They were almost completely without natural light now as the Darkside lived up to its name, entering its long two weeks of night. The journey from the Qentiga to the facility took nearly four hours, although by the time they reached it, even the newbies were managing a respectable pace.
Personally, Nick couldn't decide if he was glad for the sedate journey or not. He was still sore as hell and didn't feel up to much, but spending this long in an unrated suit made him nervous. He kept the suit heater as low as he could bear, fearing a suit fire from the improvised wiring. He kept imagining he smelled burnt electrics. Despite keeping the heater low enough to make his fingers numb, he was still sweating.
Even up close, the facility blended in with the moonscape so well that the only thing that made it stand out was its low convex shape. It looked like a reverse crater. It was a singularly uninteresting structure - just plate after plate of unmarked moon-grey silksteel under their torchlight. Nick thought this was odd, since most companies slathered their colours and logos over their equipment with pathological fervour. What was it the Courtenay woman had called it? Brand identity. Yeah. No brand identity out here. Nick began to wish he'd turned his EyeSpy on before they'd set out, even if it would wreck his eyeballs.
A minute later, Captain Sumner's voice cut through the quiet snow of the short wave radio frequency their suits were tuned to, "Any idea what this place is for, Miz Courtenay?"
"No. Well - Darkside is mostly R&D - but I don't know if this is a lab or a water tank. I'm sorry."
"Let's hope it's the former," said Sumner, leading them around its circumference in the slow, skipping 'walk' the gravity imposed.
They found a doorway a third of the way around the facility. This too bore no logo or even any indication of what type of door it was. Executive Courtenay came forward to jack her suit into the door's control and a small console unfolded from the panel a moment later. The rest of them gathered around her in a semi-circle.
After a few minutes of watching Courtenay fiddle with the door console, Nick asked, "Are you getting anywhere with that?"
"Shut up, Mitcham," said Sumner.
Nick looked at her, but couldn't see her expression through her faceplate in the dark, "You forgot the 'mister' that time, Sumner."
She turned slightly towards him, but said nothing. Nick had time to reflect that even through a faceplate, she was pretty good at stare-downs. Then a light started flashing orange on the panel and the door opened upon an airlock.
They trooped inside, turning off torches as the airlock lights flickered on. Captain Sumner checked that they were all in, then started the cycle. While the pressure readout counted upwards, a message scrolled across screens upon each wall of the lock.
Maintain suit integrity - decontamination ahead. Do not open suit seals - decontamination ahead.
Nick pulled his hand away from a seal, where he had been primed to open his suit enough to get at his datapad and turn his EyeSpy on. They'd try to wipe his footage when they got back to Earth, of course, but he was a professional - he had ways of hiding copies. He glanced around and saw Sumner staring at him again - her frown visible under the lock lights this time. He gave her a smile. He hoped he could manage to stay at the rear on the way back so that he could ditch the signal booster he'd retrieved from the cargo bay while helping to relocate the bodies.
When the pressure equalised, the inner door opened. Animated markers on the walls pointed them onwards while the decontamination warning kept scrolling above them. At first Nick thought they were being ushered into a dustlock, but it was much more than that. After the air blast to vacuum away dust, they were jet-hosed with a pale blue liquid, bathed in UV light and then blow-dried by the air nozzles again with something smoky.
Engineer Ward bent to peer at one of the side panels, "What are they decontaminating us from?"
Nick said, "Maybe they think we rolled in tardigrades before we set out?"
Trane said, "There's nothing we could have brought in on the suits. It might be decontamination for when we leave."
Sumner grunted, then shook her head, "If that were true, there wouldn't be a decontamination warning on the outside airlock. We should stay suited until we find out more about this place."
Nick frowned, watching as the smoke jetting at them stopped, then was sucked away in a high-pitched blast of white noise as the jets reversed flow. A few moments later, the light above the far door went green and the door opened.
They stepped through cautiously, Sumner in the lead, lowering her torch as more facility lights clanked on, revealing a very grey looking suiting lobby. There wasn't a hint of a logo and even the red, white and black of 4L livery remained conspicuously absent and Nick's sense that he was on the edge of a really huge story only increased.
A canned-sounding voice announced: Welcome to warehouse nine. To proceed further, proper authorisation is required. If you do not have proper authorisation, please return to the platform executive who issued your work order and report priority S-O-R. Repeat: priority S-O-R. Thank you.
