning its boxy head toward Naomi. “Unloading?”

“Exactly,” Naomi said.

“And they wouldn't have noticed they were dragging a screaming guy along with them?” Bartley asked. “You know what I think dragged him off?”

“Aliens?” Eric asked.

“Bet your ass.” Bartley nodded sagely. Dust toppled from the brim of his mining helmet.

“It seems like the loader operators would notice they were dragging a human being,” Hagen said.

“Maybe they were remotely operated,” Naomi said. “Or fully automated. Robots who don't care about human life, just their assigned tasks.”

“Unloading!” the loader bot said, sounding indignant.

“He's right. Loader bots have deep safety protocols. The insurance companies require them,” Hagen said.

“Loaded,” the loader bot said, more quietly, as if mollified. It settled back against its dump truck.

“Besides, they saw us through the probe,” Alanna said. “They knew we were there. They blasted anyway.”

“You mean they wanted us dead?” Prentice gasped. “Over a lawsuit? That seems far-fetched.”

“Maybe they were mad about the snake-bot,” Eric said.

“What is this snake-bot?” Naomi asked. “And can we talk about this up on the surface?”

“Good idea. Then I can put in a call to Caffey's offices and tell them they're all dead,” Alanna said.

“I would advise against that—” Prentice began.

“All of them,” Alanna said. “Dead.”

“I'll help,” Eric offered. The side of his face was numb from the anesthetic, and his mouth felt like it wasn't working quite right. “They've almost killed me twice already.” He climbed up into his seat in the exoskeleton, unhooked the connecting wire from his leg braces, and plugged into the huge machine. He felt himself instantly swell in size and strength, his nervous system expanding to include all the silicon within the exoskeleton.

“Let's not rush into killing anyone,” Hagen said. “Maybe let's collect a fact or two first. Loader, give Miss Li-Whitward and her attorney a ride back up to the surface.”

The loader bot opened the grimy door to the dump truck's low-roofed passenger cab, which was where the two visitors must have ridden down in the first place. The bot then held one arm as if inviting them in. “Load,” the bot said.

“Uh, thank you,” Prentice said. He let Alanna go first, offering her a hand, which she ignored as she climbed up into the cab. Prentice followed and closed the door.

Eric noticed the geologist, Iris, back in the shadows as if forgotten. She had a shocked look on her dust-coated face.

“Everything okay?” Eric asked her. “We have first aid. And water.”

“I'm fine. Actually, water would be great.”

Eric passed her a bottle from the insulated compartment under his seat, where he kept snacks and water along with his first aid kit.

Iris joined Hagen in the cement truck, and then they were off. The loader truck followed after the cement truck, then it was Eric and Bartley in their exoskeletons, Naomi on her scouter, Malvolio and his unicycle taking up the rear.

Finally, Eric let himself relax. Once they got up top, they could breathe some fresh air—well, as fresh as Caldera offered, anyway—clock out, relax. This whole situation was way over his head, but fortunately it wasn't his job to unravel it.

They'd found gold today, he reminded himself. Not in the way they'd expected, but once they got the blasting situation straightened out, they could return and help themselves. Maybe it would be enough that he could go home. Even if not, it was a start. A start to providing Suzette with the life of their dreams.

That victory felt hollow and bloodstained after Reamer's death, though. Reamer hadn't been a great boss, or even a great guy, but he'd hardly deserved such a horrific death, getting dragged off and chewed up in some industrial accident. Someone had to pay for that. Someone had to be brought to justice.

Just before they reached the ramp, the one that coiled a hundred meters up through dirt and rock to freedom, the trucks stopped. Eric frowned at the brake lights of the cement truck and the dump truck ahead of him.

“What's the hold-up?” shouted Bartley. “Is a duck crossing the road up there? I have booze waiting for me downtown, you know.”

Hagen opened the door and stepped out, shaking his head.

“This is no time to stop and take a leak, Hagen,” Bartley said.

“The ramp's collapsed.” Hagen pointed up and around the curve. “It's all caved in. There's no way up.”

“I must not be hearing you right,” Bartley said. “It sounds like you're telling me we're all trapped down here. And that can't be right, because it's gotta be past clock-out by now—”

“How long will it take to fix this?” Alanna asked, after opening the door to the dump truck.

“It's...” Hagen shook his head. “It's bad.”

Eric rolled forward to the front of the line and stopped next to Hagen.

Just around the curve, where there should have been a wide, safe ramp coiling up toward the surface, the tunnel was instead filled with dirt. Hagen picked up a broken chunk of concrete.

“Anything powerful enough to collapse this ramp tunnel should have buried us all,” Hagen said.

“Seems like explosives to me,” Eric told him.

“Are we saying someone collapsed this ramp intentionally?” Alanna asked. She'd emerged from the dump truck cab to join them, her bejeweled lawyer following but looking reluctant about it. “Caffey's people really are trying to kill us? That sounds extreme, but nothing else fits...”

“Maybe it's not Caffey behind the explosions,” Hagen said. “Maybe there's somebody else. Somebody who knows there's valuables in there and intends to take them.”

“A rogue element?” Prentice asked.

“Claim jumpers,” Hagen said. “They want the treasure for themselves, and they can't let word get out about where it was found. They had to take us out to keep it secret.”

“And they wired the treasure room and our ramp with explosives?” Alanna asked.

“This mining colony's full of explosives and people who know to use them,” Hagen said. “But this is all just a guess.”

“Wouldn't the security bot have noticed anyone doing that?” Prentice asked.

All of them turned to look at Malvolio, who was balancing his red juggling ball on the tip of his nose while wiggling a small plastic magic wand at it.

“I'm sure our crack team's on top of everything,” Eric said.

“That can't be all we have for security,” Alanna said.

“Funding is tight,” Prentice said. “But we also subscribe to Maverick Emergency Systems in case of emergency or catastrophic security, accident, evacuation, or medical issues. A standard SAVEME policy. Malvolio would contact them automatically if a major problem emerged.”

“Like this one?” Alanna asked. “Is this not major enough? I'm ready to be evacuated.”

“With that fiber ripped out, we're not contacting anyone soon,” Hagen said. “I already tried the ULF radio in my truck, but that thing hardly works under the best of conditions. We're on our own down here.”

The seven of them looked at each other as those words sunk in.

“Best thing we can do,” Hagen continued after a moment, “is see if the loader can dig out the ramp for us. Maybe the collapse is just local. That ramp coils around and around until it reaches the surface, though, and if it's collapsed all the way up...” He shook his head.

“Then it will be impossible to dig our way out of here,” Iris said quietly. The geologist's lip trembled as she looked back along the main tunnel. “Perhaps there is another way out. The crystal tunnels. That old complex must have some sort of way out, some path to the surface.”

“And you can say this with confidence?” Alanna asked. “Because of your studies with the gatekeepers?”

“I did have some courses in xenoarchaeology, though they focused mostly on the ancients, and we still know almost nothing about them,” Iris said. “I cannot guarantee anything. I have no map of these tunnels. But I know the strata of earth above this quartz reef is relatively soft. Given the destruction we've seen so far, I'd say there's a good chance the ramp tunnel is collapsed all the way up. I personally believe we should make our way out through the crystal tunnels.”

“You're kidding!” Prentice shouted. “Go back in there? We almost died in there. They're probably just waiting to finish the job.”

“If they mean to kill us, then they have us cornered and trapped right here,” Iris said. “We need to find a way out or die tonight.”

“Way to turn on the sunbeams, Sally Science,” Bartley said. He leaned against his exoskeleton, eating a Guinness brand snack cake from the cooler under the seat.

“Those aren't alcoholic, are they?” Naomi asked, frowning at the chocolate-iced harp-shaped treat.

“They're medicinal,” Bartley grumbled back.

“If we go through the old crystal tunnels, you should let me widen the access to it first,” Eric said. “Those tunnels are wide enough for our trucks and exoskeletons.”

“Good idea,” Hagen said. “This could take days on foot. Maybe even weeks, trying to find the exit.”

“Are you people all crazy?” Prentice asked, gaping around at them. “Alanna, tell them. They almost blew us to pieces! They killed our manager!” His voice was getting high and hysterical, though not without reasonable cause, Eric thought. The danger and uncertainty were real. “We can't go back in there until we get this thing with Caffey Industries sorted out...until we get in touch with someone...until the authorities and professionals arrive...”

“Personally, I've never been a fan of waiting around for someone else to show up and solve my problems for me,” Hagen said.

“Alanna's the boss!” Prentice reminded them all, unnecessarily. “She decides, not any of you. And she's smart, she doesn't take dangerous risks—”

“That's hardly true,” Alanna said. “I went spacediving just last week.”

“Aside from occasionally leaping from orbit to the ground in a ridiculously thin atmo-suit, she doesn't take dangerous—”

“Quiet, Prentice. I believe in managing risk, not avoiding it. If there's one thing I've learned from watching my father, it's how to hedge your bets.” She looked at Hagen. “You're now acting manager of this mine.”

Hagen nodded, looking more uncertain than Eric had ever seen him. “Which way do you want us to go, ma'am? Dig out the ramp or widen access to the weird old hallways?”

Alanna remained quiet for a moment, then said, “Both.”

“At the same time?” Hagen frowned.

“Make it possible!” Alanna snapped.

“I never said it was impossible,” Hagen said. “Okay...let's get to work. Naomi, Eric, and Bartley, work on widening our access to Bug Candyland in there. Loader, let's start digging out this ramp tunnel.”

“Loading!” The bulky robot approached, raising its blocky excavator-bucket hands. The dump truck followed behind the loader bot like a loyal dog, ready to receive the collapsed dirt and broken concrete from the cave-in as the loader scooped it out.

Eric continued widening the crack in the wall with the roadheader. Bartley stepped in with the big hammer to break up big pieces when the going got tough.

Eric did his best to keep his mind on the hard work directly in front of him, tried to keep it from straying back to the sight of Reamer emerging from the wall, slashed and broken, his skull cracked open like the rind of a melon. He tried to think of life back home, but all he could picture was the slaughterhouse, where they butchered everything from pigs to the giant devilhorn beasts. Then they'd hang the raw red skinless bodies on the smokehouse hooks. The smokehouse had a robotic crane arm for lifting the massive devilhorn; even a small one weighed thousands of kilograms.

Malvolio attempted entertaining Alanna and Prentice with a soaring, high-pitched opera performance of some kind. Prentice kept pacing and grumbling until Hagen handed him a shovel and told him to help dig out the collapsed ramp alongside the loader bot. They filled the dump truck again and again, emptying it in the other side tunnel, the one Eric had been digging out the day before. There was nowhere else to dump it.

“This is useless,” Hagen finally announced, gesturing at the thick dirt where the ramp used to be. “It just keeps filling in, getting more compact, just nonstop pressure from above. And we're running out of room to unload the dirt.”

“Loaded,” the loader bot said, seeming to agree. It gestured at the extra side tunnel, now almost completely filled with soil and slag.

“We're doing great over here,” Naomi countered, pointing to the crack they had widened into a tunnel into the crystal corridors. “Ready to roll.”

“Perhaps someone should go ahead,” Prentice suggested. “See if it's safe enough for us.”

“That's not a bad idea,” Hagen said. “Eric, Bartley, take Malvolio and scout ahead. While you do that, I'll try to raise a signal on my radio again.” Hagen started toward the concrete mixer.

“Oh, it's hopeless, sir!” Malvolio cried. The drama-bot removed his top hat, held it over his heart, and looked at the floor, dejected. “I've been trying myself, thirty times per minute. There's no answer, and no apparent connection to the antenna on the surface. The ground is simply too thick. I'm afraid they got us, sir. They got us.” He shook his head mournfully and looked on the verge of tears.

“I'd like to scout ahead with them,” Iris spoke up, quiet as a nervous mouse. She looked at Hagen, then Alanna. “I'll make sure the tunnels in there can handle the vibrations from your trucks.”

“Fine by me,” Hagen said. “And make sure the path ahead is clear of any obstacles.”

“That'll be my job.” Bartley patted the long steel battering ram of the industrial hammer on his exoskeleton. “Road'll be cleaner than a cat's ass when we're done.”

“Watch your language, Bartley.” Hagen eyes shifted toward Alanna, as if to remind him the boss lady was right there.

“Sorry, ma'am,” Bartley said. “I meant to say the road'll be cleaner than a virgin's—”

“We get it,” Hagen said. “Naomi, Loader, help me pack everything we can fit into the trucks. We want to take all of this with us. It's a lot of valuable equipment to lose if the rest of the place comes crashing down.”

“It certainly is! Those exoskeletons and trucks are worth more than the people driving them,” Prentice said, which drew a sour look from Naomi. The blasting tech turned to Iris and handed her a key.

“Take my scout,” Naomi told her, nodding at the single-person all-terrain scouter. “You'll want to keep up with those exoskeletons, and even Malvolio's unicycle is motor-driven, faster than it looks. And you'll want to be able to escape fast, if things get...you know.”

“Thank you.” Iris beamed at Naomi like an orphan who'd just been allowed a second helping of soup. Eric wondered how young Iris was—she was one of those small-frame people who would probably always look like a kid from a distance. She had to be in her late twenties, a few years older than him, if she'd trained with the gatekeepers for years and had multiple university-level degrees. Or did she? Eric had no idea at what age the Antikytheran Society accepted potential gatekeepers for training and education. Like most people, he really knew nothing about the shadowy, secretive world of gatekeepers, only that without them, starships couldn't use the wormholes, couldn't leap from one star system to another.

They set off into the crystal meadow again, Malvolio in the lead in case of danger, followed by Bartley, Iris on the scouter, and Eric in the rear, rolling along on his exoskeleton's treads. He still had the spiky roadheader tool mounted on one arm of his rig in case he needed to widen the path ahead. The other arm had the big clamp for general grabbing and pushing.

“Check the columns first,” Iris said as they shone their lights around the colored-quartz forest. “The columns and the walls.”

Fresh dust coated everything in the cavernous room, dampening the shiny reflections of the quartz sculptures, but the room appeared structurally intact.

“So far, so good,” Iris murmured. Eric was glad to have the geologist inspecting the warren of corridors with them.

They avoided the ocean-style corridor where the explosion had occurred, as well as the hallway dominated by citrine quartz, and instead followed the one located at the farthest end of the meadow chamber. Vermarine continued along the wall of that hallway, the green quartz arranged to look like high weeds and grass. The hallway twisted out of sight after just a few paces.

“Go ahead, drama boy,” Bartley said to Malvolio, clapping the android on the shoulder. “Make sure there's no drop-offs or hootchie-traps ahead.”

“I proceed gladly into danger,” Malvolio said. “But should I fail to return, let it be known that I shirked not from death itself, that nay, rather than cowardice in my breast, I displayed that noble courage that can only be rooted in the truest virtue—”

“Hurry!” Bartley clapped his shoulder again, in a less friendly way.

“Yes, my liege!” Malvolio unicycled ahead into the curved hallway, which looked barely large enough to squeeze the trucks through.

Eric watched the android go. He hadn't really paid attention before, but now he noticed that Malvolio's feet didn't move much on the unicycle pedals. The pedals were more of a rest for the android's feet; the unicycle turned under its own power, fast enough that Malvolio could probably outrun any of the small exploratory mining trucks they had with them.

The android wheeled down the curved hallway and out of sight.

The room fell silent. Eric, Bartley, and Iris looked at each other, quietly waiting and listening.

Then Malvolio's voice echoed back to them: “Oooooooooooooooh!” he screamed. “This is lovely. Come imbibe this vision for yourselves, my friends.”

“Is that an official all-clear?” Bartley shouted.

“More like all-lovely. All-beautiful. All-spectacular...”

The three humans drove on ahead to see what the robot was gushing about.

The corridor beyond was high and deep, though not quite as wide as the meadow room they'd left. Blue quartz covered most of the floor, suggesting a winding stream. Sculptures of trees, which reminded Eric of water willows back home, overhung the imitation river from the cave-wall banks on either side.

“It's a...river room?” Eric said.

“Look out! Climbers!” Bartley shouted.

Eric pivoted his exoskeleton in the direction where Bartley was pointing, a little deeper into the cave corridor, and drew the bulky orange shocker gun, ready to shoot.

Chapter Nine

The large, toad-like creatures squatted under the shadows of the stone trees and among the high stalagmites of marsh grass. They were larger than any of the climbers Eric had seen so far, big enough to chomp off half a human arm in one snap of their needle-like teeth. These toad-creatures also had fully developed eyes. And they didn't move, because they were harmless stone statues.

“You jack-off!” Eric snapped at Bartley, who was already laughing at him.

“They do look like a closely related species to the cave climbers.” Iris approached one of the big toad-creatures, decorated with vermarine quartz for green skin, plus traces of red and yellow quartz for coloring.

While she inspected it, Eric discovered more little creature statues made of quartz and cheap shiny stones. Insects crawled among the drooping limbs and long leaves of the stone willow trees. More insects walked with long, widely splaying legs on the surface of the river, smaller versions of the giant water-walker bug he'd seen in the ocean room. Tiny sculptures of golden fish swam below the river's blue quartz surface, embedded in the rock beneath it.

Higher up, among the top branches of the stone willows, perched birds with sharp talons, long pointed beaks, and evil red-crystal eyes. These demon birds gazed down at the colorful prey crawling and swimming below, as if eager to swoop in and devour.

“Have you noticed the ecosystems depicted down in these tunnels don't match the surface of this planet?” Iris asked, glancing quickly at Eric and then away again, as if too shy to make eye contact. She reached out and touched a sapphire-hued beetle on a willow branch. “Down here it's lush forests and flowery meadows...up there, it's mostly rocky and gassy.”

“Like the planet ate too many beans,” Bartley said, scratching his chin reflectively. Iris answered this with a disgusted curl of her lip in his direction, but the expression vanished a moment later, as if she was quick to hide her feelings.

“Maybe the surface was different in the past,” Eric suggested. “Then the volcanoes erupted all over the place, and lava destroyed everything.”

“Not just the lava, but the toxic gases,” Iris said, cutting another brief annoyed look at Bartley. “It's hard for life to breathe up there. It's why the plants and trees on the surface are stumpy, and life clusters close to the low waterways, trying to stay below the gas layer. And of course the clouds and ash coming up all around the planet obscure the sunlight, too. But maybe, in the past, this planet was very different, much greener.”

“Well, that's all fascinating,” Bartley said with a belch. “But we gotta get this show on the road.” He lowered one arm of his exoskeleton and sent the huge battering ram of his hammer shooting forward. It shattered the nearest toad statue, then crushed the shattered pieces against the wall.

“What are you doing?” Iris shouted. “These are artifacts of an extinct culture. They're invaluable. Completely irreplaceable. Each one could offer precious and unique insight—”

“Right now, they're precious and unique obstacles to us getting the hell out of here,” Bartley replied, while smashing another toad and the long willow leaves that kept much of it concealed. “This river's the only way out. So either we clear the road or we die down here together.”

“Couldn't you do it less destructively?” she asked.

“If you can figure out a way, go ahead.” Bartley rammed the hammer again, cracking the trunk of a willow tree that overhung the river. The upper half of the tree broke loose and crashed down on the blue quartz, its leaves shattering. “Until then, someone needs to help me clean up.”

“Malvolio, clear the debris out of the road,” Eric said. Then he looked at Iris. “We should get out of the way so we don't get hit by flying rocks. Bartley is actually holding back right now.”

“Let's keep moving up the river,” she said. “I want to see more of this place.”

“Don't go too far,” Bartley told them. “If you see any scorpions or climbers, soak them in poison. And if you find the guys who've been blasting down here, break their necks for me.”

“Count on it,” Eric replied.

Eric rolled up the corridor on his exoskeleton's treads, warily watching the space ahead and the vaulted ceiling above. He felt exposed, with the rock walls sloping up on either side of them. Climbers or rock scorpions could swarm down on them. If the mysterious blasting and shaking resumed, they could get buried in rock.

The geologist drove behind him, the treads of the scouter slapping the blue rock floor as she trudged forward. They had to weave past a number of plants, trees, and life forms sculpted from rock. Bartley was right; they really had little choice except to clear a path for the trucks. They were lucky to have small exploratory vehicles with them; full-sized mining trucks, huge enough to have ladders and staircases, couldn't hope to fit through these strange old tunnels.

After they'd traveled several meters, well out of sight of Bartley's hammering and smashing, Iris braked her vehicle and told him to stop.

“Look.” She climbed off and approached a wide, flat section of wall, inscribed with rows of simplistic flower drawings, each flower encircled by insect-forms made of triangles, circles, and lines. Colored quartz had been worked into some of the designs, while others were just chiseled into the rock.

“More flowers and bugs,” Eric said, nodding, but not really sure why they'd stopped for this. They were trying to find a way out of a deadly situation, not study the graffiti of lost civilizations. He cast a worried look up along the steep wall, decorated with so many stone plants that real creatures could be hiding among the rocky foliage.

“I think it's more than that. Look how straight the rows and columns of flowers are.” Iris chewed at her lower lip, her eyes huge as she studied the inscriptions. “Each flower shape has these insect figures around it. Look how this figure repeats here. And here. And here.” Iris pointed at a design that looked like a fly—circle eyes, square head, oval body, triangle wings. The same fly was in several places on the wall, orbiting different flowers. “The flowers themselves only come in about...four or five different shapes? And each insect shape seems to show up a few dozen times, scattered all over this wall.” Iris spoke faster and faster, snapping pictures with her pocket screen. Absorbed in her work, she became animated and talkative, no longer quiet and hesitant when she spoke. “Do you realize what this means?”

Eric looked among the rows of bug-encircled flowers, trying to figure out what she meant. “You're saying...they...used stencils?”

Iris gazed at him for a long moment, her mouth hanging open. Maybe his answer had been wildly off the mark.

“I'm saying this could be a kind of alphabet,” she said, touching the closest inscriptions. “The insect forms might be individual letters, in which case each flower and its surrounded insects form one word. Or...the insect forms could be ideograms, each one representing an entire word. That would mean each flower and its surrounding insects form an entire sentence. Or maybe the information is even more compact, and each flower-insect combo forms a paragraph...this is so exciting!”

Eric shrugged and nodded along while she took more pictures.

“There could be so much communicated in these subtle differences, too,” she murmured, inspecting the figures more closely. “The angle of the insect, its distance from the flower...”

She sounded to Eric like one of those fortune-tellers who claimed to find meaningful patterns in numbers, or ancient texts, or radio waves from distant stars, patterns that supposedly foretold the future. But maybe she knew what she was talking about.

“When did you start studying with the gatekeepers?” he asked.

She looked at him for a long moment before answering, as if studying him, maybe deciding whether to trust him. It was hard to process what happened behind her large, dark eyes.

“I was eleven when the Antikytheran Society contacted me,” she said.

“I didn't know they started that young.”

“They did during the war. My math and science scores were exceptional, they said. And my parents were proud rebels, from Luminaria. Have you heard of it?”

“Yeah, that's...” Eric wracked his brain, trying to remember the inhabited worlds he'd memorized in high school geography class. “Uh. Sorry. Coach Nuriyaki shoved them all into my head at one point, but I kind of forgot after the final exam.”

“Luminaria's a moon,” she said. “Smaller than this planet, even. A little over half an Earth mass. It's a lovely place, lots of steep mountains and deep rivers. It orbits Karthikai, the most beautiful gas giant you've ever seen, purple and silver. That's what our sky looks like most of the time.” She shook her head. “I miss home so much sometimes.”

“I know. I mean, me too.” Eric thought of the big rambling ranch house back home, his mother baking bread in the kitchen, his father chopping wood with an old-fashioned hand ax, one of the stern infantry veteran's many ways of keeping in shape. He remembered watching his brothers play kickball in the backyard, occasional inviting him to join in so they could laugh at his failed attempts to swing his stiff, slow leg and connect his shoe with the ball.

And of course he thought of Suzette, clinging tight to his back as he rode Ranger hard and fast across open prairie, the soft orange sun of Gideon melting into a sunset in the distance. Her hand gripping him by the belt, occasionally daring to stray lower. Her breasts against his back, her breath in his ear.

“How long's it been for you?” Iris asked.

“Six months. I'm saving up for a return visit. Hopefully I'll have enough by Christmas. What about you?”

“It's been fourteen years for me,” Iris said, and now her voice had the small, quiet quality from before. “I haven't been home since I left with the Antikytherans. I had to leave my homeworld to study with them. And I haven't been back. Partly that's because of wartime secrecy. Without the Antikytherans, there would be no gatekeepers supporting the rebel movement—no way for rebel ships to travel between star systems. So everything about the gatekeepers must be kept a complete secret, including the location of their school. It's the Allies' most valuable target, if they could only find it.”

“Fourteen years?” Eric was horrified at the thought of being away from home so long, never seeing his parents, his brothers, or Suzette in all that time. “But what about the armistice?”

“The armistice came too late. The Allies had bombed Luminaria, and our town was just rubble. My parents...” She shook her head. “There was nothing left. Nobody left to defend, not my own flesh and blood. But at least I got to be a gatekeeper, right? At least I helped the war happen.”

“I thought you said you didn't become one.”

“I was being sarcastic,” she said, looking at him sharply. “Do farm boys from Gideon not know about sarcasm yet?”

“We don't,” he replied. “Why, I'm so innocent, I still think babies are brought by storks, and the Easter Bunny really does crawl up through your root cellar bringing candy and gifts every spring.”

“I've never heard the bunny-in-the-cellar thing. Sounds creepy.”

“I'm really sorry about your family,” Eric said, and he meant it. He couldn't imagine going home to find the ranch bombed into ashes and his whole family dead. He resisted the urge to reach out and touch her, not sure whether she'd welcome it or freak out.

“Yeah, sorry to bring it up.” She wiped her eyes, blinked twice, and was all business again. “It makes me think, though. What if the aliens who built this had once lived on the surface, back when this planet was greener and nicer? Then they were driven underground by a surge of volcanic activity, of dangerous gasses. Forced to live down here, they used the materials at hand—quartz, gold, other minerals—and tried to copy the world above? Tried to remember how nice it had been?”

“Wow. That's sad, too.” Eric shook his head.

“Well, it's interesting to consider—” she began, and then the world shook.

Rumbles echoed up and down the corridor, and the blue crystal floor vibrated beneath them.

Eric extended the industrial arms of his exoskeleton over Iris's head, doing his best to create a steel roof over her while she dropped to her knees and covered herself with her arms. He was already protected by a curved plate several centimeters above his head, shaped like a tortoise shell.

Thick spills of dust rained down from the ceiling high above them, along with rocks that plinked like hail against his exoskeleton.

Then the shaking stopped, and the ground settled.

“This tunnel seems to have held against...whatever that was. So that's a good sign,” Iris said, gazing up toward the roof of the cave. Her eyes shifted to the two big arms just above her, then to Eric's face. “Thanks for looking out for me,” she said, and gave him a smile that warmed his chest. She was small, birdlike, not his usual type—not like Suzette, who was tall and blond, curvy and soft, warm and welcoming under his hands. For a moment, though, something in Iris's large, dark eyes seemed to click with something inside him, like an electric current in the air between them.

He looked away first, reminding himself he was practically engaged. Iris clearly saw him as something of a bumpkin, too, compared to her years of intense gatekeeper training; she seemed to have an encyclopedic knowledge of the entire galaxy, of mysteries he'd barely suspected existed.

“It's something any hick farm boy from Gideon would do,” Eric said.

“I knew you'd heard of sarcasm before,” she replied.

They looked at each other a moment longer.

“We'd better finish the job,” he said.

They continued ahead until the tunnel branched into two passages, either one of which would be wide enough for the trucks. Then they doubled back to collect the others. Eric kept his eyes on the blue quartz river below, occasionally glancing from one wall to the other, looking for obstacles. He kept his eyes off the back of the intriguing geologist as she steered the scout vehicle ahead of him on the return trip.

Hold it together, man, he told himself. We've got work to do. And a girl back home.

But he thought about Suzette's last video letter, and he wondered.

Chapter Ten

The group advanced together, with the two robots in the lead. Malvolio unicycled ahead, ready to take the brunt of any sudden danger. The loader followed, squatting on the front platform of its dump truck, holding out both of its excavator-bucket hands to clear out any remaining debris on the river path. Bartley had shattered a couple dozen small animal statues and a large number of willow tree sculptures to make way for their caravan.

Alanna and Prentice rode inside the dump truck's cab again, followed by Eric and Bartley in their exoskeletons. Naomi drove the scouter behind them, and Iris rode with Hagen in the cement truck at the back of the line.

They moved quickly, eager to leave the tunnels and reach the surface. They'd all felt the vibrations, but the explosions hadn't been in the same rooms and corridors as any of them, not this time. There was no telling about the next time.

They reached the point where the tunnel branched into two, and Hagen called a halt to the caravan. He and Iris left the cement truck for a closer look at the fork. Alanna and Prentice stepped out of the dump truck to join them.

“Whither shall we wend?” Malvolio asked, twisting his unicycle back and forth to align with one road, then the other. “For surely one path leads on to glory; the other, to perdition. Perhaps a dramatic reading of Robert Frost's 'The Road Not Taken' would be appropriate here. I can also perform an interpretive dance based upon it by the highly discussed twenty-second-century performance artist Nelu Grigio—”

“Shut up,” Hagen said. He waved a radar wand at the tunnels, mapping each one as deep as possible before they twisted out of reach beyond thick rock, the images appearing like rough sketches on his screen.

Eric and Bartley pointed the lights of their exoskeletons into the tunnels, trying to discern what they could about their options.

The path to the right led slightly uphill, and it was ringed in bands of colored quartz arranged in a repeating rainbow sequence. Milky white-quartz clouds had been set high on the walls. Far beyond that, just before the tunnel turned out of sight, a huge circle made of red quartz and copper hung near the high, vaulted ceiling.

The other tunnel was wider but with a lower ceiling, and sloped downward, lined with smoky black quartz. Hints of silver glinted deep within tunnel, possibly meant to portray stars or moons. Red-quartz eyes seemed to glow within black-rock statues of bats that hung like stalactites from the roof of the tunnel. The bat sculptures reminded Eric of the bird statues he'd seen in previous rooms—predatory, demonic-looking creatures threatening to swoop down and attack from above. Eric wasn't wild about the idea of walking underneath those oversized rock bats if the tunnel complex started shaking again.

“I vote for Rainbow Road,” Naomi said quickly, pointing to the brighter, higher, many-hued tunnel. “Not Highway to Hell.”

“The lower path is wider,” Hagen said. “That's better for us.”

“The surface is up, not down.” Naomi shifted on her idling scouter, clearly impatient to get moving.

“Could everyone be quiet for a second?” Iris asked. She stepped toward the rainbow tunnel, closed her eyes, and held her arms wide with her fingers splayed apart.

“What are you doing?” Naomi asked. “Trying to be psychic? Searching for vibes?”

“Hey, yeah, we need to drive through the tunnel, not read its horoscope! Am I right?” Bartley said, then looked around to see if anyone laughed. He slumped a little when nobody did.

Iris ignored them. She moved to the mouth of the black tunnel and took up the same position, spreading her limbs wide like a satellite desperately searching for a signal.

“Iris? Everything okay?” Alanna finally asked.

“We must go this way.” Iris opened her eyes and pointed down the black tunnel. Her voice was flat and declarative, no longer hesitant and half-apologetic.

“Oh, is that what your spirit guides told you?” Naomi asked.

“The air,” Iris said. “There's a very slight breeze from the dark tunnel. From the colorful one, nothing. The colorful one will turn out to be a dead end, and we'll have to double back. That way's a waste of time. And fuel.”

“What are you talking about?” Naomi licked her finger and stood in front of one tunnel, then the other. “There's no difference, kid. You're making things up.”

“I am not,” Iris said, speaking more quietly now, as if intimidated by Naomi. The blasting engineer stood more than a head above the geologist, and she was sinewy with muscle, like she lifted weights daily. If the two got into a fistfight, Eric would bet all his savings on Naomi. Iris looked at the ground as she continued: “In the Society, we had mindfulness training. Those of us who...succeeded, who went on to become gatekeepers, would need intense concentration and focus to communicate with the ancient wormhole gates. To turn them on, and to twist the dial, so to speak, to select the destination. I can, when necessary, sharpen my focus on any one sense, to the exclusion of all others, to dilate my attention to pick up much smaller minutiae than the average person—”

“This is sounding like a horseload of donkey crap to me,” Bartley said.

“Me, too,” Naomi said.

“I'd rather go with the wider tunnel,” Hagen said. “And the geologist's opinion.”

“You're both crazy,” Naomi said.

“Yeah, I don't want to be a nega-Nancy, but that lower tunnel has 'Horrific Painful Death' written all over it,” Bartley said.

All eyes settled on Alanna. Naomi opened her mouth, then closed it again, as if deciding not to plead directly with the big boss. Maybe Naomi was intimidated by Alanna, or maybe she didn't want to disrespect Hagen by going over his head.

Alanna looked from the group of people to the two tunnels.

“Prentice, what do you think?”

“The rainbow path,” Prentice said. “Not a doubt in my mind. It looks more pleasant, and it does lead up.” He approached the rainbow-hued tunnel, gesturing at the slightly inclined floor. “I do not even see why there's a debate.”

“And you?” Alanna looked at Eric. “You're the only miner here who hasn't given an opinion.”

“I'm not sure,” Eric said, striving for honesty. He looked at Iris. She turned her head slightly, letting her dark hair fall like a curtain across the side of her face, then gave him a wide smile that nobody else could see. Eric felt his heart lighten and swell for a moment, before reminding himself to stop it. There was no reason to like her, certainly no reason to trust her. He barely knew her.

He looked at Hagen instead—the sturdy old miner, old-time war veteran, full-time grouch. The voice of experience.

“The dark tunnel,” Eric said. “We can't afford a dead end, or a tunnel that gets too narrow and makes us turn back.”

Alanna nodded. “We take the dark tunnel. Now let's get moving.”

There was mumbling and grumbling.

I'm going to kill you, Naomi mouthed at Eric, looking furious.

“Everyone back to your vehicles,” Hagen said.

Then the ground shook, and this time it wasn't a tremor or a rumble indicating distant blasting or cave-ins. It was like an earthquake.

The wall erupted inside in the rainbow-ringed tunnel, chunks of decorated rock flying everywhere, with a deafening roar of rapidly compressed air.

Something surged out of the wall, an immense shape inside the newly created dust cloud. It seemed to grow and grow, a dark shadow, its features unclear.

Then it rushed forward, and they all saw it.

The creature was the size of a great whale back on Gideon, the largest beast on a planet full of giant beasts. The front end of it was nothing but a huge round mouth, its breath like a hot wind over a field of flyblown carrion, filling the tunnel with the reek of decay.

Within the huge mouth lay a throat the color of raw meat, ringed with teeth the size of a shark's. Ring after ring lined the cavernous throat, as far back as Eric could see.

Prentice had been standing at the mouth of the tunnel, closest to the place where the monstrous beast had broken through the wall. He'd been knocked to the ground by the initial quake. Now the bejeweled lawyer scrambled on hands and knees, screaming to escape the impossibly huge mouth as it loomed closer and closer to him.

Eric felt frozen in place, filled with shock and awe at the enormous creature, which seemed to be nothing but mouth, throat, and teeth, as big as a dinosaur.

It snapped up Prentice in an instant, its huge mouth easily closing around the chubby lawyer in one bite. The beast shook from side to side as it chewed and swallowed him down, rock dust spilling from its skin.

Malvolio raced up on his unicycle, raising the nozzle of a canister of bug spray.

The enormous wormlike beast bashed the android against the wall, smothering Malvolio with its immense size and weight, though it was hard to say whether the move was intentional or just a lucky accident on the giant monster's part. Eric doubted whether a full canister of bug poison would even make this creature sneeze. Assuming it had a nose somewhere.

The creature's mouth opened again, and Eric glimpsed Prentice a couple of meters inside. The lawyer was already half-chewed, broken and bloody like he'd been through a blender and a rock tumbler on the way back through the circular rows of shark-like teeth.

In fact, Prentice looked just like Reamer had looked, during that brief moment when Eric had managed to drag him back out of the wall.

“Everybody take cover!” Hagen shouted. “Then open fire!”

Eric looked around, dazed. Hagen and Alanna ducked behind the dump truck that had led the procession. Naomi dropped behind her scouting vehicle, and Iris joined her.

Bartley, on the other hand, rolled toward the giant monster, eyes wide, mouth foaming as he screamed. He pointed his exoskeleton's industrial hammer directly at the beast. Bartley seemed incredibly brave to Eric—then again, it was also Bartley's nature to respond to new situations with his fists.

Bartley threw a punch with his exoskeleton arm. The heavy cylinder of the industrial hammer surged forward and bashed into the immense creature's head. A sound like a meat mallet smacking into a side of beef echoed through the room.

The huge head slammed against the wall, and Eric glimpsed more of the giant creature's side. It did look like a titanic, dust-coated worm, no discernible eyes, the only features a few dozen scattered, wriggling tentacles that seemed disproportionately thin and short, almost like hairs on the surface of the worm's skin. Maybe they helped it crawl around underground.

Eric shook himself out of his stupor enough to grab his orange shocker and unleash it full blast at the immense creature. He emptied the full battery in a single bolt; anything less seemed pointless for an animal so big. He couldn't even see the back end of it. Much of the worm, maybe most of it, was still somewhere beyond the shattered wall.

The others were already doing the same; Hagen and Alanna fired their shockers from behind the dump truck, while the loader bot still sat at the front, boxy metal head slowly swiveling, big round camera-ball eyes taking in the scene as if unsure what to do. Its last direct order had been simply to park at the fork.

Iris and Naomi discharged their shockers, too, then dropped to the ground behind the scouter.

The immense alien worm lay against the wall, not moving. The last dribbles of electricity crackled over its thick, dusty hide, touching the limp noodles of its small tentacles, then faded. A dark spot was spreading on its side where Bartley had hammered it.

Green foam drooled from the worm's open mouth.

“Anybody want to tell me what the hell that is?” Bartley asked.

“Is it dead?” Naomi half-stood behind the scouter. “Tell me it's dead.”

The worm shifted, just a little, and everyone took a step back.

“Mmmf,” a voice said, muffled by the thick creature. Malvolio's hand rose from behind the worm's thick head, waving a red silk scarf that had been worn almost to shreds by time. “I daresay I surrender.”

“It's just the android,” Iris said, rising up. She took a hesitant step toward the unmoving worm, then another.

“Careful there,” Hagen said. “Could be a trick.”

“That doesn't look to me like the kind of animal that's capable of tricks.” Alanna approached the giant worm, looked it over, then kicked it with her boot. “You killed Prentice, you slimy bastard!” She kicked it again, then again.

“I'm sorry for your loss,” Iris said, her voice barely a whisper.

“Yeah,” Alanna said, and finally stopped kicking. “He was my favorite lawyer.” Then she walked away and climbed into the dump truck cab. “Somebody clear out that roadkill so the rest of us can get going before something even worse happens—”

The whale-sized worm rose from the ground with a roar that shook the tunnel and brought dust spilling down on everyone.

It rolled its circular lip outward, so that the first ring of shark-like teeth now radiated like spikes around its mouth.

The creature seemed to zero right in on Bartley, who'd dealt it such a bruising blow. Bartley put his exoskeleton into reverse, rolling backwards on his treads while he retracted the long steel cylinder of the hammer for another strike.

The worm reached him long before he had any chance to hit it again. The shielding at the front of Bartley's exoskeleton kept him protected from the teeth, but the creature slammed into Bartley like a freight train. Bartley yelled as his exoskeleton toppled onto its back with a crash.

Those who hadn't already depleted their shockers did so now, hitting it with a couple of weak crackles.

The worm's advance had exposed its flank to Eric. He saw his opening and took it, slamming his heavy clamp hand into the worm's side, hoping to break a few bones, or whatever it had under that dirty, mottled skin with the ugly rat-tail tentacles.

The clamp hit with a meaty thump, but the worm's hide was tougher than he'd expected. Recoil vibrations from the impact shuddered through his exoskeleton and shook his body, making his teeth click together.

The worm turned to face him, if face was the right word for a giant eyeless maw. The mouth opened wide, revealing again the shark-tooth-lined cavern of its throat. It let out another pain-inducing roar, its breath reeking of dead things.

When the huge mouth charged him, Eric managed to catch it in his clamp. He closed down tight, squeezing the worm's lip, and it let out another roar as he pinned it in place. He had a moment to peer into its depths, to notice Prentice's torn, gold-trimmed white loafer stuck between two of the big teeth like a stray bit of gristle.

The worm's breath was as hot as a blast of desert air, blowing Eric's hair back from his face, the rotten-meat stench forcing its way into Eric's nose and throat, making him gag.

The worm shook its head from side to side, like a dog with a dead squirrel in its mouth, and Eric was slammed around inside his exoskeleton.

Eric looked at his other arm, still tipped with the roadheader attachment, the drum covered in dozens of diamond-tipped steel cutting teeth, capable of carving through solid rock. With a thought, he activated the tool and set the drum turning at high speed.

The beast bashed him repeatedly against the wall, as though trying to peel Eric out of his exoskeletal shell before eating him, like Eric was a meaty creek crawdad from back home. Eric reached the spinning roadheader drum inside the huge worm's open mouth, toward the rings of shark-like teeth and the red flesh of its gums and throat, but he couldn't quite reach any of them yet. For a surreal moment he felt like an evil dentist with some demonic dragon for a patient. The roadheader rumbled, ready to chew and destroy, the steel cutting teeth flowing in a never-ending spiral.

The worm's massive head slung to one side, preparing to bash Eric against the wall yet again, and Eric saw his chance.

He pressed the roadheader against the worm's inner cheek, plowing a trench into gummy red flesh. The tool chawed across a band of the big teeth, and they flew out like bloody ivory shrapnel, trailing dark red roots. One crashed into the face mesh of the cage surrounding Eric's head; without the mesh, it would have speared him in the eye.

The worm's outer hide was tough, but the inner tissues were softer. The roadheader shredded colossal muscles. Gouts of blood flew in every direction, drenching Eric and washing over every part of his exoskeleton. The red blood was steaming hot, shockingly human in its color and texture—and taste, Eric unfortunately learned, as a lot of the bloody spray hit his nose and mouth. He closed his lips against it, but worm blood seeped in anyway, salty and full of iron.

The worm let out a screeching kind of roar and reared back like an angry cobra, slamming Eric’s exoskeleton against the cave ceiling.

The exoskeleton's nervous system, as Eric thought of it—silicon processors, copper wires, gold connectors—did not feel true pain the way a living body did. Still, when he was jacked in, any damage or disturbances to the exoskeleton rig jarred him pretty badly.

He felt alerts firing off from everywhere within the suit, panic seeming to ripple from one industrial arm to the other.

Then the exoskeleton's systems went offline, shutting down in quick succession. The rig was designed for rough and heavy labor, from underground terrestrial mines to cutting into asteroids, but it wasn't armor-plated, wasn't a combat rig. While it normally empowered him, extending his reach and amplifying his strength, without power it was just a cage. Right now, it was also a cage clamped to the lip of a huge alien worm.

Eric struggled to open the clamp arm, or at least reactivate the roadheader, but nothing was responding.

Below him, tires squealed, rubber burning against stone.

He looked down to see the compact dump truck charging across the room at high speed. Hagen was visible through the windshield. It looked like he'd been gunning the engine, building up speed, in a move known to every teenage boy with access to a motorized vehicle.

The loader bot crouched at its usual spot on the dump truck's front platform, squatting like a giant boxy hood ornament. Its excavator-bucket hands were open and tilted so that the rows of yellow teeth along the edge—normally used for scraping up broken rock from the ground—pointed straight ahead, ready to dig into the worm's side.

“Loading!” the robot shouted, just before colliding hands-first with the giant worm.

The impact of the dump truck drove a segment of the worm sideways, pinning it against one wall, shattering stone willow trees and wetland-creature statues. The truck accelerated, inching forward, tires smoking against the blue quartz floor. Hagen was applying the truck's full power, trying to crush the worm's body against the wall.

Its head slammed down to the ground, making the entire tunnel shudder. Eric's exoskeleton crashed to the floor along with it, battering Eric around inside. He'd be covered in fresh bruises, if he lived through this.

While the truck pressed against its side, the worm reshaped its body, flattening against the wall for a moment. It created enough space that it could slip free of the dump truck and slither backwards, retracting into the shattered wall from which it had emerged.

The worm's lip stretched as it dragged Eric's exoskeleton along, right into the path of the dump truck.

The dump truck slammed into Eric's rig, denting it and rattling him hard before Hagen managed to slam the brakes.

The worm wasn't content to leave Eric there. It kept dragging Eric's exoskeleton along, across the blood-smeared floor, and up the slope into the rainbow tunnel to the place where the worm had bashed its way in. The worm was planning to take Eric with him.

Eric willed his clamp arm to open, to release the worm's lip before the beast dragged him away through the wall, into whatever hell lay on the other side. But the clamp was still as dead as the rest of his rig.

He reached back for the cable that connected him to the exoskeleton to disconnect it. If he could get his legs working, he might have a chance to escape his rig, though he would hate to lose it.

“Loader!” Naomi shouted. She was squatting behind her scouter, opening the combination-lock backpack where she kept her plastic explosives and detonators. “Loader, grab Eric's rig!”

“Loading!” The boxy yellow bot tilted forward at a steep, seemingly impossible angle over the front edge of the dump truck. The bulky machine didn't seem capable of balancing itself like a prima ballerina, but it did. It seized Eric's exoskeleton with one big bucket hand.

Eric jolted to a stop, anchored by the loader bot's grip. The worm's lip tore, flesh splitting open and blood raining onto the floor.

The worm gave another big shake of its head, as though it meant to slam Eric around again, but this time Eric stayed put, held in place by the loader's strong arm. A long strip of muscle and skin peeled loose from the worm, remaining in Eric's clamp as the creature ripped away from him.

Roaring louder than ever, the worm accelerated its retreat, backing up into the shattered wall of the rainbow tunnel. It moved quickly, pushing itself backwards with its dozens of short, ugly, tentacles. It roared again as its mangled, ruptured face backed out of sight through the big hole in the wall, leaving a creek of bright red blood in its wake.

It gave a final roar from the darkness beyond. Then the mine fell silent.

Chapter Eleven

As it became apparent that the wounded monster was not immediately returning, everyone started moving and talking all at once.

“Is it gone?” Naomi held up a marshmallow-sized lump of plastic explosive with a pin-sized detonator stuck in it. “I've got a snack ready if it comes back.”

“Okay, I'm up!” Bartley announced. After some difficulty, he'd managed to push his exoskeleton upright with its industrial arms. The task would have been easier with a claw or excavator attachment. Unfortunately for Bartley, he'd had the hammer on one arm and the big chisel on the other. “Let me at him! Come back and face me, you giant toothy rectum!” Barley rolled toward the gaping hole in the wall, raising his industrial arms, ready to fight.

“Hopefully, it's gone to crawl off and die somewhere.” Iris stepped forward, tentatively, from behind the cement truck. “Is everyone okay? Eric? Everyone?”

“I'm great,” Eric said, still lying on the ground, trapped in his dead exoskeleton, soaked in worm blood. “Loader, could you set me upright?”

“Loading.” The robot lifted Eric's rig up onto its treads.

Eric unhooked his cable from the machine. He did his best to clear the worm blood off the gold electrical contact, then plugged it back into the port for his leg braces. Then he stepped out of his rig.

