The Tyranny bucked as its aft sloughed from the gate. Otto Jaeger breathed deeply while patting himself down, starting with his head. Spectacles, testicles, wallet, watch. Everything remained in its proper place after another successful jump.
Sheer probability would catch up with him eventually. Someone could only be disintegrated and reassembled so many times before coming together out of order. Most of his men thought his pre and post jump litany a joke, but he’d seen scramble first hand. Messy stuff.
“Better acquire a visual, Commander, just in case.” Kade jostled Jaeger as he pushed past.
“Find a seat and strap in, XMO Christiansen.” Jaeger growled. “Half a nut would be enough to command this motley crew.”
Brista “Brick” Jenkins stood between the two and corralled Jaeger toward the bridge. “For Yuan’s sake, someone toss his grumpy highness the com so he can talk to his daughter before we pop the eye.”
“Mind your place, Brick.”
“Give it up, Otto, and admit you’re worried about her.” Ariza tossed a portable to Brick. She jammed it into Jaeger’s hand. “Ping the poor girl. She’s worried about you, even if you’re too pig headed to worry about her.” Brick leaned close. “We gonna be a month before extraction. She’ll be a roughhide on another squad by then. Show her you care, you prickly old frendol.”
Jaeger raised the com but hesitated to ping XLO Dalia Jaeger, his daughter and youngest child.
“If you don’t, I will.” Brick threatened.
Jaeger entered the coordinates on the handheld and pinged.
A response came seconds later. “EEF Ravager requesting authenticate.”
“It’s Commander Jaeger, I wanna talk to XLO Dalia—” he caught himself before he used the name she’d run off to escape, “Raven.”
“Your identification, Command—”
“Wilkes, you twit, I swear I’ll plug your pie hole with your protocol if you don’t—”
“ID authenticated. Roger that, Tyranny.” The connection fell quiet. Moments later Jaeger heard his daughter’s voice, rigid with formality.
“Dalia.” A shadow of tension lifted from Jaeger’s shoulders. “We’re about to pop the eye on the Primal Instinct job.”
Jaeger gritted his teeth and checked to ensure the rest of his squad couldn’t overhear. “Baby girl, it’s me.”
Silence greeted him from the other end.
Jaeger allowed the familial title to nourish his heart. “I’m proud of you. I want you to know that. I still wish you could have spread your wings under my command, but I understand why you requested the transfer.”
“You’re not still angry?”
“A little, but mostly at myself. I can’t stay mad at you.”
“You always were a softy when it came to your baby girl.”
Jaeger changed the subject. “How’s the new squad treating you?”
“Fine. It’s different. Not bad, just different. I’m still figuring out the rules.”
“You’ll do fine.”
Jaeger laughed. “And your partner? The one with the deuce on his record?”
“You mean XMO Cruz?”
Jaeger could see his daughter’s expression despite the distance between them. “Don’t roll your eyes at me, missy.”
“Same old Commander, same old father. You know as well as anyone that reprimands are handed down for bogus reasons as often as legit.”
“He’s a pretty boy. I don’t trust pretty boys. Especially when they’re cheeks to cheeks with my—”
“Dad!” Dalia cut him off. “You like Tagg just fine.”
Jaeger hemmed and hawed. “Tagg’s an egghead who happens to look like a pretty boy.”
“Oh, so you admit looks can be deceiving?”
“Fine, you win. Just keep your guard, for now.”
“Don’t worry about me. Like father like daughter. Besides, we’re still two days out from babysitting some S&Es on a frickin’ explore and bore. I’m starting to realize how spoiled I got on your squad.”
“Hey, never forget the first rule.”
“I know, surprises kill.”
“And what causes surprises?”
“Exactly. No mission is ever as it seems. So keep your guard.”
“Speaking of keeping your guard, you’re the one heading into the cauldron. Primal Instinct for Yuan’s sake.”
“Just some big lizards.” Jaeger scanned the troop hold for any signs of the Client Representative. He knew they had to be nearing the Dyson Sphere’s fisheye portal. “I don’t have long before the eye severs the connection. I want you to know, I love you.”
“I know you do, daddy. I love you too.”
“Promise me you won’t get too many accommodations over the next month.”
Dalia was laughing when the connection turned to static.
“Baby girl?” Jaeger waited three seconds and sighed. It had been four years since he’d gone more than a week without seeing his youngest child.
Brick called out from the neck of the bridge. “We’ve popped the eye, ladies and gentlemen. Get ‘dem girdles on ‘cause we about to flush.”
Jaeger lowered the handheld and swore. “Where the shyet is that CR? Now the weasel’s got no choice but to spill the rest of the intel on this headache of a job.”
“The CR’s on the bridge. Our boyo looks a bit green around the gils.” Kade smirked.
“He’s gonna be black and blue around the eyes if he isn’t forthcoming with my intel, that smarmy little—” Jaeger’s rant faded to a mumble as he palmed open the door leading to the bridge. “Mr. Sigel!”
Sigel turned with a start. “Commander Jaeger, no need for—”
“Can the niceties. We’re inside the HC. You owe me full intel on this mission. Without it, none of my men are getting off this ship. But you might.”
Sigel swallowed. “I’m sure there’s no need for—”
“That wasn’t a threat. When I threaten you, you’ll know it. Now make with the intel.”
A large winged lizard flashed in front of the Tyranny’s viewfinder, jostling the ship in its wash. Sigel clutched a panic bar. “What was that?”
Forrester answered from the pilot’s chair. “Nothing to worry about. Just a welcoming party. They’re keeping safe distance.”
“Safe distance? Something just hit the ship!”
Jaeger shook Sigel by the shoulders. “I’m about to hit you if you don’t focus, Mr. Sigel.”
The Client Representative blinked several times before recognition settled in his eyes. He glanced toward the pilot. “Not here.”
“By Yuan’s light, what could possibly be so precious?” Jaeger allowed Sigel to slip past him into the neck of the ship. He closed the blast door to the bridge. “This is the last time I’m going to ask nicely. The mission.”
Satisfied no one could overhear, Sigel started in a low voice. “There’s a second Hibernaculated Culture, a secret HC concealed entirely inside Primal Instinct.” Sigel raised a brow suggestively as if this amount of information would impress the commander.
Jaeger leaned closer.
Sigel cringed and pressed into the hull.
“The mission, Mr. Sigel.”
Sigel sputtered. “A breach. There’s been a breach between the two HCs.”
“Unknown.” Sigel loosened his collar. “You must understand, Commander, the smaller HC is extremely remote. Completely isolated. Even the designer biomimetic dark matter is collected only twice a year. It has been four months since last contact, and at that time all indicators were nominal.”
“The imperatives?” Jaeger asked.
Sigel activated a holo-cube and offered it to the commander. “We have the coordinates of the containment breach.” Locate the breach. Assess, contain and cleanse possible contamination of the internal HC. Repair the breach.”
Jaeger’s lip twitched. “Is that it?”
“The integrity of the internal HC is paramount.”
The Tyranny bucked then banked hard to starboard. Jaeger braced himself and prevented Sigel from tumbling to the floor. “You mind telling me what I can expect to find inside this mysterious HC?”
