“The quiet woman with us is Chryse,” Fail-Not said. “She’s a LUX Senior Fellow- one of the foremost xenopologists in all of TORCH. She primarily studies the Neighbors.”
“Hello,” said the woman to Anna’s left. Anna was lean and Fail-Not skinny, but Chryse was full-figured and rotund. Her small eyes glimmered with something strange from behind her spectacles. She didn’t wear any armor, rather she was clad in durable canvas clothes. A major risk indeed, although a scientist wouldn’t know how to pilot an AEGIS.
“She doesn’t talk much,” said Anna, “but she’s great at what she does. Don’t pay her too much mind, she’s focused on her research.”
“Why’d you bring her?” Lucifera asked.
Chryse shifted her weight uncomfortably and stared at the floor. “Interesting phenomena on this planet.” Her voice was soft and thin.
“Any particular reason why you brought a scientist into a warzone?” said Amalek, who along with Zabda had come to the front to join them. “Mater. Colonel Amalek Kavod.”
Anna grinned enthusiastically. “Kavod! Sapiens, I haven’t seen one of you in foreeever. You look just like Ziklag Kavod. He had bright red hair, though. Yours is the same as Fail-Not’s.”
Amalek blinked stupidly. “You… knew Ziklag?”
“Knew him? I worked side-by-side with him for years! He tended to draw a lot of attention to himself… the only male on Astra’s entire executive committee. He might have even succeeded Astra instead of Grace, were it not for that thing between his legs.” Her smile flickered for just a moment. “But that was so, so long ago- before there was even a TORCH. You look exactly the same as him, down to that big ole chip on your shoulder.”
“I don’t have a chip-” Amalek stopped himself. “You didn’t answer my question, Mater.”
“So I didn’t.” Anna turned around. “Chryse, mind briefing the legata and her staff on what we’ve found? That should take care of most of their annoying questions.”
“Yes Anna,” said Chryse obediently. “But it’d be easier to demonstrate. Legata, would you and your commanders follow me?”
“Sure. Uhhh, Sheba, come here,” Lucifera said into her watch. Tamar and Ruth had remained topside.
The legata, two of her colonels, and her corporal bodyguard followed Chryse over to one of the walls at the back of the chamber. “It’s very subtle,” Chryse said, pointing her light at the the wall, “to the point that you wouldn’t notice it. But the moment the ground curves downward, the room also widens and widens. This tunnel complex has a hub- and we’re standing in it.”
The walls were covered in painted carvings: hundreds of them, too many scenes for Herod’s eyes to follow all at once. They all depicted tall, skinny, long-necked creatures- Neighbors- in a variety of scenes.
“My area of study is the Ropinqa,” said Chryse. She straightened out her posture and squared her shoulders… at last, she was back in her element. “You call them Neighbors or Romeos. A-as soldiers, your primary concern is how best to fight and kill them… but I seek to understand the way they think and behave.” She couldn’t fully suppress the bitterness in her voice. “I-I have never seen carvings like these before.”
“I’ve never seen Romeo art before,” said Amalek wondrously. “The lizards don’t seem to have much of a mind for beauty.”
Chryse nodded in almost worshipful fascination. “They are far more utilitarian than us… usually. Um, so that’s the first strange thing. Art for art’s sake is… much rarer among their kind.”
She shined her light on one of the scenes. A Neighbor wearing a skirt and cape standing on an elevated platform. A few dozen others surrounded it, kneeling in prostration. “Ropinqa culture is high individualistic. Mass action is only observed with the promise of money, prestige, a choice of mates… they don’t have cults of personality or spiritual leaders. A Ropinqa is loyal to themselves, their close blood relatives, material gain. The stories we tell ourselves to justify our ideals hold little sway with them. Mass action comes at the doing of some exceptional Ropinqa who cultivates admiration for their abilities. Which makes this engraving truly baffling.”
“They’re… worshipping,” said Sheba, her lip curled in disgust. “The one in the middle is a… god or a prophet or something.”
“Those clothes are not known to me,” said Chryse softly. “I’ve been to twenty different Ropinqa-occupied worlds, including their homeworld. Never once have I seen them wear such garments. Unfortunately, I have not yet been able to ascertain what is being worshipped. But yes, it seems religious in nature- we don’t understand their faith well, but we’ve never seen this type of behavior before.”