Episode 205: The Guide
- Part 1
The surroundings were depressingly familiar; a long dark tunnel two meters in diameter, just big enough to accommodate a crouching trooper in full power suit. Faint light emanated from patches of blue luminescent fungi that speckled the tunnel walls. The bugs seemed to bring it with them wherever they went, marking their tunnels with its sickly glow. Rico, Morita at the ready, shuffled down this dark hole toward the swarming, terrifying creatures that make such passages. He was alone.
"Zim, Dizzy, respond. Where are you? Respond immediately!"
The comlink was silent, no sound, not even the hiss of static. Why had they left him? Where had he lost them? No matter. There was only one course to take, down the hole. Rico moved cautiously checking constantly for side tunnels or passages where warriors could rush him or get behind him. He would hear their noises soon. There was always the noise. First it would be the crackling hiss of the diggers at work, "like bacon frying in the pan" Zim liked to say. Then he would hear the screams, the inhuman howls that were the voices of the warriors.
As though on cue, the sounds began...but something was wrong; the noises were different. High-pitched, plaintiff wails filled the passage. Though muffled by the tunnel walls they grew louder with every step. Rico cocked his head listening hard. Cries came from up ahead, but not the brute noises of bugs. These voices had words in them: jumbled, meaningless, but undeniably intelligent. He couldn't understand the words but he could feel the pain and desperation that drove them. As the voices became louder, so did the pain. The cries reached inside him, clawed and pulled at him. In an instant the tunnel filled with dark shapes, dozens of them creeping towards him.
Where had they come from? In the half-light they looked like spiders, slender bodies crawling toward him on long spindly limbs, but they weren't 'bugs'. They had arms and hands. Where one would expect a face, Rico could only see the cold gleam of a pair of shining dark eyes. He fired a warning shot into the tunnel wall but it did not slow their advance. In the brief illumination of the muzzle flash, he saw, outlined against the dark, . . hands...hundreds of them; a solid wall of hands approaching him, reaching for him like those of a drowning man. Their fingers were long and clawed; not bug, but not human either. As they drew nearer some clutched at him, scratching at his armor. Terrified Rico backed away only to stumble into another sea of hands behind him. Fingers grabbed, seized him, pulling him down. He dropped the rifle and began swinging wildly with his arms, trying to sweep them away. When one hand released its grip, another took its place. They clutched his arms and legs, clawed at his faceplate. The sea of fingers unnerved him, hollowed him out. They were all over him now; resisting was futile. He was lost, caught in the irresistible tide of hands. Rico screamed.
He sat bolt upright, gasping for air. Looking down, he reached for the claws that were holding him, but they were gone. He was lost in the dark for a moment, till the chill of the sweat on his skin woke him fully. It was the dream again.
Rico took several long deep breaths, mastering his fear. The dreams were an old friend. From the start of the Bug War he had had bad dreams; most troopers did. His usually involved facing swarms of warriors inside some nameless tunnel. He could have sought professional help. SICON medical offered counseling and hypnotherapy to combat these visions but Rico once made the mistake of talking about his dreams on Tesca Nemerosa, and nearly bought a mind wipe in the bargain. He wouldn't make the same mistake again. What worried him now was how the dreams were changing. Since arriving on Erebus twelve days ago, they were becoming more frequent and terrifying. The warriors were gone, replaced by dark gangrel creatures with their desperate clutching hands. He wanted to tell someone; he wanted to tell Diz. Since the war's end, she was the only person who knew about his dreams; night after night she was there to comfort him in the dark. But now she was gone, and he faced the fear alone. It hurt knowing she was so close, just a few meters down the hall, yet he couldn't talk to her. He threw the thin sheet covering him aside and swung his legs over the side of the bed.
Running his fingers through his damp hair he called for the time. The small clock beside his bed responded by projecting the numbers '0342' into the air above his bed. Damn, less than an hour till my turn on sentry duty. No point trying to sleep now. Might as well get up and see how Doc was faring on watch. In his tiny quarters, Rico needed only a couple steps to reach the lavatory. The light popped on in response to his movement and he was confronted with the unpleasant spectacle of his reflection in the mirror. He splashed water on his face and stared at the pale, tired visage looking back at him. Maybe a shower would help. He slipped out of his underwear and climbed into a stall that was little bigger than he was. A few quick turns of the dials and Rico was enjoying one of the few luxuries available on this colony: plenty of hot water.
