The Scent of Metal – Chapter 1

Chapter 1


 Lea Santorin stood in the spartan, sterile structure known as the Waiting Room and tried not to grin like an idiot. She still wasn’t sure why she’d been picked for this expedition, but she wasn’t complaining. Even though the decorating scheme was pretty much all Early Cargo Container. The Waiting Room did feature some windows with a view of what looked like a regular cave, just like on Earth but without stalagmites and stalactites and things. Boring. Except that the Waiting Room existed so shuttles could dock and people could enter the rest of what they’d come all the way to the edge of the solar system to study.

If she looked closely, she could see the join. On one side it was human–‌made steel, and on the other a rough, fine–‌structured material they still had trouble making a dent in. Whoever had made it—and the rest of the huge structure discovered in the core of Pluto—was not human. That much they knew. What Lea wanted to know was how anyone had ever thought to drill down through hundreds of meters of Pluto’s ice to find the cave and the rest of the structure the cave connected to.

Vagrant gleams of light reflected off the dark ice of the tunnel. The shuttle was coming, and it was carrying the one object they had successfully removed from the alien base. That fact, and its location in a niche in the big foyer–‌like area connected to the cave, meant it had to be important. For what, she didn’t know—‌but since the whole mission was focused on figuring out the alien base, Lea had persuaded the mission director that she should be allowed to study the object in its original setting. And so, the Gizmo, her name for the thing, was being taken from Kepler, the ship that had brought them from Luna Base to Pluto so she could do so. She wondered how long they would let her keep it.

The expedition leaders had waited until Kepler was nearly halfway out from Luna Base to tell them what they were really going to investigate. All Lea had been told on Earth, under heavy security restrictions, was that they had found alien wreckage on Pluto. Which was not exactly true, but not completely false either. Pluto, under a coating of ice and rock, was an alien construction. Nobody was sure if it was wrecked or abandoned or what. No alien skeletons or equivalent had been found. At least that’s what they’d said.

The shuttle slowly rotated and settled to the floor of the cave, and Lea fidgeted impatiently waiting for the docking collar to connect. Some military types in uniforms were first off the shuttle, but Lea paid no attention to them. Her focus was on Dr. Vasili Adi, who was carrying a bulky metal case.

She reached for the case, but Dr. Adi frowned. “I open when we get there. You want to break only one we have?”

“I’m not going to break it! Come on, let’s get it plugged in.” Lea sped ahead along the rough–‌walled corridor, turned, stood a few seconds, and ran back to the slower man. “Are you getting paid by the hour or what?”

Dr. Adi gave a long–‌suffering sigh. “Young Santorina, it has waited for us many years. You can wait a few minutes for an old man, yes? What do you miss in this time?”

“How would I know? That’s what I want to find out!” She bounced up and down. “Come on!

They knew the alien base was huge, and also that parts of it were inaccessible, closed off behind doors they couldn’t find or that wouldn’t open. Lea suspected the Gizmo was a key of some kind. Of course you would leave the key by the door, where you could find it when you came home after visiting the Andromeda Galaxy, right?

This must have been what it was like for the archaeologists who dug up Tutankhamen’s tomb. As soon as it was opened up it would take years of unpacking and exploring and figuring out the alien technology. And she got to be a part of it. She could spend the rest of her life here in a happy, geeky haze.

Finally Dr. Adi and the case reached the niche in the wall. All of the corridors and spaces they could reach had the same rough–‌textured surface, uniformly pale gold in color. Light glowed from the ceiling, but not from a separate fixture. At regular intervals the wall had a recessed section framed in a thicker border, looking like a shallow doorway, but it appeared to be merely decorative. The recessed area wasn’t more than a few inches deep. The floor was darker and not as rough—‌it had a resilient feel. The air was dry and cold, with no scent.

Lea’s diagnostic gear was spread out around the niche, ready to go. Dr. Adi propped the case on a wheeled equipment cart and unfastened the latches.

“You should be using gloves,” he said with disapproval, but Lea had already grabbed the Gizmo.

It was dark but slightly translucent, asymmetrical, and obviously alien. She’d studied the photographs during the months–‌long trip out and knew every millimeter of its surface. It felt solid and smooth under her fingers, still a bit warm. Had they been keeping it in a heated environment for some reason? She’d have to ask.

Shifting it so it looked just like it had in the original photos, Lea carefully placed the Gizmo back in the niche. “Just like tha—” She stopped, looking around in puzzlement. “Did you hear that?”

