10 – HIT THEIR PARTICULAR FAN
There’s no starlight two miles underground. No ambient urban light pollution, no stray photons. When the lights go out everything goes black. Utterly black. It’s darkness beyond mere absence of light; it’s palpable. Thick. It filled the air so fast, so absolutely, it’s as if it’s been lurking in the depths for the slightest chance to pounce. We mock superstition and myth, but there’s a good reason the ancients called the underworld an ‘abyss’.
Go to infrared, I sent.
Our visors switched to thermal vision and the tunnel bloomed into a hot palette of yellows, oranges, and reds. The cold stone formed a backdrop of deep indigo blue. Normally, we could only use thermographic imagery for short spurts in specific circumstances. The processing drained our power cells, but we had no choice here. Without it, we were blind as worms.
The uproar in the chamber was rising to ‘full-panic’ level. The guards at the end of the tunnel had moved to join the clamor seconds after the lights cut. Everyone in there was rattled hard.
Katja pointed with the muzzle of her shotgun. We got TIM leaders in the bag. I say we go pay ‘em a visit, RFN.
What about the thing that’s rigged to blow? Marco sent. The artifact.
Katja’s impatience radiated on the squad link. We secure it. Whatever the hell it is, she insisted.
Our mission objective was to capture or incapacitate TIM leadership, and that goal was on a platter just twenty meters away. Three minutes of a little ‘violence of action’ and Zombie Six would be done for the day. The hitch in that plan was it had a hi-explosive string attached. Or so some insurgent leader had just claimed.
A bluff? Or was this literally going to blow up in our faces?
I’d kill for another five minutes to recon the chamber and find out for certain, but the TIMs down there were getting more stressed by the second. Their enemy was advancing, the mine was sealed, the lights were out… the shit had hit their particular fan dead center and sprayed all over their parade. My gut told me someone was either going to start shooting out of sheer frustration and terror, or they’d fumble their way to a generator and flip the switch. Either way, I didn’t want us caught in the open.
My HUD showed my power level at 63% and dropping steadily. Not good, but we’d come too far to back off now. I slung my Steyr on my back and drew my Sig MPX 10mm. ‘Who dares, wins’ was the old SAS motto. ‘Or dies trying something really stupid,’ I told myself.
Ghost time, I sent. Sidearms and blades only. Drop any armed guards first, then ID and secure TIM leaders for interrogation. And for all our sakes, secure anything that even looks like a detonator.
A fierce anticipation pulsed on the squad link.
I continued. Katja and I go left. Marco and Esta, right. Chandra and the Gun Monkeys stay at the entrance and provide cover. We good?
We’re good, came the answer.
I screwed a suppressor on the end of the pistol then drew my knife from the drop-down sheath on my chest. Let’s go.
We entered the chamber and fanned out. Our tactical implants gathered the feed from our helmet cams, synced it with the sensor data from the drones, and tagged the precise location of nineteen hostiles before we’d gone three steps. Augmented vision highlighted visible weapons while facial-recog software scanned and matched everyone against KCA employee databases. Three point nine seconds later we had eleven armed guards and eight civilians. No explosives detected. I let out a sigh of relief – one less thing to worry about.
In addition to the Little Watchmaker himself, Ahmed al- Asiri, there was a Shenhua Mine Union boss named Koresh Bozan. Both were seated on some crates. Al-Asiri was grim faced and silent, but Bozan was still shouting orders into a handset. Beside him stood an elderly woman, arms wrapped around her chest, rocking back and forth. It sounded like she was praying. She came up in the Chang 3 civilian database as ‘Doctor Aynur Ametjan’. Her sparse profile listed her as chief researcher at the KCA’s Department of Planetary Survey and Settlement.