Eyes closed, he leaned back against the shower wall and while the warm water washed over him he tried to remember why he had accepted this miserable assignment. Their departure from Tophet had been a dicey affair; as they left its atmosphere three hammerhead fighters had followed them, dogging their trail like a pack of wolves. Once back on-board the Tom Davis, they set course for Erebus, Tophet's sister world. Erebus was more like an 'older sister'; though its methane-sulfur dioxide atmosphere gave evidence to a volcanic history like Tophet's, it was geologically far older than its planetary sibling and had virtually no active surface volcanoes.
It was of interest to the Alliance for two reasons. First, since it was geologically stable, the abundant minerals and rare earths common to both worlds could be mined and extracted more easily on Erebus than Tophet. More importantly, its environment was essentially identical to its larger sister making it a natural location for Erebus Prime, the first T'Phetti off-world colony. After successfully manufacturing their own interplanetary spacecraft nine years ago, the T'Phetti wasted no time in establishing this colony on their planetary neighbor. With full SICON assistance, Erebus Prime became the first true T'Phetti-Terran community in the Alliance and a model of interspecies cooperation. By all accounts it had remained so, even when stories of T'Phetti abductions and sightings of unidentified SICON craft surfaced on the home world. But the disappearances had now reached Erebus and Rico was unsure of the reception his team would receive.
The Tom Davis assumed orbit uneventfully and received clearance to land a transport on the colony's main pad. Their descent in the shuttle was routine, with no unfriendly fighters providing escort as they had on the T'Phetti home world. Hopes that their reception here would be less chilly than on Tophet, however, were short lived.
"Descent proceeding as planned, Major," Lieutenant Tomlinson reported.
Rico leaned over the pilot's shoulder and marveled at how young the Fleet officer looked (Had he looked so green when he joined the MI?). He shifted his gaze to the planetary horizon ahead where he searched for any 'welcoming committee' coming to meet them. The other Roughnecks were safely seated in the passenger bay of the shuttle, but Johnny hung around the cockpit keeping an eye open for trouble on their approach. Arriving in an unarmed shuttle was a diplomatically sound move, but Johnny was no diplomat and it left him more than a little anxious. So far everything was going according to plan. Tophet had made no attempt to stop or delay their journey here, and the landing was proceeding better than he had hoped.
"Sir, at 11 o'clock low, you can just see the colony," Tomlinson pointed toward the view port and Rico's eyes followed his finger to the faint lines and geometry of the colony set amid the rugged canyons of Erebus.
Erebus Prime was built on a narrow plain flanked by the Hesperus Mountains to the north and the maze of the Stygian canyons to the southeast. The colony was arrayed like a giant 'V'. Their destination was the elevated shuttle platform set amidst the complex of buildings, hangers, and land-docks that constituted the colony center. Extending from this hub were two vast arms, the living facilities for Prime's inhabitants. Though the population was an integrated mix of Terran and T'Phetti, the constraints of biology compelled the two races to dwell in separate areas.
Though he'd never seen Prime before, Rico could easily distinguish the two wings from the air. The northwest colony arm was Terran; its pressure domes and habitats carefully sealed and interconnected with air locks to keep out the toxic atmosphere and blazing heat of the planet. Extending to the southwest the T'Phetti arm sprawled in a broken chain toward the nearby canyons. Skinnies never seemed to share the Terran love for the straight line or the right angle. While the Terran habitat was a regular grid, the very model of careful SICON planning and organization, the T'Phetti side was a sprawl of buildings arrayed in extravagant curves and spirals. Unlike their human counterparts, many T'Phetti structures were separated from the main colony and exposed to the elements.
On this world the Skinnies lived freely just as they did at home, unconstrained by the length of an oxygen hose or the boundaries of a heat shield. As their ship dropped closer to the landing platform, Rico could finally appreciate the size and complexity of the colony's hub. Prime's arms were mere suburbs. The shuttle pad was enormous, fully five times larger than the one on Tesca, built to handle the commerce of Prime's industries. The colony center constructed around the vast landing platform was an unholy tangle of buildings, towers, domes and tunnels, marvelous in its complexity; a hodge-podge city melding the architecture and technology of two worlds.
Here the two races could meet, converse, and transact business as equals. And transact business they did. Though still small by Alliance standards Erebus Prime was being hailed by Fednet as the "new Hong Kong", a center of commercialism and trade with almost limitless financial potential. It was this prospect of wealth, embedded in the crust of this dusty world in veins of platinum, titanium, xylon, and other minerals that transformed the tentative Terran-T'Phetti community into a bustling commercial operation in less than ten years. As Rico looked past the polyglot structures into the arid plain and canyons beyond he had another impression of the place.