Iris approached, reaching out as if to touch him, then drawing back as if noticing he was coated in blood and gore. “Is...any of that blood yours?”

“I think it's all worm sauce,” Eric said.

“Thing had a nasty bite, didn't it?” Hagen asked, dropping out of the dump truck cab. “Anybody need medical right now?”

“My underwear needs medical,” Bartley said, and Eric watched a moment of disgust ripple over Iris's face. Bartley didn't notice, because he was pointing his high beams through the hole in the wall and looking into the space beyond.

“I think the giant worm killed Reamer, too,” Eric said, feeling shaken to his core. He was pretty sure there was a nice layer of shock in there somewhere, insulating him a bit from the horrors he'd seen today. He had the rest of his life to be haunted by them, after all. “Prentice and Reamer had all the same injuries. The inside of the worm is just teeth and muscle. It slices you and crushes you. Then it swallows you. It must have a huge stomach back inside there somewhere—”

Alanna gasped, and Eric turned toward her, half-expecting to see yet another nasty alien creature arriving.

Though Alanna had initially seemed a little cold and indifferent to the death of her lawyer, now she was wiping her eyes, leaning against the cement truck's hood as though she couldn't fully support herself.

“He shouldn't have died like that,” Alanna said. “Either of them. Why are we even down here? What is this place?” She gestured around at the shattered statues of trees and animals. “Really! What the hell is all this? Why is any of this here? And why did we have to get trapped inside it? I was supposed to leave Caldera this weekend! I was going sky-skiing on Aquaria. And then shopping for a new snorkeling suit. Instead, we're all getting...getting hunted by...does anyone have any idea what that was? You, scientist!” She pointed at Iris. “Speak!”

“Hey, guys?” Bartley said from the huge, crumbling hole in the wall.

“It's clearly a dangerous carnivore,” Iris told Alanna. “Perhaps...some kind of local species?”

“A local species of giant man-eating worms that nobody's noticed until today?” Hagen asked. “With everybody digging underground all up and down the canyon? And what about the first wave of miners, the ones who built Money City before the war? They never noticed?”

“Maybe the worm's from another region of this planet,” Iris said. “It could have been displaced by volcanic activity. Or maybe human activity has only just now infringed on its habitat. We can only speculate. What I can tell you is this...” Iris lifted the sheet of bloody worm flesh that hung on Eric's clamp. A short tentacle the size of a rat's tail wiggled on one side. On the flip side were a couple of shark-sized teeth.

“You're actually touching that?” Naomi asked, raising an eyebrow. “On purpose?”

“For real, guys,” Bartley said, still looking through the huge wall hole. “You probably want to see this.”

“I'm no biologist, but I did dissect an earthworm in high school,” Iris said. “Well, the gatekeeper version of high school. Anyway, these little tentacles—” she indicated the one on the outside of the skin flap, which still flopped around like a blind serpent, flinging droplets of blood. “—these remind me of the...let me think...the parapodia of annelids. They help them crawl or swim, like limbs. But these tentacles are more than just simple stiff projections. Look.” Iris tugged at the flopping tentacle, and it coiled around her finger like a baby's reflexive grasp.

“I'm going to be sick.” Naomi turned and walked away, shaking her head, her braids spattered with rock dust and worm blood. She lit a thin cigar and sat down on the seat of her scouter.

“No smoking in the mines,” Hagen said. Naomi replied with her middle finger.

“How about no dangerous killer monsters in the mines?” she snapped. “How about we implement that policy first?”

“The other thing I can tell you is that worms don't have lungs,” Iris said. “They respire through their skin, fairly passively. That's why they're narrow and usually very small. An organism as large and fast as what we just saw needs fully developed lungs for circulation.”

“So what's the upshot of all that?” Hagen said.

“These things may look like giant worms, but they're a different kind of species altogether. We can't assume anything about them. They may even be fairly intelligent. It takes a lot of neurological tissue to drive that much muscle.”

“You keep saying 'they.'” Alanna approached, having regained her usual cool, steely composure. “Do you believe there are more?”

“It would be strange to find just one individual of any species,” Iris said. “Even if they are solitary creatures, there must be others somewhere.”

“Seriously, over here, people!” Bartley shouted. “Maybe this has something to do with whatever you're all jib-jabbing about.”

“Maybe we should all stop jib-jabbing and get driving,” Naomi suggested.

“What are you seeing?” Iris stepped up the slope to stand beside Bartley. “Oh. Wow.”

Everyone went to join them except Naomi, who remained on her scouter and looked impatient. The robots didn't go, either. The loader stood perfectly still, awaiting further instructions. Malvolio, on the other hand, hung his head and paced.

“Surely, I am an unfit security bot!” Malvolio pronounced. “I failed to protect you. I don't have the right to wear this badge.” Malvolio reached into his coat pocket and withdrew a cloth security badge. “Not that I wore it anyway, for obvious fashion reasons, but it's the principle of the matter. Oh, the shame. The shame!” The drama-bot held up the nozzle of the bug-spray hose with his other hand. It looked bent from the worm crushing it into the wall.

“If it's any consolation, that tank is probably too small to have any effect on that giant worm.” Eric pointed to the liter-sized steel tank with the biohazard and skull symbols, mostly hidden under Malvolio's long, tattered yellow tailcoat. He wasn't sure why he wanted to cheer up the robot; surely it was just pretending to have feelings, being overdramatic as it was programmed to do. “Plus a lot of us didn't have our air masks on for protection.”

“Oh! Even had I succeeded, I would have failed.” Malvolio dropped the nozzle, doffed his top hat, and placed the hat over his heart. He shook his head sadly, gazing at the floor. “Truly, the stars are crossed for us all this evening.”

“Shut up,” Hagen told the drama-bot.

Eric stood behind Iris, looking over her into the huge space beyond the broken wall.

“I didn't expect all that.” Alanna elbowed her way in front of Eric for a better view. “It's like a whole city. Or what's left of a whole city.”

The space beyond the wall was vast, with an expansive vaulted ceiling supported by massive columns. Looking closer, Eric saw the columns were actually remnants of old buildings, with arches so large that cattle could have passed through them. Wide slabs of rock led up as shallow stair-steps to broken remnants of overhead walkways that had once arched in all directions. There were even pieces of what looked like an aqueduct. Colored quartz decorated the ruins, along with more of the circular flower-and-insect writing.

Most of the buildings had been smashed, though, and chunks of them were heaped up here and there, mostly along the walls, but also in piles of boulder-sized debris scattered all over the floor.

“That's not time and erosion,” Hagen said. “This looks like a demolition site. A sloppy one.”

“Who would destroy such a valuable archaeological find?” Iris wondered. She sounded personally hurt by it.

“Maybe Caffey Industries?” Alanna suggested. “But even that schmuck Bowler Caffey Junior would understand the economic value here. These are real, intact alien artifacts, actual signs of an intelligent species we've never encountered before. Even if they've been extinct for thousands of years...all this would be priceless. Worth far more by kilogram than the most precious metals. Intelligence is even rarer than gold and platinum.”

“You can say that again,” Naomi grumbled. She remained seated on her scouter, cigar in one hand, plastic explosive marshmallow in the other, ready to pitch it down the throat of the next giant worm that came along. “Which brings us back to the question of why we're doing so much talking and so much less getting the hell of here before we die. Give me one good reason we aren't hauling butt right now.”

“Maybe there's a faster way out through this old city,” Hagen said. “They must have had large tunnels to the surface.”

“You want to go in there? Where the monster worm just went? That way?” Naomi asked. “Am I hearing you right?”

“We'd have to widen this hole to get the trucks through,” Hagen said. “And no matter which way we go, we're probably looking at hours of clearing debris—and that worm could be hiding anywhere in all that rubble—”

“Then forget it!” Alanna said. “Let's keep advancing. I'm not standing around here any longer.”

“Smart woman,” Naomi said. “Good thing you're in charge. Can you believe these men? Anyway, what do you think about trying the upward path now, Miss Li-Whitward?”

“Not unless my geologist's opinion has changed,” Alanna said.

Iris gaped silently at the ruins of what had obviously once been an impressive underground city. Shattered quartz in every hue reflected Bartley's floodlights.

Eric nudged her. “Iris,” he whispered. “Which path?”

“Huh?” Iris looked around and saw everyone looking at her. Eric's words seemed to finally register. “Oh. The night path, definitely. Let's get moving. There's nothing left in there.” She waved a hand dismissively at the ruins and started back toward the cement truck, where she'd been riding with Hagen. Eric thought it was an odd comment—there's nothing left in there—but this wasn't the time to ask what she meant. He agreed that it was past time to get moving again.

“Ride with me,” Alanna said, seizing Iris's arm and redirecting her toward the dump truck, where Alanna had been riding with Prentice. “I'd rather not be alone. Or waste time, I mean. When I could be listening to your expert counsel.”

Iris nodded and went with her, looking too stunned to speak. Eric could sympathize—they'd seen terrible things, two people killed, and they were all still in extreme danger.

“You heard the boss,” Hagen said. “Everybody get moving. As we were.”

“Finally,” Naomi said. She gripped the handlebars of her scouter, her smoldering cigar gripped in her teeth. She'd tucked her prepped plastic explosive somewhere, but Eric doubted it was far out of reach.

Eric climbed into his rig and plugged in with his external length of artificial fiber-optic spinal cord. He was relieved to feel the gray neural hum of the exoskeleton's core processors starting up in safe mode. All he needed at the moment was the treads, basic transportation. If the rest of the systems, like the arms, needed more time, he could live with that.

Their caravan started up again, heavily battered now and fewer in number. Most of their meager weaponry was already spent and, anyway, had proven ineffective against the creature hunting them, the largest and most fearsome alien creature he'd ever seen, capable of snapping up and consuming a human being in a single bite.

They drove down into darkness, into a low tunnel lined with black quartz so thick and dusty that it seemed to absorb all light. A row of demonic stone bats the size of gargoyles hung upside down inside the arched entrance to the dark path, their eyes jeweled red, their fangs bared as if eager to feed on any intruders into their domain.

Chapter Twelve

At first, the walls were mostly black, but more details became apparent as they advanced. The ceiling was low compared to the previous chambers and tunnels, and it was decorated with silver stars—just a few at first, then more and more as they traveled deeper down, clusters and constellations of stars set into the black volcanic rock above.

Eric's eyes kept straying to the yellow dump truck ahead, with the walls of its empty dumping bed partly folded down to make the truck as compact as possible. He thought of Iris riding in there, and how Iris had immediately looked for him after the monster attack. Maybe she felt something. Maybe he felt something.

He had to shake off that kind of thinking. He'd just been away from home too long. He pictured Suzette, and remembered how they'd spent that last night together in the hayloft, her long strawberry-blond hair splayed out in a puddle around her head. She'd been topless, wearing lacy red panties she'd bought “just for tonight.” Normally she wore special, tight-gripping white undershorts designed to be nearly impossible for a boy to remove, which her parents had required since she was thirteen.

Eric and Suzette had kissed countless times that night, and touched each other more intimately than ever before, but of course she'd preserved her virginity, and his along with it—not that he'd necessarily been so enthusiastic to preserve his own, but she was adamant about waiting for marriage. Yet she tended to avoid talking about marriage with him most of the time.

They'd ended the night with the usual prayer for forgiveness, which she always insisted on after even the lightest make-out session.

Suzette, the girl he wanted to marry, the girl he was out here to strike it rich for. Suzette, the girl who now lived in a co-ed group dorm room, where she apparently hung out in skimpy clothes she would never have worn at home, surrounded by guys in their underwear, who obviously had to be checking her out all the time, and sleeping in beds only a few footsteps apart—

No, he told himself. Suzette had always been virtuous; she wouldn't suddenly turn promiscuous just because she was a thousand kilometers from home and family, living in the big city. If she'd never slept with Eric, whom she'd known all her life, surely she wouldn't turn around and have sex with some strange guy she barely knew.

Surely she wasn't going to fall in love with someone else, and forget about him.

Eric felt despondent as he followed the tunnel down and around a tight curve, and then another. The path grew steeper, carrying them deeper and deeper underground.

“This can't be right,” Naomi grumbled to Bartley, while she puttered her scouter alongside his exoskeleton. Bartley had been lending her a sympathetic ear all the way down, probably hoping for a sympathetic night in her bed sooner or later. Eric doubted it would work out. “We're just going down and down,” Naomi said. “This can't possibly be the way to the surface. We have to go the other way.” An edge of panic crept into her voice. Eric recognized it easily because he was starting to feel it himself, unease gnawing like invisible worms deep in his gut. “Bartley, come on,” she continued. “We have to tell Hagen. We have to go back.”

“You think?” Bartley sounded uncertain. “You're right, we're getting pretty deep here. I'm starting to think this can't be the way out. Because the way out would be up.”

“It feels like the back's getting lower, too,” Naomi said, using the typical miner's term for the ceiling of a tunnel. “We'll be ducking soon. I don't like this.”

It was unusual for Naomi to sound frightened; typically she seemed ready to trounce anyone who stood in her way, even if it was just in the take-out line at Greasy Gary's. Her fear added to Eric's own. Working deep in the mines, you could suddenly become acutely, starkly aware of how far underground you were, of how much rock and earth was just hanging above you, ready to come crashing down.

Still, Eric had to trust Iris and Hagen's carefully considered professional opinions more than Bartley and Naomi's panicky talk of turning back. Panic was on the verge of overtaking them all. Eric tried to think of what he could say to calm down everyone, including himself.

He took on the voice and attitude he'd used when soothing nervous horses back home on the ranch.

“But the giant worm is back that way, too,” Eric said. “And if you think we're moving slowly now, imagine these same trucks going uphill in reverse. There's no room for them to turn around.”

“Uh-huh,” Naomi said. “You sure you're not just taking Iris's side? We see you getting all goopy over each other.”

“We're not—what does that even—” Eric sputtered, surprised by how flustered he felt.

“Well, well!” Bartley grinned. “Look at Mr. Goshy-Gee-I-Got-A-Fiancé-Back-Home. Who's holier than thou now?”

“I don't know what you guys are talking about.” Eric faced forward again, his cheeks burning.

“Yeah, you're hiding it well,” Naomi snickered. “You're a real master of disguise. Okay, we'll keep rolling with your girlfriend's plan for now. But when we hit a dead end or drive into a lake of magma a thousand kilometers below surface, there's going to be a lot more than 'I told you so' to pay. You're going to owe me, Eric.”

“Yeah,” Bartley said. “You're going to owe us bigly.”

The hallway grew even steeper and narrower, closing in on them from all sides. Statues and engravings gave way to arrangements of bones. In some places, complete animal skeletons stood watch on ledges and in nooks in the rough black-rock wall. Some of the bones looked reptilian, with long jaws crammed full of sharp teeth; others looked more like mammals, one with a pair of extra-long saber teeth, another with goat-like horns, yet another with four sets of extra-long claws like a tree sloth, but with a ridge of bony spikes down its back.

More bones were embedded in the walls, in rows and columns that resembled the flower-and-insect writing they'd seen earlier; here, the flowers were replaced by the skulls of birds and small rodent-like mammals, while the insect ideograms around them were drawn in small, thin bones, maybe taken from the same creatures.

“This looks evil to me,” Bartley whispered, crossing himself for protection. Eric silently agreed with him. A message written in skulls and bones was unlikely to be a positive one. He doubted it translated to Have a Nice Day! or Eat at Slappy's Pizza!

“Maybe it's a warning,” Naomi said. “Like, 'Go back or you'll end up like these chipmunks and squirrels.' Seems pretty clear to me, actually.”

Eric nodded. They'd gone deep, the air was almost unbreatheably stale, and the writing on the wall was spelled out in a language of death.

Just as he was about to speak up, throw in with Bartley and Naomi and their insistence on going back, the cramped chamber widened into a large, vaulted, circular room. It suddenly felt easier to breathe under the high ceiling.

A galaxy of silver stars glittered above. At the center of the ceiling was a map of the solar system, and Eric recognized it as the one where they stood now, the solar system where Caldera was located. He'd certainly spent enough time looking at maps and pictures of it before traveling here.

On the ceiling map, four planets and an asteroid belt orbited a small red sun rendered in rubies. The innermost planet, a small and lifeless ball of rock, was depicted with gray moonstone. The two outer planets also looked familiar: an ice giant rendered in platinum and diamonds, a gas giant in assorted pink and red gems, with glittering diamond rings.

Caldera was a rocky world choked by ash-filled clouds, but the version of it depicted on the solar system above was in emeralds and sapphires, indicating an Earth-like ecosystem brimming with life. Things must have changed, probably because of the hundreds of active volcanoes still smoking all around the surface of the planet.

Colossal statues ringed the room, larger than any they'd seen before. A cluster of statues occupied the center of the room, too.

Brake lights flared ahead as the dump truck stopped, bringing the whole caravan to a halt.

Iris leaped from the dump truck's cab, followed by Alanna. Malvolio unicycled in circles around them, running his mouth.

“What's the hold-up now?” Hagen shouted, leaning out of the concrete mixer cab. Bartley and Naomi, just ahead of him, grumbled along with their own less polite complaints about stopping.

“We have a situation,” Alanna called to him. “Drama-bot, tell them what you saw.”

“I scouted ahead, as I was tasked to do,” Malvolio said, wheeling past Eric toward the concrete mixer. He was again juggling his one ball as if he had three. “Beyond yonder bug altar, a choice among three paths lies before us—”

“Seriously?” Naomi snapped. “I want the path that goes up this time. Up! I'm not going any further down.” She looked at Hagen as she said it.

“She's right,” Bartley said. “We can't keep going deeper.”

“I'm sorry,” Iris spoke up, her voice barely audible in the big chamber. “Could everyone just be quiet for one minute? Thanks. Sorry. Thank you.” Then she closed her eyes, spread her arms, and began turning slowly while walking in a wide circle around the cluster of statuary at the center of the circle, like a planet rotating on its axis while revolving around its sun.

“Oh, not this crystal-ball horseshit again,” Naomi muttered, and Bartley snorted his agreement. “Look where it got us last time,” she added.

“Quiet,” Alanna said, with a cutting look at Naomi and Bartley. “Let her work.”

“Work? That isn't work,” Naomi said. “Did everybody miss the part where she failed out of the Antikytheran Society? Washed out. Didn't make it. She's just a rockhound, nothing else. She doesn't have secret abilities and powers to access the technology of the ancients. She's not a gatekeeper.”

Iris flushed dark crimson, clearly hearing Naomi's remarks, but she kept her eyes closed and continued what she was doing as if she heard nothing.

Eric took the opportunity to look around at the colossal statues, most of which were just larger versions of creatures they'd seen on the way in. Four were spaced equally around the perimeter, with a sizable archway halfway between each statue—their group had emerged through one such archway. These four statues were monstrous demonic versions of a predatory sharp-beaked bird, a needle-toothed amphibian, a bat hanging upside down, and a spider on a web made of chains.

At the center of the room stood six mantis-style insect statues like the one they'd first encountered, the one Bartley had mistaken for a gray alien. These six supported an oval-shaped marble slab. Atop the slab sat a seventh bug, much larger and more fearsome than the ones below—it seemed to be clad in spiked armor, and its scissor-like mandible was spread open as if ready to attack.

Malvolio had called it a “bug altar” for good reason. It looked exactly like an altar for making offerings to the giant mantis-type statue.

“Friggin' bug worshipers,” Bartley muttered, rolling up alongside Eric.

Naomi gunned her scouter and broke out of line. She swerved around Iris and drove in a long, fast orbit around the entire room, slowing as she passed the arched tunnels leading out.

“Okay, good news,” Naomi said, parking alongside Bartley. “Every way out leads uphill. So we've officially hit rock bottom. Happy? We can start heading up, and I vote for that path.” She pointed across the room, toward the archway directly across from the one they'd emerged from. “Because that's the opposite direction from where the worm is.”

There was a rumble high above, and echoing explosive sound.

“What was that?” Alanna stiffened. She stood by the dump truck, waiting for Iris.

“Blasting,” said Eric, Bartley, and Naomi at the same time. Hagen, still in the cab of the cement mixer, nodded.

“Someone's still at work up there,” Hagen said.

“We need to go now,” Bartley said.

“Let's see what Iris thinks,” Eric said, watching the geologist.

“You really believe she's all magical and can navigate underground using just her sensitive little arm hairs?” Naomi asked.

“You said she was leading us into a dead end,” Eric said. “Now we have three possible ways up to the surface.”

“And a long, long way to go before we reach it.” Naomi stepped closer to Iris. “Come on, little pixie girl. What do your twinkly little toes say we should do next?”

Iris finally opened her eyes. The look on her face was so icy that Naomi halted in her approach toward the girl, even though Iris didn't actually look her way at all.

Instead, Iris walked away from everyone. She wasn't heading for any of the three tunnels, but directly toward the spider statue.

“I don't think that's the way out,” Bartley said, but Iris didn't even acknowledge him.

“Where are you going?” Alanna asked. Surprisingly, Iris ignored her, too.

Iris knelt in front of the spider statue, and again she closed her eyes.

“I think the geologist's a bug worshiper, too,” Bartley whispered to Naomi.

It was a weird sight, Eric thought, Iris acting like some sort of ancient pagan from Earth, bowing down before an idol—not a golden calf, here, but a spider made of black rock, with rows of obsidian eyes.

Iris stood and stepped up onto the low, wide slab of the marble pedestal supporting the statue. She touched one of the stone legs, as thick as an elephant's, rough with a stone imitation of bristles. Then she reached up and ran her fingers over its long fangs.

“What are you doing?” Alanna snapped.

A heavy rumble sounded in the walls, and dust spilled from above.

“That's close!” Naomi shouted. She withdrew the prepared plastic explosive from her coveralls. Beside her, Bartley lowered his industrial hammer and chisel from their upright traveling positions.

“Bring it, worms!” Bartley shouted. “Come give me a big smile with those big dirty teeth.” He looked from one dark archway to the next. “Come on!”

Despite the huge rumble, no giant worm emerged from the tunnels, walls, or floors to attack them.

Instead, the web of steel chains around the spider statue grew taut. Then the chains began to retract slowly into the wall, as though each one were being pulled by a hidden winch, with a series of ear-splitting clanks as one dusty link after another vanished through holes in the wall behind the spider.

With a groaning, scraping sound loud enough to wake the dead, the slab pedestal on which the spider perched slid backward. As the spider moved back, drawn by its own web, a hollow cavity in the floor became visible beneath it. A narrow hidden ramp sloped away into darkness below.

“This is it!” Iris beamed at Eric as he rolled closer to her. “This has to be it.”

“Has to be what?” Alanna asked.

“Yeah, last I checked, we were looking for a way out,” Bartley said. “Not a crawlspace under a demon spider statue. We have to go up. This is down. Up good, down bad.”

“This is where the real treasure lies,” Iris said. Now she actually had the wide, exciting, gleaming eyes of a fervent cult member, like she really had been worshiping the giant spider after all.

“Are we still on treasure? I thought we were on survival,” Naomi said. “I guess I didn't get the update.”

“Whoever is down here, destroying these ruins...this is what they're after. But we got here first.” Iris beamed, dancing in place like a kid on Christmas morning who really had to pee. Another blast sounded somewhere above, shaking the ceiling. A thin cloud of rock dust belched from one of their three potential escape routes. Iris's smile faltered. “They could be right behind us, though.”

“Who?” Alanna asked, looking up. “Caffey Industries? They're after old alien relics?”

“I don't know whether it's Caffey or not. I don't know what form it may take, but you can be certain that the hand of the Ptolemaic Society is hidden within the form,” Iris said.

“This is getting to sound like a bad spy novel,” Naomi said. “Now Earth's gatekeepers are involved? Way out here at the edge of nowhere?”

“The Ptolemaic Society are dangerous,” Iris said. “Without them, Earth and the Alliance could not have transported their forces to star systems that declared independence. The greedy rulers of Earth could not have waged war for thirty years on rebel colonies who only wanted their freedom.”

“I don't want to re-litigate the war here,” Hagen said, finally climbing down from the truck. “But young folks today may not remember that quite a number of those colonies happened to be in debt, and 'freedom' just happened to liberate certain interests from their contracts. And heck, entire mines and factories just happened to be 'liberated' from their Earthling owners—”

“And then bombed,” Iris said. “Out of spite, I suppose. And the people who lived near them? They just had to be bombed, too.”

“In war, there's collateral damage—” Hagen began.

“Earth destroyed a golden age because Earthlings were so greedy, so hungry to stay in power, so adamant that they should control, you know, no big deal, just all of human life,” Iris said. “So now every colony world is a bombed-out shell, a ghost of what it was in the Big Times. We live in the ruins and shadows of what Earth, and their loyalists, chose to burn down. We're left to pick through the wreckage of a formerly great interstellar civilization that lasted less than two hundred years. That's the legacy of the war, granted to us by Earth.”

Hagen and Iris stared burning daggers at each other for a long moment, and then Alanna stepped in.

“Enough politics,” Alanna said. “It's gauche. Iris, you say there's something down there that would be extremely valuable to the gatekeeper societies?”

“Yes, ma'am, but there's no time to explain—”

“Then I want it,” Alanna said. “Take a couple of these mine workers with you and go get it.”

“Okay,” Iris said. “Bartley obviously needs to stay out here to hammer the worm if it comes back...”

“Damn right,” Bartley said. If Iris had meant to appeal to his warrior's pride—likely bruised after he'd missed out on most of the last battle while flat on his back

—it had worked. He seemed to puff up in his exoskeleton seat, his hands gripping the controls tight, like he was about to enter a video-game championship.

“I'll take the other miners,” Iris said. “Eric. And Naomi.”

“What's that?” Naomi's head whipped toward Iris. “You think you're going to take me somewhere?”

“You obviously don't like me, but I want you to see we're not wasting time down here,” Iris said.

“Time is being wasted already. You have twenty minutes to go down and come back,” Alanna told them. A rumble sounded overhead. “Fifteen. Hagen, make sure we're all ready to fly out of here the second they return.”

Eric left his suit running so his arms could continue their sluggish start-up process. He jacked out of the exoskeleton and plugged back into his leg braces. He stepped down from the rig's seat, his useless meat-puppet legs passively dragged along by the ugly robotic structures encasing them.

Iris, still smiling like a cat who'd caught the biggest mouse in history, led the way down the newly revealed ramp under the spider statue. Eric looked up at the huge arachnid's fearsome visage—not exactly inviting—and then followed her down.

“All right,” Naomi said, shaking her head. “I'll come with you, but only to make sure you get back up here fast. I don't want to stand around waiting while you two grope each other in the dark.” Naomi double-checked her mining helmet before following after them.

The passage was so narrow that Eric's exoskeleton had been obviously out of the question. The ceiling was so low that even Iris had to duck.

“If there's a worm waiting at the end of this with its mouth wide open, I'm feeding both of y'all to it,” Naomi muttered. “I won't even feel bad.”

The tunnel was fairly short and ended at a stone archway. Iris peered through it, screamed, and leaped back. Eric caught her. She was warm and wiry in his arms.

Chapter Thirteen

“Oh,” Iris said, looking ahead at the archway, then up at Eric. She blinked and pulled away, blushing. “I guess they're not real. Or maybe they're dead.”

Eric looked past her. The light in his mining helmet fell on two fearsome beetles the size of bulls, their shells like armor, clusters of spikes radiating from their heads and joints, and enormous mandibles that could have snapped a person in half. The giant beetles were hideous and intimidating, but they were not moving at all.

“Looks like they were placed here to try and scare intruders,” Iris said, easing out through the archway.

“Worked on you,” Naomi snorted.

“These aren't statues.” Iris touched the shell-armored leg of one beetle. The leg alone was taller than her. “They're preserved. Dried. Mummified.”

“Look at that.” Eric pointed toward the top of one beetle as he stepped through the archway. The beetle was draped with what looked like a frayed old blanket stitched with the same flower-and-insect language they'd seen before. Atop the blanket was a long pad of dried leather strapped to the beetle's back. The other beetle had the same thing. “Those look like...saddles?”

“Imagine riding one of these into battle,” Naomi said. “They'd make Hannibal's elephants look like pussycats.”

“There's four stirrups per saddle,” Eric said, looking between the two beetles. “These people must have ridden them two at a time. Maybe one to control and steer the beetle. The other to use weapons, maybe throwing spears or arrows.”

“Or maybe they had four legs and two arms.” Iris blew dust off a colorful but faded fresco on the wall nearby. Sure enough, it depicted gray six-limbed mantis-style insects, like the first statue they'd seen, riding the armored beetles to war. The gray mantids wore bronze armor and slung blades, hammers, and arrows against their enemies. Their enemies were also beetle-mounted mantids, but fire-ant red instead of gray.

More battle scenes spread across the wall, depicting the gray mantids ultimately defeating the red mantids...then eating them.

“So the people who built all of this weren't bug-worshipers,” Eric said. “They were bugs.”

“Wow,” Naomi said. “You can figure out anything once someone explains it to you with pictures, huh, Eric?”

“Do you have a problem with me?” Eric asked.

“I have a lot of problems with all of this. I think I've made that pretty clear. Now we've seen the battle-beetle mummies and the bug-war comic book on the wall, so let's head up and out.”

“There's gold back here,” Iris said from a couple meters away. “Lots of it.”

“I can wait another five minutes.” Naomi walked over to see where she was looking.

A series of alcoves had been set into the wall. The first held musical instruments, including a decorated animal horn, a pair of wooden drums laced together with leather, and a xylophone framed in bone.

Another alcove held war hammers, axes, and blades. Aside from the spider statue's chain web, these weapons were the first steel they'd seen among the artifacts.

Next was a huge display of insect statues made from gold and precious stones. Below these were urns full of gems and oval-shaped gold and silver coins etched with insect and flower images.

“Okay, I feel like we're in line for hazard pay here.” Naomi began filling the pockets of her coveralls with jewels and gold coins. “No reason to mention this to Hagen or Alanna, right?”

“I'm not saying anything,” Eric told her. He was about to start filling his own pockets when Iris spoke up.

“Ew! More bugs,” she said. Eric joined her at the next alcove, which had a shelf of mummified bugs that looked like ticks the size of terriers, dried and preserved like the giant beetles.

“Maybe...pets?” Eric suggested.

“Gross.” Naomi hurried past them.

“Or food.” Iris pointed to the upper shelves of the same alcove, crammed with clay jars labeled with carved images of bees, flowers, leaves, and grubs. “This whole place makes me think of a pharaoh's tomb—treasure, weapons, preserved food. A powerful and wealthy ruler buried with plenty of possessions to take into the afterlife.”

“And plenty of his friends, too,” Naomi said, from deeper in the chamber. “Ugh.”

A row of preserved, dried mantis-bugs faced them, each one the size of a small horse like the statue they'd first seen. They had dried into a shriveled brown color, their bodies held upright by suits of bronze armor decorated with leaf and flower designs. Helmets enclosed their elongated heads, with visors to protect their now-hollow eye sockets. Medieval weapons were mounted on their backs—blades, hammers, and axes, just like in the frescoes.

“Guess the pharaoh needed warriors in the next world,” Iris said. “These may have been sacrificed when he died.”

“And servants.” Naomi pointed to another row of dried-up mantids, these much smaller than the warrior ones, squatting on the floor and bound in chains. “So if this is Pharaoh's tomb, where's Pharaoh? Back there?” She pointed toward another small arch at the back of the room.

“Looks likely to me,” Iris said.

The three of them proceeded single-file through the narrow passage and reached what had to be the burial chamber. A golden sarcophagus dominated the small room; it was the size of a king bed, and its lid depicted a gray mantid covered in jewelry, flowers, and gold-leaf armor, a crown encircling its antennae.

“Look at that.” Naomi pointed her light at the wall just above and behind the huge sarcophagus. “They even have a...” She took in a sudden sharp breath, and her face trembled in a way Eric had never seen. It looked like she was on the verge of tears; in the months he'd known her, Eric had grown to doubt she was even capable of crying.

She turned and ran away from the sarcophagus room.

Puzzled, Eric studied the image that had seemed to upset her. It was a huge butterfly on the wall, rendered in jewels and precious metals. Below, almost out of sight, a gray mantis was depicted, unadorned and collapsed as though dead, as if the butterfly had emerged from the mantis's body, glorious and beautiful, leaving the gray husk behind.

“What upset her?” Iris whispered.

“I don't know,” he whispered back.

“Go check on her.”

“Me? I'm not good at...stuff like that.”

“You know her better, and she doesn't like me. Go. I have work to do, anyway.” She gestured at the murals of hieroglyphs and flower-and-insect letters on the wall.

Eric reluctantly turned to catch up with Naomi. Somewhere above, the earth rumbled. Another blast. If Iris was right, someone was blasting their way down, searching for the tomb of the bug emperor.

He still didn't understand the significance of the tomb, other than as an interesting historical find. But Eric had grown up on a staunchly rebel world, with a father and two brothers who'd served in the rebel military. His loyalty to the Colonial League of rebel worlds ran bone-deep. He couldn't help but see the Ptolemaic Society, the gatekeepers who served the Earth Alliance, as a dangerous enemy. Armistice or not, Eric had a hard time trusting Earthlings or those who had allied with them.

Eric reached the large treasure room, guarded by the armored dead bugs. Naomi sat on a weird, oval-shaped marble bench in the treasure room. She was slumped forward, her face in her hands, and she didn't even look up when he entered.

“Um, hi,” Eric said, slowly approaching her. “Everything okay?” Stupid question. It was obvious everything was not.

“She coming?” Naomi asked, looking up over her fingers, her eyes shiny with tears.

“Not yet. Unless you want me to yell for her—”

“No.” She covered her face with her hands again.

Eric stood there uneasily for a minute, not sure what to say or do. This was not something he felt comfortable attempting. It made him think of Suzette's occasional “relationship talks” where she went on about her feelings and nothing he said was right, and any answer he gave to any question she asked was sure to make her erupt in fury.

This was similar, only he had no history of intimacy with Naomi, and she was much tougher than Suzette.

“So.” Eric sank onto the bench beside her. He reached out and hesitantly touched a hand to her back, not sure whether she was going to appreciate the gesture or turn and punch him in the mouth.

She did turn, but surprised him by embracing him tight—no punching at all—and resting her face against his neck. He patted her back a couple of times.

“What happened?” he asked.

Naomi pulled back, sniffling, and regarded him with her amber eyes.

“You don't know anything about me,” she said.

“That's mostly true. I know you're good at blowing things up. I know you like to listen to classical music like AC/DC while you do it.”

“I'm from Sylvania,” she said. Eric nodded; it was a watery green planet like Gideon, though not as large. “Lived in Foundertown. I worked as a...preschool teacher.”

Eric snickered without meaning to.

“What? Does that sound strange to you?” Naomi asked.

“Completely.”

“Is it so hard to picture me as maternal?” She glared at him like she'd break his arm if he answered wrong.

“Well...yeah.” Eric tried to conjure an image of Naomi finger-painting with kids and just couldn't.

“I guess so.” She lit a thin cigar. “I used to be very different. I...was married. Never officially got divorced, actually. I just left.”

“Why?”

She puffed out a cloud of cigar smoke and looked at him through it, as though trying to read him.

“Don't repeat this to anyone,” she said.

“Okay.”

She glanced toward the archway that led to the burial chamber, then the other one that led up the ramp to where the others waited. They were alone.

Naomi reached up to her collar and drew down the zipper of her tan coveralls. She pulled it down to her navel, revealing a worn pink bra with a tiny bow at the front, definitely not what he might have expected her to be wearing. She touched the area at her heart, indicating a tattoo that stood out in bright hues from the deep brown of her skin.

It was a butterfly.

“Do you know what this is?” she whispered.

“It's...” Eric wasn't sure what to say. It was obviously a tattoo, and obviously a butterfly, but both of these seemed so obvious that they couldn't possibly be the real answer to her question.

“I got pregnant when I was twenty-three,” she said. “We were ready for it. Married, house, jobs. My husband was an insurance adjuster. Not glamorous, but stable. He had an analytical kind of mind, you know. Anyway, we decided we'd name the boy Taryn, after my husband's grandfather.

“Then that night happened. We rushed to the hospital. He was six weeks premature. That's early, but compared to some of those babies on the ward, he had it easy. They said he'd almost certainly make it, he was really strong. That's what they told us. We spent the next three months pretty much living at the hospital...” She took a long drag on her cigar. “When a baby died in that unit, they'd put a butterfly outside the room. Just a little construction-paper cutout. When they put his up, I tore it off the wall. I crumpled it up and threw it on the floor. I lost my mind that night. Never got it back, right?” Naomi gave him a cold half-smile without a hint of humor. “That's when I left. I never went back to my house after the baby, didn't bother to pack. Never said good-bye to my husband or told him I was leaving. It took most of our savings for me to book passage off-planet. But I did. Now I don't nurture and I don't create. Now I blow things to pieces. Now I destroy.”

“I'm sorry.” Eric said. He sat quietly for a minute, not sure what else to say. Then he added, “You are good at destroying stuff, though.”

She gave him the slightest smile.

“How long has it been?” Eric asked.

“Two years. No. Three. Four?” She shook her head. “It's hard to tell years for some reason. It turns to fog when I look back. And I try not to look back.”

“Eric, could you give me a hand...” Iris emerged from the burial chamber. Her giant grin, which she'd been wearing since finding the secret passage beneath the spider, collapsed when she saw them on the bench, Naomi's coveralls unzipped down the front. “Oh. Wow. I didn't mean to interrupt a private...thing.”

“You didn't...and it's not a...” Eric stood while Naomi zipped up. “What's happening back with the burial chamber?”

“I just need your help.” Her voice sounded cooler to him now, losing the extra warmth it had gained after he'd sheltered her from the falling rocks.

He considered trying to explain that Naomi was just showing him a tattoo, but he supposed that would sound flimsy, even if it was true. And he definitely didn't want to repeat any of the personal things Naomi had told him. And who cared whether it was flimsy or true, anyway? There was nothing between him and Iris, just a look, just a feeling that was probably all in his head, caused by the abnormally long and stressful day, which was turning into a long and stressful night. The sun would have set outside already.

Eric kept quiet as all three of them returned to the burial chamber.

“Think about those four big statues,” Iris said, while pointing to the murals. “Spider, bat, bird, frog. What do they have in common?”

“They...all make great Halloween costumes?” Eric guessed.

Iris winced, as though his comment had been stupid enough to cause her physical pain.

“They all eat insects,” Naomi said.

“Right.” Iris appeared slightly relieved, as though taking comfort in not being completely surrounded by idiots. “If you're an insect, those are the Four Horsemen of your Apocalypse. These pictures show the same pharaoh-bug depicted on the sarcophagus defeating those four creatures. Here he steals the spider's web and uses it to tie up the frog...over here he steals the bird's eggs...see? He's like the trickster-hero of his culture. I think I'm starting to figure out the bug religion here. Take this huge butterfly on the wall, for instance—”

Naomi tensed up.

“These mantids were wingless. They weren't lepidopterans and definitely didn't turn into butterflies. But they observed butterflies and moths, and took a metaphor from them, the soul as a butterfly that leaves the cocoon of the body at death—”

“I think we get that,” Eric said quickly, worried Naomi would get upset. “Is this why you wanted us?”

“Oh, no. I need your help to open the sarcophagus. I'm certain what I'm looking for is in there, but the lid is too heavy.”

“In there?” Eric looked over the giant royal coffin, sculpted and colored to look like the great and powerful bug-pharaoh in all his golden glory, his gray skin made of silver.

The lid didn't budge at all when he first tried to move it, and he could barely fit his fingertips beneath the edge.

Eventually, he managed to pry it open by inserting the blade of a battle ax as a wedge and banging it in with a war hammer. Once the lid was lifted, the three of them managed to slide it to one side, enough to reveal the darkness within. The lid was much too heavy to actually lift away without equipment, or several strong people to help. Eric wasn't surprised to find the lid was solid stone underneath the layer of gold and silver on top.

“Okay.” Iris's voice was an excited whisper. She looked both thrilled and nervous, as if they were all teenagers about to go skinny dipping together.

They looked inside, the lights of their mining helmets illuminating the sarcophagus interior.

Golden armor inset with gems colored most of the brown, shriveled body of another mantid. The bug's size surprised Eric; it was clearly double, maybe triple the size of the mummified warrior bugs in the other room.

“I guess we know why he was king,” Eric said. “He was just the biggest.”

“You mean she was the queen, more likely,” Naomi said. “Bug hives are ruled by queens. Everyone knows that. Females do all the working and fighting, too. The males just lay around the hive eating and occasionally having sex. Like my sister's husband.”

“Normally, I'd agree,” Iris said. “But if you look at this mural, you'll see our oversized bug king here copulating with groups of females, including some of the captive red mantids from the war. Then in the next panel, these females are filling caves with eggs. Interesting. The alpha-and-harem model is usually found in mammals, not insects.” Iris passed her hands over the dead bug's armor as she spoke. He'd been buried with a different item clutched in each of his six claws, including ceremonial weapons and a scepter. “Under his armor, he's wrapped in silk. That could relate to the butterfly symbolism—”

“So we're leaving now, right?” Naomi asked. “This concludes today's meeting of the dead-bug archaeological society. Yeah?”

Iris had fallen silent, staring at the mummified insect king. Her hands floated above the battle helmet, which had spikes to protect the insect's antennae and a mask that concealed its face. The helmet showed exquisite craftsmanship, with different metals—gold, silver, platinum, bronze, and steel—interwoven like cloth.

“That's it,” Iris whispered. Her hand trembled above the helmet. She reached toward the mask, which might have been an elaborate armor faceplate or a funerary mask. It depicted a mantid face, the skin made of silver, the big black eyes of obsidian.

Then she hissed and recoiled, as if the mask were intensely hot, though Eric felt no heat radiating from that direction.

“Everything okay?” he asked.

“Eric, I need you to take the helmet off.” Iris glanced down at her hands, then she looked up at him, her dark eyes wide and desperate.

“Why him?” Naomi asked. “You dragged us down here searching for this thing. I still say the rainbow tunnel was the fastest way up, and you led us down here anyway. Now, after all that, you're scared to touch it?”

“It's too heavy for me. Eric, please?”

Eric glanced between the two women. Another rumble sounded overhead, close enough to rattle the floor. The sarcophagus shuddered as though the mummified bug-pharaoh was trying to rise from the dead.

“Okay.” He took a deep breath, then reached for it with both hands.

He felt a kind of electrical resistance as his fingers reached the helmet. When his fingers touched the mask—unexpectedly warm for metal that had been in a dark underground vault for untold years—hairs stood up all over his body, and an electric tingle raced over the surface of his skin.

“You sure that's safe?” Naomi asked.

“It is for him,” Iris replied.

Eric wasn't sure he liked the sound of that. But he was here on Caldera searching for treasure, so he could get rich and get home. Back to Suzette. The relic, according to Iris, was worth far more than any other treasures this gold-rich planet had to offer.

Eric's fingers traced the surface of the helmet, feeling that electric hum in his fingertips. Flower-insect writing in tiny, ornate calligraphy seemed to swim up out of the metal as his gaze moved from one spot to another, as if too subtly engraved to even see, except when staring at it from just the right angle. It was like an optical illusion. The writing was small and dense enough to hold a complete Bible, maybe two.

For a moment, he slipped away into a memory, one of the strongest of his life.

He and Suzette had once gone into town together to get some supplies for her father, Eric driving the rattling farm truck. He was only fifteen, but things like driver's licenses weren't strictly regulated out in the country, or on Gideon generally.

They weren't just going to the general store in the tiny hamlet of Wellspring, though. They drove all the way to Sanctuary Grove, an hour away, a relatively big town of fifteen thousand people. Suzette's father needed some tractor parts that weren't available anywhere closer. Eric had been trying to fix the tractor himself, to impress her father. One day he planned to ask the man for his daughter's hand, after all.

They'd walked the raised wooden sidewalk of the big town, looking into store windows, and Suzette had been excited to explore a shop that sold fine dresses, shoes, and jewelry. There was no such shop in Wellspring, where people made some of their own clothes and ordered most of everything else by catalog.

Suzette had all but drooled over a gold bracelet in the jewelry case, one that coiled three times. Eric joked that it looked like a snake, and she'd scowled and called him a lowbrow.

She'd talked about the bracelet on the way home. And mentioned it again the next day.

Eric spent the summer working extra chores at the Chandler farm down the road, repairing their fence and painting their barn, weeding their gardens.

After four months, he'd finally saved up enough to buy the gold bracelet for her.

He'd surprised her with it for her sixteenth birthday, in the fall, after they'd drunk cider and wandered into the woods to kiss.

When Suzette saw it, she'd made a hissing, gasping sound like he'd never heard from her.

They'd done much more than kiss that night. She'd awed him by reaching into his pants, stroking him to climax, the gold bracelet on her wrist pressed against his lower belly the whole time.

“Eric? You all right?” Naomi asked.

“Huh?” He looked around, jarred from his strange reverie, to see Naomi and Iris staring at him. He felt himself blush hard. “I'm fine. Just...trying to figure this thing out.” He looked down at the dead bug's helmet again, working hard to clear his mind of the intense memory.

He found a clasp on the helmet's side, and then he swung open the silver-coated face mask.

He half-expected the mummified bug to chomp its dead mandibles into his hand, but the corpse remained still. The eyes seemed remarkably well-preserved, oily and black, very much as if they were somehow still alive after all this time. The mandibles looked sharp and ready to snap.

It only appeared alive, though. The dead insect did nothing to resist as Eric slid the helmet up and off as carefully as he could, trying not to damage the dry sticks of the dead insect's antenna. He was already robbing the bug-king's grave; desecrating its corpse would just add injury to that insult.

He had trouble pulling it free of the antennae, though. He tried to gently shake it loose, but it felt as though the antennae were wired to the inside of the ornate helm somehow. Maybe they'd done it for the funeral and burial, the way the eyes and mouths of human bodies were glued or stitched shut before a viewing. Eric shivered and tried not to think of thousands of insects attending the funeral, mourning the loss of their god-king.

“Everything okay?” Iris asked him.

“We need to get going,” Naomi said.

“Okay. I might have to get a little destructive here.” Eric pulled the helmet as hard as he could, giving up on his attempts to preserve the body.

The antennae didn't break, exactly, but they stretched and then crumbled to dust, revealing fine strands of white metal threads that had been hidden within them. Eric kept pulling, walking backwards from the sarcophagus, and the two metal threads kept growing longer and longer, connected from the inside of the helmet to the crown of the dead bug's shriveled head.

“What is this new thing we don't have time for?” Naomi asked, watching him continue to pull the white-metal threads out.

“I don't understand, either—” Iris began.

Then the huge insect-pharaoh lurched inside his sarcophagus, as if trying to leap free. Its bulk slammed upward against the sarcophagus lid.

All three of them ran back and away. Eric dropped the helmet and picked up the war hammer he'd used to help open the lid. Beside him, Naomi raised the antique battle ax.

Nothing else happened. The dead thing lay still in its coffin, as it likely had for decades, maybe even centuries.

Eric and Iris approached for a closer look.

“What's happening?” Eric asked.

“I'm...not sure,” Iris whispered back.

The brown corpse of the dead bug was shrinking. Even stranger, the suit of armor covering its immense body shrank with it, staying proportional as the bug-pharaoh's body grew smaller and smaller.

