She tried to rip down the creeping vines that covered the rusty iron gates, but centuries of growth held them strong. In all their months of expedition, they had never encountered a dwelling so fortified.
They had travelled the road for some time before reaching the outer perimeter. From there, a long network of wide pathways, overgrown on both sides, led towards a central fortification. The highest towers were barely visible over the trees, but they pressed onwards, veering ever closer.
Vasily trailed behind Anjum all the way. Her enthusiasm far outweighed that of her partner, who grew tired of their excavation. At night, he gazed at the stars. “Our constellation looks so different from down here”, he would say as he pined for home. Above them, their ship maintained orbit awaiting recovery instructions. It had been orbiting the planet for twelve weeks as excavation continued. A great deal of that time had been spent walking. Now, before this rusted gate, their journey had reached a dead end.
“Nowhere to go.” Vasily seemed pleased. Perhaps now he could return to the ship and begin the long journey home. The temperate climate of this planet did not agree with him. Anjum was not prepared to admit defeat. She tugged at the vines.
Stiff. The roots were thick and heavy.
Pulling harder, they gave a little.
“Knife.” Vasily placed it in to her outstretched hand. She began to hack indiscriminately at the branches. They creaked and cracked, brittle from centuries of atrophy.
A piece broke off under Anjum’s pressure. It allowed her an opportunity to untangle a knot of branches. The leaves were brown, they broke apart in her hand. The vines were clearing quite rapidly now, large chunks coming free at a time. Soon, the gates loomed bare and imposing.
A creak. The gasp of the metal as it exercised its joints for the first time in millennia. They gave a little, then seized up forever.
The gap was small, but Anjum squeezed through. Vasily followed.
Beyond the perimeter, they stopped and studied their surroundings.
There were structures, buildings overrun with plants and trees. First amongst them, what appeared to be a Gatehouse. Large portholes looked out upon the approach – presumably were sentinels would have stood guard. Beyond the portholes lay a vast courtyard surrounded on all sides by large residences and stables.
Cautiously, they crossed the Gatehouse, passing under vast arches. The ornate decoration long since crumbled, only flashes of extravagance remained hewn in to the rock.
They stepped out in to the courtyard. Ahead of them, a path led towards the largest and most domineering structure – a turreted fortress, dark and desolate. The uppermost tower they had followed for miles. One final mile to the tower. Anjum became anxious. She struggled to contain her breathing, as much to reassure Vasily than anything else.
“What if it is inhabited?” Vasily had a point. But they had found no sign of life on their entire journey. This civilisation had long since departed. Still, she found herself watching the windows nervously, trying to shake the dreadful feeling that they were being watched.
“We press on,” was all that she could say to reassure him. Together, they strode up the street towards their destination.
Anjum caught Vasily glance up at the sky. Dark grey. If he was looking for the reassurance of the orbiting ship then he truly was terrified. She found herself questioning if their Comms could even function through such thick cloud coverage. Best to put it out of her mind, concentrate on the task at hand. This was what they signed up for. They were archaeologists, explorers – this system, this planet, was a treasure trove. And they had it all to themselves.
At least that’s what Anjum hoped.
Vasily stopped her. “It is late. We should rest.” She was about to protest. “We made it inside the perimeter. It can wait until morning.”
They turned back to the shelter of the Gatehouse. Setting up camp, they watched as the rain began to fall. Light at first, dancing off the cobbled stone and twisting pathways. Then the rain erupted in to a thunderstorm. Huddled under the stone structure of the Gatehouse, they watched and waited for morning light. Occasionally, the rain eased and afforded them an hour or so of sleep. But another crack of thunder would follow and rouse them.
By morning, the storm had passed and the temperature was beginning to climb. The rainwater steamed as it quickly evaporated from the worn stone. Anjum began to pack up camp as Vasily checked in with the ship – a morning ritual of his that seemed to provide him an element of comfort. Anjum had argued with him the first few times he had done so, that he should have more faith in the equipment, that he should trust the onboard systems, that his fears were baseless and unbecoming of a planetary explorer. She had since made peace with it. “All good?” Vasily nodded. They had at least two more months before they would need to head back to the ship and run a diagnostic – the slightest failing in the systems could strand them years from the colony. At that point, Anjum would need to decide if they were to stay for the remainder of the year or head back home. She had a feeling that the latter would be Vasily’s preferred course. Something about this planet didn’t agree with her partner. It haunted him.
Slowly, they followed the path from the gatehouse towards the fortress – a straight path surrounded on both sides by looming buildings and battlements. Vasily’s breathing grew heavier, the sound of a man who could feel the walls closing in with each step. Anjum couldn’t help but marvel at the civilisation that had build this citadel. She thought of their attackers, charging through the iron gates towards the gatehouse, picked off one by one from the safety of the portholes. Those that made it through would be bottle necked in to the underpass that led to the courtyard. No doubt the defending army would be waiting there as the invaders squeezed through. Their ranks broken, the invaders would be torn apart. Finally, should they make it any further they would race down the path towards the fortress whilst bombarded from both sides by guards in the surrounding buildings.
