This is the last part of this story! Want to read the whole story from the beginning? Click here!
When the calamity struck Proxima Minor the Ferren guild feared their livelihoods would be the most affected. The Ferren were the miners and refiners of gases, metals, and liquids extracted from the crust of the planet. Their guild motto was, “Everything we have either comes from a plant or a hole in the ground; and we know how to dig.” When the waters approached their mines they moved their homes, refineries, and machinery under ground. Then they sealed themselves in deep underneath the surface. The water from the new ocean above them seeped in, but they pumped that out and built oxygen factories to supply themselves with breatheable air. Safe underground they had access to all the metals, minerals, other chemicals the Comptoni needed to build their machines and with that trade they were able to buy food from the Vegani.
Despite all this, life for the Ferren was not easy. Before the calamity they could do aerial surveys for potential places to build their mines, but now they had no choice but to simply dig and keep digging until they found something worth selling as a refined ore. Places already rich in underground caverns and shafts were the most desirable as they made the process of looking for new ores to extract slightly easier. One such place was underneath the Oblique Plateau where the first waters from the spatial deluge first landed. Perhaps many centuries earlier the plateau had been an ocean, but like Mars the waters had been blown away off the planet into space and lost forever.
It was here in this labyrinth of tunnels that the four explorers found themselves. A Ferren guild master was guiding them through long subterranean passages. Sometimes they were easy to traverse, other times they were craggy and had to be climbed. Sometimes the passages were straight, other times steep in all directions. Sometimes they were dry, but mostly they were wet with water seeping from the walls. Sometimes they were completely natural, but other times stairs or hand holds hand been chiseled into the rock.
While they were following their guide he gave them some commentary about life so far underground. The adventurers were endlessly impressed with his sense of navigation so far under ground.
“You are probably wondering about how we can breathe so far underground. We’re about 4 kilometres underground here and normally it would be impossible to breathe proper air at this depth. We have oxygen factories as you know, but just as important we have air pumps for circulation. If the circulation was cut off to an area it wouldn’t be habitable for very long. We conserve our oxygen by limiting circulation to only essential tunnels.”
Alfred asked a question, “Actually, I wasn’t concerned about the air, I felt the breeze, I was thinking about why this place isn’t flooded.”
“Ah!” Said the guild master, pleased to be asked a question, “we make sure to seal any big entrances to the surface up before we move into an area, and we run pipes up to the surface of the ocean. They’re like giant snorkels. We can suck air down here to ventilate them for the first time, but more importantly we suck the water out and back to the surface. This gets more difficult the further we must pump the water to reach the surface.”
They continued on quietly for a bit when an explosion of rock and steam erupted nearby. Kimberley and Fiona shrieked with panic while Alfred and Harold sandwiched them from either end of the line. The team looked in all directions frantically, expecting a rock fall. Instead they heard the sound of a group of over Ferrens coming up the tunnel in front of them. These Ferrens were carrying heavy backpacks and laughing at the clearly unnerved adventurers.
The guild master guiding them also chuckled before explaining, “that’s just a little bit of steam. Sometimes the water seeps down near a lava flow and a jet of hot steam gets pushed up. It’s loud but rarely dangerous. We don’t really notice them anymore.”
“And those people who passed us?” Asked Harold.
“Just a trading expedition to Deliverance. They’re selling some iron ore for equipment to fix one of our ventilation pumps.”
“You don’t have a train line for that?”
“Not yet, but we’re working on it. Speaking of train lines we’ve almost reached our existing line.”
After a few more minutes of walking they found themselves in an underground train station, cut directly into the rock. They climbed on board a carriage waiting for them and started moving even deeper underground. Along the way they saw vast long tunnels branching off, factory complexes, and even a hydroponic chamber for growing food with synthetic sunlight. The Ferrens were well established deep under the surface of the planet. Yet, like all the other guilds they were completely dependent on their technology functioning correctly at all times to survive. The relationship between man and machine was strong and never questioned.
They finally arrived at what looked like a remote station. They guessed it was remote because it was on the way they’d seen fewer and fewer stops and buildings squeezed into the side cavities. Everyone at this station looked particularly rugged and dirty. Alfred guessed that these workmen were probably working to expand their underground city into these caverns.
The guild master introduced them to a pair of guild masters waiting for them. These other guild masters were clearly well informed and expecting them.
“Where do you need to go exactly?”
Kimberley handed him a map. The guild masters examined it but did not respond enthusiastically.
“They want to go down the tunnel of death,” murmured one of the guild masters.
“Wait!” Cried Alfred, “what do you mean the tunnel of death?”
