"Stay ready. We don't know what's in there," I say to Ana, standing in front of the entrance to the Deep Stone Crypt.
We make our way through the war-torn lab. Eramis's siege before the Bombardment sure left its mark on the place. She found Darkness here and helped spread it like a plague on the world. Clovis almost did the same in his time.
"If I remember right, we have a long drop ahead of us. You better hang on to me," I say.
She wraps her arms over my shoulders, and it's the first time I've been close to a person in over 100 years. I can smell a trace of sodium tallowate. But only a trace. She hasn't bathed for a few days. She squeezes tight. I forgot what this felt like. My body produces a fleeting sensation of warmth.
I move down the elevator shaft. We land as quietly as possible, remaining still. It's dead down here, but the power is on. Someone must have been here… or still is.
As we make our way through the eviscerated research center, I notice Ana taking it all in. She seems almost familiar with the space.
"Clovis was an animal, sure. But what he discovered and built is absolutely incredible," she breathes.
Never heard her speak so highly of the old man. She forgets that I was there. Doesn't realize the hand he played in our future, even centuries ago.
"This way!" she calls out, running ahead. After walking through several corridors, we come to a familiar dead end. It's still there. Clarity Control. I dreaded seeing this again. Practically a standing testament to all the bad that Clovis did.
I want to get away from it, but Ana's fixated. "Hey, you ready? We need to keep going," I say.
She snaps back to reality. "Sorry."
Finally, we find it. The place where Exos were born. Ana covers her nose as we're greeted with a rotten smell. Slowly, we turn the corner and see a decomposing corpse desperately clinging to a lever on a console. "The Drifter…," Ana says. Hard to tell how long he's been here. We pry his hand from the console and carry him out of the room to try and purge the stench.
"What do you think he was doing here?" I ask.
"Most likely the same thing we are," Ana says, plugging in her drive. "But he failed. Probably for the best. He doesn't deserve another chance."
It's depressing, seeing him like that. All alone down here…
Ana works the console. "Uploading now. Should be out of here soon. Grab that lever."
I pull down, and a latch opens, releasing radiolarian fluid into an empty pool nearby. I catch Ana staring at the spot where we found the Drifter's body.
"You ever think about what we could have done differently?" she poses.
All the time.
"Not really," I answer.
"So much of this death and destruction stems back to us, to our family. I know Clovis was responsible for a lot. He had a hand in bringing the Darkness to this world."
"How do you know that?" I ask.
"I found a journal the last time I was here. It's old, and half the pages were torn out, but it had a lot of information about him that was salvageable."
Of course, she's been here before. Clearly, she's not telling me the whole truth.
"What else was in it?" I ask.
"Outside of the redacted memos and experiments, there were stories and recollections of our family. It's all from his perspective, so he was never the villain. But still, maybe he wasn't as bad as we thought. He seemed to care about us, in his way."
"He did some good, Elsie."
"I was there, Ana. I saw the things he did. He was delusional. Of course, he was never the villain in his own story."
We sit for a while and wait in silence.
The pool begins to bubble. Ana jumps to her feet as a sleek metal hand emerges from the fluid. Slowly, the Exo rises. Silky liquid drips from the tendrils that conjoin the parts. Eventually, it takes its first steps out of the pool.
"Red?" Ana asks timidly.
Its head turns. Glowing eyes of scarlet meet ours, and it speaks… Russian.
"Welcome back, old friend," Ana says.
We're in business.