The Pillars of Idrapha
by Geoff Lichy
Copyright © 2015 Geoff Lichy
This story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales, is purely coincidental.
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Image credit: NASA Ames/JPL-Caltech (Kepler-62f)
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This ebook was last revised on 26 December 2015
No one could explain the pillars.
Vast, insurmountable, impossibly built; so tall they seemed to curve into the luminescent night sky, the two pillars were taller than any tree known to exist in human history.
Carl Rosenburg had been trying to take a sample of the southern pillar’s material for almost six hours now. It defied all man-made tools for cutting and crushing, which was unfortunate. There was no way for him to bring his equipment to the pillars – they would hardly fit under a microscope, for one. The man hesitated as he raised the new diamond saw to shoulder height, afraid that he would ruin it like the ancient model he’d owned for over a decade. Days had passed without progress and frustration was building.
The team for the northern pillar, led by doctor Priya Solanki, wasn’t faring much better. No samples, no successful chemical tests – nothing. There was no way to find out what the pillars were made of, or anything pertaining to their history. No inscriptions, no seams, no tool marks. Smooth with no markings.
The pillars stood almost exactly two hundred yards away from each other. Over two dozen men and women surrounded each, all working feverishly to uncover their secrets. They were measuring the terrain, taking soil samples, snapping pictures, and doing general investigations of the area. All aspects were under consideration and examined. The Natostra, the ship that brought Carl’s team here, was doing orbital mapping from outside the upper limits of the atmosphere. At the moment, few people cared what else was on the planet; the pillars were everything. Unlike the great wall of China, you could spot them from space at the correct angle. This had to be the spot to make base camp. Such an amazing archaeological find had drawn them all, like shards of metal to a magnet, to this spot and this spot alone. Members of military were ensuring that the planet was safe to stay on, setting up perimeters and looking for anything that might be even the slightest danger. No one had landed on the exoplanet before and anything could happen. However, it was definitely a lucky break that the atmosphere was similar to Earth’s. No need for bulky breathing equipment, although frequent breaks were necessary. The air was thinner and gravity was stronger than Earth’s. Not by much, but enough to feel a difference and hasten exhaustion.
Carl turned on the diamond saw and its teeth immediately snapped upon contact with the pillar. He sighed; there was only one tool left to try now, and it would take a while to set up. The small laser cutters weren’t going to do much, if anything, so that left that large one. He called over his team to help set it up, but noticed a sudden flurry of activity by one of the domes. Carl paused for a moment; he almost didn’t see it, but the steady stream of activity always went uninterrupted so this was unusual. He waved an arm in the direction of the nearest intern. “Hilary, can you check on what that hubbub is about?”
Several minutes later, the woman returned. “They say one of the ships isn’t responding to any communications. Someone’s putting together a team to investigate, since the most recent shuttle to land is still here.”
The scientist stopped working and straightened up. “It isn’t the Natostra, is it?”
“No sir, I believe they said Giubilo.”
“Hm. Well, it’s very unusual for this sort of thing to happen. Unheard of, actually. I think I’ll want to take a look as well – here, hold this. I’m going to talk to the organization head. They may need some doctors and scientists up there in case of technical malfunction or injury. A couple of people from each research ship will make a balanced team, since there aren’t too many of us here.”
The short walk was a pleasant break from almost non-stop work on the pillars. Although the planet didn’t have an official name, it was often referred to as Zarmina. A thin layer of ice covered the majority of the planet, petering out in a wide area around its equator. This ice-free region was where all attention was. The pillars rested on a short flat plateau with only grass and a scattering of weeds, and it was easy to see that the immediate area wasn’t dangerous. Not far from the plateau, though, laid a dense thicket of coniferous trees. The vegetation was similar to what one would find in North America, around the former border of the United States and Canada. From the plateau, mountains and trees stretched in every direction. The planet was rocky and thought to be iron-based, with expansive forests and mild winds. The mountains were not the jagged teeth of some other planets; rather, they were more muted. Worn with time, they had eroded into almost gentle slopes. Yet each still stood magnificent and tall, with innumerable plateaus dividing many. The trees were dark and stout things reminiscent of various evergreens. Some scientists were more excited over these than the mighty pillars. Actual vegetation on a planet, a mere twenty light-years away in our own galaxy, and flourishing under the light of a red dwarf star. The Natostra had reported finding an ocean far to the east but human eyes had yet to witness liquid water.
The international organization head was set up in a large white tent which was almost pink under the alien sun. They instantly rejected Carl’s presence, referring him instead to the small military headquarters fifty yards away. Two soldiers stood guard outside, and greeted Carl with a fair amount of warmth.
