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With one of the torches lit, we again ventured into the darkness, the flickering light throwing eerie shadows onto the walls as we moved, making us even more nervous than we'd been in the dark.
I was immediately struck by the evenness of the tunnel. It wasn't very wide, perhaps twenty feet or so and in some places appeared to be circular in cross-section, while in others, it looked almost rectangular. It both excited and worried me, because I was certain it had to be artificial, which was confirmed in a manner rather painful for Corkai when he stubbed his toe on something hard, letting out a half-strangled, anguished yell. Mahrham brought the torch closer, revealing the straight side of some object, half hidden beneath the dust and rubble on the floor.
We started brushing and scraping the debris away, soon uncovering a metal edge perhaps eight feet long and an inch high. At the end nearest the wall, the edge turned an abrupt right angle and as we continued to remove rubbish, we gradually unearthed what looked like a door, lying flat on the ground. It was rather dented and corroded in places, but didn't appear to have any handles or holes in it, so I started to dig beneath the top edge to see if we could get enough purchase to lift it.
It came away from its resting place only reluctantly, all three of us needed to heave it into a vertical position, finally propping it up against the tunnel wall with a metallic clang loud enough to wake anything not already fully alerted by our noisy progress. My mind had been flitting about, trying to imagine what the door might hide, but there was nothing beneath where it had lain but a flat layer of dust. For a moment I thought the newly exposed side of the object was as featureless as the other, but when Mahrham lit a second torch, we could all see what looked like grooves and lines, masked by tightly packed layers of dirt and encrusted with ancient algal and fungal growths.
With growing excitement, we washed and scratched off what looked like centuries of accumulated grime, slowly exposing a rather pitted, metallic surface with some sort of image on it. We were interrupted only once when another little knot of Eaters rushed past, but this time we hardly noticed them as we gazed in disbelief at the incredible object we'd uncovered.
It was a picture, or more accurately, an engraving. The fact it had fallen onto its decorated surface had presumably helped to protect it and incredibly, it still showed traces of what had obviously once been vivid colours. There was just the one figure, posed proudly in a short, sleeveless tunic formed from a set of five different-coloured chevrons, flaring out from his narrow waist to his broad shoulders. His tail was looped nonchalantly over one bicep, as he leant on what looked like a staff of authority, intricately carved and ornamented.
Surrounded by a background of sophisticated equipment, an Ifshiri officer smiled at us across the centuries and my knees suddenly grew weak as I considered the implications of what I was looking at. Then the light level abruptly changed as Mahrham bent to examine the detail at the bottom of the picture. The Ifshiri was wearing ornately decorated, knee-length boots, but it was two smaller objects which had caught Mahrham's eye, one near the Ifshiri's left foot and the other at the corner of what looked like a metal cabinet. They were Eater units.
Mahrham and I got it at virtually the same moment; they weren't at all like the ones I'd known of course, but the functional similarity was obvious.
'Snufflers,' he whispered. 'Eater is snufflers.'
I had no idea what was going on in my clanmates' heads, but mine was trying very hard to come to grips with some new realities. It was starting to look as if the Ifshiri were not a struggling, developing society after all, but a degenerate one, reduced from a technological race to the level of hunter-gatherers by their own mechanical domestic servants. There was something wrong with that scenario, but I couldn't put my finger on it. Surely Eater couldn't have toppled a whole society?
I didn't have enough clues to make any further deductions, so I suggested we continue on down the tunnel which I now recognised had obviously been a corridor of some sort. Mahrham promptly pointed out we'd burnt all the torches, so we again hurried back out into Ifshah's morning light to make some more. The rain had stopped at last and the clouds were beginning to clear as we lit another torch and prepared to search deeper into the tunnel.
This time we kept a more careful watch on the floor and walls, but saw no more pictures or anything of real interest though there were the remains of ancient objects which had long since crumbled into dust. The tunnel started to curve to the right about ten feet past the picture and I began to get a strange feeling something was wrong. It was confirmed when I looked at Mahrham and Corkai and saw they felt it too. Then I realised it wasn't something I felt, but something I could smell, a fusty odour of decay.
The tunnel took a sharp turn back to the left, abruptly opening up into a cavern about the same size as the one near the plains and the smell of decay grew stronger. I got a really weird feeling when Corkai pointed out that this cavern also had a small hole in the roof, but at present, Ifshah's light was just shining through it onto the wall behind a huge, jutting buttress.
