Warframe. That was the name of a project submitted exactly three centuries ago today. Space was still relatively a matter of hardly any concern to international politics. The budget for another moon exploration by NASA had been miniscule, but it was managed. Fortunately, they were also able to bring more sophisticated tools than had been available some decades ago, when the first lunar landing had been achieved. It was not an altogether ground breaking project – it was almost like a long overdue checkup in its attempt to further understanding about Luna. What they had discovered was far from normal; far from anything anyone could have ever expected.
* * *
The gray, powdery dust shifted like fine sand underneath Jimmy’s boot as he took another short step. Where his foot had been, was now a clear print. It caught his eye, and he smiled.
Perhaps I’ll leave my own legacy, Neil, he thought. His eyes lifted and grazed the grey, dusty landscape. Rolling slopes stretched ahead of him, eventually curving downward to mesh with the deep black above. It was hardly the fells of rural England, but he had no complaints. Far higher than any hill could reach…far higher than any mountain - taller than anything on the blue marble that hovered high in the great black. It looked so small, at this distance. A smile touched his lips. A single, tiny sphere in the cosmic marble bag of the Solar system. The Solar System itself only a tiny fraction of the grand Milky Way.
He took a few more slow steps; the terrifying, fascinating, and utterly ludicrous thought of giving one strong jump and floating away into space constantly present. He noticed again the way the dust crunched beneath his boots, such that he could almost feel that he was on the beach. A massive, waterless beach. And he was wearing an oversized full body swim suit. The thought made him grin.
Suddenly his foot slipped, and he tumbled. But to his horror, what met his outstretched gloves was not the soft gray dust. What greeted his hands and eyes was a looming blackness, which eagerly reached up to embrace him as he fell. Fright surged through his veins; his hands scrabbled at the rock a few feet in front of him. Would his gloves rip against it? Fuck, he hoped not. He continued to plummet, specks of rock and dust bouncing off of his faceplate.
His fingers finally felt a jut in the stone. He held onto it for dear life, feeling a small jolt as his body ceased its drop. Feeling himself swing into the wall, the face of his helmet scratched against it with a blood curdling scraping noise. He held his breath for a few seconds – and when there was no shrill hissing noise of air escaping his suit, let it out in what would be the deepest sigh of relief of his life. If he made it back, he swore he’d shake the hand of every man and woman that had designed this thing.
But he wasn’t out of danger yet, he knew. Careful, so as not to make too much motion, he brushed the front of his suit with his free hand; he had to find his flashlight, so he could at least do a cursory inspection of his surroundings. Unclipping it, he clicked it on and swept it around him, pointing it down as well, expecting to see a gaping maw of black. Had the situation been less dire he would have rolled his eyes. Letting go of the wall, he bent his knees and landed gently on the ground that had been a mere three feet below him.
He was in some kind of narrow crevice. The walls were only about ten feet apart, and their black faces rose high above him. Craning his neck, he glimpsed the dim light of the sun touching the very top of the wall in front of him. Good God, that’s got to be at least forty five meters, he thought. How he would get back up there escaped him, and worry began to twist his stomach into knots.
Pointing the flashlight back down, he could not spot its light for a moment. Confused, he jiggled it. It was functioning correctly, as he saw the light flicker on the wall to the left and right – but in the middle…black. Intrigued, he took a tentative step forward. And another. No rock met him. Turning his head, he pointed the light behind him, illuminating the wall. Looking back in front of him, the light disappeared – no…there it was. Dim, but the way it angled made it clear there was a turn. What is this, a tunnel? he wondered. His radio clicked and static burst over the speaker, startling the ever living shit out of him.
“Harrington, are you there? Come in, Harrington,” came a voice.
“I’m here,” he replied, thankful to hear his partner’s voice again.
“Status?” came the response.
“That’s going to be an inconclusive, Goodman,” Harrington said. There was a pause. His radio clicked again.
“Care to elaborate on that, Jimmy?” Goodman said.
Harrington hesitated. How could he best explain this? He pressed the transmit button. “Well, Goodman, I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.”
Letting go of the button, he continued ahead through the passageway. There was no reply for a good ten seconds. He could already see Goodman in his mind’s eye, calculating and processing like the machine that man was. He smirked to himself. Not that Goodman altogether appreciated the term of endearment. His radio clicked again, finally.
