In a flash, Francis Carter’s long legs had vaulted him up the side of the dome beside Rico, and he was now peering down into its open top. Lamont considered joining them, but the heaviness of his body and the thinness of the air made him feel less than confident that he could mimic the older man’s action. Instead, he lifted the keys of his recorder to his fingers and asked, “What do you see?”
“This place is a mausoleum,” The captain answered soberly. “That, or the site of a massacre. As Rico said, the entire floor looks to be covered at least two or three layers deep with dry bones.”
“What kind of bones?” Lamont asked.
Rico answered. His tone was strained, almost angry. “They look like children.”
Carter hastened to clarify. “They do look human-like in shape, but smaller in proportion. The skulls are definitely humanoid or simian, with apparently quite a bit of variation in shape. I’d like to climb in for a closer look, but I’m not entirely sure how I’d get out again.”
“I have a rope, sir,” Rico said, cocking his ear in the direction of his backpack.
“How about you put that thing away and give me a hand, then?” Carter suggested. “I don’t think these creatures can do us any harm.”
“It is not the bones I am worried about,” Rico answered gloomily, his eyes falling on the gleaming nickel surface of his automatic. “It is whatever arranged for them to be here.”
“We don’t know anything,” The captain admonished him. “This could be a ritual burial ground. It could be a container for food scraps.”
“That’s a cheerful thought,” Lamont quipped. “We’d be a proper feast, then.”
“My point is, there’s no sense jumping to conclusions before—”
Carter’s exasperated reaction was interrupted by the simultaneous beeping of their wrist radios. A moment later, the tinny voice of Rex piped through.
“...O’Neil, does anyone read me?” It asked.
Carter pinched the side of his wrist radio to turn it on. “This is the captain. We hear you, Rex.”
“Sir! Miss Wells and I are near the entrance to what looks like a cave system in the foothills southwest of the elevator.” His voice sounded excited. “We can hear what sounds like running water coming from somewhere inside. But sir, I don’t think we’re alone.”
“Why not?” Carter asked.
“There are some markings on the rocks here that look like they were made by something intelligent. There are also a lot of nooks and crannies—I could just be jumpy, sir, but I could swear that I’ve seen movement in them once or twice.”
“Don’t take any chances, Rex,” The captain ordered. “We’re not far from you. Stay there and we’ll come to help.”
“That’s just the thing,” Rex answered, a note of anxiety in his normally chipper voice. “Rose—that is, Miss Wells has already gone ahead into the caves, and I think they’re blocking the radio signal. Captain, I’ve got to go in after her.”
“Why didn’t you stop her?” The captain growled. He was making his way back down the dome.
“I tried, sir, but—”
O’Neil’s voice trailed off. Hopping to the ground, Carter exchanged tense glances with Lamont as they waited for two heartbeats, then three. “Rex?” Francis queried, lifting his wrist. More long seconds. “O’Neil, respond.”
Rex’s voice came through again, but muffled now, as if the microphone of his wrist radio was a distance from his mouth. “Hey, now, there’s a … Oh boy. Captain, uh…”
“Rex, what is it?” Carter demanded.
There was another pause that seemed to last forever, then the sound of rustling and static. Finally, Rex’s voice came through again, still faint. “We come in peace,” He was saying slowly. “Representing the United Space Company of Earth. We mean you no ha—ah—AAAAGH!”
Next: A Bad Situation