Executive Courtenay stepped forward, switching her comms to external and speaking to the ceiling, for want of any obvious source, "Controller, this is Courtenay, Eleanor: Four L-E-R. Define 'proper authorisation'."
There was silence and after a moment, Courtenay said, "Controller, respond!"
Trane walked to the far door and felt the wall near it with one gloved hand, "Controller, please run Tan diagnostic one and output to the nearest display."
When nothing showed up, Courtenay said, "Perhaps there isn't a display in this room."
"There is," said Ward, "There's smartsheeting above both doors and a thinner strip most of the way around."
Sumner started opening suit lockers. She wasn't doing so violently, but Nick thought she was irritated anyway - the yanks just a little to abrupt. Mind you, he couldn't pinpoint a moment when she hadn't seemed irritated - moody cow. Most of the lockers were empty - room for incoming suits, made sense - a couple had suits in them, though.
Nick pointed to the plain suits hanging from their hooks, "A couple of staff must be here, anyway."
"No," said Sumner, "These are spares in case someone comes in with a damaged suit."
"Well, we can get out of these un-rated deathtraps, then."
She shook her head, "As I said, we should maintain suit integrity until we know what we're dealing with."
Nick tugged on one of his seals, his suit giving a little gasp as it opened, "Sorry, I'm not going to risk another four hours with improvised heating if I don't have to."
Sumner studied him coolly as he opened another seal and unlocked the helmet. She said, "Then you can be the guinea pig, Mitcham. If you start acting strangely, or drop dead, we'll know for sure. Disobey another order and I might just leave you here anyway."
"Orders? I'm not one of your crew, Captain."
"In an emergency, I am the ranking officer and I will command."
Courtenay cleared her throat, "Actually, that only holds true aboard your ship, Captain Sumner. In Four-L facilities, I have authority. I'm perfectly willing to work with you, but this bickering is counterproductive."
Sumner scowled, then nodded sharply, "Very well. Until we return to Qentiga."
Nick smirked, but only for a moment as Courtenay said, "Nick Mitcham, next time you do the opposite of what has been suggested without consulting anyone, we shall return you to the airlock until we're ready to leave."
Courtenay didn't bother waiting for his response, turning instead to Trane, who had popped open a control panel by the far door and was examining it closely.
Courtenay asked, "Well, Trane? Why isn't it responding?"
Trane looked around, "It's not a controller. It's a computer. I haven't seen anything like this for a long time. No wetware, ma'am. I can get some output on my pad, but it's nothing I can work with."
Ward went over to look at Trane's pad, "I might be able to do something... not sure what though."
Courtenay joined them and got her pad out of the heated pouch on her thigh - the luxuries of a properly rated suit. She pulled out the jack and plugged it in to the panel, muttering, "Exec. Red should be enough to get us in, surely?"
The door didn't open. The recorded voice was prompted to repeat its earlier message though.
Sumner asked, "Do you know what 'priority S-O-R means?"
While they were all distracted, Nick reached inside his suit for his own datapad, pulling it out enough to see the screen so he could activate his EyeSpy and start recording.
Courtenay said, "It's... well, it's referring to Special Ops. They're a branch of the constabulary - sort of. However, the only constabulary presence on Luna are on the platforms and there certainly aren't any special operations facilities here."
Sumner said, "This facility begs to differ, it seems. What do they do that is 'special'? Are they a commando type division?"
Courtenay snorted, "Hardly. To be honest, I've always thought they were sort of a joke. None of them are above Red classification, not one. Their remit is annoyingly vague, I think only the top executive tier really knows what they get up to."
With a noticeable thinning of patience, Sumner asked, "Vague or not, what is their remit?"
"To protect against and engage with threats to the citizenry and the company that fall outside the reach of the regular constabulary."
Nick frowned. 'Vague' was an understatement.
Sumner said, "So, foreign affairs? Either way, it seems we need their authority to get in, unless either of you two can work a way around it?"
Ward and Trane exchanged a glance. Ward said, "Maybe. We might be able to use Executive Courtney's classification..."
Trane supplied, "We can pull the Red from hers and try to find the one missing component. So long as it doesn't have a list of all Red Spec. Ops, it might work. If it were a controller, I think it would notice and shut us down, but a computer - it don't know any better than pass or fail."