"No, not Hong Kong" he thought, "More like Australia."
Indeed the colony for all its development and industry looked pitifully small set in the midst of a trackless methane desert as large as the planet itself. Erebus Prime was connected to a handful of scattered mining operations by a thin web of service roads. Only a few ore cats and prospector buggies braved those roads or the desert beyond. Rico figured you could walk twenty minutes from the colony into the canyons to the south and become so lost no one would ever find you. Tomlinson's activity at the controls broke Rico's thoughts. They were making final approach. As the shuttle prepared to touch down, Johnny retreated to the passenger compartment to give the Roughnecks some final instructions. They were already up getting their kit organized for departure. Powersuit helmets were seated and duffels slung when Rico noticed Goss staring out a small view port.
"Sightseeing Goss?" Rico joked trying to sound more relaxed than he was.
"Just curious," Goss responded. "Did you notice our ground crew? They're all human. I assumed ground staff would be T'Phetti."
Rico joined him at the tiny window. He was right. T'Phetti were the bulk of the colony's landing crews since they could work outside without special equipment. Only humans in environment suits were moving toward their shuttle. Before Rico could question further the pilot called him to the bridge. He returned moments later.
"Double time apes," Rico announced. "Full powersuits with sidearms slung. It appears we'll be entertaining guests."
The Roughnecks stood uncomfortably in formation beside their shuttle
"Any bright ideas what we're waiting for?" Higgins turned to Diz on his right.
"Not a clue," was her terse response. Her eyes remained forward inviting no further conversation.
"I'm guessing it's some surprise from Tophet," Zim replied, "Far as they're concerned, we're the cause of this mess and not the solution. They didn't want us on Tophet and they'll be no happier having us poke around here."
If Rico heard the conversation, he did not respond. His attention was directed at the small figure crossing the pad toward them.
A tall, slender man, decked in the civilian equivalent of a powersuit approached them. As he drew near to Rico he extended his hand. He was dark, as most humans were who spent their days under T'Phetti suns. Though his smile was as warm as his complexion, his eyes were unmistakably anxious.
"Major Rico," the tall man spoke, "I'm Terrance Sturbridge, chief of operations here on Prime. In a previous life I was Sgt. Sturbridge, Lima squad, Second Division under Lt. Lessig, Ticonderoga battle group. Saw action on Hydora and Tophet. We always seemed to be following in Alpha's footsteps; read plenty of your news clippings but never had the chance to meet."
"I thought I smelled ape when we landed," Rico smiled taking the chief's hand. He was grateful to meet a friendly face after their hostile reception on Tophet. "Can you tell me why a couple a' apes are meeting up here instead of someplace friendlier, like a nice bar down below."
The chief's smile faded slightly. "Sounds good to me, sir, but I thought you'd want to see this."
He nodded over Rico's left shoulder. Johnny turned to see a pair of craft in the western sky moving in low and fast toward the platform. Staring into the suns, he couldn't identify the silhouette of the larger craft, but the smaller vessel on its port wing was unmistakable. It had deeply curved wings, swept forward, and a broad snout, curved to a razor's edge like a sickle.
"Hammerhead fighter, probably D'Nir class," Rico sighed inwardly, "It appears our T'Phetti friends are less interested in diplomacy than we are."
"I'm sorry I couldn't give you more warning," Sturbridge continued, "Colony sensors only picked them up a few minutes ago, just as you were initiating approach. They logged in as T'Phetti transport and escort but gave no further identification or statement of intent. I thought it safer to have you here in case there was..."
"Trouble, chief?" Rico finished. "Not if I can help it."
The two ships swung overhead, casting large shadows over Rico and his team. The T'Phetti shuttle settled softly on the platform directly opposite Rico's ship while the hammerhead fighter hung menacingly in the air overhead. When the fighter landed it did so with its weapons trained on the line of troopers. An obvious violation of Alliance landing protocols, but as clear a message as one could ask. Rico turned slowly from the fighter and approached his squad. To their credit they remained calmly at attention, weapons slung.
"Sir, do you think that fighter is armed?" Higgins asked, his voice betraying a trace of fear.
"Citizen," responded Max with no little sarcasm, "One round from those wing cannons would reduce you to a fine pink mist."