Five other unarmed men and women were crouched together near the large, strange-looking object the in the center of the chamber. I wanted to stop and stare but there was no time; the guards were ready to pop off. Clearly agitated, they were arrayed around the chamber against the wall gesturing wildly, blindly with their rifles. All it would take is one shot and full-auto hell would break loose. One of them had enough sense to try for the lights: he was groping his way towards a generator, weaving like a drunk.
Take the guards down, I sent.
We moved with our knives through the pitch black cavern like avenging shades at a midnight reckoning. Eleven bodies slid to the floor in under five minutes.
My gloves were sticky and warm when I came up behind Koresh Bozan. Esta stood behind the doctor, Chandra and the Gun Monkey’s advanced to cover the huddle of civilians, and Katja pointed her Sig at al-Asiri’s head.
I yanked Bozan’s head back and laid the knife on his at the same time I signaled for Marco to turn on the generator. The chamber burst to light. Koresh Bozan stopped shouting.
I leaned in and whispered in his ear. “Tell them you’ll call them back. You’ve got company.”
Bozan uttered something short and sharp, then slowly set the handset down. He raised his hands. “I’m not armed. I surrender,” he said in English.
“Goddamn right, you surrender,” Katja growled. She pressed the muzzle of her pistol to al-Asiri’s temple. “You so much as breath fast, chuvak, I’ll hole your skull. Now, hands behind your head.”
Scowling, the Little Watchmaker lifted his hands to his head and laced his fingers together. He looked exactly like his KCA ID picture: a small, bearded face tight and ugly as a fist. Esta was beside Doctor Ametjan, an older woman with delicate Middle Eastern features and short graying hair who was furiously blinking, trying to regain her sight and comprehend what just happened. Chandra and the Gun Monkeys watched over the five civilians who were thoroughly cowed and babbled nervously among themselves. I withdrew my knife and came around to face Bozan, my pistol trained on his chest.
Koresh Bozan was a stocky, middle-aged man in his fifties. He wore heavy-duty canvas work gear and a red wool kufi or skull cap. His face was flat and clean-shaven, creased by years of hard labor. The contrast of olive skin and narrow eyes attested to his mixed ethnicity. Russian bogatyrs, Mongol horsemen, and Han Dynasty foot soldiers all gazed back at me, unflinching.
“You’re dead,” he said when I’d stopped in front of him.
“What did just you say?” I asked.
“You heard me.” He gestured to the handset he’d been using. “According to the Colonial Administration, insurgent forces just set off a massive explosion, collapsing the main shaft and killing ourselves and all Fleet Armed forces inside the Shenhua Mine. ‘A final act of fanatical desperation’ they said.”
“The tremor,” I said.
He nodded once.
“And you’re telling me that wasn’t you?”
He shook his head. “Why would we do that?”
“Because martyrdom is your gold ticket to paradise,” Katja snapped. She jabbed al-Asiri in the head with her pistol. “And blowing people to shit is this little urod’s specialty.”
Bozan shrugged. “It wasn’t us. The Colonial Administration sealed the mine.” He paused. “And killed your comrades.”
I reached for a zip cuff. “I don’t know how you think this bullshit is going help,” I said. “There are secondary exits, you know that. Conjure up all the conspiracies you want, we’re going to haul your ass up to the surface and hand you over to the KCA.”
He stood and held his hands out in front of him. “As you wish. But know that by now, KCA Security forces have locked them down with spider mines and automated turrets. They’ll be programmed to kill anything that comes up those tunnels. You’re probably already listed as dead, which means your IFF chips won’t work. No one is getting out of here alive. Not even you. Luo Yuhan and the KCA Administrators will do whatever it takes to preserve their secret – even if it means killing UNE soldiers.”
I raised an eyebrow at the mention of Yuhan’s name. Bozan nodded. “I take it you’ve met the honorable deputy already.”
Not like I’d put murder and deceit past Deputy Administrator Yuhan, but deliberately killing Fleet troops was a bit of a leap, even for a scum-sucker like him.
