Don't Be Evil
Their suits are made from a stretchy, silver material that only breaks under extreme duress. Five of them rise up from one of the hinged metal gratings in the ground, and survey their surroundings. They walk carefully on the ice. According to their scanners, the ice is five inches thick. Under the ice is gravel and small clumps of sediment, followed by fissure lined bedrock.
The hatch breaks out into a massive field. Strange flora abounds here. Some of it is green and purple and red, and reaches well over ten feet. Odd pollen balls droop from flimsy vines and look ready to burst from their sacks. The weeds are barbed with odd stingers that drip a clear viscous liquid. Past the choked forest, the top portion of a far off monstrosity peers down at them. It is their destination.
Far above are clouds tinged with purple and red and blue. Giant winged gulls swoop through the air and caw at each other incessantly.
The survey team is careful to avoid the flora. Stocky, their leader, the one with the stocky build, pulls out a rectangular device. The others pull back behind him. He switches it on. The dense forest of flora before them vaporizes, and a cloud of pollen and dust blows through their midst in its wake. Stocky puts the device away, and they move forward, cautiously.
They are here because their scanners can't reach this place. They were forced to venture past the safe area to complete the survey. There is massive interference coming from the building at the end of the field. Now that their path is clear, they see the rest of the building. It is a base of some sort, long abandoned, but massive. It's mammoth facade is missing all its windows, making it like an open dollhouse, or a series of kindergarten cubbyholes, each one cluttered with odd shapes too far off and high up to recognize.
Mounds of metal peer at the team from the ice, like stolid gravestones in a winter graveyard. Next to them, metal hoods and wheels and hubcaps lay scattered and half buried. They dot the landscape around the base. Most of the old vehicles are still hidden by the forest of odd plants, but the newly carved path through the weeds has unearthed long dormant shapes from their slumber.
The survey team is thirty meters from a gaping maw at the foot of the base when one of the team screams out. Her right arm is caught on one of the weed stingers, and her suit is torn open at the tricep. The sharp end of the weed clings to her even as she struggles to resist. Stocky pulls out his device, spins the dial a bit, and severs the barbed branch in two. His wounded companion falls to the ice, clutching her arm and breathing heavily. She will be dead in twenty seconds. He kneels, lifts her visor, finds her gaze for a moment, and nods compassionately. She shudders and passes away.
He signals for the others to keep moving. For safe measure, he sweeps the area wide and clears another five hundred square feet of flora.
The overhang around the entrance is supported by a dozen columns. Most of the columns' exteriors have rotted away, and the steel bones underneath are all that remain. The tallest member of the team signals to the others to stop. He is frozen in place, and peering up around them. Something is wrong. Where the underside of the overhang should be, there is a thick, writhing mass of black and silver.
Three of the team have stopped, but Stocky motions for them to keep walking. Near the start of the overhang, the shapes unfurl. Spindly legs curl and spin like gymnasts doing delicate routines on balance bars. Thick, hairy abdomens descend, swinging slightly on whisper thin threads. They look suspended in thin air, but they are moving quickly toward the team of surveyors. All the spiders are all unfolding along the ceiling, an organic wave of pincers, legs, and eyes.
The team shakes off its paralysis and moves swiftly into the interior. They barely have time to take in their surroundings. The walls are crumbled on every side. Far above, at least ten floors are visible through gaping ceilings. Everything inside is decayed and inert, but the life outside is far from it, and has begun to scurry into their midst.
The leader tries to switch on his device, but something is jamming it. Realizing this, he motions for the rest of them to assemble in the corner. There is a tall column of stairs, sturdy as the day it was built, near the corner of the lobby, and they must ascend it.
The tall one is the last of the team to make it through the door to the stairwell. Before he heads in, his scientific curiosity gets the best of him, and he turns to take a quick survey of the arachnids. They have already settled into the lobby and have set about weaving a very large web across the gaping entrance. There is an old sign along a far wall, he notices, that has already been covered in webbing. It's barely visible, but it looks familiar, like something he's seen recently.
