8 – BLACK ECHO
Katja sat down hard on a supply crate. “OK… I’m just going to call it: the only thing more fucked up than fighting in a city is fighting in a mine. These tunnels are bullet funnels. Worse than alleys. And you can’t call in air support to blow the shit out of something when it’s in the way. I’m lodging formal protest when we’re done killing everyone.”
“Something to look forward to,” Marco Sandoval answered off-hand.
“Well, I’m sure the Admiral values your considered opinion and I have every confidence he will priority flag your grievance,” Esta dead-panned.
“He damn well better,” Katja replied, setting aside her Beowulf 12-Gauge. “I’m an underworld goddess of death.”
“Just think though,” I said. “All this experience, you can write the Fleet tactical manual when we’re finished.”
Katja tore open a protein bar. “Sure,” she said between mouthfuls. “It’s going to be titled ‘Subterranean Operations: same as shoving your head up your ass except someone is shooting at you too.’
“See how inspiring she is?” Chandra exclaimed.
It was hour forty-seven of Operation Black Echo, Admiral Sota’s large-scale incursion into the Shenhua Deep Crust Mine. Zombie Six had stopped to reload and recharge. We were at a supply cache in a junction of two secondary tunnels on level nineteen, west of the complex’s main shaft. The team had been going at the TIMs pretty much non-stop since level three, hour five, and with nearly three hundred miles of tunnels, the end was definitely not just around the next corner.
Technically only Katja and I were ‘combat ready’, but after Luo Yuhan’s intel made the rounds, the Admiral decided Fleet Marines would pay a visit to Shenhua. Hard. Fast. All of them. He needed a major victory because after the K-strike on Tien Chang and the failed raid at Wen Chang, the UNE was pressing him for a win.
Not fifteen minutes after the operation was announced, Marco, Chandra, and Esta arrived in the Box, suited up and boosted to the gills on endorphins and Go Pills.
Half of Marco’s face was one huge bruise. “No way some Marine puke is getting payback for us,” he explained. “Rucker would shit.”
I couldn’t argue that, so Zombie Six dropped at Shenhua with Third Marine Recon.
It turned out Luo Yuhan’s intelligence packet was accurate – inasmuch as the TIMs were definitely here in strength. Given that the tip on the Wen Chang meeting had originated in his department, at first I figured he was baiting us, trying to draw Fleet forces into another ambush. It was Katja who finally pointed out Luo Yuhan had to give up real, actionable information on the TIMs if he wanted to maintain his credibility and position in the KCA.
“It’s inevitable,” she observed. “You gotta step on both sides if you want to play the middle.”
If I could, I would have hauled the smarmy bastard into an interrogation room at a UNE Internal Security deep space black site and let psy-ops squeeze him until he gave up everything he knew. Then I’d have walked him out of an airlock. Unfortunately, that would have to go on my Christmas wish list. The Admiral decided Yuhan was legitimate and Operation Black Echo would proceed in good faith.
Fortunately, the Fleet added plenty of firepower as insurance. Colonel Kapoor and two tactical AI’s honed the mission particulars to a razor-sharp T. The full complement of Fleet Marine assault landers had swept in en masse at four a.m. local time, locked down the facility, seized the mine’s power and cooling stations, and secured the surrounding township. A comms blackout and curfew made it impossible for the insurgents to be warned or call for backup.
So we had surprised the TIMs, but not for long. They may have been low-tech but they weren’t stupid. We were on their home turf. The instant the first shots were fired they determined to make us pay in blood for every meter of tunnel.
The mine assault was two-prong advance: while Marines in Fat Boy suits stomped and shot their way down the main passages, Zombie Six was tasked with slinking down secondary tunnels to hunt TIM command and control. The Marines were composite armor, full-auto fumigators – we were ferrets going after the king rat.