“I hear nothing,” Dr. Adi said.

Lea wasn’t sure she’d heard anything herself. It was more like an echo of a sound instead of the sound itself. An echo that felt like they were in a huge, open space, and for some reason she had a strong feeling that something other than themselves was listening. She shivered. Better get to work and stop imagining things.

She connected probes, watched scanner screens, made notes, and pondered. Dr. Adi was seated on a large equipment crate, reading and occasionally looking over to see what she was doing. A faint vibration in the floor made her glance up, but it subsided and Lea went back to work.

Someone ran by, heading in the direction of the Waiting Room. One of the soldiers. I still don’t know why those guys are here, she thought, her tongue sticking out in concentration as she tried to get a large probe in a small space. This isn’t a military project. Yet another question to ask.

Her attention was diverted by the sound of distant voices. Distant shouting voices. Two more soldiers ran by, and a wave of cold washed over her, seeing weapons in their hands. A third followed, yelling into a radio. “Repeat, what is status of shuttle?”

And then the alarm sounded. In the first moment of panic she forgot what it meant, just knew something was badly wrong. Then she remembered. Evacuation. Assemble at the Waiting Room, instructions will follow. Dr. Adi was trying to pack the Gizmo but it wasn’t coming loose from its niche.

“Come on, it’s an emergency! Leave it!” She grabbed him by the arm and dragged him behind her.

As they got closer to the Waiting Room she could hear more. “What do you mean, we lost the shuttle? What happened?” someone shouted.

The shuttle was gone? How were they going to get out? Lea wedged her way through the crowd to one of the windows. No visible wreckage. Then she noticed something else missing. The dark ice of the tunnel was gone too. She could see stars at the end of the cave. That was impossible. The ice was several hundreds of meters thick. Even if they’d been hit by an asteroid, wouldn’t they have felt something? Wouldn’t some of the ice remain?

The stars began to disappear again, and then she saw why. The huge bulk of Kepler was floating into the cave, and not gracefully. One edge scraped along the floor, bits of metal breaking off as it went. Clouds of gas escaped from the holes created.

“Move back from the windows!” shouted one of the soldiers. “It’s coming in fast!”

Lea stayed where she was, feeling numb. If Kepler crashed into them they would die anyway. No way to get back home. Only one sealing door between the Waiting Room and the rest of the alien base. Is it under attack? What is out there more dangerous than bringing the ship in here?

Behind the dark shape of Kepler, the starfield had vanished again. It had been replaced by a shifting, nacreous silver cloud completely filling—and blocking—the opening of the cave. They couldn’t get out anymore.


The emergency survey team moved down the rough–‌surfaced corridors at a jog–‌trot, looking for changes. Lea did her best to keep up, holding panic at bay by trying to figure out when things had gone wrong. It couldn’t have been their arrival; after all, there had been at least three ships from Earth before Kepler with lots of people coming inside, and nothing happened then. Removing the Gizmo hadn’t done it.

But she had, just before, put the thing back in the niche where it had been found. The surface ablation of the ice layer had started shortly after. One huge chunk of ice had smashed into the shuttle, and others damaged Kepler enough it had sought shelter in the cave—‌now revealed as a landing area for not an alien space station, but a spaceship. A spaceship that was now going somewhere.

“It’s my fault,” she mumbled, sure of it.

The lead soldier, Ivars, continued his careful, quick sweep of the corridor like he hadn’t heard her, weapon always pointed where he looked. “If you know that, then you know how to fix it.” The other soldiers behind her didn’t even pretend to pay attention to the conversation, and Dr. Adi was still slack–‌jawed with horror and shock.

“I mean, it was something I did that started it. I don’t know how I did it.”

“Better figure it out fast then.” He gestured, and one of the soldiers moved forward, silent and graceful, past an opening in the wall. The man glanced inside, then shook his head. Just another niche. “Our supplies are not infinite.”

No, they wouldn’t be. Kepler had brought a year’s supply for the research station but didn’t have a year’s supply for their crew on board—‌just enough for the return trip to Earth.

“They’ll know something’s wrong, won’t they? Back home?”

He looked at her finally, his scarred face hard and pale eyes registering a trace of impatience. “And what can they do about it? Tell the Voyager probe to intercept us? We probably passed it seconds after this thing woke up. The only way we’re getting home again is by turning it around.”

