Icy death begins to creep into an isolated colony - Contest prompt
|Voices halted in mid-sentence as Security officer Selis opened the door to the administrative chamber, and all the room's eyes lay upon him. Despite the circumstances, the weight of attention drew a sigh from his lips, one heavy enough to escape as a pale mist that settled in the center of the room, drawing a frown from Security administrator Roya. The man's eyes hardened, but Roya had disliked Selis from the day he'd been transferred from what was left of the colony's Xenoarchaeololgy department, though it was only later the man learned to hate him.
Selis's eyes flickered away from Roya, and he tried to figure out why he was here. The council's large viewing screens, designed to function even if the network that fed his AR lenses failed, were tuned to the meter-deep snows that blew across the surface. But after ten years of hardscrabble survival, the blizzard above was normal for this time of year, expected. For the ice to reach here and frost his breath was not.
It was the tall dark-skinned Administrator who spoke first: First Administrator Helia, whose iron will still bound the remains of the Terran Unity's Expedition to Delta-Sigma H-TH0, which its inhabitants had taken in the winter months to calling Hoth. She eyed the alien pendant hanging around his neck for a moment, one of his few discoveries here, then spoke. "Officer Selis, I'm sure you're wondering why I called you here. Well, time is short and so I'll skip straight to the point. No doubt you've heard rumors, and the worst of them is true: the colony's geothermal heating system has failed overnight. You'll remember that with the advent of the War, the Terran Unity diverted our supply ships to more critical duties, and we were forced to inhabit and expand the underground installation we found here in order to survive Hoth's 197-day winter. You'll remember we expanded the existing geothermal venting system to include our new rooms. As of this morning, instead of delivering heat from deep beneath the surface, the heat conduit was covered in ice."
Selis's eyes widened. The hyper-conductive metal alloy the alien colony used (and there were too few artifacts here to explain Hoth as more than an outpost within a larger alien civilization) had always emitted a comfortable temperature, but it had been installed within nearly solid rock. Science Administrator Latia's attempt to follow it had failed after only a few hundred meters. Given the colony's dire need, she had declared it a geothermal conduit and commandeered it for use in the heating system, and for a third of Hoth's year that was that. Until now. "That's impossible. Geothermal heat doesn't work that way."
Science Administrator Latia's lips thinned where she stood beside Helia. "It shouldn't be possible. But that means the heat isn't really geothermal in nature. Or, more likely, it was cut off. I suspect there is one conduit down below, and one to the surface: like hot and cold water pipes to your sink, with switches for each. We found and tuned one such switch several years back. It stands to reason there may be others."
Selis's brow furrowed while his mind raced. Who could turn off the hot water from the entire planet?
First Administrator Helia's voice was cool when she finally spoke, conversational. "Selis, I'm told you had friends below, among the Rebels. Is this still true?"
Selis swallowed. "I have family below, cousins mostly. You don't think - "
Helia gestured to Security Administrator Roya. "We cannot know. We have tolerated the existence of the Rebels: we cannot afford to punish them directly, and they do keep the Spiders down. But we will not supply unrepentant traitors, either. And after we suppressed their last attempt to raid our stores, they refuse to speak to us, and fire shots toward anyone who tries."
After Roya had personally gunned down a frightened child with a power converter, Selis could hardly blame them. But here he could only nod. "They will speak to me."
Helia smiled, though it looked thin and her expression worn. "Then find out what they know, and whether we are at war."
Selis nodded toward the Syn and Evers, the two blue-clad armed guards that marked the end of Unity territory, and walked alone toward the Bend, an L-shaped cave that marked the end of Unity Territory and the beginning of the caves occupied by Rolan's rebels. Most of the alien caves the colony had occupied were symmetrical and polished smooth, and each of those was ventilated and heated using the same odd hyper-conductive alloy - and brightly lit by Unity light strips. But like many of the tunnels below, the Bend was rough-hewn and dim, abandoned by Unity and aliens alike. It was also nearly as chilly as the rooms above. Selis held his breath, thinking about what that meant, and stepped from one society to another.