"We'll have to make sure it doesn't count the fails or it will lock us out," said Wade, poking at the control panel.
Trane leaned in, absent-mindedly taking Courtenay's pad out of her hand and murmuring, "You deal with the counter, I'll sort out a routine it can understand for the battering ram."
"Failing that, we could just try to force the door lock."
"I bet it's got a lockfuse against that sort of thing."
Courtenay sighed, stepping back from the console, "Just do what you can."
By the time the door opened, they'd all been forced to open their suits - simply not enough canned air to stay inside them and still make the trip back to the Qentiga, even with the emergency spare canisters in the lockers.
Nick was sitting with his back to the wall, sipping some flat and unpleasantly warm water from his new suit's supply. He'd long since turned the EyeSpy off again and he was coping with the crushing boredom as best he could. Sumner had spent most of the time pacing back and forth - which was annoying. Courtenay was sitting down now too, her fingers twitching now and then as if itching for her pad.
They were alerted to a change of circumstance when the canned voice announced: Welcome, Special Operations. Please ensure maximum wards are applied if you cross Black threshholds. Thank you.
Courtenay stood up, her fists clenching and cried out to the ceiling, "What does that even mean?"
"Take it easy," said Sumner, "Just let's keep our eyes peeled for black indicators on corridors and doorways - until we find out what it means, we might just be able to stay this side of them."
Nick got up, grunting. The gravpads in the facility were woefully functional and the extended sit on a hard floor hadn't done his aches any favours. He began to miss the lighter Nick that had skipped his way across the surface. He turned the EyeSpy on again, wincing a little this time as it grabbed his eye muscles in its restrictive grip. If there was another locked door past this one, he wasn't going to bother turning it back on until he saw a tap-dancing unicorn.
Beyond the suiting lobby was the sort of dull, utilitarian corridor Nick associated with hospitals and prisons. It was a long one with no obvious markings - black or otherwise. Just bright rectangles of light on the ceiling and pale grey everywhere else.
They trooped along it, none of them talking now. Nick didn't like the way their boots clunked on the flooring. The way every sound reverberated. The place felt both empty and haunted simultaneously and as much as he chided himself for being stupid, he couldn't shake a growing case of the whim-whams as the suiting lobby got further and further away behind them - shrouded in blackness now as lights went out behind them.
Ward's torch got unhooked from her belt, likely not secured properly to begin with, and when it hit the floor, Courtenay and Nick startled badly. Even Trane and Sumner twitched.
"Sorry," said Ward, picking it up and attaching it more firmly.
"Take it easy," said Sumner again, quietly, as if they were in a library.
They could see the end now and the closer they got, the more obvious it became that it was a hub in the centre of the dome. More corridors spoked out of it, all of them considerably shorter than the one they'd just walked down.
There was some colour, at last. Some of the corridors marked with green trim around the entryway. Some with red. Two with black. Above the black corridors were the words 'RED SPEC. OP. ONLY.' One had the additional label, 'COMMS.', but the other had no extra information.
They looked around at the markings and labels and Courtenay said, "As tempting as 'comms' is, given our situation, I'm open to alternatives before we break any more company guidelines."
Nick snorted. Guidelines, indeed.
Trane said, "The one marked 'controllers' is red. If I could talk to a controller, we might find out everything we need to know - although it will probably need to be started up first."
Nick asked, "Why would it be shut down?"
"Oh, they get a bit funny if you leave them on and alone too long. They need regular adjustments and input - think of them like goldfish. Only ones you can freeze and thaw out when you're around to feed them and change the water."
Trane smiled, but it was an odd-looking thing. Technicians were weird. Just the one-eye-at-a-time blinking thing always made Nick thing of lizards and that smile was just wrong, like Trane had forgotten how long to twitch the muscles for people on regular time.
Sumner nodded, "Makes sense. A facility controller might be able to enlighten us as to the danger of the black corridors. It may even be able to signal a platform for us."
Nick said, "It says 'controllers' - plural. Why would they have more than one?"
Courtenay gestured to the corridor, "There's only one way to find out. Let's take a look."