Sigel panicked. “Shouldn’t someone be doing something!?”
“Just what sort of something do you suggest?” Jaeger smiled.
“I don’t know, like shoot those damn things down before they kill us!”
“I thought the mission was to preserve your precious HC.”
“Shoot ‘em, shoot ‘em all!”
Jaeger lifted Sigel by the collar and crammed him into a crash seat.
Forrester barked over the intercom as the turbulence increased. “One thousand meters from the surface. Less than two minutes until flush. You might have noticed, but we’re drawing some attention. Happy hunting, ladies and gents.”
“You heard the man!” Brick called out over the rattle and hum. “Strap in, cheeks to cheeks! Safeties locked until touchdown. After that, triggers green at your discretion!”
Jaeger leaned over until he was face to face with Sigel. “You’ve got exactly sixty seconds to tell me what’s inside the internal HC, or I’m strapping you into the spare exo and you can tell me on the surface.”
Sigel squirmed. “I can’t say! I don’t have clearance.”
“Either tell me or show me, Mr. Sigel.”
“It’s a cloud city. There are ancestral humans, a small population—seclusive, contained. They might not even be aware of the breach. You have to keep it that way, for Yuan’s sake. Each life is priceless.”
“Since when has an ancestral human been worth a pirate’s credit?” Jaeger clutched the CR’s collar and threatened him with a fist. “If you guys are hiding something that gets one of my men killed, I’ll burn down your entire pharmaceutical empire. That’s a threat.”
“Please, I’ve told you everything.”
Jaeger turned to go in disgust.
“If you come across anything or anyone that doesn’t belong, kill it.”
“And what the hell is that supposed to—” The ship lurched violently as something slammed into it from above. Jaeger hovered in free fall until a second strike ripped away a section of the starboard hull. Jaeger clutched for a panic bar with one hand while clutching for Sigel with the other. The force of the ship’s spin tore the crash seat lose, and in the blink of an eye the screaming Sigel was sucked into the blue sky and gone.
Alarms blared. Jaeger clutched the bar with both hands. He tried to walk himself along the hull, but the centripetal force was too great. The Tyranny was in a flat spin.
“Commander!” A meaty hand clamped around Jaeger’s wrist and pulled him clear of the hull breach. It was Brick.
“The others!?” Jaeger yelled in her ear.
“They’re strapped in, but we’ve got a loose Exo—the Babiks in Gamma 2.”
“We need to flush now!”
Brick nodded. “Forrester’s not responding.”
Jaeger swore. The bridge door was closed. By the way the ship was spiraling out of control, they had to assume Forrester was gone.
“I can reach the manual lever.”
Jaeger wanted to object, but he knew Brick was the only one with a chance of success. “Do it, but set a ten second delay. I’ll see to the Babiks.”
“That gives you twenty. Ready?” Brick widened her stance.
Jaeger gripped her arm with his free hand and nodded.
“This is gonna hurt!” Brick roared as she threw Jaeger toward the troop hold in an arc against the centripetal spin.
The pull of the spin instantly dragged him down. Twisting his body just in time, he slammed into the untethered exoskeleton hands and feet first.
Maddy jolted at his sudden appearance. “Commander! Krystof’s unresponsive and my hatch is stuck!”
“Stay put! We flush in twenty!”
“But the tether!”
“We’re gonna piggyback. But you gotta get me to Alpha 1!”
She clenched her jaw.
“This is all you, Maddy!”
She jabbed her hands into the controls and ignited Gamma 2’s interactive matrix. Her eyes rolled into her head as the pure BDM entered her system. The right arm of the exo shot outward. Punching finger holes in the hull, she climbed the ladder hand over hand while Jaeger held on for the ride.
Within seconds, the Gamma 2 reached the tether that secured Alpha 1. “Tighten up!” Maddy gave a moment’s notice.
Jaeger tightened his core muscles as Gamma 2 gripped him around the waist and thrust him toward his own cockpit. As he popped the hatch, alarms blared throughout Tyranny’s troop hold. “Ten seconds!”
“We have to get Brick!”
“After the flush! Don’t worry, I’ll find her.” Jaeger heaved himself into the cockpit, slammed the hatch shut and ignited his matrix. As his awareness expanded beyond simple sight, Jaeger saw his first blurry snatches of the surface of Primal Instinct alternating with blue sky. The flat spin had begun to tilt sideways. “Grab ahold! We’re going in three! Two! One!”
The bottom of the ship fell open, releasing an array of jetsam that had broken loose from the impact. A second later the tether arms projected downward and released the exoskeletons in a staggered pattern—1.4 seconds apart. Jaeger’s was the first—with the Gamma 2 riding piggyback.
As soon as they cleared the tether, Jaeger spun the torso so his cockpit faced aft. He fired thrusters at full in effort to climb over the other exos and reach Brick before they hit the ground. He hailed Maddy on her personal channel. “Give me all your thrust. Match my trajectory.”
“Wilco. Thrust engaged at full.”
The jolt was immediate. Combined thrust slowed their decent to ten meters per second. The other exos dropped out of site on their way to the crash site—one that fortunately looked like a meadow. After twelve seconds, the last exo cleared the drop ship safely.
Jaeger magnified the view and scanned the belly of the Tyranny as it spun further away. Brick, where are you? Even the combined thrust couldn’t match the ship’s velocity. He hailed her. “You’ve gotta jump, Brick. Time’s up.”
“Glad to hear you made it alright, Otto. But I got a different plan.”
“For Yuan’s sake, you won’t survive in there. Jump, I’ll catch you.” But it was too late. Jaeger’s proximity alarm blared as the ground rose up to meet him. He shifted his focus. “Maddy, disengage in three, two, one.” He felt her exo push off from his the same moment he realized the meadow was actually a swamp. “Prepare for impact. I’m rolling right.”
“Roger. I’ll take left.”
The blue sky disappeared, swallowed by blurs of green and brown. The stench of decaying organic matter greeted him. Feet first, his exo crashed into the bog. He tucked in attempt to roll, but his legs stuck tight and slammed the rest of his exo into the mud face-first.
Other than sucking sounds, everything fell eerily quiet, and dark. He spun the torso. To his relief, he discovered he hadn’t embedded completely. “Report.”
One by one, the rest of his squad responded—all six twin-manned exoskeletons had reached the surface more or less intact.
“Krystof’s still not responding,” Maddy reported. “Any sign of Brick?”
The ground shook with a nearby explosion—the Tyranny. Jaeger pushed the thought out of his mind. “Anyone have a free line of sight? I’ve got nothing but sky.”
“Yes sir.” It was Tagg, XMO of exo call sign Echo 2. “Bao and I landed on a tuft of semi-solid ground. But, uh, you might want to stay buried in the mud. At least, I suggest no sudden movements.”
“Out with it.”
“We’ve got incoming, Commander, from every direction.”
Jules chimed in. “Unless I miss my guess, their Deinonychus. Nasty buggers, about the size of a person.”
“They’ve got wings.”
“Flightless, but I suppose it helps them tread lightly.”
“Numbers?” Jaeger asked.
