by Peter Wright
Runner up in the April 2019 TDE Fiction Competition.
Rann wrinkled his muzzle. “Smells like a slaughterhouse.” He was breathing hard after their ascent.
“Means we’re in the right place,” said Nirri, wiping sweat from her nose. The jungle’s humidity was rising with the sun. Below them, the steaming canopy echoed with the cries of unseen predators and prey.
They stood on the sill of an ancient window, a slight human girl and a heavy-set Berengeii staring down into a rectangular abyss – the hollow core of a Builder tower. It was the lowest entry point to the structure; not a window or doorway lay anywhere beneath them. It was strange.
All around, lianas wound between fangs of corroded iron, creeping over cracked and flaking stonework. Further down, in places reached only by the midday sun, the plants’ riotous growth diminished. Mosses thrived in the moist shadows, hanging in clawed clumps from twisted beams and fissured walls. At the bottom, where the tower’s collapsed floors were stacked like strata, enormous fungi grew fat on decay. Their pale boles and hypertrophied caps glistened in the gloom.
The Berengeii huffed beside her.
Nirri smiled. “’Fraid of the dark?”
Rann bared his canines. It was his terrifying version of a sneer. With dexterity surprising in one of his mass, he swung off the ledge and navigated his way down the inside of the building, finding purchase in the network of vines surrounding him. Where the lianas thinned, broken toothed masonry offered itself to his powerful hands and feet.
Nirri tracked his descent with her assault rifle. Ruins like this were often home to spitting maniraptors – and nobody needed that kind of complication. Maybe this was a bad idea, she reflected, but Merv had been insistent. She distrusted the grubby little Factor, but he seldom steered them wrong. He had a nose for Pre-Fall tech if not for personal hygiene: he smelled as bad as the tower. Something was living and killing down there, she decided. The trick would be to get in and get out before it came back, or woke up, and decided human-Berengeii yookhwe was on the menu.
Rann reached the bottom without incident and motioned her to join him. Nirri shouldered her rifle and began to climb. It was in moments like this she became acutely aware of time. I’m an insect, she thought, crawling over history. The past was everywhere. She glimpsed it through the foliage: discoloured buttons bearing strange symbols – numbers, perhaps; a faded cube of plastic, hollow and studded, sheltered in an elbow of metal; a small, shattered dome, its jagged sides rising like teeth around the figure of a tiny bearded man in pink robes. She was struck by how much had been forgotten, how much there was to recover on the path to what once was. She was glad to be part of it, even if that meant dealing with Merv. We will rise again, she thought, and we won’t throw it all away like the Builders.
She was climbing easily, scarcely conscious of her movements, until a vine spider scuttled onto her hand. It moved with mechanical precision: an eight-legged emerald with a nasty attitude. She froze as it regarded her with ominous intelligence. Its chelicera parted, revealing ebony-coloured fangs wet with venom. Nirri scarcely dared breathe.
The spider studied her.
Below, she heard Rann stomp impatiently. “Nirri?” his voice resonated up the ageless tower. The spider twitched.
Keep quiet, Rann, she willed. Just. Keep. Quiet.
With deliberate movements the spider advanced to her wrist. The damned thing was not going to scurry back in its hole. As if sensing her disappointment, it picked its way up her forearm.
“Nirri?” It was Rann. She ignored him. The spider would bite if she spoke.
Come closer, she thought. Just a little closer.
The spider complied. Its hard, black tarsi dimpled the flesh of her elbow. Close enough.
Her mouth went dry when she needed to spit. She worked her tongue, filling her mouth with saliva; then she spat into the spider’s eyes. The creature reared, lost purchase on her arm, tumbled sideways. In that instant, Nirri released her grip on the rock-face and kicked back. Gravity seized her in its implacable fist, dragging her away from harm, down towards death. The irony was not lost on her.
The wall unwound like a reel of weathered stone and emerald moss. A vine snapped past, just beyond reach. An outcrop of composite, hanging off rusted bones, scraped her flailing fingers.
Still she fell.
She hit bottom cradled by two hairy arms that swept her in a circle that dispersed her momentum. At the last moment, she had closed her eyes. When she opened them, Rann’s simian face, dark and stern, filled her vision. His hazel eyes showed exasperation. He stood her on her feet.
“That was foolish,” he said.
Nirri shook her head. “Staying up there with a vine spider would have been foolish.”
Rann’s brows knitted. “Vine spider?”
“Mmm. Big as my hand; lot less dainty.”
“It was still dangerous to let yourself fall.”
“I knew you’d catch me.”
