Joined: 24 Aug 2006
Location: Rangstadt, Allied Europe, Earth, NEC
|Posted: Sun Apr 19, 2009 11:10 pm Post subject: BT05: Xenopsychology V
|Down, down, down. Past the low cavern mouth that was larger than it seemed from the outside; through gateways cleverly shaped and disguised to look as unforgiving as the rocks that surrounded them. Down sloped ramps bitten with the steely toes of innumerable automatons and ground down by the passage of treads and boots and wheels. But nothing permanent, no traversing cars or lighting system, only what appeared to be a mostly natural cavern passage - only its floor was worked flat, and not very flat at that.
Only at the far end, where several hundred meters separated the Talons from the outside world, could any sign of the passageway to Troy truly be seen. The rear of the cavern was a broad platform, dusty and as irregular as the rock floor beneath them, but broad enough to carry several tanks or who knew how many Autos. The Terranovan Gears clustered onto the gantry, which seemed large enough to support them with their Spider, Caelin and Scildfreja with their own Ambithera, and then a few more Autos and the Armiger Captain as well. It was impossible to avoid feeling a little nervous - they were surrounded by hidden technology, perhaps similar to that found in the Talons' Pacifica base but nonetheless alien and possibly hostile. Who knew what these xenophobic Utopians might consider as a threat and what they would do about it? No one voiced their concerns, and it wasn't in the forefront of many minds, but it was there - paranoia and sensible caution were sometimes the same.
The platform shuddered and began to click downwards at a steep slope, climbable but only for the desperate. Geared rails carried the Talons; down, down, down. The temperature dropped, then rose again. The tunnel was smooth and black beneath the glaring white lights of Gear headlights, striated by occasional glittering veins of quartz and freckled with shining mica and other minerals. The walls shimmered as the Gears descended further yet, shivering and glittering as if they were inspiration for the active camouflage that protected the Trojans at war. The Gears and their Utopian allies soon seemed to stand out for the unchanging matte black of their armour in comparison with the hadean wealth around them. It was a guarded wealth, protected by machinery. Armoured cables snaked about around sensor eyes and gauges, observing the visitors with black dispassion. Ardelmos Roland was certain that for every camera he saw, two more were hidden. He also doubted that, whatever it was that was connected to the other end of those cables, it likely wasn't human. It *certainly* wasn't natural. These Utopians one and all seemed cavalier in their attitudes towards nature and life – never had he seen such a casually destructive society, it even made the Eastern Sun Emirates prudent by comparison.
The platform clicked its way down a good many minutes in silence. Only the passage of air spoke in a quiet, controlled rush, like a ghostly sigh rushing upwards to be equalized by further air pumps higher along the shaft. These ghosts grew louder and louder until, finally, with an anticlimactic sigh they died away. A portal had been reached, unguarded and unbarred, a yawning stone archway in the rock, as tall as the cave had been above and just as wide. And it was a true archway, the stone smoothed and chiselled with fluting that reminded Birkin of the columns used in Port Oasis, in the government buildings of the League. These details caught the eye only because beyond them was nothing at all, just blackness. Headlights sliced circles into the dark, revealing stone walls and dusty floors pattered with mechanical feet and treads.
“Is this Troy?” Birkin dared to breathe in the quiet. The place felt like a tomb.
“No,” Scildfreja replied in her typical murmur. Her voice seemed at home here, “This is the burgeard. The castle.”
“Ah.” Birkin watched the two Trojans unsling their rifles and step into the black as if it were hostile ground.
“Do as we do.”
The Terranovans did so, raising their autocannons and prowling in behind the smaller Armigers. “Why are we…?”
The Talons activated their infrared and lowlight cameras and the scene swelled. Mechanical shapes, Autotroops of all type and description, clustered in multi-level barracks, each one connected to power banks. Smaller, boxy Autofacturers scuttled about, repairing and laying new lines. Others yet, in the far distance, cautiously dug into the stone walls of the expanse, digging out new warrens for more machines. Hundreds of them. Thousands of them. Racks of missiles waited, nearly invisible even under the powerful sensors of the Talons. Storehouses of bullets, massive banks of charging batteries. Looming monsters of metal huddled in the distance, only glimpses of them visible behind the insectile maze of machinery. Drones the size of tanks, bearing railguns on their backs. Drones the size of dawgs, studded with gleaming metal spikes and protected by segmented armour. Row upon row of Sleca-clones, hung from suspended frames, sleeping and dreaming of their next battle.
