Like the archways we’d seen earlier, the entrance was taller and more narrow than its earthly equivalent. If I had to guess, it looked to be about fifteen feet tall and seven feet wide, give or take. As we approached, I saw that there was no lighting down the hallway; it seemed the power had long since ran out. Faint scorch marks ringed around the doorway, and I frowned at the sight.
“Someone forced their way in,” I said, taking a closer look. Sure enough, I could see a set of metal doors on the ground.
Rudak took off his helmet, then leaned in for a sniff. “It is fresh, too. Diplomat must have done this.”
“How sure are you?” I asked.
“Very,” Rudak replied, refastening his helmet.
Diplomat’s story was getting more and more suspect with each passing moment. If its species were the ones who planted the beacon, then why would it need to force its way in? There could be an explanation; perhaps the door had gotten stuck over the decades, or they’d forgotten a key. Yet, it didn’t seem very likely.
“I shall go in first,” Rudak said. “If there is any risk, I’d be better able to handle it.”
Considering that he could probably knock over an elephant, he had a point. I moved to the side, and he carefully stepped through the doorway. I turned on my flashlight, and followed after him.
The hallway seemed to extend for a good two hundred feet. The walls were bare, and made of some kind of stone. I ran a hand over them, then pulled away my hand to see they were coated with red dust.
“Curious,” I murmured.
“I believe I see another door,” Rudak said.
He was right. Brushing past him, I warily stepped closer, then looked at the handle. Some basic designs couldn’t change much, and it seemed to be a pull handle. Grasping it, I gave it a light tug, and the door swung open.
“After you,” I said, gesturing down the next hall.
Rudak shuffled through with some difficulty, and I followed. We found ourselves at the lip of a long stairwell, its steep steps continuing into darkness. A frigid breeze rolled up, and for a moment I could imagine I was gazing down the entrance to the underworld.
“How far do you think it continues for?” I asked Rudak.
Taking off his helmet again, he let out a low chuff, ears strained. Shortly after, it echoed back to him, faint.
“I’m not sure,” he replied. “Deep.”
“Well,” I said, “let’s find out.”
I went first this time, illuminating the way with my flashlight. Despite the rational part of my brain telling me that there likely hadn’t been any inhabitants for decades, I felt a cold sweat trickling over my skin. The whole place was as silent as a tomb, and Rudak’s footsteps sounded like the beating of some great drum behind me. It was comforting, having him there, but at the same time it allowed my mind to wander.
I needed to keep distracted.
“So… you mentioned that you’ve been sending messages back home. What have you been telling your people?”
“Mission updates,” Rudak replied. “I’ve been keeping them informed about Diplomat’s arrival; evidently it’s been the subject of many discussions back home. I’ve been concerned about the possibility of espionage you mentioned, so I’ve been sending them in code.”
“Code?” I asked.
“Yes. You’re familiar with my people’s writing system, I presume?”
I shrugged. “It’s easier than hanzi, once I got the hang of it.”
“Have you noticed its… symmetry?”
“As a matter of fact, yes. Is that the code?”
“I just tell them what seems to be nonsense, but when it’s transcribed and inverted, you receive a valid message.”
I chuckled. “That’s brilliant, actually.”
“There’s a difficult form of poetry on my world centered around it,” Rudak said. “You must create a poem that means two different things depending on how it’s read, and preferably with conflicting meanings. I was never good at it, but my great mothermother reached acclaim in the province for her works.”
For a few minutes, we stepped down in silence. The complex seemed to be built a lot like a bunker, and I began to try and guess what its purpose could have been. A vault, maybe, or perhaps a military installation.
“Is Odysseus returning?” Rudak inquired.
“It should be,” I replied. “There’s no telling from down here.”
Eventually, we came to an open set of doors. Through it, I could see a massive circular room of sorts, with faded signs in some language hanging over more hallways. There were strange appliances and markings on the walls, and I tried to imagine their functions. I’d imagine Rudak would feel the same if he visited any building on Earth and tried to discern the purpose of a thermostat.
“I can’t tell where to go from here,” Rudak said. “And I’m not sure how long it’d take to check each one. Can you see any signs of where Diplomat may have gone?”
I swept the light slowly across the floor. Eventually, I found faint scuff marks in the dusty floor- as if clawed feet had tread upon it. Following the trail, I saw that it lead to one of the adjacent halls, then looped around into another. Diplomat must have examined that hall first, then moved on.
“Let’s go down here, first,” I said, and started forward.
The hallway extended for a not-inconsiderable distance, and widened a quarter of the way through. Fringing each side were empty basins, with rows of metal racks over them. Peering in, I saw a coating of soil over the bottom, with faint withered husks inside.
“Hydroponics,” I murmured. “They must’ve had a self-sufficient supply in here.”