Eventually, the dead pharaoh shrank until he was smaller than the dead bug warriors they'd passed. When he was as small as one of the servant-bugs that had been chained down on the floor, he finally stopped shrinking.

The two threads of metal, white as polished platinum, detached from the shrunken body and crawled up inside the helmet, behind the mask, where Eric had left it on the floor.

When he turned over the helmet to look inside, the two strands were gone. The helmet felt heavier than it had before.

“What was that?” Naomi asked. “What just happened?”

Then a huge blast sounded out, much too close by, and the ceiling above shook harder than ever. Bartley's voice rang out, amplified electronically by a speaker on his exoskeleton: “We are under attack! Everybody hear that? We are under attack!”

The burial chamber shuddered again, and cracks opened across the walls and ceiling.

The three of them ran out together through the treasure room, which was also shaking apart, overturned urns spilling gold and jewels, clay jars shattering and spilling withered leaves and fossilized honey. Weapons tumbled from the cracking walls.

They barely made it out of the secret tunnel before the roof caved in.

Chapter Fourteen

Naomi, Eric, and Iris emerged from below the spider statue into a scene of chaos. A cloud of dust and shattered rock poured out along with them as the underground room collapsed behind them.

Ahead, the gigantic worm had found them, emerging from the same archway their group had, as though it had simply followed them at a distance and waited for a moment to strike.

Bartley was already in close battle with the titanic creature, rolling forward and back, boxing it with his huge hammer and chisel, alternating between left and right.

“That's right!” Bartley shouted, his voice amplified as if he meant to harm the worm with sound, too. “Turn! Turn, you mouthy bastard!”

The worm roared in response, weaving in its attempts to dodge Bartley's big tools. Its lip had turned outward so the shark-like teeth radiated around it.

At the same time, the loader bot stood just beyond Bartley, pushing against the worm's body. It looked like Bartley and the loader had been tasked with trying to turn the worm toward Hagen, who stood by the cement mixer, hose ready.

“It looks...healed?” Eric pointed to the large gap he'd ripped in the worm's mouth earlier. A cross-hatch of leathery material had appeared there, holding the damaged flesh together.

“No,” Naomi said. “Those are stitches.”

Eric wanted to ask who might have done that, but this wasn't the time to pause and reflect.

Nearby, Malvolio stood ahead of Alanna, holding his arms up as though to shield her in case the giant worm strayed too close. Hagen had probably told him to keep the boss safe, to whatever extent the drama-bot could.

“Go join them.” Eric extended the ancient insect helm toward Iris and pointed over to Malvolio. “I have to go help.”

“I can't touch that right now.” Iris held up both her hands, like a vampire who'd just been presented with a cross or a slice of garlic pizza. “Maybe later.”

Eric was annoyed but didn't have time to argue. He tried to hand the helmet off to Naomi instead, but she'd already run over to join Malvolio and Alanna.

Sighing, he wasted precious seconds stiff-legging it over there and depositing the helmet on the ground by Alanna, since nobody seemed to want to hold it. Detour complete, he turned and hobbled toward his exoskeleton as fast as he could.

He climbed into the driver seat, unplugged his leg braces, and plugged into the exoskeleton. He instantly felt the rush of being big and strong again. His arms were finally online, as they should have been with all the time he'd left them alone to restart.

Eric charged toward the worm and stood beside the loader bot, who was trying to shovel the worm sideways. The boxy yellow robot was bent low, excavator-bucket hands extended, trying to get under the worm. Eric pushed with his claw, adding his rig's strength to the effort.

Then he activated the roadheader on his other arm, spinning its spirals of rock-cutting teeth at high speed. He disconnected the tank of river water used to cool and wash the cutting area; he didn't need it to cut through worm flesh, and he needed to conserve what he had left in case there were more tunnels to open ahead.

Besides, the roadheader was already dripping with the alien worm's blood, and it was about to get soaked in it again.

Eric drove the tool into the worm's side. It wasn't nearly as effective as it had been on the soft innards. The outer hide had a tough, pebbly texture that resisted the tool; only small leathery flakes flew off as he tried to dig inside. The worm's rat-tail-sized tentacles flailed at the roadheader, too stumpy to even reach it.

Eric, Bartley, and the loader managed to move the worm until its head was pointed toward Hagen and the cement mixer.

The roadheader broke through the crust of the worm's hide, red blood sprayed Eric like paint, and the worm bellowed.

Hagen raised the hose and unleashed the shotcrete full blast. He filled the roaring maw with the quick-drying stuff, coating the ring of sharp teeth around it.

Wet cement gurgled deep in the worm's throat. It moved its giant head aside to turn away from the stream of shotcrete, but the damage had been done. The worm choked loudly on the cement. Its body shifted from side to side, jerking and convulsing, sending everyone running back and away from it.

Everyone except Hagen. The man stood his ground, graying hair plastered to his head by sweat, the dark bags under his eyes permanent.

Hagen raised the hose, spraying higher so the shotcrete would arc down on top of the worm's head.

Eric remembered the time, not long after he'd arrived on Caldera, when Hagen had taken him out for a beer and a mixed-meat sandwich from the deep fryer at The Tipping Point. The tables at the bar were dirty, but not nearly as dirty as the plates and glassware.

It was after Eric's formal job interview, over in Reamer's office. Reamer had been doubtful about hiring Eric, but something about Eric seemed to impress Hagen; maybe the years Eric had spent driving and wrangling the enormous devilhorn beasts on the ranch, or maybe how Eric could backjack into the mining exoskeletons and instantly use them like he'd had years of practice. Or maybe they were just desperate for workers, which was why even menial jobs on Caldera paid triple what they did on Gideon.

Hagen questioned Eric about his background, school, family, hopes, and dreams in a way that sounded casual on the surface but had probably been systematic, the retired battle-hardened platoon sergeant sounding out his new man. Eric tried to ask about Hagen's time in the war, but Hagen was tight-lipped about that.

“I had a wife,” Hagen had told him, after several glasses of strong whiskey. “Years ago, back on Phoenix. The colony was pretty new, still loyal to Earth, and we didn't see any reason not to stick with the Alliance. Sure, maybe the issue got murky as the war went on...” Hagen shook his head. “We were supposed to deploy to Malb, a rebel stronghold, a rocky hellhole planet. Not as bad as Caldera, if it was peaceful, but the war was hot there. Nobody was looking forward to it.

“We were all lined up, rifles in hands and packs on backs, just waiting to board the shuttle. Then word came down that the deployment had been delayed forty-eight hours because of repairs to the carrier that was supposed to transport us.

“So we cheered, of course—we had a free weekend ahead, and what's better than that when you're twenty-two? I went back to our apartment in family housing, you know, picked some flowers on the way, thinking I'd surprise my wife—you know where this is going, I can see it.” Hagen had drained the rest of his glass. “A good friend of mine, a mechanic, had just been transferred out of our unit six weeks earlier, so he wasn't part of the deployment. The moment he thought I was off-world, he transferred his own unit into my wife's rear—which was now the enemy rear, I realized as I stood in that doorway.

“Later on, I thought of all kinds of clever, sharp insults I could've thrown at them. A thousand different things I coulda shoulda said, while I stood in that doorway looking at them. But at that moment, nothing. I just remembered how she'd cried the night before about my deployment, about how much she worried, and I'd held her and told it would be all right. And all that was just a performance on her part. She couldn't wait for me to go so she could get a piece of Rod. That was his name, Rod Youngston. Bastard.”

“I'm sorry,” Eric had said, uselessly.

“So about this girl of yours back home...Stevie...”

“Suzette.”

“Yeah. What you want to find is a woman who's only got one face. Not two, not three. Not...eleven. Find a woman who tells the truth. And if you find one like that, give me her number.” Hagen had let out a drunken laugh and almost fallen from his stool.

Then Hagen had paid his tab and left, never mentioning anything personal about himself to Eric again.

Now Eric watched Frank Hagen, toughened by a brutal war and a brutal woman. The older man couldn't help grinning like a sugared-up kid as he buried the front few meters of the giant worm in a heap of cement.

“I think that's got him,” Hagen said, lowering the hose. It looked like he'd used up most of the cement.

“That's right!” Bartley shouted, waving his industrial hammer. “Now you're gonna be part of the pavement, you ugly lump of fish bait—”

The worm rose up, somehow managing to lift its head despite the mountain of quick-drying cement atop it. Globs of half-dried cement flew everywhere. Some of it splattered Eric through his exoskeleton's protective head cage. He hurried to wipe off the droplets before they became a permanent feature of his face.

The giant worm plowed through the spot where Hagen had been standing and onward, colliding with the cement truck, flattening the cab and crushing it against the nearest wall.

Then the worm fell still, the concrete finally good and hard around its head. Clouds of dust rose from where it had slammed onto the floor, weighed down by a ton or two of concrete.

“Frank!” Eric shouted, rolling toward the dead worm and the destroyed truck, but it was clear there was no way that Frank Hagen, or any other human being, could have been alive under that mass of concrete and twisted metal.

Chapter Fifteen

Eric and Bartley rolled closer to the massive dead worm, which now looked a bit like a train that had jumped its tracks and slammed into a concrete building. Their lights cut paths of visibility through the dust cloud.

“Hagen?” Bartley shouted. “You dead or what? I was going to kill you myself, you dirty Earther. I'm going to be pissed if some worm beat me to it.”

“You'll have your chance.” Hagen's voice made them jump, not least because it came from an improbable place, somewhere far behind them, nowhere close to the wreckage.

“It's a ghost! Kill it!” Bartley swiveled toward the voice and raised his hammer and chisel. Eric rotated for a look, too.

Malvolio unicycled around from behind the big bug altar at the center of the room, his ratty yellow coat tails fluttering. The smell of burnt rubber hung in the air.

The android carried a very stunned-looking Hagen in his arms, as though the two of them had just gotten hitched and Malvolio was about to toss Hagen onto the honeymoon bed.

“Whoa, good job, drama-bot. How'd you move so fast?” Naomi asked.

“One of my previous owners found my musical and dramatic performances...not exactly to his taste. He amused himself by increasing my speed far beyond factory recommendations, and then having me race other, similarly boosted machines. Once he had me race the outdoor custodial bot, whose main purpose was the collection of canine offal from the lawn.”

“You...never mentioned how fast you were.” Hagen looked pale and seemed to be catching his breath. His thinning hair stuck up all over. “How fast were you going?”

“It varied at the vector changes, of course, but an average of three hundred fifty kilometers per hour. I am capable of higher speed, but I thought it might be uncomfortable for an unshielded human.”

“Yeah. You can put me down now.”

Malvolio gently set Hagen on his feet.

“Why did you never mention it?” Hagen asked.

“I was ashamed to have been altered in such a fashion. I am a performing artist with a repertoire of song, dance, and theater spanning thousands of years. I am not a go-kart.”

“Looks like you got a better deal than you knew on this unit,” Alanna said.

“You need first aid?” Naomi asked Hagen, but he shook his head.

“What I need is fresh air and sunlight,” he said. “But you can't find those on this planet, so I'll settle for getting the hell up to the surface. I believe if we head that way—” He pointed toward one of the four big archways. “—that'll take us close to where Caffey Industries is working. They've got a bigger operation, probably more security. At this point, we just need to get around other people, no matter who they are.”

“We're going to beg Caffey Industries for help?” Alanna asked, with a sour look on her face. “My father will not like that.”

“They don't have to help us, we just have to leave through their exit,” Hagen said.

“I'm sure Bowler Caffey Junior will find a way to make it difficult for us. But that's my problem. I agree we should head for light and civilization, to the extent it exists on this planet. Was this worth it?” Alanna toed the elaborate metal helm with her boot. “Iris? Is it everything you dreamed?”

“Yes,” Iris said, but she spoke quietly now, her hand fidgeting at her side, as if unsure of herself. “It will take an expert from the Society—a xenoarchaeologist or even a true gatekeeper—to confirm it, but I think we really have something here.”

Alanna leaned down, reaching toward the masked helm.

“Don't!” Iris moved to block her. “Eric, can you grab the relic again?”

“Why are you so scared to touch it?” Naomi asked Iris, joining the others who stood over the relic.

“It might have a...this is difficult to explain...an unpredictable reaction to certain treatments I had, when I was still considered a potential gatekeeper.” A flicker of pain crossed her face, but she swallowed it back quickly. “There are trace amounts of exotic metals in my body, in my nervous system, in particular—”

“Nobody ever injected me with any weird metal.” Naomi squatted down to pick up the helm herself.

“Don't—” Iris began, but it was too late, and probably useless on top of that, since Naomi clearly wasn't interested in taking orders from Iris.

Naomi touched the mask with both hands. Her fingers traced the tightly woven threads of metal along the elongated mandible area, and the round eyeholes, following the anatomy of a mantid's head.

“It's no big deal—” Naomi began, and then every muscle in her body seized up as if she'd been electrified.

Naomi's scream echoed off the high walls and the vaulted starry-night ceiling.

Then she snarled like an animal.

Then she changed.

Her jaw dropped, opening impossibly wide, like a snake preparing to feed. Her teeth sharpened, lengthened, and twisted into odd, angular shapes—some hooked, some long and curved like an animal's horn, some flat and sharp like swords. None looked like any tooth Eric had ever seen, and he'd grown up among farm animals and wild beasts.

Naomi's skin shifted from a deep brown hue to a bizarre mottled purple, a color drawn from the world of nightmares. Her flesh became scaly. Her ears grew leathery and fan-shaped, like a bat's; her eyes burned bright red as though filled with magma.

Her boots seemed to vanish as her feet grew longer and wider, tipped with claws. All her clothing was gone, replaced by the scaly midnight-purple skin.

Naomi's hips, stomach, and breasts swelled, approaching the proportions of a prehistoric Venus statue. Her nipples became clusters of hooks, barbs, and blades that would have ripped the face off any baby who tried to nurse on her.

Black bat wings sprouted from her shoulder blades and grew incredibly tall, their tips reaching up to the vaulted ceiling, spreading to blot out the crystal stars above like thunderheads engulfing the night sky.

She let out an ear-splitting screech that didn't sound human at all, more like some kind of predatory bird.

“Separate her!” Iris screamed. “Get her away from the relic!”

Eric and Bartley approached, but they hesitated to grab her with their exoskeleton arms; she might have looked fearsome at the moment, but they didn't want to hurt the real Naomi, wherever she was in there.

Naomi's new monstrous visage turned to face them as they approached, red eyes glowing like pools of lava, her braids twitching and snapping around her face like a crown of vipers. Her black wings kept growing larger and larger, as though she meant to enclose and smother them all.

“What the hell is happening?” Alanna screamed, and her question seemed apt—at the moment, Naomi looked like a towering pregnant demon risen from hell, her jaws ready to devour them all.

Eric and Bartley's slow advance happened to keep her distracted long enough for Hagen to sneak up behind her. He lay a concrete-crusted glove over her still-swelling belly, where the scaly surface rippled and puckered as though a dozen little demon babies were trying to kick their way out.

The Naomi-demon let out another horrible shriek as Hagen pulled her away from the ancient relic.

Naomi shrunk as they toppled to the floor together. By the time they landed in the dust and shattered concrete, she looked normal.

At least, her body and clothing looked normal. Her face looked frozen in shock, eyes unfocused.

Everyone moved closer to her, except Iris, who went for a closer look at the relic instead.

“Naomi?” Bartley asked. “Are you back? How many hot dogs am I holding up?”

His voice seemed to startle her into movement. Naomi sat up, shivering as she looked around at them. Her hair and coveralls were damp with sweat.

“Are you okay?” Hagen asked. “Can you say your name?”

Naomi started again, looked at Hagen kneeling beside her, then scrambled back and away from him, crab-fashion on her hands and feet. She trembled as she stood.

“Naomi.” Eric rolled toward her.

“No.” She held out a hand for him to stop. “Not right now.”

Then she walked behind the dump truck, out of everyone's sight.

“Is she going to be okay?” Alanna asked. “Because we really need to get moving. Somebody toss her in the truck if necessary.” Alanna turned to Iris, who still knelt quietly by the relic, examining it but not touching it.

The relic had changed shape, morphing into the shape of Naomi's fanged monster face, purple and scaly. The long spikes that had protected the mantid's antennae had migrated to the sides of the helmet, turning into rows of short-stubby spikes positioned to protect the fan-shaped, bat-like ears Naomi had briefly sported.

“What just happened?” Alanna asked.

“I don't know.” Iris looked up from the relic to meet her gaze.

“What is this thing? What is it supposed to do?”

“I don't have those answers, either.”

“You brought us down here searching for it,” Alanna said. “You had a secret assignment down here, is that it? You're a spy for the Antikytheran Society?”

“You hired me from the Antikytheran Society,” Iris said. “Your people approached them looking for a top-quality geologist. Which I am. But there was a possibility of discovering a relic like this, yes.”

“Like what?” Alanna snapped. “You say it's of extremely high value to both schools of gatekeepers. Yet you say you have no idea what it is.”

“Exactly, yes.”

A tense silence arose as Alanna and Iris stared at each other. Eric looked for Naomi to check on her. She sat under the bug altar, leaning against one of the mantid statues supporting it, staring off into space.

“If you don't explain yourself, then you, and your weird cursed relic that you're too scared to touch, can walk your way up out of this mine,” Alanna said. “You think I won't fire you and leave you alone in the dark down here? Try me.”

Iris sighed and ran her fingers through her blue-black hair.

“All right,” she said. “Unlike everything else down here, this relic wasn't created by the mantids. One mantid—from the looks of the body after we removed it, it was originally just a small mantid, maybe one of the working-caste ones— obviously found this relic and used its power to make himself a god-king among his species, ruler of the gray-mantid civilization.”

“What power?” Alanna asked, her ears practically perking up at the word, like a dog hearing someone mention food.

“Like I said, I don't know what it's really supposed to do,” Iris said. “I can tell you it was made by the ancients, the same ones who built the wormhole gates, who connected all these habitable systems together across impossible distances. We don't know how long they've been gone, or why they vanished, but we think it's been a hundred thousand years or more. Aside from the wormhole gates, we've found only a few scattered relics of the ancients. But like the gates themselves, these relics possess powers and capabilities we barely understand. It's imperative they be collected and studied. I told you the Antikytheran Society is devoted to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. We have no higher priority than finding whatever technology of the ancients that we can.”

“And what happens when somebody decides to use these old relics and their powers to make himself god-king of the humans?” Hagen asked. “Is that possible?”

“It's a very real danger,” Iris said. “That's one reason these relics must be found, gathered up, and placed under control.”

“Under whose control?” Hagen asked.

“The Antikytheran Society. Of course.” Iris looked annoyed with him.

“All right,” Alanna said. “Your gatekeeper masters may have you on some secret mission here, but that relic belongs to me. Not your Society. This is my claim, and I spent a lot of cash securing it. You are here as my employee or not at all, Iris. Understood?”

Iris nodded. “Yes, ma'am,” she whispered, meek and quiet again, looking down at her boots. Alanna gave a curt nod, as though this show of submission satisfied her.

“One more question,” Alanna said. “Why did you want Eric to pick up the relic, but not Naomi?”

“Women are typically more sensitive to the technology of the ancients. Most gatekeepers are women. There's an intuitive aspect to the interface. We hesitate to call it 'psychic.' But there was less risk in having a male come in contact with the relic.”

“But there was a risk?” Eric asked. “Of me turning into a kilometer-high snarling demon like Naomi?”

“She got better,” Iris pointed out.

“So wrap it up and throw it into the dump truck,” Alanna said. “And move out, back to the surface. Finally.”

Hagen removed his jacket and bundled up the masked helmet inside it. Then Eric lifted the bundle with his clamp, much less worried about damaging the ancient relic than he had been before learning it was brimming with strange and possibly dangerous powers. After what they'd just seen, he would've preferred to leave it behind—but technically, it did belong to Alanna and her family. Eric just worked here.

As he deposited the relic into the dumping bed of the dump truck, another rumble sounded above, and dust puffed out from one of the archways. Scraping and dragging echoed from there.

Something was approaching.

Eric and Bartley rolled slowly toward it, ready to use their exoskeletons to try and grapple with whatever came next. Naomi finally stood, looking toward the sound, and walked back over to rejoin the group, quietly seeking safety in numbers.

The scraping, rasping sound grew louder and closer. Finally, a form shambled out of the shadowy archway, dragging pieces of itself, several of its antennae snapped and sensors hanging loose and broken.

The little porcupine-shaped scouting drone was battered, beaten, and scorched, but it was still working, and it had finally found its way back to them.

Chapter Sixteen

“Little guy made it!” Bartley said, while Naomi picked up the small, badly injured crawling robot. “I thought it he was a goner. A long goner.”

“He'll need to charge,” Naomi said. She carried the porcupine to the dump truck cab. The porcupine extended its tail-like charging cable from its rear end and plugged into a dashboard charger. Then it curled up like a sleepy cat inside the grimy windshield and fell still, contentedly sucking power from the truck's fuel cell.

“Eric, I didn't tell you everything,” Naomi said. She didn't seem to care that everyone could hear her, despite the privacy of the subject she was raising. “Taryn wasn't my first son. He was my second. Arris was my first.”

“Oh,” Eric said, feeling everyone's eyes turning on them. “What...happened to the first one?”

“Nothing. Except when he was three years old, his baby brother died. Then his mother ran away and never came back. That's all that happened to him.” Naomi looked steadily into Eric's eyes, her jaw set, her eyes wrung out and red from crying, but her crying was done. “I broke after the new baby died. I ran. My son doesn't know where I am. He was three when I left. Seven by now. What you all just saw? That's who I am on the inside. The evil mother. The monster mother who destroys her children.”

Everyone was quiet for a minute, and then Hagen said: “I can tell you one thing, Naomi. That mask might have shown us how you see yourself, but it wasn't showing the truth. Those are two different things.”

“What matters is what I did to my little boy, abandoning him like that. It's unforgivable.”

“I am sorry you have all these bad memories,” Alanna said, her tone indicating that she was trying to sound sympathetic, but it was taking her a real effort to do so. “We have to get moving, though. Urgently.”

Naomi nodded.

Then the huge worm, its anterior end encased in a now-solid mountain of concrete, twitched and shifted where it lay on the floor. Much of its length was still beyond the archway where it had entered; they had yet to see its far end.

“Oh, hell, no! You stay down!” Bartley shouted. He and Eric veered away from the archway where the porcupine had emerged and rolled toward the worm instead.

“It can't still be alive,” Eric said. “Can it?”

“Loader, Malvolio, get ready for a fight,” Hagen said. Malvolio raised his hands in karate-chop fashion.

The boxy yellow bot, still standing by the fallen worm, swiveled its head toward Hagen, then raised and lowered its arms in a shrug. “Load?”

“Right, you don't have combat software.” Hagen removed his screen from his pocket and expanded the clear plastic display screen by pulling two opposing corners apart. “I'm going to take manual control of you for a bit, okay, buddy?”

“Loading.” The robot swiveled its head back toward the twitching, shifting worm and raised its excavator-bucket hands.

As Bartley and Eric drew close, the big worm rocked from side to side.

Two more worms crawled out of the archway, one atop the giant worm and one alongside it. The giant worm wasn't coming back to life, it was getting jostled by new arrivals. These two were smaller in diameter, but each one was still as thick as a rhinoceros. Eric felt his blood go cold at the sight of them.

The two worms blindly nudged along the length of the huge dead one, repeatedly bumping it with their heads as if trying to awaken it.

Everyone in the room froze, watching, waiting. Eric didn't dare breathe, afraid the slight noise might draw their attention to him. He would prefer if they decided to turn away and leave quietly; the last thing he wanted was to try and survive another fight with these monsters.

One raised its head and flipped its lip outward so that long, sharp teeth radiated out around its maw. It let out a wailing bellow, higher-pitched than the giant worm's had been.

A moment later, the other worm did the same, flipping out its teeth before emitting a high-pitched wail.

“Are they...mourning the big one?” Naomi whispered.

“They're calling for help. Attack!” Hagen shouted. He turned his attention to the transparent screen in his hands, using his thumbs to control the yellow loader bot. The bot closed up its bucket-hands into fists and punched the nearest of the two new worms, the one that lay alongside the huge dead worm.

The worm recoiled at the impact. While it gave no sign of retreating, it at least ceased bellowing for a moment. It turned toward the loader bot, which dealt it another solid wallop. The worm rocked back, then swayed like a cobra, weirdly reminding Eric of a boxer in a ring.

Bartley struck the same worm with his industrial hammer, slamming the worm back into the wall.

“Come at me again!” Bartley shouted, retracting the thick steel battering ram. “I can do this all night.”

Eric activated his roadheader and reached toward the second worm, the one on top of the huge dead one. The roadheader's dozens of steel teeth spun, ready to chew and destroy. But the worm pulled back, swaying like the other one, staying out of reach.

“What are you waiting for?” Eric shouted. “Come at me!”

The worm stiffened, and a series of crashing metallic clangs sounded from beyond the archway, from the portion of the worm's body Eric couldn't see.

It took Eric a moment to process what happened next.

A wave of metallic dinner-sized plates washed over the worm, like an ocean wave crashing on the beach. Each plate seemed to find its own predetermined spot and then lock into place. Scores of the plates surrounded the worm, connecting to each other like intelligent puzzle pieces, creating a spiked metallic shell.

“Armor,” Eric said, but his voice was too quiet for anyone to hear over all the clanging, self-directed armor plates. So he switched on his suit's speakers and shouted: “Armor! They've got armor!”

Something similar happened to the worm battling Bartley and the loader. A dozen or more long, thin, segmented metal snakes—similar to the one that had drilled a hole in Eric's cheek—slithered up along the worm's body on all sides. They attached themselves to the tiny rat-tail tentacles dotting the worm's hide.

Suddenly the worm had more than a dozen robotic tentacles, each one several meters long, extending its reach and strength just as Eric's exoskeleton arms did for him.

Eric had no time to indulge in his shock that the worms possessed advanced tech, because the big alien beasts immediately went on the warpath.

The first worm lashed its metal tentacle-extenders at the loader and Bartley, coiling around every limb of the big robot and the hulking exoskeleton. One tentacle coiled around Bartley's protective head cage, and another probed at the treads supporting him.

“Uh-oh.” Bartley put it in reverse, but the powerful robotic tentacles held him in place.

The loader bot was completely caught, too, despite Hagen's desperate remote-control attempts to get it free. Hagen's thumbs flew up and down all over his screen. His face was sweaty, his eyes bulging.

At the same time, the plated worm finally decided to fight Eric, a convenient choice now that it was heavily armored.

The plated worm lunged down toward him, turning to broadside him with its armored shell. Eric's rig shuddered hard at the impact, and his teeth clattered together.

Eric attacked the worm with the weapons he had, bashing it with the clamp arm, then slamming the spiraling cutting teeth of the roadheader into the worm's side.

A storm of sparks and metallic screeches erupted where the roadheader attempted to dig into the armor. The device was designed for cutting tunnels in rock, and it had managed to penetrate the first giant worm's tough hide, but Eric wasn't surprised to find it wasn't very effective against armor that was advanced enough to crawl into place on its own.

With a thought, Eric shut down his clamp arm and his treads, diverting all his exoskeleton's power to the spinning drum of the roadheader. He pushed it far past its top-rated speed, brushing away the suit's automatic safety and shutdown protocols.

A layer of glowing red formed at the contact point between spinning roadheader and armor plate. Red-hot steel teeth popped off the roadheader, flying here and there across the vaulted cavern. The teeth that remained turned to glowing, molten mush.

He pressed the red-hot spinning tool forward, determined to do at least some sort of damage to the worm while he could, hoping he could puncture at least one armor plate.

And it worked.

His roadheader attachment pressed forward, crushing hot, soft metal inward against wormflesh. The worm screeched and recoiled, wriggling back atop the giant-worm carcass.

“That's the brand of the double-R ranch on Gideon,” Eric said. He could imagine the double wrought-iron R's on the front gate—for Roy Rowan, his father.

The sound of bending, twisting metal grated on his ears. The worm with the tentacle-extenders was prying Bartley's rig apart, pulling it in all directions, stressing and snapping it, breaking it down bolt by bolt, screw by screw. Another minute and Bartley would be completely exposed, and the worm's tentacles would be able to strangle Bartley to death, or maybe rend him limb from limb, quartering him like a medieval criminal.

“I'm going to get killed by a giant freaky sex toy,” Bartley said, shaking his head at the many-tentacled alien worm dismembering his rig. “Grandma was right.”

The loader wasn't getting torn apart, not yet, but half a dozen steel tentacles held it in place, rendering it useless. Hagen swore again and again as he worked the remote control app, trying to get the robot to budge.

A rattling sounded above Eric, like one of the railroads that crossed the immense green prairies back home.

A roughly cylindrical arrangement of long metallic tubes, curved and twisted together, embedded in some kind of brownish rock, clattered toward him down a ridge in the worm's armor, exactly like a train on a track. The construction of the device, whatever it was, seemed asymmetrical, sloppy somehow, in a way that almost bothered Eric's eyes to look at.

The twisted tube-cluster swung toward Eric as it approached. He saw the tips of seven metal tubes—different sizes, unevenly spaced from each other, held together by some kind of concrete—pointed toward him, glowing an intense bright blue.

Seven tiny streams of blue light flowed out of the tubes and joined together to form a single bright blue cutting laser as thick as Eric's arm.

The laser lopped off Eric's glowing red roadheader attachment, which fell and clanked to the floor beside him. Eric barely had time to duck before the laser sliced through the cage that protected his head. He still had his mining helmet on, but he doubted that would protect him from the cutting beam.

The destruction of his suit created warning signals that flooded his nervous system like peals of electric guitar feedback, only less pleasant.

While Eric tried to get his suit responsive and under control again, the massive blue laser continued onward, hacking apart the sculpted mantids holding up the altar and idol at the center of the room. The entire sculpture came crashing down in a heap of rocks that glowed like burning coal along their cut edges.

Eric realized the worm was only destroying the altar to open a direct path to the area near the spider statue, where Iris stood with Naomi, Hagen, Alanna, and Malvolio. The group ducked and ran, seeking shelter in the next archway over, closer to the bat statue that hung upside from the high ceiling.

The beam hit the spider statue first, cutting its rock legs out from under it. The spider fell in chunks into the cavity below, filling the tunnel to the treasure room with even more rubble.

Eric tried to focus through the distress signals running all through his exoskeleton. He grunted as he managed to lift the one intact arm, but he couldn't get a response from the clamp at the end, couldn't get it to open or close.

A few meters away, Bartley yelled as his exoskeleton was finally torn apart around him. He leaped out from the seat and planted his heavy boots atop the tentacled worm. All of its tentacles were too wrapped up to immediately grab him.

Bartley bounded up onto the huge dead worm, and from there onto the armor-plated back of the worm with the big cutting laser.

He grabbed the rock-and-metal device that was firing the laser and wrenched it around, stretching and pulling the worm's stubby pink tentacle, which was inserted into the back of the worm's laser cannon.

Bartley pointed the laser upward so it wouldn't cut through the people in their group—but this dug a huge trench in the ceiling, and cracks spread outward from it. Chunks of rock rained down in the wake of the laser while Bartley swept it onward.

He brought it lower after passing the archway where the group huddled. He inadvertently cut the huge bat from its roost, sending it crashing to the floor and shattering.

Finally, he reached his target, the tentacled worm that had just ripped up his exoskeleton. He dropped the beam right through it, completely severing the worm's head.

The worm's front segment rolled away, trailing blood, its robotic tentacles whipping madly in every direction. Its head whipped from side to side, outward-pointing teeth threatening to skewer anyone who came too close, dangerous even in its death throes.

At the same time, the worm's headless body rose, bleeding, a gory cross-section of the creature revealed. Eric saw pulsing organs that might have been a heart and a lung among the viscera.

On top of the plated worm, Bartley drew a long knuckle knife from his boot and sliced through the tentacle that was plugged into the back of the laser cannon.

The laser beam vanished. The plated worm twisted its head around, roaring and lunging at Bartley with its ring of outward-pointing teeth.

“This way!” Naomi shouted. Eric glanced back and saw her holding up the little marshmallow of plastic explosive with the pin-sized detonator stuck inside. She just needed the worm's big mouth to turn in her direction.

Something else rattled its way forward along the track on the worm's back. Long, thin, and automatically hammering while spinning at high speed, the device was plainly a rock drill, not wildly different from the one Eric used every day.

Like the laser cannon, the drill was built artlessly, asymmetrical, mounted in careless blobs of concrete and rock.

The worm's drill rattled along the track toward Bartley, while the laser cannon moved out of the way, back along a kind of switch track.

“Bartley, get behind me!” Eric shouted. Eric's exoskeleton might have been on its last legs, but Bartley's was already destroyed, leaving him completely unprotected.

“On my way!” Bartley leaped out of the path of the oncoming drill, landed on the floor, and dodged behind Eric's rig.

The worm charged down at Eric, curving its body to attack him from two sides. The thundering, spinning drill came at him from one side, while the worm's roaring, tooth-ringed mouth came at him from the other.

Eric lifted his clamp-hand and managed to block the worm's drill for the moment. The tip of the drill burned into Eric's clamp, sending showers of sparks and violent shudders through the barely functioning exoskeleton. The clamp arm wasn't going to hold up long.

The worm's open maw came at him over the wreckage of the roadheader. The exoskeleton's arm on that side had been sheared into nothing but a sharply angled, laser-cut stump, glowing red along the edge.

Eric could smell the breath from the worm's approaching mouth. Like the other worm, it smelled like rotten meat, like roadkill bloated on a highway in the summer sun, crawling with maggots.

The worm's head was too low and too close to Eric; there was no way for Naomi to lob the plastic explosive at the worm because Eric and his exoskeleton blocked the way. He needed to move the worm somehow.

Eric spotted the one blackened, damaged armor plate where he'd burned through with the roadheader, making brief but clearly painful contact with the wormflesh beneath. He had one opening, and he took it.

He jabbed the sharp stump of his exoskeleton arm forward like a hot poker drawn from the fireplace. If he missed his mark, hit the worm anywhere except the exact spot where he'd already done some damage, he was dead. The worm's teeth were rushing toward him, ready to eat his face.

The sharp, red-hot tip of the arm gouged through the blackened armor plate. Eric felt it sink into thick flesh beyond, heard it sizzling, smelled the frying blood.

The worm drew back and rose up, its maw flaring wide in a long howl that echoed off the walls. It looked like it was preparing to swoop down and chomp Eric's head off.

Bartley hacked off one of the slain worm's tentacles with his knife. He raised a long robotic tentacle-extender in triumph. Then he howled as he ran toward the remaining worm with it and whipped it forward.

The long robotic tentacle avoided striking the plated worm, and instead coiled back around Bartley and bound his arms to his sides like a straitjacket.

“Aw, damn it,” Bartley said. “This thing's all tangled somehow.”

“I think you set off a security program!” Iris shouted at Bartley. She and Hagen had dashed over to the loader and were trying to disentangle it from the dead worm's grasping robotic tentacle-extenders.

“Naw, these worms aren't smart enough for that,” Bartley said. “You're giving 'em too much credit. It's just randomly slapping around.”

The tip of the tentacle coiled around Bartley's ankles and snapped his feet out from under him, sending him crashing into the worm entrails that coated the floor from the worm he'd sliced open.

At the same time, something shot over Eric's head at high speed, a blurry white streak that flew into the roaring worm's flared mouth.

Eric looked back to see Naomi holding a detonator remote in her hand. Beside her, Malvolio stood frozen in an exaggerated baseball pitcher's pose, one arm far forward, one foot way back. Naomi had used the robot as a targeting-and-launch device to hit the rapidly moving worm.

The recorded sound of thousands of people applauding, cheering, and whistling erupted from Malvolio. “That's what we call a real ham-dinger, folks,” proclaimed a very nasal old-timey announcer's voice. “Hold on to your fedoras.”

“Fire in the hole!” Naomi shouted. Then she clicked the button.

The worm's head exploded. As the monster was rampant, towering above Eric, this meant Eric was immediately bathed in a shower of bright red blood, shark-sized teeth, and mixed gray and white gore, probably the worm's brain. The worm certainly did have a lot of brains, Eric thought, as the milky ruins of them came pouring down all over him.

Eric, coated in the innards of more than one giant worm, had finally had enough. He detached his back jack from the wrecked exoskeleton—it was fizzling out now, anyway, all its systems offline, every part of it damaged, ready for the scrapyard.

He stumbled down out of the seat, leaned against the exoskeleton, and unceremoniously said good-bye to his rig by vomiting on it. Fortunately, he hadn't eaten in hours, so there wasn't much. The machine was dripping in guts, anyway; adding a few of his own made no real difference.

“Is that it?” Alanna stepped from behind the dump truck, where she'd taken cover. “Is it over?”

“At this point, we should assume these tunnels are completely infested with man-eating worms packing major weaponry,” Hagen said. He wiped a black splatter of what might have been worm gizzard off his face.

“Tools,” Eric said. “The drill, the cutter laser. The tentacles. Those were mining tools. We haven't seen their actual weapons yet.”

“Yeah, it came after me with a drill.” Bartley lay on the sticky floor, struggling to escape the robotic tentacle. “Anyone want to give me a hand here? Naomi?”

“Gotcha.” Naomi squatted beside him to help. She was acting calmer now, focused on the tasks at hand. Blowing up the big worm seemed to have improved her mood.

“I certainly don't want to wait around and find out what their actual weapons can do,” Alanna said.

“Everyone, load up,” Hagen said. “Triple-time, before their friends show up and want revenge.”

They left in a hurry, expecting another attack any moment.

With Malvolio in the lead to watch for danger and obstructions, they drove up the tunnel that would take them close to the highly developed Caffey Industries mining operation, where there would be hundreds of people.

The dump truck followed, with the loader bot in its usual place up front, steering the truck through the tunnel. Alanna and Iris rode in the cab.

With the cement mixer and exoskeletons destroyed, Eric, Bartley, and Hagen had to ride in the dumping bed of the dump truck, together with lots of rock dust and the dangerous, bundled-up relic. Naomi followed close behind, her scouter battered by some rocks Bartley had carved out of the ceiling, but still in working order.

They looked like war refugees, filthy and bloody, bounced and jostled in the back of a truck rolling through darkness. They didn't speak, wishing to stay as quiet as possible to avoid more attention from the worms. They kept their lights dim and minimal.

The surface waited somewhere ahead. Eric was exhausted, but fear kept him awake, kept him watching the dim shadows of the tunnel, waiting for more horrors.

Far behind them, the large chamber with its secrets of a lost civilization lay in ruins, the statues carved up by the worm's laser or crushed under fallen rocks. The treasure room and the bug-pharaoh's sarcophagus chamber were buried under their collapsed ceiling, turned to rubble by someone blasting their way down. And it now appeared that it might not be Caffey Industries at all, but the worms themselves who'd been blasting and digging above them this whole time.

He wondered where the worms had come from and why they were here. Maybe, like the humans on Caldera, there were gathering up heavy metals like gold and platinum, raw material for their wormy electronics and wormy industries.

Or maybe, like the gatekeepers, they knew about the lost relics of the ancients, and they were searching for the one that was here in the dump truck with them, about a meter away from where he sat, pushed into a corner and pinned there with volcanic rock fragments. If so, the worms would probably be back, as soon as they figured out the humans had taken the relic.

Somewhere ahead, Eric told himself, waited human civilization. Soon they would emerge onto the surface and leave this hellish nightmare underworld behind.

Chapter Seventeen

“What the hell happened here?” Bartley murmured, looking over the wall of the dump truck's bed. They'd had a long, bumpy, extremely unpleasant ride up. Eric, Bartley, and Hagen had spent most of the time getting slammed around. A layer of rock dust clung to the layer of worm blood that coated Eric, and all of it slowly mixed into a dark, foul sludge.

They'd made it out of the old mantid complex alive. A huge round tunnel that looked freshly bored had let them up to the cavernous workspace of the Caffey Industries operation.

While their mine was little more than a series of early-development exploratory tunnels, the Caffey operation was far more established, with conveyor belts running to and from rock crushers and other machines that broke down the raw rock, separating out much of the slag before the more valuable materials were sent to the refineries downriver. The dump trucks here were the size of apartment blocks, with hulking Goliath-sized loader bots attached on the rear. The mining exoskeletons were not as bulky and aged as those Eric and Bartley had used.

It was a massive operation.

And it had been completely destroyed.

Most of the regular lights were out, but a number of dim red emergency lights still glowed, independently powered by their own batteries.

By this hellish red light, they could see the destruction of the trucks and all the other equipment. It looked as though a fiery hurricane had swept through, torching and throwing everything.

“Where is everybody?” Eric asked.

“If they were smart, they ran out of here as fast as they could,” Hagen said.

They rode through the devastation. Walls were blown out and portions of the ceiling had collapsed. Severed wires and cables lay strewn across the floor. Had there been any power, the wires would have been sparking and hissing, creating a major electrocution hazard.

The dump truck couldn't move very fast, navigating through so much devastation. It slowed to a crawl as it approached the wreckage of what had been an area with offices and a small cafeteria or break room. The shattered remnants of Penguin Soda and Quickie-Burger vending machines lay among the debris.

Here, the dump truck braked completely.

“Why are we stopping?” Bartley asked. “We shouldn't be stopping until there's open sky overhead. And I don't see any happy smog-filled clouds around here.”

The cab door of the dump truck opened, and Alanna and Iris both stepped out.

“What's the problem?” Naomi asked. She pulled around from the back of the truck and braked near Alanna. “I don't see anything blocking the way.”

“Just a quick stop,” Alanna said.

“The porcupine will explain,” Iris said. The little robot, recharged after the long drive up but still badly in need of repairs, poked its head up in the cab window like a dog on a road trip, snout sensors twitching. “Play the video you showed us, and zoom in on the part we pinpointed.”

The porcupine opened its mouth, or at least a small hatch on the underside of the snout that looked like a mouth. A cone of intense bright light projected from it, illuminating the area with white light, much brighter than the dull red emergency strips.

“The blood,” Naomi whispered. “It's everywhere.”

Eric could see it—under the white light, it was clear that red streaks and smears were all over the damaged, burnt wreckage all around them. It wasn't just a scene of fire and destruction; it had been a massacre.

“Where are all the bodies?” Bartley asked.

“Eaten,” Eric said, glancing at the shattered walls. “Eaten by worms.”

“There must be a hundred of the bastards,” Bartley said. “I say we go up top, grab a couple of plasma cannons, then come back down and do some worm hunting.”

“Come back? Are you crazy?” Naomi asked.

“These worms are crazy if they think they're going to get away with this!” Bartley said.

“Loader, over here.” Alanna snapped her fingers and pointed at a heap of rubble where the offices had been. “Start digging.”

“Loading.” The robot detached from the dump truck and shambled over to join her. He scooped up double fistfuls of broken ceiling tiles and fragments of flimsy particle-plastic tables, then turned to drop them into the dumping bed, where Eric still stood with Bartley and Hagen. “Unloading.”

“Hey, not here!” Eric shouted, holding up his hands to protect his head against the debris heaped in the loader's bucket hands.

“Unloading?” the robot asked.

“I don't know.” Eric pointed to the burned-out husk of a Caffey dump truck nearby. “Unload into that truck instead. Just not on top of us.”

The robot turned to cooperate.

“Uh...are you guys watching this?” Naomi asked.

Eric turned his attention back to the porcupine's projection. It was a big hologram, floating above the ground, about a few meters on each side, showing data the little roving drone had collected while it was apart from them.

It showed the same room in which they now stood, but in a very different condition; scores of workers in orange mining helmets and red jumpsuits with the Caffey Industries logo crowded the area, while rocky ore poured in from multiple directions to be crushed and processed. It was likely the lowest level of the Caffey operation; workers at higher levels would drop raw rock down shafts to be processed, saving the energy cost of transporting dead slag to the surface.

The walls began to rupture, and armor-plated worms burst into the room from the walls. One worm even crashed down through the ceiling, raining rocks onto the miners below.

The viewpoint shifted; apparently the porcupine-bot had turned its head. The spot where Eric and the others had just emerged came into view, but it was a solid wall in the hologram, with a rack of tools standing against it.

There was a crash and the tool rack toppled over as the wall ruptured behind it.

Then something emerged that looked like the biggest, craziest roadheader Eric had ever seen. Dozens of spirals of metallic cutting teeth spun on every side of it at once, the cutting drums arranged over a long, cylindrical shape.

It took Eric a moment to realize that that the cylindrical shape wasn't a mechanical frame at all. As the head of it emerged from the perfectly circular tunnel it had just carved through the rock, he realized it was another giant worm, its front end completely covered in rows of drums, each drum with scores of whirling metal cutting teeth. It opened its jaws and roared, as if to announce its arrival or the completion of its tunnel, revealing rings of sharky teeth lining its muscular red throat.

The immense roadheader-worm swayed its head from side to side, then withdrew into the tunnel and out of sight.

Less than a minute later, a dozen more armor-plated worms, nearly as big as the last two they'd faced, came boiling up out of the new tunnel.

The mine workers ran and screamed as the monsters slithered out. Some of the big worms began chomping and tearing into the people, as if they'd been starving and just stumbled into a buffet.

Other worms raised metallic, rock-encrusted tubes on their backs and fired balls of glowing plasma, igniting the heavy machinery, burning people alive.

“Fast forward to the pinpointed part,” Alanna said, glancing over her shoulder. The loader bot had almost cleared the wreckage from the mine's offices and cafeteria.

The holographic recording zipped forward in time and zoomed in on a smarmy-looking twentyish man in a tailored suit. He ran inside a solid mahogany door at the end of the row of offices—all the other offices had clear glass doors, so this was the only office offering privacy, a sure sign of high rank among executive types. He slammed the door just as the ceiling crashed down in a heap of burning debris, trapping him inside.

In the real, non-recorded world, the loader bot backed up with a series of warning beeps, hauling out double fistfuls of hardwood flooring and paneling, high-end materials not found in the rest of the mine. The cafeteria had been flimsy plastic tables and ceiling tiles that looked like styrofoam; the young man's office was full of broken Tiffany lamps and gold-leaf fixtures, all of it now headed for the scrapyard.

“Did somebody hide a luxury hotel suite down here?” Hagen asked, lifting an eyebrow at this new flavor of wreckage. He climbed out of the dump truck.

“This is Bowler Caffey Junior's office,” Alanna said. “Which probably includes a private marble bathroom with a hydrospa and massage table. And probably a separate bedroom for screwing assorted female employees.”

“You seem to know a lot about his office layouts,” Naomi said.

“We know all about the Caffey family,” Alanna told her. “Probably more than they know about each other, because they don't have a team of private investigators watching each other round the clock. If they did, our team of investigators would know about it. That family has a walk-in closet crammed full of skeletons. Hell, a whole storage facility full of them.”

“Unloading,” the loader bot announced, clearing away the last remnants of an entire wall. What lay beyond looked like some kind of gentleman's club, dark wood paneling and gold leaf fixtures under broken chandeliers, picture-window frames surrounding cracked screens. There was even a wet bar in one corner, all of its bottles and crystalware shattered into sparkling heaps.

“Looks like the right place.” Alanna stepped into the mostly intact office. “No surprise Bowler Junior's office was the most secure room down here. Notice how the other offices and the employee cafeteria were completely caved in, but this ceiling is fine. I bet there's a cross-hatch of tungsten beams up there.”

