I wake up with a cough and a snort, as something very pungent interferes with my already ragged breathing. Cleve is crouched over me, looking very worried. Corazon looks down as well from her full height. I realize I must have passed out. Thankfully, all I’m feeling from my leg now is the standard dull ache. I push myself up to sitting, blinking my eyes as I try to match the dull world I see now with the glowing splendor of moments ago. Maybe the difference is because the suns are lower or because I’m down on the ground. “We need to stop here,” I say. “If we’re clear enough from the miasma, that is. We should just set up camp.”
Cleve doesn’t disagree. “Did you hit your head?” he asks.
“I’m on the ground. I assume my head hit it,” I reply.
Corazon crouches down on my other side and looks me over. “You look okay. Did you gash up your leg?”
“A wolf beetle gashed up my leg,” I tell her. I hitch up my trouser leg and unwrap the bandages from yesterday, worried that I will find angry red lines of inflammation coming from the wound. The gash looks a bit better than it did when Cleve originally dressed it. It’s still quite fresh, though, unlike all the old scars stretched by growth spurts.
“This was a wolf beetle bite?” Corazon asks. She sounds surprised. “That’s definitely bigger than what the wolf beetles I know could do.”
“We told you how big they were!” I raise a hand, indicating the height.
“Yeah, and I didn’t believe you,” Corazon admits. “I thought you just didn’t remember how big they were exactly.” In her experience they have little mandibles and big tongues, the latter of which they use to lick their fur clean.
“Maybe it’s not the same thing, what we encountered,” Cleve says. “Maybe these were bear beetles,” he says. “Bigger and more dangerous.”
“Mammoth beetles?” I suggest. Our laughter dissolves into coughing fits.
That’s the end of the excitement for the day. Cleve sets up camp, and we take watches. Corazon’s more concerned about miasma moving in than she is about any sort of attack. Cleve seems worried about everything: walking plants, terrorizing HR department heads… all the threats of Chiron. Fortunately, everything stays away from us, and when morning breaks, our way forward remains clear. We’re all still wheezing, but at least our coughing has died down. Cleve takes a stab at improving our masks through some kind of activated charcoal-based approach. I’m not sure what all went into that, but he seems more confident when he’s finished.
We resume our trek. Here on the other side of the pass, the biome seems much the same as where our module landed. If these blues and greens are any different from the ones there, my eyes cannot discern it. And of course, there is still xenofungus, though nothing so distinct as what I saw—or thought I saw?—when I looked at the region from higher up yesterday. Up one of the hillsides nearby, there’s a patch of sparser growth, as though the continuous flow has been cut. I point it out to Corazon and ask her, “Is that what the fungicide does?”
Corazon squints. “What? Where are you pointing?” She’s not questioning me, she just can’t visually pick out the difference. She’s worried, too. “The Morgan folks weren’t supposed to be over here already. Do you think they’re here? Right now?”
“Maybe Data Haven has its own fungus-killing stuff, if it’s such an important thing for settlements to have,” I suggest.
That sounds reasonable to Corazon, enough that she stops worrying about Morgan for now. “Yeah, you can’t live outside long-term,” she says. “You hear about people who try it, but they don’t last.”
“Do you guys hear that?” Cleve intrudes into our conversation. There’s a low-level machine humming, something like a droning AC unit or fridge. “It’s coming from that way.” He indicates the same direction I was pointing a moment ago.
“That’s where the fungus looks thinner to me,” I volunteer. “If you hear machinery, that means people. We should go in the direction of people, right?” I look to Corazon, but she has no more specifics on our destination. All she knows is that Data Haven is around here somewhere. Cleve agrees we should head that way, though he prefers we go as quietly as we can, just in case.
Corazon has previously advised me that my xenofungus boutonniere would not be welcome in a dome. I take a look at it now. In just one day, it had grown small roots, and that was before we passed through thick miasma. I try to pull it off to assess the roots now, but it is latched on too tightly. The little bit of tugging I do tears the threads around the small thorns, enough that I give up in the interests of not further damaging my blazer lapel.
We close the distance to the appropriate hill and head up it. There’s no obvious trail and still just as much of the larger blue-green fungus shrubs and undergrowth, but the xenofungus is thinner. Cleve leads us by ear. We reach our goal just a moment too late. An elevator car is disappearing downwards, sinking into the ground and leaving us here alone. That was definitely Earth technology, a normal-looking metal elevator car, though one that must be operated from below rather than from a cable above. The shaft it vanished into is now well-concealed by a sliding cover of moss and fungus.
Cleve points where the elevator used to be. “Is this what you expect?” he asks Corazon.
“Yeah, that sounds like people to me!” she says eagerly. “But I’ve never been to Data Haven, so I don’t know. I just have the pass phrase.”
“Well, does this seem like Morgan?” Cleve asks, considering that the likely alternative.
Corazon mulls that over. “No, his style would be more ostentatious. He would want people to know it was there. He’d put up signs saying no trespassing.”
I start poking my cane around at the ground, trying to hit it against something metal that can give us a starting place. An intercom, an up button, whatever. I just want to be able to knock at their front door. Near the elevator, but not exactly where it was, my efforts are rewarded by the appearance of a small terminal. It pops up from the ground, and Corazon congratulates me, “Good spot, Mariah! I would not have found that!” I sweep my arm out in a welcoming gesture for her to step up to the keyboard next to me and try it.
Corazon trusts us enough now that she doesn’t try to hide what she is doing as she inputs her pass phrase. She starts typing but then immediately pauses, lips twisted in displeasure. “This is really weird,” she says. The characters she types do not correspond to what appears on the screen. And inconsistently, too: the same key does not always produce the same wrong letter. Cleve glances over at us, then shakes his head with a wry smile. I hear a quiet chuckle from him as he turns his attention back to our surroundings. He moves a little higher up the hillside than we are, where the foliage is denser, and scans the area for threats.
“Maybe that’s just to obfuscate the screen so that an observer doesn’t know what you’re typing,” I suggest. “Can you just touch-type the pass phrase and see if it works regardless of what shows up?”
“That’s a good idea,” Corazon mutters under her breath as she deletes her previous entries and then tries this new approach. Suddenly, the screen goes blank, and then green characters start waterfalling down it. Corazon curses, unable to get the keyboard to respond at all now. She turns to me. “I don’t know what we did,” she grumbles.
I understand her frustration. To be so close to people, but to have just missed them and now be stymied by the very entrance…. Well, at least we know where they are, since we caught a brief glimpse. “What were those people doing up here, anyway?” I mutter, looking helplessly at the screen.