For a primitive civilisation, the citadel was impenetrable.
Anjum turned, Vasily was no longer at her side. He had stopped a little further back. “Found something?” she asked as she watched Vasily stand transfixed. He was staring through the doorway of a building. Most others had been boarded up, or were buried in moss and leaves. But one door stood wide. She was surprised with herself for having missed it, but her eyes were always drawn towards the tower. Vasily did not reply. She approached him. As she came within viewing distance of the door, Vasily turned to her. His eyes pleaded, he wanted to leave.
Through the door lay a mountain of skin and fur. From etchings they had discovered in their travels, they appeared to be animals – small, filthy, still.
“Who would do this?” Vasily uttered. Anjum couldn’t answer. The animals were most certainly dead. Their arrangement seemed to suggest a display, likely a warning. Their small bodies had been treated to preserve a lifelike image, their eyes were black and cold.
“Come on,” Anjum pulled Vasily away from this macabre display.
“They were fresh.” Vasily’s voice trembled.
“They were preserved.”
“Something is still alive here. I can feel it.” Vasily’s heart beat out of his chest. Anjum took him by the hand and started to lead him along the path towards the tower.
She noticed further paths, winding off in all directions of the citadel. But one thing united them all; the tower. The fortress at the centre of it all. All roads led to the tower, its small windows looking out in every direction. A fortified panopticon.
They now moved within the shadow of the tower itself. A small stone bridge led up to the main entrance, crossing what once was a moat. The water had long since turned to slime, it oozed rather than flowed. Vasily’s eyes darted around at the surrounding pathways whilst Anjum stared up intently on the tower.
Stood before it, the door was immovable.
Anjum was adamant, she needed to see inside. Vasily set up a camp in the doorway and ate some rations as Anjum prepared a grapple hook and cable. Vasily watched her silently. She knew that he wouldn’t go. His fear of the citadel was completely irrational, but she wouldn’t force her partner to scale the tower.
She took a few steps back, swung the grapple and launched it towards one of the windows. With a thump, the grapple connected with a ledge and held. Anjum tested the cable. It seemed secure. She looked to Vasily. He nodded.
With a military quickness, Anjum climbed the cable. At halfway she was able to get her feet upon the wall and walk the rest of the way. Scrambling at the balcony, she pulled herself inside. As she dropped to the floor of the chamber, she heard the echo of her arrival reverberate around the building.
There was no reply.
Looking out of the window, she gave Vasily a thumbs up. He stood open mouthed watching as Anjum disappeared inside and was gone.
The chamber in which she had entered was bare. So much time had passed that Anjum was unsure if the place had been stripped or had always been sparse. There was no door, only an open archway that led out in to a central open hallway with a winding staircase. Cautiously, she stepped out.
In contrast, the hallway was elaborately decorated, but suffering at the hands of centuries of decay. The walls had been lined with wood panelling and metallic weaponry now rusted and warped. The spiral staircase seemed to be in tact, Anjum tested her foot on the first step. It held. She ascended towards the top of the tower, her footsteps echoing off the cold and empty walls.
The tower seemed far smaller than it had on the outside. She had ascended to the uppermost rampart and stepped out on to the balcony.
From her vantage point, Anjum could see a remarkable distance. She could see the roads that they had followed as they had followed the fortress. She could see the perimeter, the gatehouse and Vasily stood directly below her. She waved. Vasily shouted, “What do you see?”
She scanned the landscape, then peered through the window at the back of the tower. The rear of the citadel was far bigger than she had anticipated, with residences arranged in to small clusters, each uniquely different – even from Anjum’s height. When Anjum descended, she told Vasily. He seemed relieved that she had found nothing in the fortress itself. But the empty shell had only piqued Anjum’s curiosity further. Having rested, they opted to advance further in to the labyrinthine pathways of the alien citadel.
Some paths were blocked, trees having uprooted or rusted gateways barring access. Some led to residences, long since sealed and abandoned. Wherever they went, the fortress watched them from the highest window – Anjum’s vantage point – but they pressed on. One route led them in to the trees, a series of huts and access ways having now deteriorated. As the sun sank low on the horizon, Anjum and Vasily set up camp in the shelter of an exposed doorway that looked out upon a metallic framework – the remnants of a primitive transport system. By nightfall, they were in total darkness, too sheltered to find any light amongst the stars. Their senses heightened, they rested uneasy. Vasily would occasionally hold his breath as if alerted to a noise in the distance. Anjum could hear nothing. She took the opportunity to rest well, falling in to a long deep sleep.