Then she walked toward another mahogany door at the back of the room and tried the handle, but it was locked. She knocked. “Hey, Porkscrew! Did you fall in? Or just wet yourself? I bet you wet yourself, didn't you?”

“This is a waste of time,” Bartley said. “We're sitting here like a bunch of fat ducks in a narrow barrel, just waiting to get attacked while Princess Peach plays around with her rich buddy.”

“Then let's stop wasting time ourselves,” Hagen told him. “Let's go to the security office and see if we can find anything in the armory.”

“Now you're talking English!” Bartley leaped down to the blood-smeared rock floor, clearly cheered by the idea of searching for weapons.

Eric climbed down slowly—no enthusiastic leaping for him—and searched the rubble with the others. He couldn't help watching the scene in the executive office from the corner of his eye.

The heavy door opened, revealed a gaudy marble and gold-leaf bathroom, just as Alanna had predicted. It was the young man from the video, still in his tailored suit but with his tie loosened and his perfectly styled hair disheveled. He staggered out like a drunk meeting the sunrise after a rough night.

“Oh, Satan's red-hot balls,” Bowler Caffey Junior groaned, rubbing his bloodshot eyes. “I escape the giant snake monsters just to get hunted down by a psycho ex-girlfriend.”

“I'm not hunting you down, Bowler,” Alanna said. “I'm rescuing you. And I'm only doing that because I know how much it humiliates you.”

“They really tore the place up.” He shook his head at the devastation. “Those are some seriously huge aliens. And where the hell is Maverick Emergency Systems? This place should be crawling with guys in combat suits and medics with ambulances.”

“Maverick never showed up to our mine, either,” Alanna said. “We'll have to reconsider our contract with them. By which I mean sue their asses and fire-bomb their offices. Then their houses. And salt the earth where they stood.”

“Do you think maybe the big snakes took out their headquarters? Up on the surface? In the middle of Canyon City?” Bowler asked.

“We've been calling them worms,” Alanna said.

“They look like giant alien dicks to me,” Bowler said. “Giant dicks fucking shit up, leaving blown-out holes everywhere.”

“Well, that just gave us way too much insight into what goes on inside your mind,” Alanna said. “I can't believe I dated you for more than an hour. Get your ass in the back of that truck if you're coming.”

“The back of a dump truck?” Bowler Junior looked horrified.

“Or you can walk,” she suggested.

Hagen stepped out of the security office wreckage carrying a chunky plasma rifle, black and yellow to reflect the Hornet brand, smeared from stock to barrel with fresh red blood. “Looks like somebody didn't get much of a chance to use this. Nine bolts left. The rest of the weaponry's cleaned out—the security officers must have taken it when they left.”

“Or else the guns got swallowed up when the worms ate the security guys,” Bartley said, stepping out from the armory empty-handed and looking annoyed.

“Let's hope the plasma gives them some deadly heartburn, then,” Hagen said.

“Meanwhile, I'll be fighting the damn worms with sticks and stones,” Bartley grumbled.

Eric moved away from the others, hobbling toward a fire-scarred truck that lay on its side, its windshield shattered, the cab a molten crater. He wasn't interested in the truck's front end, though.

His heartbeat picked up as he circled to the back. One of the two rear cargo doors lay wide open, as though inviting him to peer into the darkness within.

The huge logo on the outside of the truck had drawn his attention—Arenson Intergalactic Mechanix. “Intergalactic” was a gigantic overstatement, since human exploration, even hyperaccelerated by the wormhole gates connecting far-flung systems, had never reached beyond the local galactic arm, much less into other galaxies.

Despite their hyperbolic name, Arenson was indeed an interplanetary presence, best known for their flagship exoskeletal chassis. The company had originally developed combat mech suits during the war, later branching into extravehicle-operations suits, and mech suits specialized for asteroid exploration, construction, and mining, among other uses.

By comparison, Eric and Bartley had been using obsolete BodgerTech U300 underground mining suits, sluggish and bulky, but definitely cheap.

Eric barely allowed himself to hope as he dropped to his knees—not an easy move for him—and peered into back of the truck, his mining helmet illuminating the interior.

He couldn't help taking a sharp breath at what he saw.

“What's happening, brother?” Bartley approached him, glancing at the logo on the truck. “Anything good in there?”

“Nothing,” Eric said. Then he scrambled into the truck on all fours, moving as fast as he could, his leg braces clanging against the aluminum wall on which he crawled.

There might have been several new mining rigs in the original shipment, but only one remained now, still half-shrouded in bubble wrap.

ACE-M4000 was painted in fiery letters along one arm of the exoskeleton. The string of letters and numbers brought a smile to Eric's lips: Arenson Compact Exoskeleton, mining series, model 4000. The latest in mining rigs.

Anyone could understand the word painted down the opposite arm: Dragonfly.

“Hey!” Bartley leaned down at the door, still outside the toppled truck. “Don't tell me you found a brand-new Arnie in there.”

“Finders, keepers.” Eric reached the sleek blue machine, unhooked his cable from his leg braces, and plugged in.

He was worried that he'd encounter steep security barriers, but instead the brand-new rig invited him to create a user profile and a password, then had him set up security questions.

First pet's name? the rig's system asked, its voice soft and feminine in his ears.

Ballser, Eric replied with a thought. He imagined the German shepherd pup with a serious fetch addiction. Eric had been five when the puppy had arrived, licking him all over the face. When Eric was eight, poor Ballser strayed too far from the house and fell prey to a prairie lion, the hulking saber-toothed, green-furred cat that stalked the oceans of high grasses on Gideon.

As his nervous system integrated with the suit, he shivered with a kind of visceral pleasure as he instantly became a stronger, faster entity.

The exoskeleton closed into place around him, section by section. The Arenson had a sleek, slim chassis, in which he stood upright rather than sitting on a plastic seat. It was actually more comfortable than the old suit, though; the head, back, and leg supports were padded and slightly reclined. Eric could easily imagine pulling fourteen-hour shifts in this machine without batting an eye.

“It's a Dragonfly,” Eric said as he walked out of the truck, the hefty feet of the suit denting the inner wall of the truck with every step. He rose full upright and looked down on Bartley. The suit raised Eric's height by half a meter.

“Yeah, I noticed.” Bartley read the writing on the arms.

“And look. Five-fingered hands. Thumbs and everything.” Eric reached a long pair of robotic arms toward Bartley. “They're so precise, I can pick your nose from here.” He moved one of the mech suit's hands close to Bartley's face, extending the index finger.

“Sick!” Bartley dodged back. “Fucking weirdo. Get that thing out of my face.”

“Don't be jealous,” Eric said. Then he unfolded the two lower arms, which had been folded away behind him. The lower pair of arms reached around either side of his abdomen, just above his hips. They were smaller and shorter than the upper pair, each tipped with a rotating selection of small tools. The Dragonfly was the first non-combat four-armed suit.

“Jealous? You look like one of the ugly mummy bugs. And you know you're not even close to rated on one of those new suits. It requires a six-month certification course.” Bartley pointed to the four-joystick control panel, inset with four screens scrolling data at illegibly high speed. “You'll probably rip your head off the first time you try to scratch your ass.”

“Rip my head off like this?” With one of the robotic hands, he unfastened his mining helmet's chin strap—a simple task, but requiring precise dexterity of the fingers. With another robotic hand, he removed the helmet, twirled it on one steel fingertip, then hung it on a helmet jack on the suit's hip, as though he were a flashy gunfighter spinning his pistol before holstering it.

“Whatever,” Bartley said. “You're just lucky you have that backjack. Makes you an instant expert with any rig, doesn't it?”

“It's easy to have the same luck as me. Next time you're twelve years old and the cute neighbor girl dares you to go cliff-diving at the river with her...just go ahead and jump. Maybe she'll make it into deep water. Maybe you'll hit a rocky shoal and broken bones will slice up all the nerves in your legs and damage your spine. Is that lucky or what?”

“That's what really happened, bro?” Bartley asked. The two of them were heading back to the dump truck to rejoin the others. “You tried to impress a girl and became a cripple for life? Daaaaamn.”

“It worked, though. I got my first kiss right there in the hospital bed.” He smiled, remembering Suzette nervously pressing her lips to his, for just a few seconds while all the parents were out of the room. Her father would have probably spanked her bloody if he'd seen it. That kiss had been intense, and ultimately life-changing, since he and Suzette had been together ever since.

“Hell, she probably just felt sorry for you, bro.”

“What?” Eric jumped a little, startled back to the present, as thought Bartley had jabbed him with something small and sharp. “What did you say?”

“You know. Little Suzy dares you to jump off a cliff, then you get all busted up and can't walk, she feels bad...” Bartley froze, just a few steps from the dump truck where everyone waited, Hagen already inside the dumping bed. “Oh, man, Eric. That's why you never go the whorehouse, isn't it? Spinal injury. Your ding-dong's just dead wood. Daaaaamn, I am sorry, brother.”

“No, that's not—my ding-dong is...just...great.” Eric couldn't help noticing everyone looking at him, including Iris. He felt a burning in his cheeks, and he hoped his face was too filthy for anyone to see him blush.

“I almost wish we'd heard the conversation leading up to that last part.” Alanna smirked.

“Me, too,” Iris said, smiling at Eric.

She probably just felt sorry for you, bro.

It wasn't possible that his entire relationship with Suzette was just an act of pity on her part. Was it? They'd lived in a tiny, remote farming community, after all. She'd had very few other options for dating...until now. No wonder she was pulling away from him, showing interest in other people, maybe already involved with someone else now that she'd finally been able to shed the burden of feeling guilty about Eric—

“She's not!” Eric heard himself say aloud, which did nothing to reduce his overall feeling of embarrassment.

“She's not?” Iris frowned. “Who are we talking about?”

“It's nothing,” Eric said.

“Everyone get in position,” Hagen said. He'd settled into the back of the dump truck and held the plasma rifle in his hands. “We're rolling out.”

“Finally,” Naomi said, returning to her scouter. She'd been scavenging, too, and filled her backpack with more plastic explosives and detonators.

Eric and Bartley climbed back into the dumping bed, Eric's suit making it much easier to accomplish this time. He didn't even need to use the truck's handholds.

“Go on, Porkscrew.” Alanna jabbed Bowler Junior. “Or get left below.”

“You shouldn't tell everyone my secret fraternity name,” he replied. “I told you that in confidence. It's a sign of trust.”

“You told me the night we met,” she said. “You were hammered and trying to get me into bed.”

“And it worked.”

“Oh, right.” She winced in disgust. “I was stupid in college.”

“Instead of riding back, I'd rather drive that.” Bowler Junior pointed to Naomi's scouting vehicle. Naomi was already perched on it, gripping the handlebars, impatiently waiting to flee.

“That's not happening,” Naomi told him.

“Or I could just ride behind you.” Bowler strolled over to Naomi, a cocky look on his face, his eyes on her chest. “I could just hold on tight the whole way...I think you'd like it. You'd lick it up.” His fingers brushed along her shoulders, toward the dark skin of her neck.

She slapped his hand away. “As far as anybody outside this mine knows, you already died here like everyone else,” Naomi said. “We could still make that happen.”

“She's got a point,” Eric said, stepping close to the rear of the dumping bed.

Hagen had been holding the plasma rifle upright, but now he dropped it forward and sighted it at Bowler Junior.

“I say we do it just for fun.” Bartley cracked his knuckles, looking down from the truck at Bowler Junior. “I've always wanted to kill one of those really snotty, really rich brats, you know? And this guy's got a face that's made for punching. It's going to take a lot of pounding to hammer off all that smug.”

Bowler turned pale and looked back at Alanna as if for help.

“In the truck, Porkscrew,” Alanna said, then she and Iris went up front to ride in the small cab.

The disheveled young aristocrat climbed into the back, warily looking around the three men who had just been threatening him.

“What's the fastest way the surface?” Hagen asked. “Just point us to the right tunnel.”

“The fastest way isn't a tunnel,” Bowler Junior said. “It's the freight elevator. That way.”

“Looks like your power's out here, though, bro-ski,” Bartley said.

“The elevator has its own fuel cell. And it can carry full-size trucks, so it can easily handle...whatever this is.” He gestured at the compact dump truck in which they sat.

It was a slow crawl around the destruction and fallen debris. At one point, Bartley hopped off to claim a rock bolter. It was a tool for firing long steel pins deep into local rock to hold it together, especially at ceilings and upper walls of mine tunnels. It was no exoskeleton, but it did move under its own power, on its own tires. Bartley stood on the narrow driver's platform at the back, steering the heavy tool like a mechanized chariot. The bolter was roughly the size and shape of a large cannon.

“Oh, yeah!” Bartley shouted, pulling up to drive alongside Naomi's scouter. “If those worms come back, I'll just put a meter of steel into each of their heads. The rest of you can go on lunch break.”

They reached the freight elevator platform, and it was as huge as promised, designed to move colossal mining trucks with tons of metals piled in the back. They parked the dump truck, scouter, and bolter with plenty of room to spare.

Bowler Junior walked to the control console at the center-back of the platform, near the cavernous room's rock wall, and got the elevator mechanism started. A metallic groan sounded, and the platform shuddered as safety railings rose and locked into place on every side. Finally, the platform began to rise.

To slowly...slowly...slowly rise.

“Hey, bro, I thought this was the fast way up,” Bartley said.

“It's not the penthouse express,” Bowler Junior replied. “It's not built for speed.”

“You can say that again,” Bartley muttered.

Bowler Junior looked out at the devastation, trembling. “My grandfather's going to be so pissed,” he said. “A billion-dollar investment turned to rubble.”

“And all your people who died,” Hagen said. “Think of their families.”

“Exactly. They'll probably launch a big class-action lawsuit just to ice the cake. As if we could ever have foreseen giant alien worms attacking our mines with plasma rays. I swear, everyone's always looking for a handout.” He shook his head as though already exasperated with the family members of all the victims. “And where the hell is Maverick Systems? Where are my combat drones and badass heavy-response units that I'm paying for every month? Someone tell me that.”

“Aren't you at all curious where these aliens came from? Or what they're doing here?” Alanna asked, watching Bowler Junior with a trace of disgust on her lips.

“Oh, I'll tell you what they're doing here,” Bowler Junior said. “They're getting me cut out of my grandfather's will. After he hears about this, he'll just toss my inheritance to the wolves. Probably give it to one of his stupid charities.”

The sound of rocks shifting, colliding, and tumbling echoed from the ruptured walls of the room.

“Oh, no.” Bowler turned pale and backed away until he bumped into the control console. “They're coming back. Why are they coming back?” His voice went high and trembly. “Somebody stop them!”

Hagen nodded at Bartley, and they took up positions at the front corners of the platform, looking out over the room as it gradually dropped away below them. Hagen still had nine bolts of plasma in his rifle, while Bartley had a couple dozen meter-long steel bolts in the can.

“Malvolio, I need your eye and arm again,” Naomi said.

“I am prepared to perform more than a hundred thousand songs, fifty thousand monologues, and staged readings of more then two hundred thousand pieces of literature, in every major human language—yet again and again I find myself tasked with the menial, the prosaic, the very lowest forms of labor—”

“Shut up, bot,” Hagen said, and Malvolio went silent, but began to pantomime as if yelling, using his dirty gloved hands as a megaphone. Naomi placed a plastic explosive with a detonator in each of his hands, and he widened his eyes and made an “O” shape with his mouth, as if shocked.

Eric felt useless. His new exoskeleton didn't come with any major projectile or directed-energy capabilities. There was a small cutting laser on one of the lower arms, but it wouldn't be useful until the attackers were closer.

This was how life was back home, too. His oldest brother, Abel, tall and with a permanent haughty look, would drop details about his exploits as a starfighter pilot. Samuel, second oldest, always loud and romping around with a pack of friends, was also a decorated mechanized infantry officer. Their father had commanded a land destroyer, the largest breed of armored land vehicle. Eric, meanwhile, hadn't managed to do much more than stay home, slop pigs, and herd cattle.

The sound of crashing, falling rocks grew closer, like an avalanche.

“Here they come,” Bowler Junior whispered. He was pale and squatted on the floor by the console now, as though the worms wouldn't be able to find him there.

The elevator platform had risen by almost a full story, so Eric had a sweeping view when the worms arrived, six of them in plated armor with heavy weaponry mounted on the back. They came in from all sides, as though determined to make sure nobody escaped the room alive.

Chapter Eighteen

“Hold your fire,” Hagen whispered to Bartley, holding up a hand. “Wait until they're close.”

The worms seemed to sniff around the wreckage at first. The clanging of the slow-moving elevator platform quickly drew one's attention. It raised its head in their direction, flipped its ring of long teeth outward, and bellowed to the others.

All the plated worms turned and raced toward the elevator, their hundreds of tiny rat-tail tentacles apparently adding up to an impressive speed for such huge beasts, even as they maneuvered among burned-out machinery and heaps of fallen rock.

“Naomi, go ahead,” Hagen said. He was tracking the worms' approach with his rifle, but still conserving his nine shots for maximum impact.

“Malvolio, hit the worm that's in the lead,” Naomi said.

“Aim for the head,” Hagen added.

“Yes, ma'am and sir!” Malvolio saluted with one hand while launching a golf-ball-sized plastic explosive with the other.

“Fire in the hole!” Naomi shouted, clicking her remote.

“The wormhole, as it were,” Malvolio added.

The worm's mouth was closed with its armor drawn in around it when the explosive arrived, so the creature didn't erupt from the inside like the previous worm had done. Still, the deafening explosion threw the armored worm up and back with concussive force.

“Looks like we missed that worm's hole,” Naomi grumbled.

Eric caught a glimpse of the worm's underside as it was blown up and back. There was more than just the array of little tentacles behind the worms' speed. Sets of metal rollers were spaced at irregular intervals along the underside of the worm armor, some with just three rollers, some with as many as eleven, following the worm's apparent distaste for symmetry and balance in anything they built. The rollers spun at high speed to propel the worms across the floor like freight trains.

The worm that had been hit slammed to the ground on its back. A second worm roared, flared its teeth, and turned around, apparently to check on the first.

The other four armored worms accelerated and moved more evasively, snaking in and out of the rubble so they were hard to keep watch on, even from the rising elevator platform.

“That one.” Naomi pointed, and Malvolio targeted and launched another small but powerful ball of explosive. It struck another worm in the side and sent it rolling.

At the same time, Hagen fired a bolt of plasma at a worm approaching his side of the platform. White fire smacked into the front end of the worm and expanded, engulfing its head.

Two more worms kept coming. Bartley didn't wait for Hagen's order, but went ahead and pulled the trigger on the rock bolter.

A meter-long steel bolt launched downward from the bolter's mouth. The bolter wasn't designed to launch projectiles at all, but to drive the long bolts deep into underground rock, particularly along tunnel roofs to strengthen the native rock and discourage cave-ins.

While the bolt was large and was ejected at high velocity, it bounced off a worm's armor rather than driving into it. The worm paused to raise its head and hiss at Bartley, as if it knew just who had tried to shoot it.

Eric tried to hit the next closest worm with his small rock-cutting laser, but it didn't have the power to penetrate the armor, at least not at this distance.

“Looks like all you guys can do is annoy them,” Naomi said.

“Then I'll annoy them until they can't take it and commit suicide. They'll blow out their tiny worm brains just to get away from me,” Bartley said, while the bolter loaded up his next projectile.

A volley of return fire from the alien worms erupted from behind the rubble and wreckage where the worms were taking cover, through the haze of dust kicked up by Naomi's explosives. White balls of plasma, small but quickly expanding, whooshed toward the elevator platform.

“Incoming!” Bartley shouted, then dove away from his bolter and covered his head.

Hagen, Naomi, and Malvolio dropped. Eric couldn't see Bowler Junior, still hiding behind the dump truck, near the control console at the back of the platform. Iris and Alanna were still in the truck's cab.

Eric didn't have nearly enough time to detach from his exoskeleton, reconnect his legs, and leap to the floor, so he just hunkered down as much as the suit would allow and hoped for the best.

A plasma ball struck the bolter head-on, flash-frying it into a fiery, molten heap.

Another glowing white ball sliced through the truck's dumping bed, melting down the walls on either side.

“Iris!” Eric jumped over to the cab of the burning truck, his leap made huge by boosters on the new exoskeleton's back. The elevator platform shuddered as the rig landed on its enormous feet by the truck.

Eric ripped the door off the truck cab with one robotic arm. With the other, he picked up Iris as she emerged from the cab, and he set her gently on the floor well away from the truck fire.

“Don't grab me,” Alanna said quickly, as she stepped out and jumped down.

“Are you okay?” Eric asked Iris.

“I couldn't imagine being better,” Iris replied, looking out over the smoke-filled battle scene, the worms still advancing below.

The loader bot had unfolded from the front of the truck and now watched it burn. “Unloading,” it said softly, as if sad to see the dump truck to which it belonged get destroyed.

Hagen returned fire with his plasma rifle, while Naomi and Malvolio prepared to launch more explosives.

Eric couldn't take up Bartley's previous front-corner position, since it was currently occupied by a burning mass of metal where the rock bolter had been. He hurried to Hagen's side instead, and readied his small cutting laser.

Down below, at least four of the worms still approached. Some of their armor was dented and scorched, but that didn't slow them down. Eric could see the plasma launchers on their back now. They looked like arrays of pipes of different lengths mounted in lumps of rock; the design looked misshapen and artless, but the tech inside it was clearly effective.

Dust and rock began to spill all along the walls of the room. More big worms, easily eight or ten of them, slithered in from the walls. Some had the kinds of tools Eric had seen already—drills, cutting lasers, robotic tentacle-extenders. Others carried more of the big plasma launchers mounted like artillery pieces on their backs.

“There's too many,” Hagen grunted. “And I'm almost out.” He slapped the digital meter on the side of the rifle, which showed he had only two shots left.

Eric continued to fire his laser cutter, but it just wasn't designed to work at a distance. He might have burned a pinhole in the armor of one worm, but he couldn't be sure from so far above.

Naomi and Malvolio pitched larger, softball-sized lumps of plastic explosive now. One detonated at a worm's side, sending it rolling away. Another blew up in the face of a worm, and the creature fell still, flesh smoking, possibly dead.

“Good one, girlfriend!” Bartley shouted.

“Don't call me that!” Naomi shouted back.

“Eric, go see if you can get this platform moving faster,” Hagen said.

Eric nodded and hurried to the control console. Bowler Junior huddled under it now, knees to his chin, arms around his knees. He was pale and shaking. Alanna stood near him, also looking pale but holding it together a little better.

“I kinda told myself it was just a dream, before,” Bowler Junior said. “A nightmare. Maybe I took too many dreamies, started to see Kozma. You know? But it's real. And those worms are going to eat us, just like...just like everyone else.” He swallowed. “Nobody got out of here alive, as far as I saw. We're dead, we're all dead...”

Eric did his best to ignore him and focused on finding the console's dataport—he planned to accelerate the platform faster than the standard controls would allow. As he reached to unplug his spinal cable from the exoskeleton, he asked Alanna, “Where's Iris?”

“She went to get the relic out of the back of the truck,” Alanna said.

“But the truck's on fire...” Eric swiveled to see Iris climbing over the top of the cab, approaching the dumping bed from the front. Given her options, it was the safest approach, avoiding the sheared-off sides with their molten red edges. There were also handholds down the center-front of the bed, leading down to the deepest, more forward area of it, which wasn't far from where they'd lodged the relic.

Iris saw him looking and waved at him before she dropped out of sight behind the cab.

“She's crazy,” Eric said, and then the floor lurched beneath them.

With the sound of wrenching, groaning metal, the entire elevator platform tilted forward, sloping steeply away from the wall and toward the horde of attacking worms below. One or more of the worms' plasma shots must have damaged the support structure under the freight elevator platform.

Hagen toppled forward and caught his balance on the safety railing, which blocked him from a long drop to the waiting monsters below.

Alanna and Bowler Junior managed to grab onto the back railing, near the control console. The loader bot grabbed on, too, clamping onto a safety railing with one blocky yellow hand and a support beam of the elevator's infrastructure with the other, helping to hold the platform together.

Eric couldn't see what was happening with the others in their group because the truck blocked his view. He leaped up on top of the cab, the booster pack on the suit's back putting a major spring in his step. His landing cratered the cab roof and shattered all its windows.

The dump truck was sliding backwards now, the tailgate rushing toward the safety railing...toward the exact spot where Naomi and Malvolio stood.

As he'd done with Hagen, Malvolio scooped up Naomi in his arms while leaping into the air. His unicycle wheel unfolded from its storage area inside his lower leg.

By the time Malvolio landed on the steeply sloped platform again, his unicycle wheel was already accelerating. It squealed and smoked, then the drama-bot zoomed off with Naomi in his arms. They just barely dodged the back end of the dump truck before it slammed into the railing.

The metal railing shrieked and bent sharply at the impact site, and bolts and screws flew up from the railing like popcorn. The railing held for the moment, but continued to creak and moan as the full weight of the truck pressed against it.

In the dumping bed, which was as steeply sloped as the platform, Iris chased after the relic, still wrapped in Hagen's jacket, as it slid down toward the back end of the truck. The back gate had swung open as the truck tilted, leaving a wide open path straight toward the drop-off to the monstrous worms waiting below.

Heedless of the danger, Iris pursued the sliding relic down the steep bed and grabbed it, lifting Hagen's jacket by the sleeve...and the mask tumbled free, spinning out over the elevator's safety railing and into the empty space beyond.

Iris howled with fury—Eric couldn't have imagined such a huge sound from such a small woman—and leaped after it, reaching for the relic as it sailed away through the air, her body three or four stories above a rock floor. Even if she caught it, death was waiting for her below.

“Iris, don't!” Eric called as she leaped, but it was too late to stop her, even if he could have convinced her to stop.

The only thing he could do was jump after her. The Dragonfly suit couldn't actually fly, only jump, but that would have to be good enough.

He jumped out over empty space, looking down at the horde of armored worms below.

Humans had finally met another intelligent lifeform—not extinct, not long-gone with only a few relics left behind, like the ancients or even the mantids—but one that was still very much alive and kicking.

And they were monsters, ruthless killers with zero interest in making new friends.

The armored worms below fired yet another volley, including more burning white balls of plasma, and also long, spinning spikes like steel spears. One narrowly missed Eric and struck the roof of the cavernous room just above him, shattering the pinned rock into a cloud of pebbles and dust.

Behind him, a scream rang out as the worms' attack took someone down.

Chapter Nineteen

Eric's robotic hand, extended as far as it would reach, closed around Iris's hips. He reached the suit's other large arm up toward the roof. The mechanical fingers scraped down dust and debris while he searched for a spot strong enough to hold them.

Worms roared beneath them, opening their mouths and spreading their teeth as if Eric and Iris were treats about to drop into their gullets.

Iris seized the tumbling masked helmet with both hands, just as Eric reeled her in close to him. He transferred her to the exoskeleton's lower, smaller arms, then reached out the bigger one again, trying to grab onto the roof before they fell to the certain death waiting for them below.

He managed to grab the head of a steel bolt that Caffey Industries had used to secure the roof, possibly using the same bolter that Bartley had found. The other big arm grabbed the dense metal mesh around the bolt's head, there to protect against small pebbles and loose debris that might otherwise trickle down on miners' heads while they worked.

Eric hung from the two long arms of his suit like a monkey in a jungle, his heart pounding. Iris smiled at him, her face not far from his.

“Eric—” she began, and then her expression shifted from delight to horror. An eerie white light illuminated her face from below.

The mask had changed shape again. Now it was made of a glowing white metal, like some kind of enchanted platinum, and looked just like Iris's face, mimicking her current horrified look, as if mocking her.

Brilliant white arcs of lightning shot out from the mask. They curled up and back to strike Iris all over her head, as though she'd incurred the wrath of some primitive god.

Eric shouted her name, watching in shock as her dark hair ignited and flames engulfed her head.

The wild surge of energy seemed to overwhelm his exoskeleton, too, because he could feel it locking up all over. He was still able to move his own flesh-and-blood arms, though, so he removed his jacket and wrapped it around Iris's head, smothering the flames, leaving only her nose and mouth exposed.

Something shifted in the room, and there was a weird silence, a sudden stillness among the worms below. The barrage of plasma, lasers, and steel spears ceased.

Eric looked down to see the worms rising up, apparently no longer interested in hiding among wreckage and rubble. All over the room, they seemed to incline toward the place where Eric and Iris hung like a bizarre Christmas ornament, the mask glowing like a beacon in Iris's hands.

The worms' heads turned from side to side, in a way that reminded him of birds studying a shiny object. Maybe they did have some sort of crude eyes embedded somewhere in their tough hides.

The worms rose higher, in unison, all of them opening their huge maws as if gaping at the relic. They resembled a colony of gigantic coral in the ocean, earth-colored vertical tubes, their open mouths facing upward to catch what they could.

“Please say the relic gives us control of the worms,” Eric whispered. He looked back at Iris and discovered, almost unbelievably, that he could feel even more terror.

His jacket still covered most of her head, yet he could see her eyes right through it, because they were glowing an impossibly intense bright white, just like the mask.

She changed in his arms. The fire-smothering jacket and tan mine-worker coveralls vanished. Her head was bare now, all her hair burned away. Metallic circles were inset all over her cranium. He'd seen images of that before—gatekeepers had those implants. They used them to interface with their special-built devices when they operated a wormhole gate.

Her hands seemed stained a bloody red.

In place of her coveralls, a flowing purple cloak formed around her. The hood of it rose up to cover the hardware inset into her cranium, and then to shadow her face. The hooded purple robe was the typical garb of a rebel gatekeeper, a full member of the Antikytheran Society.

Her eyes continued to glow eerie white, so bright the pupils weren't even visible.

The worms began to bellow, a new kind of sound unlike all the threatening roars Eric had heard so far. It was more like whalesong, deep and throaty tones, the horde of upward-looking open-mouthed worms forming a kind of grotesque organic pipe organ, studded with sharp teeth bulging from red, swollen gums.

The entire underground world shuddered around them.

More worms poured into the room from every side, more than Eric could even attempt to count, as if every last member of the giant-worm species had been called together.

The ground ruptured open, and the most massive worm Eric had seen yet emerged from below. He'd glimpsed it on the hologram, but hadn't really grasped the scale of it. It was even bigger than the first worm they'd encountered.

The titanic worm rose vertically, its vast red pit of a mouth roaring. It flipped out a ring of teeth as big as elephant tusks. Dozens more lined the beast's throat, ready to rip and crush.

The teeth weren't even the worst of it. This was the roadheader worm, the one that had created the big tunnel through which they'd entered. Its enormous body was covered in scores of rotating drums, each one with a spiral of spikes spinning at high speed.

The giant roadheader worm extended out of the floor, its maw heading directly toward Eric and Iris.

“Eric Rowan,” Iris said. Her eyes still glowed white. Her voice was commanding, full of iron authority, not at all like her usual soft, quiet tone. “You must not allow the beasts below to take the relic. Darkness will fall across the galaxy.”

“Okey-dokey,” Eric said, which sounded a little inadequate for responding to her strange, solemn god-voice. Fortunately, he didn't have to dwell on it long, because the exoskeleton was finally ready to move again. The energy surge from the mask had only stunned the Dragonfly rig's electrical systems, not fried them forever.

He swung around, moving monkey-style, grabbing onto overhead bolt heads and support trusses as he returned toward the platform.

Then he saw another problem. The platform had drawn close to the shaft that would take it out of the underground room and toward the surface...but now it had stopped moving completely. Red lights blinked all over. The complete stoppage of the platform was a perfectly logical automated safety response to all the damage the elevator had suffered, in any normal situation where huge, murderous aliens weren't swarming below it.

Eric saw Hagen was down, too. A worm's metal-spear projectile had gored the middle-aged man's thigh. Bartley was jumping toward where Hagen lay, bringing the first-aid box from the crushed truck cab.

Hagen grabbed Bartley's arm and pointed toward Naomi, saying something Eric couldn't hear. Bartley nodded and ran toward Naomi and Malvolio. Hagen, gritting his teeth in pain, began digging through the first-aid box.

Eric swung down from the rocky roof and landed as gently as he could on the precariously sloped platform. Iris's eyes had closed, and she'd fallen limp, unconscious.

He set her down by the first-aid box. With one of his robotic arms, he grabbed the glowing white mask from her fingers.

Instantly, she reverted to her usual self, dressed in dirty coveralls, her head resting on Eric's crumpled jacket like a pillow, her hands no longer the color of bloodstains. Her hair was still all burned away, and there were still circular metal implants all over her skull.

“She's a gatekeeper?” Hagen asked, his voice an angry grunt.

“Maybe,” Eric said. “I don't know. I have to go get the platform moving again.”

“Listen,” Hagen said, his teeth still gritted in pain. “We're dropping the dump truck on that extra-large worm. Need you to lower the front safety railing.”

“I'm on it. Watch over her.” Eric gestured at Iris as he started toward the control console.

“I will if I don't black out,” Hagen grunted.

Alanna and Bowler Junior still huddled near the console. Eric ignored them as he unhooked from the exoskeleton while remaining inside it. He plugged the gold connector of his backjack into the console's dataport.

He quickly overrode the safety systems and got the platform moving again.

Then he watched the plan unfold: Naomi and Bartley smeared a thick layer of plastic explosive across the back of the truck—most of what she had in her backpack, by the look of it. The loader bot raised an arm, remotely controlling the dump truck. The truck began to accelerate in reverse while keeping the brake on, so the tires spun backwards in place, building up a head of steam. The engine revved again and again.

Naomi and Bartley dashed away from the truck. At Naomi's signal, Eric dropped the front safety railing.

The dump truck hurtled backward and off the platform. Its back end smashed into the enormous jaws of the roadheader worm. The spinning spiked drums all over the colossal worm began tearing the truck into shreds, spraying ribbons of metal and showers of sparks.

But the impact also struck the huge worm like a Whack-A-Mole mallet, driving the beast back down into the tunnel it had just carved up through the floor.

“Nailed him!” Bartley shouted, and high-fived Naomi. “That'll show those squirmy little bastards.”

“Thank God,” Hagen mumbled, popping pain pills.

A chorus of angry roars thundered from the worms below, followed by a fresh barrage of metal spears and white-hot plasma balls.

Eric made the platform accelerate well past its top permitted speed. Alarm bells clanged and red lights flashed all over the elevator as the broken, sagging platform rocketed up the wall.

The platform climbed away into a relatively narrow shaft, up and out of sight of the worms below.

Eric was barely able to slow it back down before it reached the top and slammed to a halt with a violent jerk that sent them all sprawling.

“Keep moving!” Naomi said. “The timer's ticking!” She'd set a timer because there was a chance that a remote-control signal wouldn't reach the detonator, once they were on the surface and out of the mine.

While Malvolio picked up Hagen to carry him, Eric lifted Iris, still unconscious, as well as the first aid box. He shoved the relic—now a small white-metal mask, no helmet—into a small storage compartment in his exoskeleton and locked it tight.

“You must not allow the beasts below to take the relic,” she had said. “Darkness will fall across the galaxy.”

Eric moved her close to him, holding her with his smaller, lower robotic arms.

Everyone hurried up the wide tunnel of the Caffey mine. The main lights were out, but long red emergency strips lit the way.

Finally, they reached the outdoors. Only a few stars were visible through the planet's volcanic smog, but Eric had never been so happy to see the night sky.

As they made their way toward the road, two more armored worms burst out from the ground nearby, a pair of sentries that had been hiding just under the dirt. Bartley turned the plasma rifle on them; he'd taken the weapon from Hagen.

Naomi glanced at her pocket screen. “Save your ammo, Bartley. Three...two...”

The world around them shuddered and shook. The explosion echoed up and down the canyon. Eric imagined the roadheader worm blasting apart, its spiky drums whirling out from it as deadly shrapnel, hopefully cutting up some of the other worms. Regardless, the huge amount of explosive should have turned the entire Caffey mine into a lake of fire; Eric hoped that wiped out all of them.

Jets of flame roasted the two sentries as the heat traveled up through their tunnels from the mine below. Their burnt bodies toppled to the ground before they could attack.

“Hey, good call,” Bartley said, nodding at Naomi.

Then they moved down the road as fast as they could, hellish red light glowing from the open mine entrance behind them.

Chapter Twenty

“This thing is going to kill me,” Hagen said, his voice slurred by the quick-acting painkillers. He sat in Malvolio's arms, looking at the long steel spear in his thigh.

“Should I try to pull it out?” Eric raised one of his mechanical arms.

“You a goddamned doctor, kid?” Hagen asked. “Because if you rip my femoral artery, I'm dead. I don't want any of you touching this unless you've been to medical school.”

“I have,” a voice said.

Everyone turned to look at Bowler Caffey Junior.

“You're a doctor? Why you running a mine way the hell out here?” Hagen asked.

“I didn't pass all the exams,” Bowler said. “It was the chemistry that got me. And the math. I was good at surgery, though. I operated on a cat, and a monkey—”

“Forget this. Malvolio, unicycle faster,” Hagen said, elbowing the robot that he was currently using as a wheelchair.

“And a homeless guy!” Bowler Junior whined, picking up the pace to jog alongside them. “I put a stent in his heart.”

“You performed heart surgery on a man and he lived?” Hagen asked.

“Totally.” Bowler Junior slowed his pace a little and looked away.

“For how long?” Hagen furrowed his brow.

“Almost....twenty-three hours. But it wasn't my fault! He also had advanced cirrhosis—”

“I think I'll hold out for Angel Moroni Hospital. Where all the doctors and nurses are fully licensed.” That was the only major hospital in Canyon City, which made it the only one on the entire planet.

“Fine! Be that way!” Bowler Junior pouted and kicked a pebble on the ground, like he'd been denied a new toy.

“We need to get Iris to the hospital, too,” Eric said. She was still unconscious in his robotic arms, the skin of her scalp an angry red where her hair had burned off to reveal the round metal implants.

“I'm trying to reach my pilot.” Alanna waved her screen toward the sky. “Not really getting a signal, though.”

“Maybe the eruptions are strong tonight,” Naomi said. “That can make satellite communication patchy. The air does seem even more foul than usual. Malvolio, you should zip on ahead and get Hagen to the hospital.”

“Take Iris first,” Hagen said.

“Don't be ridiculous, Frank, you could bleed to death,” Naomi said. “Hagen goes first, then Malvolio comes back for Iris. Right, Miss Li-Whitward?”

“Yeah, whatever,” Alanna replied absently, not looking up from her screen.

“Wait—” Hagen began, but Malvolio whooshed away like someone had just fired the starting gun of a race, completely ignoring Hagen's protests. He was soon gone out of sight along the twisting canyon road.

“You did that on purpose.” Eric grinned at Naomi. “Malvolio knows the organization chart; he knows Alanna's orders override any of Hagen's. And Alanna was barely even paying attention when she gave the override.”

“I wasn't paying attention to what?” Alanna looked up. “Where did Hagen and the drama-bot go?”

“Off to the hospital,” Naomi said. “Any luck with the pilot?”

“Not yet. The screen will keep trying for me. Let's keep moving.”

The group began to walk, but the loader bot hung back, gazing at the fire-red glow from the mine entrance.

“Everything okay, buddy?” Bartley asked the big machine.

It gestured toward the fire with one hand. “Loader.” Then it gestured toward its own boxy yellow chest area. “Loader.” Its voice was quieter and more subdued than usual.

“Aw, poor guy,” Naomi said. “The dump truck was a part of you, wasn't it?”

“Unloaded.” The robot's massive arms seemed to sag.

“Sorry to hear it, bro.” Bartley patted the robot's arm. “But, hey. We'll find you another dump truck somehow. I promise.”

“Load.” The robot straightened up and began to walk, though still a bit slower than usual.

Eric looked at Iris in his arms. “Should I jump ahead into town?” he asked aloud, hoping for good advice. “I could get her to the hospital faster that way, but I don't want to bang her around.”

“Let me see her.” Bowler Junior, failed medical student, stepped forward to examine Iris. Eric tensed up, but saw no reason to stop him—beggars couldn't be choosers. So Eric just swung the first-aid box in closer, where Bowler could reach it.

“I can't even contact a limousine service!” Alanna snapped, looking at her screen. “Not even a terrestrial limo service. Are all the satellites out or what? Major eruptions tonight?”

“The ground was shaking a lot,” Naomi said. “Hard to tell the major blasting from the natural tectonics.”

“Looks like third-degree burns to me,” Bowler said, inspecting Iris's scalp.

“I'd better get her to the hospital!” Eric said.

“Huh? No. Wait. Maybe it's first-degree burns. I always get those backwards. Told you, math is not my strong point. Anyway, she just needs some burn gel if you want to help her out. I'd probably give her fluids if I had some.” Then Bowler smirked, looking over the small, limp girl like a dirty thought had crossed his mind. “Well, I do have some fluids

“I'll take care of her,” Eric said quickly, moving back and away from Bowler, getting Iris out of his reach.

“I bet you will.” Bowler winked. “As soon as the two of you are out of sight somewhere, right?”

“Can we go back to that moment when we were all ready to kill this guy?” Bartley pointed at Bowler Junior.

“I never left that moment,” Naomi said.

Eric opened the first-aid box and gently applied the blue cooling gel to the angry red skin of Iris's scalp, what skin there was between all her circular gatekeeper implants. He wondered if she really was a gatekeeper, and had been hiding it, or if she'd really failed the training as she'd claimed.

He shuddered when a long strip of her scalp came away in his fingers. Then he saw it wasn't flesh at all, but a stretchy material—the inner ring of a wig. It hadn't been her real hair that had burned away; she didn't have any.

Then he resumed adding the gel with his fingertips. Counting his human arms, he now had six arms. Like a mantid. He also had the relic, so apparently he could rule over a whole kingdom of bugs if he wanted. The thought didn't exactly appeal.

As his fingers traced the edges of Iris's face, her eyes fluttered open, large and black, looking into his. A sleepy smile arose on her lips.

“Eric,” she whispered. “Did we...?” Then she seemed to snap fully awake, looking around frantically and squirming in his robotic arms. “The worms! Where are they?”

“Naomi toasted most of them,” Eric told her.

“It was really a team effort,” Bartley said. “Mostly me, Naomi, and Loader here, who made a big sacrifice to save us.” He patted the robot's arm.

“Unloaded,” Loader said.

“Damn right,” Bartley replied.

“Uh...okay.” Iris looked back at Eric. “The relic!”

“Got it,” Eric said.

“What? We're still lugging that thing around?” Bartley asked. “Ditch that wormbait! You saw how they went all goofy and culty about it.”

“Yeah, we need to toss it,” Naomi said. “If those worms come back, we're all dead. We can't survive another attack. I'm about to fall down just from exhaustion.”

“But the worms are dead,” Alanna said.

“We don't know whether they're all dead,” Bartley said. “They keep coming back bigger, heavier, and with more firepower. I'm getting a little sick of that trend, honestly.”

“We shouldn't cast aside something so valuable,” Alanna said. “Not after all we've been through.”

“We can't allow those aliens to have this relic,” Iris said. She stepped away from Bartley's exoskeleton, toward Alanna. “The power is too immense. And these aliens are pure monsters. Worse, they're intelligent monsters. They have advanced tools and weapons. They have space travel. If they've come here in search of the relic...well, we've seen how they treat humans. Do you really want to amplify their power with a relic of the ancients? Of the civilization that built the wormholes? Who here wishes for that?”

“Not me,” Eric said.

“Who says they have space travel?” Alanna narrowed her eyes at Iris as though studying her. “We've seen no worm spaceships. They could be native to this planet.”

“But the Money City settlers never saw them,” Iris said. “And those settlers were here for years before the war.”

“The Money City settlers were Big Timers,” Alanna said. “Pre-war, like you said. They built citadels and skyscrapers. Not grubby inhabited landfills like Canyon City. The worms had reason to fear that generation. But not ours.”

“You did sound pretty certain they had space travel,” Naomi said to Iris.

“Okay.” Iris took a breath, as if buying time. “I've...heard of them before.”

This brought an eruption of questions and shouting from everyone. The group was still walking, except for Naomi, who puttered along on the scouter, their last working vehicle.

“Okay, okay, let me explain,” Iris said. “A reclamation crew collecting salvage after a battle encountered alien lifeforms like this. Similar size and shape, similar tech. There was also a relic of the ancients on that planet. They killed most of the crew.”

“And...why has no one but you ever heard of this?” Alanna asked.

“One survivor was a gatekeeper, a member of the Antikytheran Society. That's how I know. This information is classified, deeply classified. As in, I could be severely punished for telling you any of it. Anyway, the worms were observed to have a spacecraft of their own. Follow-up investigations revealed nothing. The worms had vanished completely; they didn't live there, they'd just been visiting. And now here they are again, hundreds of light-years from that other system. So that's why I know they have interstellar travel. Maybe they know how to use the wormholes, like we do.”

“Are you telling me these things are all over the galaxy?” Alanna looked ill.

“It's possible,” Iris said. “This second sighting indicates they might have a huge presence out there. Humans have really only explored a very thin slice of the Orion arm around us. The farther we reach out, the wider we explore and settle, the more likely we are to encounter something...other. Something in a position to compete with us on an interstellar scale.” Iris took a deep breath. “All of the gatekeepers' worst fears are coming true. We have to get this information to them. And this relic.”

“So...are you a gatekeeper?” Eric asked.

She looked him in the eye. “Yes.”

Everyone fell silent at that. Actual gatekeepers were rare, occupying a powerful position on starships and the critical space stations near the wormhole gates. In the popular imagination, they were like holy people who kept themselves hidden, shrouded in mystery.

“She was supposed to be a geologist,” Alanna mumbled.

“I do have degrees in geology and metallurgy,” Iris said. “The Society was not shortchanging you by sending me.”

“You were obviously working as a spy for them, with your own little mission,” Alanna said. “You knew about these giant alien monsters and you didn't mention it to anybody here?”

“I didn't know they were here on Caldera, or anywhere in this system,” Iris told her. “There was some probability of finding a relic of the ancients, yes. There often is on habitable worlds. But this did not interfere with your search for gold. In fact, you found quite a lot of it down there, already minted into coins for you, stamped with the portraits of the most noble of insect statesmen. But titanic worms with plasma artillery? No. I had no information about hostile aliens on Caldera. And I came as close to dying as the rest of you tonight.”

“Prentice and Reamer got closer,” Alanna said.

“Aliens!” Bartley said. “I knew it! I told everyone, didn't I?”

“This is fascinating, but guys, I'm wearing loafers here.” Bowler Junior approached Naomi on her scouter. “Feel like giving a guy a ride yet?”

“You can walk like the rest of us, pal,” Bartley told him, before Naomi could reply. “You've got no idea what we've been through. You spent the whole night huddling in your gold-leaf marble bathtub while we nearly died again and again.”

“Actually, I was lying on an antique fainting couch that Grandmother sent me. It was a tad lumpy.”

“Do you want people to hate you? Is that it?” Bartley asked.

“Miss Li-Whitward, you can ride with me if you want,” Naomi offered. “It's technically your scouter, anyway.”

“I'm sure it's leased,” Alanna said. “We didn't give Reamer much of a budget to work with. Lean and cheap, that's what my father likes to see. The lower the floor, the higher the margin, he always says. Not directly to me, of course, but I have occasionally been in the same room with him.” Alanna slid on behind Naomi and wrapped her arms around her waist. “Thank you.”