The closer Autos woke, and two dozen mechanical eyes turned to face the intruders. Machines raised their rifles, charged Tesla coils, braced to strike. It was as if they did not know their masters, or that they hadn’t recognized the two Utopians and only saw the vaguely battle-frame-like outline of the Gears.
“Don’t shoot them. But don’t lower your weapon.” Caelin hissed.
“What? Aren’t they yours?” Detro asked. None of the Talons were even considering lowering their weapons as the Autos surged forward. They pressed close enough that the Mekong man could have reached out with his Gear to grapple with them if he had wanted. A whining particle accelerator was pointed directly at his vehicle’s torso, right where he sat. Even the Gear’s Faraday cage would not protect him.
“Yes. Just don’t.”
The two Utopians pressed forwards into the silent mass of machines. It almost seemed remarkable that the drones gave way for the two, allowing them to pass but always keeping close, threatening with impending destruction. What seemed just as noteworthy was that the Autos outright ignored Scildfreja’s pet Auto, Sleca.
They made slow progress. Caelin explained as they walked, his rifle almost permanently in the face of a large crablike monstrosity that dwarfed him. “They’re trained to intercept anything that comes through here. And they’re trained to be aggressive. Anyone who captured one of our Armigers and snuck in with one of our access codes, even if they were disguised they wouldn’t know to do this. They’ll disable you if you put your weapon down.”
“How do they know we aren’t invaders?” Tynes asked as he bullied down a pair of spider-Autos, each one armed with spinning chain guns.
“We added you to the IDF codes on the way down. The cameras in the shaft.”
The Talons pressed on, each step only grudgingly given by the Trojan army, as if they were really battling for it. Now that the place was moving, even if it wasn’t living movement, it seemed to break the tomblike stillness of the place. It was replaced with the tension of dozens of threatening robots swarming around the Talons, but that was battle stress and something they could deal with. They joked, or commented to one another on the types of machines that were variously threatening them with dismemberment or incineration. They watched the passage they were taking, which was not a straight line but moved, left and right, winding through robot-town. No lights, no heaters, nothing to support a living thing; everything to support machines. And there were a great many machines. They only saw a segment of the Trojan army in their passing, but that segment seemed large enough to let Troy stand its own against any Terranovan City-State. Always waking. Always watchful. Always obedient. They were perfect soldiers, bloodless meat for the grinder of war. Captain Tynes could still not envision a Utopian battle. The Utopians had tried, unsuccessfully, to describe them. Several times, either from Scildfreja’s subtle monotone or Caelin’s matter-of-fact baritone, he had heard descriptions of their battles and wars. He had even seen footage of a beach landing of the Second Trojan Army. But no battle. What could it be like? He could not help but think that this moment, in the black and with hundreds of the machines clustered around him, ready to kill, that this moment was his greatest clue. Being an infantryman in battle with tanks and Gears was hard enough – he had known many infantrymen in his career and sympathized with them for being the smallest, weakest and most vulnerable warriors on the field. But they knew that, within each tank and Gear was another human, just as frail and afraid as he was. To be a Utopian, surrounded by invisible killers, machines that knew neither passion nor fear nor any other emotion – to be an infantryman surrounded by *this*. That was the heart of a Utopian battle – terrible fear. Make the enemy’s Auto handlers so afraid for their lives that they abandoned the field. No wonder the Trojans were able to stop an entire planet cold, deadlock the whole Terran-Steelgate Alliance for years. Their active camouflage let them appear where they liked and disappear when it suited them. To a vulnerable, emotional human being, the idea of being attacked anywhere, from any angle, by hulking and dispassionate murderers such as these Autos – It was no wonder indeed.
The Utopians were leading the Talons to a wall; the Autos parted like a metal sea once they had gotten close enough. They waited quietly; Scildfreja hummed a tune under her breath. With nothing left to do and the Utopians having decided to take a break, Lang Marshall scanned. He had been scanning the whole way, collecting images of Autos as if they were soccer cards. He had amassed quite a collection in the ten minute traverse and was torn between gloating over the multispectral images and continuing to collect more data. He settled for doing both. His onboard computer sorted between different chassis styles while he cackled over the new scans, the battery frames that powered the machines, the cameras mounted in hidden crevasses, the smooth walls. Though, they were not entirely smooth. Not only had he caught occasional indentations and surface details which would have been missed otherwise, he caught something in front of them. Some oddity in the wall itself.