"Thank you for the threat assessment, Sergeant," replied Rico with a tone that indicated he would not appreciate any similar 'assessments' in the near future. " I'm not concerned about what the fighter will do; I'm only concerned about what we do. This situation is a powder keg and we're not going to be the match. Is that understood? Stay in formation; make no moves toward your weapons unless I specifically order you to do so. Do you get me, Roughnecks?"
"Sir, we get you, sir!" came the unanimous reply.
"T'Phai, would you please join me and Chief Sturbridge in greeting our new arrivals?"
The tall alien broke from ranks and pulled behind Rico's right shoulder as they rejoined the chief. The three began a slow walk across the platform to the T'Phetti transport. En route Rico keyed his comlink to T'Phai's personal receiver.
"Colonel," Rico reverted to T'Phai's old title, "May I speak freely?"
"Of course, Major."
"My only job here is to find M'Rette and our missing people and maybe Carl as well. We cannot start a war in the bargain. I'm not sure what we're walking into but I know I'm seriously out of my element. I'm neither diplomat nor T'Phetti. You are both. I may be making some hard choices soon, and I'll need all the help you can give me to make the right ones."
"I have never given less before," T'Phai replied, "And I shall not now."
"I never doubted it, Colonel," Rico smiled remembering the old days, "I just hope our best is enough."
The T'Phetti shuttle, slightly larger and more heavily armed than its Terran counterpart, hissed and cracked as it cooled from its fiery entry into the Erebian atmosphere. When the three figures approaching it were ten paces away, the ship's door opened abruptly and a large boarding ramp swung down to the deck.
"It's showtime, gentlemen" Rico threw a quick glance at his two partners and stepped forward.
T'Phal emerged from the relative darkness of the D'Tall'i to breathe the sweet air of his sister world. During his long 'exile' on Earth he had lived in one cold, manufactured atmosphere after another, in suits or ships. Since that time he had grown weary of artificial 'air', even if it was provided by T'Phetti ships. He stepped into the suns, closed his eyes, and allowed himself the momentary luxury of basking their heat. His pleasure was brief, however for a 'welcoming party' had come to greet him. He stepped down the gangplank with M'Rol, T'Nol, and N'Zal behind him in support. The four slender aliens were clad in the gold and violet battle armor of the T'Phetti Defense force. The western sun would strike the gilt and make an impressive show for the humans here to greet them. T'Phal was empty-handed but his associates carried their weapons at the ready. As he drew near the reception committee, he realized that one was not Terran. Recognizing the antique armor, T'Phal had no doubt who the T'Phetti was. Much had happened since he stood at his father's knee listening to his stories of the brave and kind Terrans. In his year on Earth he had seen them for himself and knew the truth. If T'Phai wished to embarrass himself by siding with the brutes, that was his choice. But he would not choose for his son, or for his world any longer.
"Greetings T'Phal. What an unexpected pleasure to see you again so soon."
It was Major Rico of course. He was like the Tophet suns, always present.
"Major Rico, I would think someone as important as you would have many responsibilities at home? Why do you trouble yourself with T'Phetti affairs?"
"T'Phal," the major responded calmly, "No responsibility is more important than the recovery of the missing citizens of both our worlds. Like you, I am here to find answers; I wish no quarrel with you."
"The warship that hangs in orbit above us speaks otherwise. Still I hear you have missing on your own world. Why don't you seek them there, and leave our people to us?"
"That I cannot do," Rico paused and glanced at T'Phai on his right. "I am here at the request of a dear friend."
"T'Phai has chosen his friends," the young T'Phetti sneered, "I choose my own. You and your soldiers are not welcome here. By the Alliance Treaty of 2082, Erebus is T'Phetti sovereign territory."
If T'Phai was insulted by T'Phal's disrespectful use of his first name, he concealed it well.
"My son," the elder T'Phetti replied, "You are a careful student of history and as such know that the treaty also guarantees Terran free flight and safe harbor on this world."
"Such promises were made before the Terrans began taking our people."
"That is yet to be proved," T'Phai replied, "Our promises still stand."
"My friends," Chief Sturbridge interjected, "And we are still friends I hope. Erebus is a free port for all Alliance citizens. You are both honored guests, but you are only guests. Neither of you has the authority to order the other away. We are both T'Phetti and human here and we have peace. You are both welcome as long as you recognize that peace."
T'Phal looked at the chief standing now between his squad and the Terrans. He did not like taking instructions from this squat human, but he was correct. Chief Sturbridge was the senior Erebian representative on the platform. It would not serve T'Phal's purpose to defy this man and risk conflict with the colony as well as the Terrans.
