Tomorrow, the third book in the Translocator Trilogy, The Ares Initiative, comes out, so I thought I’d give those of you who are excited about the upcoming release a chance to get started early with some snippets from the book.
THE ARES INITIATIVE
by M.G. Herron
Chapter 3 – Hidden Below
Eliana gazed over a heap of tumbledown limestone that had once been the great stepped pyramid of Uchben Na.
The observatory that had crowned the pyramid now lay on its side like an overturned sarcophagus. The broad front stairway had split, chunks of the steps and the symbolic snake that adorned its edges thrown in every direction. Moss-covered walls had been shaken into their constituent bricks. And all around the sunken foundation, the weed-grown courtyard of the ancient stone city was littered with limestone chunks, from pieces as big as her fist to blocks the size of her torso.
More than just crumbling where it stood, the pyramid seemed to have been demolished as if from an explosion within, and then collapsed into an enormous underground cavity.
She hadn’t been here when it happened. None of the locals lived in the stone city, either. Not even Rakulo had seen it.
She turned to look at the young chief. “Tell me again what happened.”
Rakulo sighed, crossing his arms over his broad bare chest just beneath the welts of fresh tattoos, an intertwining, sinuous pattern that started on his upper chest and extended over his shoulders like a warrior’s protective pauldrons. They indicated his status as their people’s chief, like his father before him. The people had apparently been in a hurry to make it official, now that the internal strife among them had been settled once and for all, and the false god Xucha driven from their midst.
“I was in the village when it happened. The ground shook violently, and we heard thunder, except the night sky was clear. And we found the temple destroyed like this the next day. Honestly, Eliana, I don’t see why it matters. It’s better this way. Good riddance. My people are saying it must mean that there are gods out there, listening to our prayers, after all. That they saw our pain and struck down the temple of the pretender for us—the symbol of our suffering. That this is perhaps our reward for driving him away.”
It took her a while to piece together what Rakulo was saying. It was uttered in short, terse phrases in his native language, and she had never heard the phrase ‘temple of the pretender’ before. They had always called the temple by the same name as the stone city, Uchben Na, which meant “ancient mother” in their native tongue. A new name for the pyramid indicated more than anything how things had changed since her last visit. She almost didn’t catch the meaning.
By “pretender,” Rakulo was referring, she realized, to Xucha, the alien being whom his people had worshipped as a god. Rakulo’s ancestors had sacrificed their children to Xucha for countless generations, coerced through a system of social and physical retribution to do so. Some of the alien’s methods of control had been overt, like the hundred-foot sheer metal barrier surrounding this peninsula, effectively trapping Rakulo and his people within its confines. Other methods had been more subtle, like how children tended to fall ill when their parents went against Xucha’s will.
Eliana had witnessed one child die of this mysterious god-given sickness the first time she came to Kakul. She had been there when the child’s mother howled her grief to the amethyst sky, the lifeless young boy still clutched in her lap. That child had been Rakulo’s younger brother, Tilak. So Eliana could guess how he felt about the ruined temple, though he did well to contain his anger, never once raising his voice. Xucha had only been out of the picture for a month, yet that control alone showed how the young chief had matured in the year since his brother’s death.
It was only through persistent opposition that his people had managed to throw off the yolk of their oppressor. Tilak’s death had merely been one loss of hundreds in their long drawn-out rebellion. She put her hand on Rakulo’s shoulder. “Okay.”
Eliana had only arrived to see the final wave of that rebellion come crashing down. Then she had been drawn into the conclusion, when Xucha kidnapped her and revealed his true identity as an ancient alien from a faraway planet.
She learned that his real name was Remethiakara. He had shown her a confused smattering of his own race’s history before Rakulo had snuck into the lair and caught them both by surprise, giving Eliana the opening she needed to escape, and being stabbed in the gut for his trouble. Eliana could see the jagged line below Rakulo’s ribcage where Xucha had sunk the blade in.
“What are they doing?” Rakulo asked, gesturing to Eliana’s team of anthropologists on the opposite side of the ruin.
Lakshmi, Ross, and the twins—Talia and Turner—paced around the edge of the pyramid, taking readouts from metal probes that had been stuck into the ground every fifty feet or so. They were asking their own questions—of the site itself.
Eliana pursed her lips. She didn’t have words in Rakulo’s language to explain that they were using a technique called an electrical resistance survey. Instead she just cut to the point of it. “They’re using the sticks in the ground to find out what’s beneath—rock, water, or empty air.”
He bobbed his head, obviously distrusting of their strange methods. “Water,” he said. “The underground rivers must lead here.”
“Probably,” Eliana said. “But what else might have happened down there that could have caused the sudden collapse?”
He glanced at her out of the corner of his eye. “Does it matter?”
“If it does, I’ll certainly let you know when we find out.”
“No, thank you. I should get back.” Rakulo turned to walk away.
“Rakulo,” she called after him. “Have you thought any more about what I said?”
He paused, but didn’t look back.
“At least come visit my world. I think you’d like it there if you gave it a chance.”
His knuckles cracked as his hands made fists at his sides. “I can’t leave my people.”
She hesitated only a moment before responding. “They can all come, too.”
He said nothing.
“I know it’s hard to believe, but are we so different? You’re from my world, originally, I think. You should at least get the choice to return if you want to.”
He finally turned back to face her. “Kakul is my home. My people need me. We are still exploring beyond the Wall.”
“I would like to visit your world,” he said after a moment, his voice very low. “Maybe one day.”
“Have you found anything on the other side of the Wall?”