“What are we waiting for?” Birkin asked.
“For them to recognize us.” Caelin responded. Scildfreja was still humming. It was a cheerful tune, and she could hold a note if she wanted.
“What d’you mean? Is this some checkpoint, or-“
Birkin was caught off guard as the wall shivered and shifted in the by-now telltale sign of the Trojan cloak. They had been standing in front of a gateway. Marshall cackled in glee, “Ha! That’s what it looks like!” He had caught some crucial clue in identifying the camouflage as it fell away. His mind worked in a surge as he struggled to understand how the system worked, and didn’t notice the gateway opening, didn’t notice how thick the doors were. He noticed enough to follow along with the others into the spacious elevator car. Smaller than the ramp from above, but just big enough to hold everyone. He also noticed when lights turned on, as he winced for the brief moment his Gear needed to switch off of lowlight cameras. Then he was back in, submerged beneath the waters of mathematics. The Talons went down again, but not as far. This elevator car was enclosed and it was noisy; it went straight downwards. Jets in the side of the car sprayed out a fine mist that coated everything, and then powerful air blowers sprayed vigorously, sucking away everything that might have been on the surface of the Gears or Armigers. Soft blue-white light shined down upon them as their descent came to a stop. Scildfreja was still humming.
The doors opened of their own volition after a pregnant pause, and the cavern on the opposite side could barely be called a cavern at all. It was the same glittering black stone but now carved and detailed, held aloft by intricate pillars, separated by rooms, adorned with embroidered banners. Gold fittings and sconces held warm lights that radiated to the ceiling and filled the hall with a radiant glow. They illuminated the Armiger suits hung open and waiting for occupants, lit up the several smaller Autos that walked mantis-like amongst the pillars, carrying crates and cargo about. It lit the cluster of Trojans, more than a dozen but no more than two, who waited at the gateway. Young and old stood together, cloaks and robes and togas covering their armour, each adorned with the cog and compass that Caelin and Scildfreja wore. Scildfreja tore off her helmet and bounded forward on her Armiger’s springlike feet, laughing as she was embraced by two and welcomed by more. Caelin was more reserved, and simply removed his helmet. The smiles they both wore were the biggest that the Terranovans had ever seen upon them.
Captain Tynes cleared his throat, and Caelin smirked. “You can park over there, Captain.” So the Talons dismounted, aware of the dozen eyes upon them – the others were too busy talking with overwhelming speed to Scildfreja, who was on the verge of being bowled over by their rate of fire. The hall seemed bigger when the Talons were on the ground, no doubt by the change in perspective to three meters downwards. Tynes almost expected there to be roaring fires in fireplaces with the appearance of the place. When Scildfreja called the above chamber the Castle, no doubt this could be called the Keep. The Talons approached en masse, and Caelin spoke while the Trojans fell quiet.
“Everyone, these are Terranovans. This is their leader, Captain Gabriel Tynes of Franklin Harbour. Captain, this is General Leuthere Kogmund.”
Tynes stepped forward as the General lifted a hand, and he shook it. Despite the General’s bald head and close-trimmed white beard, he still had a strong grip.
“Welcome to Troy, Terranovans.” The others in the group echoed their commander, their jubilant mood smoothing out immediately. “You’ve come a long way. Let us show you to your apartments.”
That was it; no pomp and ceremony. Caelin and Scildfreja went off to alcoves within the hall; theirs had been separated by black drapes during their absence. They took down these banners with obvious relief and settled inside to remove their armour and stretch from the long journey. The Terranovans were given one of the larger bays for their own vehicles, it being hung with red drapes and filled with batteries, repair tools, hosts and winches, a refrigerator, and several cushioned benches and adjoining lockers – something of a blend between a repair bay and an executive waiting room. When they had locked their vehicles down and had an opportunity to drink some water and relieve themselves, the General himself led the group deeper into the hall. Still no fanfare or tradition, the eighty-cycle-old man took them through a pair of doors and another elevator, this one smaller than the previous and much smaller than the first, deeper still into the earth. It was made of brass and steel and fitted with black stone fittings in a manner that could only be described as opulent. Xochitl had been expecting a bunker buried in the earth. Even though Scildfreja had told her about the Deep City, privately and in public, Delgado had still assumed it would seem somewhat austere, like a bomb shelter that had been overgrown. Cement and rebar. Nothing like this. She ran her hand along the black rock handrail, watching it glitter under the soft light. Tynes and the General were talking, but she wasn’t paying attention to them.
