This is the middle of the story. You probably want to start at the beginning!
Gribus’ voice broke the silent search. “I see it, inside that sinkhole!”
Indeed, now they all could. The lake ahead of them held no water at all. Instead, the hole plunged deep into the surface of the planet — how deep, they could not know. The craft brought itself to a hover over the center of the hole. “Shall we?” Came the voice of Taiuuai.
What has Come Before:
Gribus and Ghiaren are both fugitives, having been arrested by local authorities for Gribus’ jewel theft and Ghiaren’s proclivity for violence. But they both found themselves called toward the sapient alien art/spaceship The Winking Tempest by a voice in their mind, showing them the thoughts of others.
Once their third eyes had been opened, a Marshall of the Southern Arm Confederacy intended to capture them and bind their labor for the economy of the Confederacy, but their escape put a Bloodhound on their tail. Fleeing into the hyperspace visible only to xenopsychometers, they find themselves over the planet of Olumai, where Gribus once hid.
Will the three of them — Gribus, Ghiaren, and the ship’s sapience Taiuuai — dive into the heart of the planet? What calls them from that darkness?
The two humans looked at each other and saw assent in each other’s faces. They nodded. The ship descended. Around them, they saw just how thick the canopy was: a dense mat of blue-green dimly lit in the powerful headlights of the craft. Under the canopy was a thick mesh of vines, each the thickness of a tree. Among the vines squirmed life of all kinds, too small to see. Little flickers of light — bioluminescence? Artificial lights? They could not tell in this thunderous wash of life around them, tickling their consciousnesses with the near-sapience of this alien ecosystem.
Below the trunks of the vines grew roots into and through the surface of the planet. “They’re moving,” observed Ghiarren.
“I don’t think they did that the last time I was on Olumai,” came Gribus’ reply with a note of concern.
“Or perhaps they did not show you,” added Taiuuai.
The vertical walls of the sinkhole revealed gnarled geology, waves and bubbles from some ancient event that had left the surface dotted with these shafts. Here and there, water splashed down from above where a stream terminated at the shaft, but still there was no sign of the bottom. The sunlight above, already dimming when they’d begun their descent, was now wholly absent.
The ship’s voice returned. “I can sense a bottom another eight kilometers down. We have descended nearly a hundred already.”
The ship’s lights danced over the high relief of the surface, polished by water and time until the rock looked like smooth flesh.
Gribus looked below them, her third eye opening like that of a newborn, unfocused and cautious. She could see the beacon below, tendrils of hyperspace leading up through the real space shaft through which they now descended. It looked at them, unwavering, though unthreatening. She felt like a small animal being watched by a large one that had no interest in eating it.
Which is what the large animal would want the small one to feel, she pondered.
And still, it didn’t even seem particularly alluring. It didn’t even seem deeply curious.
The descent turned slowly horizontal, tributary caverns branching to each side. But at each juncture, they all agreed instantly on which way to turn.
They continued slowly, passing subterranean meadows of bioluminescent fungi, herds of animals clinging to the walls that fled as soon as they saw the bright headlights of the Winking Tempest, and stalactites that shambled and wavered together as though in a breeze.
Hours of placid darkness did nothing to put the two humans to sleep. Their faces were pressed to the forward screen of the craft, looking into every plant that shuffled, every animal rooted to the walls that watched their passing, every texture that revealed itself to be a swarm of creatures, and every animal shape that revealed itself to be long-petrified. The weight of consciousness of the hyperspatial eye was enough to keep them alert until, finally, they saw ahead of them a dim light reflecting on the slick gnarls and turns of the cavern walls. It proved to be a turn in the tunnel that, when followed, opened into an expansive natural cavern, lit throughout with artificial light that spilled over hundreds — a thousand? — spacecraft, small houses of every form — and people. From the cavern’s walls splashed narrow cataracts lit to a sparkling glow by the thousand tiny lights below.
Just ahead of them, a group of people stood in a wide circle, carrying pole lanterns. The lanterns waved toward the craft. Tiauuai said, “It seems rude not accept their invitation.”
The craft settled in the circle of lanterns and faces. Gribus and Ghiarren looked across them. Most faces were human, but many were not, including some that could not be said to have a face at all.
Gribus spoke first: “I don’t know about this. It feels good, but also it seemed like it would feel good to surrender to that Bloodhound. I don’t like being told what to feel.”
“Maybe you’re being told to feel that,” retorted Gribus with a laugh. “I think if they want us, they already have us. We’ll find out why they called us here if we talk with them.”
Taiuuai replied, as well. “We have blasters in my survival kits. But I’d suggest that, if the intent of these beings is hostile, we will not win a fight against so many.”
“Then I’ll get one,” said Ghiarren with resolve. “You?”
“I think at least one of us should have a clear peaceful intent,” replied Gribus after a moment of thought.
Ghiarren shrugged and walked off while Taiuuai explained to her where to find the survival kits and how to use the blaster to signal, stun, or impact.
When the two emerged from the cargo door of the Winking Tempest, they were greeted by a rush of smells. Wet stone from the cataracts. Yeasty, toasting smells from a nearby oven built from a formerly portable fusion generator and baked clay. Grilling meat smells from an open fire. A combination of fruit and fungus from nowhere apparent. And before them stood a group of three people — a human with soft curves like a seal extended their sleek hand, palm out, from their well-worn, well-maintained, figure-hugging space suit. Their skin was the red-brown of Jorund cedar, and their eyes were dark pools, outlined with fine lines of white makeup that extended past their ears around the back of their shaven head. Their sensual smile was off-center, as though amused or pleasantly surprised, revealing a crooked or broken tooth. And in the center of their forehead shone the xi-psi mark of the xenopsychometer of the human Southern Arm Confederacy.
Gribus felt Ghiarren tense as they noticed it, but she restrained herself from drawing the blaster from the back of her jumpsuit’s belt. No sudden or hostile move came, and, as far as she could tell, Gribus felt no particular inclination toward the person who stood before them.
Finally, they spoke. “Welcome to the Cavern. I’m Yemmet.”