“Seventy-three, give or take.” Tagg responded without hesitation. “Probably more waiting beyond the tree line to see what happens.”
“I suppose they could bite through hydraulics if they could get their beak in the joints.”
Jules added, “I wager the boney ridge on their head could spider a viewfinder.”
“Triggers free.” Jaeger gave the order. “Just remember, what you’re carrying is what you’ve got for the next month. Tagg, you cover Maddy. Kade?”
“You and Zip good for lead on this one?”
“Give the word.”
“I’m giving it. Gamma 1, take the lead. First line of business is the crash site.”
“But Krystof,” Maddy interrupted.
“Tyrrany’s wreckage should provide enough cover to dismount. We’ll tend to Krystof there.”
“Your brother’s a survivor. You know that better than anyone.”
“Now move out, and keep your eyes open for Brick.” Working double duty in Brick’s absence, Jaeger armed the flame thrower and baked the mud beneath him, intensifying the stench in the process. After a few seconds, he dug his feet into the crust and climbed out of the impact crater.
His squad had already engaged the Deinonychus raptors. Tagg laid down sporadic fire for the exos mired in the mud while Zip and Kade stretched their legs with close quarters combat. Jaeger rolled his eyes. There had to be better ways to discourage a man-sized dinosaur from trying to eat you, but he supposed the alternatives weren’t half as fun.
“It’s time to stop acting the maggot, boyos, and start sucking diesel!” Kade cackled over the open channel.
Jaeger tuned out the chatter and joined Shasta and Ariza, the rest of his Alpha fireteam, on the left flank. He fired thrusters on a limited basis to keep himself from bogging down. An occasional flame kept the dozens of Deinonychus at bay as the squad worked their way toward the edge of the swamp.
One curious Deinonychus didn’t mind his distance, and Jaeger lit it up. Flames consumed the reddish-orange plumage and sent the raptor crashing into three others. Moments later, a domino effect spread the fire to two dozen feather-covered lizards.
“Crikey! That showed ‘em a thing or two,” Kade chimed. “Ground’s solid over here, gang. Crash site’s two clicks beyond the trees. I’m reading lots of action over there.”
“More Deinonychus?” Jaeger fired thrusters hard enough to clear the edge of the swamp and land next to Echo 2 and Gamma 1. He helped Jules and Sable’s exo out of the edge of the muck.
“Something’s cheesed ‘em off good. Looks like a bloody feeding frenzy.”
“If you’re right, boss, we better bolt.”
Jaeger had already taken off at a sprint. “Keep up if you can. Call out if you’re in trouble. Otherwise mouths shut and eyes open.” He slammed his exo’s fist into the jaw of an angry Deinonychus and burst into the dense stand of trees. Thrusters in skate mode and forearm blades fully extended, he slashed Alpha 1’s arms back and forth to clear a path through the vines and branches. At five meters a second, he scorched a hole through the jungle and burst into the clearing beyond in under a minute.
Still in skate mode, he broadsided a large, stampeding dinosaur and wedged a blade between two scales in order to hitch a ride. Behind him, Gamma 1 emerged from the tree line, followed quickly by the others. Shasta piloted Alpha 2 gracefully onto the back of a passing Stegosaurus while the others chose to remain on foot.
“Brick, do you read?” Jaeger hailed.
“You know me, keeping them home fires burning.” Brick responded over a thunderous hail of ballistics.
Jaeger should have known better than to worry. “Report.”
“Whenever I drop one, a dozen others stop to pick its bones as if they starving.”
“Roger. Can you hold the crash site?”
“We’re bringing in casualties. Mark my position. Pinging now.” Jaeger pinpointed his location via radar.
“Copy that. Redirecting fire. You’re clear for approach, Otto.”
“Roger. Coming in hot.” Jaeger engaged a forearm chainsaw and plunged it into the meat of the dinosaur he’d been riding. The animal screeched as it plunged headfirst into the young, rocky soil. Jaeger rolled before regaining full skate-stride. As Brick had predicted, several stampeding dinosaurs pulled up to devour the wounded one.
Jaeger switched to the common channel. “Triggers free, men. Give these things something to eat other than us.”
Within seconds over a hundred dinosaurs had been killed or occupied with a kill. For the first time, Jaeger secured a visual of Brick and understood how she’d touched down safely—by detaching the cannon pod moments before impact. Having parachuted safely to the ground within thirty meters from the crash site, she was currently using the 75mm cannon to generate a ring of carnage.
“‘Bout time you lolygaggers got here. I need a snack pie break.”
“No breaks yet.” Jaeger vaulted over the snapping jaws of a feasting dinosaur and landed within the protected zone Brick had laid down. “Krystof’s unresponsive.”
“Hell’s gist. Get that boy over here. I got med supplies in the pod.”
“ETA right now, boss.” Gamma 2 smashed its way through the pile by slicing off the head and neck of a large raptor and swinging it like a club. The rest of the squad fanned out to assume Brick’s defense of the perimeter.
“Bollocks, these things are bloodthirsty.” Jules and Sable plowed a dead dinosaur out of the protected zone while punching two others that were attempting to eat it.
“Keep ‘em busy. I’ll play goalkeeper while Brick and Maddy tend to Krystof.” Jaeger switched to his flame thrower.
Maddy parked Gamma 2 next to the cannon pod and blew both hatches.”
“Maddy’s in the breeze.” Brick relayed. “I’m joining her.”
“Got you covered.” Jaeger flanked the cannon pod to ensure nothing bigger than a butterfly got close to his exposed crewmen. He glanced their way long enough to see Brick hoist a bloodied Krystof from his cockpit as Maddy supported her brother’s head and neck. Jaeger swore. If Krystof had been bleeding that much the whole time, and this early into the mission…
He focused on the perimeter and toasted a raptor that leapt onto the growing pile of carcasses. Several more followed that one, each oblivious to the fate of the last. Something had shifted their instincts. “This should be enough dead meat for weeks. Why do they keep coming over?”
Tag responded. “Call me crazy, but they’re acting like they’re trying to get away.”
“They doing a shite job of it,” Kade replied.
“Not from us, from something worse.”
The ground shook beneath Jaeger’s feet. “Anyone been watching the long range?”
“Uh, boss, we got trouble.”
Jaeger climbed the pile of dead meat to gain a visual. What he saw was a dinosaur three times the size of anything they’d encountered so far. And the beast wasn’t slowing down for any of the roadkill they’d left behind.
“Brick, we’ve got a problem, ETA thirty seconds.”
“Fat wallop, I got problems of my own.” Brick fired back.
“Client’s gonna be pissed if we kill something like that. We’ve already set ‘em back a pretty penny.”
Kade interrupted. “Fetch that! I’m wondering if killing that bloody monster’s even possible.”
“Can we outrun it?” Jaeger asked.
“Not if it pursues.”
Jaeger checked the distance of the Gigantisaur and corrected his earlier estimation. “Fifteen seconds! Brick, we gotta go!”
She grunted as she held Krystof over her head so Maddy could load him in Gamma 2. “I’ve stopped external bleeding and administered a slo-mo, but it ain’t gonna do much on Immunity Faction. Best option’s to fall back outta the fire and let his core take over.”