As soon as Selis turned the corner, he was near-blinded by two brilliant spotlights emitting from the business end of two stun pistols. "Halt! Well, shit - is that you, Selis?"
The middle-aged security officer raised an open hand to his brow. "Yeah, it's me, and you don't have to point that thing right in my eyes, Dovan."
Dovan complied, as did the fellow beside him. "No spare parts this time?"
Selis shook his head. "No, I'm here on business. It's getting cold in here, and the Administrator wants to know why. Rolan wouldn't know anything about that, would he?"
The two guards eyed each other, then shook their heads. Dovan replied, "So you don't know, either. Wait here: he wants to talk to you too."
Hoth was two jumps and six months away from anything approaching civilization. Initially, Earth had responded to the discovery of alien structures on the planet with a full-sized expedition, composed of thousands of volunteers. But then the Unity made first contact with one of the tribes of the X'nth - one which devolved into a massacre of a Unity task force. Not all of the X'nth were hostile; some had taken the opportunity to trade elements of their superior technology to the Terrans, for enormous quantities of raw resources. After that, the Unity, which to date had been just barely holding its own, had all but entirely turned its back on Hoth. Helia had responded to the crisis by declaring a state of emergency and ruling Hoth with an iron hand. Xenoarchaeological Administrator Rolan retaliated by foreswearing the Unity and its Basic Income in favor of greater freedom, taking hundreds of men and women with him to the less-explored caves below. Rolan's people could synthesize most of what they needed, but Selis had taken upon himself to slip his cousins and his former boss a few spare parts here and there.
"So the Unity is also being affected by the cold?" a sandy-haired man of medium height asked, disturbing Selis's reverie.
Selis nodded. "Even more so than here in the Bend. The heat conduits are beginning to ice over, and Helia believes someone down here has disconnected the geothermal conduit and kept the heat from rising upward."
Rolan stroked his chin. "Not intentionally, I can promise you that. There are rooms below filled with alien metals and writings, and we used to visit them on occasion. But in the past few days, Spiders have overrun them, and they've been pressing us hard. They've never done that before: they seem to like the heat. If the issue is that the geothermal rods below have been disconnected, why aren't the Spiders staying below?"
Selis shook his head. "I don't know, but there's only one way to find out. We're going to need a dozen men, at least. Good thing I have standard-issue security officer armor."
Rolan sighed. "I think we can scrape up a dozen suits, but not all of them are in good shape."
Within the hour, there were a dozen men with stunners, Rolan and Selis included, with armor in various states of repair, and they were marching through the Rebels' lower tunnels. Unlike the ones above, these were mostly rough-hewn and unlighted - some were made or at least extended by the spiders below. But a polished wall here and there told Selis they were on the right track, though he was wise enough to let Rolan lead the way.
Unfortunately, it was only a few minutes after they passed the last guard post below that Selis heard a clicking noise in the dark. The team's spotter turned his flashlight upon the noise in an instant, and purple multi-faceted eyes stared back at the team. The six-legged monstrosity launched itself at Rolan in a blink. A meter and a half tall and over twice Selis's own weight, a Spider's pincers could excavate rock or score combat steel, and they made short work of splintering bone. Rolan's stunner, set to maximum power, burned the very air, and a whiff of ozone reached Selis as the charred remains of the Spider's head met Dovan's shield with a heavy thud. Dovan shoved the dead creature back with his shield, and then Rolan and Selis lit it up with secondary fire. Best to be sure: Spiders were hard to kill, and those pincers were apt to twitch even once they were dead.
Rolan's voice rose with practiced confidence. "Shields in front, and fire support above and to the sides. Spotters sweep the crevices - where there's one Spider, there's more. Now, now, now!"
