When Haldron awoke that morning, he certainly didn’t expect his day to take the turn it did. The first surprise came when he checked his messages and found one from the Chief Officer telling him to get to the mines as soon as possible. That was unusual. In all his years as a Guardian, he’d never once set foot in the mines of Chintell, nor ever expected to. The message didn’t contain much more, no reason for going there or what he was supposed to be looking for. Only that he was to report back personally to the Chief Officer and the General Secretary when he was done. Haldron couldn’t begin to guess at why this had been sent to him but nevertheless did as he was told. It came from the Chief Officer, so it must be important.
He continued to ponder what awaited him as he put on his uniform. The navy, long-sleeved tunic and matching trousers fit just as well now as the day he first put them on. Sewn on the upper sleeves were the three yellow stripes to denote the rank of Guardian Senior Three. He’d given his life to the defence of his home city, his dark brown fur rapidly turning to silvery grey. After putting on his boots and the black belt with the holster that contained his service pistol, Haldron departed his quarters to fulfil the Chief Officer’s orders.
The message said to get to the mines as soon as possible but it never specified he was to go there alone. He might need help with whatever he was meant to be doing there, and Haldron had never been one to take chances. Before he left City Defence Installation 14, he paid a visit to the bunkhouse that was home to the rest of his team. He found them as he usually did, relaxed in their bunks, laughing and joking. They were more than comrades; they were brothers, a family within a family. Never did he feel more at home than when he was listening to their banter.
Kallem emerged from the bathroom as he entered. “Haldron. How are you”? Everyone else jumped to their feet at the arrival of their commander.
“Just fine, Kallem. “Yourself”?
“Great. Just itching to get back out there”.
“I’m sure we all are. Can I have everyone’s attention? I have some news”. The group fell in around him. There were seven including him: Benellen, Rowtenat, Erdam, Rohbalt, Cravvik, Kallem and Torben.
“What’s happening”? The group were brothers but Haldron and Benellen were even more than that. They’d known each other for years, and had been through more together than most friends could claim.
“Our patrol is postponed for the time being. This morning I received a message from the Chief Officer. I’ve been asked to go to the mines”. That drew some confused reactions.
“The mines”? Rowtenat replied incredulously.
“I know. I have no idea either”.
“He didn’t say why”? Benellen asked.
“No. Only that I’m to go there as soon as possible and report to him and the General Secretary afterwards. Benellen and Rowtenat, I want you two to come with me. Hopefully whatever this is isn’t too serious but I want you there just in case”.
“What are the rest of us supposed to do”? Cravvik asked.
“Get comfortable. Hopefully, we won’t be too long”.
They took the tramways. The entrances to the mines were on the other side of the city, deep into the bowels of the subterranean cave the Ebol capital was built inside of. All the cities of the tall, fur-covered humans known as the Ebol were built inside caverns deep beneath the mountains of Muldaenuia, the frozen continent at the human homeworld’s north pole. The oldest parts sat in the bottom, the rest cut into the walls of the cave itself. The tramways were the main method of traversing the city, a great metal skeleton around which the rest was molded. Their car was empty except for themselves and a couple of commuters on their way to the industrial sector.
“So anyone have any idea why we’re dragging our asses all the way to the mines when we should be out doing our real jobs”? Rowtenat had never been one to mince words.
“It’s like I said”, Haldron replied. “The Chief Officer didn’t tell me anything else. We’ll find out when we get there”.
“It’d be nice if he’d at least tell us what the fuck we’re supposed to be doing there”.
“Give the man a break. He’s got a lot on his mind, what with dealing with that idiot we’ve got for a General Secretary”. Like those serving under him, Haldron considered the leader of their order to be a brother, and wouldn’t hear a word against him.
The journey was largely silent save for the odd instances of small talk about family and the like. Haldron had little to say on the subject, and the others knew not to ask. It didn’t take long to get where they were going. Chintell was huge but the tramways were a very well-oiled machine. Haldron’s people had always prided themselves on the reliability of their infrastructure. The Ebol’s reputation for ingenuity was unmatched, at least among Humanity. They got off at their stop and made the rest of the way on foot. The tramways didn’t stretch all the way there since most of the workers lived close by. The walk was made in the glow of the lanterns miles above their heads, chandeliers the size of buildings built into the cavern’s ceiling. The muted rumbling of drills on rock told them they were getting near. The ground sloped and then they were looking upon the courtyard. A row of circular doors led to the tunnels that stretched beneath the city like the roots of a great tree. There were buildings for the miners and the ore brought back from the tunnels for processing. The tracks to the openings almost resembled veins in the way they overlapped and snaked around one another, quite apt considering the ore from the mines was in many ways the lifeblood of the Ebol.