“Fine, get in.”
“Hold on, I gotta get more supplies from the pod.”
Jaeger swore. “Brick’s still in the breeze. Bao, Shasta, Zip, form a wedge and head for the genitals. The rest focus ballistics on the face. Stay out from under it.”
“Boss, your six!”
Without turning to look, Jaeger activated his forearm blades, took a knee and plunged an arm backward. His gears ground as the hibernaculated steel blade buried wrist deep in the jaw of the beast that had intended to bite off his head. With a violent lashing, the dinosaur swung its neck and slammed Alpha 1 into the ground. “Focus on the big one!”
The beast jerked Jaeger off the ground. Before it could slam him down again, he spun in midair and scissored his arm blades together. Crunching through bone and sinew, the blades severed the neck and Alpha 1 promptly tumbled back to earth.
Chatter crowded the common channel.
“Watch the teeth!”
“I’m out. I’ve lost visual!”
“Ballistics are bouncing off!”
“Get your sorry asses out a the way!” Brick bellowed. “Get down!”
Jaeger rolled onto his side in time to glimpse Brick braced against the cannon pod with a slag humper draped over her shoulder. It was a weapon intended only for air to air combat.
“Slag humper!” he yelled while flipping onto his stomach.
“Fire in the hole!” Brick screamed.
A moment later, the wash tossed Alpha 1 head over heels. A bath of carnage rained down the moment Jaeger came to rest. After that, nothing but a ringing in his ears. “Report.”
“Bollocks, Echo team’s good.”
“Alpha 2 is in one piece, mostly.”
“Crikey, Zip and I are still here. Maddy?”
“Maddy?” Jaeger pushed his exo onto its feet. He spotted the Gamma 2 on top of the Tyranny wreckage and under a giant slab of dinosaur meat. “Shasta, get her down from there. The rest of you secure the perimeter.”
“I’m here. I’m good.” Maddy finally responded. “My exo’s damaged. I think the hydro for one of the legs is cut.” She pushed the carcass off and struggled to maneuver her exo clear of the Tyranny wreckage. “Should Krystof and I dismount?”
Jaeger swore. “Stay put. We’ll drag you out of here if we have to.” He scanned the debris field for signs of Brick. All he saw were oversized chunks of grizzle, meat and bone. And blood. Lots of blood. “Brick?”
“Little help.” Her hand waved from underneath the overturned cannon pod.
Jaeger hurried to her side. “This is a first.”
“Me lifting something heavy off of you.” He carefully flipped over the pod.
Brick slowly stood. “You calling me fat?”
“I have no response to that.”
“Well then, blow the hatch, ‘cause I’m climbing in.”
“Wilco.” Jaeger blew the hatch and Brick bounded into her cockpit.
“The natives are regrouping, hungry as ever.” Echo 2 had stabilized the Gamma 2—three good legs between the two machines.
“Where to, boss?” Kade asked.
Jaeger remembered the holo-cube Siegel had handed him. He found it still secured in his vest and plugged it into the dash of his exo. “Uploading coordinates now.”
Kade paused momentarily as he processed the 3D imagery.“Stop the lights! This whole manky operation has been about a bloody secret HC?”
“That’s right, so pull up your socks and take us there.”
“You heard the man. Get up outta this fire!” Brick roared.
“Wilco, boss.” Gamma 1 blasted a path through the ring as the other exos followed in a spear formation. “I don’t mean no offense, Commander,” came Kade, “but if this holo’s the only intel we got, how do you know—”
“The frying pan from the fire?” Jaeger interrupted. “We don’t, and yes, the whole thing’s gone arseways. But we can’t stay here, so hoe the row—lips shut and cheeks tight.”
The channel went dark as the squad bolted in a straight line for what looked like three lifetime’s worth of jungle primeval. With any luck, Primal Instinct would afford them a tiny window to catch their breath. If not…either way, Jaeger supposed the heat had just begun.
Jaeger hailed Brick over the internal com. “You had me going for a minute.”
“Even surprised myself.” Brick chuckled. “Hell, I’m just glad I packed my snack pies in advance.”
“I’ve got a bad feeling about this mission.”
“Can’t say it’s sitting friendly so far.”
“How’s Maddy dealing? You know, with Krystof.”
“That girl done blanched worse than her brother. But I reckon she’ll push the fear down deep, like always. No telling what those two went through together before EEF found ‘em on that toxic popsicle planet.”
Jaeger shook his head. “I’m more worried about what we’re going to go through on this adrenaline-steeped hellhole.”
“You and I both know it’s the people pulling the strings that are dangerous.”
“That’s a lesson Siegel should’ve seen coming.”
“Poor expendable fool. He ain’t had a clue.”
Jaeger scanned his peripherals for incoming dinosaurs. All but a few curious sorts had abandoned the caravan of exos in preference for the dead meat they left in their wake. The jungle lay another click ahead. The density of the growth would protect them from any predator bigger than their exos. But in Jaeger’s experience, jungle flora usually sheltered threats of its own.
He thought about the last thing Brick had said. “That’s what troubles me. Siegel was a low-level pawn, too expendable for a mission this important.”
“You saying his fate wasn’t no accident?”
“Dangerous secrets tend not to leave survivors, Brick. I’m saying I wouldn’t put it past the benevolent people of Crystalline Magic Co. to eliminate a few loose ends to preserve their bottom line.”
“If that’s true, life just ain’t worth what it used to be.”
Jaeger sighed. “For now we’re in the driver’s seat. They need us, and we’re about to know more than they do. We’ll carry out the mission, like always. In the process we gotta make sure we find the right leverage to guarantee extraction when the time comes.”
“You ever get tired of thinking three steps ahead?”
“All the time.”
“When are we gonna give up this fool game?”
Jaeger gazed overhead. Through the clear blue sky, he saw a glint of the Dyson sphere that caged them together with countless prehistoric specimens that had been brought back to life for the singular purpose of generating a drug-fueled profit. “After the next mission.” He steeled his will toward the mission at hand. “Always after the next mission.”
At the edge of the grassland, the jungle greeted them with menace. Its clutching tendrils, choking branches and thick trunks seemed to enslave the land it claimed and terrify the rest—even threatening the sky.
Jaeger craned his neck upward and gawked at the sheer scope of it. If the jungle hadn’t of dwarfed them, their exos never would have fit through the dense foliage. As it was, they’d have to battle the underbrush and whatever they encountered living on the jungle floor.
Kade broke the silence. “Looks like the meat eaters have broken chase.”
“This looks like as good of a breather as we’re gonna get,” Jaeger said. “Full diagnostics. Dismount in fireteams, starting with Gamma.” He knew the Baliks needed immediate attention. “Breathe the air and taste the soil. Bao, I want you and Tagg to scout the best way forward.”
“Roger that.” The squad echoed in chorus.
“Oh, and make sure all injured check in with Brick. I’m sure I don’t have to remind you what happened to Kade last time he overlooked a scratch.”
“Oy, I thought I’d never shite all those buggers out.”
