04 – Subterranean

“We recovered the pods from the planet’s surface,” Sesh reported. Her right arm lied straight across the table as she tapped her fingers inaudibly on the surface. “Inside one of them was the omnium scientist, Doctor Quen Souq, accompanied by the security officer, Krystal Zara.”

     “That’s good news at least,” said the captain. Sesh, Kyora, Virn, and the captain were gathered within the Vonn’s briefing room located just aft of the bridge. They were all in standard uniform now with Kyora’s and Virn’s being orange with white stripes. “Akkain was worried about him.”

     “So, what we know now is that the attackers wore unmarked black armor and arrived in unmarked black ships. The only thing we have to go on is that they appeared to be of Alliance design. No one has claimed responsibility yet, unfortunately.” The captain paused for a second before saying, “I do need to tell you something. This station was originally constructed to study the planet’s geology. Hadrast Four is exceptionally mineral-rich. Somewhere along the way, Akkain lost interest, repurposed this station to study omnium, and began leasing mining rights to the planet.”

     “It’s interesting that people still choose to mine in this age,” Virn said.

     “Bulk minerals,” said Sesh, “if you can find them dense enough, could be acquired at less expense and with less regulations than using omnium. They basically let anyone and everyone start digging in their backyard in order to turn a profit and put the lives of these scientists in danger.”

     “While our surface probe was locating the pods, it came across the entrance to one of the mines,” said the captain. “We sent the probe in, but the density of the planet’s crust prevents em-comms signals from penetrating the surface, and we can’t get a sub-comms signal through.”

     “It could be subspace jamming,” Kyora said.

     “That is a possibility,” said the captain, “but the probe would have returned to the surface and told us if it had encountered any—that’s assuming the probe was still functional. Either way, we need a recovery team down there, as if things weren’t crazy enough.”

     “According to the station’s logs, the frigates originated from the surface,” Sesh said. “There’s no telling what we’ll find down there, but I’ll leave immediately, taking a small team and a shuttle.” The captain nodded at her.

     “We have the landing ship,” Kyora said. “I can order it to touch down.”

     “That may come in handy,” said Sesh looking at Kyora from across the table. “Actually, if you and Lorralis wouldn’t mind accompanying me.”

     “Certainly,” Kyora said as Virn nodded.

    Sesh once again called on her best Auroras as she left with Kyora and Virn aboard the shuttle. The craft dove through the atmosphere dominated by colossal cumulonimbus that created large, dark shadows in the orange evening sky. Flashes of lightning, diffused by the thick clouds, climbed the dark sides of the towering storms.

     “Giants danced to thunder’s sound,” Virn whispered, “growing louder as they bound toward the heavens, they rise through evening golden skies.”

     “So, colonel,” Sesh spoke, disrupting the relative quiet. She looked across at Kyora. “Where are you from?

     “Me?” Kyora looked surprised by the question. The Elestan looked down, then back up and said “Mirida.”

     “Oh, Mirida,” Sesh said happily while nodding. “What is it like there?”

     “I haven’t lived there in decades,” said Kyora, attempting to dismiss the question. Getting the hint, Sesh turned her attention to Virn.

     “How about you?”

     “I’m from Kol,” Virn said with her hands folded in her lap. She seemed far more receptive.

     “Ah, a Sister World,” Sesh noted. “That must have been nice.”

     “It’s a beautiful place. I grew up in the far north, so a lot of tundra grasslands and a few forests with some hills here and there. There was a stream that ran just down the road from our house. We left every winter and lived in the tropics for five months, but we always considered the far north our home.”

     “That sounds really nice,” Sesh repeated.

     “How about yourself?” Virn asked.

     “I grew up on the very edge of the Frontier.”

     “So you were really close to the Federation?”

     “The other edge,” Sesh stressed. “The very far edge.” She attempted to illustrate by moving her hands far apart. “I think I still remember the planet’s official designation: U-P-C, two-eight-five-nine, three-five-four-oh, two-three-four-G.”

     “That sounds a lot like a colony,” Kyora stated.

     “It was,” Sesh explained. “Actually, the colony was only twenty years old when I was born there. We called it Regen-Kelas Four. I, too, grew up in the grasslands, but it was a temperate region that our family farmed. There wasn’t enough omnium around to use it for food. Actually, the first time I ever saw a food-fab was when I first came to the Federation when I was twenty-seven. It took three years just to make that trip.”

     “Do you ever see yourself going back there?” Virn asked.