The doors opened and light – sunlight? – flooded into the elevator. Delgado squinted as her eyes adjusted. The first thing she could see was a sea of green in front of her. Broad leafed plants in a rectangular plot beside the marble sidewalk that led from the elevator. Dark-walled buildings rested between lush gardens and broad-reaching trees, and not a vehicle in sight. Autos, yes, though none as big as the lumbering military machines above. She could feel a cool breeze rush across her face, and could smell an unfamiliar and bracing smell – the ocean, something she had never known until coming to this planet.
They were in a dome. The elevator was part of a central shaft that pierced the sky, a shaft that was ringed at the top with bright and various lights and was terraced with hanging plants all the way downwards. The ground of the dome was sloped upwards in terraces as well, steep near the walls and gentle near the centre. The whole thing was braced with only a few spars and buttresses, but they were of such substantial girth that there seemed no question that the city would survive whatever dangers passed above. It was much smaller than they had supposed it to be. Troy was a town within a stone bubble, not a massive City-State as they had surmised. Roland surreptitiously pointed out a few armoured portals leading out of the sides of the dome, however; it was clear that even this was not the whole of Troy. General Kogmund let them gawk and marvel at the city without comment as he led them along a stone sidewalk lined on either side with white-limbed trees, similar to those they had seen in Greenway.
The Trojans lived calmly here. Only the lifelong soldiers amongst the Talons could tell that this was a city at war, and one that had been at war for a long time now. They dressed in the loose togas that Caelin and Scildfreja had at times draped over their body suits, and they often walked barefoot. Autos attended them, small insectile things that carried goods or simply followed like attentive puppies. They were all armed, as well, some with pistols and most with knives or the shock maces that the Talons had seen used to great effect. And they were all busy, talking in groups or waving their hands in the air, directing holograms that only they could see. All of them directors. It reminded Birkin a little of a Republican political retreat he had played bodyguard for, once. Men and women all comfortable in their heavy responsibility and acting with ease upon it. The Utopians stopped in their discussions when they saw the Talons pass by, watching the dark-skinned foreigners ascend stone steps into the higher reaches of the terraces.
The apartments were small but more pleasant than anything the Talons had enjoyed, especially on a mission. Each one made of the same dark stone that dominated the geology here, fitted with gold and brass and creamy marble fittings, hung with velvet tapestry and furnished with simple but comfortable furniture. The closets were half full with clothing, things to blend in with the city at large. The beds were plush and comfortable, though odd to the Terranovan eye – they looked more like couches, or broad benches with a back upon one side. Even individual bathrooms with showers – showers! – and as much water as you could ask for. Each little apartment adjoined a small ring courtyard where an electric stove and oven were found, open air, and food was stored. Plants grew about them all, wherever they could be planted, and many of them bearing fruit or full with grain. Artificial sunlight, carefully tuned to seem like the real thing, made it seem as if the sun was setting – light rings along the central spire went dark, while lower ones lit up, more orange and yellow than those before, to emulate the light of a setting sun. Artificial, yes, but beautiful all the same. Perhaps the name Utopia *was* appropriate.
The Talons were given a little time to settle themselves, wash, and relax before they would be greeted by the City Council – General Kogmund asked that they stay within their enclosure until then, just as much to avoid unsettling the locals as for security reasons. A single unarmed Auto was left at the steps to the cluster of apartments, as much a show of good faith as they were going to get from the departing General. Once he was gone, the sound of the City itself became more apparent. Through the trees and past the stone walls of the buildings, the Terranovans could hear laughing, music – not recorded music, but actual instruments being played – and the distinct sound of heated discussion. The sizzle of cooking food and the pungent aroma of foreign spices came along with them. A living, undefeated city – the only truly free one left on the planet, more than likely. It was reassuring. The people here were confident enough, sure enough, to live without panic, even now. They seemed to be hiding, biding their time for the right moment, preparing with easy certainty in their eventual victory. As if the Terran Empire was not right on their doorsteps.