Chandra was sorting through the crates, stacking ammo and power cells, and refilling his suit’s hydration pack. “We got more HMGPs.” He pronounced the acronym ‘Hum Gups’ for ‘High Mobility Gun Platforms’.
Hum Gups were ambulatory gun drones like the Pitbull but made for combat in the tight spaces and confined corridors of space ships and orbital habs. They had a small, hunchback chassis with a limited sensor suite and short-range weapons. But they were fast and agile as hell, and each of the four legs had 360-degree range of motion with grasping claws on the footpads. They could climb and cling to virtually any surface. Rucker used to call them ‘Gun Monkeys’.
His funeral was thirteen days ago and it felt like I was missing an arm.
I turned to Chandra. “How many did they give us?”
I nodded. “Bring them all online.”
Five was more than I had expected. We’d been burning through drones over the past two days, deploying them whenever and however we saw fit. I didn’t care how much they cost. Crude as Katja was at times, she was right about tunnel ops: enclosed, close quarter combat was a pile of suck and dangerous as hell – CRISIS operator or not. I had no problem spending drones by the drop pallet to keep my team alive. Five Hum Gups was barely enough if we were going to make real progress today and not get any holes in us.
The little drones chirped to life and scrambled up the walls on to ductwork and power cables on the ceiling. I watched them crawl down the passage ahead of us, hanging upside down. The TIMS had started repurposing seismic monitors to be motion detectors, then rigged them to trigger improvised anti-personnel mines on the tunnel floors. Both Marco and Chandra figured that was a bit of the Little Watchmaker’s handiwork.
“Sneaky bastard,” Marco commented after we lost our first stash of drones. “Low yield to prevent a cave-in but packed with enough boom to spray a kilo of scrap iron a hundred meters and turn anyone into kibbles and bits.”
Katja had smiled. “I can’t wait to kill this guy.”
We waited to let Chandra read the drones’ sensor feed on his control pad. “Another large cavern seventy meters ahead,” he reported after a minute. “Looks crowded.”
“How crowded?” I asked.
“Very. It’s a repair area so a small vehicle lift, a generator, and big bio-fuel tank. I see shelves and crates too.”
“Access and egress?”
“A shaft coming in from the south,” he said. “The track we’re on continues west, but widens enough for an ore cart or a buggy. And no, no sign of IEDs or unusual electronics.”
I grinned. “Those tunnels on the map?”
The mine schematic had been uploaded to our Tac-Net. Chandra checked the drones’ findings. “Yep. No mention of any repair bay though.”
That didn’t mean anything in and of itself. Even though the official company version was supposed to be up-to-date, routes and equipment locations followed the work load. Every new seam or demolition meant changes. The real problem was with unregistered tunnels and caverns. The deeper we went, the more we encountered. Which was both very bad and made perfect sense: 75% of the TIMs were miners. What better place to hide than in your own private burrow?
“Thermals?” I asked.
Chandra shook his head. “The cooling vents are shut. Ambient temps in the area are at 101 and rising.”
“That’s not a good sign,” Esta remarked.
Katja stood and grabbed her shotgun. “Sure it is.”
The deeper you dug towards the core, the hotter it got, so the Shenhua Deep Crust Mine was cooled by an elaborate ventilation system that pumped frigid air from the planet’s surface down through the tunnels, corridors, and shafts. Simple but effective, it was the cheapest way to make work this far underground bearable for humans and keep the machinery from overheating.
Problem was the TIM fighters had figured out they could fool our thermal scans by messing with the ventilation. Shut down an area’s blowers and the temperatures would rise enough to mask their thermal signatures. A drone’s sensors can’t distinguish body heat if everything in the room is 110 degrees.
“Movement?” I asked.
Chandra shook his head. “Nothing obvious, but the HMGPs are too far away for a good reading.”
The back of my neck was tingling. “Sweep again for radio or electronics.”
“Already done. Still nothing.”
Images of the Wen Chang office building flashed in my head. I switched to the squad link.