At the end of this shorter corridor was a doorway that proved not to be locked - another dustlock, which made them all seal their suits and put their helmets back on for the duration. This one actually was just a dustlock though and they were soon through it, free to take off their helmets and turn off the air supply again.
This space was more like what Nick thought of when it came to warehouses. Rows of industrial shelves packed into the pie-wedge shaped space, right up to the curved dome above them. Some of the shelving was empty, some had heavy cases stacked into them, or irregular shapes wrapped in thick vinyl shrouds.
Feeling less spooked for the mundane surroundings, Nick moved further away from the others than he had since they'd left the suit lobby and he noticed with amusement that everyone else was doing the same.
"Holy shit!" Ward cried.
They all turned Ward's way and she grinned, embarrassed, "Sorry - just, look." she pointed at one of the bulky cold-cases on a shelf.
It was labelled 'Vera Lynn' which prompted Nick to echo Ward's sentiment. The Vera Lynn had been a very public 4L disaster a few years back. A rogue controller had caused four figure deaths on board a flagship high orbital cruiser - a public relations disaster as well as a literal one that had resulted in a re-branding of the whole company.
Trane was reaching for the case controls when Courtenay barked, "Don't touch that!"
She was pale and her nostrils were flaring, "We're all going to end up in full assess, you realise? Let's not make it worse than it already is. Just find this facility's controller."
Nick wasn't sure what full asses was, but he was going to guess some sort of company punishment. A nasty one, if the way Courtenay looked was anything to go by.
Sumner said, "Spread out and look for a controller station. Don't touch anything," she looked at Nick when she said that.
Nick wasn't insulted. She was right to be suspicious, he was going to touch the hell out of anything he could get away with if it looked interesting enough. He tried to saunter out of her glaring range, but wasn't surprised when she opted to keep an eye on him.
Jackson had said that there was a story on the Moon fit to rival the Eden massacre. Nick believed it was somewhere in the warehouse. They'd crashed almost on top of it - relatively speaking - and whatever objections Nick had to being almost killed by what was supposed to be a landing, he just couldn't ignore a story that potentially large. The deaths. The guilt. He might as well come away with something to show for it, or it was all meaningless.
As far as Nick could tell, everything on the shelves was some sort of controller - although a lot of it seemed to be historical models. The Vera Lynn cold-case probably contained whatever was left of the controller that had wrought that dark deed. He would have liked to get a shot of that, but instead had to content himself with a loving slow pan over it's exterior. In his head he was already making up taglines for it - Mass Murderer Kept On Ice In Secret Facility. Crazy Controller's Plastisteel Prison. Cruiser Nightmare Never Ends For Dreaming Death Dealer... well, he'd work on that one.
Nick and Sumner turned to Trane's call, which did not sound alarmed. They headed that way and met up with Ward on the way, who said she'd found nothing but inert controller components and parts.
Executive Courtenay was already with Trane and the two of them were contemplating what Nick at first through to be a body - then he realised it was just a manikin and as he got closer still, he began to realise it was neither of those things.
Crouched on a lower shelf, its vinyl wrapping puddled around it, was what looked suspiciously like a robot. It was shaped like a man, but the arms and legs were too thin to be anything other than artificial. Its head was roughly human-shaped, but it had no features - just a faceplate like on their helmets. There were jack ports in several places on its head and arms. Nick couldn't see as much of the legs, since the arms were wrapped around them, metal fingers gripping metal and rubber jointed elbows in a space-saving, but unpleasantly human crouched pose. It was shiny with white, red and black livery and it bore the companies old logo - 4Life - which made it at least three and half years old.
Courtenay was just staring at it with something like distaste, so Nick asked, "What is it, Trane? A robot, right?"
Trane ran a finger almost lovingly over the thing's head, tapping one of the jack ports there, "This is a controller port. I think it's a controller. One that can walk around - Captain Sumner, we could walk it back to the ship, you need a controller to trim your engines."
Sumner looked almost as perturbed as Courtenay, "My engines are nearly out of fuel and not operating at sufficient capacity to get us out of the Moon's gravity."
Trane shrugged, as if this were mere quibbling, "Either way, it might be able to tell us about this place. It might be able to contact the nearest platform."
There was silence for a while, then Trane said, "It's that or the 'comms' corridor without knowing what that wards warning was all about. Right?"
Courtenay made a noise of disgust, then said, "Fine. See if you can start it."