The internal com activated. Jaeger could hear the rustling of a wrapper as Brick shoved one of her repellant snack cakes in her mouth. He’d never understood what she found appealing about their combination of spongy, processed ingredients.
“You gonna be alright without me?” She spoke with a full mouth.
“No, but we can’t let our feelings for each other get in the way.”
Brick snorted and choked for several seconds before managing to swallow the snack cake. “Dang it all, I think some of the filling went up my nose.”
“I saw my advantage and took it.” Jaeger laughed.
“You win this time, Otto. But we gonna be on this rock for a long time. You better watch your back.”
“I thought that was your job.”
“Of all the dirty tactics…messing with a girl’s snack break. Just for that, I hope you get a parasite.” Brick blew her hatch and bailed, leaving Jaeger alone with his thoughts.
He recalled the last thing he’d said to Dalia. No mission is ever as it seems. So far this mission seemed like a salt-za-da-gin bresz-nyet. If they had only uncovered the half of it, they were going to be in for a deep burial at the end of long ride.
Bao and Tagg took point in Echo 2 as the squad carved a tedious path through the jungle. At least Tagg had managed to patch the hydraulics on Gamma 2 enough for the machine to hobble forward without assistance. After an hour of trekking, the density of the massive tree trunks forced the squad to halt while Bao used his chainsaws to remove a trunk one meter in diameter and create a gap wide enough for the exos to fit.
Jaeger maneuvered Alpha 1 next to the only husband and wife pilot duo on his squad and sat. Jules Barnes and Morgan Sable piloted Echo 1, and they were a complicated couple. Not only had they married inter-factionally, but rarer still, Sable was Chaos—a Hibernarii faction that disavowed any and all attempts to manipulate or harness the forces of nature. According to Chaos, nature itself was the highest form of intelligence in the universe, and any attempts to control it would ultimately prove futile.
At moments like this, Jaeger keenly felt the futility. He needed perspective. And more often than not, he found that perspective in the tandem of Jules and Sable. Jules had become the black sheep of a noble Fortitude family even before his rebellious act of marrying a Chaos woman with skin as black as his own wool. Together they provided the squad with an intuitive thoughtfulness.
Jaeger hailed Echo 1 privately. “A penny for your thoughts.”
“That might prove a high price in today’s market, my friend.” Jules sighed.
“So you feel it too?”
“Aye. I get the distinct feeling that independent thought was not the quality our clients were after when hiring us for this job.”
“Then they hired the wrong squad,” Jaeger asserted.
Sable interrupted. “Either that or our nuisance has surpassed our usefulness within the Exploration and Extinction Force.”
“You think someone within the EEF has it in for us?” Jaeger rolled the thought around in his head.
“Wouldn’t you?” Jules laughed. “Just look at us. The Babiks are targeted outcasts who have recently worked off their debt. Bao would have been discharged multiple times for insubordination if you hadn’t of protected him. As Equality faction, Ariza has made command nervous from day one. Shasta’s a borderline BDM heretic. Kade and Zip are loose cannons at best.”
“Well, that goes without saying—a Chaos and Fortitude in union. I suppose my beliefs have offended more than a few.”
“Command would have to be drunk to think they could get away with outright eliminating us.”
“When has command ever been sober?”
“Good point.” Jaeger acquiesced. “Sable, your take on Primal Instinct?”
“Atrocity. Gross atrocity. Nothing good will happen here. Nature has been poisoned to the level of self-destruction.”
“That good, huh?”
“Nothing on this planet should be trusted. Death is its only release.”
Jaeger exhaled. “I was afraid you would say that. Have either one of you seen any animal life larger than your fist since we entered this forest?”
“Nothing dares to enter by design,” Sable replied.
Out of breath, Bao hailed the squad. “I have cut through the trunk, but it is held in place by neighbors. I recommend shoving the base out of the way, but the canopy could destabilize in the process.”
Jaeger stood. “Give it a try. Everyone else, standby to assist. We move as soon as we can fit through. I don’t like sitting still.”
“On three, two, one.” Bao fired Echo 2’s thrusters while shouldering the massive tree. Gradually, he shoved the trunk aside while the other exos skirted it. Alpha 1 passed through last and supported the weight of the wedged-in trunk while Echo 2 cleared the gap. They let go together and the trunk fell into place, as if it had never been cut.
“Mark these coordinates, incase this proves to be the only way out,” Jaeger ordered.
“We’ve got movement, two o’clock.” Sable alerted the squad.
“I saw it too,” Tagg confirmed. “Something ropey, less than a dozen meters away.”
“Spread out. Sable and Jules take the lead,” Jaeger ordered. “Stay within reach of each other, but no bunching up. The forest’s roomier on this side. Maybe we can reach the breach without further delays.”
They squad progressed another hundred meters in radio silence until Ariza spoke up. “I’m reading increased levels of nitrous oxide and sulfur in the air. Still breathable, but—”
“Did you see that?”
“We’ve got movement to the southeast.”
“And the north.”
“Does anyone have a positive ID?” Jaeger attempted to steady their nerves, but he felt it too.
“It’s the trees themselves. They’re getting closer!” Zip swung a forearm chainsaw and severed an encroaching vine. The act of aggression sparked the jungle into writhing life. Green tendrils and wooded vines encircled the squad.
A large vine slashed across the front of Alpha 1 and spun it off balance. “Fire!” Jaeger ordered.
Brick had already ignited the flame thrower on Alpha 1’s shoulder and unleashed a river of burning fuel.
The trees screamed in response. A dozen green tendrils attacked the exo, confining its movement. Jaeger spun his arm blades, dipped and dodged in attempt to sever them all. But they were too many.
A thick vine entwined Alpha 1 around the neck and slammed it into a tree. Jaeger severed it with a quick swipe, but not before three more had lashed the exo to the trunk. An impact alarm blared. “They’re squeezing us!”
“Ground yourself! I’m gonna give ‘em a spark!”
Jaeger yanked his hands out of the control docks and detached his mind from the interactive matrix. “Clear.”
Brick crossed the fusion drive in order to electrically charge the exterior of the exo. The machine jolted as its gears locked tight. Smoke and fire blocked out what little light pierced the dense jungle canopy. “That’s all she can take. Clear to reintegrate.”
“I’m in.” Jaeger resumed control of Alpha 1’s locomotion. “That did the trick. We’re free, but I can’t see the others.”
“Switching to night vision.”
Jaeger and Brick leapt into action, combining blades with fire to fight back the angry vines and untangle the other members of the squad. “Has anyone seen Echo 2?” Jaeger had lost sight of Tagg and Bao.
“Coming down, Commander. Watch your nine.” Tagg replied.
Jaeger stepped aside as Echo 2 landed gracefully next to him. “What was that about?” The commander asked.
“The canopy is the source of the vine,” Tagg replied. “We climbed all the way to the top.”
Bao said, “It’s parasitic. No way to sever at its base.”
Another wave of tendrils attempted to overtake the squad, but now that they had clumped together they burned the vines back on all sides.
“Stop!” Sable commanded without explanation.
The squad responded immediately by shutting down their flamethrowers.
The vines moved to surround them, but remained outside of the small clearing.