“One of these days,” said Rann, “I might not be quick enough.” He shrugged his silver shoulders. “I am not as young as I used to be.”
“You’re not as much fun, either, but you don’t hear me complaining. My mother knew what she was doing when she left me in your care, Uncle. You have safe hands.”
Rann snorted. “I might drop you, just to teach you a lesson.”
“Then we’d both be sorry, wouldn’t we? C’mon. Northwest corner, wasn’t it?”
“According to the malodorous Merv.”
“‘Malodorous’?” she said over her shoulder. “‘Malodorous’, Rann?”
“I’m improving myself. Don’t mock.”
“Never too old, huh?” Nirri grinned. She unlimbered her assault rifle and marched into the fungal forest.
Rann followed, grumbling.
Within a dozen paces vast mushroom caps blocked the daylight, plunging Nirri and Rann into a twilit world. Activating their bioluminescent packs, they continued in a sickly yellow haze. Their progress was slow. At times, they had to squeeze between the fat, white stems, careful not to slip on waterlogged terrain. Rann struggled more than Nirri, his bulk ill-suited to weaving between the giant boles. He stumbled once, driving them both against a soaring mushroom that showered them with spores. Instinctively they caught their breaths until they had tied brine-soaked neckerchiefs across their faces; the salt solution formed an effective barrier against the spores.
The stench was awful. Rotting fungi, dead animal tissue and old, nameless chemicals had seeped or fallen to the base of the tower where they formed the rich loam on which the mushrooms thrived. Nirri’s eyes watered. When Rann laid a cautionary hand on her shoulder, she stopped immediately. The Berengeii’s senses were keener than hers.
“What is it?”
“Something…” He huffed and blew out his cheeks, uncertain. “Or nothing.”
Rann glowered and took the lead. Nirri followed, ears straining. Her uncle’s instincts were seldom wrong. He had sensed something, however briefly, and that was cause for vigilance.
Minutes later they reached a clearing where lumps of mouldering fungi lay dissolving into the muck. The wreckage of a balloon, its basket split apart, rested among the debris. A faint smell of alcohol came from the pipework of its ruined burner. Rann held up its tattered canopy; it was torn to shreds.
He removed his kerchief. “Terrordon,” he murmured.
Nirri pulled down her mask. “That’s what Merv said.” The little Factor had been quite explicit: one of his artifacter crews had been heading home when they hit a flock of them. The vicious brutes – not Merv’s term – tore up the canopy: four crewmen killed on impact. Kirissk was the only survivor. “The tunnel Kirissk found must be around here somewhere. That’s where he hid the cargo. Couldn’t carry it any further.”
“Did Merv say why the Sorrian couldn’t come with us?”
“Kirissk’s got some kind of fever. He’s pretty sick, apparently.”
Rann rooted through the balloon’s basket. “Where are the bodies? The artifacter crew?”
“Undoubtedly, but by what?”
Nirri shivered, suddenly mindful she was in a very deep hole with very few exits. “Let’s find the damned tunnel and get out of here.”
It took no time to locate the tunnel. A swathe of smashed fungi led from the crash site down a shallow decline to two metal doors folded out on their hinges. Nirri had seen Tyrannex throats look more inviting.
“Age before beauty,” she said, gesturing for Rann to go first.
“Wisdom before…” he paused, and it was a second or two until Nirri heard what had silenced him.
With a noise like sliding shale, a diamond-backed titanoboa surged through the doorway, its head thrust forward, tasting the air.
‘Snake!’ Nirri yelled, more from alarm than necessity.
Rann broke right in a loping stride. Nirri dodged left, finding cover behind a wall bearing the symbol of a white-headed bird. A glance confirmed her worst fears: the snake was enormous. It flowed out of the tunnel, fifty feet of scaled malevolence and hunger. Now she knew where the artifacters’ bodies had gone.
She shouldered her rifle, snapped off the safety.
No doubt the snake had smelled them. Its spatulate head rose up, weaving this way and that, its tongue playing the air. Nirri sighted, took a breath to hold.
The explosion of sound sent albino lemurs scurrying among the fungi. A flight of topaz yangi burst from their roosts high in the tower, their screams rebounding from wall to wall.
In semi-automatic mode Nirri’s rifle was remarkably accurate. There were thirty rounds in the magazine, staggered between commercial hollowpoints and Mama Kahn’s jacketed soft points. Nirri put them all in the titanoboa’s head; or at least she tried. Through the scope she saw the bullets hit, but instead of opening bloody rosettes they left barely a scratch. Armoured scales, she realised. A new species.