“Faster than light,” Dr. Adi whispered. It was the first time he’d spoken since it happened. “Always I wonder if I live to see.” He laughed, a brief, hysterical burst.“So, maybe I not live.”

Lea fell back a little to walk beside him. “We should at least wait a bit to go back, don’t you think, Dr. Adi? Give ’em time to calm down? They are probably pretty mad at us now for stealing an entire planet. Planetoid. Whatever.”

He shook his head, trying to smile and failing. “Every time we decide what it is, it changes. Now what is it becoming?”

She could ask the same thing about the mission. She’d noticed earlier, in addition to the scientists and other technical people, the significant military presence on Kepler. Now that she was spending more time with the soldiers it was clear they weren’t here just to move crates—‌in action, they all had an air of quiet, watchful competence that didn’t match the cheerful bravado of her Army cousins. They didn’t seem like rent–‌a–‌cops either, which was all she could think the expedition would possibly need. If the alien base/ship really was empty.

Lea quickened her pace to stay closer to Ivars. “Anything?” he asked abruptly.

“No,” she whispered, feeling her face heat. She hadn’t even been paying attention to the handheld displaying the mapped part of the alien ship. She quickly reviewed and heaved a quiet sigh of relief. The map and her memory matched, so far. She hadn’t screwed up. Yet. The pounding headache she’d developed wasn’t helping her focus.

The corridor—‌walls, floor, and ceiling—‌was made of the same not–‌quite–metal, not–‌quite–ceramic the rest of the ship was made of. It reminded her of unglazed brick. That material, they now knew, didn’t change. The kind that did—‌well, now that the ship was underway, it had reconfigured itself. Which was why everybody not manning the scanners on Kepler was running around in teams, trying to map out what the ship looked like now. And, hopefully, find the bridge or control section or whatever the aliens had used for steering.

Lea slowed, frowning. The wall on her left showed as a wall on the handheld, but it wasn’t made of the static material. “This is morph,” she said, using the term they’d come up with. “But it hasn’t changed. The map shows it right here.”

Ivars dropped one hand from his weapon, letting it dangle from the harness, and examined the wall more closely. “And we don’t know if it was morph before, right?”

She shook her head and stepped away as if to look at a different section of wall but really to get away from Ivars. There was nothing she could point to that made her uncomfortable; he’d been curtly polite to her and the other technical people. She’d never even heard him swear. It was just that close up, the part of her brain that had warned her ancestors about saber–‌toothed tigers woke up and started yammering.

He’s just a soldier, you idiot. Lea took off her glove and touched part of the morph that looked different, even more blocky than the rest. It felt tingly, like it had a slight electric charge. More interestingly, it wasn’t cold like the rest of the ship. “Hey, Dr. Adi. Does this feel different to you?”

Adi took off his own glove reluctantly and only rested the tips of his fingers on the surface for a brief moment. “No.”

“Not warmer?”

He touched the static wall, then the morph again. “It feels same to me. For you, not?”

“Yeah. Not,” Lea said slowly. Her headache twinged, and she winced.

“Mark it and move.” Ivars gestured, and the soldiers took up their positions around Lea and Dr. Adi.

They continued on for nearly an hour with nothing else differing from the map. Ivars called a halt and let them rest for far too short a time, mostly because Dr. Adi was having a hard time keeping up.

It wasn’t long after they started walking again that Lea noticed a wall coming up on the handheld, a wall that wasn’t visible ahead in the corridor. The side corridor was, but not the wall. “That section is new,” she said, pointing.

Ivars came up and glanced at the handheld for a moment, then stared down the unexplored section. He gave a small shrug. “Let’s check it out.”

As an unexplored section of an alien ship went, it was disappointing. The section of corridor stretched ahead as far as Lea could see, with the occasional empty niche, and looked exactly like all the rest. Not even dust or an alien candy wrapper to alleviate the boredom.

Somehow I thought this would be a little more interesting.

The soldier in front raised a hand. The others froze, and Lea and Dr. Adi had to stop with them. “I’m seeing darkness up ahead.”

Now that was definitely different. Lea remembered the initial this–‌is–‌what–‌we–‌know lecture, and one thing that had intrigued her was the ambient light. It had not been on when the first robot explorer was sent in, and if only a mechanical device was present it would not stay on. If a human was present, the lights were on. Depending on how fast the human was traveling—‌and they’d brought carts and even bicycles—‌the lights turned on ahead in anticipation so darkness was never seen.