Almost as soon as they passed the front gate they were approached by an older man in dark grey overalls, a foreman judging by the red and yellow patch at his left breast. “I take it you’re the people they’ve sent us”?
“It seems so. I’m Haldron Antulen, and this Benellen Corboth and Rowtenat Palgren”.
The old miner eyeballed them oddly. “You’re Guardians”?
“You are expecting us, aren’t you”?
“I was expecting them to send somebody, but not Guardians”.
“Forgive me, but this doesn’t really seem like your area of expertise”.
The more he talked the more confused Haldron felt. “What exactly do you need help with”?
The miner hesitated, wrinkled eyes flicking between the three of them. “We’ve… found something”.
Again, the miner hesitated. “I think it would be best if I showed you”.
“Alright then. Lead the way”. Something told Haldron this was going to be a very long day.
The miner nodded. “Please follow me”.
“What’s your name”?
“Krazzik. Krazzik Betran”.
He led them to the very end of the cavern. This was merely the mine’s top level. The tunnels reached miles beneath the city. The only way to reach the entrances below the main level was via elevator.
“We dragged ourselves all the way here for this”? Rowtenant grumbled as they crossed the courtyard.
The elevators were at the back of the courtyard, big bronze cages suspended over a gash in the rock. The doors opened when they neared, seemingly of their own accord. Krazzik hit a button on the console and they began their descent deep beneath the city, and even deeper beneath the mountains above. The ride was painfully slow. Rowtenat seemed to grumble the entire time. Below was lit by thousands of lanterns built into the walls, the collective glow making it seem like they were entering the core of the planet itself. The rumbling of the mining drills penetrated Haldron, like they were drilling into him instead.
He moved to Krazzik’s side. “So what exactly is it you have found”?
The miner shrugged. “To be honest, we were hoping whoever they sent would be able to tell us”.
“Why did you contact the Guardians”?
“We didn’t. We contacted the Citadel. They said they would be sending someone, and then you turned up”. Rowtenat was shaking his head though Haldron could hardly blame him. The mystery and the miner’s unhelpfulness weren’t just getting on his nerves.
“What can you tell us about it”?
Krazzik didn’t answer, looked like he was miles away. “Did you say something”?
“I said what can you tell us about it”?
Another shrug. “Not a lot. We discovered it this morning. I tell you, I’ve been working in these mines my whole life and I’ve seen some strange things down here. But this? This is something else”.
“Where did you find it”?
“In a cavern we just bored into. It’s the deepest we’ve ever drilled. That’s why we’re taking the lift. It was just standing there right at the bottom”.
“Is it still there now”?
“No. We lifted it out and moved it to another cavern where we could get a better look at it. It’s best if we don’t talk anymore until we get there. The noise, you see? I can barely hear myself think”. Rowtenat shook his head some more. Even Benellen didn’t seem to have much patience for the old man.
They did their best to get comfortable as they watched the entrances to the tunnels scroll by. Haldron spent the time trying to figure out why the Citadel would send a Guardian for something that seemed to have nothing to do with what a Guardian was supposed to do. They should have been preparing to head out on patrol, not here. He was so absorbed in his thought he almost didn’t notice the lift come to a stop.
“We’re here, though we still have quite a way to go. We’ll need to take a car”. Haldron thought he heard Rowtenat sigh.
The entrance to the tunnel loomed over them like a portal to a world of never-ending darkness. Krazzik hit a button on the console by the track and a mine car came trundling out. They boarded and strapped themselves in. Krazzik touched a button, and then they were heading toward the portal.
The pale lights lining the walls turned on just as they were about to about to be swallowed by the blackness although the end was nowhere to be seen. The car was a lot faster than the elevator. The many twists and turns made it seem like they were on a rollercoaster. Haldron knew the tunnels ran for miles below the city but he’d never truly appreciated the extent of the maze beneath their feet. They zipped past entrance after entrance to tunnels branching from the main one, all of which likely stretched just as far. He wondered how far they were from the planet’s core.
It was only a few minutes before they were slowing down, and another few before they came to a halt. Haldron had tried to count how many tunnels they’d passed, losing count at about two dozen. Without a word, Krazzik unbuckled his seat belt and stepped out of the car. The Guardians quickly followed.
“Is there much further”? Haldron asked, hoping the answer would be no.
“Not much. We still have a little walking to do”.
“This day just gets better and better”, Rowtenant mumbled as he left the car.
They headed into a tunnel that was just as wide as the one it split off from. Tracks ran along the middle for the cars that would enter empty and emerge filled to the brim with metal ore. Krazzik led them along one of the smaller walkways bolted into the wall. The clanking of their boots on the grates instantly got on Haldron’s nerves. At least when you’re patrolling transport tunnels you walked mostly on rock that didn’t clank with every step.
