Black Dawn

The Eurynome Code, Book 1

By K. Gorman

13 min.

Only twenty minutes into the scrounge, and Karin Makos was already cursing whichever crazy, inbred subset of people had been responsible for building a settlement in the dark, twisting, and forever narrowing depths of the Amosi cave complex. Despite the reinforced support system in her suit, made more for over-land voyages rather than… what was the word for this? Spelunking?—each step downward wrenched at her knees and ankles before the suit compensated for the awkward slope. A slow burn rose in her thighs, matching up with a growing stiffness that cut across her core abdominal muscles.

Sol, I should have worked out more on the ship.

It wasn’t as if she hadn’t had enough time, given how long it had taken to reach this dungheap of a planet. No, she'd just been lazy, losing herself in the feeds and the dull intricacies of the Nemina's navigation system.

When one wasn't active, the need for fitness didn't seem quite so strong.

Another rust-covered relic rose under the mercurial tint of her flashlight.

Just who in the ten hells had decided this was the best place to settle?

One of the second-gen off-worlders, probably. That rust looked at least fifty years old, which would correspond with some of the cult departures she'd read about. If one added some time for the people actually living here.

Down the slope, her two comrades echoed her thoughts.

“What the gods did you do, Marc? Piss in Cookie's inbox?” The internal comms of the suits made Soo-jin’s voice tinny and warped, but her disgust rang obvious. “I bet this place’s picked clean.”

Marc, the captain of their ship and the farthest into the cavern, let out a heavy grunt. “Possibly.”

The gauges and holodisplay in the suit underlit the smooth, dark, shaven skin of his head as he frowned down the slope. He'd been a soldier before, part of Fallon's forces from after they'd left the Alliance, and the history was evident in the way he moved. He balanced well, kept a casual-but-regular exercise regimen in the Nemina's spare room, and had an above-average interest in the many dated and valuable firearms they came across.

Karin grimaced upon hearing Marc’s last word. Possibly didn’t sound good for her. Her bank account hovered over its final thousand credits, and the last two scrounging sites had been busts. If they were going to keep this business afloat, they needed to find something—anything—soon. If they didn't...

Her jaw tensed. They had to.

Static-y sounds of close, heavy breathing came over the comms. The slope wasn't particularly steep, but the roughness of the ground made it difficult to navigate. Marc and Soo-jin clambered ahead about a hundred meters away, the beams from their flashlights roaming over chunks of dusty rock and smooth slides of scree. The walls molded together in layers, the occasional, long-since-dried stains marking dark splotches into their mottled brown and black. High above, it all came together in a lopsided archway. There'd obviously been a landslide since the settlement's abandonment—several of them, by the looks of the rock and the scree—but the main part lay over a klick underground, resting in some dug-out part of the territory's natural cave system. Hopefully, the depth had protected it from complete burial. It had certainly prevented their ship from doing a better scan.

Marc's voice crackled again on the comms. “Karin, how you doing?”

“Fine. I—” She yelped as her foot slipped. Her whole body tensed as she slid several inches down, arms flailing out for balance. Loose rock and soil fell with her, catching in the beam of her flashlight. The tote in her right hand clunked with a loud, reverberating bang against the metal that covered her leg as she recovered. “I'll catch up.”

Having operated the crane lift for the other two before maneuvering down the rope herself, she'd been the last one in, so well behind them. Even Soo-jin, who'd been second, had already covered quite some ground ahead. As the team's most experienced scrounger, she was a lot more used to the exoplanet suits and rough terrain than Karin. In fact, she and Marc both were. Karin was really only here for her flight knowledge. And for the handy-dandy navigation license that let them veer off the pre-approved government routes and come to places like the Amosi caves. Though both Marc and Soo-jin were capable of piloting the small craft, they didn't have her credentials.

It made her indispensable. Sort of.

As she caught her stunned breath and righted herself from the fall, then picked up the scrounge-kit from where she had dropped it, she found herself doubting her usefulness. Soo-jin was the one with real scrounging experience. And Marc owned the ship.

“No worries,” he said. “Let us know if you need help.”

Karin gritted her teeth. Had they all heard her little fall? She'd done her best to be quiet.

“Thanks,” she forced herself to say. “I should be fine.”

“Yeah, Cap,” Soo-jin cut in. “She's actually a secret badass.”

She narrowed her eyes at the comment, and her lip curled back at the tone. A flash of anger, long repressed, bit into the front of her mind like used coals. They'd been rubbing shoulders since the last failed scrounge, and she'd just about had enough of the other woman's needles. “Fuck off, Soo-jin.”

Soo-jin made a noise into her mic that might have been a snort, but otherwise said nothing.

Marc's next sigh came dosed with long-suffering exasperation. "Can we focus, please?"

"Sure," Soo-jin said. "There's plenty to focus on here, what with all the rocks and dirt and pieces of rusted, broken, unsalvageable shit."

A noise clunked up ahead, as if Soo-jin had kicked something.

"Less talk, more walk," Marc said. "I want to actually sleep tonight."

"Oh, you'll sleep, Cap," Soo-jin quipped. “We can turn around the second we lay eyes on whatever crockery Cookie sent us down here to investigate, agree to roast his gunai on a lav-log next time we see him, and hike our broke asses back out."

"If it comes to that, I get first shot. He's blood, after all."

"Just so long as I get a lav-log roast when you're finished. I have some personal feelings to work out, not to mention all the compensation I won't be getting."

"You'd exchange Cookie's gunai for compensation? You should have said something earlier. I can agree to that."

"Fantastic," Soo-jin exclaimed. "Hurry up, Karin. I've got some gunai to roast."

