Authors: PP Corcoran
The marines advanced toward the lip of a large meteorite crater, its bottom shrouded in darkness thanks to the high sides of the crater’s walls blocking out the light from the distant red giant. Travis bounded to the lip and used his suit’s passives to give the crater floor the once-over. Nothing. However, Travis had learned to trust his instincts and the tickling sensation at the back of his neck was telling him something wasn’t quite right about this. Well, his mission was to locate and identify whatever was generating the power source and the only way to do so, apparently, was to go inside the crater. He chose to ignore his instincts just this once and activated his link to the platoon’s first sergeant.
"First Sergeant. Take half the platoon around the lip of the crater and set up a fire support position at ninety degrees to our current location. Sergeant Morales will go firm here with the remaining marines while I go forward with Papadomas and the eggheads and check out the crater floor."
As the marines sprang into action, Travis continued to scan the crater’s floor with his passives. Nothing seemed out of place, but buried in the center of the crater, not a hundred meters from him, was a functioning nuclear reactor. The question was: Who did it belong to? A telltale signal in his HUD changed from amber to green. The first sergeant was in position and happy with his marines positions. Travis continued to ignore the tickling sensation at the back of his neck as his well-honed instincts told him something was not quite right here; he took a deep breath before activating his link to Philippa and her charges, "Let’s move out. Eyes sharp, marines."
With the two scientists between them, Travis and Philippa stepped over the lip of the crater and descended into the darkness below. As the inky blackness swallowed her up, Philippa switched her suit’s optics to image intensifier mode and the floor and walls of the crater jumped out at her in mixtures of green and gray. Cautiously, they advanced, reaching the center of the crater’s floor without incident, but the nagging sensation at the back of Travis' neck was still there and judging by her overly cautious movements, he guessed the normally ice-cool Philippa could sense it too.
"Are you getting the same bad feeling I am, Corporal?" Travis asked over their link.
"You betcha, sir. I can't quite put my finger on it, but I get the distinct feeling we're not alone down here. I'm going to go to thermals to see if it makes any difference. Suit,” she ordered. “Thermal image mode."
The world around Philippa shifted to a mixture of blues, reds, and yellows as the suit showed her the crater according to temperature variations. The crater’s floor and walls were in shadow and should have been a uniform cool blue, but as Philippa scanned one small patch of wall, it appeared slightly warmer than the rest.
"Lieutenant, I have a heat variance on the crater wall at ten o'clock."
Travis switched to thermal imagery himself and quickly spotted the anomaly. "OK Corporal, go check it out. I'll cover you from here."
"Aye-aye, sir. Moving now."
Travis dropped to one knee, brought up his rifle, and placed the targeting dot on the heat source. A command to his suit pushed the aiming point over his link to the first sergeant and the fire support team. This action allowed everyone to see where Travis had his rifle aimed at. Now Philippa had the amassed firepower of the majority of the platoon to back her up if it all went wrong.
Philippa noted the lieutenant’s aiming point in her suit and was slightly reassured as she slowly approached the heat source. She noticed the heat source grew bigger as she moved closer and her optics got a better look at it. The source expanded in her HUD until a perfect horizontal line formed, about a meter and a half across. Faint red lines dropped vertically away from each end of the horizontal line, fading into a cool blue as they went, "Are you seeing this, Lieutenant? It looks to me like heat escaping from a badly sealed hatch."
Travis called the image up to the corner of his own HUD.
Damn if she wasn't right!
Nature abhors straight lines and those heat lines were perfectly straight and joined at right angles. "Sit tight, Corporal, I'm coming to you." Travis opened his link to the two scientists. "Can your gear get me a good reading on whatever the hell that thing is?"
"Get me close enough Lieutenant and our equipment should be able to penetrate anything but battleship shielding," replied the lead scientist.
"OK, you pair stay behind me and shout when we get close enough for you to get a good reading. Move out." Travis moved off with the scientist trailing a few steps behind him.
Just as they came level with Philippa, the scientist spoke over the link. "That’s close enough. I'm pushing the image to you now. It’s some sort of airlock door to a narrow corridor cut into the rock, it slopes down at a shallow angle away from our position before skirting around and disappearing out of range about fifteen meters below the surface..." The pause in the scientist’s report got Travis' full attention.
"And?" Travis asked, trying to keep the impatience out of his voice. For the briefest of seconds the scientist said nothing, then Travis saw in his HUD that both scientists were backing away.
"And there’s something in the airlock now and it’s cycling."
! "Corporal! Heads up, we're about to have a visitor!" Travis' warning call came not a moment too soon.
In Philippa's HUD, the thermal image bloomed as the airlock opened. Outlined in its center was a figure in cooler blue. Philippa's rifle came up, her aiming mark centered on the chest of the unidentified figure only scant meters from her. The alien seemed as shocked to find the marines outside the airlock, as they were to see the alien.
Philippa saw the alien take a step back into the airlock. If whoever or whatever it was raised the alarm, the marines could be in for a world of hurt. Before she realized she was doing it, Philippa sprang forward, her rifle falling slack on its sling and freeing her arms as she tackled the figure. She took it to the ground in a tangle of arms and legs.
Philippa's Wraith suit’s servos should have given her an unfair advantage, but as she tried to pin the alien to the ground it managed to hold her off. Either it was incredibly strong or it was being aided by its own mechanical suit. The fight came to swift end as Travis entered the airlock behind Philippa and leveled his PEP pistol at the alien’s obscured faceplate. The space-suited figure got the message and assumed the prone position on the airlock’s floor.
Philippa pushed herself back to her feet, taking out her own PEP and quickly scanning the small airlock for threats. Lying by the door was a large metal case with the lid propped open. She took a tentative look inside to see a neat stack of a multitude of tools.
