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Ashes to Ashes

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Lujain stepped from the Muramasa's ramp to the dusty ground of Triumph. The others followed behind: captain Wojtek; Nigel, their client; and the psychic alien Zoojin. She paced the foreign soil and scanned the surroundings. The sun's rays barely penetrated the thick grey clouds that cloaked the sky.

They'd landed among the rubble of the former colony. Dusty plains extended all around, barren and lifeless: a wasteland interspersed with destroyed buildings. In the distance, an elevated rail stretched across the horizon, broken at points with rubble below.

White particles drifted around them. Wojtek held out his hand, catching a falling flake on his palm. "Snow?"

"Ash," Lujain said. She slowly turned her head as she surveyed the barren landscape.

Nigel fell to his knees.

"You sure you want to see this?" Wojtek looked down at Nigel.

Nigel was silent, eyes fixed on the ruins. The memories of his former home flooded back.

Zoojin bent down and placed a hand on the surface. "The energy here is dark, but it still moves."

"The hell's that suppos't to mean?" Wojtek asked, squinting against a gust of dusty wind.

"There are survivors of the attack." Zoojin closed his eyes in intense concentration. "They are near, still on the planet."

Nigel looked towards Zoojin.

"There's no life here." Wojtek panned his head across the barren panorama of sand and rubble. "We already scanned it for bios."

"They are here." Zoojin ran his palm slowly through the dust at his feet. "Thousands of them."

"Can't be right all the time," Wojtek said. "You're wrong on this one."

"No," Zoojin said. "I see them."

"You see them?" Wojtek raised an eyebrow.

"Yes." Zoojin nodded.

"What do you see?" Nigel stood.

"They are inside somewhere," Zoojin answered. "A cave or structure of some kind. It's very dark. I see many people in a group, moving close together in a pack: old, young, men, women. Their clothes are ragged, dirty. The floor is hard and flat. So are the walls. I see a long metal hallway. It stretches further than they can walk, with no turns or bends along the length."

"The service tunnels." Nigel became suddenly animated. "The old tunnels run under the surface. They could've hidden there!"

"We didn't pick up any bio signatures." Wojtek shook his head. "Don't get your hopes up."

"If there are people hiding themselves from the robots -" Lujain turned to face Wojtek "- they'd be hidden from our scanners as well."

"The tunnels are self-contained," Nigel said. He spoke with increasing intensity. "That'd hide the bio signatures. And the service tunnels join with the original settlement buildings: terraforming facilities, recyclers, generators. They'd have everything they need."

"Even if there are survivors -" Wojtek nodded out towards the lifeless desert "- there's nothing we can do about it."

"There are more of them -" Zoojin's hands probed the surface, feeling the energy "- captured in the invasion: tens of thousands taken alive from the planet."

"They took prisoners?" Nigel's face fell. "Where are they?"

Zoojin tilted his head, eyes closed, as if straining to hear a distant sound. "Far away," he answered finally. "Some sort of catacombs, with stone walls. I feel heat. Fire. Pain."

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