"My apologies, Chief," T'Phal bowed slightly to the Erebian officer, "I spoke in haste and anger. We appreciate the kind welcome of the colony and will abide by all its statutes." T'Phal then turned and stepped close to Major Rico, emphasizing their marked difference in height.
"My apologies, Major Rico," T'Phal looked down on the human in unmistakable distain, "We will share the colony with you and keep a close eye on your progress."
Rico met the T'Phetti's gaze steadily, "You honor us with your interest, T'Phal."
"Du'Nutti te na prek'nal T'Petti na" T'Phai added with a slight bow of his own.
T'Phal stared at the major, refusing to acknowledge his father's words or even his presence. T'Phai had been great once, but years spent with the 'water sacks' (as humans were dismissively called) had poisoned him, clouded his judgment. The young T'Phetti would bide his time. He had friends on the colony, T'Phetti that resented the human's presence as much as he did. He would find his missing countrymen and the Terrans that took them, and punish them. There wasn't anything T'Phai or his friends could do about it.
Rico stared at the tall alien as he turned back toward his ship. T'Phal issued orders to his guard and they returned to the ship to begin unloading. Rico waited unsure if the parlay was over.
"Major," T'Phai whispered in his comlink, "T'Phal is finished. We can leave."
Rico exhaled slowly, trying to relieve some of his tension.
"Chief Sturbridge...Colonel...thank you."
"That went as well as could be expected," Sturbridge responded, "I won't pretend that your presence here makes my job easy. We haven't remained blind to the troubles brewing in the Alliance, and many of our people are itching to take sides. I believe you want to keep the peace, but I'm not so sure T'Phal and his friends share that desire. We'd better walk carefully or things could get ugly very quickly. Now, if you'll permit me, I'll see you and your men to your quarters."
Rico turned and with T'Phai at his side he began the long walk back to his thin line of troopers.
"Colonel," Rico spoke again over T'Phai's private comlink, "My T'Phetti is a little rusty. What was the last thing you said to T'Phal?"
"It was a line from the Alliance treaty. T'Phal evoked its name even while he was trying to break it," the elder alien shook his head with disappointment, "The words mean 'Fellowship forged in war will not break in peace'."
Rico turned to his friend, "Brave words, but were you talking about our peoples or about you and your son?"
T'Phai managed the Skinnie equivalent of a sardonic smile, "Perhaps a little of both."
When he reached the Roughneck's formation, Rico gave instructions to Zim and Doc, and the squad scrambled back into the ship to gather their gear. He and T'Phai would go with the chief to inspect their quarters then return to collect the squad. The three men headed toward the small island of structures on the eastern corner of the pad that housed the entrances to the colony below. As they drew near the air locks, Rico noticed some jagged graffiti painted on the exterior of a cargo door. It was an amateurish rendering of T'Phetti script.
"What does it say?" Rico asked.
" I'm unsure of the correct vernacular," T'Phai hesitated, "But a rough translation would be 'Fart-Breathers, next time we let the bugs eat you'."
Rico was at a loss for words. "That is so...sad."
"It certainly is," replied T'Phai, "Most of the words are misspelled."
T'Phetti humor. Rico was glad his friend found something funny in this mess, but Johnny was in no mood to laugh.
As the squad strolled down the Terran arm of the colony to their rooms, Rico wondered if his friends found this place as overwhelming as he did. The same wild profusion of architecture he had seen on the surface was echoed in the corridors of Prime. It was a challenge creating a community of individuals when half the population lived in an environment poisonous to the other. The Erebians had answered that challenge by creating an elaborate system of redundant and interlocking habitats and passages ingeniously configured so that the Terrans and T'Phetti could move with equal ease throughout the colony. Adjacent corridors, theaters, offices, and docks could accommodate the two races simultaneously, often with only a thin transparent wall separating them.
Rico assumed the colonists found this arrangement completely natural and comprehensible, but to an outworlder it was a bewildering mess. Hallways, lifts, corridors, and docking facilities were designated Terran, T'Phetti, or amphibian (meaning the environment could be altered to accommodate either group) Finding one's way entailed knowing the right route through the right corridors to the right lifts for one's own species. In addition, all passages were repeatedly interrupted by pressure tight doors, a precaution against one race's world leaking into the other's and wiping them out.