Is this guy on the floor a maintenance tech?
"Looks like some kind of tools to me, Lieutenant," she said as she completed her scan of the airlock. Satisfied they were alone, Philippa relaxed slightly but kept her PEP at the ready. Maybe the alien still lying on the floor had friends on the other side of the airlock.
Philippa moved to the airlock’s open outer door. A cursory examination identified the control cables for the door’s mechanism, "Lieutenant, if I cut this control cable, it should stop the door closing from the other side of the inner airlock. If their systems are anything like ours, it should be impossible to open the inner door while the outer one is still open. Might buy us some time to figure out our next move."
"Good thinking, Corporal. Make it happen."
Holstering her PEP, Philippa reached into her leg pouch and pulled out the small plasma cutter she always kept there. On activation, plasma as hot as the surface of the sun lanced out, its thin arc cut through the control cables in seconds and disabled the outer door. Philippa moved back toward Travis, her PEP back out and leveled at the alien.
"I've got this, Lieutenant."
Travis took a step back toward the outer door, pausing to inspect Philippa's handiwork. The outer door was out of commission and her swift action gave him a few minutes to collect his thoughts. "Good work there, Corporal. Quick thinking with the tackle and the door." A slight movement of Philippa's Wraith suit’s helmet in silent acknowledgment was all Travis got in return for his plaudits.
Travis recalled that he had been incredulous when the First Sergeant recommended Papadomas for the job of shepherding the scientists. Travis would have much preferred that one of the sergeants had the job. Papadomas was the junior corporal in the platoon, less than two years out of training; nevertheless, the First Sergeant was quite insistent. If there was anything they taught you in officer training, it was to listen to your senior noncommissioned officers, so Travis bowed to the First Sergeant’s greater knowledge of the platoon.
Watching Papadomas in action, he was glad he had. She reacted more quickly than he to the rapidly developing situation. First putting the alien out of action, then disabling the outer airlock door and securing their position for the moment. B
ack to the situation in hand,
They had one prisoner but God knew how many more were on the other side of the inner door. Of course, there was no definite proof that whoever was on the other side of the door was aggressive. If they wanted to get into a fight with his marines, they would have sent more than one lone individual who, from what Travis could see, was not even armed.
Travis gambled that whoever else was on the other side of the inner door did not know the marines had been on the surface. Activating his link to the Tanto, he called the pilot. “Whistle up the
it looks like we may have a first contact situation here. I'll pass you a copy of my visual data packet so they can make their own appraisal. Tell the
I’m requesting a full diplomatic team to take the lead here and I need additional marine units to secure the surrounding area out to at least a kilometer. If we’ve found one airlock here, there might be more scattered around and I don't want to be blindsided. Break. First Sergeant, let’s get the men spread out into all-round defense, we may be here for a while." In his HUD, a sparkling of points appeared as the First Sergeant repositioned the marines. Maneuvers completed, Travis turned his attention to the still-prone figure on the floor.
Two arms, two legs, and a head. Any facial features were obscured by the tinted visor of the helmet. The pressure suit the figure wore looked a bit battered and had received some obvious repairs. On closer observation, Travis saw the suit seemed more bulky at the joints than it should. The way he’d been able to hold off Papadomas might be explained by a battery-powered exoskeleton built into the suit. Well, they weren’t going to learn much more until the First Contact Team arrived, at which point this particular problem wouldn’t be his anymore, it would belong to someone on a much higher pay grade.
A small beep signaled to Travis that his suit was trying to get his attention. The suit had detected a radio signal being generated from beyond the inner door and being received by the figure on the floor. Travis’ suit could easily block the signal but he decided not to. Any information they gathered on these aliens was advantageous to the work of the First Contact Team. "Suit. Record all transmissions received and transmitted from the prisoner. Relay through the Tanto and mark it as priority information for the First Contact Team." The suit emitted a single beep as it acknowledged his orders.
Time seemed to creep by slowly as Travis, Philippa, and the two scientists, along with their prisoner, waited in the airlock. In reality, it was only ten minutes since Travis passed his first contact report to the crew of the Tanto. The two scientists laid their equipment on the floor in one corner and used it to scan beyond the inner airlock into the corridor beyond. Travis didn’t like what the scans were telling him. Ghostly figures were moving around at the edges of the equipment’s detection range and they appeared to be sealing the corridor from floor to ceiling. If Travis was to hazard a guess, he would say they were building a makeshift airlock, allowing them to decompress the corridor beyond the inner airlock, which would then allow them to open the inner door without endangering the corridor beyond. At the rate they were building, Travis reckoned they had another fifteen minutes, maybe less, until they were finished and he and his small party would get some more visitors. The transmissions between the suit of his prisoner and whoever was beyond the airlock were almost continuous and Travis could only hope the computers of the First Contact Team had been able to make head or tail of the aliens’ language, or this was all going to go south real quick. Just as Travis was thinking it was time to retreat to the crater edge or even the Tanto
the double tone of an incoming message sounded in his helmet: "Go for Travis."
"Travis, Captain Zubek, Echo Company. I'm two minutes out with Charlie Company five minutes behind me. The admiral has chopped two cruisers for fire support and they should be in position before I land. The First Contact Team is assembling now and they’ll follow on as soon as they’re ready. What’s your current status?"
Travis’ relief was palpable. With two companies of marines on the ground with him and two cruisers overhead, he was confident he could fend off any assault on his position if he withdrew to the crater’s lip, allowing his increased firepower to come into play while the forces assembling in the corridor would have to come at him through the narrow airlock door, "Sir. I have an unknown number of aliens constructing what I believe to be an airlock in the corridor beyond my position. I estimate completion in fifteen mikes. It is my intention to withdraw to the lip of the crater with my prisoner and go firm there awaiting the arrival of the First Contact Team."