“You expect me to believe you?” I asked sarcastically. “Bureaucrat like Yuhan is going to have a closet full of secrets. But why would he risk his career, his standing, his life even, destroying the mine and intentionally targeting UNE forces? He’d be shot if even a hint of that ever came to light.”
Koresh Bozan nodded toward the center of the chamber. “For that.” His voice hardened. “His precious artifact.”
I turned around, pulling Bozan with me.
The ‘artifact’ dominated the middle of the cavern, rising up in the glare of floodlights to nearly disappear in the shadows of the rock ceiling twenty meters up. It looked like an industrial-sized, abstract sculpture: four giant, blade-like fins arched up, curving protectively inward and converging over the center of a circular platform.
Earlier the Gun Monkey’s camera had focused on part of a pylon to reveal a sliver of intricate carvings. I saw now that the surface of each enormous blade was covered with complex, tiny etching like circuitry. It formed strange interlocking symbols up and down the pylon. The overall effect resembled a maddeningly elaborate skein of computerized, Mayan-like glyphs.
The strangest thing however was in the open space enclosed by the arciform fins: the center of the platform was hazy. I could see through it to the other side of the cavern but the air was blurred, sliding like oil on rippling water. I tried to look closer but my gaze kept slipping off to one side or the other as if my eyes couldn’t understand what they were seeing. After a minute I flicked my thermal vision back on. An orb of deepest ice-cold black appeared, hovering between the arching fins.
A shiver went up my spine. “What is that?” I asked Bozan.
“I don’t know. No one does,” he replied.
“You were down here guarding it, threatening to blow it up, and you have no idea what it does?” Katja scoffed. “Why are we listening to this guy?” she asked me.
Chandra interrupted, looking at Bozan. “You’re a miner. Do you think that thing made the tube tunnel ?”
Katja snapped at him. “Hey, don’t fucking talk over me here. ‘Capture or incapacitate’, those are our orders. I say we extreme prejudice these bastards, swab their DNA, and bring photos of their corpses to Admiral Sota. For Rucker. ” She glared at Chandra, then at me. “Tell me I’m wrong.”
“It changes everything.”
Doctor Ametjan’s voice was soft but it cut through the tension. She was looking at us with eyes a notch wider than sane.
She turned to Esta and continued as if she were the only other person in the room. “You must understand the tunnels pre-date the colony by centuries. The Locus has been down here all that time. Waiting in the dark.”
“The locus?” Esta prompted.
Dr. Ametjan waved at the platform impatiently. She spied the civilians cowering at the base of the platform and curled her lip. “They insist it was constructed by a human species. Ancient propagators of life on our planet. ‘Forerunners’ they called them. But they’re wrong.”
“And who are they?” I asked, referring to the five civilians.
“Experts,” She spit out the word. “From Earth.”
“They’re from Earth?“
Doctor Ametjan sneered. “By direct order of the National People’s Congress. The finest minds in extrasolar anthropology sent five-hundred light years, and all they bring is politics and prejudices.” She leaned toward them and yelled. “They can’t admit the obvious even though it’s right in front of them.”
“What is obvious?” Esta asked.
Doctor Ametjan thrust a finger at the artifact. “The Locus,” she hissed. “Is not of human origin. It was made by an alien species. Not a human one.”
She turned on the civilians yelled again. “And they’re not extinct.”
Holy shit, Marco and Esta sent.
She just say ‘alien species’? Chandra added. I heard that, right?
OK, the crazy lady is creeping me out, Katja said. I vote we blow it up and head back to the surface.
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t tempted, if only for a fleeting second.
Silence reigned in the cavern for a good minute. Finally, Bozan spoke up. “And now perhaps you think I’m not telling conspiracies and bullshit.”
He looked at me, then the artifact, then back to me again. “Believe me or no, but I tell you it was the Kepler Colonial Administration who sealed the mine and killed your men. Not us. Luo Yuhan and his cronies would drown this entire planet in blood to keep the Locus for themselves.”