“Shut down all systems,” Sable continued. “Completely black.”
“Are you bloody crazy?” Kade protested.
“Commander, there’s no time to explain.”
Jaeger knew better than to question Sable. She never intruded unless she sensed something strongly. “Do it. Everyone, disengage.” Jaeger detached from the interactive matrix and left the exo completely powered down. If Sable was wrong, the machines would be torn limb from limb by the vines before they could power up again. Without power, they couldn’t even communicate via radio.
Everything fell eerily quiet. Jaeger spoke over his shoulder loud enough for Brick to hear him. “You seeing anything?”
“A couple dem vines creeping around the perimeter, but so far nothing’s encroached on this side.”
“Nothing over here either.”
“You reckon it was our aggression that set ‘em off?”
“Possibly, but if that’s the case, how are we going to—” a wrapping on Jaeger’s viewfinder startled him. Through the blackness, he identified the whites of Sable’s eyes—her large brown irises attentive on him.
“It is safe to dismount.”
Jules waved for Jaeger and Brick to join them on the ground. “What she means is we’re on foot from here on out.”
Jaeger and Brick blew their hatches and dismounted. Jaeger covered his nose and mouth.
Brick gasped. “Lordy, that’s a gaudy stench.”
“I recommend you don’t rub your eyes.” Jules pulled Jaeger’s hand away from his face. “The oxide and sulfur that Ariza detected just before the attack has intensified since. The plants seem to emit a sort of toxin. Look at the exterior of your exo.”
Jaeger turned around. “Yuan’s Light.”
Deep etchings had burned into the hibernaculated platinum exterior of Alpha 1’s breastplate. “It’s a miracle we didn’t lose hydraulics.”
“Yes, well, god must favor you. We lost our right arm midway through the conflict. That’s how I noticed the toxin.” Jules motioned toward the other exos, their pilots still oblivious that anyone had dismounted. “We better get the others before someone decides to do something rash. I’ll start with Kade and Zip.”
Jaeger smiled despite the desperate nature of their circumstances. He wrapped on Shasta’s viewfinder and indicated for her and Ariza to dismount Alpha 2. The thought of venturing across the surface of Primal Instinct without the protection of their exos should have made Jaeger cry. But Jules’ dry British wit always comforted him when things were their darkest. At the moment, he couldn’t imagine things getting much darker. That thought wiped the smile off his face.
After giving the orders to attach breathers and night vision masks and to pack everything useful they could carry, Jaeger strapped on his own breather and stood watch from the center of the small clearing. The preparations took less than a minute.
Brick crept to Jaeger’s side and proffered his favorite sidearm, a Stieg 270 sonic thumper.
Jaeger gladly strapped the weapon to his thigh.
Jules and Sable joined them, followed quickly by the rest of the squad. Krystof groaned as Maddy and Kade attempted to distribute his weight evenly between them.
Brick tutted. “Hand the boy over before you tear him in half.”
Maddy wanted to resist, but she knew it would be fruitless. Brick never allowed such duties to fall on anyone else in the squad. As a member of the Might Faction, her body had been bred and built for ten times the strength as a normal Hibernari. She hefted Krystof gently over her shoulder and carried him as if he were no heavier than a modstock rifle.
Jaeger led the way while picking up the conversation with Jules and Sable from earlier. “You still haven’t explained how we’re safe out here.” He nodded at a vine less than a meter distant. It seemed to raise its tendrils in response to his comment. Jaeger held his breath, but none of the vines advanced.
“They are a defense, like everything else in this jungle, meant to protect the inner HC.” Sable answered through her breather.
“Then why aren’t they attacking us now?”
“Without the bulk and might of the exos, we are no longer a threat.”
“Speak for yourself, honey.” Brick chuckled.
Tagg butted in from behind. “How on earth did you figure that out?”
“The vines did not appear until after we breached the tree wall. It made sense anything small enough to fit through the trees would be safe from the vines.”
“But I haven’t seen any animal life save a few creepy crawlies.”
Brick made a face. “I hate bugs.”
Jaeger nodded. “If the vines aren’t dangerous to small creatures, how come this place isn’t crawling with them. There’s food. There’s water. Plenty of shelter. It doesn’t make sense.”
“She said the vines weren’t a threat. She didn’t say nothing was a threat.” Jules explained. “Speaking of bugs. Has anyone seen anything dead or decaying since we cut our way past the tree?”
Jules glanced from side to side. “Exactly. Keeping the forest floor clean of decay is the insect’s duty, and this is the cleanest forest I’ve ever seen.”
“Hell’s gist, I wish you hadn’t said that.” Brick flipped down her night vision mask.
Jaeger decided it wise to do the same.
“One click to the coordinates.” Kade called up to the others. “We should be there within the hour. Not that we have any idea whether being there is gonna be any better than being here.”
“Being there is about completing this mission,” Jaeger responded, “and that’s all you need to—”
Jules held up his fist, stopping the squad dead in their tracks, sidearms drawn.
Jaeger couldn’t see anything. He strained his ears for any sign of life outside his line of sight. The breather deadened his sense of smell, but Jaeger thought he detected something sickly sweet.
Jules gestured the squad forward in fireteams, one left, one right, one center. Jules, Sable, Bao and Tagg—Echo team—formed the tip of the wedge, shuttling forward as a seamless unit. Jules held up his fist. Without a sound, the squad froze. Slowly Jules removed a flare stick from his pack, crushed it to ignite the chemicals, and tossed it twenty meters ahead. Before the flare hit the ground, the forest floor swarmed with movement.
“I’m out! I’m out!” Shasta screamed while scrounging in her pack for another fuel cell.
Jaeger covered her with his sonic thumper, fragmenting the over-sized roaches as fast as the weapon could recharge. “They’ve gotta be coming from somewhere. There’s too many of them. We need a clear path!”
The darkness all around them blazed sporadically with muzzle fire from the members of the squad using ballistics. Each fighter called out in turn.
“We’re surrounded.” They screamed over the incessant hissing of the roaches and the concussive bursts of ammo.
“Their blood burns!”
“Zip’s down!” Kade yelled. “Boss, we’re getting eaten alive in here!”
A meter-long flying roach blind-sided Jaeger, knocking him to the ground and spraying the side of his face with a burning toxin. He rolled and fired, splattering the bug with focused sound waves.
Resisting the urge to wipe his face with his hand, Jaeger buried it in the dirt instead. After a quick swipe back and forth, he jumped to his feet. Their best hope at this point was the inner HC. Anything had to be better than this.
“Converge on the coordinates. Stay in fireteams. Keep moving!” He tugged Brick’s arm. She grunted and followed. “Put down fire to cover our retreat!” Jaeger commanded, but no fire followed. “Shasta? Shasta, report!”
Brick stumbled over the discarded flamethrower. “Otto.” She kicked the flamethrower to Jaeger.
He holstered his thumper and created a curtain of flames. The massive bugs cooked and popped. “Where’s Shasta?”
“We gotta go, Otto. If we get stretched out—”
“Over here!” Ariza called. “I’ve got her, let’s go!”