“Long train,” said Ivars. “You two, stay in the back,” pointing to Lea and Dr. Adi. They proceeded cautiously, staggered down the corridor. The soldier in front flipped down his adaptive optics.

“Empty. Corridor like the rest, but it looks damaged. Wait, it’s blocked.”

When Ivars finally let them approach, Lea could see for herself. The corridor came to an abrupt and jarringly asymmetrical halt. The lighting was dead here, and the edges of the wall that blocked their path met corridor surfaces that had cracks and buckling.

“Atmosphere?” Ivars barked.

Human–‌breathable air had been there from the beginning too, and now would be a bad time for that to change along with the interior architecture. Dr. Adi started, then fumbled at one of the pockets of his vest for the sensor. “All is normal,” he said. “Pressure and atmospheric mix.”

Lea drifted forward, her curiosity overcoming her fear of getting snapped at by Ivars. The material of the ship was hard to damage, yet here it was cracked and worn. Something had blown up or smashed into the wall—‌but the wall had been patched up afterward. By whom? When?

Two deep cracks darted jaggedly near the edge of the repair boundary and met. A small chunk of the regular wall surface stood out in the junction just enough for her fingers to get a grip, and she pulled. The chunk came loose in her hand, maybe two inches long. She could hear Ivars draw in breath to yell at her, but it never happened. She was feeling rather speechless herself.

The repair material had flowed into the hole as if it had always been there.


Ivars wove his way through the supplies and sleeping bodies, hoping no further emergencies would erupt requiring clear passageways. After the change it had been agreed by the mission command that letting personnel sleep in the alien structure itself was not a good idea until they had a better understanding of what was happening and why. Plus, nobody wanted to. However, adding the three hundred or so surviving people already in place to the full ship’s complement made Kepler more cramped than before and it had never been precisely roomy.

Colonel Gonafrio was in the briefing room as expected. So was the civilian head of the project, Merrilee Macrae. Given how busy both of them were, Ivars started wondering if his exploration had been more meaningful than he realized.

“The wall sample,” he said, taking the sealed plastic bag from a vest pocket. Yeah, that was probably unusual enough for both of them to be interested. The little chunk of alien building material didn’t look that remarkable, but it was the first sample anyone had gotten.

“Thank you, Sergeant,” said Macrae, picking up the sample. It made sense, she was in charge of the scientists as well as the project as a whole. “Any speculation on how that wall got that way?”

“It looks like a pretty big hit of some kind. It would have to be to crack that stuff.” He hesitated, wondering if it was even worth mentioning. “Santorin didn’t think that bit would be very useful. Too damaged to tell us much about the rest of it in the ship. She seems to think it might all be connected and able to fix itself, and the fact that this couldn’t means it’s broken.” He shrugged. The scientists would be sending in their own reports, so it would get covered—‌but if Santorin had gone to the effort of talking about it, it might be important.

“That goop moving in to seal the gap would support that theory, don’t you think?” Gonafrio asked dryly. “Your group managed to uncover a lot of interesting clues, and support for theories that up till now we’ve been making up out of whole cloth and guesswork. If the self–‌repair on this tub is still working after thousands of years—‌and the drive—‌we can’t make any assumptions about systems not working. I find it hard to believe the original owners didn’t have any kind of alarm for intruders.”

“Did your scientists say anything that would indicate they suspect the age of this ship?” interrupted Macrae.

Ivars shook his head. They had more data than they had revealed to the new scientific team, in particular stored images of a glaciated Earth, from over a hundred thousand years ago. No more recent images had been found: another mystery.

“The location of the damaged wall matches—‌or matched—‌a dark ice feature on the original surface. A fairly large, symmetrical feature but not a crater, not in the ice. It happened before the ice showed up. We suspect something damaged the alien ship right around the time the last image was stored, and it has been dormant ever since.” Gonafrio opened up his comp, held it up to retina–‌verify, then plugged in a holo–‌pad. He tapped in some commands, and a model of the alien ship shimmered into view. Ivars had seen it before, with the few decks they could access highlighted in green. The core was apparently completely inaccessible. Now, however, there was a large red valley scooped out of one side. “That’s our best guess, based on your location and the size of the crater.”

“Is that why it was empty? Too damaged, and the aliens abandoned it?” Ivars asked.

“It wasn’t too damaged to take off,” Macrae pointed out. “But who knows? Maybe the aliens didn’t have dent–‌and–‌ding insurance.” She grinned at Gonafrio’s sigh. “We’re thinking we might be able to get at the core that way. See how deep that hole is?”