“I mean that tunnel there is cursed. Every Ferren who has tried to survey that tunnel has either died or never come out again.”
“Why is it so dangerous?”
The guild master snorted humourlessly, “if we knew that we’d be a lot happier, but everyone who has returned came back barking mad. Claiming there are demons and monsters down there. They say that they can hear the cries of the damned in Hell down that tunnel and the sounds of their wailing drives them crazy. They all died within a week of coming out of there. It’s a no go zone.”
Kimberley spoke next, “Will you give us a guide?”
“You clearly weren’t listening. That tunnel is certain death. I’m not allowing any of our men to go down there. We can’t afford another death. It’s not worth the risk.”
“We have to go. I have to go.”
“Fine, we will show you the entrance and give you fresh torches. But after that you’re on your own.”
“Agreed,” Kimberley turned to the others, “you don’t need to come with me of course.”
“I’m coming,” announced Alfred immediately.
“Me too,” said Fiona.
Harold laughed, “I’m not missing out on the tunnel of death!”
The next few minutes passed so quickly that it seemed like in no time at all they were standing outside the entrance to the portended tunnel of death. Surrounded by a few awkward looking Ferrens, whom Alfred suspected would gladly volunteer if the guild masters would let them, now was the first time they had to reconsider what they were about to do. Harold twitched nervously, but Alfred slapped him on the back.
“Don’t worry man, this tunnel isn’t really that long, we’ll soon reach whatever it is that’s keeping this spatial rift open and they’ll figure out a way to send us back home.”
The adventurers walked into the tunnel and about 200 metres in, when they could no longer see or hear the Ferrens loitering around the entrance Kimberley stopped them.
“Ok, how are we going to do this? My readings say we only need to cross about another 500 metres, maybe 700 metres tops to reach the origin point of the energy source for the spatial rift. I don’t want you to feel obligated to risk your lives for this, whatever it is in here that’s spooked, and killed, the miners.”
“You’re kidding right?” said Harold, “we’re not turning back now. We’re going all the way in. Let’s go.”
Kimberley frowned and continued to lead the way. The others watched as her expression changed within seconds from sad, to worried, to anxious, to panic. Her limbs started shaking and she looked pale as snow.
“What’s wrong Kimberley?” asked Alfred.
Kimberley starred at a oddly shaped out crop of rock, roughly reassembling a person.
“That’s not true! You didn’t kill them! I won’t kill them!” Kimberley screamed at the rock.
The group looked at each other in bewilderment. They tried to get her to explain what she meant but she obviously wasn’t listening. She was talking to someone else. Someone not present with them in the tunnel.
“No dad! No! Don’t do it! DON’T KILL YOURSELF! Please don’t!” Kimberley’s voice had turned into a shrill cry. She was still walking forward past the rock deeper into the tunnel, but her eyes weren’t focussed on the path, she started stumbling over the ground.
“I think she’s hallucinating,” said Alfred, “we’d better carry her along. Something smells strange here. Harold, can you smell it too?”
But Harold was confronted by Fiona who was brandishing a knife that was easily 30cm long. She was mumbling to herself and had the same out of her mind expression in her eyes as Kimberley had.
“Ahh, yeah, I recognise that smell too. It’s Vaperin. It’s a strong dose,” stammered Harold as Fiona started advancing slowly towards him.
“Get out of my way Harold… I don’t want to kill you, just get out of my way…” Fiona moaned almost sleepily.
“Hang on, I’ve got a couple of adrenaline shots,” Alfred jabbed a syringe into Harold’s arm, “That should keep you sober for a bit but at this concentration I can’t promise you anything. I will give one to Kimberley, you just keeping Fiona talking!” commanded Alfred.
“So Fiona, who are you going to kill then if not me?” stammered Harold trying to sound calmer than he actually was.
“I’m going to kill the traitor Kiron Kimberley of course,” said Fiona with a sinister smile as though amused at a private joke.
“Wait! Why are you going to kill Kimberley?” asked Harold.
At this point Kimberley appeared to snap out of her hallucination. She saw Alfred coming for her with the syringe and she screamed and pushed him. His foot caught on a rock and he tumbled over backwards. Kimberley tried to run back the way they had come but Fiona jumped out at her with the knife.
“TRAITOR!” Fiona screeched, “Supreme guild master Kaylim has ordered me to kill you! You are an enemy of the Aeron guild!”
Kimberley screamed hysterically at Fiona.
“Hahaha! Yes, Kim, surprise, I’m a secret agent sent by master Kaylim to destroy you! I was going to let you live, I was going to betray my own guild masters, I was taken in by these two off worlder men, but I see now what I must do! I must kill you as I was ordered to!”