I don’t like it. I sent. We’re doing this the hard way. Again.
Well they keep asking for it, Katja replied. We’ve come this far, I’d hate to disappoint them.
Esta, Marco, and Chandra pulsed their agreement.
Unleash the Gun Monkeys, I sent to Chandra. Scan only.
A wave of sympathetic feedback washed over me. I had unconsciously used Rucker’s term for the drones. Zombie Six approved.
The tunnel clear of booby traps, we activated our suits’ mimetic camo and advanced toward the cavern, guns up. Anyone watching would only see five mottled shadows sweeping down the rocky corridor, brightening and fading under the spaced duct lights.
I halted the squad thirty meters from the junction. Chandra, got eyes in there yet?
Switching to visual now, he replied. Power and ventilation run down the middle of the room but I’m spreading ‘em out as much as I can.
The display feed turned into a choppy sequence of crazy, fish-eyed images and heat haze as the little drones scurried around hunting for threats and optimal angles-of-fire for their short range weapons. Their sensors scanned the cavern as they moved. Forty-five seconds later, our tactical computers converted the data into a map of the room. A minute and a half, we knew the layout down the millimeter.
A burst of gunfire rattled down the tunnel. The status indicator on drone three turned red.
And there they are, Chandra noted. Gun Monkeys going evasive.
The display blurred as the remaining four drones scattered. I cut my feed. Have them hold fire and mark targets until we’re in position. I ordered.
Esta was already there. Replay from drone five shows muzzle flare near the lift, she reported. Target marked.
An icon popped up on my mini-map display.
Drone one is showing two armed hostiles crouched behind the stack of blue crates on the left side of the west tunnel, Marco sent. One of them appears to have some kind of shoulder mounted weapon.
Two more icons appeared.
Rocket launcher? I asked.
Compact, small caliber, but sure looks like it, he answered.
Three hostiles spread out by the fuel tank, Marco said. Another shoulder mount.
Four more left of the south opening with Norinco QBZ-110s. Chandra sent.
My secondary display was suddenly crowded with red threat icons.
Damn, Esta said.
Home-made ape emerging from the west tunnel. She paused. It’s armed with a mag-cannon.
What? I exclaimed. You sure?
She squirted me a frame grab and the grainy image of a one-man construction rig flashed in my HUD. The operator’s cage was reinforced with bolt-on ferrocrete slabs and one hydraulic arm had been replaced with a long barrel weapon. I could make out the electro-magnetic coils and power lines running to a massive battery on its back. ‘Damn’ was right.
Assault weapons, compact RLs, now a Gauss gun… who’s giving these guys mil-spec weapons? Marco demanded.
The Captain and I met a guy– Katja started.
Stop, I sent.
Katja huffed. I’m just saying. You know it’s him.
Him who? Esta said.
Slimy KCA Suit, Katja explained. Told us about this place. Aren’t you glad?
Well whoever it is, Esta continued. The Timmies know we’re here now and they brought out their best toys.
More gunfire. Drones one and four went yellow.
Oooh… Getting nasty, Katja sent. I felt her straining not to rush ahead and open fire. She and Rucker had been close. The loss was still raw under her swagger.
I loaded a 40mm grenade in my Steyr’s under-barrel launcher. Let the drones engage, I sent to Chandra.
Gun Monkeys off the leash, he confirmed.
Shouts and the burp of small caliber auto-fire filled the tunnel. The little drones would keep the Timmies’ heads down and draw their fire while we approached.
Pick your targets, I sent to the squad. Immediately, every threat icon on the mini-map was tagged with a Zombie Six ID.
The shooting grew louder, punctuated with heavy rifle fire and the hum crack of a rail gun. Drone one went red.
I see it, I told Chandra before he could comment. Charlie don’t surf.
Our ‘Go’ code – another old movie line.
