We decided to dig around our landing spot to figure out why it was bare. By we, I meant me and Estella. There might be a ruin lying underneath the clearing or something else interesting, we figured.
Estella marked off several spots on the ground using chalk, giving me a confident smile. “We should find something interesting here, want me to help dig or stand guard?”
“I think stand guard, you are the expert on dealing with these plant monsters.” I told her and started digging on the closest spot.
“Sure thing.” She replied and drew her gun.
“You girls find anything worthwhile out here?” Aurora asked us, coming out of the Xing.
I had gotten three or four inches down into the ground where the soil changed from firm to a type of spongy softness. I kept going.
“Not sure, ask Sam. I’ve been keeping watch.” Estella replied.
“Not much yet. Just the ground getting softer, perhaps a good spot for planting if we want to expand the garden outside.” And then the shovel hit something hard, producing a metallic echo.
Aurora chuckled at the sound. “You just proved yourself wrong my friend.”
I bent down and brushed the soil away, thinking to retrieve the metallic item out of the ground.
“Careful, whatever is buried here might be buried for a good reason.” Estella warned me.
Turned out it was a flat metal surface. Feeling around it, it seemed to stretch away in all directions. I stooped to take a closer look. Aurora knelt down next to me and poked at the ground.
“I think you found a hatch to something, could be another ship crashed here, or it’s an underground structure.” Aurora said as she pulled on something in the dirt. It popped open, showing a keypad underneath. Aurora hooked it up with a series of wires and a green light came on after a few minutes with a pop sound.
“Behold, treasure!” Aurora announced triumphantly as she pulled open the hatch.
“Or you just popped the lock to a centuries old septic system.” Estella quipped with a wink.
Something was pushing up and bulging outwards from the ground. A circular piece of machinery a few feet wide settled in at just under six feet tall. Popping arose from several other places around us.
“I think that might of connected to a larger system.” Aurora said thoughtfully.
I readied myself for combat. Seeing this, Aurora drew her own pistol.
“Is there enough fuel from the converter for lift off?” Estella asked Aurora as she backed towards the ship entrance. Aurora confirmed in the negative.
By then, other posts have risen up around us. More or less in the spots Estella had marked off for me to dig. We decided to fall back to the Xing. As we did so, some of the plant creatures at the edge of the foliage started to creep near, presumably drawn by the excitement.
Estella pointed to them with one hand as she stepped back on board. “Seems the plants don’t like whatever you did either.”
“These posts could be the locking mechanism for a huge hatch.” Aurora said thoughtfully. “Meaning we’re parked on a giant door, or elevator.”
The posts continued to rise several more feet into the air as I clambered over the threshold. Last in the line.
“Good thing the ship didn’t park us over any of those.” Estella noted.
From aboard, it’s apparent that the posts formed a rough circle around the Xing. Time crawled by until they seemed to lock into place with a hum. A net of glowing blue billowed out from each post, like spiderwebs launched into a soft breeze. The web strands wavered one way and then the other until they grew long enough to start twisting around each other.
“Good going, you woke up the entire moon.” Estella glared at Aurora.
“It beats being overrun by plants for a fourth time, doesn’t it?” Aurora replied with a shrug.
Estella grinned. “You’re right about that at least.”
“I think the only way out is down now. So let’s wait for the biofuel converter to do its work and then we go explore what’s under.” I said.
The blue net seemed to have converged as far as we could see aboard. A deep rumble sounded, reverberated throughout the ship and we began to descend. “Well, that did the work for us.”
Aurora placed a hand against the wall to steady herself. “With any luck we just found an abandoned space station and are entering the docking bay.” She gave us a hopeful smile. “Makes me wonder if maybe this thing is made from the same alien tech bits our ship is.”
“We’ll know soon enough, someone should go tell Hue what’s happening so he doesn’t freak out.” Estella replied.
I volunteered for the job. When I got there, all I saw was the lower part of him sticking out of a panel and the only sounds grunting, swearing and the occasional clang of a tool hitting something metal. I tried to coax him out of there but he would have none of it so I gave up and brought him up to date in the state he was.
As I talked, our descent continued, punctuated by occasional bumps as if the mechanism was caught on something. Eventually, we stopped with a lurch. H-squared climbed out of the panel then, looked at me and mumbled something about plants. Then he held up some pieces of withered vine.
“Forget about plants for now. Come with me, I don’t want us to rush back here for you in rescue.” I told him.
The ship suddenly lurched sideways. I put out a hand on the wall to steady myself and then looked across to H squared to make sure he was all right. He had already turned back around and was rooting in the panel again. I rolled my eyes.
