Over the next five hours our little column backtracked through the secondary tunnels, past areas Zombie Six had fought over on the way down, and worked its way toward the mine’s central corridor. The halogen lamps picked out signs of combat as we went. Bodies, bullet holes, scorch marks, impacts. Plenty of dead TIMS. No sign of Fleet troops however.
“Looks like the Marines did pull back,” Marco commented.
“And fucking left us? No way,” Katja said. “The Admiral would never leave a trooper behind.”
“And yet here we are,” Esta concluded.
That thought sat heavy in the air.
“We were detached from the main force,” Chandra volunteered. “Separate objectives. Off the comm-net.”
“Yeah, and that pretty much describes every CRISIS team mission,” Katja retorted. “Something must have gone upside down fast.” She turned to Koresh Bozan. “Like your terrorist buddies blowing the mine.”
The insurgent returned her glare steadfastly. “I’m telling you it wasn’t –“
“Save your breath,” she snapped, and turned her attention back to al-Asiri.
“On a related note… at least the ventilation is still on,” Chandra noted.
“You better pray it stays on,” Marco said. “Or we’ll all have to save our breath.”
I shoved that cheery ‘what-if’ aside for a moment and focused. If Fleet did get wind of a last-ditch TIM plan to collapse the mine, there’s no doubt Admiral Sota and Colonel Kapoor would have pulled the Marines back. Marine Command would try to save the most the quickest. CRISIS teams were used to fending for ourselves behind enemy lines. The problem was the communications blackout. There was no sign of the Gun Monkey Relays we’d sent back earlier and we were still too deep underground to re-establish comms or link with the Fleet Tactical Network to confirm anything at all. The few hard line communication sets we came across were either shot up or dead. The mine’s closed-in crypt feel was bad, but not knowing what the hell happened was worse.
“We’ll determine exactly what’s going on when we get up top,” I said loudly. I may have been uneasy but the five Chinese scientists were having a particularly tough go of it. I needed them to stay motivated.
“We’ll take a ten minute break,” I added. “Hydrate, eat something, do your business. Then get ready. We’re almost there.”
Which was accurate but not quite true.
I opened the squad-link. No bullshit – how are the scientists holding up? I asked Marco.
Rickety, he replied. They’re not built for this. And they’re traumatized on top of it.
How’s your new BFF doing? I asked Katja.
He doesn’t have much gas left, she admitted. Like I said, I got no problem dragging him though, she added cheerily.
My plan had been to get out of the secondary tunnel system as soon as possible – which should have been easy, except between the fighting and the explosion, many of the smaller passages were blocked by debris. Several times we thought we’d found a clear passage only to have to turn back. Bozan’s prediction about mines and turrets sounded prescient when we very nearly got chopped up by a pair of Turtles on level Five. Some genius had set up two of the stationary, armored gun emplacements at a tunnel junction. The lead Gun Monkey disintegrated when both turrets burped out one-second bursts. The whine of spinning barrels and cordite whiffed down the tunnel, and the rest of us backed the hell up fast. The passage was low and single file; it would have been like feeding bodies into a wood chipper.
Chandra was pissed. “Target recognition: a big red switch on the back of the housing. Says it in big block letters right above it, but no, some trooper can’t flip one goddamn switch and activate the IFF.”
“Maybe they were in a hurry,” Esta offered.
“Maybe they had orders not to,” Bozan countered.
My suit’s power level hovered at 41%. I didn’t have the inclination to argue with him, nor was I going to try and convince two dumb-bots spewing 4,000 rounds per minute we were on their side. So w detoured and kept looking for a clear path up and out.
We’re almost there, I told myself. Just a little more.
I wasn’t sure what I’d do if it turned out someone had sealed the mine. Some part of me didn’t want to believe it, but the closer we got to the surface, the more cracked walls and partial collapses we came across.