“Go! Go!” Jaeger kept the nozzle open, trailing continuous flame with one hand while firing his sonic with the other. Both Brick and Ariza were weighed down with wounded. Between the three of them, they had four arms, and it took all four to beat back the encroaching waves of roaches.
They covered the rough ground as fast as they could. Eventually Jaeger ran out of flame. At this rate, half a click seemed an endless span. Jaeger’s heart thumped in his chest. Blood surged in his ears. His breather clogged and his breath came in ragged gulps.
The forest closed in around him. Finally the canopy began to spin. He couldn’t go on, and if he needed to catch his breath, so did the others. Dropping the flamethrower, he gripped his sonic thumper in both hands. What did he have to lose? He widened the field, spun the weapon up to full, and waited for the hissing to overtake him. When it did, he fired.
The closeness of the jungle absorbed and defrayed the worst of the reverb, but the kick was ample enough to wash Jaeger backwards several meters. His body plowed a path through the bracken and brush until he slammed into a massive trunk and rolled over onto a cool, metallic surface.
He rested his face against the smooth metal for several seconds before his mind made the connection between metal and manmade. He shook off his daze and sat up. The hissing had temporarily subsided, but so had the sounds of his squad. He brushed aside the leaves to reveal what appeared to be a secure tunnel entrance. But how? And who? Primal Instinct was supposed to be lower life forms only. No mission is ever as it seems.
He fumbled in his pack for a handheld and hailed the others. “Echo, Gamma, this is Jaeger. I’ve found a manmade hatch. Converge on my location. Pinging now.” He dropped the radio and scanned the area for his lost thumper. “Now I just need to find a way to get this thing open.”
“Stand aside you crazy fool.” Brick laid Krystof down gently and positioned her feet on either side of the hatch. Rather than sit around and look stupid, Jaeger continued the search for his thumper, eventually finding it.
He turned in time to see Brick give up her efforts to open the hatch. That was when he spotted the release mechanism behind her right foot. “Those snack cakes have made you weak. Give me a try.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. You’ll just waste our—”
Jaeger kicked the lever with his boot and tugged the hatch open.
Brick grunted in disgust.
Jaeger threw the hatch back and aimed his sonic thumper downward into the pitch black. “See anything?”
“Just a second.” Brick crushed a flare and dropped it down. It bounced off a metal stair rung once before landing on the bottom, some ten meters below.
“Nothing’s moving down there.”
“That’s better than up here.”
“Commander.” Ariza huffed as he emerged out of the jungle with an unconscious Shasta over his shoulder. “I got your message.” He stopped when he saw the opened hatch. “What in Yuan’s name?”
Ballistics echoed in the distance.
“Sounds like Kade and Zip.”
“Let’s hope Echo team is with them.”
Jaeger nodded. “I’ll head down to check it out. When I give the all clear, bring the injured.” Jaeger took the first few steps carefully before placing his boots on the outside of the rails and sliding the rest of the way. He dismounted next to the flare, crouched, and leveled his sonic thumper.
The steady, blue chemical light revealed no movement—just an empty, hand-carved tunnel. “Bring ‘em down!” He activated a second flare. Using it as a torch, he shuffled along the tunnel, searching the walls for signs of bugs or cracks.
The rapid pop of ballistics intensified until the rest of the squad reached the hatch in a state of distress. After a moment of shouting, Ariza slid down the stairs too quickly with Shasta over his shoulder. He crumpled onto the tunnel floor and rolled out of the way moments before Brick and Krystof landed.
Jaeger holstered his thumper and helped Brick lay Krystof next to Shasta. The chaos overhead ended with the hatch slamming shut. Without warning, a roach dropped down the shaft and landed on Brick’s back.
Whipping out his thumper, Jaeger whacked the bug off.
“Not in the tunnel!” She yelled.
Aware of the close quarters, Jaeger used his pistol as a hammer. He cracked the armored shell with the first blow, but the hissing beast scrambled to get away until Jaeger brought the butt of the pistol down a second time. The meter-long monster bled a viscous ooze.
As the rest of the squad dropped into the already cramped quarters, they forced Jaeger’s hand into the pool of stinging blood. He pulled it away and clutched his wrist.
“Forget it,” Jaeger growled. “We’ve got worse injuries to deal with. Did everybody make it?”
“Echo’s all here.”
“Gamma accounted for.”
“Frozen gods! What happened to Shasta?” Krystof sat up, his sudden resurrection catching the squad off guard.
Maddy knelt beside her brother and hugged his neck. “Brother, good to hear your voice.”
Krystof shook his head and pointed at Shasta.
Jaeger picked up the nearest flare and illuminated Shasta’s face. “Yuan’s Shadow.” It was gone. He stooped to check her pulse. “She’s dead.”
Too many questions rattled inside Jaeger’s head. He defaulted to protecting his remaining men. Ariza insisted on remaining by Shasta to guide her BDM into it’s next assimilation. Jaeger didn’t believe in the ritual himself, but Shasta had. It seemed she’d converted Ariza. Jaeger would never begrudge anyone anything that brought them comfort during or after this hellish life.
Bao and Kade came through the ordeal relatively unscathed, so Jaeger sent them to scout the extent of the underground complex. He knew better than to assume they were secure, but the temporary calm allowed them to tend their wounds and mourn their loss. At least Krystof seemed to be on the mend.
“Alright, Otto, you’re next.”
“I’m fine. Tend to the—”
“You’re last, so shut up and let me have a look,” Brick demanded.
Obediently, Jaeger held out his arms and turned a circle. He was Integrity Faction. He and Brick both knew it would take more than acid blood to chew through his nearly impervious skin. As long as he watched what he put inside his body, he fared well. Nothing was going to get in else ways.
None the less, Brick shined an electric torch on his face. “Hold still.” She swabbed him with a sterile.
The stinging caused Jaeger’s eye to water. “What was that for?”
“Still had some of that bug blood burning a hole in ya.” She showed him the sterile. The black ooze smoked for another few seconds until fully neutralized. “Now your face is healing.”
Jaeger touched the damaged spot on his cheek where the ooze had burned to the bone. He lowered his voice. “Is this what got Shasta?”
“Best I can tell.” Brick shook her head. “Zip nearly lost some fingers. I put his hand in a bath. Looks like it’s gonna regenerate, more or less.”
“If we just would have cleaned her off quicker.”
Brick took Jaeger aside. “You need to get your mind right. Start thinking about your next three moves. We’re stuck down here until we figure a way out. Back up them steps ain’t an option anyone’s gonna embrace.”
Jaeger nodded. “It all starts with this hole.”
“You mean the hole that ain’t supposed to exist?”
“Exactly. If we figure out the who and what-for of this tunnel, that might be the leverage we need. At this point, I’m sure of one thing.” Jaeger nodded.
“Other than the steadfast and mountainous beauty of your partner?”
“Yes, other than that.”
“Well, don’t let me get in the way of your moment.”
“Our ticket out of here is learning the one thing no one wants us to learn.”
“Boss, do you read?” Kade hailed him on the handheld.
“This is Jaeger. Go ahead.”
“We’ve found something you need to see.”
“What is it?” Jaeger raised a brow.