     “I enjoy the fast life of Civilized Space,” Sesh told them, “but I dream sometimes about going back there. Talk about having free reign over your surroundings. One of my favorite things to do as a child was explore with my brothers. I was the youngest of the five children in my parent’s first upbringing; and the only female at that. Despite being the youngest and ‘cutest’ as my brothers would say, I followed them over hills, across valleys, into empty forests. We even made it to the mountains once, on foot, in winter, and it took us about a week to get there and back.”

     “It sounds like you really miss it,” Virn said.

     “Why did you leave, then?” Kyora asked.

     “I used to know,” said Sesh. “It was just the adventuring spirit, I guess. There was also this one time when I was really young that we had a raider scare, and I remember being very frightened.” Sesh turned to look outside at the evening sky as they continued their descent. “Maybe that’s why I chose to join the Navy.”

     “I’ll never go back to Mirida,” said Kyora.

     “Why is that?” Sesh asked as she turned back to the two of them. Kyora ignored the question.

     “I don’t see myself going back to Kol,” said Virn. “My family was very deep in ancient Exan religion. My father was always away performing sacred rites while I was educated by my mother who herself was a poet. After her instruction, I tended the local shrine and had to wear large, bulky ceremonial garb and have my hair done a certain way. It was both my parents’ intention for me to go out into the wider world when I turned twenty, but what I didn’t tell them is that I wanted to join the Navy. When they found out I was in the Academy, they showed up there and tried to drag me back.” Virn almost laughed. “The first time I tried on REMASS clothing, I was in heaven. It was so comfortable. My parents now have a son, and he seems to be following in father’s footsteps.”

     “That’s very interesting,” said Sesh. “Colonel, are you sure you don’t want in on our conversation?”

     “Very sure.”

     The shuttle touched down on the windswept rocky plain in front of the mine entrance. Everyone aboard had sheathed themselves in armor and helmets, but did not tote weapons. They could fabricate their weapons on demand if they became necessary. The Auroras and two Assault Force officers stepped off of the shuttle and gathered around before heading into the large, sloped, rectangular tunnel with walls one-hundred meters apart and a ceiling thirty meters up.

     “Be advised,” the captain told the away team after Sesh announced their arrival, “a wave of storms will reach your location within three hours. Also, remember to be on the lookout for subspace jamming.”

     “Understood, captain,” Sesh responded in her helmet.

     “If you aren’t back by then,” said the captain, “you’ll need to seek refuge in the caves until the storm blows over.”

     The team of twenty-seven set off into the dark tunnel. The ground was quite smooth compared to the outside which was littered with loose rocks and pebbles. They kept their suits’ lights off and relied on optical sensors, primarily taking the form of advanced lidar. A light wind blew toward them from deeper within.

     “There is some kind of ventilation system five-hundred meters ahead,” said Sesh. “That’s the only thing we got before the probe disappeared.” Sesh turned to one of the two discthrowers and said “Can you give me eyes ahead?”

     “Affirmative,” said the discthrower. She was lightly armored, and she removed what looked like a flattened torus from her back. The disc was actually a drone containing a separate omnium supply that was under her conscious control, placing her in the situation of being simultaneously in charge of both her own body and every action of the drone.

     The discthrower held the disc—about thirty centimeters across—to her opposite shoulder and flung it into the darkness. The disc took off under its own gravitics and raced down the tunnel, seeing everything despite the dark. At the end of the tunnel was the ventilation system. It formed a wall with three large circular openings. Each opening contained a rotor with three connecting blades. The rotors remained motionless, so the discthrower guided her disc between the gaps in the blades and further into the tunnel. After reporting no resistance for two kilometers, Sesh ordered her Auroras to lift off—that is, to use their gravitics to fly down the tunnel. They slowed down as they carefully guided themselves through the rotor blades.

     “If the vent is off,” asked one of the Auroras as she fit her body through, “where is the breeze coming from?”

     “Perhaps it’s the storms,” Virn stated, “the low pressure they generate.”

     The Auroras continued to fly until they reached a sharp drop. Setting their feet down on the smooth stone, they peered over the edge of a giant, vertical, cylindrical shaft. The other discthrower unleashed her disc into the blackness helping to map out the tunnels.

     The vertical shaft’s stone ceiling was directly above them, and the shaft’s floor was three kilometers down. More tunnels of similar dimensions to the one that the Auroras stood within jutted off from this main shaft. Automated gravidynes crawled through the tunnels, just barely managing to slide between the covalent nanocrystal and duralithic supports preventing tunnel collapse. The discs continued to explore unimpeded despite the dense metallic rock surrounding them because of their sub-comms links with their users. That was until one of the discs suddenly lost communication.

