9 – FIRE IN THE HOLE
Esta ran her gloved hand on the smooth tunnel wall. “What kind of excavator does this? It’s like it was melted.” She turned and looked at us. “What melts rock?”
“Magma,” Marco offered. “This tube could be from a volcanic event. A tectonic shift when the valley was formed.”
Katja shook her head. “A circular magma vent exactly nine point three meters in diameter cut in a direct east-west line on a precise eighteen degree slope?” Her faceplate was up and she arched one eyebrow. “We’ve been walking for twenty minutes and it’s straight as a laser.”
Marco shrugged. “Except that it’s old, is all. See how the rock is dark and worn?”
“Damn it Jim, I’m a doctor. Not a geologist,” Marco joked, then went serious. “I’m guessing here but it’s not just pre-colony – it’s prehistoric.”
“Well whenever it is, it’s not on the map,” Chandra noted. He flicked the official SMC topographical survey to the squad link. “The Shenhua Mining Company doesn’t even drill for mineral samples in this area. It’s marked ‘geologically unstable.’”
“Yet here we are,” Esta countered. “Looks pretty stable to me.”
“Those air vents and power cables are brand new,” I pointed out. “Plus, there are SMC logos stamped or stuck on every other piece. So… yeah.”
A segmented aluminum ventilation duct ran atop brackets bolted to the tunnel wall at head height on our right. Power and fiber optic cables were strung alongside it, zip-tied in a single fat bundle. All of it was so shiny fresh, the air still carried the acrid bite of adhesives, plastic, and lube oil. Industrial LED bars wired every twenty meters bathed the passage in sterile, intermittent light. Despite the new equipment, the passage was strangely empty, quiet, and except for the construction confetti of snipped color-coded cable ends and shiny metal scraps littering the rounded floor, unusually clean.
“Looks like a rush job,” I said, referring to the ductwork. “Or a temporary set up.”
“Until permanent infrastructure is installed?” Chandra offered.
“All I want to know is where the hell it goes,” Katja said. “We get to light a fire in the hole or not?”
Marco ignored her, studying the tunnel’s walls as we crept ahead. “You don’t think they dug this, do you?” he asked. “The TIMs developed some kind of plasma drill?”
“They’d have dropped KCA Headquarters in a sinkhole already if they had,” I said. “The TIMs steal gear, not develop it.”
“Then they found it,” Chandra said. “Mine crew looking for new mineral seams drills into an unmarked, undiscovered shaft, and Bang – they praise Allah and put it to use for their glorious revolution.”
“We’re sure this is the TIMs now?” Esta asked. She motioned at the ventilation and power lines. “Hard to believe someone at SMC wouldn’t notice all this equipment gone missing. Plus the power drain.”
“That was a lot of firepower for a repair station back there,” I said. “They were protecting that hidden entrance.”
“Or maybe they didn’t like us,” she said. “Fleet marines are kicking in their front door, after all. Shooting back is understandable.”
“Well it’s big enough to hide an army, that’s for sure,” Chandra said.
“And here’s us, heading deeper into it,” Marco replied dryly.
“Hell yes,” Katja said. She turned to me. “So if there are Timmies, we telling the Admiral, or taking care of it ourselves?”
I hesitated. Above ground, Zombie Six could take out a platoon without breaking a sweat. Tunnel fighting was a knife fight in a closet: everything depended on surprise and firepower. And we were much shorter on the second than I liked. The fight in the repair bay had destroyed two of our five gun drones and damaged the weapon on a third. The subterranean rock formations blocked all but short range or hard line communication, so we had divided up its remaining ammunition among the other two and sent it back up the tunnels with an update for Fleet HQ. That was the only way we could report our status and location to Fleet TOC. We had the remaining two drones on point, creeping down slope twenty meters out front. I wasn’t keen on sending one away to play messenger so soon, especially when we were walking in a mystery tunnel.
“Two Gun Monkeys are better than one,” I finally said. “We run into serious trouble, we’ll call for back up.”
Katja frowned. “Like we need Fleet pukes to bail us out.”
“We will if we run into an army,” I said.
“So far, this place is quiet as a tomb,” she countered.
“I know. And it’s bothering me.” I nodded toward the darkened stretch ahead. “This place is off and I can’t put my finger on it.”
She scowled and hefted her shotgun, half Slavic scorn, half nervous brush off. I knew she felt it too. We all did – I sensed it in the squad link: a tiny splinter of strange digging in the back of our collective mind.
Marco had called it prehistoric, but ‘primeval’ was the better word. The passage didn’t just look old, it felt old, like we were creeping through the planet’s ancient arteries. Even worse, it was straight as an underground rail tube. That degree of particular-ness meant intent. It required engineering, engineering with technology that melted rock like wax. As far as I knew, neither the Shenhua Mining Company nor the Kepler Colonial Administration- not even the Fleet – possessed that kind of tech.
So if not them, then who?
Before that thought could run into the deep end, the Gun Monkeys’ sensors jumped. We weren’t alone anymore.