Battered but unharmed, the snake shook itself then lunged, rippling towards Nirri with startling speed. Nirri dumped her spent magazine and seated a fresh clip. Hissing, the snake tried to snare her in a shifting maze of reptilian flesh. She dodged a scaled loop thicker than Rann’s torso, but there was no way out. Where was Rann? Surely he hadn’t abandoned her? She sidestepped a thrashing, corkscrew tail and slammed into an unyielding wall of scales. The breath went out of her. She hit the ground, stunned. A kaleidoscope of sky and scales churned above her, the tawny jewel of an ophidian eye at its centre. Then she heard the roar.
Four hundred pounds of enraged primate leapt from her peripheral vision. It collided with the snake and bore it down.
She saw the Berengeii disappear under an avalanche of thrashing coils. His upraised axe glinted once before he was entombed.
In its eagerness to crush Rann, the snake forgot Nirri; the soft flesh of its belly writhed a dozen meters before her. She raised her rifle and squeezed the trigger once, twice, to determine the shots’ effectiveness. Two ragged holes appeared in the snake’s gut, scattering blood and acid. Nirri switched to full automatic and emptied her magazine into the monster.
The result was spectacular.
The mountain of coils around Rann dropped away to reveal the Berengeii victorious beside the snake’s severed head; he was dripping with gore.
Rann saw her and bared his canines. He threw back his head, and bellowed his victory, thumping his chest with balled fists in a gesture of primeval triumph no amount of uplifting could erase.
“That make you feel better?” Nirri asked wryly when he fell silent.
Rann lowered his arms, suddenly self-conscious. “Um,” he grumbled. “My kill,” he said.
“Your kill?” Nirri was incredulous. “Your kill? I shot the thing while you were dancing with it.”
Rann scowled. “Its head was off before you fired.”
“It was still moving.”
“Muscle spasms,” said Rann. “Happens all the time. My kill.”
“My kill,” she shot back.
“Fine. You carry it.”
They laughed then, Nirri’s soft chuckle counterpointing Rann’s bass rumble. It chased away the last of their terror.
“Let’s find this damned tech, Uncle.”
“Pick up your brass first.”
Few resources were wasted in Ulaya, and finely drawn cartridge cases were no exception. Rann and Nirri gathered their spent shells for Mama Kahn’s reloads. When they were done, they walked to the blackened metal doors. Nirri touched their pitted surface reverently. “These are old,” she breathed. “Older than anything I’ve seen. Older than you,” she added mischievously.
Rann grimaced. “Lot less pretty, too.”
Nirri made a noncommittal noise as she stepped between the doors into a tiled tunnel. With Rann beside her, their bioluminescent packs barely pierced the darkness.
“Merv said Kirissk dragged it just inside…”
Nirri played her light over the uneven ground until it rested on a large metal trunk three feet long and perhaps half that high. It was battered and one of its corners had split, but it looked like no one had opened it since before the Fall. An embossed motif was unreadable in the gloom.
“Looks like it took some knocks in the crash,” she observed.
“We’re lucky it’s still in one piece. Can you help an old ape?”
Rann had hold of one end of the trunk, waiting for her assistance. Nirri found its other plastic handle and together they heaved the case out of the muck.
“No wonder Kirissk only got it this far,” she observed. “He’s not built for heavy lifting.”
By the time they reached the end of the tunnel, Nirri realised she wasn’t built for heavy lifting, either. She was soaked with fresh sweat and her shoulders burned. Even Rann was puffing when they laid the trunk in the sunlight. The tunnel had run through a subterranean maze of vaulted bays filled with rusted hulks. It opened onto an apron of cracked composite a thousand years old.
“This,” Rann declared, “would have been an easier way in.”
“Merv said Kirissk couldn’t remember where to find it. Besides, that snake was probably in residence.”
Rann grunted distractedly. He was picking at the filthy trunk with a black fingernail.
“I saw a symbol on it,” said Nirri.
“No. Do you?”
Nirri looked over Rann’s shoulder. “Looks like a propeller. Is that yellow paint around it?”
“Enamel, I think.”
“Maybe it’s some kind of engine. Should we open it?”
“Better not. Merv’ll use any excuse not to pay up. And after that snake, I’d like to be paid.”
“Buy yourself an hour in Fensheen’s Bathhouse first, Uncle.”
“Enough lip. It’s a long walk back to the boat.”
“It is with you smelling like that.”
“You’re no rose garden yourself, Nirri.”
Bickering playfully, they raised the trunk and began their trek. Nirri would be glad to see their little craft again; it was the closest thing they had to a home. She was bone-tired and felt like she was sickening for something. She hoped she hadn’t caught Kirissk’s fever.