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Prologue and Table Of Contents Chapter 1-4 Chapter 5-8 Chapter 9-12 Chapter 13-16 Back to Stories by Author
To Elizabeth Special thanks to the admin, editors, and members of the Orion's Arm Universe Project for their help and support.
As the small white sun set over the crest of the Martian canyon, Annika stood in front of the tunnel entrance. The fading light turned the normally ruddy sky a pale blue.
"How much longer?" she asked.
"Same as the last time you asked. Just need to figure out what's been causing the disruption," Manuel answered.
She knew her comrade was eager to return before nightfall. Rumor had it the provisional government was going to make a big announcement, and if it was what they thought it was, nobody was going to want to miss the party. Yet the loss of an abnormally high number of sensors in this sector over the past two weeks was a legitimate cause for concern. Manuel's complaining aside, Annika was not about to give up and head for home. Any contamination inside of the sanitized cordon around Aachen City, even as far out as they were, could place the entire reclamation project in jeopardy. At least that was what their militia commander had tried to drill into their heads.
The video feed from the pair of drone scouts on her helmet's HUD display was degrading fast, but so far, it had shown little except for ruined burrows, a feral bot, and the occasional gengineered insect. Still, the signal interference was odd. Hell, the whole thing was odd the more Annika thought about it. A door camouflaged to match the surrounding terrain concealed the tunnel, obviously a relic from before great disaster, decades before. It was sheer luck they had even found it. Though this region was honeycombed with old transport tunnels and terraforming monitoring stations, an entrance covering of this sophistication, still intact after all these years, was strange.
The scouts stopped transmitting. Gathering the will for the argument she knew would ensue, Annika said, "Signal's lost; we'll need to head in a ways to reestablish contact with the drones."
Manuel tilted his helmeted head back in hyperbolic exasperation. "It's getting dark Annika, somebody else can look into this if they want."
Annika exhaled and did her best to respond calmly. "The captain's gonna blow a circuit if he figures you pussed out, and made another patrol come all the way out here. Shit, he'll probably reschedule us to do it on our day off."
"Fine, I'll wait here with the rover."
"Negative Manny. Militia regs state no solo subterranean travel. You know that."
Without further comment, Manuel dismounted from his spot in the driver's seat and headed to the rear of the vehicle. Flipping open a rectangular storage compartment, he pulled two weapons from their racks. Shuffling over to Annika, he handed her a submachine gun as he kept the Gauss rifle for himself.
"And you were going to let me go in by myself," she said in mock astonishment. "How much trouble are you expecting?"
"Those rust rats can get huge!" protested Manuel.
"But the Gauss rifle?" said Annika, gesturing to the weapon hanging at Manuel's side. It could pierce several centimeters of armor plating, overkill in the close confines of the tunnel.
"I don't like rats," he deadpanned.
Annika raised her free hand up halfway in to silence him. She might not have shared his concern about rust rats or other gengineered creatures running wild in the caves, but she was not going to argue the point. Manuel may have agreed to play Soldier this time, but Annika made a mental note to ask their platoon sergeant not to partner them again. The pair walked briskly into the tunnel's mouth preceded by the rolling drum of their canary drone. The walls were the same iron oxide-stained regolith as on the surface, except the tunnels were reinforced by a hardened foam mesh, faded but still largely intact. An intense quiet broken by the soft crunch of Martian soil under the drone's cylindrical tread accompanied their footsteps. As they descended, the rock became progressively darker. If not for the mesh supports, their helmet lights would have had little to reflect. A couple of hundred meters and several turns later, Annika became uneasy. Once the scouts lost contact, they would have retraced their path to the tunnel's entrance. Judging by the time, they should have intercepted her and Manuel. Rolling several meters ahead, the canary had just turned a corner when its readings disappeared from Annika's HUD. "Did you just lose the feed?" asked Annika, as she turned around to face Manuel. He opened his mouth as if about to speak, but the words stuck in his throat. His eyes suddenly grew wide with fear. Ignoring her, Manuel raised his Gauss rifle and snapped off a shot. It tore through the thin air next to Annika's head. Ducking belatedly, Annika screamed "What the fuck Manny! You almost…"
"Run!" gasped Manuel, grabbing Annika by her weapon's sling and sprinting madly.
Nearly tripping, Annika managed to shout, "What is it?" before the crumpled remains of the canary drone hurtled into the fleeing duo. Sailing into a wall, Annika smacked her helmet against the rough stone. Finding herself on the ground, she propped herself up on her elbows in time to see a crouching Manuel fire off another hypersonic slug from his rifle. As if following the projectile's path from the barrel, Annika swung her head to the left. Still dazed, her mind struggled to make sense of what she saw. At the edge of their lights' illumination, the faint outline of a mass became discernable. It was staggering towards them, the circular hole from the Gauss rifle's impact glowing red hot.
"Shoot it!" yelled Manuel as he fumbled to reload another bolt into his rifle. Pushing herself back on her haunches, Annika leveled her weapon and squeezed the trigger, bullets spraying from the gun's muzzle. Rounds bounced against the aggressor's surface generating a cascade of sparks. The brief flashes from the ricochets gave form to the shadowy bulk. Jointed mechanical arms shielded a headless body as three crab-like legs compensated for a wounded fourth. Annika's gun ran dry. Manuel drew down on the machine but before he could fire, a small spinning disc bisected his skull with a sickening wet crunching sound. He dropped instantly like a cut marionette. Shifting to face her attacker, Annika gulped a final breath before a blinding light gave way to an instant nothingness.
On the surface, a slight tremor. Vibrations hit the waiting rover's sensors. It processed this for several seconds, as a belch of dust issued from the cave's mouth. Possible cave in, the rover's systems surmised. It attempted to transmit its report back to Aachen City but the unexplained interference prevented the connection. Several forms emerged through the dust. Silence from the command post. That they were not Tech-Corporal Annika Cheng and Specialist Manuel Saravia was clear enough. One machine with a damaged leg lifted an arm and peppered the rover with a short fusillade of well-aimed shots. The rover's headlights, previously lonely specks against the Martian night, winked out as the wreckage was hurriedly dragged down into the tunnel. NEXT