     “Commander,” one of the discthrowers said with concern. “I just lost my disc.”

     “We may have found something, then,” said Sesh. “Would you be able to guide us to the location you lost it?”

     “Affirmative.”

     The team used their gravitics to descend through the shaft and perch at the entrance to the tunnel in which the disc was lost—standing or kneeling on the wall of the shaft as if it were the ground. One of the lightly-armored scouts attempted to use her mass scanner to detect movement, but could see none down the tunnel. Optics were also clear, so Sesh gave the order to proceed.

     Once within the disc’s line of sight, the discthrower was able to guide it back to herself using EM-comms. She caught it and clutched it to her chest as if she had just recovered her lost pet. One-hundred meters down the tunnel, the group lost their sub-comms connections to the ship and to each other. Each of their Accellus 4 confirmed it as jamming.

     “That’s it,” said Sesh. “Definitely proceed with caution.”

     “Subspace jammers interfere with mass scanners,” said Virn, “so be on your guard.”

     Sesh stepped outside of the jammer’s area of effect long enough to contact the Vonn, and then the group walked slowly down the tunnel.

     “I see something far ahead,” said one of the point-men. “It may be the probe.” The group approached the object on foot and activated their lights to look it over. The probe’s SIRAC shined in the light they emitted despite how heavily it had been damaged. Suddenly, Kyora felt a familiar feeling—the same kind that had kept her alive all these years. It was always just a feeling, but she knew without a doubt that danger surrounded them. She activated her shrouding, concealing her from all sensor types including the human eye. Virn noticed this immediately.

     “Something’s wrong,” Virn said, worried. As she finished her sentence, four hidden gun turrets emerged from hidden doors in the smooth rock: two on the walls, one on the ceiling, and one on the floor.

     “Take them down!” Sesh shouted. Before the one on the floor could start firing, Kyora had blasted it to a molten husk with her dual heavy pistols. The other three began firing at the Auroras, echoing the popping of chemical propellants through the tunnels, but their Accellus 4’s lumionic barriers absorbed the kinetic energy of the turrets’ solid rounds. The discthrower who had just recovered her disc sent it flying. Coating itself in white plasma, the disc turned around and sliced through the turret on the ceiling, sending half of the turret crashing to the floor. The turrets on the walls were riddled with plasma rounds until they ceased to function. The Auroras recalled their weapons, having only lost a small amount lumionic field potential that would be recovered in mere moments.

     “These defenses weren’t designed to deal with an armed force,” said Kyora, removing her shrouding.

     “Indeed,” said Virn, crouching at the one on the floor and looking it over.

     “Whoever put these here just wanted to keep us from snooping,” said Sesh. “Are there any special markings?”

     “None that I see,” said Virn. “Everything is generic, much like the gravidynes. Just the designer’s logos.”

     “Speaking of gravidynes,” said Kyora as one of the giant vehicles floated down the tunnel, its inefficient drive system humming deeply as it approached, perhaps because of its age. There was less than a meter of clearance on each side of the weathered craft. Sesh and the team hugged the wall as the machine floated along toward the vertical shaft behind them. Once the robotic vehicle had cleared them, one of the Auroras looked down the tunnel again and noticed light in the distance. Sesh led the team on, but before reaching what appeared to be the end of the tunnel, the group found themselves on a duralithic bridge spanning what was once a vast mineral lode. The lode had been mined out in giant cubic chunks, and the subterranean cavity was supported by duralithic struts running from the floor to ceiling—about a two-hundred-meter gap. This portion of the tunnel network was damp. A thin layer of moisture on the duralithic bridge made it shine in the distant light. Frequent drips rained down from the blocky ceiling.

     After flying for another two kilometers of tunnel, the group set themselves down. They arrived at an airscreen holding in the atmosphere for what looked like an empty hangar built to house space vessels. The dark, dull walls of smoothly-carved Hadrast stone reflected the light from massive, square lumionic lights on the ceiling illuminating the landing area below, most of which were on a giant closed door above.

     “Be on your guard,” Sesh told them. “We know little about the station’s attackers. Anything can happen when we enter this shield. Point-man, lead us in.”