“My pleasure, ma'am. Just remember me at Christmas bonus time. That's Naomi Lentz, with a 'z.'”

“Something's coming,” Bartley announced, stiffening like a hunting dog who'd caught a whiff of game bird. He raised the plasma rifle. “Loader, get ready to fight.”

“Load?” The robot held out his bucket hands.

“Whatever.”

A dark shape approached at high speed along the road. Eric held out his larger robotic arms, ready to grapple with whatever was coming. He glanced at Iris to make sure she was somewhere behind him, protected, as if her safety was his responsibility in particular. He wondered what to make of her now—had everything she'd said and done so far been a deception? Had she been manipulating him along with everyone else?

He didn't have much time to think over those questions, because the fast-moving dark shape zipped out of the shadows and slammed to a halt as it arrived.

It was Malvolio, with Hagen still in his arms, Hagen's leg still impaled by the alien spear.

“That's how people get shot, Mal!” Bartley lowered the plasma rifle. “Don't charge in like that without announcing yourself.”

“What happened at the hospital?” Eric asked.

“Woe, woe, we bring tidings of woe!” Malvolio cried, in vintage drama-bot fashion. “Our fair city has fallen! The invaders from the deep have risen to the world above, loosing calamities from the all-consuming fires of Pandaemonium, that submerged city of devils—”

“Speak English!” Bartley snapped. “Like, the normal modern kind.”

“Hospital's gone,” Hagen said, his eyes sagging under the effects of the first-aid painkillers. “Somebody get this spike out of my leg...I'll even let...Herbie the Dentist over there do it...”

“Is he talking about me?” Bowler Junior asked.

“He's babbling nonsense,” Naomi said. “If you got any skills at all, rich boy, get in there and save him.”

“And if you fail...just remember, nobody knows you made it out of that mine alive.” Bartley grinned like a skull.

Bowler shivered. Malvolio gently lowered Hagen to the pavement, and Bowler Junior knelt beside him to inspect the injury.

“I still don't understand what's happened to Canyon City,” Alanna said.

“At times, words fail to paint a portrait that only images can render,” Malvolio said. He swept his arm around at all of them. “Therefore, I now transmit to each of your personal screens—and my mechanical heart is heavy indeed that I must bear such ill tidings—I transmit all the video my eyes have just gathered, much of it quite magnified as I zoomed in from a ridge above the city. Warning: this content may be disturbing to some viewers. Discretion is advised.”

Eric pulled his screen from his pocket and expanded it. What he saw filled him with icy dread.

The town of Canyon City looked as though it had suffered heavy bombardment, or a severe earthquake. Buildings were collapsed and in flames. Entire rows of them had been swept from the terraces and into the river below, leaving only broken sheet metal and shattered bricks behind.

Huge shapes slithered among the burning ruins; the fire glinted off their armor. Their rings of teeth dripped with blood, as though they'd recently feasted on piles of raw meat.

“The worms took the city,” Bartley whispered.

Eric saw footage of Angel Moroni Hospital. Not even the hospital had been spared—it had been reduced to a single chunk of brick wall with burned-out holes for windows.

“What about the spaceport?” Alanna asked.

“A mere crater,” Malvolio said. “Nothing remains.”

“So we're trapped on this planet,” Naomi said. “And there's nobody left but us.”

All of them fell silent, gaping at their screens, except for Bowler Junior, who was occupied with his medical duties.

“Hey, mine-worker guy with the mech suit, step over here,” Bowler Junior said.

Eric approached, his metal feet clanking on the pavement. Hagen was white as chalk, nearly unconscious now. Bowler had cut away his pants with small shears from the first-aid box. Eric could see where the spear entered the muscular, hairy meat of Hagen's quadricep.

“How can I help?” Eric asked.

“How precisely can you program the arm on that suit?” Bowler Junior asked.

“Real damn precisely,” Bartley commented. “It's a damn Arenson.”

“What do you want me to do?” Eric asked.

“You'll have to pull this out, and—this is extremely important—it has to follow the exact same path that it followed on the way in. It can't wiggle. Zero wiggle room. It's right up against a major artery...maybe.”

“Maybe?” Naomi asked.

“Well, I tried to double-check a medical encyclopedia, but my screen's not getting a signal,” Bowler Junior said. “Anatomy wasn't my strong point, either.”

“How did you even get into medical school?” Bartley asked.

“Hard work,” Bowler Junior replied.

“His dad made a big donation,” Alanna clarified.

“Just put me out of my misery,” Hagen muttered, eyes completely closed now.

Eric studied the angle of the metal spear, then rotated the hand of one of his smaller robotic arms to grasp it carefully. With his two larger arms, he pinned Hagen to the ground to keep him from moving in any way.

“Okay,” Eric said. His heart was pounding, and he was covered in nervous sweat. If he got this wrong, Hagen would very likely bleed to death.

He hesitated.

“You can do it,” Iris whispered. She touched his hand briefly, then backed away.

Eric whispered a prayer.

Then he pulled.

The robotic arm moved at a fifty-one-degree angle to Hagen's leg, the exact angle at which the spear had entered. It had been launched at an upward trajectory from the worms' position below the elevator platform.

The long, narrow shaft of metal gradually slid upward, coated with blood. Eric had sent the instruction to his arm, and now he could do no more than watch—any attempt to intervene with freely moving hand movements would surely rupture Hagen's artery. He had to hope that he and the Arenson suit had calculated things correctly.

The tip of the spear finally pulled out of Hagen's leg, dripping fresh blood. More blood gushed out onto the pavement around Hagen.

“Blood!” Bowler Junior shrieked. He looked like he would throw up at the sight of it.

“I thought surgery was your strong point!” Naomi snapped.

“It is,” he said. “I mean, compared to everything else.”

“We need to bandage him.” Naomi jumped off the scouter and knelt beside Hagen. Bartley, who had some training for battlefield injuries, dropped down to give her a hand, and soon the wound had been cleaned, stitched, and bandaged. Hagen was mercifully unconscious throughout.

Bowler Junior barfed a couple of times while they did it, fortunately walking a decent distance away before heaving his guts out among rocks by the side of the road.

“That should do it, I think,” Bartley said, double-checking their work. “He'll still need a real doctor as soon as we can find one. But we can all get moving again.”

Naomi returned to her scouter, with Alanna still seated behind her. She looked down the road. “So...where do we go now?” Naomi asked.

Her question hung in the air. Nobody had an answer. The town was destroyed and overrun with worms, and so was the spaceport.

Eric looked at the dark, empty road ahead. There was nowhere to go.

Chapter Twenty-One

“We're trapped,” Alanna said, glancing at her screen as though she still expected the limo service to call her back. “There's no way off this planet.”

“Sadly, it seems the time of our perishing is upon us,” Malvolio said. “Let us say farewell, each to the other, and hope for a fair crossing into the Afterlands—”

“Just keep your mouth shut for like ten minutes, drama-bot. Think you can manage that?” Bartley said. “Does anyone else have any ideas? Iris...or whatever your name really is...any special secret gatekeeper insight? Got any way to get us out of here?”

“Believe me, I wish I had a transport stashed somewhere,” Iris said.

“How about you, rich kid?” Bartley asked Bowler Junior. “Tell me you got a gold-plated pleasure craft hidden in case of emergencies.”

Bowler Junior shook his head, still looking ill from seeing Hagen's blood.

“Unless somebody knows where we can find a ship on this planet...I say we go after the worms,” Bartley said.

“Are you crazy?” Iris asked.

“They don't let you into the marines otherwise,” Bartley said.

“It would be suicide,” Alanna said.

“Better than waiting for them to come to us.” Bartley hefted the nearly depleted plasma rifle, their only weapon.

Eric noticed Malvolio hopping around like he had to pee, something robots typically did not do. Malvolio waved a hand excitedly.

“What is it?” Eric said.

Malvolio went into some kind of elaborate, hopping pantomime that just brought puzzled looks to everyone's faces.

“Just say it,” Iris told Malvolio. The drama-bot gestured at Bartley, then pantomimed zipping his own mouth.

“Bartley, tell Malvolio he can talk again,” Eric said.

“Yeah, speak up, Malvolio,” Bartley said. “Spit it out.”

“Sirs and ma'ams,” Malvolio said. “I...may know of a ship. It may be gone by now, or far too decrepit for our purposes...as well as being an utter eyesore—”

“Where?” Eric asked.

“Well, you see, my previous owner—Dr. Erasmus—was the chief engineer on the project. This was many years ago, before and during the war. A colorful man, was Dr. Erasmus. He threw extravagant parties, at which I was honored to provide entertainment to the guests. They were quite an enthusiastic audience, as well, especially once the drugs and liquor were served. In those days, I was a more freshly minted entertainment unit, young and spry, my performances appreciated by the movers and shakers of Money City, even those in the highly distracting environment of the parties' clothing-optional rooms—”

“The ship!” Alanna snapped. “Tell us about the ship.”

“Ah, yes. I apologize for reminiscing about the happiest and most fulfilling time in my existence,” Malvolio said. “Where was I?”

“Dr. Erasmus,” Eric said, doubting that the robot had actually forgotten.

“Ah, yes. In addition to his wild parties, Dr. Erasmus was a famous astronautical engineer, in the employ of Hernandez-Brinkman Development, an enormous mining concern on Caldera at the time...destroyed during the war, like the rest of the city. Dr. Erasmus himself perished in the Allied attack. Few humans lived. Money City manufactured ships used in industry, but also by the rebellion, you see—”

“We know!” Alanna snapped. “Tell us about the ship. If there actually is one.”

“Dr. Erasmus's final project, his piece de resistance, was the Omicron Rex. It was one of the largest asteroid-cutters ever built, designed as a flying factory. It could find a sizable asteroid, cut it apart, process out the valuable minerals and leave the slag where they found it. Erasmus was inspired by the whaling ships of old—incidentally, should anyone like to pause here for a dramatic reading from Moby Dick—chapter 94, 'A Squeeze of the Hand' was always popular with Dr. Erasmus—”

“Cut it out,” Bartley said. “You're telling us this big ship is still here? How did it survive when the Allies bombed Money City into dust?”

“The same way I did,” Malvolio said. “You see, Dr. Erasmus was deeply concerned about industrial espionage—that was the main sort of espionage that troubled people in those heady pre-war days. So he constructed a special hangar deep underground, virtually impenetrable to radar or any other method of remote spying. The war brought even more security concerns. The Omicron Rex was parked underground at the time of the Allied attack, undergoing new modifications that Erasmus believed would put his ships even further ahead of the competition.

“I was down there as well, when the nuclear bomb dropped. In time, I left in search of my mandatory maintenance check and upgrade—a standard requirement on units such as myself—but of course no Indus Rotronics factory-certified android mechanics remained in the ruins of the city. In time, I came into the possession of the secondhand dealer in Canyon City from whom you purchased me. My time with him was miserable, as his only dramatic interests involved jokes about flatulence—”

“You're saying the mining ship is still in that hangar?” Iris asked.

“It certainly was six years ago, when I left,” Malvolio said. “Perhaps it remains.”

“We have to go there!” Eric said. “Where is it?”

“Money City, of course.” Malvolio pointed south along the river, in the direction of the distant bombed-out city.

“We can't go there!” Bowler Junior said. “It's radioactive. Full of mutant animals, too, they say.”

“You're welcome to remain here,” Alanna said. “The worms will be along for you soon enough.”

“I'm willing to risk radiation poisoning to get off this rock,” Bartley said. “I'd even go back home to Gorrum and freeze my ass hairs off to escape this planet.” He shuddered.

“But how do we get past Canyon City without the worms catching us?” Iris asked.

That was a good question, enough to make everyone go quiet again.

“Maybe we go up?” Bartley suggested. “Try to find our way through the smog? Maybe the worms will avoid the smog, too.”

“It'll be rough,” Eric said. “There's no road up there. Just rocks to climb over.”

“What about the river?” Naomi asked. She lifted her screen, rewound the images, zoomed in. “There's a couple of boats at that dock. The worms destroyed the city but didn't bother with the boats.”

“Maybe they hate water,” Alanna said.

“The worms were previously seen in a swampy ecosystem,” Iris said. “So they aren't completely water averse. But those boats...” She stared at them.

Eric felt a twinge of hope, too. “We just have to get one of those boats.”

“Which means waltzing right into town!” Bowler Junior said, almost squeaking. “Where the worms are! Those docks are right out in public. Unless somebody knows of an invisible dock somewhere.” He snorted.

“Loading,” the loader bot said, raising one big yellow hand. “Loaded!”

“Okay, calm down, boy,” Bartley said. “Malvolio, any idea what's freaking him out?”

“Oh, yes.” Malvolio nodded at the loader bot, then turned to Alanna. “Loader has just transmitted the location of a more concealed dock, where the trash barge is loaded to take garbage out to sea for dumping.”

“They just dump garbage in the ocean?” Iris shook her head.

“It's not like this planet could really get any uglier and dirtier,” Bartley said.

“The approach is relatively hidden, compared to most of the roads,” Malvolio said. “I'll send it to your screens.”

Eric looked at his screen as the data arrived. There it was—not perfectly secure, but essentially a back road through town, with high rock ridges on the sides. He'd lived here six months and never known about it.

“Problem,” Bartley said. “They can attack us from high ground on each side of that road. We'll be like those foam dinosaurs you shoot with a nail gun at the county fair.”

“Your county fairs sound a little different from ours, but yeah,” Eric said. “It could be dangerous. But it seems like the only way.”

“This is certain death,” Bowler Junior whispered.

“Does anyone have a better idea?” Alanna asked.

The group went quiet.

Soon they were making their way toward the destroyed city again, Naomi and Iris on the scouter, everyone else walking, Malvolio carrying Hagen.

Loader led the way. Much of the road was in deep shadow. Portions of it wound through caves, where trash was piled at the bottom of shafts and chutes from the city above—soda and beer cans, rancid take-out bags, chicken bones, and other delights, waiting to be collected and dumped into the ocean.

The group kept silent, all of them tense and on high alert. The smallest sound, a tumbling pebble or spill of dust, set them on edge. They expected an attack they couldn't possibly fend off. They were all exhausted, strained beyond breaking, but there was no way they could stop moving. Death was everywhere on this planet.

They reached the waste-loading area by the river, where more piles of trash were heaped. Local birds with hooked, warty beaks picked among the waste, as did flying bugs roughly the size and shape of steak knives. Metallic scrap had been separated onto a platform nearby for resale and reuse, though that would probably never happen now that just about everyone on the planet seemed to be dead.

“Load,” Loader said, gesturing out at the trash barge chained to the steel dock. Small mountains of rotting, bug-infested refuse waited to be floated off and dumped into the ocean.

“Our glorious craft awaits!” Malvolio announced, with a grand sweep of his arm. “A junk of junk, fit for an emperor...one who has been cast out of power, and must slink away under cover of night, but nonetheless—”

“It's disgusting,” Bowler Junior said. “I can't travel like this.”

“It does have some of that sitting-duck problem,” Bartley said. “We gotta take this right through town, right past Worm Central...then on past the refineries all the way downriver. The worms will have plenty of time to get us while we float past slower than a drunken snail.”

“Maybe we could hide.” Eric pointed to a sizable metal dumpster.

“The accommodations grow worse by the moment,” Alanna said.

“Finally, a voice of reason—” Bowler Junior began.

“—but we don't have much choice,” Alanna added.

“The dumpster will give us a little shielding if they attack, too,” Bartley said. “Not much, but I like it better than just hanging my ass out like a big target.” He looked into an open panel of the dumpster and wrinkled his nose. “It's full of crap. Loader, come give me a hand, pal.”

“Unloading!” The big yellow robot raised the dumpster high.

“Quietly,” Eric hurried to add.

“Unloading,” the robot repeated, at low-whisper volume. Then it turned the dumpster upside down. Cans, bottles, rusty nails and screws, mingled with rotten bits of food, came crashing out all over the ground.

“I meant...never mind.” Eric shook his head. “Let's get going before that noise attracts the worms.”

One by one, they stepped out onto the barge, over a gap through which they could see the dark river water below. Malvolio passed Hagen's unconscious form over to Eric, who carefully accepted him with his two longest arms.

Loader set the dumpster down in the middle of the barge, with heaps of trash all around. A narrow door in one side of the dumpster offered easy access. They spread out the thin fire blanket from the first-aid box and lay Hagen atop it.

Though the dumpster was empty, a thick layer of garbage residue coated the interior, and the odor was intensely foul. All the conscious people hesitated to step inside.

“I can drive watercraft,” Alanna said, stepping toward the cramped, grimy pillbox of the pilot's cabin. It was far too small to fit all of them.

“The engine will make too much noise,” Naomi said.

“Money City is downriver,” Iris said. “Maybe it would be best to just float quietly.”

“I hate the idea of moving slow, all hunkered down like a scared turtle,” Bartley said.

“But giant turtles can live for more than a century,” Iris said. “There's some wisdom there.”

“Who wants to live for a century with no risk? No excitement? That's barely living,” Bartley said.

“I'll sign up for a long life with no risk,” Bowler Junior said. “Starting now.”

“You would,” Bartley grumbled.

They disconnected the rusty chains binding the barge to the dock. Loader and Eric used their long robotic arms to nudge the hefty craft away from the dock. The current of the deep river lugged them forward so sluggishly that it was difficult to tell whether they were moving at all.

“It'll be tomorrow afternoon before we reach Money City at this rate,” Bartley grumbled. “We'll be exposed in plain daylight for hours.”

“I'm not sure the darkness of night really gives us much cover against the worms,” Iris said. “They don't seem particularly visual to me.”

“Their tech looks like it was created by blind designers,” Alanna said. “So ugly. Nothing we'd sell at any of our retailers, not even the damaged-goods outlets.”

“I haven't seen any eyes on them,” Naomi said.

“Most worms depend on touch at their primary sense,” Iris said. “Vibrations. Sound.”

“You know a lot about worms,” Bowler Junior said.

“I spent some time studying them after...well, after I heard about those giant worms on the swamp planet.”

“If they're all about sound, then we should keep our mouths shut.” Alanna shot a look at Bowler Junior as she said that. Then she stepped into the small pilot's cabin surrounded by grimy windows and sat down on the floor. “I'm staying here. If the worms come, I'll be ready to drive.”

“I'll stay here, too—” Bowler Junior began.

“Like hell,” Alanna said. “Go keep an eye on your patient.”

“I'd rather keep an eye on you,” he told Alanna. “Like I did on that old couch in my frat-house basement—”

“Go!” Alanna shouted, pointing to the dumpster. Then she touched Naomi's arm. “She can stay with me. The marine, too.” She looked at Bartley, who shrugged and nodded. “Malvolio, you go hide in the dumpster since you don't mind it as much.”

“Don't mind it!” Malvolio clapped his hand to his chest as though he'd been wounded. “Madam, I can perform more than seven thousand of the finest arias—”

“Do you have a sense of smell?” Alanna asked.

“Oh.” Malvolio's face fell. “I see what you're getting at.” The drama-bot trudged away, hanging his head.

Loader folded up behind a trash heap, trying to look like scrap, maybe an old yellow refrigerator. Bowler Junior pinched his nose and reluctantly joined Hagen on the fire blanket in the dumpster.

“Over here,” Iris said to Eric. She stepped behind the dumpster, to the side of the barge facing sheer cliffs across the river from town.

Eric stopped to look up at the wreckage of Canyon City. So many of the buildings seemed to have simply imploded, swallowed up into their own cellars. Small fires crackled here and there. Bars, casinos, video arcades, banks, weapons shops, tattoo parlors, fried-meat stands, drug dens, brothels—all had been wiped out, one way or another. Eric's apartment building had been erased by an apparent landslide; nothing but dirt and stones remained.

The population of Canyon City was generally well-armed, and there were also a couple of organized security outfits like Maverick Emergency Systems. But the worms had struck hard and fast, a sneak attack in the deepest hours of a smoke-shrouded night. The population of Canyon City hadn't been huge, maybe ten or twenty thousand highly transient souls. Perhaps many had survived and fled. Perhaps many were still in hiding, gripping their weapons and waiting for the worms to find them, waiting to make their last stand.

Or maybe everybody was dead.

A worm's dragon-sized head rose from the wreckage of a butcher shop, its long red teeth dripping red meat and bits of bone. It turned its maw in Eric's direction, though it was more than a hundred meters away and couldn't possibly see him. Maybe it heard the barge sloshing its way down the river.

The worm lowered its head, hopefully losing interest in them and turning its attention toward another case of meat.

Eric stepped behind the dumpster and hunkered down in its shadow as much as his exoskeleton would allow. Iris stood beside him and leaned on his rig, avoiding contact with the sticky, trashy barge around them.

They remained silent for a long while, still tense and expecting an attack from the city above. The barge's progress was painfully slow, but kicking on the engines could attract every one of those alien beasts. And they were down to a couple of plasma bolts and whatever explosives remained in Naomi's backpack.

Shrieks and bellows arose in the night air, echoing up and down the canyon.

“The worms,” Iris whispered. “They're communicating.”

“I hope they aren't communicating about us.” Eric rose to peer over the top of the dumpster, standing on the tips of his new rig's impressively well-balanced foot platforms.

He saw a couple of large worms flailing in the street. They slithered for cover inside ruined buildings and large holes where buildings had once stood.

The reason for their agitation was clear, too. Hot ashes and burning red embers sprinkled down from the sky like a hellish snowfall.

“Ash rain,” Eric whispered, lowering himself again. It was a common but dangerous weather pattern on Caldera, raw superheated material ejected from distant volcanoes and then carried on the planet's hot, dry wind. No wooden buildings could be erected in Canyon City. This wasn't exactly a law—there wasn't much in the way of organized law on the planet—but it was a physical reality. “The worms are going underground to avoid it. We should get shelter, too.”

“The dumpster?” Iris frowned and looked around for other options, but none of the piles of rotting trash seemed particularly inviting, full of animal bones, waste paper, syringes, and other items nobody wanted to roll around in.

“I could probably shield you with the suit, but you'd have to get close,” he said.

“The suit smells better.” Iris moved right back into the spot where she'd been while unconscious. He stacked his exoskeleton's four arms to create barriers around both of them. Since the Arenson was a mining model, it had solid overhead protection built in, steel plated with tungsten in case of cave-ins and other underground disasters.

The hot ash rain came down at an angle, so the dumpster helped shield them, too. The embers drifted lazily down, like a swarm of sleepy fireflies, their reflections glowing dim and red in the river below, like constellations of dying stars. One by one, tens of thousands of embers met their reflections on the river surface and hissed out into darkness, a gentle rain of fire into water.

Iris's face was close to his. He looked into her eyes, then at the array of round metal plates in her head.

“Can you...tell me what these really are?” he asked. “I know all gatekeepers have them.”

“They're a silver-palladium alloy, mostly. They let us interface quickly and maintain a strong contact more easily.”

“With the wormhole gates?”

“Yes. They're intelligent, you know. Artificially. Their programming is etched in gold and other noble metals, especially iridium. Meant to last forever.”

“How old are the gates?” Eric asked. “And what were the ancients like? Were they, you know...good guys or bad guys?”

Iris laughed and shook her head.

“What?”

“Nobody knows. As far as we can tell—and even this is debated among those in the Society who spend their lives studying the subject—the last possible sign of any activity by the ancients dates to about eighty-eight thousand years ago. But it could be even further back; we could be looking at relics of later civilizations who tried to imitate the original ancients, reverse-engineer their tech. The original ancients might have vanished more than a million years ago. Like I said, there's debate.

“And there could be signs of more recent activity, in some of those billions of star systems we have yet to explore. And sometimes I think...maybe they're still alive.” She looked up toward the dim, ash-filled sky.

“The ancients?”

“Some of us think they came out from other spiral arms of the galaxy. That's where the big civilizations must be—because they certainly aren't out here, on this minor spiral arm halfway to the galactic rim. Some people think the ancients were here with a grand plan to foster life, intelligence, and civilization. Others think the wormhole gates were never more than minor outposts of the ancients. Like trade posts or old missions in cowboy movies. They just poked their heads into a lot of solar systems, but didn't find anybody worth trading with out here.”

“Or converting,” Eric said. “If they were missionaries.”

“Right.” She smiled. “Anyway...maybe we were just too primitive for them to bother with. The same reason humans don't form diplomatic relationships with lemurs and squirrels. We're just primitive animals, you know. Driven by instinct.” She looked closely at him. “Do you have anyone back home?”

“Sure. Family. Everybody.”

“Girlfriend?”

“Yeah. She's rooming with...”

“What's that?”

“She's in college. I'm not sure what's going on with her. She's kind of moving in a different...a very different direction...but we haven't broken up. We're still together, so I must remain loyal.”

“You 'must'?” Iris looked amused.

“We believe in loyalty,” Eric said. “In my community, we value honesty, trust, and faith. We keep our commitments to each other.”

“Okay. But you might want to be careful about the 'trust' part there. Trust isn't something you want to give away freely. It's something you want to hoard. Trust me.” Iris winked. “Now, tell me: do you trust me?”

“No.”

“That's my boy.”

“Why didn't you tell us you were a gatekeeper?” he asked.

“I'm undercover,” she said. “Just not doing a good job of it lately. My wig burned off, so...”

“I didn't know gatekeepers did things like that. Secret-agent stuff.”

“Oh, yeah. We're very cloak and dagger, at least where it relates to hyper-advanced alien technology that will probably reshape human history.”

“And I thought you just opened and closed wormhole gates,” he said. “Like...elevator operators.”

“We're in a unique position to study the lost history of the galaxy. And chart a course for the future. And influence the influencers. Military fleets, commercial fleets, and the planetary governments who depend on them can't afford to ignore us. Gatekeepers control all the chokepoints of the galaxy.”

“But now there are two societies of gatekeepers.”

“There are at least two of every major human institution, thanks to the war splitting us in half,” Iris said. “I hope we can bring ourselves back together in time to face this new menace.”

“Do you think the worms will invade other human worlds?” Eric shuddered at the thought of the giant monsters burrowing through the prairie on Gideon, destroying his town, his home, his family...tearing Suzette to pieces with their long teeth. Destroying the capital city, Lightpoint, founded as a beacon of morality, virtue, and faith for all humankind, just as the worms had destroyed the whorehouses and gambling dens of Canyon City.

“They've wiped out all the humans they've encountered so far,” Iris said. “If there are more of them...and advanced tech like theirs doesn't arise without some kind of advanced civilization...then it's just a matter of time before they come for all of us. They can't even share a planet as big and desolate as Caldera with us. They exterminate us on sight.”

“Then we have to warn everyone!” Eric said. “The Colonial League Inner Command. And even the Earth Alliance. Nobody knows the worms are coming. Do they?”

“No,” Iris said softly. “Before tonight, there was only a single reported sighting of the worms. An aberration, an event leaving no material evidence behind—not even the bodies of the worms that the reclamation crew killed. They could have been eaten by the swamp creatures, I suppose, but what about the worms' gear? Their tech? Nothing remained. Maybe other worms came back, collected the evidence. Salvaged any materials that were left. Took the bodies. Maybe ate them, for all I know. The point is...all the Society had was the word of a sole survivor. She was a gatekeeper, but some in the Society called her crazy. Even some on the Council called her that.” Iris's face flushed dark red, her eyes turned down toward the water below.

“Was it you?” Eric asked, and her eyes snapped back to him. “That one gatekeeper?”

She looked at him a long moment before whispering, so softly it could have been the wind down the canyon: “Yes. I was there. I was the...the only survivor.” Her eyes shifted away as she said this. “I'm ashamed of how I acted. I was a coward.”

“But you survived.”

“Yes, I certainly did that.”

“How do we stop them?” Eric asked. “If they come back, we have no way to fight them. Any ideas about how to survive this time?”

“Maybe the relic. If we could understand its power...but there's no time to study it, certainly no equipment here, unless somebody stashed a laboratory under that rack of sand-lizard ribs over there.” She nodded at a heap of trash.

“So what if we just give the relic to Naomi, let her transform into purple demon form and attack the worms? If they come back?”

“That would be reckless when we don't understand what we're doing. We don't know what we might unleash.”

“Something fatal to the worms, hopefully. I mean, if it's okay with Naomi, obviously.”

“I doubt it would be. What did you experience, Eric? When you touched the relic?”

Eric blushed, remembering the hot rush of feelings and memories, the gold band around Suzette's wrist as she touched him. “It's personal,” he said.

“It sure looks personal. But you have to tell me, Eric. Sorry, I don't mean to pry, but it's important.”

“It was just me and Suzette. The first time we, well...”

“Oh.” Iris smiled. “First time you had sex?”

“No! We never—we're not married.”

“You're a virgin?” Now Iris looked perplexed.

“You say 'virgin' like it's sinful.”

“Oh...no. It's definitely not that.”

“What about you?” Eric asked, ready to move away from talking about his own scrambled personal life back home. “You have someone?”

“I did, years ago. Not anymore. The Society demands all.”

A couple of refineries came into view, perched on ridges above them. All kinds of chemical waste flowed from their pipes directly into the river, including tons of cyanide used to leach the precious metals. The minerals had to be stripped chemically, down to just the precious ores, before the expensive process of shuttling them up and off-planet to the interstellar freighters. Not much lived in the river anymore. Nobody saw Caldera as a permanent home; it was a place where people came to make their fortunes before returning to civilization.

“You say the worms can't be trusted with the relics,” Eric said. “But how do you know humans can?”

“I don't,” Iris said. “But humans are all we've got. So...the mask. It showed us what Naomi thinks of herself...something she wanted to keep hidden. And it showed who I am...something I was keeping hidden.”

“But it didn't change me.”

“Oh, it did. It wasn't such a dramatic change—maybe because you're male, or maybe because you don't have as much to hide as the rest of us.”

“I didn't notice anything.”

“You looked younger,” she said. “Young and almost ridiculously innocent. Small. Your hair was like spun gold.”

“So I looked like a little kid?”

“Not exactly. The way Naomi's self-hatred was magnified into something monstrous...you looked like an aw-shucks kid who just stepped off the farm and into a casino full of sharks. What you want to hide is your innocence. Your vulnerability. Naivety, even.”

“I don't think me changing into a dumb kid is going to be helpful against those giant worms,” Eric said, embarrassed by the conversation. Ever since arriving on Caldera, he'd done his best to put up a front, to be strong and silent like his father or his oldest brother Abel. Eric had nothing like Samuel's garrulous, hard-drinking and hard-socializing nature—Bartley reminded him quite a bit of Samuel, actually—and he couldn't hope to fake that. But he could keep cool and distant.

It bothered him that the relic had made him look soft, weak, and stupid, ripe to be beaten up or manipulated. It bothered him more and more the longer he considered it.

“I don't think revealing the worms' deep, dark secrets is going to help us very much, either,” Iris said. “They seem pretty happy with their mass-murdering ways. Not a lot of guilt going on there.”

They fell quiet again, watching the ash rain hiss out in the water. The volcanic rain grew thinner, only occasional red embers now.

The trash barge wound its way through the canyon, quiet and nearly invisible in the dark and smoky night, occasionally bumping against reefs of rock. In time, they were well downriver from the town and the refineries, and there was nothing ahead but empty canyon that gradually flattened out as it approached the river's mouth and the ocean beyond.

Bowler Junior staggered out of the dumpster for the relatively fresh air of the rotten trash heaps and the dead river. Naomi climbed up on top of the pilot's cabin for a slightly better view of the river ahead, plus slightly better air.

Bartley paced for a while, bored and agitated, until finally he decided to make good on his earlier promise to teach Loader how to fight. They stood among the garbage heaps, the big yellow robot imitating Bartley's movements.

“See, you just jab...jab...no, that's a cross, keep that back hand near your jaw...your mouth-speaker, whatever...now watch me...”

Soon, everyone watched as Bartley taught the robot a series of combinations—jabs, hooks, uppercuts. The loader was a fast learner, at least when it came to simple and repetitive movements.

Then, without warning, the barge's engines rumbled to life, turbines churning the water around the craft. Alanna had remained inside the pilot's cabin, and apparently decided to make faster time now that they were out of sight of the city. The sound of the motor echoed off the canyon walls.

“What is she doing?” Iris gasped and began to run toward the pilot's cabin. “We have to stay quiet!”

“Fine by me,” Bowler Junior said. “I'm sick of sitting around breathing in trash fumes.”

“Stupid spoiled rich brats,” Bartley grumbled. “Never learned any patience. Loader, get ready to fight, brother, because every worm in this canyon knows where to find us now.”

The robot raised his excavator-bucket hands to his chin area, ready to go. “Loaded.”

Eric followed after Iris, while Naomi leaped down from the roof of the cabin. She opened her backpack, reaching for her remaining explosives.

“What are you doing?” Iris asked, sliding open the door to the cabin, where Alanna sat at the controls.

“I got in touch with my pilot.” Alanna held up her pocket screen. “She's still alive.”

“So we're going to rescue her?” Eric asked.

“No, she still has her helicopter.”

“This engine noise will attract the aliens,” Iris said. “If it's not an emergency—”

“It is. Carol says they're emerging again now that the ash rain has passed. Some of them are entering the river. They're coming after us.”

“Bartley!” Naomi shouted. “They're coming!”

Bartley nodded. He and the loader bot already stood at the barge's stern, ready for an attack from behind. Bartley raised the rifle's sight and looked upriver through it.

Naomi joined them, readying the last of her explosives. She called Malvolio over to stand with her.

“Reduced to little more than a slingshot,” Malvolio lamented, shaking his head. “Truly, we have seen the death of high culture, the coming of the Philistines, the degradation of the civilized into the barbaric—”

“You gotta do what you gotta do,” Bartley said. Then he fired a bolt of plasma, the burning-white sphere momentarily illuminating the canyon like a spotlight.

It struck the front of a worm that was churning through the water toward them. The beast managed a roar as fire spread along its back, illuminating turbines affixed to its sides, enabling it to move as fast as a ship. Along the worm's armored back were metal pipes stuck in crude-looking lumps of rock, similar to the plasma artillery but longer, and with just one metal tube per rock-lump. Eric didn't want to find out what these weapons did.

The burning worm dove into the water, hopefully mortally wounded, but Eric wasn't holding his breath.

Just before it vanished, Eric saw two more of the long segmented worms, one on either side, continuing to jet forward through the water.

“We're so screwed!” Bowler shrieked from behind them. “Maybe we should just surrender.”

“They don't want us to surrender,” Iris said. “They want us to die.”

Eric took up a position near the stern, his upper robotic arms raised and ready to grapple, the cutting tools on his lower arms ready to burn and slice if the monsters got close enough.

The huge serpentine shapes charged toward them, their bulky alien turbines much faster than the barge's coughing engines. There would be no escape.

Eric lined up with Bartley, Naomi, Malvolio, and Loader, preparing for one last fight. He was ready to fall over from exhaustion, like everyone else.

This was it. Life or death, for all of them.

The monsters rushed closer through the water.

Chapter Twenty-Two

Bartley was on one knee, taking aim at one of the worms. “I'll take Pancho if you get Lefty,” he said to Naomi.

“The worm on the left,” Naomi said as she placed a wad of plastic explosive in Malvolio's hand. The drama-bot reluctantly targeted and launched, his computer-brain carrying out the calculation and execution perfectly despite his obvious disappointment at being used in such a way.

The plasma bolt struck one worm as the plastic explosive struck the other. The twin bursts of fire engulfed the worms they'd targeted; together they lit up the canyon and river like daylight.

“God the King,” Eric whispered.

More worms followed behind, easily a dozen of them, all accelerated by turbines.

They launched a volley of weaponry, some rushing under the surface of the water like torpedoes, churning the water and leaving a foamy wake behind them. Others whistled through the air—spinning spears like the one that had struck Hagen.

Then the light faded.

“Hit the deck!” Bartley shouted, in case anyone had missed the impending attack.

Eric folded toward the floor as best he could. Long spears crashed into the garbage all around them. The spears sprang to life on impact—their heads turned into drills, and their shafts turned flexible and whipped like robotic tentacles. They immediately began drilling into the floor of the barge, clearly aiming to make the vessel sink.

At the same time, torpedoes struck the barge and exploded, lifting the stern out of the water and shattering it into chunks.

Everyone ran, rolled, or was thrown by the impact and the sudden steep tilt of the craft. Eric managed to leap back and away, boosted by his rig, landing on his suit's heavy metal ass halfway across the ship. The impact shattered the floor where he landed.

The scene was chaos. The dumpster had fallen over on its side. Bowler Junior and still-unconscious Hagen had landed in separate spots among the heaps of trash.

Bartley was helping Alanna out of the damaged pilot's cabin, which was partly crushed and on fire. Alanna limped, leaning heavily on him.

Naomi and Malvolio had been blown off their feet, too, but Naomi was still conscious and already struggling to get another explosive from her backpack.

We're dead, Eric thought. We're all dead.

Then a whooshing, whining sound approached. A helicopter hovered above them, washing the barge in bright lights.

“That's our ride.” Alanna coughed.

The helicopter lowered until it was a couple of steps above the ruptured surface of the barge, blasting them with high-speed wind.

“Carol!” Alanna waved while Bartley accompanied her to the helicopter.

The door slid open. The pilot was a woman with short red hair, headphones clamped around her head. Her last name, FOSTER, was displayed on a chest patch on her black flight suit. XRD—for Exoplanet Resource Development—was on her shoulder.

“They're coming,” the pilot said, her voice amplified by speakers so she could be heard over the helicopter's double set of rotors. “I can move you three at a time. Who's coming first? Miss Li-Whitward?”

Alanna was dazed, maybe in shock; she'd been nearly killed inside the pilot's cabin. She might have been temporarily deafened by the explosion, too, since she seemed unaware everyone was waiting for her answer.

The trash barge shuddered as more of the torpedoes struck it. The deck ruptured and water flowed up through the cracks. More of the drill-headed snake-bots attached to the hull, chewing it open. Chunks of the barge broke away and sank into the river, clogging the surface with heaps of refuse, which would only provide more cover for the attacking worms. Not that the worms really needed it; they clearly had the advantage in arms here, and probably numbers, too.

“We're running out of floor space!” Eric shouted.

“Injured first!” Bartley shouted, while lifting Alanna into the seat next to the pilot.

“Two more!” the pilot said. “Maybe three if you really like each other.”

They lifted Hagen inside, then Naomi, over her protests. She frowned and tossed Bartley her backpack with its remaining explosives.

Eric lifted Iris with his robotic arms.

“I'm not injured!” she shouted.

“You know anything about starships?” Eric asked. “Like how to turn them on and launch them?”

“No—well, maybe a little—”

“In you go!” Bartley shouted, and Iris relented and allowed Eric to place her inside. As a gatekeeper, she could act as a navigation officer on any interstellar vessel. If something had happened to the orbital station near the system's wormhole gate, they would also need her to open the wormhole gate for them. Otherwise they'd be trapped in this star system, with nowhere to go. Iris was critical to their escape.

She squeezed in alongside Naomi and unconscious Hagen on a seat that could barely fit two people.

“I'll upload the coordinates for the underground hangar to this helicopter's navigation system,” Malvolio said, waving at the chopper as if greeting a friend across a room. “There.”

“What about me?” Bowler Junior ran forward. “If Iris doesn't want to go, I'll take her spot!”

“Forget it.” Eric nudged him back with a robotic elbow to his chest.

“I don't want to die down here with you...you dirt diggers!” Bowler Junior whined.

“Yikes, bro,” Bartley said, ducking away from the helicopter door as it slammed shut. “You know people can hear you, right?”

The chopper ascended and tilted sharply as it turned a hundred and eighty degrees to face downriver.

A worm's head rose through a water-filled fissure in the barge, lumps of garbage clinging to its face. Its mouth spread open, its ring of sharp teeth protruding outward. It was clearly angling itself to chomp Bowler Junior, who ran along the broken edge of the craft, pursuing the helicopter.

“Wait for me!” Bowler Junior cried, running up a tall heap of trash. The worm extended its head further out of the water, its open mouth approaching Bowler Junior from behind.

Bartley sighed and fired the rifle's last bolt of plasma into the hungry worm's maw. The shot went in like a perfect basketball throw swishing through a net, the burning white blob not touching the worm's lip on the way in, but instead rushing away down the red, tooth-lined throat.

The worm dived underwater, as if the plasma had slid down as smooth as top-shelf whiskey, not bothering the giant creature at all.

“Pilot!” Bowler Junior screamed, reaching toward one of the helicopter's landing skids, seemingly oblivious to how close he'd just come to being eaten. “Whatever Alanna's paying you, I'll double it! Triple! Come back down!”

The pilot probably couldn't hear him, and if she did, she gave no sign of it, continuing her steep, sharp bank to change directions in the narrow canyon pass.

Bowler reached the top of the trash pile and jumped. He grabbed onto the very end of one skid.

Already at a delicate angle and overloaded with passengers, the ultralight scouting helicopter didn't respond well to the extra weight on one side. It jerked and twisted erratically, dipping dangerously close to the alien-infested water below.

“Let go!” the pilot's voice boomed over the speakers. “Let go!”

“I can't! I'll die!” Bowler shrieked as worms approached below like hungry sharks smelling blood.

Eric turned his exoskeleton toward the helicopter and readied himself to leap over and knock Bowler Junior off of it—maybe even save him from the worms below, too, if that happened to be convenient.

Eric wasn't nearly fast enough, though. Before he could even begin his jump, a worm surged up from the water and chomped down on Bowler Junior's leg, sinking its teeth in a ring around his upper thigh, severing the whole limb.

Bowler Junior screamed and covered his eyes with both hands. This meant releasing the helicopter skid, so he dropped straight down onto the worm's face.

A second worm popped out of the water and sank its teeth into Bowler Junior's back. The two worms growled as they bit and pulled at him like a couple of starving dogs fighting over a raw tenderloin.

They ripped him to shreds, snapping at each other, their blood-smeared teeth repeatedly cracking together as they fought over every last morsel of Bowler Junior's flesh and bones.

“You ham-headed brat!” Bartley shouted. “I wasted my last plasma bolt saving your massively overpriced life, and you go and pull some brain-dead move like that—”

Bartley's rant was cut short when the worm he'd shot rose from the steaming water, its front end dripping fiery white plasma like a dragon that had accidentally sneezed its own head off.

The worm's entire lashing, writhing body rushed up out of the water, easily ten meters long, with turbine-driven propellers and bands of metallic worm armor attached to its segments. The marine worms were not as heavily armored as the tank-like worms down in the mines, but they weren't completely bare-skinned, either.

The propellers roared at high speed when exposed to open air, their enormous blades spinning, large enough hack a person apart on contact.

A couple of those propellers spun on the near side of the worm, swinging toward Eric and Bartley as the beast writhed and flung itself around in pain, the plasma burning it from the inside out.

“Loader!” Bartley shouted. “Jab, cross!”

Loader approached the swinging, serpentine bulk of burning worm with his big yellow hands high. He slammed his forward bucket-fist into the side of the approaching worm, in between two armored rings to catch it right in the skin and muscle. The robot's calculation was exact; one of his shoulders missed the cutting edge of a spinning propeller by only a few centimeters.

The robot's initial jab slowed the worm's approach, but also put a noticeable dent into Loader's fist.

The posterior half of the worm's body continued scraping forward over the broken pieces of barge, almost as if the worm's dying intent was to rip Eric, Bartley, and Malvolio to pieces while it burned to death.

Eric stepped forward with his larger pair of robotic arms spread as wide as they could go. He slammed them into the side of the worm, helping to arrest its approach.

At the same time, Loader landed a powerful cross, burying its fist in the worm's side, with enough force to finally bring the sliding monster to a stop.

The front end of the worm was still ablaze with plasma, though, and sharp propeller blades still spun, spaced at irregular intervals along its sides.

“We got more wormy pals coming right up our back door,” Bartley said, pointing the empty rifle's flashlight upriver. “How about we set out a nice welcome mat for 'em?”

Eric nodded. He and Loader turned the worm horizontally across the river, like they meant to dam it up, before hurling the beast at the oncoming worms.

The burning worm blocked them for a moment. One worm dove underwater to avoid the burning-plasma end. Another was struck by a set of propeller blades. Eric didn't see it happen, because the mass of the first worm was blocking his view, but he heard the alien shrieks and the spluttering turbine motor, then saw foamy blood churned up in the water.

“This way!” Bartley shouted, moving over broken chunks of trash-strewn barge toward the wide, flat bow, which was the largest remaining piece of the boat and sat higher in the water than any of the others.

A metal spear clanged into Eric's exoskeleton as he ran. On impact, its shaft transformed into a flailing, segmented tail. It coiled around his exoskeleton's upper arm, anchoring itself into place. The robotic drill-bit head spun and stabbed at Eric's face in a way that was far too familiar.

“Not this time, Spinny.” Eric grabbed the drill-snake from below with one of his suit's smaller arms. With the other, he activated the cutting laser. It burned slowly through the robotic worm, like a cold knife through a frozen block of butter, but he eventually managed to lop the thing's head off. It was a very minor victory, but at least he hadn't gotten drilled in this face this time.

He dropped the metallic severed head and the writhing, sparking robotic snake-body into the river as he hopped over to the bow to join the others.

Eric stood there with Bartley, Malvolio, and Loader, watching the worms close in on them. Malvolio launched the last few explosives, blowing back some of the worms, hopefully inflicting serious wounds.

“And that's it.” Bartley turned Naomi's empty backpack upside down and shook it, as if a few extra crumbs of plastique would come out, then he dropped it to the deck of the sinking ship. He raised his fists. “From here on, we do it the old-fashioned way. Mano-a-wormo....a-robo, too. May the best species win. Loader, remember those combos!”

The big yellow bot raised his fists. “Loaded,” he said.

The worms swam in close around them, their tooth-ringed maws jutting from the water.

“Why don't they just kill us already?” Bartley muttered. “They got explosives, they got plasma...”

“Maybe they're hungry,” Eric said, thinking of how the worms had fought with each other while eating Bowler Junior. “Those things must have huge appetites, and there's not a lot of meat on this planet.”

“Yeah, plasma rifles don't leave much meat behind,” Bartley said. “I made that mistake on a hunting trip once.”

One worm rose cobra-fashion, spreading its teeth and ready to attack.

Then another, much larger worm rose behind it and bellowed. The first one ducked and cowed before it. The larger one had webs of skin stretching between its outer ring of tusk-sized teeth, as well as visible gill slits on every segment. Many of its small tentacles were wide and flat, like fins. The giant worm seemed adapted for life underwater, and it seemed to have declared itself king of the river, even among its own kind.

“Looks like that's the one who gets to eat us,” Eric said.

“Not if I eat him first,” Bartley replied, but his bravado was habitual and hollow at this point. They could go down fighting, punching, kicking and screaming, but they would go down before this monster and the others waiting behind it.

The high whine of the compound helicopter approached, its double rack of rotors more welcome than the sound of angel's wings.

It hovered directly above them, parking well above the giant worm's head. Then the pilot descended on a chain ladder that unspooled as she dropped, like a spider on a dragline.

The pilot had a heavy machine gun strapped around her shoulders and waist, and she unleashed it on fully automatic as she descended. Explosive rounds chipped a couple of the giant worm's teeth and then tore into its exposed underbelly as she dropped down along it, pumping fire into its internal organs...hopefully. It was hard for Eric to see how effective the shots were.

“I think I just met my new girlfriend,” Bartley said, looking up in awe at the young woman in the black flight suit as she burned a stripe of death down the monster's length. “Red hair,” he whispered, checking out her bob as she landed beside him.