“How deep are we”? Benellen asked.
“About ten miles”.
The rumbling of the drills wasn’t as loud here, and Haldron wanted some answers. “Perhaps now you can tell us more about what it is we’re here for. You said it was strange. What exactly is strange about it”?
“Just about everything. What it looks like, where we found it”.
“What does it look like”?
“A block, perhaps between ten and twelve feet in height, pitch black in colour, perfect edges and geometries, surface completely untarnished. Not a single scratch or mark anywhere on it. It’s remarkable”.
Haldron couldn’t help but be intrigued. It did seem strange for something like that to be found down there though he still had no idea why it required his presence. “You said it was found at the bottom of a cavern”?
“Yes. But this was a newly entered cavern. It was the first time we drilled into it. We didn’t even know it was there. There were no other entrances, natural or manmade, and no evidence of there ever being one”.
That was puzzling. “There were no other entrances”?
“None. Before we drilled into it there was no way in there. So how did it get there? It’s obviously manmade, but how did whoever made it put it there? And why”?
This was getting stranger by the second. Haldron didn’t like strange; no Ebol did. Their kind dedicated themselves to the acquisition of knowledge. The Ebol didn’t like not knowing things. The unknown was dangerous, and the notion of something being beyond their understanding was one that made most Ebol shudder, Haldron included.
“Couldn’t whoever put it there have sealed up the entrance afterward”? Benellen asked.
“Not without leaving any trace. And like I said, we found nothing. We looked everywhere”. The further they went the more unnerved the miner seemed to get.
Haldron was stumped. He understood the old miner’s surprise at being sent three Guardians. He was right; this was far beyond their expertise. It should have been someone from the Research Sector in their place. They were supposed to be patrolling the transport tunnels that linked Chintell to the other cities on the continent, protecting the capital from Trassani raiding parties and the legions of other threats lurking beneath the mountains. They were Guardians, not archaeologists.
“What did you do with it once you got it out of the cavern”?
“Nothing. We just stood it up in the other cavern and haven’t touched it since. Nobody wants to go near it”.
“The men are frightened of it… myself included”. Something told Haldron Krazzik Betran had never admitted to being afraid of anything in his life before.
“Why is that”?
“It has a strange presence. The way it looms over you; it feels like it’s bearing down on you and… when you look at it, it almost feels as if it’s looking back”. Haldron had no idea what to say to that. What had they found?
They stopped by yet another circular door. “Here we are”. The Guardians watched as Krazzik pushed a button, and the door’s machinery sprung to life. The eerie quiet was pierced by the whirring of motors and turning of gears, forcing the guardians to clasp their hands over their ears. Krazzik didn’t seem affected in the slightest, no doubt long used to the noise. The door split into several smaller segments that disappeared into the wall with a screech that was practically deafening. Haldron held his ears so tight he felt like he might crush his own skull.
The cavern waited on the other side. Another walkway extended to the centre. Beneath it, the subterranean lake rippled with all the leisure of something not beholden to the stresses of the world above. The blue LEDs running up the walls cast a heavenly shimmer over the black water, like moonlight. The network of beams and struts to keep it all from collapsing made it seem like they were standing inside a huge birdcage.
Krazzik pointed straight out in front. “There”.
Haldron looked to where he pointed, and finally saw what had struck so much fear into the old miner and his men. It was standing at the centre of the cavern, casting its ominous presence and matching Krazzik’s description perfectly. Haldron immediately understood the miners’ unease, for he felt it too. He felt drawn to it, powerless to take his eyes away. A word had escaped Krazzik as he described it: monolith. But despite that, it was just as he said: thin, tall, and devoid of features. Its jet-black surface shone like obsidian in the paleness of the LEDs and, just as he said, when you looked at it, it did indeed feel like it was looking back.
“Have you ever seen anything like this before? On your patrols in the transport tunnels”?
Haldron gave the only answer he could. “No”.
“Do you have any idea who could have made it, or…”
“No”. Haldron didn’t mean to answer as sharply as he did, the strangeness starting to get to him as well. “I’ve never seen anything like this”.
Krazzik hung his head, disappointed. The silence descended again, and Haldron found his eyes drawn back to the object. “Well, I’m going to leave you now. No doubt you’ll want to have a closer look at it. Just follow the tunnel back to the car when you’re finished. I’ll be waiting for you there”. The old miner was gone before Haldron could say a word. The only trace of his presence were the footsteps quickly fading from existence, then there was just the faint sounds of drilling miles away.
“That was a quick getaway if I ever saw one”. Rowtenat said.
“He’s frightened”, Haldron replied.