This time, the woman's tone sounded surprisingly free of sarcasm.

"No problem." Karin relaxed as they all focused on the descent again.

It took them another twenty minutes to reach the settlement, their speed helped by an uneven, twisting staircase they found once the debris from the cave-in petered out. The cavern narrowed as they went down, and the ceiling dipped close enough for their flashlight beams to catch. Thin, sharp-looking stalactites made jagged slashes of shadow on the weathered stone.

Her eyes narrowed on a large one that hung next to the railing. It was bone-dry.

Weren't they formed by water? She glanced up, searching. Maybe the settlement had used it all up? Would that affect the integrity of the ceiling?

Light flashed over metal like dulled quicksilver as Soo-jin skimmed her beam across a low archway embedded around a re-tooled hole in the cave wall. Her lip curled as the beam found a rough, metal-worked sign beside the threshold, depicting what Karin guessed to be the settlement's coat of arms—two snakes entwined over a crossed sword and gun motif.

"Blow-torch work." She turned her dry gaze to Marc, who stood beside her. "My pessimism rises. Can we leave yet?"

Marc squared his shoulders. "No. There's supposed to be First-gen Earth stuff down here, maybe even a weapons’ cache. We search."

He flicked on his light and started forward, leading the way into the rough tunnel. After a second, Soo-jin, grumbling under her breath about paranoid, inbred settlers, followed.

Darkness encroached on her back as their light moved on ahead. Karin turned the brightness up on her own light and followed. Dust rose from under her boots where the soles crunched the surface to then hang in the dead air around her. She tried to ignore her own rise of pessimism as she passed the crude sign and walked under the archway.

The path grew more and more defined as they went on. Wide enough to drive a vehicle down, it had been manually flattened and reworked. Drill holes and concrete pour lines marked the edges, and metal support struts held up the ceiling every few meters, embedded with the remnants of a lighting system whose plastic cases and mirrored backings caught the beams of their lights and threw back the occasional fractal. Other light systems appeared on both sides of the floor, their plastic cases and housings largely intact though their circuits had long corroded past the point of carrying a current. Once, in an area where the path veered to the left to avoid a patch of stalagmites growing up from what must have once been a pool, a series of metal-worked flowers glittered under their lights, their petals flashing like colored blades.

"Sure is dry down here," Marc commented. "Cave must have shifted."

"Maybe that's why they left," Soo-jin said. "No more water."

Perhaps, but it was easy enough to make water nowadays—and the settlement didn't look that old. Water-forms had been on the popular market for over five hundred years now.

The first pre-fab house appeared out of the gloom like a ghost. Marc's beam snapped to its door.

"Check it."

Soo-jin went forward without a word. The motors in her suit whirred as she leveraged the door open, prying it around its rusted hinges. She ducked inside, and her light flicked around through the dust-coated window on the building's side. The comms line crackled with her breaths and a couple of muttered words that sounded like calculations.

She came out in a second, a small object in her metal gloves.

"Beer can," she said, setting it down on the path outside the door. "Pre-Fallon."

"Well, that's a round of coffee for the three of us," Marc said brightly. "Let's see what else we can find."

The rest of the settlement appeared soon enough, more pre-fab houses slipping out of the dark like pale, bulbous ticks. A pang pulled through Karin’s chest at the sight, a reminder of her time at university on Belenus, but she tamped it down with a thought. This wasn't the first time she'd seen these kinds of structures—the original designs had been made public domain some four hundred years ago and, although the centuries had seen some changes to their interiors and commodities, they had remained a popular, modifiable set of village-style cabins and outbuildings ever since.

Even nowadays on Belenus, advertisers were cashing in on that 'vintage' look.

The cavern ceiling rose up into the darkness, barely visible even when they flashed their lights up, though they caught sight of the old, thick reinforcements that had been blocking the Nemina's scans before. As they walked past the first few outbuildings, perched at complementary angles to the path and fashioned from the same, bulbous pre-fab designs as the rest, they started to get an idea of the settlement’s layout.

It had an unimaginative set-up: one main road, smoothed and reinforced like the entrance path had been, cut straight ahead in front of them with smaller lanes and low, single-level houses on either side, only curving when the cavern itself bent to the right. Farther in, an enormous pocket of space dissipated into the dusty gloom.

Clean and organized. That would make for an easy scrounge run.

Well, easy in a relative sense. They still had to do the labor.

Marc dropped his pack onto the floor and began to pull out a collapsible hoverboard. "Right. Karin, you and I are on basics. Pull out anything promising you might find, pack up anything you know is marketable, you know the drill. Soo-jin, you—"

"Sneak around and look for rare, pretty things. Yes, I know." She was already marching away into the gloom, her light bouncing around the houses with every step.

"Meet up here when you're through," Marc called to her retreating back. "Three hours."

"Yes, sir," came the reply over the comms, sounding a little overenthusiastic on the ‘sir.’

Marc rolled his eyes. After a second, he turned to her. Static cut over his mic as he switched to a private channel.

"This is going to be a long day, isn't it?" he asked.

"They usually are, aren't they? When we're actually working, and not traveling?"

He nodded, the action making his suit dip up and down slightly. "Yep."

By the way his brows furrowed as he stared down at his pack, it looked like he wanted to say something more. She waited, but he gave his head a slight shake, pulled out the rest of the hoverboard, and then jerked his chin to the settlement.

"I take right, you take left?" he suggested.

"Sure. See you in a bit."

And, before he could say anything else, she made her way to the nearest pre-fab cabin and started her search.

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About K. Gorman

A science fiction and fantasy author from western Canada.

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