When the ship quietened down, I went alone to rejoin the girls. A giant open space lay outside the hatch, lit only by a bluish bioluminescence. The shadows of a few large objects lay scattered across the space.
Aurora asked me about H squared absentmindely but I could tell her attention was already engaged by the prospect of exploring the new area. Estella smiled at me and passed me a glowstick and flashlight.
“Doing repairs which I cannot break him out of. So I decided to leave him be.” I replied as I took the items of light from Estella.
“Not sure where we’ve wound up, but I’m eager to find out.” Aurora panned a flashlight across the ground outside. The floor was made of metal and grated, probably for easy drainage.
“I wonder if those things in the distance are more ships?” Estella pointed to the large objects.
“Back to back formation with Guppy in the middle?” I was already on to the specificities of exploring this space.
Aurora asked me to take the lead and I agreed.
“I’ll bring up the rear, let’s check out the closest large object, if they are ships we might find more fuel.” Estella said.
“Assuming they run off the same fuel ours does anyway,” Aurora replied, “Lead the way, Sam.”
I went towards the closest object, which turned out to be a derelict ship. Mostly dismantled with lots of parts and pieces missing. Rusted and overgrown with vines.
“We might be able to salvage this for parts if we need any.” I pointed out.
“We seem to have found a ship graveyard,” Aurora nodded to me, “I’m more curious what happened to the crews.”
“Clearly someone is down here with how this ship’s been mostly dismantled.” Estella noted.
“We can check the crew’s quarters or the lounge.” I shrugged and moved in closer to look at the ship. Estella followed me.
“Heads up, we got company.” Aurora walked up to us and told us quietly, “Something scrambling around at the edge of the lights, near the ship on our right.”
Estella briefly glanced in that direction, “They’re probably scared of us, especially if they’ve been stuck down here for a long time.”
I trained my gaze away from the right. I figured too much attention from us might alert the thing, whatever it was.
“If it’s living I can’t feel it.” Estella said. “I say we go over and explore that ship next, see if we can find whatever it is you saw.”
“Same thing I felt with the plants, so could be there’s more plants there, or you saw a plant monster.” She added as an afterthought.
“Only one way to find out.” Aurora said. She asked me what I thought. I shrugged and moved over. The ship was in worse shape than the derelict, essentially just a bare metal frame thick with very green vines. It was a contrast.
“Somethings stripped this ship bare.” Aurora concluded after panning a light around it.
“That does seem like our plant friends.”
“Except for the vines.” Estella pointed at them. “This ship either came down here recently or the vines can live down here just fine. Though I think they’re dormant right now, like up top when night falls.”
“What probably happens is ships land, get overrun by vines and stripped, then carried down here every so often by an automated system, that wreck is probably a recent arrival.” Aurora conjectured.
“Then what about the thing you saw moving around?” Estella asked her.
“Could be a survivor, saw us and ran, which is why you couldn’t sense them.” She shrugged. “We can keep poking wrecks if you want, fall back and start a big fire from some wreckage and see what it draws for attention, or keep poking around to look for an exit, or whatever ideas you gals have?”
“I don’t like the big fire idea but other than that, I don’t mind.” I said.
“Let’s see if we can pick up the tracks of whatever you saw and follow it to its home.” Estella suggested.
“Sure, what could possibly go wrong with that?” Aurora agreed with a grin, shining her light along the ground to look for tracks. It disappeared right between a spot of vines somewhere near the skeleton ship. We gathered around and found a tunnel leading within.
“Whatever is living down here has to know where we can find good, water, fuel.” Estella said. Great excuse, I did not tell her.
“There’s a kind of tunnel right here.” Aurora pushed back the vines and gestured to it innocently. “Want to take the lead again, Sam?”
I moved in. “Seems well travelled.” I commented on the path not long in, when the path split in different directions, not just left and right but top and down as well.
“This is suboptimal.” Aurora commented as she came abreast of me.
“Another maze,” Estella looked down at Guppy. “You lived in a maze in that trash warren, think you could lead us to the center of this one?”
Aurora pulled out a rope to tie around her waist. “So you don’t lose me.”
“I am slippery.” Guppy announced proudly.
“Like a well oiled machine.” Aurora agreed as she tightened the knot. The second she did, Guppy disappeared into the maze.
“Oops. Yuck, there’s slimy stuff in here!” Came the cry a while later.
“Slimy?” Aurora sighed as she followed the rope towards Guppy. “What new definition of disgusting have you found for us now dearie?”
