Another chapter of using Starforged as a fiction oracle. Things are getting weird! Lots of exploration but I’m getting itchy to start seeing some meaningful conflict appear. Start from the Prologue if you want to read from the beginning.
It took them through a meal break and a short nap before the Major was satisfied the old cable rigging wasn’t secretly a trap. She hung from the cable, bounced her body weight on it, sacrificed a random bag of bolts and a carabiner by letting it slide down into the darkness. “Yeah…I guess this is gonna have to do. Echo, you ready to go ziplining?”
Echo had no idea what ziplining was but shrugged, turned on every light on his helmet and looked down the cable as far as he could. They both had harnesses on at this point. Nothing to be done but start sliding down down down. Or, you know, go home. Home was always an option too.
The giant red sun began to rise behind them, reaching into the Monument’s darkness with its dim glow. He could see hints of surfaces within, cracked stone towering all around them. Possibly, maybe there was a shelf at the far end of the cable? Or possibly the dim red light was playing tricks on him. With enough adrenaline to make his stomach curdle, he watched the Major clip onto the cable and begin her slide down. She seemed to accelerate as she disappeared into the gloom. But a moment later, he could see the ring of her helmet lights poking back up at him from deep within the crevasse.
“It’s faster than it looks,” she said over the radio, breathless. “I’ll catch you, kid. We’re good to go. And you’re gonna want to see this.”
Echo opened his fist through pure willpower and began the slide down. Sure enough, he picked up speed much faster than he expected. The whine of cable-on-carabiner vibrated through the harness into his bones.
“Is the gravity weird in here?” he found himself yelling into his mic. “If I grab the cable I’m gonna burn through my glove —“
By the time he formulated his concerns, he was already careening at and into Kimbra. She sidestepped his lanky body and caught him as he passed by. Echo ended up on his feet, as if he’d practiced the move for weeks.
“Right?” she asked him, grinning like a maniac, still adrenalized. Echo looked back up the cable and burst out laughing from nerves.
“Holy shit. Holy shit,” he gasped, unclipping as quickly as possible. He couldn’t tell if he actually felt heavier or if it was just the EVA suit.
They looked around where they had landed.
The two of them shone their helmets around where they had landed. It was a natural-looking shelf of rock, the tip of a rocket-propelled grappling hook lodged deep into the material. Echo knelt down and rubbed the surface. It felt like crumbly rock. As he stood up he got lightheaded, not just dizzy but literally lighter than he had been. Kimbra reached up and grabbed his boot as he started to drift in microgravity.
“Well this is weird,” he said, still giddy from zipping down the cable. A dozen small loose rocks continued floating up and past him as the Major pulled him back down.
Beyond the shelf they were standing on, the stone looked as though it had eroded away through some natural process. Rather than a worked passage, the stone smoothly receded deeper into the Monument’s interior. Kimbra pulled up her carbine, flicked it on, and proceeded inward. A few minutes later, they emerged into a vast, vaulted space. Clearly a made space, even if the geometry of the walls and ceiling didn’t quite make sense to his eyes.
As his lights moved along the ceiling, a dense cloud of dust and dirt puffed away from the light. It swirled along the ceiling, moving into the darkness.
“Oh dang,” Echo muttered. The Major had already dropped to one knee and brought up her carbine. There was enough atmosphere in here that he could hear the small whine of the charge humming out of the gun. “Is this…is this the nest?”
She shook her head inside her helmet so he could see her. “I think it was just the one. Throw something up there, see if we flush any more of them out.”
“Flush them…and what are we gonna do if there are more? You’re not gonna shoot dust.”
She sighed, reached down, grabbed a large bit of broken Monument rock, and chucked it at the ceiling. In the very low gravity, it accelerated away at an alarming speed. It bounced off the ceiling, but nothing else moved. “Just the one. Let’s get deeper, I think we’re onto something.”
Somewhere from within the ceiling, a blue light very much like what they saw kilometers above the Monument outside suddenly flared bright. The light filled the chamber, glowing out from columns of sigils and scratches all over the walls. Echo could feel the intelligence behind the marks, certainly not random. One stack of markings, a square several meters wide and high, remained a blue glow as the rest of the space returned to darkness. He walked straight toward it.
“Echo, kid, Iiiii dunno if that’s such a good idea,” Kimbra muttered even as she too walked towards it.
As he got closer, the stone-carved symbols began to rearrange themselves. The stone itself seemed to flow and shift as the blue symbols changed tone and size. As he walked left to right, the dozen-or-so closest to him seemed to glow the brightest and grow the largest. Echo stopped, faced the wall, could hear nothing Kimbra was saying in his radio.
