9,000 years ago, the Earth looked very different. Watchers, angels sent to protect humanity, betrayed the people and their fellow angels, turning human beings into slaves in their quest for power.
9,000 years ago, the Watcher Empire stood at the height of its power. Few dared to oppose it, and even fewer lived to tell when they did so. This is the story of Tammuz, a man who questioned the righteousness of that Empire. Sent on a suicide mission to the Antarctic by a group of fanatics dedicated to the last goddess of a fallen world, he uncovers a lost city, shrouded in the mists of time. He knows that his mission – and the discovery that lies at the center of The Station – will change the world, but he doesn’t realize that it will change the very core of his identity.
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The Man in the White Cloak paused at the crest of the snowdrift. He found it hard to believe that he had made it, but his hard work and determination had proven the equal to the barriers thrown before him. He stood close to the location that had haunted his dreams for the past month, and somewhere on top of his longtime goal. Even the biting cold couldn’t erase his smile as he surveyed what remained of the lost city.
No obvious hints of the city’s presence jumped out to the eye, but a trained observer could pick them out: he was certain that the hillocks to his right concealed a fallen library, while beneath the flat plain to his left, buried many feet deep beneath the permafrost and snow, laid the ruins of a museum.
The polar wind ripped across him, stealing the breath from his mouth.
Stay here much longer and you’ll end up like the city, he thought, and knelt in the snow. He slid his glove off and jammed his hand into his pocket, producing a small, pen-like object. Though he was 99.9% sure of the lay of this land, his mission – and the harsh climate – left no room for uncertainty. He pushed the object into the snow and twisted the cap.
The object whirred, and he stepped back.
The end of the cap glowed red. A slight whine and beams of crimson light issued from the cap, spreading over the ground in a flickering laser-light grid.
He squeezed his hands together at his chest. Please.
The grid widened, spreading in all directions, even through and past his legs, leaving a tingle in his flesh. It lasted only a moment, though, as the grid on his side winked out of existence, leaving a row of lights pointing in a single direction: right where he had suspected the Station would hide.
He exhaled, excitement spreading through him, as the row of lights vanished one point at a time, narrowing to a single dot on a nearby drift.
“I have you,” he said.
The end of the cap split open and a bolt of white light, the device’s flare, shot up and out, right to the spot chosen by the grid. The bolt sparked when it landed, illuminating a circle in the snow roughly the size of a human body.
With the flare spent, Tammuz snatched the object from the ground and closed the cap, tucking it into his pocket as he made his way toward the flare. He slowed to descend the treacherous side of the snow drift and nearly lost his footing at the low point between drifts.
Only just maintaining his balance, he threw his body forward and let his momentum carry him up the next snow drift. As he climbed, he pulled a small, pistol-shaped brass contraption from one of his pockets.
When he reached the flare, he paused. So many had fought to be in his place; even the Watchers had sought this place, coveting it from the moment they arrived on Earth even while they derided the stories about Those Who Came Before as so much empty mythology.
The Man in the White Cloak (Tammuz, as his father had named him) had never bought that lie, and his studies at the Great Library had only further convinced him that Those Who Came Before – and this place – not only existed, but held knowledge beyond their imagining.
The Great Library’s Historians, threatened as they were for their knowledge, had been forced to either destroy their tracts on Those Who Came Before or obscure their findings within their works. Still, even when they left this place unmentioned, it exercised an effect on the subjects surrounding it, a great mass of unseen gravity pulling history toward it. He had believed that it would take only diligent work with these existing texts to tease out the details. He needed the time to find those answers, but his duties constantly drew him away from them.
Then Alma’s Acolytes had approached him, and he learned that he didn’t have to chase all of those answers. When they told him their story, he knew that he was not alone: their goddess, Alma, had been the last living member of Those Who Came Before. She had revealed many things to them in what they called The Time Between, after the cities of the ancient ones had fallen silent and before humanity rebuilt itself. Among these had been a prophecy, though its exact meaning had long ago been lost:
When the Reckoning returns, her face will reveal itself once again.
Worlds will rise and fall before the portal must open.
Seek her, and find damnation and salvation.
These had been Alma’s last words before she passed from the world. Her Acolytes knew only one thing: they must discover the location of what she had called the Station, for the key to fulfilling the prophecy laid somewhere inside.
It had been an impossible combination for Tammuz to resist. Ancient esoterica and forbidden, hidden locations somewhere at the end of the world? He could not bring himself to turn down their offer of assistance in exchange for his knowledge. Working in tandem, they had combed the Watchers’ libraries, piecing together the ancient stories. By the end of ten cycles, they had assembled a patchwork map roughly equivalent to those destroyed during the Coming of the Watchers.
The agile nature of their organization, the very nature that had helped them discover the truth behind the Watchers’ wall of lies, prevented them from sending a full expedition to the Forbidden Lands. Instead, they opted to send one man on the lone airship that traveled to those frozen lands.
Tammuz. Who had used his sisters’ and brothers’ information to find this place.
He ground his foot into the flare, snuffing it in the snow, and then took a step back, pointing the brass pistol at the ground. One press of the button on the pistol’s side and compressed gas exploded from the end, punching a super-heated hole through the snow and ice. He raised one leg and slammed the heel of his boot down onto the hole, breaking the ice into chunks. Another shot from the pistol and those chunks flew in all directions. He tossed the pistol to the ground, where it hissed and sizzled in the snow. One more hard kick to the snow penetrated the remaining layer of ice and his foot slammed into something metallic underneath, sending a jarring sensation up his leg.
He rubbed his thigh and then bent over, throwing ice from the hole over his shoulders, his eyes wild. They had never been so close. He only wished that his compatriots could be with him at that moment.
Another layer of ice broken and tossed away, and the steel cap revealed itself. He brushed remnants of snow and ice away and bent closer, running his fingers over the engraved ancient text.
Years of applied study under masters of the language, handed down from generation to generation straight from Alma herself, and he could make out only one word: “Test”.
That single word was enough, though; it elevated his blood pressure. He slid his hand to the bottom of the cap and found the small hole bored into the metal. Holding his breath, he inserted his pinky finger and twisted, once to the left, once to the right.
A snap and a hiss as air rushed over his finger. His nerves jangled, but he held steady. Another hiss, and he pulled up, separating the cap from its metal seat. The air that rushed forth from the hole in the ground smelled of decay.
It took both hands for Tammuz to push the metal cap to one side, revealing a rusted ladder that descended into the utter darkness in the earth beneath the snowdrift. He picked up the still-warm brass pistol and slipped it into his pocket. A hint of anxiety’s sharp edge crept over the back of his throat.
You can do this, he thought. He lowered his body over the side, down onto the ladder, beginning his descent into the Station. After he’d climbed down a few feet, he went by feel alone, testing each rung with a tentative foot before putting his full weight onto it. Part of him hoped to hear clicks and whirs as he descended, perhaps some remnants of the Station’s apparatus still at work all these years later, carrying out their calculations in the cold dark. Instead, he heard only his own footfalls on the ladder, punctuated by his grunts. He knew he shouldn’t feel disappointment, but he couldn’t help his emotions, could he?
After climbing for what seemed an eternity, his foot at last found the bottom of the small stone tube that connected the Station to the surface. He stepped off the ladder and removed his bulky gloves, looking around the dark hole, eyes trying to penetrate the murk.