The Great Underground Empire
(Graham's entry for the podcast challenge)
“Stop Roon, we’ve gone too far.”
“No we haven't Teo, we’re right where we’re supposed to be.”
The glistening hull of the Capello stopped for the first time in 10.5 years. The distant sun piercing the metallic frame of the craft, green plasma rolling off the cylinder in fading arcs, flickering into the darkness.
“According to the scan, we’re just outside the Kuiper Cliff. Exactly where we should be,” said Roon.
The two men looked through the tiny porthole facing the sun. Its immediate glare deadened by the computer, but there was enough visual information to make out the long shafts of yellow light radiating from the star. Every 10 seconds or so the shafts were interrupted, as if something had moved through their line of vision.
“Looks like the sun through the leaves of a tree,” said Roon.
“You’re right. Visual confirmation of the asteroids. But there’s no sign of the shield. There’s no sign of life.”
“We’d better move and see what’s going on,” said Teo. “Computer, take us home.”
The Capello burst into life, its pulse drives pushing the machine through the belt and inward, towards the centre of the solar system. Teo and Roon flinched slightly as their envelope seats took on the extra force, before finally relaxing as the Capello reached full speed.
“Let’s sleep on it, get some rest, and see where we are in the morning, figuratively speaking, of course,” said Teo. He promptly closed his eyes and slept.
“Sure. You’re right. There’s nothing we can do from here,” said Roon, pulling a dark headset down over his head, and quickly falling asleep.
Two days later, the Capello was hanging over the blue orb of Earth, the grey reflection of its oceans casting an eerie light through the front-facing porthole.
“Right. No communication whatsoever?” asked Teo, incredulous with disbelief.
“Nothing we can decode,”said Roon, “There’s plenty of background noise, plenty of spurious waveforms that might make some kind of sequence, but none of it fits into our decoding registers. It may as well be the sound of waves across Chesil Beach. It makes our challenge at Proxima Centurai seem primitive by comparison.”
“Unbelievable,” said Teo. “We go away for a few years and come back to this? What happened to all those open protocols we wasted so many decades negotiating? What happened to the built-in future-proofing, the promises and change indemnity? Surely, they can’t have forgotten about us?”
The two men stood silently for a moment.
Roon sounded uncertain, “I’m not sure there’s even anyone there. There’s not a micron of detectable mechanical movement on the surface. Absolutely nothing. Only random organic matter. There are buildings, and there’s electricity flowing between them, but nothing we’d recognise as life. I can’t quite believe it. It’s almost like we’ve fallen into one of our pre-mission sims. Only none of them dealt with anything close to the current scenario. What are we going to do?”
Teo sounded more positive. “We’ve got no other choice,” he said. “We’ve got to get home.”
They chose a point over the heart of London, a massive city that sprawls across the southern half of the British Isles, and used the re-entry module to separate from the Capello. They made a controlled descent through the atmosphere, landing in the middle of what had been Milton Keynes.
The re-entry module bounced across an area of liquid water called Willen Lake before coming to a rest just outside what must have been the commercial centre of the local district. Then module stabilised itself and depressurised.
Around them was littered the kipple and detritus of advanced civilisation, the rolling piles of waste, cables, broken electronics and oil. Each of the large buildings in-front of them we’re identical, faceless black mirrors staring at the sky. In the centre of each was a large red letter K.
Tao descended first, stepping onto the rouble.
“What the hell happened? Where’s the shopping centre, the cinema? Where’s the Point?” shouted Tao.
Roon joined him on the ground. They were both surrounded by desolation, and with the exception of the large buildings, there was nothing either of them could recognise from their old lives on the planet.
“Tao, what’s that on the ground in front of us?” asked Roon.
Tao looked down and kicked a few of the cables out of the way.
“I can’t believe it,” he said. “It looks like a manhole cover.”
The two of them looked down at the shiny circular disc, engraved with the letter K.
“Lets open it!” cried Tao.
Grabbing what appeared to be a handle, Tao pulled on the manhole cover, his feet sinking into the waste beneath his feet. As soon as one edge of the rim was up, Roon was able to get the tip of his foot under the cover, and slowly, helped by his friend, they lifted the disc and left it balanced on an edge, revealing a metal stair descending into the earth.
Neither man talked. Tao carefully lowered himself into the hole, followed by Roon, and the two carefully stepped down, one step after another into the darkness.
After a couple of minutes, they reached the bottom and stepped onto what felt like a gravel floor. The area around them was faintly lit by the open manhole above, a pool of white light falling onto the floor. At Tao’s feet stood a brass lantern.
There was an almighty crash above them, and they were both enveloped by pitch darkness.
“Damn it. The cover must have fallen,” shouted Tao.
“The lantern, Tao, there was a lantern at your feet,” replied Roon.
Tao groped around at his feet, waving his hands through the darkness. His fingers found the cold, hard brass hook on the top of the lantern, and he pulled it up, holding it in the air. His other hand padded around its base, looking for a way to turn it on. Finally, after what seemed like an age in primordial darkness, Tao found a knob and twisted it, bathing the two spacemen in a warm, orange glow.
They were standing at the bottom of what seemed an endless stair. The only exit was to the south, along a dark and winding trail through the darkness.
They headed on, neither man talking, both equally bemused and becalmed by their surroundings. Before long, they found themselves at a junction. Passageways east and south had been blocked by large boulders, leaving the only option for progress down a damp tunnel to the west.
Both men looked at each other and almost subliminally agreed on the route ahead. They struck out into the damp tunnel.
After five or ten minutes in the passageway, both men could detect the distant sound of thunder, or waves, or just noise. They continued, the sound getting louder and louder with each step.
Finally, the passage started to open up, the sides and ceiling of the passage falling away into the dark as the passage opened into a cavern.
They both stopped. In the dim light ahead of them , they could see thousands of gallons of water rushing through an open sluice gate beneath a curved wall.
Ahead of them was Flood Control Dam, number 3. Though they didn’t know it.
A voice boomed through the cavern. It’s low echo resonating through the chamber.
“I am the Dungeon Master, and this is what you get.”
“People could listen to music, but they weren’t allowed to remember it.”
“People could watch films, but they couldn’t talk about them.”
“People could own devices, but they couldn’t choose how to use them.”
“The biggest threat to our content was people.”
There was a long pause.
The lamp sizzled out in the damp, oppressive atmosphere. The two men were left in complete darkness, the roaring sound of the water deafening their thoughts.
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