What he heard instead was his own inner tickle, the thing that let him rewind events just a smidge. Rather than a vague “I’m in trouble, help help” urge, staring into the symbols seemed to give him … focus? Purpose? An instruction manual?!
He reached his hand toward the center-most icon, which looked like a star, and all the other icons looked like stars, and soon the whole wall was filled with stars and they were winking into darkness one after another even as the center star grew and grew, and as he looked at a familiar cluster of stars they were a constellation he had been born under and looked at every day of his childhood but it too was winking out one by one —
“Echo, kid, Iiiii dunno if that’s such a good idea, “Kimbra muttered, even as she too walked toward it.
Echo startled back to the present, felt the little loop kick off in his gut, and reached a hand out to stop the Major. “No, don’t,” he said.
The Major turned toward him, at first an angry look but quickly replaced by concern. “What’s up? Are you okay?”
He turned back to the wall to point at the ever-growing central star. But it was just three vague squiggles. The blue light was starting to fade away, one, two, three pulses. Then the squiggles were gone.
“I’m … not sure what I saw. I don’t think it was for you.”
Kimbra scoffed and shook her head. “Okay. Whatever. Nest can’t be much further at this point. Let’s go, you weird kid.”
They continued deeper and deeper, hours of walking, sometimes so light they had to push themselves off the ceiling of the natural worn passages, sometimes so heavy they had to help each other take steps. They had brought enough food for a couple days of walking and were quickly approaching the halfway mark on their calories. Echo had eventually learned to ignore the taste of his recycled pee.
The passages had become a criss-crossing maze. Kimbra marked the walls every once in a while with the tip of her shipboard blade. The stone was soft, much softer than the perfect flatness they had driven across would have suggested. The maze soon felt more like an insect hive, thin bits of stone barely connected to each other.
Then the stone was gone. All of it. Echo and the Major stepped to the edge of a bottomless hole hundreds of meters across. The blue glow above had returned. As he looked up, Echo was certain he was seeing the glow that had appeared over the Monument, because this hole apparently shot through the center of the entire structure. Had the glow emerged from this hole? Or just endless dust devils?
They sat at the edge of the hole, letting their legs dangle. They were exhausted, keenly aware of the food situation, achy from fighting strange gravity, frazzled from the low-key anxiety of running into more dust devils without a real action plan for them.
“They have to be coming up from down there, yeah?” Echo said, peering down into the depths. He sucked a bit of nutrient paste out of a tube inside his helmet. It tasted a bit like an apple this time.
Kimbra nodded, looked down, and laid back on the stone. “I don’t have any idea what we do now,” she said, staring up at the blue sphere kilometers up. Echo could almost make out the starry sky at the edges of the light as he looked up with her. They laid back in silence for a bit.
“Did you know I was a Paragon for the farming outpost I’m from?” Echo finally asked.
“Mmm hmm. The old guy never told me why.”
“You two talked a lot, didn’t you?”
“Oh you know. Lots of years. We have the kind of friendship that waits. It’s like no time had gone by at all no matter how long it was since I saw him.”
Echo nodded and took another sip. Something meaty this time, maybe fowl of some sort. “Yeah, so. Remember that room back there with the lit up symbols on the wall?”
“I do. They only lit up for a second though, I couldn’t even see what they were supposed to be.”
“My township made me a Paragon because I can see the future, sometimes. Or maybe I can rewind time a bit. It’s never much, just a few moments. I’m not really sure how it works.”
Kimbra nodded. “That’s a good one. Only ever heard of one other like you out there. Your folks were lucky to have you.”
“Not really! I mostly kept my family from getting hurt by some dumb thing I had done.”
Kimbra sat up and pushed herself away from the edge of the hole. “As I understand it,” she said, now moving more like the old woman she was and not a battle-hardened veteran, “these things take time to develop. I’m sure you’d have been ready when it was time to do something more with it. The colonies don’t pick Paragons lightly. It’s not cheap to throw extra resources at some random kid just because their parents think they’re special.”
“I think this place showed me how to work it.”
“Huh. How to work your time thing? See further into the future or rewind more of it?” She shook her head. “Well I’m glad one of us got something out of our little hike. But now we need to head back and explain to the brains what all we’ve seen here, see if they can give us more of an action plan.”
“See, I think I can use it to bring back more intel.” Echo also stood up, equally stiff. He started looping rope around the nearest, largest bit of stone he could find. “Or at least make sure nothing stupid happens if I try.”
Kimbra saw he had a belay device in his hand, the rope fed through it. “Oh whoa wait kid, you haven’t tested —“
Echo took one step back and fell down the hole.