Janelle had never been in this particular set of caves before. The unfamiliarity put her ill at ease, and she led with her pistol. Wendy only griped once that they’d have to edit a lot of her creeping for time.
The cave walls were rough, full of jagged holes and alcoves. She periodically came across short branches off the main tunnel that narrowed to gaps too small for her to traverse. She released probes at these spots and let them scurry off into the darkness. Humans wouldn’t pass through those crevices, but natives probably could, their spindly bodies clacking and contorting in ways no human matched.
The temperature steadily dropped as she went deeper and deeper. Her connection with Wendy crackled in and out.
“I’m losing you,” Janelle muttered.
“Just keep your camera rolling,” Wendy said. “We’ll cossshhhhh shhootage later.”
That was the last she heard from Wendy. Janelle pressed on, glancing occasionally at the status of her recorder, represented by a tiny box on her heads-up display. Its green recording light was steady, but the uplink signal flickered weakly until it eventually died.
This was hardly the first time she’d been out of contact with her producers, but this was the first time in an unexplored area. She set her jaw. It was fine. She was fine. She’d been in scarier situations when she was 16 years old.
She began to see the graffiti. A common enough sight in Titan caves, but the sheer volume of it stunned her. The ridged circular pattern of Titan symbols crowded the walls until there was hardly any open wall exposed. Stranger still, she began to see human text etched into the walls, too. Names and dates, seditious proclamations against the colonial government. There were numerous references to 8/15, a great disaster of a decade ago, when a colonial methane collector had crashed and exploded above an unapproved settlement in the Eastern Reach, which hadn’t been too far from these caves now that she thought about it. An accurate count of the casualties had been impossible, since nobody had even known the settlement had existed, but it was estimated that thousands had died. Janelle vaguely remembered the news footage, the somber newscasters and the irate pundits who claimed the colonists shouldn’t have been there to begin with. She stopped and placed a hand against a swirl of Titan symbols, reading them with her fingers: solidarity and union, peace and prosperity.
Gradually, the tunnel widened and she saw a light ahead. She slowed her pace, hugging the wall for what little cover she could manage. The entrance spilled onto a ledge that stretched off in either direction and overlooked the greatest cavern she had ever laid eyes on. Easily as large as some of the mid-sized settlements on the surface of Titan, hundreds – thousands? – of buildings stretched off beyond the range of her viewfinder. Most were the typical carved domes that Titan natives grew and shaped from the surface of their moon, but some were obviously of human design, smooth and sharp, with human-sized doors and windows and stairs. There were lamps! Scattered through the streets and clustered around the human structures. Titans had little use for lights, being almost entirely blind.
It was a city. Janelle saw homes, shops, things that looked like factories and storage silos. Water towers. People moved among the streets, mostly on foot or on small powered cycles. Not just humans, or Titans, but both, weaving among each other, waving to each other, stopping to speak.
Her goggles told her it was there, but she stepped to the edge of the ledge and reached out. Her hand tingled through her gloves, and she felt warm air brush her fingertips. Somewhere in that city was an environmental colony shield. Where could they have procured such a thing? How did they get it down here? Janelle felt numb. She stepped back and sat heavily, her pistol hanging in her limp hand.
So distracted, she didn’t hear the clatter of chiton until it was just a few feet away. She jerked her head up, startled, and found one of the largest Titans she’d ever seen crouched beside her, its wide but flat body suspended on half a dozen thin, multi-joined legs. It’s head, a bulbous protrusion framed by a pair of cone-like eyes and bristling antennae, cocked curiously at her.
Astride the Titan’s back was a human boy. He was bundled in a thick wrap not too different from hers, though it was bulkier and heavier, making him look like a big, fat tick on the back of his comrade. He pulled his face mask down to reveal dark skin and eyes. He looked at her with naked hostility.
“You’re that lady from TV,” he said. “Janet.”
“Janelle,” she said, her voice feeling thick and heavy in her mouth. She still felt dazed. “What…what is this place? What are you doing here?”
The boy leaned out and spat a wad of gum at the cave floor. “This is Unity City. We live here, no thanks to you.”