They had deployed the flashlights attached to the Gawain and Vishnu’s collarbone. 500 women with powerful flashlights made for queer shadows on the roofs and walls.
There was no way that Neighbors carved these tunnels. It had absolutely nothing in common with the citadel from yesterday that wound and widened, shrunk and stopped abruptly.
The architecture was ten times more disturbing than the citadel, but for a completely different reason. It was too perfectly precise. Every single corridor ended in a right angle, every wall smoothed out with geometric rigor and a hint of obsession.
She stuck close to Amalek. Even in the lighter Vishnu AEGIS, he was awkward and ungainly. “Not much for armor, are you ma’am?” she asked him.
Amalek’s helmet betrayed no emotion but she could easily imagine his scowl. “Not all of us are meatheaded jocks like you, Corporal,” he shot. “My contribution to this legion is the massive brain between my ears that turns your hands and feet into a productive tool of destruction. Thank me later.”
“He’s insecure about it,” whispered Zabda, who had been walking a few steps behind. “Corporal, please don’t bully your commanding officer. Treat him gently.”
“Yes ma’am,” said Herod. “I was wondering what our highly intelligent and gifted colonel thought of these tunnels.”
Amalek seemed mollified by the compliment. He ran his hand along the wall experimentally. “Something’s strange,” he muttered. “The architecture’s all wrong. So, did the Neighbors even carve these tunnels?”
“Who else?” asked Zabda with a shrug. “We haven’t seen any locals.”
“Isn’t that weird too?” Amalek asked. “Look at this planet. Sure, this is a drier part of it, but it’s lush and verdant, fifty percent water, well within its star’s habitable zone. It should be teeming with life. All we’ve seen though are the Neighbors. Where did the natives go?”
“Extinct?” asked Herod. “Wiped out by the Neighbors, perhaps?”
“It’s possible. I’m not an xenopologist, so I can’t-” Amalek tripped over his feet and nearly went down in a heap, but he quickly righted himself. “Don’t laugh!” he snapped.
Herod didn’t laugh. “So colonel, you have no idea about these tunnels?”
“No- nor am I sure what we’re even doing here.” Amalek grunted. “I’d like a word with the Mater. Playing hide-and-seek down here is stupid- we have a war to fight.”
Zabda shook her head vigorously. “Amalek, you successfully managed to piss off the second-scariest woman in BEACON. Can you at least try not to also make an enemy of the first-scariest in the same day?”
Amalek didn’t reply. He was too busy navigating the downward sloping ground. Then without warning, the entire expedition stopped.
Herod made her way to the front and found Lucifera with two other women. One was Anna, who gave her a happy little wave. “Hey, hey Herod!” she cried. “Come here, I want you to meet someone!”
“A friend of yours, Anna?” crisply asked one of the strangers, a tiny, delicate thing at the Mater’s side. Like Anna, she wore an Isis AEGIS. Unlike Anna, she was small and girlish, with heavy bags under her eyes. “This is what you were wasting time on? Annoying the rank-and-file?”
Herod stood at Lucifera’s side. “Who might you be?” she asked.
“Fail-Not,” said the short woman. “I’m a-”
“-Verbena,” Herod finished, her gaze darkening. “You’re the Mater’s Verbena. Her assistant.”
Fail-Not cocked an eyebrow. “Not many of you meathead soldiers who know about us. Do you have a problem with Verbena?”
“…No,” said Herod, sincerely. “I used to be acquainted with one of yours, that’s all.” Herod was careful to keep emotion out of her voice, although she didn’t entirely succeed.
“Herod’s mysteeerious,” said Anna, wiggling her fingers dramatically. “Cool, right? She’s kinda like Loose Lucy’s Verbena.”
“I am not.” Herod rounded on the Mater. “I’m her bodyguard, voluntarily.”
“Oof, touchy. Sorry, it was just a dumb joke.” Anna put up her hands innocently. The colonels gaped at Herod, who had gotten in the Mater’s face without realizing it.
“…My apologies,” Herod muttered, shrinking back.
Fail-Not glared. “Anna, what did you say to this woman?”
“Nothing. Just spooked her a little with the invisibility.” Anna grinned. “Fail-Not’s the brains of my operation. She keeps everything in order for me. I wouldn’t be shit without her.”
“And don’t you forget it,” said the small woman. “Please forgive Anna if she gave any offense.”
Lucifera looked between the two women. “I’ve never seen a Verbena treat her Mater the way you treat yours, Fail-Not,” she said.
“Well, the little squirt was trained to my specifications,” said Anna cheerfully. “I can get kinda lazy if nobody’s lighting a fire under my ass.” She affectionately ruffled Fail-Not’s short dark blue hair. “Ain’t she cute, though?”
Fail-Not’s face gave nothing away, but the moment Anna removed her hand she smoothed her hair out.