At that order, each member of Zombie Six cranked their neuralchems and the world sharpened, electric and hot. My mind exploded and reformed in the same instant, larger and multifaceted, as our neural links melded. An implant had flooded my system with adrenaline, serotonin, and acetylcholine to make the transition easier, but the meld was both shockingly merciless and unbelievably euphoric every single time. Suddenly I was five persons and the five were one and we were a pack of wolves, fierce and omniscient. It’s a rush like no other.
“A wargasm,” Rucker used to call it.
I’d cringe when he said it, not for how ugly it was, but how deep down I craved it, even though it meant people were going to die.
But that twisted rabbit hole would have to wait. Right then, we had a caseless 7.62 mm job to do. Zombie Six swept into the repair bay, guns firing.
Everything buzzed in the hi-def, rapid motion of some lethal psychotropic vision.
The Gun Monkeys were scuttling on the walls, hopping from crate to pipe to shelf, sensor eyes glowing, machine pistols in their humped backs spitting little tongues of flame.
Marco and Chandra spun left as we entered, dropping the four insurgents by the south tunnel. I could feel rifle recoil thumping on their shoulders. Something hissed over Marco’s shoulder and exploded on the wall behind him. Through Esta’s eyes I saw the construction rig heave its bulk their way, the rail gun muzzle rising.
Kill that, I sent, and we both fired 40mm grenades into the pilot’s cage. On my right, Katja jack-hammered the hostiles by the fuel tank with her full-auto shotgun. I saw/felt her howling rage as they came apart.
Eleven seconds later there was nothing moving but us, smoke, and echoes.
Clear, we/I said.
I dialed back the link. The five of us blinked and trembled as the meld receded while above us the three remaining Gun Monkeys stalked among the utility cables with mantis-like concentration.
“Anyone hit?” I already knew the answer was no, but each of us needed to say it to settle back into ourselves.
“We’re all good,” Marco confirmed.
It took five minutes to search the bodies for intelligence. Nothing but Shenhua Company IDs and Timmie propaganda.
“Well they’re not very helpful, are they?” Chandra said, nodding toward the dead insurgents by the south tunnel.
“If you hadn’t killed them, maybe we could have asked for directions,“ Esta answered.
“They were shooting at me,” he protested. “What did you expect? Plus, I seem to recall you putting holes in some of them too.” He nodded toward the sagging, shattered hulk of the construction rig. The lower half of the pilot was still strapped in. The rest of him was smeared across the walls in the west tunnel.
“OK. You have a point,” she admitted.
I turned to Chandra. “Have drone two scan their IDs and head back to the main shaft. Include the footage of this action along with full inventory of this equipment.”
He nodded. The maze of tunnels made secure communications with Fleet Marine Command impossible after the first couple of kilometers, so I had gotten into the habit of sending the most damaged drone back with regular updates on our location and progress.
“So which passage do we take now? Esta finally asked.
I was considering continuing west when Katja called out.
“Boss, come look at this.”
She was standing on the north side of the room looking annoyed. In taking down the five Timmies waiting there, she had emptied an entire drum of 12-guage ammunition – thirty-six rounds – and shredded one side of the big bio-diesel tank. “Why isn’t this leaking?”
She was right. Not only was the 250 gallon tank empty, it was perfectly dry.
I grabbed a flap of torn aluminum and pulled it aside to peer in. The entire tank shifted.
“What the — ?”
“Hot damn,” Kataj breathed.
Marco and Chandra leaned in and shoved. “One. Two. Three -”
A squeal and the entire tank rolled to one side and revealed a large steel grate, wide enough for two men side by side if they ducked. It was hinged and secured with a biometric lock.
Chandra pulled jacks from his wrist computer. “Hold on.” The lock popped five seconds later. “And no, this isn’t on the official map,” he added.
“So where…?” Esta started.
“Let’s find out,” I said.
Katja slammed another drum magazine into her Beowulf and swung open the grate. “Me first, I found it.”
NEXT – FIRE IN THE HOLE