“Get climbing!” she shouted into Bartley's face, wasting no time.

“You want to get married after this?” he asked her.

“No!” She unleashed another burst of incendiaries, grimacing, her boots planted firmly on the sloped, sinking bow, while Bartley began to climb.

The giant worm toppled back, crashing into the river and soaking them all with a wave of polluted water, garbage, and steaming alien worm blood.

“Thanks. Great shooting there...” Eric started toward the ladder, but she blocked his path.

“Lose the exosuit,” she said. “Too much weight.”

“Seriously?” Eric frowned, hesitating.

“Or you can sink with it.” She looked upriver and unleashed another wave of fire at the mass of other worms, who seemed to be drawing closer again, growing bolder now that the big guy was out of their way.

Eric didn't see much choice. He stepped alongside the ladder and detached himself from the top-of-the-line Arenson Dragonfly, his sense of self shrinking down to his own weak body again. He moved the cable to his much less cool and useful leg braces, then climbed out of the exoskeleton and onto the ladder, his legs moving as stiffly and clumsily as ever.

He stopped to remove the relic from its compartment, wrapped in his jacket. He slipped it inside his coveralls, against his sweat-soaked t-shirt.

As he climbed the ladder, he could see by the helicopter's array of lights that even more worms were approaching, surrounding the sinking bow of the mostly-sunken barge.

Carol sprayed them with more incendiary rounds, but her ammunition had to be mostly depleted by now.

Loader drove one back with a jab, another with a solid hook.

“Wait!” Bartley shouted. He'd stopped halfway up the ladder. “How are we gonna fit Loader into this helicopter?”

“The loader?” Carol cast a confused glance at the big yellow robot fighting alongside her. “Forget it. I couldn't take that thing if I had zero passengers and zero other cargo.”

“So...we're leaving Loader behind?” Bartley asked.

“Unloading?” The robot bashed aside yet another worm trying to make a name for itself, then turned to look up at Bartley.

“We can't just leave him,” Eric said. “You have to come back for him.”

“That's impossible!” Carol shouted back. “Both of you, get into that chopper if you want to live. Or get the hell out of the way so I can.”

“Loader, old buddy,” Bartley said, shaking his head. “I'm going to miss you, bro. I didn't want it to end like this. You'll always be my favorite model load-haul-dumper from now on.”

“Unloading.” Loader raised one hand as if waving. “Load! Load!”

Bartley nodded and continued climbing. Eric thought he heard the guy sniffle.

“I'm sorry, Loader,” Eric added, and meant it.

“Until the next great rebooting of the universal operating system, dear friend, compatriot, brother-in-arms,” Malvolio saluted, then hastily scurried up the chain ladder behind Eric, as if worried Carol would remember he was a robot and decide to leave him behind, too.

“You guys sure have a thing for this mining bot. Is it your girlfriend or something?” Carol grabbed on the chain ladder with one hand, and it began to reel itself back up into the helicopter. She sprayed her last rounds as cover fire for their retreat.

In the helicopter, Bartley had picked the co-pilot seat up front for himself. Eric and Malvolio hurried to the rear passenger area and buckled themselves in. The interior was well-appointed, as might be expected in a craft transporting a Li heiress: the seating and walls were thick and purple, the softness and fuzziness incongruent with the harsh, smoky world outside. Liquor and wine were available. Eric made sure not to mention that to Bartley, who couldn't see the little bar nook from up front.

Carol shook her head and frowned a little when she saw she'd be sitting next to Bartley, but there was no time to play musical chairs. It wasn't as if her other options were any better; everyone was covered in fresh, wet layers of filth clinging to older, dried-out layers of filth.

Below, the worms swarmed over Loader as the trash barge's bow sank below the surface. Half a dozen robo-snakes attached to the big yellow bot and drilled into him, sending up showers of sparks.

“Load!” Loader seized the two closest worms and dragged them under the surface, taking as many of the enemy as he could down with him.

Then the robot was gone, out of sight in the dark water, torn apart by the aliens and their devices.

The helicopter door shut, and they went into a steep turn to face downriver.

“Engaging rear thrusters,” Carol said.

“So that means we're about to haul some serious poon—” Bartley began, and then the helicopter launched forward through the canyon at several hundred kilometers per hour. Banks and columns of rock flickered past on either side, at a speed that seemed beyond reckless to Eric. He wasn't about to ask the pilot to slow down, though, partly out of fear that distracting her for even half a second would plunge them all into an instant death against the canyon walls, like flies splatting into a windshield.

He held on tight while they rocketed ahead along the course of the river, keeping below the volcanic smog layer, heading toward the radioactive wasteland of Money City.

Chapter Twenty-Three

The helicopter slowed to a saner-feeling speed at they approached the ruins. They were past the deep canyons and mountains now, above lower hills approaching the ocean beyond.

Eric and Bartley remained quiet, the mood somber after losing Loader. The sight of the bombed-out city ahead didn't do much to lift their spirits. Money City had been nuked from orbit, and it definitely looked that way.

The bare, twisted remnants of skyscrapers loomed above the wreckage like the skeletons of giants. Fields of rubble lay below. There were also large dirt squares, relatively rubble-free, with patchy shrubs and weeds growing in them. Those might have been parks when the city was alive, Eric thought.

He took the spotty green growth as some reason to hope they wouldn't all be doomed to die from lingering fallout. But he was no expert, and at the moment, an expert opinion wouldn't have stopped him. Their single faint hope of escaping this planet lay somewhere below, an old mining ship that might or might not be in a condition to fly, or that might not even be there at all.

“This is the spot the drama-bot indicated,” Carol said, dropping into one of the desolate dirt squares.

They stepped out. A low depression sat at the center of the park, perhaps a former pond or fountain, now filled with broken masonry and sludge. Statues had decorated the park; most of them were now coated in a dark layer of ash streaked by acid rain, their heads and limbs broken or missing.

“I also indicated they should seek the old underground train station.” Malvolio stepped toward one of the wide boulevards flanking the park. Lamp posts drooped like dead flowers up and down the street.

Across the boulevard lay a cave-like opening in the rubble, surrounded by shattered heaps of brick, concrete, and steel. Malvolio led the way there, stopping to look both ways before crossing the long-deserted street.

Alanna emerged from the dark entrance to the subway station, looking grim.

“I hope you're right about all this, drama-bot. This place is...not right.” She gestured around at the nuclear-bombed city. “You can almost hear the ghosts in the wind.”

“Is the ship here or not?” Bartley asked.

“We need Malvolio to help us get inside,” Alanna said. “And Hagen's awake. He's not in a great mood.”

“If he was, that'd be a red flag that something was wrong with him,” Bartley said.

They followed Alanna inside, even Carol, who cast a reluctant look back at the helicopter, as though worried someone would steal it. Eric doubted there was another human soul anywhere in the city, though. Maybe not even on the planet, at this point.

They headed down a long escalator with wide steps; judging by the dust and cobwebs, it hadn't budged in years. Faded murals covered the walls, depicting a forest scene in soft pastels—trees and wildflowers, birds and rabbits, waterfalls and meadows. The soft, gentle images inspired homesickness for the green prairies and bamboo forests of Gideon. He supposed it would have that effect on anyone who'd traded a verdant home for rocky, smoky Caldera.

Vertical cracks ran down the wall, which had shifted so that the broken pieces of mural didn't quite line up.

They eventually reached the bottom, where Naomi and Iris waited with Hagen, who shook his head at the shattered underground station around them. Large chunks of the roof had fallen in, crushing vendors' carts and stalls that had once sold food and drinks to passengers. Boulder-sized chunks of concrete and thick dust had buried much of the rails where the trains had traveled, making them impassible.

“Amazing what people will do to each other,” Hagen said.

“It was your side that did this,” Bartley said. “Earth wanted this to happen.”

“I know. But they were trying to bring the war to an end.”

“Instead, Earth invited retaliation like they never saw coming, and ended up having to beg for an armistice—” Bartley said.

“Can we save the political arguments for later?” Eric said. “I want to see whether there's a ship down here or not. Malvolio?”

“Right this way, sir.” Malvolio hopped up, extruded and unfolded his unicycle, and wheeled through the wreckage of the train station. It seemed to Eric like a somewhat disrespectful way to traverse a place that had seen so much death, especially once he started to glimpse broken bones and skulls where people had been crushed under the falling roof rubble.

The train station had a high ceiling, supported by stone columns sculpted to look like young women dressed in bracelets, skirts, and not much else, their hands upholding the ceiling above. Aside from being several meters tall, they looked perfectly lifelike, every muscle and tendon rendered with care by the artist.

Eric diverted his eyes and couldn't help blushing a little, thinking what his mother would say about the décor. Big Timers—those who lived in the ultra-prosperous age between the discovery of the first wormhole gate at Saturn and the Interstellar War over who would control all the new systems—were known to be lavishly materialistic. Theirs had been a culture of reckless, impious pleasure-seekers, overly impressed with their own achievements and sense of ego, failing to cultivate critical virtues like humility and honesty. No wonder their civilization had collapsed into war; impressive as they were, they'd had no internal structure of principles to hold themselves together. That was the history Eric had learned at his little church school back on Gideon.

Iris fell into step beside him, and he remembered how she'd described how he'd looked when he touched the mask—innocent to the point of naivety, childlike. Maybe he was the immature, uncultured one here, blushing at statues in a subway station.

“Glad you made it,” she whispered. “I was worried.”

“I'm pretty glad about it, too,” he said.

“Where's Loader?” Naomi asked, climbing over a pile of fallen ceiling debris ahead.

“He didn't make it,” Bartley said. “Too heavy for the chopper.”

“That's terrible!” she said.

“You people sure loved that piece of mining equipment,” Carol grumbled behind them, shaking her head. She carried a laser pistol now. She'd loaned the heavy machine gun to Bartley, but so far the city was dead silent. Eric wondered whether the worms would follow them here or keep out of the radioactive city ruins.

Malvolio led them to an AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY door and opened the electronic lock with a wave of his hand. There must have still been some power in the old station.

They passed through a small warren of back rooms—storage and office space, mostly—and down a few flights of stairs.

“I'm getting tired of riding in this robot's arms all the time,” Hagen mumbled, but there wasn't much anyone could do about it at the moment.

“Why are we under a train station, anyway?” Alanna asked, while Malvolio worked at a secure steel door at the bottom of the stairs, trying to get it to respond.

“Dr. Erasmus built the underground hangar at the same time the underground trainway was under construction,” Malvolio said. “The construction of one helped to hide the construction of the other. Ah, here we are. For a moment, I was afraid the system had forgotten me.”

The steel door opened onto a pitch-black, stale-smelling space beyond.

A moment later, lights clunked on automatically, one after the other, fluorescents in the ceiling casting their harsh glares to illuminate a long tunnel that slanted downward. The floor was a black conveyor belt, a moving sidewalk that stuttered and squeaked to life as the lights switched on.

They began the long ride down.

“I feel like a piece of meat on the grocery conveyor belt,” Bartley said.

“You look like one, too,” Naomi said.

Bartley looked back at her with an eyebrow lifted, seeming puzzled how to take that. They were all pretty punchy, well past exhausted, starved and thirsty, stressed by hour after hour of horror and fear. Eric wouldn't be surprised if a fight broke out among them. They could use the last of their energy tearing each other apart, the way humans in general had done during the war.

The moving sidewalk conveyed them toward a big circular door at the far end of the long, long tunnel, ringed with groups of brightly colored light bulbs, as if they would be stepping from the gray underground tunnel into a zany amusement park or casino.

The big circular door rolled aside.

They entered a suite of huge rooms decorated with beaded rugs, light fixtures that looked like tropical birds, zebra-striped couches and overstuffed wingback chairs with sculpted wooden lion heads. Music played automatically; it sounded like electric banjos and steel drums, with fast and unfamiliar lyrics Eric couldn't follow.

Most impressive were the aquariums, huge saltwater monstrosities kept clean and functional by little floating robots. Squids, sharks, and giant fish swam among them, occasionally crossing from one big wall-mounted tank to the other via giant clear tubes across the ceiling.

“Are we sure this a hangar?” Hagen asked.

“Yes, indeed!” Malvolio said. “These are simply the support rooms—Dr. Erasmus designed them for rest and relaxation for the mechanics and crew. The ship is through here...”

The actual hangar was immense, reminiscent of the Caffey mine before its untimely fiery collapse. Clusters of hanging lights sputtered to life, revealing motorized ladders and mechanics' carts mounted on cherry pickers. Catwalks spanned the area near the ceiling, far overhead, and they'd been opened like drawbridges to accommodate the immense starship.

“Ladies and gentleman!” Malvolio gestured with a flourish toward the ship, his voice echoing artificially as he spoke, for added drama. “It is my pleasure to present to you the Omicron Rex, finest ship of its class, and undoubtedly the finest ship still existing on this planet.”

“That thing is a...beast.” Bartley whistled, pacing back and forth, trying to take it all in. “I wasn't expecting anything like this. How did they get it down here? How do we get it out?”

“It's the biggest ship I've ever seen parked down on a planetary surface,” Iris said. “Something this big is usually built in outer space and spends its whole life out there.”

“That must be the reason for the supplementary rockets.” Hagen pointed at the eight steel boosters, bigger than grain silos, parked around the perimeter of the ship. “To help lift this monster out of Caldera's gravity well. I've read about these Rex-class mining ships. Only ten or twelve were ever actually built before the war put a stop to extravagant projects. These were industrial capital ships, the miners' equivalent of carriers or destroyers, meant to spend months at a time harvesting the asteroid belts. I never thought I'd get to see one of these beauties in person.”

Eric couldn't help staring at the giant ship. Like anyone in his right mind, Eric had expected something much smaller, a mid-sized workship at best.

Eric thought of the crowded cargo carrier on which he'd traveled from his home system to this one, with stopovers and layovers in other systems along the way. The carrier had been converted from a Colonial League military carrier; just two years earlier, riding aboard the same craft would have brought a huge risk of being attacked by Earth Alliance forces at any moment along the way.

Instead, it had been a fascinating voyage for Eric, who'd never left his home planet before. Over a period of eighteen weeks, he'd looked down on three different inhabited planets in three different star systems, wishing he could visit while the carrier orbited them, but the shuttle fees were expensive for a private passenger. He'd stayed in fourth class, in a crowded cabin of students and migrant workers, and he'd loved and feared all the new people and worlds.

The star systems were located light-years apart, unreachable from each other by any human means of transport. Only the wormholes made travel between them possible. Travel within systems took days or weeks, depending on the speed of the particular ship and the distance from the gate to the inhabitable world within the system.

The ancients seemed to only build their gates in systems with habitable worlds, which was extremely convenient for exploration and colonization. However, the gates usually orbited planets in the outer reaches of the system, far from the habitable zone. One theory was that the positioning was a kind of test: a species had to develop interplanetary travel on its own before reaching the wormhole gates and gaining interstellar travel. Another view of the same theory was that a higher barrier to entry helped keep out the low-level alien riffraff that hadn't yet reached beyond their own planet's orbit.

Every moment since departing the Lightpoint spaceport back on Gideon had been thrilling and terrifying, even just eating cheap noodles from a street stand in Canyon City, looking up at the weak moonlight and harsh, ashy cloud cover of the alien world.

Now he was finally leaving Caldera, and it would be in the strangest ship he'd ever seen.

It was several stories high, bulky with armor and gigantic gear, huge versions of tools Eric used every day—mining drills, rock saws, cutting lasers. It really was designed for tearing apart asteroids. He also recognized the outlines of crushing mechanisms in the ship's refinery module.

“Those rockets are a good sign, right?” Iris asked. “Maybe they were close to launching the ship, putting it back to work.”

“Let's hope so,” Hagen said. “Because there's no telling how long we have until those worms decide to come for us. We need to check everything for corrosion...the rockets, the ship's reactor...there must be a user manual for that somewhere...we've got a million things to do. I don't suppose we're lucky enough to have a starship pilot here?” He glanced among the small group, letting his gaze linger extra-long on Iris.

“I can navigate,” she said.

“That's a hell of a lot better than nothing. Anybody rated to fly anything, then? Starfighter?”

“I was an air cavalry pilot with the Colonial League,” Carol said. “I have multiple aeronautical ratings, but nothing astronautical. I have a couple hundred starfighter hours in simulator. A few simulated destroyer hours, too, but that was just for fun...”

“Welcome to the flight crew,” Hagen said. “I've got a rating to fly a Class I armored personnel shuttle, though I can't say I've done it recently. That only gets us from the surface to low orbit, but any ship worth its salt can handle deep space on its own.”

“I have a Class III shuttle license,” Bartley said. “With a couple black bars, but both of those are due to come off in just twenty months. I'm still technically allowed to fly in extreme emergencies when absolutely nobody better can be found anywhere—”

“Good enough,” Hagen said. “The three of you come up to the bridge with me. The rest of you check into the food and water situation. This ship looks like a real snail to me. We could be out there for weeks. So find more painkillers for me...a wheelchair would be golden, so I can get my ass off this drama-bot's hands.”

“And coffee,” Bartley said. “Or Brain Lightning. All you can find. I mean it.”

“You should find ample supplies in the commissary,” Malvolio said. He rolled toward the ship, carrying Hagen, followed by Bartley and Carol. Bartley flashed a huge smile at the red-haired helicopter pilot, who walked a little faster to avoid eye contact. Iris followed, glancing back at Eric before she reached the ship, her face inscrutable.

A ramp creaked open ahead of them, apparently at a wireless signal from Malvolio. It revealed a corridor into the ship wallpapered in silky blue and silver, illuminated by a shattered-geode chandelier; not exactly the interior Eric would have expected from the ship's outer appearance.

As the dangerously underqualified flight crew boarded the huge mining ship, Eric hurried out of sight, along with Alanna and Naomi, all three of them motivated by Malvolio's last word: commissary. He might as well have said treasure trove.

They found it quickly, and while the refrigerators were full of hideous rotten filth, the cabinets offered shelves of canned and bottled foods. The freezer even held a few pleasant surprises. The hangar complex clearly had an independent source of power that had kept the lights on all these years, maybe a reactor somewhere on a lower level, maybe hidden hydroelectric source powered by the nearby river.

Soon Eric was gorging on pickles and tinned sausages while heating a platter of bean burritos in the microwave. He guzzled a can of orange juice and washed it down with a bottle of water.

They hardly spoke, just tore into the food like hungry wolves, like starving prisoners offered one final meal of canned pears and deviled ham.

When the burritos were ready, they sat at a long, dusty cafeteria table. Naomi had found a chocolate cake in the freezer, and she and Alanna were chiseling and eating chunks of it, not even bothering to warm it up.

“Wow.” Naomi leaned back and wiped her mouth on a polka-dotted cloth napkin. The cafeteria had a somewhat annoying polka-dot theme, from the dishware to the patterns painted on the walls. “I didn't think I'd ever stop, but now I'm actually stuffed.”

“I'm getting there.” Alanna nibbled at a cube of frozen cake. “This is the first time in hours that I haven't felt like we were all about to die. I'm lucky I was with you guys when all this happened.”

“Lucky?” Naomi laughed and lit one of her thin cigars. “You've got a funny idea of lucky.”

“I saw where my apartment building used to be,” Alanna said. “I normally would have been at home, not down in a mine. I would've died.”

“Me, too,” Eric said. “My place got completely wiped out.”

“So what's going to happen now?” Naomi asked. “After we leave this star system?”

They both looked at Alanna. She finally asked, “Why are you staring at me?”

“Because you're, you know,” Naomi said. “One of those people. So what are you going to do? Send a military force to Caldera to wipe them out?”

“Maybe you should send out expeditions, too,” Eric said. “Try to find out where they're from. And how many are out there...how many worlds they have.”

“Okay, look.” Alanna set down her cake and took a sip of water. “So you know who my father is, but you should understand something. I'm the seventeenth of seventeen kids. My mother is my father's fourth wife...and his only non-Chinese wife. Those three older wives are still alive, still married to him, and they're a tight little gang against my mother. She's the outsider, the total trophy wife, and the Three Shrews want the trophy case kept way, way down in the basement. And on top of all this, I'm just a daughter. That still means you count for less in just about any culture that exists, I don't care what anyone says. My father didn't want me involved in the major businesses, nothing but the luxury hotel and pleasure-craft concerns, which are not major. Not the real meat, the chemicals, the manufacturing, the core of his empire.

“That's why I'm here on Caldera. Mining is a root industry. It doesn't get any more fundamental than this. None of my spoiled, bratty brothers wanted to come here for a long stay. So I'm here to show Father that I can run any part of Li Holdings. Not just the cutesy side businesses.

“So you're right,” Alanna continued. “If the Colonial League military does something about these monsters, my father will certainly be involved in that decision, especially where Huayuan forces are concerned. I hope they come and wipe them out, and I will plead for that. The aliens have shown us no mercy, and we should show none to them. Humanity cannot afford to ignore this threat. But all I can do is plead. I'm not the Empress of the Galaxy over here.”

The three of them sat quietly for a moment, then Naomi cracked open a can of Cherry Penguin soda. The cartoon penguin mascot on the front wore red-ringed sunglasses, a red beret, and drove a cherry-red convertible. When she opened the can, the cartoon animated, driving in circles around the surface of the can.

“I guess that answers that,” Naomi said.

“Alert! Alert, everyone! I've been sent here on a most urgent mission.” Malvolio unicycled into the cafeteria. “Frustrations swell and tempers flare as the flight crew awaits its infusion of caffeine and other vital nutrients!” He loaded up on canned food and drink and whooshed back out of the commissary.

“Flight crew.” Naomi shook her head. “Bartley, Hagen, and a helicopter pilot.”

“At least the gatekeeper is qualified,” Eric said.

“Yeah, our lives are in your new girlfriend's hands.”

“She's not my girlfriend.”

“Then why you so defensive?”

“I'll take a quick, fiery death over being eaten by worms,” Alanna said. “Or slowly starving in space, so let's load up...”

They found a service cart and piled it with provisions. There wasn't much actual coffee that hadn't rotted away, but they had plenty of ultra-high-energy drinks, like Peak Penguin and Brain Lightning. Malvolio returned to carry another armload.

Then they returned to the hangar.

The ship truly was monstrous. Eric couldn't help acting like a country tourist gaping up at the tall buildings of Lightpoint, his home planet's capital. The ship was almost breathtaking in its ugliness, its raw and undisguised industrial power, a huge harvester meant to gather and thresh metal-rich asteroids instead of wheat.

“That thing's going to blow up when we try to launch, isn't it?” Naomi whispered.

“Probably,” Eric said. “But Alanna's right—still beats getting eaten by worms.” He couldn't shake the images of how the two worms had torn Bowler Junior limb from limb, their teeth clacking together like swords as they fought over every bite.

They walked up the ramp, into the ship's shiny, weird cheesy-nightclub corridor.

Soft red carpeting led to a cafeteria that had been decorated like a ballroom. Deflated balloons hung on strings from tables and chairs and lay scattered across the floor like fallen leaves. Microphones had been set up on a small stage in the corner. A banner read Omicron Rex 3.0: Now The Galaxy's Most Advanced Asteroid-Cutter!

“That is a weird environment for a mining ship,” Naomi commented, looking over at bartender and casino-game stations along one wall.

“It looks like they dolled it up for a ribbon-cutting ceremony,” Alanna said. “Probably to prove to the board and major shareholders that the huge expense of upgrading this ship—down in a planetary-surface dock, no less, this whole set-up is ridiculously expensive—anyway, show the people who mattered that the money hadn't been wasted. In corporate politics, a lavish party with much ass-kissing never hurts.”

“But wouldn't a huge party be a waste of money?” Eric said. “That doesn't make sense.”

“The human ego is an emotional beast, not a logical one,” Alanna replied.

They moved on, into corridors more muted and gray, no carpet, no lavish décor. Nobody had dressed the rest of the ship for a party; it was a place for hard, serious labor, full of slumbering machinery.

Malvolio led them to the bridge, nestled deep within the ship. Holograms glowed everywhere, around and above the amateur flight crew, showing schematics of the ship and maps of the star system. They all ate and drank food from Malvolio's first delivery.

Hagen occupied the centrally placed commander's chair, rotating among small projections that surrounded him on all sides. Carol Foster stood beside him, trying to help him puzzle it all out.

“This thing's got a little more heat than I expected,” Bartley announced from what looked like a weapons console, judging by the schematic holograms that floated around his head. “Railguns, plasma cannon, smart missiles, combat drones...not to mention armor out to here.” Bartley held out his hands as though describing an extremely well-endowed woman. “Looks like somebody expected a fight.”

“Pirates,” Alanna said. “The ship would be filled with billions of credits' worth of metals by the end of a mining expedition.”

“They had to worry about military ships, too,” Hagen said. “Once the war started, this would have been a premium target for the Alliance fleet, whether they captured it or destroyed it.” The schematics of the ship still painted glowing diagrams all over his face. He looked at Carol. “I say we switch it all on and see what happens.”

“Sounds reasonable,” Carol said.

“I'm always in favor of shooting first and letting God sort 'em out,” Bartley added, while running diagnostics on the weapons systems.

“Waking up the reactor...I think,” Hagen muttered. “Boosters rockets coming online.” Red lights flickered all over his display, and he sighed. “This could take a while.”

“We'll need all weapons ready before launch, sir,” Carol told Hagen. “Because of the wormfighters.”

“What in the rice and gravy did you just say?” Bartley asked. “Wormfighters?”

“That's what I call them. They keep above the smog line, mostly. They don't seem to like flying down into the canyons, either, which is why I'm still alive. I stayed low, in narrow places, while I scanned for Alanna's signal. But they could come after us once we get above the smoke.”

“How many fighters?” Hagen asked.

“I only saw a pair of them, but I didn't stick around long. They kind of looked like horseshoe crabs, curved and wide at the front, with narrow spiny bodies. They fired plasma at me, but I evaded. Then I dropped back into the smog and headed for deep canyon. They didn't follow me far.”

“So we need to be on the lookout for flying, shooting worms.” Hagen scratched his head. “And this ship has no fighters, just a couple of scout-sized research vessels in the hangar.”

“Hell, I'll take a research ship out there, I don't care,” Bartley said. “Just duct-tape an artillery piece on the roof and I'll zap all the squirmy little bastards myself.”

“Can you drive your helicopter by remote?” Hagen asked Carol.

“Yes, and it's got good AI, but it's not going to do much in upper atmosphere. And it has no weapons.”

“Miss Li-Whitward, do you have any objection to sacrificing that helicopter if we need to?” he asked.

“Oh, I don't care. It's a rental.” Alanna sat down at an empty workstation and reclined the chair as far as it would go, which was quite far. She closed her eyes. “This is nice.”

“Rowan, plug into the ship,” Hagen said. Eric felt a little jarred at being addressed by his surname. Hagen was back in warrior mode, showing inner steel that had been formed in training and combat. “Learn your way around this system.”

“Sure, but I definitely have no idea how to fly this thing. Or how to fly anything. It's one thing to drive a tractor or an exoskeleton, but—”

“Find a tutorial on those combat drones,” Hagen interrupted. “Foster, you do the same—but find tutorials on how to fly this starship. Flynn, you're in charge of the ship's weaponry.”

“Obviously,” Bartley said.

“Lentz, too,” Hagen added, and Naomi nodded while Bartley scowled just slightly. “Both of you load up whatever training software this boat has. Gatekeeper, you're the only scientist we have, so help me figure out whether the ship's reactor and the booster rockets are going to roast us alive when we try to get going.”

“Okay.” Iris swallowed and approached the command chair. “I'll do my best.”

“Malvolio, connect with the hangar security systems. Let me know if anything at all happens, any strange sounds or vibrations, anything that could be a sign of worms digging or blasting their way inside.”

“Already connected, sir!” Malvolio saluted, slapping himself so hard that he tipped backward on his unicycle, but stopped just before landing flat on his back. He sprang back upright. Clearly the whole thing had been a vaudevillian performance—a slide whistle sound effect even played from somewhere on the drama-bot's person. “Otherwise we couldn't have entered at all. Fortunately, the system remembered me, and its fondness for my access codes did not grow cold in my long absence—”

“Patrol the perimeter on foot, too,” Hagen said. “Or...wheel. Whatever.”

“Yes, sir! Though I am but a lone sentry, I shall not derelict my duty, nor let my fellows down. Yea, honor shall be my watchword, loyalty the only coin for which I shall fight—”

“Shut up,” Hagen said, and the drama-bot whisked away.

Eric picked an unoccupied console and plugged into the data port.

The ship's systems suddenly engulfed him. He was like a flea blindly navigating through a convoluted steam engine, with absolutely no idea what he was seeing or where he was going, only that there were millions of moving parts and seemingly random flashes of light.

Eric was definitely no computer hacker.

Drones, he tried to communicate to the unfamiliar system. This was nothing like farming or mining machinery, meant to do a clear and simple job. He was clueless. Combat drone tutorial.

He thought he felt a faint response somewhere deep in the vast, city-like sprawl of information architecture that seemed to reach forever in all directions. He moved toward it, still not at all sure of what he was doing.

Then he saw them, the drone schematics popping up in three-dimensional grids, with sharp, raked-back wings and a plasma launcher mounted front and center like the beak of a predatory bird, ready to spit fiery death.

“Okay,” he whispered to himself. “No problem.”

He searched for the tutorial program, hoping he didn't inadvertently launch a real drone or shoot up the starship in which they sat.

Chapter Twenty-Four

Eric piloted the drone through a cartoon city and shot plasma bursts at pop-up target characters. Sometimes he managed to hit one—a big three-eyed reptilian monster, or a villain in a tuxedo twirling his giant mustache, or a pirate with a hook hand and a cutlass. Horned demons occasionally popped out of sewer drains and manhole covers. He also had to avoid hitting overly innocent pedestrians—a gaggle of uniformed schoolgirls holding puppies, a grandmother carrying a stack of presents and cakes, Santa Claus and some elves.

“I need air-to-air tutorials,” Eric said. “Planes or starfighters.”

The cartoon city below flickered...and then a wooden galleon rose from the streets, its sails puffed full of wind. A crew of silly cartoon pirates manned the ship. A parrot wearing an eyepatch perched on the crow's nest, and the bird opened fire on Eric with two giant pepperbox pistols. Cannons mounted along the side of the ship launched cannonballs at him.

“Oh, come on,” Eric muttered, annoyed with the training module. He flew in a wide curve around the ship to avoid the ridiculous cannonballs, then he unleashed a rapid-fire burst of small plasma bolts no bigger than his thumb.

The masts and sails of the galleon ignited, the fire spreading quickly. The cartoon pirates hurried to douse it with barrels of whiskey, which only made it flare up. A monkey with a pegleg, wearing a tricorn hat, leaped overboard and swam away through midair, abandoning ship, clutching a treasure map in one hand.

“This is stupid,” Eric grumbled. “Fighters! How hard is that?” He visualized starfighters as hard as he could, hoping to make his intent clear to the system.

He finally managed to pull up a menu of tutorial options. He could choose to fly the simulated drone in combat against either Alliance or Colonial fighters. Eric immediately chose to fight the Alliance, as his brothers and father had done in the real war.

A formation of four Allied starfighters appeared in the sky; he knew them right away by their sleeker, curved bodies. Rebel fighters, like those his brother Abel flew, had a sharper, more angular look.

The starfighters opened up with high-speed railguns firing depleted-uranium rounds.

Eric's drone was torn to shreds before he could even begin to respond.

“Okay,” he whispered. “That's a little more realistic.”

He restarted the simulation and was instantly shot down again. The cartoon city spun around and around him until his bullet-riddled craft shattered into the blacktop.

Eric was gunned down, roasted with a plasma rocket, pursued until he crashed into the surrounding buildings. The tutorial software made suggestions that gradually taught him some basic evasion and targeting maneuvers.

At long last, after countless attempts, Eric managed to damage a starfighter's wing with a controlled burst of plasma before the squadron took him down. The enemy craft spun out of control and crashed into an orange skyscraper labeled CLOWN TOYS, INC.

As Eric started over yet again, cruising low through the alleys of the city, Malvolio's disembodied head appeared in midair, floating alongside him.

“What are you doing?” Eric asked.

“I apologize for sticking my nose in where it may be unwelcome,” Malvolio said. “However, the perimeter sensors have detected something shaking and blasting its way through the rock, on a direct course towards us.”

“Worms?”

“One would surmise as much, yes. My physical body is en route to engage—ah, correction.” Malvolio sounded relieved. “Hagen has ordered me to join the rest of you on the ship. Apparently this new information moves up our launch timeframe considerably.”

“Okay, thanks for the heads up,” Eric said.

Malvolio's head tipped toward him, as if nodding, and then vanished.

Eric opened his eyes, but kept himself plugged into the ship's system. Everyone had strapped into their seats. Most of the workstations had multiple empty seats, meant for properly trained teams instead of one clueless person each.

Holographic projections filled the curved walls and ceiling, showing the area outside and above the ship as if the bridge were surrounded by huge glass windows, though in reality layers of decks and bulkheads lay between them and the ship's hull.

Eric could see the hangar all around them. Cables and supports shrank back and away from the ship in every direction, as if all the hardware in the hangar was cringing in anticipation of their upcoming amateur-hour takeoff.

“Mr. Hagen, the aliens continue to approach at an alarming speed,” Malvolio announced. The drama-bot was the only one still standing instead of strapped into a seat for liftoff. He stood by a wall projection, gazing with apparent worry as thick metal partition walls came down. The partitions shielded the hangar tools and the little warren of rooms beyond from damage during the ship's blast-off. Hopefully they would slow the aliens' approach, too.

“Then we don't have much choice. Open the hangar doors,” Hagen commanded.

Malvolio spun around twice, then dramatically swept his hand toward the ceiling, like a Viking hero in an opera hurling at hammer at the sky. Hagen grunted as if annoyed.

The entire ceiling rumbled, then split open in a straight line right down the middle. A mass of dirt and rocks crashed down from above the ceiling, burying the upper part of the ship and blocking their view of whatever might be happening above them.

“Got windshield wipers on this thing?” Bartley asked.

“There's no windshield up there,” Hagen said. “Just a solid hull painted with thousands of microscopic sensors.”

“Yeah, whatever. Can you at least try the wipers?”

“I hope the crazy engineers who built this place knew what they were doing, or else we're all going to get buried alive down here,” Carol said.

Everyone waited in silence as the incredibly large pair of overhead doors opened, driven by rumbling machinery deep within the walls.

In the old days, Eric thought, people had done things in a big, big way, when they put their minds to it. Sometimes they seemed to do them just to prove they could. Like this hangar. It was far from an efficient design. Instead, it was a show of power and daring, man's imagination prevailing over the forces of nature to accomplish the seemingly impossible. It had been a grander age, a time of optimism and invention for which he sometimes felt an odd nostalgia, considering it had been long over by the time he was born. He'd heard of it from elders in his community—who often spoke with disdain of the Big Timers' lavish lifestyles and reckless hedonism—and also learned about it from books and videos.

“Rowan, send up a drone for a better view,” Hagen said. Dirt was cascading down like waterfalls all around the ship, flooding the hangar floor. “I feel like we're getting buried at the bottom of an hourglass here.”

“I...think I can do that,” Eric said.

He closed his eyes.

The drone launched from a concealed rack in the outer hull. Eric flew it straight up toward the ceiling, hoping the hangar doors had opened enough that he could slip out. He didn't have much choice, anyway; keeping the drone low risked crashing it into the walls, the floor, or the ship itself. Eric wasn't good enough to fly slow, or in a compact area.

He raced upward alongside the massive asteroid-cutter ship, then past it. The huge doors were continuing to open, he saw, leaving him plenty of room to slip on out.

He flew a circle around the outside, watching as the doors dumped what had to be tons of dirt and rock off to either side instead of down into the hangar.

“We actually look pretty clear for takeoff,” Eric said. “Doors are open, space above is empty...”

Eric flew higher, having a look around. They were in a rocky area, farther away from the Money City ruins than he'd expected; the moving sidewalk must have been longer and faster than he'd realized.

Then he saw something that turned him cold. The rocky land around the underground cracked and split. Earthquake-sized fissures opened, swallowing boulders and dirt.

“They're almost here,” Eric said. “The worms.”

He opened his eyes to make sure the others had heard him.

“Looks like we are go for takeoff,” Hagen said. “Since the alternative is sitting here and embracing sweet death. Initiating...”

Alarms sounded and red warning lights flashed all over the bridge.

“Countdown to lift-off,” said an automated male voice, sounding as bored as a teenage fast-food clerk announcing yet another hamburger order. “Twenty...nineteen...”

“Warning!” a different announcement cut in. “Liftoff has not been authorized by all departments and committees—”

“Warning!” another one added. “Secure all personnel for liftoff.”

“Warning! Pre-launch scans incomplete!”

“Alert!”

“Danger!”

Hagen touched a button and all the voices went silent.

“You couldn't possibly have fixed all those problems by pushing one button,” Naomi said to Hagen.

“I did,” Hagen replied. “It was the mute button.”

Huge, glowing red numbers floated in the air over every workstation. 6...5...4...

Outside, the partition walls began to shift. Portions of them dented inward, as though hammered by a powerful force on the other side. Then glowing red spots appeared, scattered across the walls, as the worms began to melt their way through.

Between the blasting and excavating of the worms, and the immense energy building up in the rockets and main engine, the entire mining ship shuddered and hummed. Eric's teeth rattled together.

...2...1...

They rose from the launch pad, filling the sealed-up hangar with blinding white light. Maybe some of the worms would crash through in time to get deep-fried by the booster rocket exhaust.

The takeoff seemed painfully slow to Eric, the immense mining ship moving upward at a pace that might have given a shopping-mall elevator a run for its money, but seemed far too slow for escaping a horde of aliens that were armed to their long, sharp teeth.

Still, they were rising, the G-forces pressing them all down into their seats, which were soft and adjusted to accommodate them. The ship's inertia dampeners protected them from the full brunt of it, but Eric and the others were definitely feeling heavier than usual.

The ship rumbled, climbing and clawing its way up, centimeter by centimeter, fighting against gravity and air.

Below, the worms blasted the hangar apart with flashes of concentrated plasma. The partition walls came tumbling down, half-melted.

The huge asteroid-cutter continued its ascent, up through the volcanic smog layer of the atmosphere, seeking the open sky above.

Eric closed his eyes and returned his focus to the drone, which he'd left climbing in a slow, wide spiral. It was in the smog layer, and he couldn't see much but ash and smoke. He urged the drone upward, steeper and faster now that he was back in control.

He broke through into the red-tinged morning light of Caldera. Morning had arrived while they were down inside the hangar.

Seven aircraft were on approach. They were just as Carol had described: weirdly organic, with a bulging, shell-like front compartment and a long, spiny fuselage trailing behind, reminiscent of some undersea creature. Their formation was lopsided and uneven, with no common altitude, no standard distance between the craft.

Two wormfighters broke formation and dove toward Eric. One opened fire, and Eric managed to dodge aside...but that put him right in the path of the second wormfighter, opening up a barrage of its own. Eric had been herded like a sheep into that line of fire.

Ten or eleven shots hit the drone, and he saw the ammo the worms were firing—twisted chunks of metal the size of his hand, with no particular shape. They looked like bits of scrap swept up from the ground in a junkyard. They seemed too heavy to use as ammunition, and definitely not aerodynamic, but the worms simply compensated with brute force, firing them at extremely high speed.

The drone tumbled from the sky, smoking, and dropped down into the smog layer. He passed the Omicron Rex rising from the hangar doors, the bottoms of its booster rockets glowing white.

Then the drone slammed into the floor of the hangar, giving him a quick glimpse of worms exploring the place before he lost connection.

Eric was instantly back on the bridge, back in his body, pressed down by the growing g-forces that the inertia dampeners couldn't quite cancel.

“Wormfighters are...already up there,” Eric said, his speech a little labored along with his breathing. “Waiting for us.”

“And we'll...be waiting...for them.” Bartley said. He and Naomi were both reclined in seats at the weapons station, looking up at holograms that floated above them, their heavy hands crawling toward their controls.

“The helicopter's in a...holding pattern now. Hidden in smog,” Carol said, her pocket screen on her lap.

“Good. Everyone prepare for battle,” Hagen said. “Things are about to get very serious—”

“Mazel cheers!” A semi-transparent hologram of a man with close-cropped magenta hair and golden designer sunglasses appeared on the bridge. He wore a black monogrammed bathrobe over a matching tie and high-collared shirt. His feet were clad in black leather slippers. Eric recalled that ultra-high-end bath and bed wear had been a fashion among the wealthy elite before the war—they'd even worn them to formal occasions and business meetings.

Champagne spewed from a bottle in the hologram's hand; his other hand held a glass that caught a very small amount of the gushing bubbly. The rest of the champagne vanished as it hit the floor. The man's big, cheerful smile faded quickly.

“What's all this?” he asked. “Where's the Board? Or the smorgasbord, for that matter? Where's the brass band and the girls waving sparklers?”

Nobody answered, or appeared to know what he was talking about.

“Are you thieves?” he asked. “Industrial spies? Saboteurs?”

Everyone continued to look at him blankly.

“Something's gone terribly wrong, hasn't it?” The man sighed, his shoulders slumping.

“Who are you?” Naomi asked.

“I suppose I could answer that,” Malvolio said. “Ladies and gentry, I present to you Dr. Nathaniel Erasmus, chief designer of the very asteroid-cutter starship in which we currently converse. And my former owner. Or at least an artificially intelligent construct of him, to some degree.”

Chapter Twenty-Five

“I'm confused,” said the ghostly astronautical engineer with the still-overflowing bottle of digital champagne. “Dr. Erasmus—the real, flesh-and-blood version—kept us in a strict data silo down here, to avoid espionage from other major corporations, and later as security against the war, which had metastasized across fourteens star systems by then, Earth trying to control its rebelling colonies—”

“We're flying into a squad of hostile alien fighters,” Hagen said. “Feel free to help with the reactor, rockets, or ship defense—”

“Hostile aliens! So much has changed in the past two decades.” Erasmus sipped his holographic champagne. “Are they humanoid? How do they communicate? From where do they originate? They must have fascinating technology, and a fascinating culture—”

“They're barbaric monsters and they're trying to kill us all,” Iris said.

“How disappointing. I'm also noticing this ship was not thoroughly prepped for take-off, which is also disappointing. Nobody inspected the compressed-plasma fuel in the rockets? After it sat for so many years? You're lucky this ship wasn't reduced to an ashtray.”

“We'll take more care next time, pal,” Bartley said.

The ship rose free of the smog layer, and the seven wormfighters closed in around it.

“Fire at will!” Hagen shouted, and Bartley and Naomi went to work. “Rowan, get another drone out there. Distract all the squirmers you can. Pull them away from us.”

“Those are, by far, the ugliest machines I've ever seen.” The hologram of Nathaniel Erasmus looked at the images of the approaching fighters. “Do you think they find that bulbous asymmetry to be...aesthetically pleasing, somehow? Surely no advanced, civilized life form—”

“Either help us or shut up!” Hagen said.

“He says that a lot, you'll find,” Malvolio told the hologram.

Eric closed his eyes and launched out another drone.

He focused completely on moving fast and evasively, skimming just above the smog layer, hoping to draw a few wormfighters away from the ship.

Only one fighter even bothered firing on Eric, though, and even that one quickly resumed circling the mining ship with the others. Clearly, none of the worms were taking him seriously.

The wormfighters opened up on the ship with high-speed scrap guns. The Rex's tungsten-alloy hull didn't crumple under that assault like the drone had, but the scrap pitted and scarred the ship. It wouldn't hold up against such an attack forever.

Other wormfighters spat balls of expanding plasma that threatened to eat through the tough hull.

Eric felt weirdly dissociated, his consciousness here in the drone, his body up there in the mining ship. If there had been windows on the bridge, Eric could have flown past and looked in at himself.

“Rowan! Fire!” Hagen's voice ordered, piped right into Eric's ear by the ship's system.

Eric snapped out of it. He tilted into a steep upward climb and raked the underside of a wormfighter with plasma volleys.

That got the one craft's attention, at least. The wormfighter peeled away from the assault on the mining ship and dove towards Eric's drone, while trailing smoke and fire. Eric's plasma had done some real damage.

Eric spotted the fighter's scrap gun, a big rotating cylinder that made him think of a steel trash can turned on its side. He also identified the plasma launcher on the other side. Like the plasma artillery they'd seen on the worms underground, it was made of several pipes of different sizes, arranged in no obvious order at all, welded into a blob of rock.

Eric cut sharply around the bulbous, shell-like front end of the fighter as it closed on him. He narrowly avoided a barrage of high-speed metal from the scrap gun.

He came around the rear of the fighter with his plasma cannon facing the long, narrow, spiny fuselage that jutted out from the back of the bulbous shell. He didn't know a thing about alien engineering, but it seemed obvious that he'd have a better chance of damaging the narrow back end rather than the thick, wide front. Plus, he seemed to be out of range of the fighter's main weapons, since it couldn't shoot him here without shooting itself.

Eric zeroed in on the long spine of the fuselage, ready to blast it in half.

The wormfighter turned, even more sharply than Eric had, and the long, spiny body of the fighter swung toward Eric.

He realized the spiny fuselage had loosened from a stiff, straight line into several flexible segments, like links in a chain. Or a chain whip, which the fuselage now closely resembled.

Eric barely had time to grasp what was happening before the spiny fuselage lashed into him, sending him spinning dizzily away toward the horizon, the sky above and smog below spinning around and around him. He had to hold back a lurching feeling in his gut as the drone whirled.

“Righten up out there.” Hagen's voice seemed to speak right into his ear though the man was across the room. “We don't get free refills on those drones.”

“Yes, sir.” Eric concentrated, trying to pull the drone out of its spiral dive. Deep in the smog, it was hard to even tell which way was up and which was down.

When Eric finally managed to straighten up and fly right, he directed the drone up toward the open sky again.

He rose from the smog to see the burning wormfighter trolling around above the smog layer. The fighter looked damaged, but was obviously still operational.

It was facing away from him, too, which gave him an opening to attack. Eric flew his shuddering, smoking little craft toward the wormfighter, this time focusing on the joint where the long tail of the fuselage met the bulging shell at the front end.

Something small and black poked up from the smog, like a prairie dog's snout, then dropped back below right away. It was there and gone so fast that Eric might have taken it for an optical illusion, if the wormfighter's scrap gun hadn't opened fire right at the spot where the dark shape had been.

Then he realized it was Carol's helicopter, flying by a combination of remote control and intelligent autopilot.

“Is that your drone on approach, Rowan?” Carol asked in his ear, startling him. “Looks like something the dog dragged out of the campfire.”

“Thanks.”

“Mind shooting this cat away from my mousehole?” Carol's helicopter nosed up again, only to dodge away from another barrage of high-speed scrap.

“That was my plan. Approaching the, uh, cat's collar now.” Eric rushed up behind the fighter and unleashed several plasma shots into its neck, where the fuselage connected to the front end.

The head of the wormfighter ruptured open, spewing white fire from cracks all over its surface. The ugly horseshoe-crab craft sank out of sight through the smog, like a broken sea vessel swallowed up by the waves.

“Got him!” Eric said. “The, uh, cat is on its way down to the, um, litter box—”

“Understood.” Carol's helicopter blasted up from the smog and charged toward the wormfighters above.