Vasily woke her with some food. She could sense that she had slept long in to the morning. The sun was now high, the temperature cool from their shelter. Packing up camp, they advanced further until they heard the sound of running water.
Before them, a stream flowed around a large building. Their approach was quiet, disguised by the stream. As they drew near, they could see the water ran thin and relatively clear – the cleanest water they had seen since reaching the citadel’s perimeter.
“Artificial?” Vasily suggested. Anjum suspected he was right. Perhaps it ran from a Well or a Dam?
There was a small boat that sat moored alone in the water. Vasily examined it as Anjum scouted the surrounding area. The stream ran partially around the residence before disappearing in to an open tunnel at its base. The boat appeared to be a means of access.
“Shall we?” she asked as she stepped aboard the boat.
Vasily hesitated, “It goes inside.” He couldn’t shake the image of those animals at the approach to the tower, slaughtered and arranged in a gruesome pile of bodies, staring intently at anyone who may dare to enter. And the tunnel was dark. Anything could be waiting inside.
Anjum fumbled in amongst her supplies and tossed Vasily a flashlight. Reluctantly, he clambered aboard.
Pushing the boat along with their hands, they floated towards the entrance. The water splashed and rippled, everything else was so still.
The boat passed through the entranceway and they descended in to darkness.
A few moments later, Anjum lit her flashlight. The small beam of light explored their surroundings. They were passing through a narrow tunnel. Markings lined the wall. Anjum studied them, a few markings were familiar. Clearly the civilisation was sophisticated enough to communicate.
The tunnel began to open out in to a wider room, dark and cold. Anjum let out a shiver. Vasily spread his flashlight across the expansive cavern.
There were structures.
Detailed, intricate, Anjum wondered why there had not been this level of detail inside the fortress. Her eyes were still adjusting to the minimal light levels. As they focused, she realised what it was that she was looking at.
There was a settlement, hidden here in the dark.
The houses were small, far smaller than anything they had encountered before. The residents were clearly of much smaller stature than those who ran the citadel.
Or were they? Was this the true inner sanctum? Could the exterior be merely a ruse to protect the residents? Anjum’s head was spinning. The expansive journey, the false fortress, the single boat providing access through a small tunnel to an entire town. If this were a means of defence, the detail and planning was incredible.
“Shine that torch over here,” she asked Vasily, frantically. As the light settled on a small house they could see a figure within.
It was watching them.
“There’s someone there.”
The figure turned away from them, slowly, nonchalant.
And with a whirr, the town was illuminated.
The explorers were startled, their eyes fought to adjust to the sudden burst of light. They spun around and the people were stood along the banks of the stream, staring at them, grinning. All of them were a fraction of the height of Anjum and Vasily, grotesque distortions of what they had come to know as this planet’s dominant species. They chanted and laughed, a sinister high pitched chuckle. Vasily shouted, desperately trying to turn the boat back and flee through the tunnel. One of the townspeople slowly flew towards them in an aircraft.
Anjum dropped her flashlight, she struggled to turn the boat back with Vasily as the chanting became louder and louder, the screams and laughter from the townsfolk at a fever pitch, the cold stare in their eyes as they watched the explorers and grinned maniacally at them.
The boat bounced off the banks of the stream as it sped backwards towards the tunnel, the two occupants hoping that it would take them out of the townspeople’s reach. The cheering and singing continued unabated, sickeningly pleased with themselves for having turned away their invaders.
The boat rocked back through the entranceway, out in to the glaring light of the midday sun. Vasily scrambled to shore. “What was that?”
Anjum tried to maintain her cool as she joined him on the shore. She pocketed her shaking hands. “Evolution? The remnants of an ancient race?”
“Will they follow us?”
They watched the entrance, but all was once again quiet.
“I don’t think so. We trespassed, I think they were just defending themselves.” Anjum noticed she was looking up to the sky, at the small speck of metal that gleamed above. For the first time, she longed for the safety of home.
“What were they chanting?” Vasily asked.
Anjum had to admit ignorance. She caught her breath and after a few moments found herself suggesting a return to the ship. Was it for comfort? Or was she done with the mission now that they had found life? She couldn’t be sure. But Vasily had been right, the place was haunted. And, for the moment at least, she couldn’t stay.
As they waited for the Recovery Pod, Anjum reflected upon the life they had briefly glimpsed. Were there more civilisations scattered across this fragmented world? Were they also in hiding or would she be able to approach them openly? They could communicate, their town was powered and defended. She marvelled at their ingenuity.
Aboard the Recovery Pod they sped away from the surface, the sounds of the chanting and singing still reverberating in their minds. There was so much to report upon their return to the colony. Had Anjum understood the alien language, she would have no doubt agreed with the sentiment of their song;
It truly was a small world, after all.