Fiona lunged forward, but Harold tackled her. Kimberley turned and fled deeper into the tunnel as fast as she could run. Fiona apparently had been trained in some form of self-defence because she instantly bashed Harold hard on his head and on several pressure points. He released her, but in the struggle she had dropped her knife. Alfred put his foot on the knife, but Fiona just laughed and chased Kimberley into the darkness unarmed.
“Quickly, Harold, on your feet, we need to get after them!”
They hurried after the women. As they were running strange cries started coming from the out of walls. Chilling lamentations of broken men and tormented beasts. Soon monsters started coming out of the walls of the tunnels. Dead bodies rising from their rocky graves and calling their names. Long armoured snakes and thousands of venomous spiders started crawling all over the walls. Ahead there was a bright light they kept running for it. They could just make out the screaming of the women. Soon the light exploded and surrounded them. Everywhere around they heard footsteps pounding. The light got brighter and brighter until there was nothing but darkness.
The next thing Alfred remembered was being gently shaken awake by Kimberley. They were in a small metal room with lights in the ceiling. On one side there was a large pair of metal doors, while on the other side was a brightly lit corridor with air vents in the floor and ceiling making a constant hiss of quickly moving air. Alfred could just make out the tunnel they had come through on the other side of the corridor.
Kimberley put her fingers on Alfred’s lip, “Shh, don’t wake her up, I have tied her up but she might try to kill me again.”
Alfred looked across to see Fiona with hands and feet thoroughly bound together with her face lying on the floor.
“Is she alive?”
“Alive? Yes, I think so.”
“Are you ok Kimberley?”
Kimberley blinked hard, “No. I keep seeing things. Things that shouldn’t be real.”
“We’ve been poisoned with a hallucinogenic gas called Vaperin. I don’t know how much we inhaled out there but it can cause permanent brain damage. A shot of adrenaline will help clear it out of your system.”
“So that’s why you were trying to stab me with a syringe. Shall I get you one too?”
Kimberley went about giving out injections.
“Thanks,” said Alfred, “how is Harold?”
“Badly beaten. He should wake up soon though. Fiona here is apparently quite a fighter.”
“Yes, she’s a spy for Kaylim, but all the same you’d better give her a shot. We don’t want her dying from Vaperin overdose.”
“What is Vaperin?”
“It’s a drug that’s administered as a gas. It gets straight into the brain and causes auditory and visual hallucinations. It’s used by kids in the asteroid belt to get a good high. It’s strictly illegal of course.”
“But you’ve used it?”
“Many times. So has Harold, that’s why we didn’t start hallucinating right away.”
Fiona flinched, “I’ve never heard of Vaperin before,” she struggled with her bonds, “why is it here on Proxima Minor?”
“I imagine because the Earth government expedition that built this base here wanted to discourage any visitors.”
The two women gasped at the same time.
“Earth government agents, here on Minor?”
Looking around they took in the rusty metal walls. There was a dusty terminal next to the door. Alfred pushed the button but it just beeped sternly at him. The sound of the beep woke up Harold. Alfred explained what had happened to him, how the vented corridor they had walked through was a special barrier that stopped the Vaperin gas from getting into the complex they had found.
They all spoke with Fiona and agreed to untie her in the end. Harold and Alfred were convinced she was sincere about disobeying her orders to kill Kimberley. Kimberley was more wary but agreed it was cruel to keep her bound up like that.
Harold and Alfred managed to pull off a panel and open the door.
“How did you know what to do?” inquired Fiona.
“We use similar systems out on the asteroid belt all the time. We know how to override most of these in our sleep!”
The instant they stepped through the doors ceiling spotlights came on and splashed intense light all over them. Standing up and taking in their surroundings the group realised that not only were they in some kind of underground facility that was not of Ferren manufacture, but it was quite big.
“This is sensational,” said Kimberley, “what’s an Earth government building this big doing this far underground?”
“It could still be Ferren, couldn’t it?” asked Fiona.
Kimberley glared at her for a few minutes, not forgetting what she had said to her in the cave with a knife in her hand, “It doesn’t look anything like Ferren architecture, in fact, it doesn’t look like anything I’ve ever seen before.”
“This is definitely Earth architecture, said Alfred, “it is a bit old fashioned, probably about twenty years old. But definitely standard Earth extra-planetary structure models. This place was assembled from a kit dropped in from orbit.”
“What are people from Earth doing on my planet?” asked Kimberley.
“I don’t think they were up to anything good,” said Harold.
“Certainly not,” agreed Alfred, “I think I know what’s going on here.”
“Care to enlighten us?” asked Fiona.