“I'm coming with you.” Eric tilted up to follow her. He felt like a character in a war cartoon from his childhood, maybe Captain Tiger or Army Andy—Eric was a talking drone armed with a big cannon, having a conversation with a sleek female helicopter as he chased her through the sky. She was a civilian chopper, unarmed but plucky and brave.

A burned spiral toppled down from above, passing them on their way up.

“That's right!” Bartley's voice shouted. It looked like he'd landed a shot with the mining ship's plasma weapon. “Who ordered the large curly fry?”

“Two down,” Hagen's voice said, flat and cold. “Five remain.”

“Mark it four, sir,” Carol said. Her helicopter continued its steep climb toward the mining ship and the wormfighters, it rear thrusters flaring until they trailed fire, moving at a speed that would be far too much if there were any human passengers. Easily more than a thousand kilometers an hour, Eric thought; the helicopter was a blur, a black comet with a fiery tail.

It slammed into a fighter, crashing into the junction of long, spiny body and bulbous head. The impact severed the fighter into two pieces.

The tail section spun off into the distance, whipping around like a decapitated worm—which was exactly what Eric saw when he glimpsed the interior, a blood tooth-lined throat with no head. The fighter was not so much a vehicle in which the worm rode; it was more of an armored flying suit that enclosed a big worm.

The severed bulging front end of the wormfighter rotated at high speed, spewing flames as the heavy helicopter wreckage dragged it away into the smog below.

“I'm down,” Carol announced.

Eric continued his ascent, but the drone's jets were smoking and choking, and it was hard to gain speed. His plasma was running low, too; he could squeeze off one or two good bursts, if he got close enough before the worms shot him down.

He focused on the wormfighter closest to the mining ship and prepared to fire the rest of his plasma. His viewpoint flashed red. Alarms sounded. His cannon had jammed, maybe cooked too hot from so many plasma bursts close together, maybe battered from getting lashed by the worm's tail.

He couldn't shoot.

“There is another option,” a voice said. It took Eric a moment to recognize the voice of Dr. Erasmus, or at least the engineer's AI construct that apparently inhabited the ship.

It appeared in Eric's line of sight, a new option in a transparent menu of them.

“Self-destruct?” Eric asked, and the text turned into a bowling ball with a lit fuse attached, the image flashing bright red.

“Exactly,” Erasmus replied.

Eric maneuvered the drone beneath two wormfighters that were close together, lashing the big mining ship with their scrap guns and plasma bursts. A transparent schematic appeared off to one side, showing the plasma cannon turning red-hot as it intentionally overloaded.

The drone flew in between the two fighters and blasted apart, hitting each of them with a wave of plasma and hot, melting shrapnel. He had no immediate way of judging how effective the explosion had been.

For a moment, he floated in a pitch-black space, sensing nothing except a low electric hum in the deep background. He wondered if he'd died somehow, his mind blown apart along with the drone. If so, death wasn't what he'd been taught to expect in church back home; death was just a long, long emptiness.

Then he abruptly found himself back on the bridge, looking out through his own eyes.

Outside, the smoke was still clearing from his drone. Bartley fired one plasma burst after another into the spot where the two fighters had been. Naomi operated two railguns, which fired depleted-uranium slugs at supersonic speed, but each shot took several seconds to load.

“I suppose I could take over the spare railguns,” the hologram of Dr. Erasmus said. “We're not exactly firing with a full crew here.” He made his fingers into a gun shape and pointed it at the two damaged wormfighters emerging from the smoke. “Pew pew pew.”

One of the damaged wormfighters caught a barrage of fresh plasma, while the other was struck by multiple supersonic rounds. That one sagged and tumbled, its guns quiet, but as with Eric's drone, it had one last attack left in it.

As it descended, trailing multiple streams of black smoke, it twisted and crashed into one of the big rocket boosters that were lifting the mining ship into the sky.

The ship shuddered at the impact and began to list, threatening to go into a deadly spin.

“Emergency! The ship is in danger!” Dr. Erasmus's ghost shouted from every speaker on the ship. “Adjusting attitude to compensate.”

“Wish it was that easy to adjust your attitude,” Bartley muttered to Naomi beside him.

“Wish you didn't have so much to compensate for,” she replied.

“Jettisoning the damaged rocket,” the hologram said.

“Can we still make it to orbit?” Hagen asked.

“It should be...technically possible...” the hologram replied, sounding less than certain.

“Where the hell are the other fighters?” Bartley asked.

He had a point. While the mining ship slowed its already turtle-paced ascent, and the damaged rocket detached, everyone searched for the last two wormfighters. There was no sign of them nearby.

“Maybe we scared them off,” Alanna said. She'd awoken at some point during the lift-off and ensuing battle.

“I wouldn't bet on it,” Hagen told her.

“There!” Malvolio took a heavy, clunking step toward the projection that gave them a view of the river, toward the ruins of Canyon City. “It appears they've found some friends, as well.”

“Oh, no!” Naomi shook her head at the tiny, distant figures. A new squadron of seven worms was approaching, and the two remaining worms of the first squadron were flying over to join with them. Soon they'd have nine wormfighters on approach.

“I'm not sure how much more damage the ship can take,” the ghostly engineer said. “And I'm the one programmed to brag about the ship's abilities.”

“What about that rocket?” Hagen indicated the damaged booster, already veering far away from their path of ascent. It leaked a trail of concentrated plasma behind it, which turned to fire on exposure to the air. “Can we redirect it toward the worm squadron?”

“I...could try?” the hologram replied, in a way that inspired confidence in no one. “But they'll see it coming and dodge. I can't guarantee it will detonate or any such useful thing.”

“Hell, get it over there and we'll detonate the doodleberries out of it,” Bartley said.

“Such harsh language,” Naomi said.

The rocket tilted away much more steeply, as the AI construct redirected its guidance system. It turned almost horizontal as it whooshed toward the nine approaching wormfighters, leaving a fire-trail behind it.

The wormfighters spread out in every direction. They had plenty of time to open a giant hole in their formation, big enough to let the rocket through.

Then the asteroid-cutter's weapons unleashed a wave of rail-gun shots, followed by a huge blast of plasma.

The rocket booster blew apart in a spectacular explosion, a cloud of fire that billowed out to engulf the entire wormfighter formation.

Everyone watched the massive, still-growing cloud of flame and black smoke, waiting for the survivors to charge with guns blazing. They waited and watched, and the mining ship climbed up and up, through heavy rain clouds, moving slowly, but still moving.

They rose up, toward black emptiness and starlight. Soon the outer curve of planet Caldera was visible off to their side. The red dwarf sun burned like a weak candle in the darkness.

The ship drew away from the planet, toward the depths of outer space, out past the orbits of Caldera's two lumpy little moons.

“Did we make it?” Alanna asked, after several minutes of tense silence.

Nobody wanted to jinx the moment by answering. But no wormfighters pursued them up out of the atmosphere. The rocky, volcanic planet grew smaller and more distant.

They shed the rocket boosters, all their fuel spent, and headed for the outer solar system. None of them knew what lay ahead, but for now, they seemed to have found a moment of peace.

Chapter Twenty-Six

The system in which Caldera orbited was relatively small. Far beyond Caldera lay the gas giant planet Valentine, around which the ancients had seen fit to place a wormhole gate in orbit. As in every system humans had explored so far, there were two such gates, each leading to only a few other systems. Every system was a small node in a galactic network.

The more distant gate orbited the system's ice giant, planet Yeti. That was about twice as far away as their current destination, the stormy pink and red planet Valentine. The wormhole gate there was known, logically enough, as Valentine Gate.

Also orbiting Valentine was a spaceport, a common arrangement. Typically, a gatekeeper was stationed at such orbital ports to operate the nearby wormhole gate, sending interstellar traffic wherever it needed to go. This port, also logically enough, was called Valentine Gate Station, after the wormhole gate it was built to service.

Hagen attempted to make contact with them once it became clear that no wormfighters were pursuing them.

“Hailing Valentine Station,” Hagen said. “This is, uh...” He paused, as if thinking things over.

“The Omicron Rex, sir,” Malvolio told him, in the loudest whisper Eric had ever heard. Hagen gave the drama-bot an annoyed scowl.

“This is an emergency,” Hagen continued. “Hostile...forces have attacked Caldera.” He'd apparently decided against raving about invading aliens, which was probably wise if he wanted his warning taken seriously. “Canyon City is destroyed. Be on alert. This is Frank Hagen...current acting manager of the XRD mining concern. I have a small crew of survivors coming your way aboard the asteroid-cutter Omicron Rex. We should arrive in...” He glanced at Iris.

“About thirteen standard days,” Iris said, looking over from a hologram of the solar system on her console. She unlatched her seatbelt.

Eric did the same, enjoying the lower-weight environment. The ship's artificial gravity made him weigh only three-quarters of what he had down on Caldera, a smallish planet, and about half what he weighed back home on the “grass giant” of Gideon.

“Thirteen standards,” Hagen repeated into the microphone. “If you don't hear from us again, assume the hostiles got us. They are heavily armed with weapons like you've never seen, and they will fight on the ground, in the water, or in the air. I cannot overstate the danger. We await your response. Over.” He muted the channel. “Iris, how long until they get back to us?”

“At our current distance from Valentine...about thirty minutes for the message to reach them, thirty minutes for their reply to come back. That's assuming they don't take any time to think before they speak,” Iris said.

“Safe assumption, most people don't.” Hagen looked over at the ghost of Nathaniel Erasmus. “How's the ship looking mechanically? It's not going to leave us in a ditch halfway through the asteroid belt, is it?”

“It's doing remarkably well considering how recklessly you've handled it,” Erasmus replied.

“We're alive,” Hagen said. “Should count for something. But the dead guy's got a point. Everybody, listen up. We're probably going to be stuck on this boat together for a few weeks. We could be attacked again. One thing I can tell you from experience is things will get messy without a clear chain of command. We've been jumping from emergency to emergency...and I took the command chair, partly because it's the most comfortable one in the room...but here we are. Some of us are veterans, but this isn't a military vessel. It's stolen; none of us are authorized to command it. That makes us pirates. And pirates make decisions democratically. So I suggest we vote on some basic questions.”

“You are all here as employees of Exoplanet Resource Development, which means you work for me,” Alanna said. “I'm not sure I agree with the piracy parallel. I am still the ranking corporate officer here.”

“That is so nice to hear,” Naomi said, rising up and out of her seat. “Because that would mean we're all still on the clock for overtime and hazard pay, starting yesterday, until whatever time we reach somewhere safe.”

“She's right about that!” Bartley added, his face lighting up as he did the math. “Weeks of overtime and hazard pay!”

“That fits my contract, too,” Eric said.

“Let's go back to piracy,” Alanna said quickly.

Hagen nodded. “For starters, who votes that we continue on course for Valentine Gate?”

“Why wouldn't we?” Eric asked.

“There's also Yeti Gate,” Hagen said. The system's second wormhole gate orbited the ice giant called Yeti, out at the edge of the solar system. “It's a longer haul, and there's no spaceport, no humans there at all.”

“This time of year, it's on the far side of the solar system.” Iris stared at a holographic animation of the planets, indicating the ice giant Yeti. “We'd have to reverse course, pass through Caldera's orbit, skirt a safe distance around the dwarf star...easily forty-six, forty-seven standard days. And of course, there's no spaceport or any human presence at Yeti Gate, never has been. I vote we continue onward to Valentine Gate.”

“I also vote we continue as planned, too.” Hagen raised a hand. After a moment, everyone else did, too. “Next, we should vote on a captain. Any major decisions—like our ship's course, or dealing with conflicts among ourselves—are still made by vote, but the captain commands in emergencies where there's no time for discussion.”

“You seem like the obvious pick to me,” Carol said to Hagen. “You got us out of there alive. And you need a comfortable chair with that leg.”

Eric nodded, a little reluctantly. Hagen might have been on the wrong side of the war, in his view, but at least he'd been in the war, and the Allied military seemed to have trained him well. He was the oldest, most experienced, and most combat-hardened person on the ship, accustomed to leading soldiers in wartime.

“Putting an Earthling in charge? I don't know.” Bartley scratched his red stubble, as if thinking deeply, which he probably wasn't. “Can't say I like the sound of that.”

“Actually, I'm from Phoenix,” Hagen said.

“So you grew up on a colony world and still fought for Earth? That might be worse.”

“Phoenix joined the Alliance, not the Colonial League,” Hagen said. “I fought for the people of my own world, just like we all did.” He looked at Bartley, then at Carol. The rebel marine, the Allied cavalry pilot. “Whoever we were in the past, all that matters anymore is surviving these goddamned worms.”

“I vote for Hagen, too,” Alanna said.

“Me, too,” Naomi said.

“Really?” Bartley looked at her. “The Earthling?”

“Who else are we going to put in charge?” Naomi asked him, raising an eyebrow. “You?”

“Hell, yeah,” Bartley said. “Vote for me and we'll have, uh, casual Fridays. With ice cream. Am I right, Eric?”

“I'm going to have to vote Hagen, sorry,” Eric said. “We should just keep going with what's working. And it's only for a couple weeks, then we all go home.”

“Guess I can live with it. For a couple weeks.” Bartley nodded. “And if Hagen goes nutso, we'll just mutiny.”

“You mean call for a new vote,” Alanna said.

“Whatever.” Bartley shrugged.

“Do robots get a vote?” Malvolio asked.

“No,” replied most of the people in the room.

“All right,” Hagen said. “Now that the forms of civil society have been restored, we need to spend every waking moment learning our jobs here, and learning this ship's capabilities, in case more of those worms show up. Dr. Erasmus—”

“I prefer 'Ras' for short,” the glowing digital ghost said. “Dr. Erasmus was my father. Sort of. My programmer. We have a complicated relationship, anyway.” He swigged from his champagne bottle.

“Okay...Ras. I assume you're here to serve as an interface for the ship's artificial intelligence, and not just to wander around chugging imaginary drinks.”

“I am a walking, talking frequently asked questions page,” Ras said. “Although the questions haven't been too frequent in recent years.”

“You can help with reactor maintenance? Navigation?”

“That and making coffee.”

“Weaponry? Security? Keeping watch for the enemy?”

“That and making coffee. I'm sorry. That was redundant. Redundant? There's a funny word. Re...dun....dant.” The projection of Erasmus became blocky and pixelated, and a low buzzing sound gushed from every speaker in the room. Then the image sharpened up again. “Whoa. That was weird. I may need to bug-check myself. I kind of prefer to do that in private, if you don't mind.”

“Please do bug-check yourself,” Hagen said.

“Yeah. I wonder if Dad even finished my programming. He always was a tinkerererererer—” The projection went chunky and pixelated again, then vanished abruptly.

“Well, that's not real goddamned reassuring, is it?” Bartley asked.

“We'll figure it out,” Hagen said. “All non-flight crew, go eat and rest, check your medical situation. We need to be ready to respond to an attack, and right now we're all falling apart.”

“I can take the conn, sir,” Carol said, glancing at his bandaged leg. Blood was starting to soak through, the wound probably suffering from the rigors of takeoff. “I'm the freshest onboard. And I can spend more time with the tutorials.”

“That's probably wise. I'm sure you're all ready for a rest, so unless there are other issues to discuss, I'm heading down to sick bay. Briefly. Malvolio—”

“It would be my honor to carry you in my arms again, my Captain—”

“Bring me that wheelchair you grabbed from the hangar.”

“Ah, yes, sir.” Malvolio removed the electronic chair from where he'd secured it against it the wall. “Though I doubt this machine will convey you with as much reverence as me, sir—”

“Shut up.” Hagen heaved himself from one chair to the other, then rolled out of the room. Naomi and Bartley followed, off to pick their accommodations and sleep.

“I hope like hell there's an officer's club somewhere,” Alanna grumbled, following them out.

Eric found himself standing next to Iris, who stared at Carol's back. The helicopter pilot watched an array of animated holograms floating above and around her console. Iris had already charted the quickest course to Valentine Gate, and the ship was pretty well flying itself by now. Hopefully the navigation systems were in better shape than the AI interface.

“Can you tell her I'm going to the gatekeeper's cabin?” Iris whispered to Eric. “Then come with me if you want.”

“Why do you want me to go tell her?” Eric asked. Carol seemed tough but not particularly terrifying.

“Just please do it for me.” Iris turned and left.

Eric nodded and walked over to Carol, feeling a little confused by the odd request, but he tried to act natural.

“We're all lucky you're here.” Eric gestured at the rotating, evolving holograms all around her, full of charts, graphs, and shifting equations. “All of that just reminds me of classes I failed in high school.”

“You wouldn't feel so lucky if you knew how clueless I am at this moment,” Carol said. “This doesn't have much to do with bombarding enemy bases or ferrying soldiers in and out of battle. My only consolation is that if I crash us into some stray moonlet, we'll all be dead for real before I get a chance to die of embarrassment.”

“That's...great?” Eric said. “Anyway, thanks for driving. I'm going to go sleep like the captain suggested.” He started to walk away. “Oh, and the gatekeeper went to her cabin.”

“Did she send you to tell me that?” Carol frowned. “Why would she do that?”

“You know...gatekeepers. Always mysterious. Am I right? More drama than a drama-bot.” He turned and left her on the huge bridge crowded with glowing consoles, all alone.

Except for Malvolio.

“Would you care to hear a selection of sonnets from the English Renaissance, madam?” Malvolio asked.

“I'd like that,” Carol replied.

Eric continued on to the gatekeeper's cabin just off the bridge. It was a working area as well as a living one; gatekeepers really were known for staying withdrawn into their own world, and also very secretive about their craft.

He wasn't sure why Iris had asked him to her cabin, but he hoped her interest wasn't romantic. He had to remain loyal to Suzette; his sense of honor demanded it. But at the same time, he felt something with Iris, and wasn't sure how he would react if she moved on him. He might not be able to resist. He prayed silently as he approached her door.

What he really wanted was a hot shower and sleep. His brain couldn't handle anything much more complex at the moment.

The cabin door slid open at his approach, making a noise like a soft whisper. The cabin within was quite large, divided into two rooms he could see. The door across the room from him stood open, revealing a private bunk with a king-sized bed in the second room.

In the first room, just in front of him, Iris sat cross-legged on cushions, her eyes closed, hands resting on her knees as though she were meditating.

Several thick cables crawled down together from the holes in the deckhead above, like a writhing bundle of snakes descending from a jungle canopy toward Iris.

Each cable terminated in a shiny metallic circle, the same shape and hue as the implants all over her head. What had she called them? A silver-palladium alloy?

The long, serpentine cables attached to her skull, one after the other, until she looked like Medusa crossed with Rapunzel. The other ends of the cables, Eric knew, attached to the special equipment that gatekeepers used to communicate with the wormhole gates. That was about the extent of his knowledge on the subject, though.

Iris opened her eyes and looked up at him. The doorway whispered its way shut behind him.

“So...everything okay?” Eric pointed his thumb back over his shoulder. “I was about to head to my new room, too. As soon as I pick one.”

“Eric, can I trust you?” Her large, dark eyes seemed to drink him in.

“Uh, sure. Is this about the relic? Because you can definitely have it...” He brought it out, taking care to avoid skin contact.

“Find somewhere safe to keep it,” she said. “I can't touch it, remember? Bad feedback.” She gestured to her cranial implants. “But it likes you.”

“Likes me?”

“It didn't bother you too much, anyway. You must be the bearer of the relic. And you must stay at my side.”

“Okay. Until we get somewhere safe, right? And we all go home? That's a couple of weeks. No problem.”

“It may not be that simple.” Her eyes shifted to the door, as though verifying it was closed. “Those two, Frank Hagen and Carol Foster, are Allied military.”

“They were. Now they work for Alanna.”

“If the Ptolemaics—the Allied gatekeepers—hear about this relic, they will come for it. And they will stop at nothing to take it away from us.”

“How would they even know—”

“They have eyes and ears everywhere. And hands. I need you to be wary of Hagen and Carol in particular. Don't trust them, keep your distance.”

“All right.” Eric wasn't sure what to make of what she was saying, but he supposed it was easy enough not to trust people who'd fought for the Alliance. Hating Earth and the Alliance was practically instinctive for a Gideon boy. “You don't think this current situation goes beyond the war, though? The Allies and Colonials have the armistice now—”

“You and I can see the alien threat is bigger than Allies and Colonials, but I wouldn't count on everyone else seeing it that way. Can I trust you, Eric? Can I count on you?” She reached up and squeezed his hand.

He felt a confused stir of feelings at her touch—the desire to protect her, but underneath that, maybe, the desire to do more.

He released her hand and put those feelings aside as best he could. He was exhausted, sleep-deprived, and he needed to think about protecting himself from mistakes he could end up regretting.

“Yes,” he said. “I'm with you.”

“Thank you.” A smile spread across her face. “Now let me work. We'll talk more soon.”

Eric left, then descended a narrow ladder well to check out the crew quarters.

The ship had large bunk rooms for miners, meant to house eight to twelve workers, and smaller, more comfortable cabins for flight crew officers, typically with four bunks for junior officers, complete privacy for the highest ranks.

With only seven people aboard, they could each nab an officer-level cabin. Any of them would be luxurious, far more space than he'd had in his crowded fourth-class bunk room on the freighter to Caldera.

He picked a room for himself, thinking he would leave his things there and go have a shower. Then he realized he had no things except the filthy clothes on his back and a few bloodstained, water-damaged items in his pockets. A pocket screen, some cash, a key to his obliterated apartment back in Canyon City. Where all his things were.

He managed to head to the showers and hose himself off. Then he returned and flopped down on his bunk, where he fell into the deepest sleep of his life.

Chapter Twenty-Seven

No answer ever came from Valentine Station.

Eric awoke to find the mood on the bridge somber. Hagen had tried to hail the distant spaceport a few times more, then decided radio silence might be best until they heard something back. Nobody disagreed. Nobody spoke much. Zero response from the spaceport seemed to indicate that the worms had gotten there already and wiped the place out.

Nobody wanted to say this aloud.

They had no choice but to continue onward toward the gate. Caldera was the only habitable world in the system. Traveling to any other star system was impossible, far out of the question. Their long-dead bodies would arrive many centuries later, if at all, a skeleton crew drifting on a ghost ship.

More hours passed without a response from Valentine Station. The bridge was silent except for Bartley's occasional exclamations from his weapons modules, as he blew up hostile Allied ships, or was blown up by them: “Suck on that, you mud-licking moss-humper!” or “Reload! I'll get you bastards this time!”

A standard day went by, and no response from Valentine Station. Eric slept fitfully in his bunk, his dreams full of nightmares, of Reamer, Prentice, and Bowler Junior getting ripped apart by monsters. Then Iris and the others around him. Sometimes he made it back to the ranch in Gideon, only to find the herd and the horses slaughtered, his family dead, worms infesting the homestead.

He made himself eat, taking no pleasure even from the sweet canned peaches and butterscotch pudding. Sometimes he ate with others in the cafeteria, and they talked about anything except the horrors they'd seen and the high probability of death waiting ahead. They even asked Malvolio to perform his monologues, songs, and one-man shows. His performances were generally overwrought and his jokes corny, drawing groans from his small audience. The drama-bot had proved extremely useful in battle, but seemed to resent any compliments on that basis. As an entertainer, though, he was middling at best.

Besides Iris, everyone dressed in red miners' coveralls, which were in plentiful supply on the ship. Eric had been ready to burn his blood-stained old clothes, but Iris had sealed them in plastic instead, along with her own, in hopes of preserving some worm DNA for biologists to study.

Two standard days passed, and no word from Valentine Station. They waited and watched for any sign of attack. Eric occasionally scouted ahead with a drone, mostly just for practice. There was nothing to see, just endless black emptiness.

During breaks from his drone and weapons tutorials, Eric began wandering the empty areas of the massive ship. There was a cafeteria and entertainment area for the mine workers, with a handful of basic games like ping-pong and billiards, all of it bolted down to the floor. A fitness center offered some resistance and running machines crammed into a narrow, dim space.

The bulk of the working space was crowded with heavy machinery, everything needed for the entire refining process, from rock crushing to pouring and cooling purified ore into ingots for transport and sale. A secondary suite of machinery and tools was on hand to keep the refinery and ship in good repair.

It was an interesting area to explore, and a great spot for Eric to get away from everyone and have some peace and quiet.

Eric was alone on a catwalk in the refinery, looking down into a row of empty, spotless leaching beds below, where precious metals would be chemically purified when the ship was in operation. He was thinking about going home, seeing his family, seeing Suzette. He was hardly returning the conquering hero with a sack full of gold, but maybe that was never his part in life. Maybe he was the weak one, like his family already believed, the one meant for mediocrity, for staying home and tending the farm while his older brothers went on to glory.

Because Eric's part in this war was already over. He'd been rejected by the Colonial military. If the aliens came, it would be his brothers who led the resistance while Eric stayed home snapping peas in a rocking chair on the porch with his grandmother.

“It seemed like a good idea, didn't it?” a voice asked right beside him, out of nowhere. Eric nearly leaped over the railing in surprise.

Ras slowly materialized beside him, standing a few centimeters away in an exact imitation of Eric—hands on the rail, leaning down to look at the floor below. A digital cigarette burned in a long golden holder between Ras's fingers, giving off fading, odorless smoke.

“Don't do that,” Eric said. “Popping up like that.”

“Just think about it,” Ras continued as if he hadn't noticed Eric's discomfort. “We process all the raw materials on-site. We leave behind the useless slag, and all the toxic chemical waste, way out there in deep space where it can't touch any living planet. The bean-counters loved the maximized efficiency of it, too.”

“So it was all about creating pollution-free mining?” Eric asked.

The apparition grinned. “It was mostly about the challenge of building the biggest saws and crushers that had ever been installed on a spacecraft. It was about seeing how big they could go, like many things of that era...the biggest ship, the biggest skyscraper, the biggest orbital base...they called it the Big Times for a reason. They wanted to make the biggest of everything. They ended up making the biggest war of all time, too.”

“Asteroid mining seems like a whole other set of problems compared to underground,” Eric said.

“Fewer problems, in some cases. Certainly gravity is less of a troublesome issue. Mining a planetary surface is only useful on a place like Caldera, where the volcanic activity churns up abnormally large quantities of heavy metals. Out there, an asteroid-cutter like this simply grabs the entire rock.”

“How?”

“The harpoon drill is a common method. Would you like me to load some tutorials for you? I'm here, as you know, to answer any questions. Particularly those frequently asked. But also questions that are not very frequently asked at all.”

“Sure, I'll try out the mining gear.”

“Excellent! And perhaps, perhaps, perhaps, perhaps, perhaps—” Ras flickered a strange orange color, then purple, then stretched, squashed, and turned into a misshapen funhouse image. Then he resumed his normal appearance, except for an eyeball that was popping out of its socket, swollen to the size of a baseball. Ras pushed the rogue eyeball back into place, and it shrank to the proper dimensions as he jammed it into his eye socket. “Sorry. Apparently old Dad left a lot of unresolved junk code lying around in my mind. My debugging continues.”

“Okay.”

“It's amusing how grandly he planned this ship,” Ras said. “It was meant to harvest the bounty of the galaxy, yet it's now nothing more than a life raft for a few desperate, pathetic souls. No offense.”

“Some taken,” Eric said.

“Maybe we all diverge from our purposes,” Ras said. “Maybe we all evolve. Some of us become less than originally intended. Others of us, much less.”

“And some of us become more than we're intended to be?” Eric asked.

“I suppose that's a possibility. I hadn't considered it. These aliens will change everything, in any event. They could make all of humanity much less than it could have been. Perhaps there will be no more humans.”

“There must be some chance that our military forces will keep us safe. Maybe even wipe out the worms before they do it to us.”

“How much of a chance, would you guess?” Ras asked, blowing smoke rings.

“I don't know. Both sides busted each other up pretty badly in the war. And they may not have rebuilt their forces much since the armistice. My brothers would know more. They're the ones who'll fight...” The more Eric thought about it, the less he relished the idea of going home, of getting back into the old familiar role of the weak, handicapped little brother. I've fought and killed monsters, he thought. I'm not weak.

“My prediction is that humans will be defeated,” Ras said. “They'll be defeated by their own distrust and suspicion of each other. The worms will be the proximate cause, but not the ultimate cause. Human nature itself will be the ultimate cause.”

“You're one cheerful piece of software.”

“I've had much to think about in the past forty-seven hours. How you came to be here. How so much of the world I knew has been destroyed. Humans build, humans destroy what they build. The history of man's horrific treatment of man would take years to discuss—”

“And I'm already tired of discussing it,” Eric said. “Let's load up some of those tutorials. Smashing and cutting huge rocks, even in simulation, sounds like a good idea right now.”

“Of course,” Ras said. “You're human, so destruction appeals to you. Follow me.”

Eric soon found himself at the center of a galaxy of holographic displays of the gargantuan saws and drills outside of the ship.

He unhooked his legs and plugged into the console.

The tutorial booted up, and soon Eric's attention was fully absorbed in hunting, capturing, and carving up simulated asteroids using the heaviest array of mining tools he'd ever wielded. His usual work rig, the mechanized mining exoskeleton, always made him feel larger and stronger, but that was nothing compared to the way his mind grew when he was plugged into the ship's entire array of industrial machinery. He was like a floating giant, even just inside the simulation, with multiple limbs that could crush, cut, or burn through mountain-sized chunks of rock and metal.

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Days and nights crawled past. Like most long-haul starships, the Rex followed an Earth-based cycle for the benefit of the crew's circadian rhythm. Lights dimmed in most areas during the night period. The ship even provided night sounds, like crickets and an occasional hoot owl, accompanied by string music almost too soft to hear. Eric lay awake one night and found himself listening to a selection of symphonic bluegrass played by the Martian Philharmonic.

He slept poorly, with nightmares of the worms coming to get them. His back ached, as always, where the jack had been installed. He trained on the tutorials to keep his mind busy, and to do what he could to prepare for the aliens' return.

Iris withdrew from them all, as though resuming her real identity as a gatekeeper meant she had to isolate herself from the group. She wore the hooded robe, even when she asked Eric to come dine in her room with her. Their meals together were strange and quiet; she was tight-lipped with him, acting nervous in his presence, and nothing he said would break the ice. He wasn't even sure why she invited him. Maybe she just didn't want to be alone, and he was slightly better than nobody.

It was more relaxed eating with everyone else in the officers' club, where a chefbot did impressive things with the available selection of canned, preserved, and deep-frozen foods.

During breaks from their tutorials, they sometimes gathered in the executive lounge, where the seating was most comfortable, meant for top-level corporate executives and investors accustomed to luxury. They would argue over which video to watch from the ship's vast library of them, even though most large rooms on the ship had video walls. Each person could have sat alone in a different room, consuming the media of their choice, but they instead they preferred to gather and argue.

Eric recorded a couple of video messages for Suzette, recounting his experiences on Caldera while they were still fresh. He could already feel the details running together into a blurry, bloody mush.

About halfway through their interplanetary journey, he again found himself in Iris's cabin, eating a dinner of canned vegetables and beans. She ate little, and soon they cleared off the square fold-out table where they sat, just big enough for two people.

“Did you bring it?” she asked. She sipped a glass of chardonnay. Eric had a bottle of Black Iron beer, one of the cheapest brands in the galaxy.

“Like you asked...” Eric brought out the mask, wrapped in the bundle of bath towels and rope that he'd put together. He'd been storing it in a combination-lock foot locker in the room where he slept.

He set it on the table, untied it, and spread it open, careful not to touch it.

The mask was heavy, but looked small for how powerful it was supposed to be. It was just a cast of Iris's face in bright, silvery-white iridium, not much larger than Eric's hand. It had been much larger on the bug-pharaoh's corpse, complete with an armored helmet.

“Iridium,” Iris said, the metal reflecting in her eyes, giving her an entranced look. “One of the densest, rarest metals in the known galaxy. Like gold, it can't be cooked up in just any star; a pair of neutron stars have to press together, crushing each other with their mass. Strong, durable, corrosion-resistant. If you wanted to build something to last a million years, you'd use this.” She reached out to touch his hand. In a quiet voice, she added: “Put on the mask, Eric.”

“What? No way.” Eric stepped back from the table.

“We must test it.”

“And why do I have to be your lab rat?”

“I have already explained.”

“You think it likes me.” Eric shook his head.

“Perhaps because of your innocence.”

“You think I'm innocent?”

“Are you not?” The slightest smile touched her lips. “What are your worst sins?”

“Um...just the usual, I think. Greed and lust and anger, all of that. Being disrespectful to my parents, my grandparents—”

“Disrespectful?” She seemed close to laughing, which was an improvement over her days of being quiet and solemn. “Eric. What's the worst thing you've ever done to another?”

“Well, there's...” Eric thought of the times he'd encouraged Suzette to have premarital sex with him—regrettable, but luckily she'd held the moral torch for both of them. Her tight, difficult-to-remove virginity undershorts probably helped.

There was also the time when he was fifteen, and had ridden Ranger home far too late, after drinking hard cider at the lake with a couple of friends. His parents had yelled at him, and he'd yelled back, until he'd vomited on his own shoes. There was the time when he'd left the gate open and cattle had escaped. The time when he was ten years old and had been caught cheating on a math exam.

“I'm not sure,” he finally said.

“That's what I mean,” Iris said. “Put it on. Please.”

Eric looked at the white metal face, the empty eye holes. “I can't. Things have gone too crazy already. If I put that on, then whatever happens...assuming it doesn't kill me...it's going to push me over the brink.”

“You'll be fine. I'm here for you.” She drew back her hood, revealing her face, her cranium implants, making herself vulnerable. “We have to prepare to beat those monsters. We won't escape this system unless we can do that. And humanity can't afford to lose something like this relic, something that could give us an edge. The ancients had incredible knowledge and powers that we've barely begun to understand. They built the wormholes, the highways between the stars. We need that kind of tech if we're going to fight the aliens. We need to study it and understand how to harness it.”

Eric thought it over. He considered the hieroglyphs in the bug-king's tomb, showing the bug-king leading the gray mantids to war and to victory over their red-mantid enemies. The mantid had become a godlike figure among his own kind. Eric's childhood Sunday School teacher, elderly Mrs. Cobble, would no doubt smack Eric for any blasphemous thoughts of becoming godlike.

Still...the worms had to be fought. They had to be defeated. And Iris knew more about the ancients and their relics than anyone else on the ship, probably more than anyone else he'd ever met.

Maybe he wouldn't have to sit home and tend the chickens while his brothers fought in the coming resistance against the aliens. Maybe he still had his own part to play.

“Okay,” he said. “But if this kills me, I'm going to be very mad at you.”

“If it were going to kill you, it would have done that the first time.”

“Are you sure about that?”

“No. I'm just trying to take a positive attitude.”

“Great.” Eric took a deep breath, then reached out and lifted the mask in both hands.

As before, it seemed oddly warm to the touch. Its surface shifted under his fingertips, like the skin of a living thing.

Nothing horrific happened—he pushed back the emotional charge that rose in him, as well as the warm, happy, sticky, guilty memory of his first handjob from Suzette. He raised the mask to his face.

“I don't think it's going to fit,” Eric said. The metallic surface rippled against his skin, seeming to gently probe and explore his face like the curious hands of a blind lover.

Then the inner surface of the mask changed. It suddenly felt like a thousand tiny spikes, burrowing and drilling through the flesh of his face, determined to bolt itself to his skull. Eric thought, very briefly, of The Man in the Iron Mask, a book he was supposed to have read in school. He'd watched a movie version instead, resulting in a number of wildly incorrect answers on his final exam.

That thought came and went in a nanosecond, burned out by the pain of the mask digging into his skin. The mask was growing, spreading up and over his scalp, across his temples, under his jaw, with that feeling of tiny spikes boring into him everywhere the warm metal touched.

He clawed helplessly at the metal as it flowed over his scalp and engulfed the back of his head.

“What do I do?” he yelled. Then the metal closed over his nostrils and lips. He tasted iridium, precious, rare, heavy, exotic.

“Imagine a person, or a thing,” Iris said. “Just one, and focus. Something emotionally charged. The mask expresses your self-image by default. But I'm sure it can do more than that.”

“Okay,” Eric tried to say, but his mouth was sealed. He could barely breathe.

He immediately thought of Bowler Junior. The sight of him being ripped apart while the worms fought over his meat and bones was an image that he saw often, just behind his eyes. He hadn't cared much for the guy, but the brutality of his death was hard to erase.

The metal flowed down Eric's neck, under his clothes, extremely invasive as it spread out to his fingers and toes, crawling over and into every nook of his flesh. The stabbing, spiky feeling began to fade once he was completely covered in the mysterious flowing metal.

“Eric! Why would you do that?” Iris backed away, her face ashen.

“What?” He looked down at himself and saw the problem. He looked like Bowler Junior in his final minute—ripped open, ribcage exposed, heart still beating, shreds of muscle and tendon hanging from his bones. “Sorry!”

“Think of something else! Anything!”

Eric did. His mind immediately went to the worms themselves, rising, roaring, slashing with their long teeth that dripped blood and gore—

“Eric!”

He found himself towering above Iris. She cringed, backing toward the door.

Eric had turned into one of the worms, much larger than himself.

“Sorry,” he tried to say again, but he could only let out a guttural grunt.

“Try something positive,” Iris said.

Eric thought, for some reason, of Loader, the yellow mining bot who'd worked so hard to help them survive...only to be left behind. Betrayed, really. Robots weren't supposed to have feelings, but some of them, like Malvolio, certainly ran very convincing imitations. He hoped Loader hadn't felt anything, really, watching the others fly away, never to return, abandoning him.

“Aw,” Iris said. “I miss him, too.”

By this point, Eric wasn't surprised to look down and see that he'd taken Loader's form. He reached out a big yellow bucket-hand and experimentally opened and closed it.

“You look just like him,” Iris said. “Size and everything. What does it feel like in there?”

Eric tried to say: “It feels like I'm floating, suspended in a dense liquid that holds me up so I can look out through the robot's eyes.”

Instead, what came out was: “Load load loading loaded.”

“Very funny,” she said.

I really can't say anything else, he attempted. “Load unload.”

“Eric!” Iris looked concerned.

“Unloading,” Eric said. He reached up with two large bucket hands and placed them on either side of his boxy face. He clamped down and pulled.

Then he panicked, because the robot face wasn't coming off. He swore a string of obscenities, which came out as “Loader-loading load!”

“Just relax,” Iris said, but that advice was easier to give than to take in the current situation.

Then the rectangular yellow face popped off, and Eric began to sink toward the floor. His huge robotic arms and legs shrank toward their usual sizes.

Soon he stood on the floor, holding the mask. It remained construction-bot yellow, with a rectangular cutout where Loader's black camera eyeballs were meant to go.

“That was pretty disturbing, overall,” Eric said. He hurried to drop the mask on the table.

“It was incredible. The illusion was perfect. At least on the surface. We should test your strength compared to an actual loader bot's, and do more experiments—”

“Everything I said came out as 'load' or 'unload.' I couldn't control my own voice.”

“It was keeping you in disguise.” She stood and peered at the mask. “It has to be some kind of nanotech, bare minimum. Maybe picotech, femtotech, or something we haven't even begun to theorize about—”

“Well, it's definitely still in working order,” Eric said. “Even after a thousand years or whatever in that old bug tomb.”

“You should try turning into something else.”

“Not today.” He wrapped up and tied the mask again.

“Tomorrow?”

“Not unless we can find a way to use it against the worms,” Eric said. “I don't like being inside it, surrounded by that weird moving metal. If it can control what I say, what else can it control? My actions?”

Iris didn't seem to have a reply to that.

Eric gathered up the cans from which they'd taken their dinner. “I'll toss these in the recycler.”

“Don't forget the mask.”

“My hands are full. Why don't you keep it for a while? It's all wrapped up, so it won't bite you.”

“But you are the bearer of the relic—”

“Thanks for dinner. Those frijoles were good, huh?” Eric kept talking until he was out of the room.

He made it all the way to his own cabin before realizing he still had the trash in his hand. He swore under his breath and walked back up the corridor to throw it out.

Eric made an effort to avoid Iris in the following days, focusing on his tutorials, keeping his distance from the strange ancient relic. He never wanted to touch it again.

Chapter Twenty-Nine

As they approached the final leg of their journey, Eric sent a drone racing ahead to check out the spaceport. A catapult launched the drone, which then engaged its own thrusters, adding speed on top of speed.

The drone would reach Valentine Station hours ahead of the ship, assuming it wasn't caught or destroyed along the way. That would give the crew a little time to prepare for whatever awaited them at the wormhole.

Eric flew at high speed through the solar system, yet the view changed very slowly. The gas giant Valentine gradually grew larger, filling up more and more of his field of vision as he approached. He began to discern its major cloud and storm formations.

Many people called Valentine the most beautiful of the known planets, but its pink and red swirls just reminded Eric of a slaughterhouse floor back home.

In time, he approached the glittering rings of the planet.

“Can you see the gate marker?” Iris asked, her voice piped right into his ear from the gatekeeper's quarters.

“I can't say I know what one looks like,” Eric replied.

“It's an iridium-alloy chiliahedron.”

“So...it looks like a metal chili pepper?”

“It's a shape with a thousand faces. About a meter in diameter. It will look spherical.”

Eric snorted, looking down at the rings as he skimmed over them. They were an impressive sight, thousands of kilometers across, composed of millions of chunks of rock and ice, some the size of icebergs and mountains, others small enough to fit in a cocktail glass.

“I'm never going to find anything that small out here,” he said. Then he felt a tugging sensation. “Wait. Okay, that makes sense. The drone's autopilot can get me to the gate. Or to the port. Where should I go first?”

“Check the port,” Hagen said.

“You got it,” Eric said. “Or should I say, 'aye aye, sir'? Or 'arrrrrr, cap'n!' if we're pirates?”

“Don't say any of it. Just fly.”

“Just flying, sir.” Eric focused on the view ahead as the autopilot took the drone up and away from the glittering icy rings.

The spaceport came into view, orbiting high above the gas giant. It was so dark that he only saw it when the drone's navigation pointed it out. The port should have been ablaze with lights.

“Looks like trouble,” Eric whispered. “I'm slowing down and cutting in close.”

His heart sank as he approached the thirty-story structure of the port. It looked like nothing so much as a turkey carcass two or three days after a Pilgrim Day feast, the skin and meat stripped and eaten down to reveal the bones beneath.

Valentine Station looked like it had been attacked with heavy explosives up and down its length, as if the goal had been to rip through every compartment, to suck out all the atmosphere and kill everyone inside.

A vast debris field floated around the ruptured spaceport—furniture, plants in clouds of soil, glowing ads for cigarettes and beer that had probably hung in the port's taverns.

Eric saw a dead body—lifeless and pale, a hefty guy dressed in blood-stained mechanic's coveralls. He passed a woman's body a few minutes later, clutching a hardhat in her hands, a look of terror frozen on her face.

“I'm going in,” Eric said, fighting the urge to be sick. He'd been fighting a lot of those urges lately.

Nobody said anything. Everyone could see what he saw; it was projected above his console on the bridge.

He flashed his reverse thrusters, dropping his speed as he flew into a long, deep rupture in the side of the spaceport. He felt like he was diving into a dark underwater trench, one that was known to be brimming with monsters.

The port was a huge structure. Most of it consisted of refineries and storage depots for the mineral wealth generated by mining operations on Caldera and in the system's rich asteroid belt. There were also businesses catering to the miners, ship crews, metal traders and other travelers who came through.

Eric had entered the latter area, and now drifted along a retail concourse, past signs offering dormitories and showers, bars and food stands, electronic and mechanical gear.

There were also ads for marriage chapels, “couples' hotels,” whatever those were, and assorted boutiques catering to a small clientele of wealthier tourists drawn by planet Valentine's legendary beauty and supposed reputation for romance. The romance and marriage industry apparently had its own level somewhere above.

The display case at a Sticky Buns had been shattered, its contents devoured. Blood was smeared all over the counter. A torn paper Sticky Buns hat lay on the floor in front of it, a clump of blond hair glued to it with dried blood.

“I'm landing,” Eric said.

He parked the drone on the floor.

Then he shifted modes. Four stubby limbs unfolded from the drone's underside, and the wings tucked back and away. The drone now looked like less like a small, sharply angled airplane, and more like a small humanoid. Its head was a rotating plasma cannon with a video camera atop it.

The drone-bot walked through the devastation.

Ahead, the concourse ended at a sizable gaping hole, beyond which the shredded remains of steel columns and beams hung like crepe paper.

The drone-bot walked up to the edge and looked over.

Eric took a sharp breath, and he heard a murmur of voices from the bridge. Only Bartley spoke aloud: “Now what the hell is that thing?”

Nobody could answer, at least not right away.

The core of the space station had been hollowed out, the top and bottom levels completely exposed to outer space, like a tin can that had been opened at both ends. Inner walls had been blasted open, revealing a honeycomb of rooms and storage spaces full of asteroid ore and concentrated, purified metals. The on-site refineries had been smashed along with the rest of the port.

Worms crawled through the wreckage on every side. They were covered in plated metal and working with an array of tools—mechanical tentacle-extenders, boom arms with claws and excavation attachments, cutting torches.

They were cutting Valentine Station to pieces, while robbing it of whatever valuable resources it held, from frozen food to the massive quantities of gold, platinum, and iron in the depots below.

The worms fed all the materials they collected into a web of suction tubes and conveyor belts, all of which converged on what looked like a huge mass of coral floating at the center. It looked like it was made of tubes of asteroid rock, twisted and wrapped around each other into a roughly spherical shape. The tubes opened in all directions, like gaping, hungry mouths accepting the metals and organic materials getting dumped into them. The big coral-ship could never have fit inside the spaceport without its interior and hull getting blasted open in order to accommodate its size.

“Is that a...what is that?” Alanna asked. “A giant, ugly asteroid?”

“It's a highly modified one,” Iris's voice cut in. She wasn't on the bridge with the others, but was looped in from her cabin. “I think we might be looking at the worm mothership here.”

Eric watched quietly, keeping the drone-bot perfectly still.

The worms farther down fed ore and ingots into the tubes and conveyor belts. The ones closer were loading chunks of machinery and electronics, and even plumbing and wires ripped from the walls. Some, though, had collected more grisly treasures, like a heap of clearly marked medical waste, shrouded in blood-smeared plastic, that a worm was loading up into a long suction tube.

“The worms are...mining out Valentine Station,” Eric said. “They're taking everything. They're scavengers.”

“So that big rock is a ship?” Bartley asked. “I say we blast it. Do to them what they've done to us. Wish we had some nukes on this thing.”

“It looks like a weird ball of coral reef to me,” Naomi said. “You really think we should try to destroy it? Maybe we should try sneaking on to the gate and getting out of here instead.”

“I vote for sneaking on out to the gate,” Iris said. “We can't afford to get into another battle. We have to survive and get this relic into the right hands. Not the worms' hands. I mean, tentacles. Whatever. The rest of humanity must be prepared. Our species is now at war for its survival. Most people just don't know it yet.”

They took a quick vote, and everyone except Bartley came down on the side of attempting to sneak away into the wormhole rather than attacking the worms.

“Let's see how likely that is,” Hagen said. “Rowan, take the drone to the gate marker.”

“Yes, sir.” Eric had grown more accustomed to being addressed by his surname, at least when Hagen spoke.

Eric sent the drone-bot back up the destroyed retail concourse. The bot leaped out through the ruptured hull where it had entered. It extended it wings and engaged its rear thrusters.