Benellen took a step forward. “So this is what’s got them all spooked”. Haldron could never be sure what his best friend was feeling despite knowing him for so long. He’d always been a difficult one to read.
“It would seem so”. Haldron did his best to hide his nervousness. An odd feeling had come over him. The longer he stood there to stronger it became. He felt like he was being pulled toward it, like it was calling to him.
“What do you think it is”? Benellen asked.
“No idea”, Rowtenat answered with his usual blunt effect. “I think the better question is what the fuck are we doing here”?
Benellen repeated his colleague’s previous answer. “And what are we supposed to do with it”?
Haldron didn’t answer. All he could think about was laying his fingers upon its surface. Something seemed to speak to him from inside. It told him that everything would be alright if he could just lay his fingers upon it.
“Haldron”? He was snapped from his absorption to find Benellen by his side. “What do you want to do”?
It took a moment to find the words. “I’m not sure”.
“Didn’t the Chief Officer say what we were supposed to do”?
“No. Just that I was to report back to him when we’re done”.
Rowtenat stepped up beside Haldron. “Well if he didn’t say anything else, I think we’re done here. We came and saw what’s got these guys worked up. We might as well get out of here so we can get back to what we’re supposed to be doing. We shouldn’t even be here”.
He was right. They’d seen all there was to see. They were just wasting time staying any longer. But something wouldn’t let Haldron turn around and lead them back the way they’d come, eyes fixed on the object at the centre of the cavern.
“What do you think, Haldron”? Benellen asked. “Shall we get out of here”?
“Just… just hold on for a couple minutes”. Haldron started inching forward, unable to resist any longer. The feeling seemed to get stronger the nearer he got, the thoughts washed from his mind and the sounds of the mines fading into silence. He was captivated, engrossed, maybe even seduced. Something held his mind in an unbreakable grip. With every step, the grip got tighter. More and more, Haldron couldn’t escape the feeling that it was watching him, like a pair of eyes boring into him like the miners’ drills on rock. He understood why they were so frightened. He felt their fear. But something kept him from pulling away, as if under a spell.
“Haldron”? Benellen’s voice seemed muted like the distant sounds of the mines. Haldron didn’t answer, compelled only to continue. Soon it was towering over him. It was taller than Krazzik had described though the miner was right about its surface: unblemished, not a mark or indentation to be seen. It was beautiful, such a simple design and construction but with such elegance in its aesthetic. He had to touch it.
“What are you doing”? Benellen called only to go unanswered. Haldron reached out, fingers trembling. A mix of curiosity and apprehension filled him. What would happen when his fingertips met it? He could almost hear it inside, willing him forward. It told him everything would be OK if he could just reach it. It told him that all of his pain would be a distant memory.
Haldron felt a grip on his shoulder, and the spell was broken. He turned to find Benellen and Rowtenat at his back, his best friend with an expression that chilled to the bone. “What’s wrong with you”? Haldron sensed the fear in his voice. Apparently, he was being affected too.
“It was like you were in some kind of trance”, Rowtenat said.
“I said I’m fine”. Haldron turned back to the object. He wanted to touch it, to know how its surface felt and what would happen when his fingers reached it.
Benellen stepped closer. “I think we’ve seen enough here. We need to report back”. Another odd feeling blossomed within Haldron. The thought of leaving the cavern seemed to sadden him. He didn’t want to leave.
“You go. I’ll be along in a few minutes”. He started moving again, determined to touch it. He didn’t get far before he felt Benellen’s hand on his shoulder again, tighter this time.
Haldron wasn’t sure what happened next. As soon as he felt his friend’s grip anger went rushing through him in torrents. He spun around, throwing Benellen’s hand from his shoulder. “What”?!
His colleagues were taken aback, the same disturbed look in both pairs of eyes. “You should report back to the Chief Officer”, Benellen said. “Something is very wrong here”.
The intervention seemed to break whatever hold the object had over Haldron. He couldn’t believe he’d acted in such a way. Never in all his years as a Guardian had he lost his temper with a member of his squad, especially his best friend. The officers would have a field day if they heard about this. They were already looking for any excuse to get rid of him. The spell was broken. He no longer felt the desire to learn its secrets or origins. Now, something told him it should have been left well alone in that mineshaft and never disturbed. As far as he was concerned, it shouldn’t exist in the first place. His kind were the only people to inhabit the icy continent at the northernmost reaches of the human homeworld. Nothing came before. The Ebol had always been meticulous in the recording of their history. If they built it there would be a record in the archives, but it looked like nothing else they’d ever created, and why would they seal it away in a cavern so far below the city? What was the point?
Nothing about it made sense. All Haldron knew now was that he wanted to get as far away from the thing as possible. This was certainly not how he expected his day to go.