Taner Edis

Part V: Hidden Treasure

SZ paused. She had our rapt attention, and not just because of her story. She had always been a mystery to most of us, even those who had been at IHN long before I arrived. She came and went as she pleased, but no one, except possibly the Director, really knew what she was all about. She was revealing more about herself now than she ever had before.

“Alys and her party stepped through the lake illusion,” SZ went on. Her tone was somber, but I got the feeling she was enjoying her command over her audience. “And we started looking around in the dim light. We soon found what looked like a doorway, and some stairs.

“We turned on our lights, and began to creep down. The way was dusty, with lots of rubble and debris to make our descent more difficult. Some sections of the stairwell looked blackened, and the occasional segments of corroded metal we stumbled upon were badly mangled. I tested for psychic residues, but received nothing useful, just faint echoes of long-ago fighting and dying.

“The stairs opened up to a broad area with a high ceiling. It had many corridors leading off, some of them collapsed. It was also dimly lit on one side. We approached the light, and found we were looking over a precipice. Above us was a large patch of dim blue light, which I guessed was coming through the illusory lake surface. This illuminated a huge cylindrical shaft, about a football field in diameter. We could see no bottom, but could make out dark spots on the rim wall, concentrated at our level. Probably windows and observation platforms like the one we were on.

“We spent most of two days carefully exploring our surroundings. To my disappointment, the corridors all led to collapsed areas, or were unsafe. Though this was the closest anyone had ever come to an Interian structure of any kind, my excitement ebbed as I realized we had found little but puzzling debris and some lonely ruins. A team of archaeologists could still learn a thing or two, but there was almost nothing in the way of the technological artifacts I had hoped for, and even less of whatever Alys was after.

“Still, I had come a long way. I slung myself a few meters down the shaft on the third day, determined to take a sample of the peculiarly smooth wall if nothing else. Then I noticed a shadow of something further below. George, who had better eyesight and who was getting impatient, offered to explore.

“He came back up, excitedly telling us it was the remains of a metal ladder attached to the shaft surface. Though partially destroyed, if careful, we could use it to reach some of the lower levels.

“We inched our way down, using ropes and the sturdier elements of the ladder. But if anything, the damage we saw in the lower levels was greater. We usually could not penetrate more than a few meters into the openings we found, just to reach rubble. We found a few intact rooms of uncertain function, which were bare.

“Finally, we took a break in a featureless cube cut out in the shaft wall, waiting for George to scout further below. He returned to tell us there were a few more openings below, but after that, the ladder was no more.

“So we sighed, and rested in our cube before the long climb back up.

“I woke up to find Alys with our wooden pole in hand, intently prodding at at a spot about three meters high, close to the ceiling. She tossed a rock at it, muttered something, and picked up the pole. Noticing I was awake, she told me to try it, asking me if the wall there felt different.

“It did. It was a square patch which looked slightly cleaner and smoother than the rest. Alys called George, and then stood on his shoulders to feel it directly. To our surprise, the wall at the square spot, while solid to wood, behaved like a liquid to Alys’s touch. She pushed, but it began to resist once her fingers were in.

“I took my turn on George’s shoulders, but my hand went straight through, like pushing through jello. My left hand was stopped at my wrist, though. It came to me — the wall didn’t let metal through! I told Alys to lose her rings and silly jewelry if she wanted to follow me.

“I’m still puzzled by that, by the way,” SZ said, gazing around the table. “If there’s anything we know about Interians, it’s that they’re partially cybernetic. They can’t take off their rings. The barrier I can understand — but why was it penetrable only when in contact with human flesh? It didn’t let in any meat or fabric or anything unless one of us was touching it at the time…

“Anyway, we found ourselves in a short tunnel, with little debris and no blackened walls or twisted metal. It led to a room with two large, white balls about two meters high. These stood at either end, separated by what looked to be the partly melted remains of a workbench and some equipment.

“The white cocoons looked unharmed. We carefully slashed at the fibers, and found they both contained large, complicated apparatus. One was a strange contraption full of dark metallic protuberances sticking out of a black shell. Cutting through the other cocoon revealed a network of delicate metal threads, some of it clearly gold, but much more I couldn’t identify by sight. Jackpot!

“We were all excited, but I had to persuade Alys and her party that we should stop here, and do nothing further before we could transport our finds to a safe place on the surface. She agreed, and started instructing George and the others. They were to leave at once, to return with equipment. No expense was to be spared, but no word was to get out about what was happening. I left Alys to work out the details while I returned to study my discoveries.

“We waited a few days for the others to return, and one more while they set up a system to lift heavy objects up to the observation platforms. Meanwhile I figured out how to transport metal through the barrier. You just had to wrap it in plastic, and you could very slowly drag it through. I set out to roughly repair the damaged cocoons by melting the sides of the cuts we made back together; that way we could use the original packaging.

“We moved the black, ugly object first. I was totally hyped up with anxiety as we packed its cocoon into a crate and sent it slowly climbing upwards. We prepared the other cocoon.

“When we received the signal that our first crate had made it safely to the surface, George told Alys and I that we were getting underfoot, and that it would be better if we did a last minute check to see we had overlooked nothing in the secret room.

“Alys acted bored, so I overtook her in the tunnel and nervously started checking everything. Then my concentration was broken as I heard Alys laughing. The next thing I knew was an explosion. The blast knocked me down, extinguishing my lighting.

“I stood up in the dark, and felt my way down the tunnel. It had caved in, and I could find no way out. I had been betrayed and abandoned!”

To be continued…

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