I could dimly see something suspiciously machine-like on the other side of the cavern and it seemed to be there that the awful smell was strongest. Mahrham lit another torch, handing it to Corkai and together we went to investigate. I started to gag before we got to within twenty feet of the huge pit in the floor. The machine's blades were half immersed in something liquid and greasy, red, with bits of bone and traces of hair
I retched, and threw up what little food I had in me. Mahrham and Corkai were apparently made of sterner stuff, but even they were grey-faced and heaving. It was a charnel house of shredded croki, Ifshiri, insects and reptiles. Some Eater units were disgorging their gathered contents into the putrid mess, bits of flesh and bone raining down through the metal grills which partly covered the top and I realised with a chill that my skin was probably in there somewhere. Then I started to cry as it dawned on me that no doubt my family and friends were as well.
As we backed away from the ghastly pit there was a dull creaking noise and to my horror, the machine slowly started to churn, slicing and grinding the grisly sludge even finer. There was an itch in my head and as Mahrham and Corkai started to whimper, I slowly turned around, already knowing and dreading what I was going to see.
The beam of light from Ifshah had slid far enough down the wall to shine upon the huge, heaving mass which had previously been hidden in the gloom behind the buttress. It was an Ifshiri female, four or five times the size of ours, but whereas ours was a misty blue and sparkling, this one was dull and grey. Livid spots and brown scarring covered its surface while dark tumours and crusty excrescences sprouted from deep inside. It looked very sick indeed and as soon as it spoke in my mind, it was obvious it was also quite mad.
I need more,' it whispered. 'They will come
soon they will come.' Its voice grew stronger as it chattered and chanted, little snatches of song and gay laughter, deep sobs of longing and need. It gnashed non-existent teeth and giggled.
'My children will find them. They are there
I know there are there.' It hissed and screamed in my head, already drawing Mahrham and Corkai towards it. 'Come to me,' it cooed. 'You will join my children. Make more children! Bring me more children! Yes! Yes!' It laughed and chittered and pulled.
The noise in my head grew to pain levels and I could only dimly hear Corkai and Mahrham screaming as it dragged them towards its body. It was vastly more powerful than our female and I shuddered to think what would happen to my clanmates' minds if the female succeeded in touching them - almost certainly, my mate and Corkai would soon join Corsimit in the pit.
What did it want? Who would come? It was waiting for someone
something. 'They will come,' it said. My head hurt and I could hardly think. Ifshiri? Is that what it wanted?
The clanking of the grinder grew louder as it picked up speed while the pull of the female grew stronger as more and more light fell on its surface. I realised with horror it was starting to drag me towards it as well.
' I yelled, '
tell it you have come. Tell it!'
I dimly heard Mahrham screaming something at the top of his voice and suddenly the noise in my head quieted.
'You have come?' it said, its voice full of hope and wonder. And then I felt a hammer-blow. 'Show me!' it screeched. 'Show me you have come!'
I saw Mahrham's body snap to a stiff, rigid position and he shrieked as a beam of light shot out of the female's body, hitting him in the chest.
'You lie!' it screamed. 'You are of low rank!' and the shocking noise in my head started again as Mahrham and Corkai were dragged ever closer to the female's body while it screamed and ranted, singing and giggling.
Low rank? How did it know? All Mahrham was wearing were his belts and two bags. My mind raced to the picture in the tunnel; to the tunic with its v-shaped chevrons, five of them, arching from the shoulders to the waist.
It was the belts! That's why the Ifshiri wore them like that! They were a remnant of the ancient tunic!
'Corkai! Give Mahrham your belts!' I yelled and watched as Corkai struggled against the female's will as I too tried to reach Mahrham. If I was right, we were going to need all ten belts and I thanked our good fortune that Mahrham had retrieved his fifth from Porrhin.
Mahrham was just three feet from the female when he again screamed that he had come and as before, its furious challenge was accompanied by the beam which actually pushed Mahrham back as he yelled with pain.
The light snapped off as Mahrham and Corkai collapsed to the ground.
'You are of sufficient rank!' the female whispered. 'You have come! So many years
The noises from the pit abruptly fell silent and the pain in my head gradually subsided as the female started to sing again. It still giggled occasionally and sounded just as demented, but somehow it was quieter this time. Then suddenly it broke off.
'Did I succeed?' it said. It sounded almost pleading, like a small child eager to please a parent. 'What shall I do now?'
I had no time to think! We had to tell it that it had succeeded, but what then? If we told it the wrong thing, it might still decide to kill us. It was probably uncontrollable unless handled correctly
but what was correct?