“Yeah, but how are we going to get to it?” asked Ivars, doubtfully considering a long march in a spacesuit on the exterior of an alien ship that, as Gonafrio had hinted, might just have working defenses.

“We might be able to put an airlock in that repair wall. If the goop moves in where the wall has a gap, maybe it will move away if that material or something like it moves in,” Macrae said, waving the plastic bag. “Until we stop messing around in hyperdrive or the twelfth dimension or whatever this thing is doing we can’t get out to go on the hull anyway, so that’s something else to try.” She glanced at Gonafrio. “We want you to keep looking for more information. I wish I could tell you what to look for, but that’s why Lea Santorin is on your team.”

Ivars frowned. “What about Dr. Adi?”

“He will be more useful analyzing the data coming in from the sensors we got rigged up at the landing tunnel mouth. Maybe we can understand the drive that way. His specialty is high–‌energy physics, and reading atmosphere sensors wasn’t giving him nearly enough to do. The trouble with intelligent people is they can’t turn their brains off. If you don’t keep them fully occupied in a situation like this they will start thinking about how much trouble we’re in and panic. That’s another reason to keep him on the ship. His stress levels were making him almost catatonic.”

“OK, but why Santorin? She seems a bit…‌flaky.”

Macrae grinned ruefully. “Welcome to my world, Sergeant. I try to think of the science types as ‘highly focused’ myself. We sent her out for a reason. When we were recruiting for this mission we had a few computer science specialists play with some of the widgets we’d already found and tested. Santorin was on the list because she’d worked on nonbinary nanotube computation. She figured out more in three days than the original researchers had in the previous month. She doesn’t always think in a straight line, but she gets there, and she doesn’t let preconceived notions restrict her approach. Good attitude to have on an alien ship, wouldn’t you say? Besides, you have another mission.”

Ivars glanced at Gonafrio. He was looking serious, almost grim. “You are not to communicate this to anyone outside your team, or to Santorin: in addition to your continued search, you will protect Lea Santorin. This has equal priority with discovering anything that can help us get back home. Is that clear?”

“Yes sir. Can I ask why?”

“Judging from the way she figured out the alien tech we brought back to Earth, and by finding this,” Macrae nudged the chunk of wall, “she’s probably our best hope of making the ship work for us. But if she knows that, there’s a good chance she’ll freeze up. Just when we need her the most.”


Lea jerked awake with a gasp, disoriented and thrashing to get away from whatever had grabbed her ankle. Then she saw it was Ramirez, there to wake her up. M.O., the ship’s cat, opened a baleful eye to see who had disturbed his slumber.

“Ten minutes. Same gear as last time,” he said, and trotted off without waiting for her reply. Just like last time.

She wasn’t sure how many days this had gone on. There may have been a shower at one point, but that could have been a dream. Food was eaten on the run, dry and compressed and nasty. There was never enough time to sleep, even if she’d had a real bed to sleep on. There weren’t enough bunks now, and there had never been much privacy, so she had found a raised metal housing that wasn’t near anything crucial and used that with a pad and a blanket. The housing was right next to some kind of control cabinet. What it controlled wasn’t clear but it generated enough heat to require a fan, so it was warm and had its own built–‌in white noise generator. M.O. liked it too, so she also got some cat ‌time now and then.

Maybe the location wasn’t such a good idea. Her headache had gotten worse, feeling like her brain was in a pressure cooker. The progressively higher–‌octane analgesics the medic had given her hadn’t made a dent. The only thing that helped was sleep, and even then she would have strange dreams. This time she had relived replacing the alien device in its niche, and she had felt again the strange, sub‌aural click, knowing something was not right. Ivars had brushed her confession aside, but even then she had known a change had occurred. It felt like the entire universe was listening…

Lea rolled up the pad and blanket, which were promptly reclaimed by M.O., grabbed her pack, and made a quick visit to the facilities. Someday she would have time to brush her teeth, which were feeling a bit furry. Then the corridor outside the general mess for some more insta–‌meals, stacked in boxes for the “outside” teams. She hadn’t eaten in the mess since the incident.

Scrambling to put what she privately called “soldier chow” in her pack on the run, she still was late. She could tell by the way they were all standing and looking at her. Nobody said anything as they moved out, or as they passed through the main airlock or the sealed tunnel that now connected Kepler to the Waiting Room.

