Marco had been right: Bozan’s ‘secret’ elevator wasn’t secret anymore. The TIMS were ferrying their wounded up to the surface a dozen at a time. And they had a lot of wounded. The passages around the lift shaft were crowded with casualties.
“Looks like the Marines were busy,” Esta noted.
I had crammed everyone into a small chamber a seventy meters away from our goal. Our last Gun Monkey squatted on top of a ventilation duct that overlooked the elevator room and Chandra had routed its feed directly to our visors’ HUDs. A crude steel grate platform was braced and welded into one of the mine’s narrow drainage shaft. We counted three medics tending seventeen wounded. An old bio-diesel generator rattled nearby.
Wounded insurgents, unlucky miners caught in the cross fire… you couldn’t tell the difference under all the blood, bandages, and busted bones. The only bright spot was none of them had any weapons and the medics were only carrying side arms. From snatches of their conversations, it sounded like what was left of the able-bodied TIM fighters were on higher up in the mine near the main entrance, waiting with itchy trigger fingers for Fleet commandos to pop out of bore holes like some deadly version of Whack-A-Mole.
Probably not true, but that wild rumor gave us a clear shot almost all the way to the elevator room. But ‘almost’ only counts in horse shoes. And hand grenades.
“The wounded shouldn’t be a problem,” Marco said. “But the medics might.”
“I could talk to them,” Koresh Bozan suggested. “Negotiate safe passage.” Accustomed to Colonial Security, I suspect he was worried we would shoot them.
“That’s not going to happen,” I replied, referring to both Zombie Six killing wounded combatants and his chatting with the TIM medics. I linked with Chandra. How many rounds left in the Gun Monkey?
77, he replied.
I smell a plan.
More of a distraction, I explained. We draw those medics away. A couple grenades, a few bursts of the SMG fire should sound like the Fleet has infiltrated the mine. At least for a few minutes. Say goodbye to your last drone.
You still have that nano-glass stick, right? The Locus data?
Copy all the audio and video from the cavern onto another shard. I want us to have our own record of everything that went down, especially what Bozan and Doctor Ametjan said.
Doing it now, Boss. You think we need insurance?
I think the Admiral will be very interested in the other side of the story, I sent. If in fact Deputy Minister Yuhan knew about the tunnels and the cavern all along, I wager the UNE Security Council and the members of the Extra-Solar Colonies Committee would find it fascinating too.
So you believe Bozan? he asked.
I sure as shit don’t trust Deputy Minister Yuhan, I countered.
We waited until the elevator was on its way back down to begin our ‘assault’.
Three micro-grenades on delayed fuses and a side serving of semi-auto fire were all it took to draw the medics away. They reacted the way they should: moving into the central tunnel to defend the wounded. Chandra had the drone retreat as they advanced, pulling them after it with poorly-aimed three-round bursts that ricocheted off the walls and roof.
We had maybe five minutes before the TIM medics realized they were fighting a single Gun Monkey, so Esta and Marco dashed ahead while Katja and I hustled our two prisoners and the five civilian scientists right on their heels. Chandra brought up the rear. When all of us reached the wounded, we simply acted like we belonged there. Between Bozan and Al-Asiri, our weapons and unmarked combat suits, none of them so much as gave us a second glance.
The elevator cage was cramped, rusty, and sticky with blood. The generator wheezed and shook. But it worked. Ignoring the weight limits, everyone packed in and up we went. After two days of non-stop combat, the stress, the darkness, and the Locus, a slow, rattling ride to the surface was positively anti-climactic. Weirdly boring to the point of surreal.
We get up top, keep the bluff going, I sent. Anyone asks, we’re escorting Bozan and al-Asiri to safety. Esta and Marco, you spread out in case someone figures out who we actually are and tries to play hero.
Roger that, came the reply.
Going up, Marco announced on the squad link. Top Floor: chilblains, frostbite, armed dissidents, and inept bureaucracies.
Exactly what I came here for, Esta said.
The elevator cage emerged into dull light with a gritty squeal. The cage door clattered open. We were inside a large, enclosed space in a corner of a building partially hidden by shelves filled with tools and machine parts. The air was sharp and cold compared to the stale warmth underground. Tundra winds moaned outside. All of us registered movement, people and Zombie Six tensed for action. My augmented awareness processed sixty-eight persons before I realized I had counted them. My tactical computer marked each person, the machinery, the height and width of the shelves, the location of welding gear, a hydraulic lift, engine parts, a row of Isuzu bulk haulers…
Another two-tenths of a second and it had determined the men lying on the concrete floor were wounded, triaged in groups by severity. A handful of men and women with white armbands strode toward us as the elevator stopped. They pulled up short when they saw we were armed, not injured. Two of them even held up their hands to calm us or perhaps surrender. I didn’t know. One, a woman with broad, dark features, began speaking carefully, slowly.
My Babel Fish software translated. “It’s OK. You’re OK. We’re here to help. Are any of you hit? Injured? Lower the guns and let me see.”
I stepped forward and slid the cage door up, smiling, and shook my head. Esta and Marco ducked past me and fanned out into the garage. Katja and Chandra stayed in the cage with our prisoners and the Chinese scientists. I was about to say something to the medic when my Com-link chirped. It was Sahito on the CRISIS tactical network. I held up my hand, raising my Steyr slightly, and stopped her in her tracks.
“Captain Dante, your Med-chip is online. Along with the rest of Zombie Six.”
“Good to hear from you too,” I replied.
I motioned for Chandra to deal with the woman and focused on the A.I. “We’ve been under a lot of rock and unable to sync with the Fleet Tac-Net.”
“I was concerned,” Sahito said. “The entire team is listed as M-PD.”