He turns to go into the door and a stinging pain hits him across along his lower spine. He looks down and sees several legs, like bristly thorns, writhing around his abdomen. The others on the team are already on the second floor landing and don't hear his screams. He feels another painful burst, this time at the base of his neck. Something strong has grabbed a hold of his helmet. He can see the spider's legs straining anxiously for another sting as they embrace the glass of his visor.
The three remaining team members have not yet noticed the loss. They are too busy clamoring up the stairs. Stocky strains to see if his scanners are working. Sure enough, as they pass the fourth floor landing, the scanner flicks on and shows a mass of organic activity where they stood just minutes before, at the base of the structure. The radiation has dissipated this far up. The other two whip out their scanners and begin to survey.
Stocky puts away his scanner and makes the signal for the others to abort their pass. They stop at the fifth floor landing. It dawns on them that the science officer is not among them. The other two surveyors nod at the team leader. They push through the fifth floor door and see that the level beyond is mostly intact. It is a massive, sprawling room, filled with odd cubby holes and glass partitions. Old chairs lay strewn about on their sides. Dust is everywhere. Windows and doors are agape or missing. Huge cracks in the floor reveal multiple levels of the base, many of which have crumbled away. This was once a solid, bright interior. Now it is a rotted, grey vestige, its scars laid bare to visitors.
For now, the three surveyors are safe. Scanners reveal the organic movement has not progressed past the first floor.
"Hardwick, get on the com. Get near the window frames." Stocky commands. Hardwick heads to an adjacent room near the front of the structure and pulls out his communicator.
"Once you make contact, get 'em to authorize the ES. Give 'em our exact coordinates, okay?"
Jula has stopped to admire a small, murky picture frame. She clears away the dust. The picture beneath shows a group of smiling individuals, without hazard gear, standing in a grassy field and holding up a massive sign that reads 'TEAM BUILDING DAY 2015.'
Empty vases lay on their sides. Many are red and heart shaped, but they are all cracked. There are also trophies strewn about with the olio. There aren't any battle plans. There are no gun racks or ready stations. The walls are covered in brackets and leftover streamers hang from what is left of the ceiling. To the visitors, this is something distant, something unfamiliar. This is an alien civilization.
"Long-ass time ago." Jula muses. "They don't look like soldiers, boss."
"Don't matter," he replies. "We're gettin' the hell out."
"Are we? Shit, how often do they risk an ES mission for three? Let's just keep the scanners on and wait for the activity to die down, then push our way through below."
"Not worth the risk. Did you see those webs? They get into your suit. Check your levels and stay ready. ES will be here."
Minutes pass. Jula has noticed all kinds of other odd artifacts buried under layers of dust. Among the debris, she finds stuffed animals, cracked lava lamps (their contents long spilled), paperweights, e-tablets, stacks of paper lined with numbers and figures, stamps, bottles of clear sanitizer, empty water bottles, and what seems like a million black and silver paper fasteners.
The walls around them are covered in grey soot, but Jula can make out a single word in huge fastened letters still held up by brackets on the wall. The name is familiar to her. It has evolved over the centuries, and can now be found in armored tanks, rockets, roaming satellites, and deep sea colonies, but here it is, in its most rudimentary form.
"Boss, this is where it started!" she blurts. "This is the start of it." She holds up the picture frame. "I was right. They weren't soldiers because this was before it changed. This is pre-war, boss."
"I don't care!" he snaps, but he is rattled by her discovery. He yells across the room. "Hardwick, any progress with the ES?! Did you make contact?!"
Silence from the adjacent room.
Stocky and Jula run to the doorway. The room is empty. They strap themselves to the door frame and enter cautiously.
Hardwick forgot protocol. He must have gotten himself sucked out by an air current. It was the only place in the building to get a signal, but he forgot to strap himself down, poor bastard. His communicator is on the ground, still active. There is a faint noise coming through the static. It's hard to make out. Stocky picks up the communicator. It's frequency emitter is damaged beyond repair. It must have broken off when Hardwick got pulled off his feet.
"Boss, do you think he made contact? ES on its way?"
"Dunno." he replied. His shoulders are slumped. "You know, Jula, I think you're right. This was a civilian enterprise. Nobody's been 'ere, least not since the war."
