The Maze of Madison: Chapter Eighteen - In Darkness UnboundsteemCreated with Sketch.

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Chapter One: So it Begins
Chapter Two: Into the Dark
Chapter Three: Confounded by a Lock of Stone
Chapter Four: The Ponderous Path Home
Chapter Five: Fleeing the Immolation
Chapter Six: Weathering the Firestorm
Chapter Seven: An Aftermath of Exhaustion and Cinders
Chapter Eight: The Bitter Cold Night That Lasted a Month
Chapter Nine: Deals with the Dav-Vel
Chapter Ten: The Dav-vel's Due
Chapter Eleven: Without a Solution
Chapter Twelve: With Potential
Chapter Thirteen
Chapter Fourteen: An Unsettled Union
Chapter Fifteen: An Unexpected Companion
Chapter Sixteen: Reset to Recycle to Retry
Chapter Seventeen: Bitter, Blackened Ashes and Gnashing Teeth

Chapter Eighteen: In Darkness Unbound

Tobias and I backed our way to Tristan and Cecilia. We were scanning the ground and walls for any larvae that might have changed their minds and wanted to take another bite at the apple. That would have been us that gotten chewed on rather than a crunchy Earther fruit. Our boosters informed us we were about to bump into our two companions, so we stopped backing up. We still stood and watched carefully for a couple minutes.

Cecilia ended that when she placed her chin on my shoulder and purred into my ear, "My savior..."

I shoved backwards with my shoulder and she danced back and laughed the whole way. In this deadly serious moment, she still found a way to get under my skin.

I ground my teeth and glared when I turned around. Tobias turned to us, grimaced and shook his head. He had an exasperated look on his face that seemed to say 'this is sure going to be a long trip.' I had to admit I was glad he was starting to come around to my point of view. Tristan looked far, far too amused, at least for him.

Tobias and I tinked back and forth for a whole hot second. We agreed I'd take the lead, Tristan next, Cecilia after and Tobias bringing up the rear. The two of us were more experienced in the wilds of Madison. That's actually funny, considering how young we were and how little time anyone had actually been on Madison, really. However, it was all relative: we had been out and exploring past the walls of the settlement far, far earlier than almost anyone else our age. Only the professional explorers of the Space Force's Explorer Corps and the Department of Extrasolar Affairs had more on Madison, to be honest.

We moved through the modest beginning of the maze. We were cautious and moved slow. There was no knowing what had taken refuge in the cave from the apocalypse outside. Just because the ecology, the planet, as a whole went did a full on phoenix, that didn't mean some animals hadn't decided to nope out of the flames and death. And some of the critters on Madison were huge. With no sentient hunters to cull the largest animals from the world, carnivores and otherwise, there were numerous creatures far, far bigger than even an elephant on Earth.

One funny bit that science teachers and our AI tutors kept emphasizing: life on other worlds didn't always fit our definitions. Plants, animals, fungus, algae, bacteria. These were categories humans made based on our experiences we had on Earth. Those were categories life had evolved. There were often analogues of them on other worlds, especially ones people lived on. However, extrasolar life didn't always fit. Most autotrophs - life that produced their food for themselves from their stars or otherwise - were 'plants.' Immobile. Had things that were roughly leaves. Had different sizes. etc. However, on Eurynome, another American world named when classical references were the thing rather than patriotic conventions like, oh say, Madison, there were 'plants' that moved like boats with sails and ribbon-like hydrostatic powered 'tails' so they could swim to follow the light from their sun. They even had dart shaped - roughly - parasite plants that swarmed and swam to try to burrow their way into the 'hulls' of the boat-plants. Once burrowed, they grew roots and acting like a parasitic plant in every way. Even blooming. None of the life on Eurynome, at least until people came, had anything like a muscle. Yet, they still moved. Were those plants? Or animals? Really, they were neither. People just categorize things to make it easier to organize and then to communicate that information to others. New categories were needed. We were too new to the worlds beyond earth for language to have caught up.

When we reached the bridge, we did see something that had fled the fires, but unfortunately for it, though quite the opposite for us, it had fallen into the stream and died. Blind and alone, darkness wrapped, its life had seeped away. In a panic, running from death and excruciating pain from flame, this great beast had run unseeing, just to die from a modest fall. While we stopped and watched before crossing the bridge to be sure, we smelled the rot had already taken it. Small lifeforms scuttled over its carcass. Cave dwellers with their own morbid feast. Death fed life, but sometimes it was queasy to watch. And the stench. oy.

We crossed the bridge carefully. One at a time. Tristan's exosuit was heavy and we were worried if we all crossed at once, our combined weights would be too much for the petrified structure. First me, then Tristan, then Cecilia in all her infuriating early teenagerhood, and then Tobias. the structure held and its creators probably would have been bemused at our caution. Bold caution was the definite frame of mind for what we were doing though.

Then, at last, we made it to the door and the lock.

Tobias turned to watch behind, on the off chance one of the cave dwellers decided to see if human tasted better than the fallen bathat beast. Also just in case something else, something we had not seen, nor sensed had snuck in behind us or hidden elsewhere in the cavern. Bold caution, bold caution, through and through.

I watched Tristan and watched the door. If it opened, who knew what was behind it. What was waiting for us. What could have lain hidden for who knows how long. The door seemed ancient, but seeming age could have been faked. Or it could have been so old Madison was young when it was created and some alien, godlike technology had kept the mountain safe and sound. And it would have taken god like power. Power far beyond what mere humans, even humans of the 22nd century, could have wielded.

Tristan stepped forward. Cecilia stepped back. Tobias and I stood firm.

Tristan's robo arms reached out and paused just above the surface. I looked at Tristan for a moment, to see his face, to know his feelings and sense his mood. There was a look of ecstasy, happiness so deep and fundamental, like I had never seen on him before. It made me smile. If we found nothing, even if we were majorly, significantly busted by the adults back home, this adventure was worth it to see Tristan's joy.

I glanced back at Cecilia for a moment and saw Cecilia saw it, too. A tear trickled down her face and a gentle smile touched her lips. She didn't see me looking at her right then and in that moment I actually felt some empathy for her: she loved her adoptive brother, quirks and all. Maybe she wasn't so bad after all.

Then she saw me watching her and she winked then and blew me a kiss. Then again, maybe she was an obnoxious, infuriating person after all! Frustration flowed through me like some magic and I rolled my eyes in exasperation.

Tristan's robo arms touched the surface of the stone puzzle, the manipulators caressed the surface for a moment. Then they became a blur. The rings were moved. The pieces slide. The puzzle solved. Everything was as it ought to be. Yet...nothing happened.

We waited.

We watched.

We were dumbfounded.

Tristan's joy turned to shock to frustration.

Then Cecilia stepped forward and placed one hand on the middle of the concentric rings and pushed.

And the door opened.

Or rather an impressive layered set of doors gave way. Each ring was another layer pulling back and to the side. What seemed like a normal double door was anything but. There was no sign nor seem that gave away what the door had been has it swung back in pieces, some seemingly floating back.

To give way.

To show us.

A passage.

Black as pitch.

I had my gun raised in caution.

I took a step forward.

Only for Cecilia to skip her way into the darkness.

Well, as much as you can skip in a mech suit.

That girl...

I grimaced, groaned and as gracefully as I could glided after her.

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