Alfred went to answer but Kimberley got there first, “this base… this is the origin of the power source keeping the rift open…”
“Yes,” said Alfred, “the Earth government planned this base here to keep that rift open after you cut power to it, in order to flood the planet and kill the colony here because it was thriving without a central government.”
The women’s eyes opened wide with horror. Kimberley immediately set off down the corridor, the others chased after her. They moved from room to room and found the odd corpse strewn here and there, they looked amazingly well preserved, and it also looked like they died of while still healthy. They found rooms with sleeping quarters, ventilation systems, and even a hydroponics bay, although primitive by Proximian standards. Finally they found a control room. There were three dead bodies in this room, but all the equipment was switched on and working properly. There was very little dust anywhere, and the bodies although dehydrated were nonetheless intact.
Kimberley sat down at the controls but couldn’t figure out how to use them. Harold sat down and found he could easily navigate the computer system as it was familiar to him. Kimberley started picking his brains for explanations for the commands and systems he was manipulating.
“Why are these bodies so well preserved?” asked Alfred.
“There aren’t many bugs or fungus on this planet, certainly not these far underground. There was nothing to eat these corpses once the people died,” explained Fiona.
They continued looking round until Kimberley announced she now understood what was happening.
“This base was originally a clandestine spy base used to steal the scientific discoveries of the Kirons for the Earth Central Government. They were spying on the spatial rift experiments in order to steal the research. When they realised there was an opportunity to kill off the entire population of the planet by sabotaging the experiment they modified the nuclear reactor and aimed their interstellar communications array directly at the spatial rift and projected the output of the nuclear reactor at the spatial rift keeping it open.”
“Then how did they all die?”
“Apparently they depended on oxygen from the atmosphere and didn’t realise this. As soon as the water filled up the Oblique Plateau it cut off their oxygen supply and they quickly suffocated to death in here. By the time they realised what they had done it was too late for them to do anything to save themselves. Instead they set the base to be automatic and to maintain the spatial rift until the uranium in the reactor runs out.”
“Why aren’t we dying of asphyxiation?”
“Because the structure is drawing oxygen from the caves now ventilated by the Ferrens.”
“How much longer can the nuclear reactor keep the rift open?”
“There is just enough fuel in here to keep it going for another four months maximum.”
The room went silent.
“Is there any way to keep it going for any longer?” asked Fiona.
“No,” said Kimberley, “even if we wanted to, we don’t have any of the fuel used in these Earth reactors on this planet. It might take a year to figure out what type of process is needed to make a compatible fuel source, find the needed raw materials, process them, and then learn how to install the new fuel. In fact, this reactor looks too primitive to change fuel rods while it is actually running. It looks like it needs to be shut down before new fuel rods can be installed.”
There was a few minutes silence.
Fiona spoke first, “I need to contact guild master Kaylim and inform of this immediately, Pearl needs to be evacuated. Can we switch off the Vaperin gas to make it safe to leave?”
Harold answered, “I believe so, we found the panel controlling the ventilation for the base. We should be able to switch it off from there. Just give me a few minutes to figure out what to do.”
Fiona turned to Kimberley, “Thank you for doing this, for seeking this place out and finding out the truth. I promise I will do everything I can to clear the unjustly tarnished name of the Kiron guild.”
Kimberley tried to say thank you, but instead choked on some tears. Alfred put his arm around her. “What’s wrong?” he asked gently. It took awhile before Kimberley could answer. “My parents were in charge of the spatial rift project. When the rift didn’t close my mother blamed herself for the calamity. The guilt killed them both.” Kimberley burst into sobs and Alfred held her close.
With the Vaperin gas removed from circulation, Fiona left the base and contacted Pearl to give her report directly to Guild Master Kaylim. Minutes after the report being received Kaylim gave the order for the immediate evacuation of Pearl. It took just three weeks for the city of Pearl to be completely evacuated and even partially disassembled. The energy beam forcing the spatial rift open was shut off by Kimberley once Fiona gave her the all clear signal. Immediately the spatial rift was closed and the remnants of the city of Pearl tumbled into the ocean far below.
The Kirons opened up another spatial rift and reduced the depth of the oceans by two and half kilometres, leaving 40% of the surface of Proxima Minor now above sea level. The millions of Proximians living in gloftoons, boats, submarines and subterranean settlements gathered together on the now exposed surface and started the process of reintegrating the guilds into a single society once again. Within a few years the liberated surface of Proxima Minor was covered with thousands of villages, towns, and even a few cities had been established on the surface and the planet was thriving once more.
Alfred and Harold decided to stay and the four adventurers became firm friends for the rest of their days.