It took three tries and another hour but we finally reached level Four. It was the mine’s sorting and haulage area, and the electric rail system for the ore carts all led to the main corridor. Another three hundred meters and we would be on our way out of this hole. We even found a Fleet cache with some ammunition, protein bars, and water. No spare batteries or power cells though. Not exactly good luck but close enough.
I gave everyone another ten minutes and allowed myself a sigh of relief.
More fool me.
We set out after the break along one of the conveyor tracks and ran into the collapse before we’d gone seventy meters. The lamp beams played across a huge wall of tumbled rubble. It wedged in the tunnel like a cork in a bottle.
Suit Level: 38%
Koresh Bozan stepped into the light and scrutinized the fall-in for several minutes. “The demolitions were placed right at the bearing plates,” he said finally. “See the hole in the tunnel roof, how the upper level spills down? The more you dig, the more falls down to fill the space. Someone knew what they were doing.”
“Like a miner, you mean?” Katja deadpanned. Her gaze rested on Ahmed al-Asiri for several seconds. “Probably used some of his handiwork, right?”
Al-Asiri cursed. Bozan didn’t reply.
This whole episode was starting to piss me off. “Stow that shit, Sergeant Horvat.”
I turned to Marco. “Find me an alternate route out of here, RFN.”
Marco placed a holo-projector on the ground and swiped the official SMC map to the display. The scientists gasped as glowing, 3D mine schematics bloomed in the darkness. A blinking blue cursor indicated our position.
“The maintenance lifts are up in area Two C,” Marco explained. The cursor started to move. “We should be able to get there, but we’ve got to go back down to Five and take this side passage east. The map shows it circling around, but so long as it’s clear, we should be able to climb up this shaft into area Two A. Here.” The cursor stopped higher in the display but on the far side of the central tunnel.
“We’d come up on the wrong side of the corridor,” he concluded. “But all we would need to do from there is cross over and catch the lift.”
“So long as the main passage isn’t caved in on that level too,” I amended.
“So long as the main tunnel’s not caved in,” he agreed.
Go back down to go around and then climb… I bit back an ugly word. “How long would that take?” I asked instead.
“Two hours? Less if we hustle.”
More drain on suits, batteries, and bodies. And I was not at all happy at the prospect of a three-story climb with prisoners and exhausted scientists.
“Well we obviously can’t go forward.” I said. “And we can’t stay here. Backtracking down two levels sucks too.” I paused and looked over the group. “If anyone has been holding back on bright ideas, now would be a great time.”
Bozan had shifted to my right and was staring at the hologram. I watched him debate whatever was bouncing around in his mind. “There’s another route to the surface,” he finally offered.
Katja started to protest but I held up my hand. “Where?” I demanded. “Show me.”
The aged miner-turned terrorist reached into the glowing wireframe. His finger traced a path from our current locator icon to a small vertical shaft nearby.
“That’s on this level,” I said.
He nodded. “It’s an old drainage shaft. We put a hoist in there last year to smuggle in supplies and weapons. There’s a small cage but two trips would easily bring us all up.”
“And we are listening to this guy, why?” Katja demanded.
“You know another way, I’m all ears,” I said.
“This is bullshit. These guys killed Rucker.”
“Like I forgot?” I retorted. “We’re under a mountain right now, running out of power, light, time and maybe even air. This might be our only way out.”
“Where does your elevator come up?” I asked Bozan.
“In a transport maintenance station south of the facility, along the number four haul road.”
“Away from the main entrance.”
“Obviously,” he replied. “It’s outside the perimeter fence near the dump piles.”
Katja was listening with a scowl. “So you’re going to trust this guy?” she demanded.
“Of course not,” I replied. “But we’ve got to get ourselves and everyone else to the surface in one piece.”
“Point,” Katja conceded. “But I don’t like it.”
“If it helps, neither do I.”
Marco interjected on the squad link. Any TIM survivors will be headed this elevator too, thinking the exact same thing.
I grabbed Bozan’s arm and pulled him to my side. “Well they better not get in our way,” I answered out loud.
NEXT: CHARLIE FOXTROT