"So this is an artifact?"
"Dunno. Kinda like to leave first, mull it over, but we don't got that option, do we?"
"Fuck no, boss. Sorry. Let's classify it." She pulls out her scanner and speaks fast and breathless. "Year twenty nine, ten month, three days. Artifact, evidence of Company's pre-war culture. Company was not born out of war, but it seems-" She gazes around one more time before continuing. "-seems there was a pre-war culture here, something far different from..."
Something clangs a few stories below, followed by the caw of a monstrous gull. Their nests must be nearby.
"We'll do it later," Stocky instructs. "For now, let's hunker down and wait."
The sky outside is now purple and crimson. The burning, diffuse sunlight has melted away, leaving a deadly chill. The two remaining survivors of Survey Team 3837 sit slumped against the wall. It is eerily silent. Jula is turning a cracked hula maiden in her hands, a wistful, far off look on her face. Stocky gazes across the room of cubes and into the massive holes in the floor. In the darkness, they look like pits of black ooze. One pool writhes and twists like a spreading puddle.
He sees the shapes spreading out from the floor and jumps to his feet.
"Move!" he orders.
Jula is on her feet in an instant, and they head for the office near the building's exterior. Whatever detonated this building must have detonated near the bottom, for they are perilously high and can see all the way to the bottom. Half the floor is rotted away, and beneath is a shaft of former offices, stacked on each other, each floor more worn away than the one above it.
Spiders are pouring up through the floor. The shapes come, tentatively at first. Their legs are like insect feelers, wagging and tasting the air, while their abdomens gurgle and spit thick webs as they move.
The two teammates gesture at each other briefly, hook their straps to the office wall, and jump out the window simultaneously. They wheel through the twilight air, smashing into different portions of the building's metal frame. Both of them twist helplessly for a moment before groping for the nearest climbable surface. Far above, Stocky's fastener slips from the office wall bracket and slides out. His tether slips out the window and nearly misses his head as it falls into the choked undergrowth of weed covering the hard, frozen ground.
Unfortunately, the weight of the clip knocks Stocky back a bit from his perch on the girder. He manages to hang on for a moment, but a harsh gust of wind knocks him back. He loses his grip and falls back, and plummets fifty feet. The darkness swallows him without a sound.
Now it is only Jula. She tosses her equipment, piece by piece, making herself as light as she can, and throws her hands and feet around the girder. The fierce wind does its awful work, but she hangs on. The roar of wind around her is immense. She gazes up four stories at the towering building. She sees it. The old company logo - half of it, at least - up at the top of the structure. It has changed much, but it's still unmistakable.
This is what it was, she thinks. She clings to her thoughts like they will keep her from falling. This is what it is now. She shifts her weight. The howling wind has grown deafening. It sounds like a gust is coming in from behind her. It's a loud, strong roar. She braces for it.
This was once something else. Something bright, something clear. I know what it was.
She loses her grip and falls, but the fall lasts only a moment. She lands on an ES retracter. The Emergency Shuttle's engines roar at her from all sides, and the retracter pulls all the way inside the vehicle until she is safe inside. The cabin lurches as the shuttle blasts away. Within minutes, the shuttle will be out of control, spiraling toward the earth in a free fall, unless it can get to the safe zone in time. As with any ES mission, the risks are high.
The EMPs are ready for Jula. They slice open her suit and apply oxygen, followed by a shot. The endorphin flood hits her and she goes from shocked to delirious. She is babbling.
"It was... it was..." she moans. She tries to raise her arm to point out the window, but all around her is grey and black. No colors. No noises other than the usual beeping and clicking. She keeps her arm raised, but an EMP knocks it down and tells her to stay still.
"No!" she protests. "It was! It was! See? It was something bright... something bright!"
The shuttle heaves its cargo toward the nearest hatch in a safe zone. Outside, crimson fades, leaving shadow. The silhouette of the old Company stands like an overturned headstone. It will be classified and cordoned off. The orphaned stars, somewhere far above the riled clouds, will remain lost in contemplation over the dirty grey of the ruined world below.