“You know. That stuff that smells. You didn’t tell me bout that, Aurora.”
“This is why I bring up the rear, so someone else can blunder into the nasty things.” Estella whispered in my ear with a giggle. I gave her a playful slap. “You naughty girl.” She gave me an innocent-like smile. “You’re just jealous you didn’t think of it first.” She said with a wink.
A light appeared ahead. I took it as a signal from Aurora to join them. I put a camaraderie arm around Estella and moved off toward Aurora and Guppy.
“Ooh, Aurora, I think I know where it is.” Guppy played at whispering, when her voice actually carried well. Ah well, can’t be a spoilsport.
“Where what is?” Aurora asked her.
“The thing. You said it was moving.”
“Well, it was when I saw it, where is it?” The light had moved, probably to shine wherever Guppy indicated. I could not see the girl but I heard her voice, “This way”.
We followed on a twisting path that went up and down. The vines lying around, despite being slimy and stinky, made good handholds and footholds.
“This is like walking up the wrong end of some giant monsters digestive tract.” Aurora stated with a growl of displeasure.
“Which end is the right end?” Estella asked innocently, trying not to giggle.
“Too graphic an analogy.” I cringed as a picture came into my mind.
“I-” Aurora paused at the question. I was afraid she was actually going to present an answer. “Just forget it.” She said with a sigh and I did the same.
We had come to what was probably the bridge; there was nothing left inside anymore. Guppy was standing just inside. Aurora walked up and stood next to her, penning her flashlight around.
“So what do we have there? Seems just an empty space to me.”
There were vines everywhere the flashlight shone on. It touched on the back wall, moved on and came back. In the circle of light, a plant creature cowered. It tried to pretend that it was the same as the vines behind it but its colouring was off. It was too yellow.
“That’d be what Guppy found, it looks… Scared?” Aurora commented.
“We outnumber it, and it’s clearly unwell,” Estella nodded, “It’s probably afraid we’re here to do it harm, invading its lair like this.” She eyed it curiously. “I wonder how long it’s been down here?”
“Assuming it’s a plant creature and not someone wearing vines as camouflage.” Aurora peered at the creature, raising her voice. “If you’re human speak up, we’re not pirates, we’re just explorers, and can help get you out of here.”
The thing emitted a strange kind of high-pitched squeal.
“I don’t think that’s human, unless that’s a special power.”
“It’s a plant,” Estella told Aurora. “And you’re scaring the seeds out of it.”
“Oh,” Aurora lowered the light, “Do you think we should take it with us, help get it back to the surface somehow?”
“I mean it’s a plant but it’s a smart plant, leaving it here to starve and die seems wrong.”
“If Estella wants it as a pet?” I raised my eyebrows at her. Aurora gave her a “well?” expression.
“If it was a flesh and blood animal we’d help it, we should do the same here.” She walked up, kneeled down next to the creature, pulled out a piece of fruit from her pack and held it out in the hand with a visible green stain on it. “Food.” She told it gently and glanced back at us. “It should be able to metabolize this, hopefully.”
“I think if we adopt this thing long term, Hue will blow a gasket.” Aurora said.
“Just long enough to get it back to the surface, it belongs with its own kind, it’s a wild flower.” Estella assured us.
“Estella can hide it in a basket. H squared is going to have his head in the panels for quite a while.” I suggested.
“It can stay in the garden until we find a way back to the surface, he’ll never even know it’s there.”
The creature sent out a few little vines to touch the piece of fruit on offer, as if sniffing it. After a moment, they tentatively took it and pulled it into the mass of vines where it disappeared.
“It didn’t hurt Guppy or Hue in the engine room so it’s clearly not carnivorous,” Aurora said. .
“I got some great fertilizer back at the garden, powdery nitrogen stuff they use in greenhouses, plants love it.” Estella pulled out another piece of fruit, holding it out and stepping back to slowly lead it towards the tunnel.
“As long as it doesn’t grow to a size where it can grab people.” I said.
“As long as it doesn’t start tearing up the ship you can store it wherever you want.” Aurora added.
As we were speaking, the creature took several teetering steps forward to reach for the second piece of fruit. Some of its foliage was shaking ever so slightly as if stirred by a non-existent wind. Estella reassured the creature and lured it out more slice by slice of fruit. The rest of us had gone on ahead letting her bring up the rear as per usual. I was bored. I itched for action or something to catch my eyes. That was when I saw, in the opposite direction for the Xing, a shape smaller than a ship.