That was news. “Missing, Presumed Dead? When did that happen?”
“Six hours and twenty nine minutes ago, approximately one point five hours after a series of detonations collapsed the mine’s entrance.”
“I know about the collapse but we’ve been sending regular updates back to Fleet Op-Center via drone relay,” I protested. “The most recent was last night. Who the hell listed us as M-PD?”
“I have no record of any such status reports. The latest casualty and damage assessment was compiled by the KCA security forces,” Sahito explained.
KCA security? That smelled all kinds of wrong. “Since when does the Kepler Colonial Administration monitor Fleet casualties? What the hell is Fleet Ground Ops Command doing?”
There was the briefest of delays before the AI spoke again. “Marine G.O.C. was ordered to cease operations.”
“Ordered to cease –? Whose orders?”
“What? What the hell is Admiral Sota doing? What about the Fleet? The mission?”
“The Admiral is no longer authorized to conduct operations in the Kepler system,” Sahito explained. “Kepler Colonial Security Services have resumed command of all counter-insurgency efforts. It was their office provided the damage and casualty list.” The Fleet has been ordered to return to Earth.”
The seed of unease Bozan had planted about the Deputy Minister and the Locus hardened into an ugly lump. “So you telling me the KCA is in charge again?”
“Affirmative. Colonial Administration resumed its jurisdiction over the Kepler system approximately seven hours ago. Civilian Safety Protocols have been enacted, imposing a state of martial law on Mèng Tiān until the current crisis is resolved.”
“Crisis”… it was more a goat screw of epic proportions. I looked around at my team, the Chinese scientists, Doctor Ametjan, Bozan, and al-Asiri. Wounded insurgents murmured and groaned on the floor, and there were at least a hundred more still down in the mine, plus an undetermined number of armed and angry TIMs. I pictured the smooth-walled tube tunnels and the Locus sitting in a silent, pitch black chamber two miles under my feet… It was time to fall back and regroup. We could sort this mess out in the Box with the Admiral and Colonel Kapoor later.
“Sahito, patch our location to the nearest Fleet ship for an evac, the team plus eight civilians.”
“Negative, Captain Dante. I am unable to route transport to your location.”
I’d have sworn the chill in the air just dropped ten degrees. “Sahito,” I asked slowly. “Where are you?”
“On the Hephaestus, Captain Dante. Where else would I be?”
I let out an exasperated sigh. “Fine. Where is the Fleet?”
“The Fleet has been ordered to return to Earth and is currently fast-burning to the Kepler System Fold-Space Transition Point beyond K-186F orbit.”
Approaching the planet’s moon, two-hundred and forty thousand miles away… Sahito gave the answer so casually, at first I thought Zombie Six’s tactical A.I. had just made a joke. The next two seconds were dead silent as I waited for the punch line.
It didn’t come.
“How long to Fold-Space jump?” I had a sense I wasn’t going to like the answer.
“Three minutes and 27 seconds. The jump engines are spooled up,” the A.I. reported crisply.
I was right.
My body’s reaction split me quicker than atoms in a tactical nuke: white-hot rage in my head and icy despair in my gut. Zombie Six had not just been reported as dead; we’d been left behind.
Principle Deputy Luo Yuhan’s well-manicured fingers were all over this little maneuver.
It took a good thirty seconds and every ounce of self-control to get myself together. “If all Fleet assets have pulled out, how are we having this conversation?” I finally asked.
Sahito answered as if it were the most obvious thing in the universe. “I’ve been monitoring the planet’s tele-optic and satellite system,” he said. “Without DNA confirmation, I declined to accept the squad’s casualty designation and calculated it would be prudent to continue surveillance for as long as possible.”
Leave it to an A.I. to have your back. I couldn’t help but smile. “I swear I’d kiss you if I could.”
“I believe you, Captain Dante. Two minutes and forty seconds to Fold Space Transition.”
“Stop with the countdown. It’s damaging my calm.” I opened the squad-link. Listen up everyone. The situation has gone Charlie Foxtrot. Sahito, tell them what you just told me.
There was another thirty seconds of tense, ugly silence as the rest of Zombie Six absorbed the news.
I looked at Chandra when the A.I. finished. You still have that data stick?
On the Locus? Yes.
Burst it to Sahito on this channel. Cell- level encryption.
Sahito is bouncing this through the standard planetary Communications network. If KCA Security is monitoring comms, they’ve noticed us by now. If not, an encrypted burst packet will flare on their system for sure.
I pictured Luo Yuhan’s smug face. Do it anyway.
With a nod, Chandra fished out the data stick and uploaded it to the Hephaestus.
“Put that to use,” I told the A.I. after the transmission squeal stopped. “Make sure CRISIS Operations and Fleet Command see it.”
“Affirmative, Captain Dante. I will forward this information to the relevant authorities,” Sahito responded. “One minute and twenty-three seconds remaining to F.S. transition point. Gordon-Granstrom Drives engaged.”
“I thought I told you to stop that.”
“Pertinent tactical data, Captain.”
The murmur in the room rose abruptly. The woman and four other medics had moved closer. It seemed they had recognized Bozan and al-Asiri, and spotted the zip ties. One of them reached in his bag. Before anyone could speak, Katja responded in a blur of motion, crossing the space between them and folding him into a submission hold. Esta and Marco’s weapons snapped up.
The murmur in the garage stopped. Every eye locked onto us.
“Easy now. Everybody stay calm,” I said. “No one is going to get hurt here.”
Sahito’s voice cut in on my headset. “One minute and four seconds. Fold Space Drive in flux. Kaku-Hawking rift open. Captain, I am – – ”
There was a brief squelch before the signal was severed.
And with that, Zombie Six was alone.