The soldiers weren’t just names to her now, not after all this time, but she still didn’t feel like she knew them. Ramirez, who usually came to wake her, was dark, stocky and the most obviously muscular of the group. Lea liked him best because he seemed to disapprove of her the least. Olsen had white–‌blond hair and eyebrows so pale they were almost invisible. Even though he was rangy and thin and didn’t look that strong, he carried the largest weapon of the group. North was darker than Ramirez, had an artificial foot, and despite—‌or because—‌of that, moved with complete and graceful silence. If there were black ninjas, North was one.

Then there was Ivars. He was in command but didn’t seem to need to say much; the soldiers all understood what to do instinctively no matter what happened. Tall, lean, and wiry, Ivars had sandy hair that might have been red if he let it grow out more than buzz–‌cut length, and pale eyes that seemed to look through and beyond her. There were several large scars on one side of his face, near his temple, and one eyelid didn’t seem to want to close completely. A polite description of his looks would be “rugged”; a more truthful one would be “beat up.”

Dr. Adi hadn’t come out with them after the first time. When she asked, Ivars just shrugged and said, with even less interest than usual, something about him being reassigned. Now she had no one to talk to. They only went back to Kepler to sleep, so she hadn’t talked to anyone there except to report what they’d found. Lea had never felt so alone.

Now they were in the round foyer, with three corridors radiating out. All the same pale gold color; nothing to distinguish them from any other area in the alien ship. Ivars glanced at her. “Which way?”

As if she knew. The survey of changes was complete, so now they were looking for anything strange. A stabbing pain in her head made her stagger, and she put a hand against the wall for balance.

“I want to check the Tank first,” she mumbled. If she didn’t talk to an ordinary human being soon, she would die. Besides, they might have new information.

As she’d expected, Ivars and the rest of the team said nothing but headed out in the direction of the Tank, straight ahead. The corridor opened into another round space, this one three “levels” high. The corridor was on the middle level. Below was the only piece of alien technology they had gotten to work, a huge cylindrical display. It went up the full three levels, with a wide black base that looked like a stack of gradually smaller disks that had then been covered in a flood of tar. Symmetrical, but slightly lumpy and worn.

Tables and equipment racks with overhead cable trays surrounded the display, along with a dedicated team of researchers. From what she understood, they’d been working on the Tank since the first Earth ship arrived two years ago.

“Ten bucks says it’s just the mall directory,” joked Ramirez. North allowed himself a small grin; Olsen just sighed. Ivars had no reaction but kept scanning the area. The alien mall was a running gag among the soldiers.

The aliens must have had some way to get to the lower level, but the humans hadn’t found it. They made do by constructing metal stairs that went over the railing and then down.

Lea spotted one of the researchers she knew and felt her mood lighten. “Jenny!” Jen Chai turned and smiled. “Anything new?” Jenny was a friend she’d made on the trip out, where they had whiled away the boredom with Jenny teaching her some Chinese and Lea trying to explain American slang. Lea hadn’t seen her since the incident.

Ni hao, Li–‌anh! Some indicators are changing, yes. New since the ship leaving.” She shrugged. “Still no understanding what they are. Also the display is changing by itself. What we set it to, it shows and then a few minutes later it goes back to this.” She waved her hand. “It changes faster now.”

The Tank display didn’t look like much. Clouds of glowing dust, threads of denser areas running through them. One cloud looked more symmetrical than the others, and it was near the center of the tank.

Interesting, but nothing she could use to dig up a control system. Lea checked in with a few other researchers, who had similar odd but unconnected findings to report. She sighed. There was no help for it, she was going to have to go back out to Corridor–‌Land and keep looking.

She trudged toward the stairs. The soldiers looked relieved to be moving again, or maybe they didn’t like the wide–open spaces of the Tank area.

Halfway up the stairs, one of the researchers below shouted in surprise. Lea glanced over her shoulder and felt her eyes widen. The Tank display was pulsing, brightly. Oh, I hope we didn’t push the self–destruct button by mistake.

“Let’s go,” snapped Ivars.

Lea started running up the stairs, when a sudden crashing wave of pain made her cry out and stumble. Before she could fall strong hands grabbed her arms and swung her upright, carrying her the rest of the way up and over the railing. Lea clutched her head, trying to understand what was going on. Her headache had vanished. She wasn’t in pain anymore. And down below, the Tank was tranquilly displaying what looked like a long, white spiny spindle with dark hollows. It was getting larger. Or we’re getting closer.

“I think we aren’t in drive anymore,” Lea whispered.