His eyes darkened. “Barren land, mostly. Dry, dusty, no plants except a few scrawny cactus. Not good for much of anything. It’s…” He hesitated a moment. “It’s very strange. I expected something else.”
“Well, if you change your mind, my invitation still stands.”
“Thank you. I must go now.”
She let him walk away.
• • •
This was the first time the Lunar Terraform Alliance had agreed to send her back as part of an official mission. They had two whole weeks here.
The first week had gone smooth enough. She introduced her team to Rakulo and his people, and spent a day or two showing them the lay of the land. Rakulo’s people seemed indifferent to their presence, although the gifts they brought were not turned away—candy and toys for the kids at first, and then basic necessities like matches, flashlights, reusable water bottles, pots and pans, needle and thread, and other practical things.
Eliana had figured that the only thing Rakulo and his warriors would be interested in were weapons, like the steel knife Amon had given to Rakulo, and the laser cutter they had used to make openings in the vast Wall. Knowing this, she gave Rakulo a large illustrated hardback book of military history that showcased all kinds of weapons and warfare. His eyes had grown wide with wonder when he first saw the illustrations inside.
A high-pitch buzzing cut through the air. On the opposite side of the ruins, Ross stood astride a broad slab of limestone wielding a stone saw, sweat glistening on his ebony arms. Lakshmi and the twins stood to one side, masks pressed over their mouths, as he touched the spinning blade to the rock. Stone dust billowed into the windless air.
The pitch of the noise shifted into a sickly croak as the blade hit a snag. It cut out a moment later and was slowly filled in with sounds of the jungle—birds singing, cicadas buzzing, and overhead the watchful silence of the pale violet sky.
Eliana cupped her hands over her mouth. “Everything all right?”
“No worries!” Ross called back. “Just a tree root or something. I think I managed to cut through it.”
Turner held out a hand and Ross passed him the saw. Then Ross tied a rope around the slab of stone, and with Turner and Lakshmi’s help, hauled it up to ground level and pulled it to the side.
Ross clicked on a flashlight and peered down into the hole he’d cut in the large slab.
“Boss,” he called out in his low voice. “Might wanna see this.”
Eliana hopped down onto the rubble pile and climbed across the uneven heap that had once been the proud and beautiful pyramid, watching her footing as she maneuvered around the fallen observatory. Somewhere under there, the blood-encrusted sacrifice stone was still buried.
This pyramid seemed to be built after the model of El Castillo, the famous Mayan pyramid located in Mexico back on Earth. Rakulo had shown her that, like the tropical rainforest in the Yucatan Peninsula, this area of jungle on the planet of Kakul was dotted with cenotes, great rainwater-filled sinkholes. A little research had confirmed her memory that there was a cenote below El Castillo, too.
However, El Castillo still stood on a solid bed of limestone. No one had had actually set foot in the cenote beneath it, and its significance was up to anthropological interpretation.
Lakshmi spoke when Eliana came near. “Took us three days to move enough limestone to cut here, but our measurements were correct, boss. There’s a small pocket of air right under here that didn’t cave in all the way.”
Eliana accepted a small flashlight from Ross and knelt down on the stone. The square he had cut was three feet wide. It opened into twenty to fifty feet of empty air below. Maybe more.
At the bottom sat a flat layer of water, dark like ink and covered in debris. Leaves and small sticks slowly drifted through the beam of the high-powered flashlight in a uniform direction, meandering around piles of limestone bricks where the foundation of the pyramid had broken through. She tilted her head and followed the drifting leaves to where they disappeared under a pile of rubble. Limestone bricks stacked up haphazardly against that wall, covering the opening through which the water still moved.
“Looks like Rakulo was right. Water. It’s flowing toward the pile of rubble on that side, so this is part of the underground aquifer that runs through this area. It’s blocked up now, although the water doesn’t seem to be gathering here, so it must be getting through.”
The water was shallow, maybe only a few feet deep. If the pyramid hadn’t collapsed, this would have been an ample space, maybe even a nice swimming hole if one knew how to access it.
“Anything else?” Lakshmi asked, her voice strained. Eliana could tell without looking that she was biting her nails.
Eliana leaned farther into the opening. “Not that I can see. I was really hoping…” Her breath caught in her throat when the ray of light skipped over a thick root system hanging down from the ceiling like a bundle of cables. She had almost missed it!
She traced the system up to the ceiling. It was thick, the roots wrapped up into bundles, and then the bundles tangled into thicker cords. They came out of the wall and threaded along the ceiling before going directly into the rock foundation of the pyramid itself.
She had seen root systems like these before—she suspected that they weren’t entirely natural even if they did seem to be alive. She had watched as Rakulo severed a set of them in the cenote they called the Well of Sacrifices, to disable the energy-consuming biotechnology that Remethiakara had planted there—that was how the alien had stolen nutrients from living things thrown into the water, and used it to nourish his offspring in their eggs and power strange machines in the tower outside the Wall where he lived.
“I don’t think that root you hit belonged to just any old tree, Ross.”
She traced the roots down with her flashlight—the bottoms dangled free. As she looked she saw that there were four such … plugs. She had no other word for them. None of the plugs connected to anything. They dangled far above the water’s surface, so they couldn’t get sustenance that way. If they were alive, Eliana knew she would have seen the same greenish glow that she saw in the systems Rakulo had destroyed. These ones were already dead, but not rotted out or deteriorated. As if they’d been severed only recently.
“I think something else was down here. Something big, and very much alive.”
“What could it have been?”
“Not a clue.”