“For a time,” Rudak said. He brushed by me, then paused. “I believe I see a room at the end.”
He was right. I pointed a flashlight over, and caught a glitter of something. Glass?
Rudak took the lead this time, and I followed him into the room. It was as large as the previous room, and was lined with shelves of pouches and vials. Carefully reaching out with a gloved hand, I realized they were somehow kept chilled.
“What is the purpose of this?” Rudak inquired.
“Conservation,” I replied. “These are probably samples of seeds and genetic material from countless species. We have one back on Earth, called the Svalbard Global Seed Vault.”
I carefully grabbed a vial, then tried to examine the label after brushing away some dust. The writing system was very angular and complex, like cuneiform or hanzi, but there was no telling its exact nature from just a few minutes of studying. Sighing, I put the vial back in place, then turned to Rudak.
“Let’s move on from here,” I said.
The next hallway over also lead to a large room, which dedicated a part of the wall to a large machine of sorts, while smaller ones surrounded it. Diplomat’s footprints were all over the floor, as if he was hurriedly examining everything, and seemed to lead back and forth from the large machine. Most of the equipment was still coated in dust, but a few levers had been wiped clean.
I stepped to the large machine, and ran a hand over the levers. I was almost tempted to flip them, but ultimately common sense won out.
“Is this what Diplomat used to deactivate the beacon?” Rudak inquired. “I can hear the faint rumbling of what may be a generator underneath.”
“Seems so,” I replied. “It looks like Diplomat needed to do some trial and error to get it right.”
“Something it wouldn’t have to do if its people had actually built it.”
“Maybe.” I backed away from the machine, then glanced at Rudak. “Let’s see if there are any more footprints.”
The next hall didn’t seem to have any, nor did the one after that. The second-to-last hall had a pair of tracks, however, and we followed them inside. As soon as I did, I involuntarily sucked in a breath as I swept the area with my flashlight. To my side, Rudak began to thump his tail against the ground.
A library was stretched out before us.
There was a sense of awe about it; the walls were packed to the brim with books, all of them carefully bound in hard casing. Evenly spaced throughout them were thin wafers of what had to be crystalline data stores, most likely to reduce the chance of information being lost. There had to be thousands of books and wafers, and I could feel myself salivate at the thought.
Moving quicker than usual, I went over to one of the shelves. A few books had been dusted off; Diplomat must have paused to examine them. Gently, I pulled one free from the shelf, and flipped it open. The print was fairly small, but I could still distinguish the characters from each other as I studied them. Part of me just wanted to spend forever in here and try to decipher it all.
I noticed something out of the corner of my eye, however, and my attention was drawn to a pile of rags a few feet away, resting against the bookcase. Sliding the book back into the shelf, I crouched down to examine the rags further. As I swept the flashlight over them, however, I suddenly felt a chill run down my spine.
Bones. Long and narrow, like cariactures. With how the rags were positioned, I could only see what could’ve been a leg or an arm. The proportions were almost like Diplomat’s, and I wondered if another tianlong had died here years ago. Maybe there was truth to its words, after all.
Then I carefully pulled back a rag, and had to bite down a scream.
Underneath, was a skull, faded with age with a pronounced brow and unusually small teeth. The brain capacity seemed to be a bit higher, and it seemed that its owner had a rather broad nose.
And it was unmistakably human.
“Liu,” Rudak said behind me.
“Look,” I whispered, gently taking the skull and holding it up. “This…”
I turned around, surprised by how forceful he’d spoken. Rudak wasn’t focused on me; instead, he appeared to be staring the way we’d came in, his belly close to the ground, like he was preparing for a fight. When I brought the flashlight over, however, I suddenly understood why. A pair of eyes stared at me, reflecting in the dark like a those of a tiger.
“It seems that I can no longer hide the truth,” Diplomat said.
My shock didn’t last long. I held up the skull for the tianlong to see, and took a step forward. Diplomat didn’t flinch, but seemed uneasy; to my surprise, I saw that it was unarmed.
“Explain,” I practically growled at him. “Tell me what this is doing here.”
“He has been dead for many years, unfortunately,” Diplomat replied. “I regret his demise; I had hoped to find sur-”
“Tell me!” I barked, taking another step forward. The words echoed through the chamber, like the low wail of a spectre. “No more vague answers. No omissions. I’m sick of your bullshit skirting around the subject, and I want the straight truth. Why is there a human skull here, twelve lightyears from where it should be? Why have you been so evasive when we’ve asked you questions? I’ve given five years of my life coming here, and I deserve an answer!”
Diplomat was silent for a moment, and when it spoke, its voice sounded subdued. “He… was one of many. We had no idea that there was an intelligent species in the same system, so we believed this world would provide a suitable home. A way to ensure continued survival for you.”
“You see,” he continued, and there was something new in his eyes, “our peoples have met before.”