She next shone her light on a nearby carving of a Neighbor on its knees while another stood behind it with a knife. “Is it being… executed?” Amalek asked with a frown.
“That was my first thought too. But no. That’s not a weapon- it’s a ritual dagger.” Chryse shone the light at the head of the kneeling Neighbor. “Look, its ears have been removed. And if you look back at the first carving, the ones kneeling closest to the podium are similarly missing their ears.”
“Ritualistic self-mutilation,” said Amalek. “I imagine they wouldn’t do that normally?”
“They would not.” Chryse shone her flashlight on a third drawing. Two Neighbors, one atop the other, their snouts touching. A robed Neighbor stood behind them, observing. “There are over a hundred carvings, but these three were the most interesting to me. This is a drawing of reproduction- the one on top is fertilizing the one beneath.” Her voice was breathy and far-away.
“What’s the big deal?” asked Sheba.
Chryse shot her a glance. “Ropinqa… ah… don’t have a concept of consent,” she said. “Reproduction is a battle for dominance for them, everything is. But here… there’s no violence. Both parties are willing, because they’re being instructed by the priest. I have occasionally observed consensual sex between Ropinqa before, but when combined with these other engravings…”
“Something fucky is going on here,” said Sheba. “This doesn’t add up. The defenders at the citadel, they were perfectly ordinary.”
“Were they?” Amalek had his hand on his chin and his eyes on the floor. “Mostly, yes… but didn’t they seem poorly-armed and equipped? Didn’t we beat them a bit too easily?”
Sheba nodded. “I thought that too,” she said. “Thought we caught them off-guard… but they could have also been weakened already.”
“And the defenses around the citadel. They weren’t facing southwest, towards the frontier. They were facing northeast, towards the mountain. Towards this very mesa.” Amalek swallowed dryly. “Could there be multiple Neighbor factions fighting on this planet? The ordinary ones we’re used to and this… cult?”
“It’s very possible… Ropinqa factions are constantly at war with one another. It’s one of the reasons why BEACON has been so successful against them: they once outnumbered us a thousand to one, but we fought with unity while they could not coordinate their massive numbers and amazing technology.” Chryse glanced at the engravings. “I’ve just never seen this behavior before.”
Herod stared at the multitude of engravings. The longer she looked, the more she found them loathsome. Ordinary Neighbors were bad enough, slithering and unctuous monsters. These carvings suggested something vaguely resembling humanity… but that touch of empathy only served to accentuate how fundamentally wretched the monsters were.
The Neighbors couldn’t help being born monsters. But a monster should not wear the skin of a real person.
“Legata, we’ve secured the Mater and her retinue,” Herod said to Lucifera, who hadn’t said a word since they came in. “Shall we return topside?”
“I need another hour or two,” said Chryse. “Once I finish my notation, we can-”
A siren filled the tunnel, the shriek bouncing off the walls and drowning out all other noise. An urgent-priority message… only a colonel or higher could send one of those. Lucifera silenced it with a press of her watch. “Tamar, what’s going on?” she asked in the colonels’ frequency.
“We’re fucked, that’s what’s up!” the voice of Tamar yelled back. “We’ve got an entire air cavalry bearing down on our heads! Thousands! We’re surrounded!”
“Fuck,” Lucifera groaned. “We’re on our way.”
“Hurry! They’re moving in and- shit! I gotta go! Over and out!”
There were no words. The expeditionary force turned around and rushed topside as fast as their feet would carry them. They dashed madly to the tunnel entrance and ran out into hell.