The next onslaught hit like a tidal wave. The euphemistically named stunners filled the air with light and flame, but the chittering masses came on and on, their smoking blue and purple carapaces piling up high in the tunnel. Shieldmen pushed the corpses forward, then retreated, step by step, as the huge creatures charged. Selis dropped one, two, and then eventually ten spiders before the remaining few began to retreat. Just when it looked as if the fight was over, Dovan let out a loud cry, crumpling to the cave floor. Selis rushed forward, stunner blazing, and launched a swift steel-booted kick at the Spider that hovered over Dovan. It fell back, a dismembered ankle in its mandibles as Selis reduced its eyes to a smoking ruin.
"Shit, shit, shit!" Dovan cried out, but his training held, and he placed the auto-tourniquet on his own leg within seconds. He would live, but it would be months at best until they were able to regrow his missing foot and ankle. Luckily, the Rebels had enough parts to keep the regenerator working - Selis had seen to it.
Ronal's voice was resigned. "Jorl, grab a stretcher and take Dovan back. We'll go forward with what we have."
There were two more encounters before they reached the Metals Room, as Ronal liked to call it, each leaving Selis's heart pounding, but there were no more casualties. It was a broad room, over twenty meters on a side, polished and inlaid with striated metals. It was freshly stained too with the blood of Spiders, though any bodies had since been cannibalized. Rolan and Selis sped out, flashlights in hand, while the Shieldmen lined up at the entrance to the room.
"Over here," Selis called out, pointing to what looked like a sliding metal panel. It was scored and pierced, likely by a Spider. Selis lifted it to reveal a lined piece of metal that looked much like an old-fashioned circuit board. It was sheathed in a clear polymer, also pitted and scored. There was a purple blinking light at the top of the panel. Beside it to the right was a heat conduit, also sheathed in the protective polymer. It was covered by a thin layer of frost, and the air tasted stale.
"Jesus," Rolan interjected, falling in at Selis's side. "This never opened before. I didn't even know it could. Damn Spiders. There was always a noise here before too, and now it's fallen quiet."
Selis ran his gloved fingers carefully down the panel, then pointed to an indent in the metal below. "If that opens, do you think this might be another panel below?"
Rolan shrugged. "Maybe, but how would you open it?"
Selis removed the helmet from his armor, then grasped the pendant around his neck. "There were dozens of pendants in the upper control room when we first explored the tunnels, all made of inert metals. At the time, we thought they were simply jewelry, and most of them ended up in storage. But I got permission to keep this one. And I think this just might fit."
He place the pendant within the indent, and the secondary panel slid open, revealing a switch. Beside was a pictogram, depicting a chamber below, with control rods piercing the chamber. "Here goes..."
Selis toggled the switch down, then up, and the purple light switched to red. A screeching sound arose from below, followed by rhythmic pumping. After a moment, air began to flow from above, and the frost on the conduit began to bead into water. Selis sighed deeply. "It's done. It's fixed."
Rolan also sighed in relief. "We'll have to post guards down here, I see. It would be a lot easier if we had a few more Stunners and a spare suit of armor or two."
Selis shrugged. "I'll see what I can do. But I need to talk with the Science Administrator about this. See the picture here? I don't think we're looking at a geothermal well. If I didn't know better, I'd say this was describing a nuclear reactor. How much Uranium did the geologists find in their survey?"
Rolan's eyes widened. "Tons, but why?"
"This kind of reaction is controllable, predictable, even over thousands of years. Deep drilling of the kind we thought the aliens had done wouldn't last as long without refit or replacement. Hoth is a cool planet even in the summer, even with all its carbon dioxide. But our digs show it used to be a lot colder. I'll bet there's a bioreactor here too, working to add organics to the water vapor this installation is putting out. What do you want to bet this is a terraforming device that we just rebooted?"
"Well," Rolan replied, "terraforming device or no, I'm glad we restarted it. We've saved tens of thousands of lives today."
"Yeah," Selis nodded in agreement. "Just makes me wonder when the architects of this device will return. They may not be too thrilled to find squatters!"