“Location?” Goodman asked.
“Don’t rightly know, bud. I’ll get back to you on that,” Harrington responded, delicately edging himself through a particularly narrow part of the tunnel; so far the walls had given ample space for walking, but now they were barely four feet apart. Where the ceiling had previously been about ten feet above him, it was now hardly more than one. How much longer does this go? he wondered.
Minutes passed slowly; eternities packed into deceptively minute spans. There was no radio traffic from Goodman. Jim could only hope he was working on an extraction plan. Curiosity drove him inching through, the rock occasionally scratching against the front of his visor, but he had no intention of making this a one way trip. The passage turned sharply to the left, continuing for a few feet more. Jimmy scraped through, causing more scratches to graze his helmet. Squeezing through the last foot or so, he finally popped out, landing unceremoniously on his ass with a grunt. He stood up, dusting himself off and doing a quick check to make sure his suit had not been ripped in the fall. What he beheld next as he lifted his eyes to examine his surroundings caused them to go wide.
A vast, vaulted chamber greeted him. Its ceiling arched high overhead into a dome, the top hidden in darkness. He stepped forward, caution constricting his stomach into knots.
What…in the world? he thought. The floor was remarkably smooth as well, as if it had been carved. But what was even stranger, were the lights. They stretched around the entire room, forming a massive ring about thirty feet up. Spheres embedded into the rock, they gave off a soft turquoise light, and provided a dim illumination. His eyes slowly followed them along the length of the wall, coming to rest upon the large formation of them at the opposite end of the chamber. There, they were arranged into a symmetrical formation that vaguely resembled a flower; it was huge, and arched high above him. It was that which provided the majority of light to this room, he figured.
He took the sight in with awe. His breath began to quicken – only to stop, as his eyes traced the mysterious symbol to its base, where…he squinted his eyes. There was something there, backlit by the same dim turquoise light. How much weirder was this going to get? he wondered.
Taking a tentative step forward, he gulped. As the gap between himself and the enigmatic display before him shrunk, he expected at any moment for something to happen. What might come from this eerie place he did not know; suddenly his mind began to race with thoughts of beasts and specters leaping out of the darkness to attack him. Hell, it would only have been marginally crazier than the situation already was.
As he neared the wall and its adornments, his eyes discerned that what he had initially thought was one large object, was in fact many objects. He quickened his step, curiosity overpowering his cautiousness. Getting closer, the things became clearer. Roughly eight of them; tall cylinders, stretching several feet higher than he. They curved at the top, slipping out of the rock to the floor like so many growths. It also became apparent that they were not lit from behind – they emanated their own light. And upon further inspection, it became apparent why. Inside of these…pods, there were people.
* * *
Jimmy leapt back with a shout, stumbling and falling to the ground. Adrenaline surged through him, and his mind began to race. His eyes were wide with fright, alarm, confusion. He felt himself inching away from those…things, on his hands and feet, the stone floor icy to the touch. His breath was fast – he realized he was starting to hyperventilate. He had to calm his breathing. He shut his eyes tight, and counted methodically to ten. Opened his eyes slowly. They were still there.
Oh my God. What the bloody… he started to think. Oh m- His frantic train of thought was interrupted abruptly by a sudden burst of static. He jumped, his heart leaping into his throat. A voice came vaguely through.
“Harrington. Harrington, come in. Status request.” Jimmy recognized Goodman’s stern voice despite the thick static. Sweet Christ, what timing. Closing his eyes again and taking a deep breath, he thumbed the transmit switch, speaking slowly.
“Harrington here. Status…good God, I don’t know. There’s…there’s something down here, Goodman. There’s something…” His thumb slipped off of the button, unable to complete his sentence.
Noise burst over his speaker again; Goodman’s voice drifted through faintly. The static fluctuated in strength, making it difficult to discern what the man was saying.
“…what…on…” was all that he caught.
“Might want to reiterate that, Goodman,” Jimmy said. Silence. The radio clicked – but nothing came through. Not even static. It clicked again; presumably the end of Goodman’s attempt at contact. Jim pressed his transmit button. “Goodman, can you copy? I repeat, can you copy?” he said. A click as he let go of the button, and then…silence. Ear throbbing, deafening silence.