     As soon as one of the point-men touched the airscreen, the lights in the hanger switched from white to red. Sirens sounded and other red lumigraphics flashed. Mechanical sounds boomed next to them, and a bay door began to inch closed at the entrance where they stood. To avoid being locked out, the group charged through the airscreen and onto the periphery of the landing area. Most of this area was a flat subterranean plain with little place to hide save for a few crates and other debris and machinery cluttered around. A ribbon of windows wrapped one of the walls about halfway from the floor to the ceiling, and a pair of unarmored personnel dressed in black jumped to their feet and ran off. Massive bay doors on all four sides of the hangar crept open and from them streamed combatants, both armored and unarmored. Sesh fabricated her assault firearm, Kyora her dual heavy pistols, and Virn a heavy sustainer that she could tote with the help of her gravitics. All three weapon classes were gravitic mass drivers.

     The Auroras took cover behind crates that blocked the enemy’s bullets or took off from the ground to attack from directly above. The enemy kept their feet on the ground, appearing to lack gravitics. Kyora activated her shrouding and darted for one of the doors closest to the ribbon of windows. Virn flew up to a gantry resting just below the hangar’s metallic ceiling. She found a catwalk and fell prone, placing her sustainer at the edge and angling it downward toward the far side of the bay. Pulling the trigger rotated the internal revolver full of cylinders that filled with omnium-derived packets of gravitically-accelerated, self-containing plasma that left the barrel with little more than a woosh of air. The bolts cracked and popped like miniature thunder upon hitting anything in their path, eating duralithics, ablating SIRAC, incinerating flesh. Sesh stood behind a tall stack of crates with her assault driver in her hands. Taking a deep breath, she peeked around the corner with her gun and fired it using its sight relayed to her helmet’s OPEL screen. This allowed her to fire the weapon without exposing herself to incoming fire.

     As the enemy met the force that the Auroras exerted upon them, they hid in the corridors behind the opened bay doors, firing shots from as much cover as they could. One of the Auroras launched a self-propelled gravitic projectile into one of the doors, blasting out body parts, chunks of armored meat, and structural debris into the bay, painting the floor and walls with soot and blood.

     Kyora blasted everyone in her path with her dual pistols. After watching their comrades die to an unseen enemy, the combatants tried to fight her back by spraying wildly from their hips but ended up with holes through their heads. The phantom floated over their dead bodies before putting her feet back down. She arrived at the control room overlooking the hangar and stood at a console, but everything was written in unfamiliar graphemes. Without sub-comms, she would be unable to access the Federation Archives in order to decipher it. Instead, she decided to take a risk by fabricating a connector that matched the type she found on the terminal. She kept her hand connected to it in order to establish a direct link to the computer with her suit, and she began interfacing with the computer using her Accellus 4’s neural interface as input and her lumionics as output that she could read, such as code written in Miri, the common language of Civilized Space evolved from the common language of the Miridan Empire. The neural interface was designed not to be able to output information directly into the brain (except for the service partnership Q-comms link), so it could only accept direct inputs from the brain. Within minutes and pausing every so often to place a bolt in the body of a marauder, Kyora was able to shut down the subspace jammer. She then contacted the Vonn and told them about their present situation. She also called for the landing craft and opened the overhead door, revealing a dark sky flashing periodically with lightning. Dust settled on the airscreen before being blow away again by the gusts.

     The twenty-seven Auroras were able to break the will of the larger force of unequipped and unprepared adversaries well before the landing craft touched down within the hangar twenty minutes later. Most of the enemy surrendered themselves to the Auroras. The Assault Force soldiers swarmed through the large underground complex which had been built into one of the mined-out mineral lodes.

     The enemy combatants were forced to sit on the ground with their hands on their heads. As the Federation soldiers began to strip-search them, the marauders were unable to conceal their identities. Kyora, whose helmet had been recalled, tensed up when she saw the elongated, pointed ear lobes and red, glowing neck circles indicative of elsheem. She wanted to stab one of them in the glowing circle on the back of its neck with the tip of her fingernail and watch it curl up and die on the floor from the trauma. She had absolutely no love for whom she considered sub-human trash. The phantom left the hangar, unable to compose herself if she looked at them for too long.

     Krystal Zara, still wearing the green Jakova bodysuit, opened the door to her temporary quarters aboard the Vonn and peered down both ends of the clean, white corridor. She then shut the door and sat on a chair within the room.

    “Fiori,” she said. The orange, lumionic female figure materialized and stood before Krystal.

     “Krystal Zara,” said Fiori, “I have been awaiting your call. Would you like to speak with Admiral Aesho?”

     “Yes,” said Krystal.

     “Unfortunately, she is currently overseeing combat exercises,” said the orange construct. “I can record a message for you, if you would like.”

     “Please,” Krystal said, producing a statelier voice. “This is most urgent.”

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