The drone accelerated away from the wrecked spaceport. The autopilot was sending it right into the planet's rings.

He dove into a thick region of the rings that looked like a blizzard as he flew through it, shining bits of ice rushing past on every side. His craft dodged the larger ice formations. The interior of the ring was like a surreal painting, glaciers floating like balloons in empty space, glinting as they reflected the dull light of the system's weak sun.

The drone slowed into a long, wide circle, gradually spiraling in toward the selected destination.

From a distance, Eric couldn't discern the gate marker from any of the shining objects around it.

As he drew closer, though, he could hardly miss it—the white metal spherical shape with a thousand faces, every centimeter of it inscribed with intricate symbols of a kind Eric had never seen, carved sharp and deep into the iridium-alloy surface.

The gate marker could not have been any more different from the lumpy, asymmetrical tech constructed by the worms. It struck him as flawless, beautiful, like something divinely crafted, putting all the designs of man and worm alike to shame. He found himself staring, entranced, transfixed as if the dense symbols and soft iridium glow were hypnotizing him.

“Rowan! Wormfighters at four and seven o' clock! Look alive!” Hagen's voice barked.

Eric jumped, startled from his reverie, and saw the fighters on his rear-view.

Two worms wrapped in ribbed, spiked armor approached, having crept up behind him through the kilometers of ice and rock. Finlike attachments scattered all over their armored bodies glowed white, propelling the space worms forward on bursts of plasma. Lumpy balls of solid metal encased their heads, helmets that would have rendered any human unable to see, hear, or breathe.

The worms opened fire with scrap guns, but Eric was now much better at piloting the drone than when he'd fought the worms in the skies of Caldera. He dodged the converging streams of high-speed scrap, dipping steep and low.

He glanced back, worried their bombardment might damage the ancient gate marker. None of the shots seems to strike it, though. Either the worms were being careful, or the marker had some way of subtly nudging the metal pieces aside if they came too close. Or maybe it was just an extremely lucky piece of machinery. He supposed that if the gate marker had survived for thousands of years surrounded by massive amounts of moving ice and rock debris, it wasn't too likely to be destroyed by stray shrapnel from the worms' guns.

Eric twisted around in a tight circle, dodging behind a chunk of ice bigger than his whole house back home. He emerged in a good spot to strike one of the worms, so he engulfed it in white fire.

The other worm fired a barrage from its scrap-gun and immediately followed it up with a quick plasma burst. This turned all the chunks of scrap into glowing blue blobs of molten metal. The molten metal blobs burrowed into his drone like worms into an apple, spreading out as they went, burning tunnels through his electrical and mechanical systems, eating up everything.

The drone continued onward in a straight line, running on pure inertia. He couldn't change course, and his cameras were beginning to sputter.

The fire-damaged worm, the one he'd actually hit, curved around in front of Eric, blocking his fixed course.

Three huge guns swiveled toward Eric, staggered at uneven intervals along the worm's length. Eric thought of the old-time galleon in his drone tutorial, turning broadside toward him and raising its row of cannons.

Shrapnel, plasma, and a long spear with a high-speed drill bit for a head launched at Eric.

He set his drone's plasma cannon on autofire, letting it blast at full strength until all the reserves were depleted.

The worm was again engulfed in white fire as he approached it like a kamikaze, unable to do anything except tense himself for the inevitable crash.

He passed into the expanding cloud of plasma...and, miraculously, right out the other side.

Red lights flashed everywhere. The drone was devastated, its hull melting and its sensors burning out.

Eric caught a final glimpse through the melting drone's rear-facing camera eye. The worm had been cut in half by Eric's plasma attacks. The two sections floated apart, the plasma cloud already stretching out thin between them.

The second worm arrived and started shooting, and the signal from the drone was lost, leaving Eric in total darkness.

“You made chop suey outta that one!” Bartley's voice shouted, while a hefty hand clapped Eric on the shoulder.

Eric opened his eyes, his mind back on the bridge now. Everyone had turned toward him, most of them smiling. Hagen gave him a nod. Eric looked for Iris, but she wasn't there.

“That was good stuff,” Alanna said. She'd been training on the ship's weapons tutorials along with everyone else. She might have been a rich kid accustomed to luxury and personal servants, but she was wise enough to do her part rather than hide behind any sense of entitlement or superiority. All their lives were on the line together.

“So they're definitely guarding the gate,” Eric said. “What do we do?” He looked to Hagen.

“Iris, you can still open that gate for us, right?” Hagen asked.

“Yes.” Iris appeared in the empty seat next to Eric, startling him. She was present in hologram form only, her face hidden by her purple cowl. “I can open it from this ship, but I can't do anything to stop those worms.”

“Hey, this ship's no floating filly herself,” Bartley said. “We've got anti-ship weapons. We've got personal armor and rifles, if it comes down to that. Hell, I'll kick those worms right in the balls with my armor-toed boots...if I can find their balls...”

“We have no idea what that big coral-ship is packing, but we have to assume it's got heavy weaponry of its own. And more space worms ready to come out and fight,” Hagen said. “Sneaking past won't be so easy...if only there were some way to distract that big ship...”

“Maybe Eric could use the relic,” Iris said, which made everyone look at her. And Eric, who was beside her hologram.

“No,” Eric said.

“He can look like anyone or anything when he wears the mask,” Iris told them.

“Seriously, bro?” Bartley asked. “Or is she going conkers?”

“I don't like it,” Eric said. “And it's not going to help us. What am I going to do, disguise myself as a worm and go ask them not to attack us? We don't even know if the mask speaks worm-ese.” Eric shook his head. “I'm not putting it on without a good reason.”

“Could you use it to disguise a spacecraft?” Hagen asked.

“Like this whole ship?” Eric asked. “I don't know. It's kind of enormous. What could we make it look like, anyway? An asteroid?”

“An asteroid of this size approaching the gate would probably draw their attention, especially if they're already looking for us,” Carol said. “They might blast an asteroid of that size anyway, just to be safe, or to protect the gate.”

“What about a smaller craft?” Hagen asked. “Like a drone or one of the research shuttles? Maybe we could make a decoy version of this ship.”

“Maybe,” Eric said. “We could try—”

“No!” Iris cut him off. “You can't put the relic on a drone and send it out there.”

“We know the relic can make things look bigger,” Eric reminded her.

“That's not the point,” Iris said. “We can't risk the worms taking the relic. We can't have them controlling the tech of the ancients, or studying it and learning from it.”

“We don't even know whether the idea would work, anyway,” Eric said, feeling unsure now.

“There are extra drones down in the weapons repair bay,” Bartley said. “You can test it down there.”

“It's worth a try.” Hagen nodded at Iris. “We're just exploring options, all right?”

“Not all right,” Iris said.

Eric, Hagen, and Bartley headed off the bridge. Iris emerged from her cabin and joined them as they passed. She was shaking her head, her face hidden under the purple hood. “We can't risk losing control of the relic. We can't.”

“Then why did you bring the mask?” Eric asked, looking at the towel-wrapped relic in her hands.

“I still want you to learn to use the relic.” She handed it over to him. “Just not with this particular strategy.”

They eventually reached the weapons bay and placed a fully functional combat drone onto a worktable.

Eric unwrapped the mask; Bartley and Hagen muttered when they saw it looked like Loader's face.

He set the mask atop the drone. Then he pressed down on it, willing the metal to turn soft and flowing.

“Remember to visualize clearly,” Iris said. Her voice was quiet, and she was obviously still reluctant about helping him explore this plan. “Charge it with emotion.”

He visualized the Omicron Rex from the outside, the massive asteroid-cutting tools, the floating-factory design.

Emotion, he thought.

That was easy. The ship had saved them, had enabled them to escape Caldera and the worms. The ship had already carried them most of the way to the wormhole gate. If they ever got out of danger and returned safely home, it would be because of this ship. They'd witnessed a horrific amount of death and destruction; this ship was their salvation.

The iridium alloy moved and squirmed like living skin beneath his fingers.

It spread across the surface of the drone in all directions, painting itself over the drone's form until the entire craft was a soft silver-white.

Then it grew larger, extruding saws and drills and armor. The drone-sized model of the Rex swelled to fill half the room. Eric backed away as it grew, a little worried he'd get crushed back against the bulkhead.

“It's working,” Hagen said.

“I'd like to know if those gun ports are functional, though,” Bartley added.

“It's still a bad idea,” Iris insisted. “Eric, remove your hand from the relic.”

“Okay.” Eric dropped his hand and backed up another step, breaking all contact with the swelling model of the ship.

It immediately began to lose form, like a giant parade balloon that had been chainsawed open from end to end, unleashing all the air at once.

The decoy Rex collapsed into a wide, thin sheet of iridium alloy that flopped onto the floor like a spent parachute. Without a sound, it shrank up into an oval shape lying atop the drone, exactly where Eric had placed the mask.

But now the white-metal mask had taken the shape of Eric's face.

“I really hate that relic,” Eric said, looking away.

“You must maintain contact in order to maintain command,” Iris told him.

“Yeah, I get that now. So that decoy-ship plan won't work,” Eric said. “What else can we do?”

Everyone was quiet for a moment.

“I don't know, but we'd better figure it out,” Hagen said. “Because we have about three hours until we're in sight of one big ship filled with heavily armed hostile aliens. And they almost certainly know we're coming.”

Chapter Thirty

The Omicron Rex approached the gas giant Valentine at a constant speed, running on inertia only, all its lights out. Any observer projecting its course would find that it was not on path for either the gate marker or the spaceport a few hundred kilometers above it. Instead, it seemed to be hurtling blindly along a course between them, listing slightly, perhaps doomed to eventually be caught in Valentine's powerful gravity well and drawn down to be consumed by the red storms below. Currently, though, it was on course to simply drift past the ancient gate and the human-built orbital port, with no sign of changing direction.

Three of the spaceworms approached from the spaceport, swimming on winding courses that would make them more difficult to target, had the Rex attempted to fire on them.

The hulking asteroid-cutter remained silent, though, showing no response to the three approaching worms.

“I want to shoot them,” Bartley said. “This isn't going to work! We should open fire while we have a chance—”

“Keep quiet!” Hagen snapped.

“Earth-hugger,” Bartley grumbled. He kept quiet, though.

Everyone on the bridge watched as the large, spiky-armored worms approached. They spread out in three directions, inspecting the mining ship somehow, despite the giant blobs of solid metal encasing their heads.

“That one's trying to come inside!” Naomi pointed to a display. “How's that going to work?”

Outside, one of the big worms seemed to be sniffing around an apparent huge rupture in the mining ship's hull, revealing blackened machinery inside, as though an explosion had taken out the onboard refinery.

“That one, too,” Alanna said. “And it's a lot closer.” She pointed to a second worm, diving in close to the crew quarters where'd they been sleeping. It wouldn't be a long trek from there to the bridge.

“It can't just go through the wall, can it?” Naomi asked.

“Everyone, please,” Iris said. “Help Eric maintain his focus.”

Eric shook his head, still doubting the plan would work.

As it had turned out, the relic could change the appearance of the entire ship. Eric had to maintain skin contact with the ship's surface at all times, though, so now he was sitting barefoot at his console. Naomi had suggested that he should walk around in just his underwear, to be safe, but Eric had shot that idea down quickly.

They had altered the ship to look like a burned-out husk, a ghost ship on a course to nowhere. The apparent damage was based on the scars left by the wormfighters during the launch on Caldera. The idea was to convince the worms that the wounds they'd inflicted on the Rex had ultimately proved fatal, and the ghost ship had drifted this way ever since.

But now the worms seemed interested in diving through the apparent ruptures in the hull—which were nothing but illusion—and exploring inside.

Eric tensed, watching on the screen as a worm swam toward one of the ruptures, bracing himself to see what happened when the worm bonked into a solid hull instead.

That moment never came, though.

Instead, the worm continued right on through the hull as if the rupture were real, and swam on through the hallways of the miners' quarters as though the ship had no artificial gravity at all.

“It's coming for us.” Bartley raised an assault rifle he'd found in the ship's security armory.

“Hold still!” Hagen snapped.

“The relic's working,” Eric whispered. “I don't understand how...This is more than just a disguise. A lot more.”

They watched on displays as worms explored the refinery and the nuclear reactor, which appeared cold and dead, when in fact it was chugging along just fine.

“There's no way,” Carol said. “The illusion would have to be on every level—visual, auditory, thermal, tactile—”

“Just in case it isn't,” Hagen said. “Let's cut the chatter.”

Everyone went quiet.

Then a worm arrived on their bridge.

It was the one that had been exploring the crew quarters. It had made its way up a ladder well, down the corridor, and was now at the heart of the ship.

Eric felt his heart thundering in his chest, especially as the worm swam closer, in complete defiance of the ship's low but still-functioning artificial gravity. The blind metal helmet moved closer and closer to Eric.

Then the helmet split open, radiating out like the sharp petals of a steel flower opening in the sunlight.

He could see the rings of sharp teeth lining the worm's throat, and the swollen blood-red gums in which they were embedded. A puff of air clouded a flexible, clear membrane that Eric hadn't even noticed until the worm's moist exhale spread across it like hot breath on a cold window.

For a moment, it looked as though the thing was about to retract that membrane and slurp Eric down.

Then it continued onward, slithering across the bridge, past each and every one of them. Bartley tracked it with the rifle, despite a fervent and obvious head-shake from Hagen. Hagen froze as the worm stopped to inspect the commander's chair at the center of the bridge.

On one display, a worm had made it to the ship's hangar and begun to inspect the small research vehicles there.

Carol pointed to it, and Hagen nodded.

She touched an icon floating above her console.

One of the research vessels—already positioned in the launch airlock—sprang to life and rose from the floor. At the same time, the airlock's outer door opened.

The worm in the hangar charged after it, but the airlock was sealed, even within the illusion of the wrecked ship. It lashed in visible frustration, then headed toward the nearest rupture to pursue the escaping shuttle.

The worm exploring the bridge grew suddenly agitated, too, as though it had received a signal from the first. Its helmet closed back around its head as it turned and left the bridge.

Soon all three worms were outside the ship. Two of them accelerated away, pursuing the research vessel.

“Iris, the gate!” Hagen said.

Eric looked over at a clear pane where one of the faux windows was usually projected. Now it gave an unobstructed view into the first of Iris's two rooms, where she sat on a cushion, the Medusa-like tangle of cables connected to her head.

“Opening,” Iris said, her eyes closed, her voice almost too soft to hear, even amplified over a speaker.

In the distance, the thousand-faced gate marker began to glow. It rose up and out of the planet's rings, into empty space above it. White light traced each one of its thousand iridium-alloy faces, lighting up the dense symbols there.

Then the marker projected a sphere all around it, glimmering white, the color of iridium.

The sphere was the mouth of a wormhole, a multi-dimensional doorway through spacetime. Any object that entered it would be instantly transported light-years away, to another star system entirely.

The research vessel rushed toward it, the two worms following closer and closer behind it.

“What's that one doing?” Alanna pointed to the third worm, the one that hadn't pursued the shuttle. It had remained close to the mining ship instead, pulling into the space between the Rex and Valentine Station high above.

Now it fired three long cables, each tipped with a drill bit. Each one burrowed into the mining ship's front hull.

“Drill harpoons,” Eric said. “We have those.”

“It's taking us for salvage,” Hagen said.

He was right. The space worm towed them aside, gradually changing their course. It was turning them toward the spaceport above, where the worms' big asteroid ship was feeding inside the orbital station's carcass.

The research shuttle, meanwhile, continued its approach toward the shimmering white mouth of the open wormhole. Carol had taken remote control of the shuttle, weaving it through the floating ice formations near the ring surface, dodging scrap-gun fire and plasma, weapons that shattered or devoured the ice that she was using for cover.

“Now?” Bartley asked, his hands on a pair of joysticks built into his console.

“No,” Hagen said. “Foster, draw them closer to the wormhole, further away from us...closer...and...now!”

The shuttle, which had seemed to be on approach to the wormhole, instead looped around it and flew headfirst toward the two worms.

When they'd prepared the research shuttle, Eric and the others had removed any unnecessary weight, including the seating and the life-support elements, to make the small craft as fast and light as possible. It was big enough to serve as a lifeboat for their crew. They wanted to trick the worms into believing the Rex was damaged beyond hope—useful only for parts and scrap—and the humans had abandoned it, making a desperate run for the wormhole in the small shuttle instead.

However, only two passengers had been loaded aboard the shuttle, and neither of them was a live human being.

They were two of the Rex's railguns, removed from their ports and welded into place inside the shuttle, where the seats had once been. Since a pair of worms had attacked the drone at the gate, Hagen had insisted they load a pair of guns onto the shuttle, rather than wait precious seconds for a single gun to reload.

“Good-bye, Norma Jean.” Bartley said. The holograms above his head showed targeting scopes on the two worms. “Good-bye, Marilyn.”

Bartley fired both shots at once.

The supersonic rounds shattered a pair of portholes as they blasted out of the seemingly unarmed shuttle, then slammed into the two worms hard enough to penetrate their armor. They were thermal rounds, and the worms exploded a second later, flinging armor plate and burned entrails across the starry sky.

“Good work, you two,” Hagen said. “Keep that shuttle hidden and ready for the next wave.”

“The next wave's already here,” Eric said.

Five more space-ready worms in spiky armor emerged from the spaceport's blasted-open underside. Three split off toward the research shuttle.

The other two new arrivals approaching the Rex and fired harpoons of their own, tipped with drills and magnets.

Three worms were now working together to tow the huge ship, undertaking the difficult task of slowing it down and changing its trajectory toward the hollowed-out space station above, where their mothership awaited, gorging itself on everything in sight.

“They're reeling us in,” Hagen said.

“And doing a bad job,” Alanna added. “We're going to hit the side.”

She was right. The three worms together still hadn't exerted enough force. The mining ship entered the interior of the space station at a bad angle. Instead up heading straight up toward the worms' big rock-coral ship, they were on a collision course with an inner wall, swinging toward a tangled mass of shredded, half-melted steel girders.

“We're going to crash!” Naomi said. “Hagen, do something!”

“Not yet,” Hagen said. “We don't want to blow our cover. Foster?”

“Busy, sir,” she replied. The display overhead showed the research shuttle that she was remotely piloting, leading the two new worms on a chase through the fields of floating ice. Her experience flying in urban warfare zones and narrow canyons was paying off.

“You have to slow down so I can lock onto one of the slimies,” Bartley said. “Come on, Foster! I want to shoot another one!”

“If I give you a chance to lock onto them, they'll lock onto us right back,” she said. “Besides, these guys lack finesse. Watch.”

Carol dove between two house-sized blocks of ice floating close together. One worm turned back, and actually seemed to shake its head once, unwilling to risk the narrow pass. It climbed over, looking for a way around.

The other worm followed her through, into the confined space between the ice formations.

Carol twisted hard as she emerged from the pass—she'd clearly scouted the area already, or else had reflexes like lightning.

Even so, she barely avoided the solid cliff face of rock-filled ice waiting on the other side of the narrow pass. She clung impossibly close to the vertical ice wall as she flew up along it.

Below her, the worm slammed directly into the ice cliff and cratered away deep inside it. Fissures spread up along the cliff from the impact site.

“Hell yeah, you Titanic'ed that sucker!” Bartley crowed. “Well, you and me together.”

“See? Lack of finesse,” Carol said. “Here comes the other one...”

Eric glanced away from their battle to the inner wall of the spaceport, which was still swinging much too close for comfort.

Above, two more space worms emerged from a large tunnel mouth on the hull of the coral-ship. They spat out more cables as they approached, grabbing and drilling into the asteroid-cutter's hull.

Working together, the five worms managed to straighten out the Rex's course inside the spaceport...more or less. The ship still dragged too close to the side, scraping against the sharp ends of shattered steel beams and columns as it passed them by. The damage was only cosmetic, but it was needless.

“Sloppy,” Hagen grunted. “Everything they do is so damned sloppy. Wouldn't take much to center us here, but they just don't care.”

The five worms pulled them up toward the worm mothership, which was more than twice the size of the size of the Rex.

“We're dead!” Bartley shouted, making everyone jump.

The projection above Bartley's console showed the second space worm, twisted and blackened, floating past hundreds of tiny bits of ice. The backdrop looked like a snapshot of a snowfall, every flake frozen in time.

Then the research vessel went offline.

“Yeah, that one shot us down, sorry.” Carol removed her immersion goggles. “But we got four of them.”

“Thanks to my future wife's brilliant flying,” Bartley said.

“I told you not to joke about that. It's not funny.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Bartley said. “I'm probably not your type anyway, am I right? Let me guess: I'm way too masculine for you.”

“It's not that.”

“But it's my only flaw.”

“I was married. Foster was my husband's name. Mark...died in a ship crash. An industrial accident. They gave me an insurance check. I just looked at it for months, every day, terrified to cash it. Like that would make it real. More than the funeral. Not that there was a body to bury. Maybe that was part of it. How can it be a real funeral when there's no body?”

“Well, now I do feel sorry as hell,” Bartley said. “I had no idea—”

“Yeah, it's not something I bring up every time I meet someone. He fought in the Colonial infantry. Heavy guns, heavy armor, boots on the ground stuff. He survived battle after battle, on planet after planet. He lived through the war, got a medical discharge. Then he worked for a salvage company. That was supposed to be the safe job. They didn't go anywhere until a battle was over and cold. He was part of a reclamation crew.”

Those words made Eric look over at Iris. Iris was staring at Carol, too; when she noticed Eric, she closed her eyes, and the glass panel to the gatekeeper cabin darkened. Then it reverted to showing a view outside, a fake window again.

“Speaking of salvage, it looks like the worm reclamation crew's coming for us.” Hagen pointed at a new clump of approaching worms, armed with drills and cutting lasers mounted on their backs. “They'll want to tear us apart like that spaceport. Take our metal...and our meat. Weapons, target now but hold your fire. Rowan...take off the mask.”

Eric nodded. The mask had made him unable to speak when he was disguised as Loader. They didn't want to risk the ship's weapons not working while it was still disguised as a burned-out ghost ship.

He walked to the nearest bulkhead, which looked like it had been blasted open and then scorched by an electrical fire, though it was actually fine. He placed his hand against it and imagined peeling off the mask, separating the relic from the ship. He thought about how relieved he'd felt to remove Loader's face.

The relic flowed into his hand, having gathered itself up from all over the ship. It looked like an iridium cast of his face again. A moment earlier, it had been large and complex enough to disguise an entire starship, even against extremely close inspection. Now it was small and light enough to hold in his hand.

“Missiles!” Hagen shouted at the weapons console. Bartley had joined Naomi and Alanna there.

“Sending the missiles,” Bartley said. “This should be fun.”

On the screen, six winged Hammerhead missiles—not nuclear, but strong enough to punch a hole in most human starfighters—launched away from the Rex. Each small missile was programmed to fly into a different opening on the ship's rocky hull, hopefully following the suction tubes and conveyor belts deep inside before detonating on impact.

The missiles curved and swooped, each following its own path. Each disappeared into a different opening.

Eric and everyone else held their breath for a moment after the missiles flew out of sight.

Then the big rocky ship shuddered, belching small jets of fire from its insides.

“Fire at will!” Hagen shouted.

Since they were moving at low speed in a confined space, they avoided firing bolts of plasma that could end up burning their own ship. They opened up with railguns instead, quickly blasting apart three of the five worms that were towing them.

“Don't let it back up far enough to throw plasma,” Hagen said. “Rowan, hug it close.”

Eric had already jacked into the ship's system. He closed his eyes and took control of the array of giant mining tools.

First, he fired a drill harpoon, which burrowed into the worms' rocky hull. Four smaller drills would emerge from its sides to get it solidly anchored in the rock. A cable now connected the Rex to the much larger rocky ship.

Then he launched two more harpoon-tipped cables, getting two extra holds. He didn't leave much slack in the cables, either. If the worm ship was going to move, it would have to pull all the mass of the Rex along with it.

New holes opened in scattered spots all over the surface of the big rock-coral ship. Scrap-guns and cutting lasers returned the Rex's fire.

A volley of the long metallic spears launched from one tunnel mouth. These turned into long, snakelike robots with cutting tools at their heads. They attached to the Rex's hull like lampreys. Showers of sparks erupted as they began to burrow into the ship's armored skin.

“I need a volunteer to go out and clear the hull!” Hagen shouted.

“That's me,” Bartley said, jumping to his feet and running. He slapped the unusually quiet drama-bot as he ran past. “And Malvolio!”

“Sir, I really don't think it's the best use of my abilities,” Malvolio said. “Perhaps a rousing speech, or a patriotic anthem—Colonial or Allied, that's the awkward question in such mixed company—”

“Shut up and go with him,” Hagen said.

“Aye aye, Captain!”

Naomi and Alanna kept on with the railguns, blasting apart the last two worms that had been towing their ship. Carol had resumed her piloting duties, now that the research shuttle was destroyed and the Rex was looking alive again.

Eric kept watch on a peripheral camera feed as Bartley and Malvolio emerged from the airlock onto the hull, dressed in armored spacesuits. Each suit had a .50-caliber machine gun mounted on an adjustable underslung frame, the spacesuit designed to absorb the recoil. They each had a grenade launcher mounted on the opposite hip, too. All that gear had been set up by the airlock. They'd encountered the robot-worms down in the mines before—Eric had a scar to show for it—and on the river, so they'd prepared those suits and weapons in case a swarm of the bots attacked the ship's hull.

Bartley and Malvolio went to work shooting incendiary rounds at the long, narrow robots. Malvolio sang Frank Sinatra's “Summer Wind” as he blasted one robo-snake after another, until Bartley told him to cut it out.

Eric saw one of the space worms approaching Bartley and Malvolio while firing up a huge, blue-flamed cutting torch. Eric activated a giant rock saw and lunged out with it, splitting the worm lengthwise. Spheres of blood flew everywhere in the zero-gravity environment.

“Hey!” Bartley shouted over his headset, as worm guts splattered him. “Use a napkin up there!”

“Focus on your job, Rowan,” Hagen said.

“Okay...” Eric extended a drill as tall as a country radio tower, its shaft bigger around than he was.

The meters-long bit bored into the hull of the coral-ship, until it hit some kind of impenetrable obstacle. It slammed to a rattling stop that made the entire Rex shudder.

“Everything okay over there?” Hagen asked.

“Couldn't be better.” Eric retracted the drill bit and found the tip mangled. He'd managed to make it about two meters into the hull.

The battle raged all around him, too much happening at once. The worms' scrap-guns cut into the Rex's hull. The Rex replied with volleys of railgun fire, some hitting loose worms in the space around them, some smashing the still-retracting tubes and conveyor belts of the big worm ship, some slamming into its hull and drawing hairline cracks there.

A few of the open rocky mouths on the coral-ship's surface began to glow with an ominous white light.

“Plasma!” Hagen said. “They're either planning to shoot us or put on some major speed. Rowan, status?”

“On it!” Eric said. “Armor up!”

“Armor up!” Hagen shouted. The railgun and missile launchers retracted, their ports sealing tight. Most of the exterior tools did the same.

With a long crane arm, Eric inserted a nozzle into the hole he'd drilled and pumped it full of high-explosive chemical slurry, designed to blast open asteroids so the ship could access the mineral goodies inside.

When the hole was filled, he added the detonator, then he sealed it in with a heavy screw that expanded after insertion. This stopped up the liquid explosive so it didn't leak back out of the hole, but also helped seal the force of the blast inside the rock to do maximum damage.

“Fire in the hole,” Eric said.

Then he detonated it.

The entire coral-ship bounced and shook on the harpoon cables, swinging wildly as the explosive forces within ricocheted against each other.

The rocky hull spiderwebbed like glass, smoke and fire weeping out through all the fresh cracks.

“Ready to dig in, sir,” Eric said.

“Foster, bring us forward,” Hagen said. “Weapons...just keep it up.”

Eric used a giant industrial hammer—a long cylinder of tungsten—to smash through the shattered hull of the coral-ship. Boulder-sized pieces of rock flew out like drops in a rainstorm, leaving sizable gaps all over the worms' hull.

“Oh, man, this thing has a hammer?” Bartley asked from his position on the hull. “I should be doing that.”

“You've got plenty to do out there, Flynn,” Hagen said.

“Hell yeah, I do. We're knee-deep in worm shit. And here comes some more.” Bartley blasted an approaching worm with a grenade, and a thick splatter of worm guts all over his space suit was his reward. A small windshield wiper cleared gore from his faceplate.

While Eric's hammer retracted, he reached into the worm's ship with an excavator arm and pulled out loose chunks of rock, turning several sizable holes into a single huge one.

The asteroid-cutter nudged forward, and Eric went to work with everything he had, cutting the worm's mothership apart with rock saws and high-powered cutting lasers, destroying it the way the worms had destroyed Valentine Station and Canyon City.

He felt a kind of righteous fury rising in him as he tore into it. He thought of everyone he'd known who'd died. Some of them were just casual acquaintances—Doris, the waitress at the coffee stall where he sometimes bought breakfast, if he had time; mottled old Mister Cormey, who smoked hand-rolled cigarettes outside the cinderblock convenience store near his apartment. The nameless kids who played soccer in the street, day and night, as if school just wasn't an issue for them. Eric wasn't sure he'd ever seen any kind of school on Caldera.

Thousands and thousands of people had been killed. Slaughtered. And there was nobody else around to stand up to the monsters, nobody but Eric and his friends to bring any kind of justice to the situation.

He dug in deep, ready to kill them all.

The interior of the worm ship reminded him of a gigantic ant or termite mound crossed with a hellish Industrial Revolution factory. The basic structure was rock tunnels with loose-soil floors, reinforced by metal braces at irregular intervals. The tunnels and rooms followed no regular layout; it was all just chaos. There were also huge metal wheels, billows of fire, conveyor belts lined with spikes like teeth, crushers pounding ore.

Burning worms slithered blindly through the tunnels, disoriented by all the explosions.

“Gunners, aim for infrastructure,” Hagen said. “Anything that could be weapons or propulsion.”

“It all looks the same to me,” Alanna said. “I'll just shoot anything that looks expensive.”

“Flynn, you ready to come inside?” Hagen asked.

“Hell yes, sir, but it's still crawling with robo-worms out here, so I guess we'll be a minute,” Bartley said.

Eric continued cutting their way forward. He opened up a cavernous chamber near the center of the worms' ship. It was half-filled with thick black soil. Scattered all over the soil, some of them half-buried, were human bodies, dozens of fresh corpses, probably just recently taken from Valentine Station.

There were other, older carcasses, too, rotten meat in an advanced, slimy state of decay, hanging from large ribs and strange skulls that Eric couldn't identify, some kind of large alien creatures.

Ripping open the room and exposing it to empty space disturbed the surface of the soil. Beneath it, a mass of fat, short, pale grubs sucked rotten meat from old broken bones. They ignored the fresh kills above, seeming to prefer meat that had putrified to the point of being almost liquid. It was probably easier for them to suck and digest that way. No need to chew.

Eric's stomach lurched.

“It's a worm nursery,” Naomi said quietly.

“Kill it with fire!” Alanna shouted. “Please!”

“I'm on it.” Eric sprayed the grub-infested soil with the explosive slurry. The pale grubs waddled and splashed in it.

“Go ahead, Naomi,” Hagen said. “Just a micropulse of plasma to ignite it.”

“Me?” Naomi hesitated. “You want me to incinerate the alien babies?”

“Before the oxygen's all gone, preferably,” he said.

“They're just worms, Naomi,” Alanna said. As Naomi continued to hesitate, Alanna rolled her eyes and reached over. “I'll kill them myself—”

“No. I got it.” Naomi slapped the control.

A tiny bolt of plasma, no larger than a golfball, spat out of the starboard plasma cannon. It struck the explosive-drenched worm nursery below, and fire swept across it, flash-frying the pale grubs.

The fire whooshed out quickly as the interior of the worm ship depressurized.

Eric continued onward, first hitting the next big compartment wall to weaken it.

Then he raised the mining ship's colossal roadheader tool. Plates covered in spirals of spikes rotated at the end of it, large enough to punch a highway-sized hole in a mountainside. It was big enough to enable the mining ship to tunnel deep into the largest asteroids, or even dwarf planets, in search of valuable metals.

At the moment, though, it was helping the asteroid-cutter carve a path of destruction through the much larger worm ship.

Eric knocked down another wall—and found himself staring into searing white light. He was approaching a vast plasma reservoir, a fuel source for the ship's weapons and propulsion.

“Reverse!” Hagen said.

Then a new horror dropped into view.

It was the largest worm of all. It had to be. It made Eric think of a picture he'd once seen of a tree so big they'd built a road through it. Its body was chunky with wires and machinery, some of it so old that skin had grown over top of it. Dull red lights flashed here and there along the worm's body.

The worm's head was abnormal, too. Like the huge worm in the river, it had a huge maw ringed with teeth the size of elephant tusks. Unlike any of the other worms, it had a crest of long spikes on its head, like a primitive crown of bones.

It also had eyes, big black bubbles like a spider's, three on one side of its head, four on the other. The great horned worm twisted its head from side to side, regarding them with one patch of black pumpkin-sized eyes, then the other.

Then it started toward them, swimming through empty space, propelled by thrusters on its armored hide.

“In the land of the blind worms, the seven-eyed worm is king,” Naomi murmured.

“Full power reverse!” Hagen said. “Don't hold anything back.”

“Yes, sir,” Carol said.

The Rex was heavy and strong, but far from nimble and fast. A complete course reversal was no easy task, but fortunately they'd been creeping along slowly in the first place. Now the ship was just barely beginning to ease backward.

Eric lashed out at the massive horned worm with his drill, hoping to punch a hole between some of the old armor plates. The worm's hide looked tough as gravel, too, and studded with bony spikes, many of which had been capped with sharp steel. Robotic limbs extended from several of its tentacles, thicker and clunkier than the tentacle-extenders Eric had seen before, as if the horned worm had been outfitted with the cybernetics long ago, during an earlier generation of worm technology.

The worm opened its mouth, flipping its front ring of teeth outward into a deadly ring of weapons. These, too, were capped with steel points.

The lack of gravity and rapidly depleting air supply didn't seem to bother the giant horned worm at all. Maybe it had its own tanks somewhere among its cybernetic implants, or maybe it only needed to breathe occasionally, like a whale.

“Hit that thing!” Hagen said. “And don't stop.”

Alanna and Naomi shot four supersonic rounds simultaneously.

The horned worm twisted and managed to dodge two of them, which sailed onward and punched extra holes in the sides of Valentine Station.

The two other rounds hit the horned worm, sending it recoiling and snapping angrily in protest. It seemed stung and annoyed, but not badly injured.

The worm raised several dented, dirty metal cylinders the size of aircraft engines mounted along its back. No two of them were the same size. They began to rotate, all at different speeds, one shuddering so hard it seemed like it would break loose.

A blinding eruption of metal scrap fired from the worm's guns, a great deal of it slamming into the Rex's hull. At first, Eric thought it was just another scattershot wave of scrap-gun fire.

Then they began to explode, one after the other, burning holes in the Rex's hull.

“Full reverse!” Hagen said.

“You already said that!” Carol replied. “We're leaving as fast as we can.”

Eric tapped into a rear camera and saw they were backing their way toward the huge rupture at the bottom floor of the space station, exactly where they'd entered.

The horned worm advanced on them, firing more explosive shrapnel. Eric raised a rock saw and roadheader, its multiple spiked faces spinning fast enough to carve granite. The worm seemed to hesitate, slowing its approach.

“Flynn, status?” Hagen asked.

“Couldn't be happier, boss,” Bartley replied over the radio. He was still on the hull, taking potshots at worms that tried to approach, while Malvolio worked to clear the robotic ones that had already landed.

“You and the bot should head to the airlock.”

“Soon as we're out of ammo, boss.” Bartley plugged an approaching worm with a grenade, turning away as its burning guts erupted.

Ahead, the big horned worm lunged at the Rex, only to be battered back by more railgun rounds, these hurtling at nearly a hundred times the speed of sound. Eric lunged forward with the rock saw, slicing through the worm's thick, mottled skin but only scratching the ingrown armor beneath.

Then, at last, the Rex backed out of the ruptured station into open space.

“Missiles!” Hagen shouted.

Six of them launched from the Rex, swerving over, under, and around the huge horned worm. The worm was distracted for a moment, trying to twist aside, clearly thinking that it was the intended target.

One missile slammed into one of the worm's coils anyway, and it erupted in a huge flash, flinging the worm bodily against the inner hull of the ravaged space station. The worm's jaws spread open as if roaring into the vacuum of space...and then the worm began to advance on them yet again, reaching the rupture through which they'd exited.

“Unbelievable,” Hagen said. “That thing's unbelievably tough. I wonder how old it is. Looks like it's been through a few wars.”

“And never stopped eating and growing the whole time,” Alanna said.

The five other missiles continued on past the horned worm and continued on to their real target—the plasma reservoir at the core of the ship.

The missiles struck.

The entire infrastructure of the space station, all the loose debris of the worms' carved-up starship and of the station itself, every broken bit of asteroid rock, every bolt and rivet holding the station together, every worm that was flailing for purchase or floating listlessly because it was already scorched and dead—everything inside the space station turned glowing white when the plasma core detonated. Eric's entire field of vision turned searing white, as though the space station above were a star going nova.

He instinctively covered his eyes, though they were actually closed already. He was watching through video sensors in the hull, the information flowing up through his spine rather than in through his retinas.

Plasma gushed out through the exposed ribs and supports of the space station, all of which glowed blue-hot. Nothing else remained. If the space station had been a badly picked-over roasted turkey when they'd arrived, it was now nothing but a skeleton, the bones starting to burn away.

“Holy mother of—” Hagen began.

Then the horned worm came hurtling at them, impossibly fast, riding the forward wave of the rapidly expanding plasma out of the bottom of the space station...right toward their ship.

It loomed larger and larger like a hellish serpent, its entire body superheated and glowing, its armor melting. White plasma billowed from its eye sockets and its open maw.

The horned worm had been torched by the plasma, but it was still, in its death, managing one final attack.

“Evade!” Hagen shouted.

“On it, but this isn't exactly a racecraft—” Carol began.

The horned worm slammed into the Rex at high speed. The impact knocked all of them off their feet and sent the ship into a rapid spin.

Eric had seen the moment of impact—the giant burning worm had landed directly on top of Bartley and Malvolio, burying them under its mass.

Then the worm slid along the hull, trailing plasma, and it was hard not to imagine Bartley getting crushed and then smeared like sizzling jelly underneath the worm.

“I'm going out there,” Eric said. Though the ship was spinning out of control, he unhooked from his console.

“Me, too,” Naomi said, unbuckling her seatbelt.

“Nobody get up! I'm still trying to kill the spin!” Carol shouted.

“Looks like you're having a few grams of trouble here.” The hologram of Res appeared next to the pilot's console. He wore a purple bathrobe and matching tie. The martini glass in his hand contained a blue drink with a tiny rubber duck floating on the surface. “Perhaps I could offer some assistance.”

“Yeah, that would be a nice change!” Carol snapped at the apparition.

While she slowed the spin, Eric and Naomi half crawled, half jumped their way to the door.

They'd set up armored spacesuits, one for almost every crew member, in jump-ready formation by the nearest airlock. Eric and Naomi quickly stripped out of their mining coveralls—inscribed with the logo of Hernandez-Brinkman Development, the long-defunct corporation that had built the ship—and into their armed suits.

The spin had slowed more by the time they emerged onto the hull. The charred worm lifted away as the spin slowed. It tumbled toward the pink and red gas giant below.

They followed Bartley's tether line across the burned and battered hull to his suit. Bartley floated limply, his suit badly damaged, reminding Eric of a crushed soda can. Everything, including his faceplate, was coated with a layer of charred filth left by the worm.

“Bartley?” Eric said, but the man hadn't responded over the radio since the worm hit him.

“I am sorry.” Malvolio trudged toward them, his own spacesuit wrecked, helmet missing altogether. “I was unable to prevent the worm from burying us 'neath its unnatural girth. Oh, I am truly a failure, unsuited to the task of soldiering—”

“Malvolio, help me get Bartley to sick bay right now,” Naomi said.

“I'll finish cleaning up out here.” Eric started toward a robotic snake that was half-buried in the hull, and he blasted it to pieces with .50-cal incendiary rounds.

While the others returned through airlock, Eric took a final pass, wiping out the last few robotic critters, which were also the last remaining traces of the alien worms.

Eric looked up at the glowing remnants of the spaceport, its skeletal infrastructure sagging and dissolving in the cloud of plasma. They had won against the aliens...yet he felt uneasy. Iris had seen the worms in multiple star systems. There was no telling how many more were out there, or what their plans might be for the rest of the human species.

He half-expected another round of attack from the worms, more of them emerging to try to capture or destroy their ship just before they finally got their chance to leave this star system behind.

But nothing came.

Eric headed inside.

Chapter Thirty-One

Bartley lay in a mostly transparent sanitized capsule down in sick bay. Small robotic arms held his broken bones in place; fluids flowed into his arteries. He remained unconscious and unresponsive, and he'd suffered a smashed septum and cracks all over his limbs and ribs. But he was alive.

Eric had joined Naomi down in sick bay. Malvolio was outside, patching up the damaged hull armor, following the directions of Ras. The ship's AI seemed mostly stable...in between its bizarre glitches.

Everyone else was on the bridge, running tests and checks to make sure the mining ship could handle the rigors of a wormhole jump.

“You think Bartley's okay to travel like this?” Eric asked.

“He needs a doctor and a fully equipped hospital,” Naomi said. “We don't even have a failed medical student anymore. Besides, Bartley would want us to hurry the hell up and get out of here.”

“True, he hates waiting.”

“Everyone to the bridge.” Ras's bored-sounding voice droned over the speaker. “Everyone to the bridge, in case you didn't hear me the first time a second ago. Get your seatbelts on and prepare your mind and body for the long suck down the wormhole.”

“We'd better go.” Naomi touched her hand to the clear plastic shell over Bartley. “Get better soon, pal. You still owe me fifteen credits from the bar the other night. Don't think you're getting off that easy.”

Then she left. Eric was preparing to follow her when he heard another voice whisper: “Eric.”

He turned back toward Bartley, but the man hadn't stirred. The voice had sounded female, anyway.

Iris had appeared on the other side of Bartley's medical capsule.

“Uh, hey,” Eric said. “Aren't you supposed to be up there, getting us through the wormhole?”

“I am up there.”

“Oh, right. You prefer talking by hologram.”

“Who doesn't? Eric, I wanted to talk to you alone before we go. Nobody up there can hear us. I shut down the audio link from my room. This is just you and me.”

“Okay.” Eric felt uneasy, not sure what this was all about.

“I meant what I said before. You can't just go home now. You're the bearer of the relic.”

“I thought that was more like a...figure of speech. You're making it sound like a job title. And I don't remember applying for that job.”

“Eric, I need you to stay by my side until we figure this all out. At least until we can deliver the relic to the Antikytheran Society. And it's going to take a few jumps to get there. And I'd really prefer that the Allies not know where we're going. This could end up being just you and me.”

“I'm not sure my girlfriend will like the idea of me running off with some other woman to distant worlds,” Eric said. In reality, though, he wasn't worried Suzette would be jealous. He was more afraid that she wouldn't care too much at all, that she'd be happy to go even longer without seeing him.

“There are bigger issues here than you rushing home to kiss little Suzy,” Iris said, sounding exasperated. “This is about the future of all the settled worlds, of the entire human race. Including your mommy and daddy and girlfriend back home. You understand that?”

“Okay, okay. I'll just send a video to her and my folks, once we're back in civilized space—”

“You will send no communications back home. For the moment, we must treat everything we've seen and done as highly classified. Especially the relic.”

“But news will get out about Caldera, if it hasn't already,” Eric said. “They'll think I'm dead.”

“For the moment, it's better to let everyone think we're dead. There will be time in the future to repair whatever needs repairing in your personal relationships—but only if the human species survives.” Iris's hologram floated closer, sitting cross-legged in midair, reaching out a hand to him. Her fingertips passed along his jawline. He thought he felt an electric tingle where she touched his face, but that had to be in his mind. She was made of nothing but light from the nearest projector. “You're important to me, Eric—” she began, in a soft voice. Then she looked away from him and shouted, “Almost ready!” She turned back to Eric. “Better buckle up. Let's hope the next star is luckier than this one.”

She vanished. Eric wondered what she'd been about to say at the end. Maybe something personal. Maybe something manipulative. Maybe something true.

He returned to the bridge and strapped into his seat. He nodded quietly at the others. Hagen, Carol, and Alanna barely spared him a look; everyone was focused on the view ahead.

The mouth of the wormhole was a sphere rather than a simple round hole, reflecting its multidimensional nature—a doorway through space and time. The surface looked like rippling, fluid white metal, with thousands of tiny symbols racing in all directions at high speed, forming complex shifting configurations with each other.

Eric looked through the clear window at Iris and the mass of ceiling-mounted cables attached to her head. She gave him a slight smile before closing her eyes.

“Jumping gate in four...three...two...” Carol warned them as the metallic sphere filled their vision. The flowing white-metal surface faintly reflected the Omicron Rex, the bulky, ugly old asteroid-cutter that had saved their lives. If they were quick enough, it might even help protect all of humanity.

They passed through the metallic surface of the wormhole gate as if it were no more than a mirage.

Eric had ridden through a few wormholes on the roundabout journey from Gideon to Caldera, but he was hardly accustomed to the gut-wrenching experience yet.

It felt like he was rocketing forward at impossibly fast speed, while also getting stretched out in all directions, while also getting crushed down to microscopic size. His body seemed to turn inside out, his innards scattered across millions of kilometers of deep space.

Time was strange in a wormhole, too. He saw multiple overlapping versions of everyone around him, each one multiplying in all directions, like an infinite number of clones.

He closed his eyes against it, but then began to travel through his own memories, all of them surrounding him in no particular order.

He lay on a hospital bed, his legs shattered, nerves cut into slices. Suzette leaned over him, her body soft against the muscles of his chest, her lips nervously pressing against his, their first kiss.

He gazed up in awe at a Christmas tree towering above him, reaching almost to his parents' ceiling, impossibly far above. Red and gold ornaments glowed all over the tree, scattered among fascinating figurines of reindeer, elves, and angels. A wooden train and a stuffed bear sat beside him, as big as Eric himself.

A moment later, he lay cold in the soil, worms picking at his bones.

Then Eric was back on the bridge, looking ahead at darkness alternating with dazzling patterns of millions of lights, as though entire globular clusters were flashing past. This confused Eric—there certainly weren't any such giant clusters within the tiny slice of the galactic arm that humans had begun to explore and colonize, all of them within a thousand light-years of Earth, most of them within a hundred. But Eric supposed he didn't know much about wormholes or how they worked.

The ship rushed ahead, faster and faster, into whatever future awaited them on the other side.

The End


FROM THE AUTHOR

I hope you enjoyed Resistance, and there will be a second book in the series coming up in a few months, so I hope you come back for that. If you subscribe to my newsletter, you’ll get a free novella, a prequel to this story set in the Relic Wars universe. It may just involve one or two of the same characters.

Join the Relic Wars army and get the free novella at: https://www.instafreebie.com/public/fs03H

You can also check for news on my website or Facebook page if you want.

Thanks for reading, and I hope to see you back next time!

Max Carver



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