I tried to think of our female and what I'd learnt from it. It wasn't strong enough to talk to us without direct contact as this one could. It could sense at a distance though and had clearly heard the beepers the seeding ship had placed in orbit. There was something! I knew something! What was it? All those talks with the female
it was so obvious, but
It was the images
the pictures she'd shown me. Thousands of them, flickering past in seemingly random order
alphabetical order? That was it! They weren't in random order at all!
' I whispered, '
tell it its mission was a complete success.'
I took a deep breath and hoped
'Order the computer to shut down
It was perhaps just a vengeful impulse, but I thought it a fitting initiation for my new sword and Mahrham and Corkai soon joined me with grim pleasure as I set about carving the diseased female into small pieces. Once we'd satisfied our anger, we spent some time gathering wood and piling it up around the half-dismembered corpse. We lit it in a number of places and the female's body soon started to burn fiercely. The hole in the roof acted like a chimney, drawing air in through the tunnel with a roar as the flames consumed the thing that had killed my people and stolen my skin.
We braved the stench from the pit and smashed the churning machine. Then Mahrham walked from behind the ruined mixer and found a wide tunnel leading into another cave.
There they were; hundreds of them, in various stages of assembly. Supplies of metal had obviously been a limiting factor, which was presumably why the female had adapted the ship's machinery to partly manufacture the Eater units from gathered flesh. How many countless centuries had she worked I wondered, all the time unaware her chilling little creations had a fatal flaw. Eater's Achilles' heel wasn't so much that it could be killed by the smallest drop of water, but rather that the female had remained totally oblivious to the fact.
The Eater-making machinery had fallen silent as well and as with the mixer, we set about destroying it. Although there were still some active Eater units milling about, they ignored us as before. I could only assume there needed to be a substantial number together before they became fully active.
After demolishing the machinery we searched the entire complex for any more surprises, but there was nothing. We watched for a while as the female's body was reduced to sputtering ashes then left the cave, pausing only briefly in the tunnel for a last look at the Ifshiri officer. We would never know his name but he had saved his people from a disaster of their own making many thousands of years after his own death. I think we would all have liked to take the panel back with us, but it was far too heavy to carry. Perhaps in the end, this was a fit resting place for it.
We were about to leave the tunnel when I had a sudden thought. I grabbed the torch that Mahrham had just thrown down and ran back to the picture. Mahrham and Corkai trotted up behind me with puzzled looks on their faces as I held the torch aloft, peering into the Ifshiri officer's smiling eyes. His pupils were as round as mine.
I was sitting in the mouth of the holt entrance with my arm around Fyrsh. We'd been talking about the small party we'd sent with Porrhin to visit Gwor's holt to tell them the good news. They'd just come back and we'd been told to expect a return visit shortly. Gwor and his sons would be coming and I'd been assured that as I'd insisted, Horla would definitely be in the group as well. He'd made a full recovery apparently and was driving his huge partner happily frantic with his insatiable attentions. It would be good to see the little one again.
I still thought of my parents and the other colonists occasionally, though the memories were getting easier to bear and I was glad I'd been able to keep my promise to kill Eater. True, the last remnants were still roaming the plains and for a while would be a constant danger, but given the incredible attrition rate we now knew they had, Eater would soon be gone for good. What would happen to the Ifshiri way of life then, I wondered? It would certainly change, but I found myself hoping the change wouldn't come too soon or be too great.
Now I'd had time to reflect, I couldn't help feeling a bit sorry for the poor, mad thing we'd killed. I'd spent days interrogating our own female's deep-core memories, but they'd been copied and archived so often that the older records were fragmented to the point of being all but erased. The best theory I could come up with was that there had been at least eight ships and that they'd possibly come from a planet circling Ifshin. It would certainly explain the extraordinary eye development and the fact that so many ships had headed for the one planet. From the fact that parts of the mad one's ship still existed, it seemed it must have crashed on top of the mountain, probably killing all the crew. And over all those millennia she'd stayed alive, searching desperately for them, little knowing she was slowly destroying the very things she was trying so hard to find.
I heard someone walk up behind me, turning my head to give my Mahrham welcoming kisses and licks as he sat beside me. A clatter of little feet on rock resolved itself into a tiny Ifshiri with bright blue eyes and silky red hair and Mahrham pulled our son into his lap with a happy cry. My beautiful mate grinned and tickled my beard with his tongue as I rested my head on his shoulder. He suggested we get an early night and although it was only midafternoon, I thought it a splendid idea.
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