“Afternoon, Doctor Rosenburg. Is there something we can help with?”
“Maybe! I heard the Giubilo was having problems, and thought I’d offer my skills.”
The soldier shook her head. “I’m sorry, sir. We’ve had a lot of offers but won’t be risking any of the surface personnel. General Kolst is sending a team up in a short-range shuttle. Just our people, and only to take a quick look.”
“You don’t think it’s anything serious?” Carl frowned.
“No. Probably temporary equipment malfunction. I mean sure, it’s unlikely, but no one can prepare for everything. Don’t worry about it. The pillars are more interesting anyway, aren’t they?”
“Fascinating. But stubborn so far.” Carl’s disappointment became palpable with the conclusion of his short investigation. He said goodbye and headed back to his makeshift laboratory.
The Giubilo remained in silent orbit. A small shuttle approached, its crew possessing remote equipment to operate the frigate’s hangars. A technician on the planet surface provided the necessary codes and frequencies. One of the few safeguards present in the case of a communication breakdown such as this.
Eventually the craft’s speakers crackled to life. “We’re docked. Hangar three re-pressurizing. Doors opening in five minutes.”
“Listen up, everyone,” Kolst commanded, emerging from the cockpit. “Halyard, you and your team will check for crew members and their families. First priority is to verify that everyone is safe and sound. I will head for the bridge and speak with the captain. From there we’ll try to figure out what happened. If needed. Understood?” Nods of assent came from all as they unbuckled seatbelts and prepared to leave the shuttle.
The team of six had specific instructions on where to go and had a digital map to lead them to each designated location. No one expected that they would be staying long. Perhaps a few hours at most. General Kolst would take the pilot with him, as a security precaution. A two-star general wouldn’t just walk around by himself.
If the ship’s problems were due to equipment failure, there would still be people around. Instead there was a thick uneasy stillness. The only sounds were soft footsteps echoing under dim yellow-white lights.
One floor up was the first goal. The team didn’t meet a single person on their way to the door.
“Sweeping first area… beginning now. Section 7A.” Halyard tapped the proper code into a keypad, and the door whisked open. He motioned for Callia to cover it, waited for her to move into position, and faced the door with his rifle held high. The room was half-lit and looked like a mess. Many of the working lights were flickering. “Decimus, check the power panels. Everyone else, sweep. You find something, give a shout.” The team moved into the room, which appeared to be a cafeteria. The investigation didn’t take long, since visibility was more or less unobstructed.
“Blood over here,” Elspeth called out. “Pretty hefty amount. Four, maybe five dead by my estimate – no bodies.”
Halyard walked over to take a look. “Trail of blood leads into section 8A. Callia, get a name and schematics for it before we move in. Is this blood the only significant find for the cafeteria?”
“Yes sir,” she said. “Nothing else so far.”
“This place is a mess, clear signs of a struggle, but nothing interesting. Maybe a couple of tables are missing,” Fergus observed.
“Some of the power panels were shot, from the looks of things,” Decimus said. “Whatever happened here, it wasn’t too pretty.”
“Kitchen?” Halyard asked.
“Negative,” Jean said. “As far as interest goes, anyway. We should follow the trail of blood, in my opinion.”
Halyard nodded. “Callia?”
“Section 8A is the… kid’s section. A play area, a general living area, and from that area it branches out to a few rooms. Bedrooms.”
A moment of silence fell. “Move out. Same formation as before,” Halyard ordered. The group checked their weapons and headed to the door. Callia faced it, gun up, and Halyard paused for a moment before entering the code. A few bloody fingerprints decorated the keypad.
Callia nodded at him to move forward, and he did. The lighting was even worse than section 7A. Halyard clicked on his gun light and panned around the room, noting no immediate threats. He motioned for the rest of the squad, only speaking two words: “as before.” Decimus fiddled with some things in a nearby power panel and more lights blared to life, illuminating the grim landscape. Toys and furniture littered the visible areas, and the back – near the bedrooms – was completely blocked off. Someone had created an unsteady-looking barricade with one slit that might have been an entrance, and the trail of blood from 7A led there.
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In the distant future, the people of Earth have built spaceships to explore the universe. The accidental discovery of a potentially habitable planet reveals the existence of two mysterious pillars. While investigating the pillars, something goes wrong. One of the orbiting ships has gone silent, and no one knows why. No distress beacons; no escape pods; nothing. It's as if the crew has vanished into thin air. The Pillars is a sci-fi/horror story in the vein of franchises such as Alien, Dead Space, and Doom.