“I’ll let you decide.”
“Roger that. Brick and I are on our way. Over and out.” Jaeger stuffed the radio in his pack, drank a slug of water and handed the canteen to Brick. “Let’s hope this is a significant clue.”
After a lengthy jaunt through the never tarrying tunnel, Jaeger and Brick encountered Kade standing sentry in front of a metal door. He checked them over with his torch as they approached.
“Sorry, boss. This place is giving me the sour willies.”
“Can’t blame you for that.” Jaeger pointed with his chin. “What’ve you got?”
“A Catholic crazy house, that’s what.” The heavy door creaked as Kade pushed it open and led the others inside. “Make your own interpretations. Careful, Bao’s in here somewhere, checking for breaches topside.”
Brick and Kade pointed both torches into an underground base of operations that looked as if it had recently endured a skirmish. “Any signs of life?” Jaeger asked.
“Um,” Kade stalled, “yes?”
“Was that an affirmative?”
“Why don’t we start with the dead guy.” Navigating carefully through the overturned mess, Kade led them across the room by the light of his torch. “Looks like he bled out.” He stood aside while shining his torch on a mildly deteriorated corpse.
Brick squatted for a closer view. “Don’t stink hardly at all, I suppose due to the dry, cool conditions down here.”
“And he ain’t been eaten,” Kade said.
Jaeger nodded. “No bugs.”
“These lacerations look almost like claw marks.”
“Could he have gotten torn up topside before making his way to safety?” Jaeger asked.
“Anything’s possible.” Brick scanned the dented metal storage locker behind the body with her torch. “But then what slammed the poor fella into this locker?”
Brick stood up. “Why we poking around in the dark? Ain’t there lights in here?”
“What, like a light switch?” Kade asked.
“Power, you nitwit. You know, electricity from a generator or solar panels.”
“Hey, I only look. Touching stuff is above my pay grade.”
“I’m gonna touch you if you don’t find the power,” Brick threatened.
“Roger. One light switch coming up.” Kade scampered away. “There’s a conduit over here. Shouldn’t be hard to track it to the source.” His torch worked its way quickly along the wall. “Here we are.” He stopped next to a panel with two big levers. One had been flipped off. “Still think I should—”
“Flip the lever already,” Jaeger commanded.
Kade shoved it upward and stood aside. A nearby shattered console showered them with sparks as lights flickered on across the entire room.
Brick mused, “Looks like a research station.”
“Manned by a single individual?” Jaeger looked to Kade.
“Not quite.” Kade led them toward another tunnel entrance, this one without a metal door. “The other, uh, less substantial sign of life is over here.”
Jaeger focused on the dark opening until Kade pointed down. Finally Jaeger spotted the object of curiosity—a severed, extremely hairy leg, bisected just above the knee.
“What the hell is that?” Brick knelt for a closer look. “This thing been cut clean off.”
“I think that much is obvious,” Kade said.
“Not that, you smart ass. I mean the cut’s almost surgical, like it was made with an energy beam a some sort.”
“Maybe while trying to escape into the inner HC.” Jaeger removed the holo-cube from his pack.
“What you thinking?”
He activated the cube and pointed at the blinking green light visible inside the three dimensional holographic schematic. “That’s us.”
“I’ll be jiggered.”
“Yep, we’re right on top of the breach.” Jaeger pointed down the tunnel. “Which means this leads to the inner HC.” He stepped forward, but Brick yanked him back.
“What? This is it. Sooner or later, we’re gonna have to find out what Crystalline Magic Co. is hiding in there.”
She shook her head. “The leg. Why you think it’s laying right there, cut clean the way it is?”
Jaeger didn’t make the connection.
“Come on, Otto, think. Where you seen that kind a cut before?”
It clicked. “Energized barriers.”
Brick nodded while stooping to pick up a loose rock. She tossed it down the tunnel. Less than a meter away, it shattered. Tiny, rainbow-colored ripples temporarily revealed the location of the barrier.
Jaeger scratched his forehead. “Huh, look at that. I wonder if this means we fixed the breach?”
“It means you’re a dunderhead who’d be toast right now if not for me.” Brick shook her head. “Hold on a minute. I think I seen something else I recognize.” She scooted over to a nearby console and dusted it off. Yup, right here. She flipped open a guard and clicked a red button. A nearly imperceptible hum cut off. “Toss something else down the hole.”
Jaeger reached for Kade who promptly jumped back. “Ha ha, ya wanker.”
Jaeger shrugged before tossing a dirt clod down the tunnel. “Nothing.”
Brick entered the tunnel a short way and ran her hand over the transition where the wall turned from smooth metal to rough rock. “There’s a diverter built into the circumference of the tunnel. Turn it on, and you fool the barrier into thinking it’s intact when it ain’t.”
“Enough of the yammering. Kade, you stay here. Report to the others and wait for Bao,” Jaeger ordered. “Brick and I are gonna scout the inner HC. I’ll report in fifteen minutes. If you haven’t heard anything in twenty, close the barrier and assume the worst.”
“Delightful.” Brick shook her head. “We better not find any more a dem roaches.”
The rock tunnel continued straight for twenty meters before bending ninety degrees and continuing another twenty meters. At the end, Jaeger found a metal ladder like the one they’d descended a half hour earlier. “Here we go.” He started up the ladder. “Whaddaya think we’ll find up there?”
“For our client’s sake, it better be something worth Shasta’s life.”
“Not possible.” Jaeger reached the top and slid back a bolt to release the hatch.
“You don’t believe in what we’re doing anymore, do you?”
“I haven’t for nearly a hundred years.”
“Then why we still doing it?” Brick tutted.
Jaeger wiped the sweat from his brow. “Who’s gonna take care of these guys if it ain’t us?”
“So you and I is guardian angels, is that it?”
Jaeger laughed. “Only you would think of calling me an angel.”
Brick shrugged. “I read some a them angels were nasty buggers. Killed a whole lot a people.”
“That sounds about right.” Jaeger gripped the hatch handle. “You ready?”
“On three, two, one.” Jaeger pushed the hatch open without a sound and nimbly leapt topside.
Brick followed with a little less grace but equal stealth.
Jaeger stood and turned three hundred and sixty degrees. A dense fog bank muffled all sound and limited vision to a few meters. The temperature was moderate. Light filtered from overhead.
Jaeger took a cautious step forward. Something crunched beneath his boot. When he lowered his gaze, he realized the ground had been strewn with bones. Bleached white, moderate sized—human.
The size of Brick’s eyes confirmed his speculation. But how could a small HC cycle through so many people? More importantly, what was killing them? No mission is ever as it seems. Jaeger drew his sonic thumper.
Something whistled toward them from overhead. Brick shoved Jaeger out of the way a split second before a human body slammed into the ground between them. “Hell’s gist.” She craned her neck upward. “Where do you think they’re coming from?”
Jaeger knelt over the body. “You ready for things to get even stranger?”
“Not even remotely.”
“Then you better not look down.”
Of course Brick looked. “Tell me that ain’t the same fella we just found in the bunker.”
“Oh, it most certainly is.”
END of Episode One