Zombie Six stopped dead in their tracks even as the word Halt formed in my mind.
Chandra flicked the drone feed to our HUDs. Passage levels off and ends in thirty-two point three meters. Noise levels are through the roof.
Noise? Esta asked. Insurgents?
Chandra expanded a frame grab from a drone’s camera. The image was grainy but there were four figures in laborer’s coveralls and stolen KCA body armor, cradling automatic twelve-gauge riot guns, backlit at the end of the tunnel. Bearded, gaunt, tense. Typical TIM fighters.
Chandra continued. Four armed hostiles, stationary. Sensors read a shitload of activity behind them. Echolocation indicates tunnel opens into large cavern.
What kind of activity? I sent.
Don’t have a clean view but it looks like the frantic kind. Sounds like it too. Chandra glanced at me. Want me to send the drones in for a closer look?
Zombie Six moved up and readied their weapons. Do it, I ordered Chandra. Sneak and peek only.
You got it, Boss.
At that, Chandra flicked a series of commands through the tactical link to the Gun Monkeys. Deliberate as mantises, the small drones separated and crept forward in the shadows on either side of the sloping floor.
I thumbed the safety off my Steyr and watched the video feed slowly, incrementally, grow larger.
Patch me the audio, I sent to Chandra.
Immediately the tinny chatter of voices and machinery filled my headset. Most of it was indistinguishable, but there was an overriding urgency to the tone. Babble edged with panic.
Sounds like they’re in trouble, Esta commented. Guess the Fleet Jarheads are making progress.
One voice stood out. A male, shouting. He was angry, speaking too rapidly to understand but there was no mistaking the note of command. He was someone used to giving orders and being obeyed. I strained to pick out words, phrases, but there was too much background bustle.
Can you isolate the shouter? I sent to Chandra.
Working on it now.
I waited as Chandra pecked away at the drone controller, fine-tuning their limited sensors and filtering the data feed. The camera images continued to expand in stop-motion slowness as the Gun Monkey’s picked their way nearer to the guards, inch by inch. The cameras in their ‘heads’ kept dropping in and out of focus, shifting between the guards and the flurry of motion behind them. Thankfully, the guards were too absorbed with whatever was going on in the cavern to notice the Gun Monkeys sneaking up on them.
Moments later, the drones were close enough to distinguish snatches of Uyghur, Turkic, and Mandarin.
Well, well, Katja said. Looks like we found the Morlocks.
Extra credit for classical literature reference, Chandra quipped. Nice.
Hey, I read, Katja protested. I would have said ‘Arne Saknussemm’ but I didn’t think you’d catch it.
Swedish footballer, right? Midfielder.
Clip that, both of you, I said. This is fucking serious. I felt them both smile.
I am fucking serious, Katja replied. So we going in or waiting for back up?
We needed more info to make that call. I was about to tell her to dial her anger back to ten and be patient when static hissed in my headset and the shouter’s voice came through.
“–tell Yuhan to invoke KCA autonomy and call them off. We’ve paid that shit-eating dog for years, supported him, protected him, bought the votes that got him where he is, and now is the time for him to step up.”
Yuhan, Katja sent. Told you he was a weasel.
A shit-eating dog, apparently, I sent back. Now be quiet.
In the cavern, there was a short, sharp blurt of Mandarin in reply.
The voice’s next words were tight and trembling with fury. “I don’t care how. Tell him if the attack doesn’t stop in the next twenty minutes, I will blow his blasphemous artifact to tiny pieces. You tell him I had al-Asiri rig it with enough explosives to reduce it to atoms. You tell him that.”
Did he say ‘artifact’? Marco and Chandra asked at the same time.
OK, I’m officially curious, Esta admitted.
Katja snickered. Hell, if it’s important to Yuhan, I’ll blow it up.
Right then, Drone One’s camera focused on a shape between the middle two guards, the visible section of a structure that dominated the central area in the cavern behind them.
What the hell is that? I asked. Chandra ordered the drones to halt in place.
The picture fuzzed then resolved on a dark, curved shape. It was upright with a sliver of space to one side as if it were a pillar or pylon for something larger. The black surface was covered in intricate geometric lines like circuitry. I made out a low railing and part of a platform.
Is that what cut this tunnel? Esta asked. The rock melter?
I have no id—
Before I could finish the thought the stone under my boots shivered. It was the slightest quiver, lasted less than three seconds, but it rattled my soul. A wave of dread swept through my gut. Two seconds later the lights flickered and went out. A cry went up from the cavern, a hundred voices jabbering in fear and anger.
Chandra hunched over, listening intently. He looked up at us after a full minute. They’re saying they blew the main shaft.
Fleet. Fleet just sealed the mine.
Any way you can confirm that? I asked.
Me? Chandra exclaimed. No. But they’re pretty sure. He pointed down the tunnel to the TIMs in the cavern.
Kataj sighed. Well now I’m really pissed.
NEXT: HIT THEIR PARTICULAR FAN