It would have taken Johnny a lifetime to figure it out, and he didn't have that kind of time. In his mind, the colonist's only concessions to practicality were the two residential wings, which were far simpler in design for they were built to accommodate only one species. After enduring the maze of corridors and the suspicious stares of the colonists, the squad settled into their quarters while Rico followed the chief to his office. It was a small, simple workplace set in the colony hub: a desk and computer workstation, a couple chairs, and an armoire in the corner. It would have been utterly unremarkable if not for the wall behind Sturbridge's desk; it was entirely Plexiglas and revealed a small chamber containing chairs configured for T'Phetti anatomy.
"You find our 'split personality' a little daunting, eh?" Sturbridge joked as he motioned Rico to a chair. "Remember that the T'Phetti billeted on Earth have lived this way for years. In any event it works well for the both of us."
The chief moved over to the armoire.
"This isn't a bar like you requested topside but I can still offer you a drink." He opened the cabinet to reveal an assortment of bottles and flasks, "What'll it be? I have quite a selection of spirits, even a few T'Phetti liquors. Seems alcohol is one of the few foodstuffs that both our species tolerate. I'm not sure I would recommend the T'Phetti brews, though. To the uncultured Terran palate they would probably taste like motor oil."
"I wouldn't mind water," Rico smiled, "but I'm more interested in information."
"Cut to the chase, huh?" the chief smiled pouring Rico a tall glass of water. "When I heard the Davis was heading our way, I thought there might be questions."
Sturbridge moved to his desk, and from a small drawer, produced a slender file.
"This is a summary of our missing persons reports for the past six months. A quick glance will tell you something fishy is going on. Excluding the typical losses from prospecting and mining operations, the missing have come almost entirely from the T'Phetti community, particularly in the psychic and religious castes. We reported this to Tophet about a month ago only to discover they've been experiencing disappearances for over seven months."
"Tophet reported unregistered SICON vessels and troopers coinciding with their disappearances. Anything similar here?"
"Well," Sturbridge hesitated as he closed the cabinet and returned to his desk. "There are a few things those reports don't show. We've had a couple reports of unregistered ships spotted near some of the mining operations and a few in the T'Phetti regions. Nothing concrete. None of the sightings were linked to the disappearances so I chose not to include them in the report. We're a frontier colony; ships come and go without clearance or flight plans all the time. I thought nothing about it, but after hearing about the mess on Tophet I'm starting to ask questions myself."
Rico looked at the report in his hands: five T'Phetti with no obvious connection except they were all psychic adepts and missing. He would need to play detective on an unfamiliar world where nearly half the population wanted to cut his throat. All the while two worlds watched: one looking for answers, the other for enemies. It was the start of a very long day.
Rico opened his eyes in the now steaming shower. Remembering that first day, he wondered for about the hundredth time why he hadn't packed up his bags then, gathered his team, and found the fastest boat home. The last twelve days on this smelly rock had been a complete waste. He and his friends had chased down every lead, every story, every witness they could find; since most were T'Phetti that meant working in powersuits, often in the T'Phetti wing or the mining camps. Even with T'Phai's presence, good will in those areas was in short supply. Many refused to talk to him; others gave only the most scant, fragmentary information. He attributed the ill will to the current political mess, but as the days wore on he became convinced that T'Phal was 'poisoning the well'. He knew the alien and his allies were closely watching his every step. More than once he'd chase down a lead, only to find that splay-toed Skinnie's footprints all over it. All the while he'd been forced to play diplomatic games that he had neither the expertise nor patience to handle. Whole days were wasted trying to sooth angry locals and prevent his presence from becoming an interplanetary incident.
Coping with his old squad had not been easy either. During their service in the Bug War, they had all been MI, with ranks and command clearly understood. Now, with most of the Roughnecks citizens, discipline was harder to maintain. Goss especially seemed to relish his citizen status and took every opportunity to comment on their situation. Zim and Max, the old sergeant and the new, seemed to be endlessly at each other's throats, though Rico could never figure out why. Then there was Diz. His heart had skipped a beat when he first spotted her at the reunion. He hadn't seen or spoken to her in over nine months. His pleasure was short-lived, however, for she was not the Diz he remembered. She was pale and thin. The old fire in her eyes was banked. She seemed empty like the shed skin of a snake, a lifeless imitation of herself. He had wanted to talk to her, ask her how she was, but she was always careful to avoid being alone with him. He wanted to be angry at her, to defend himself, return pain for pain, but all he could feel was love and loss.
The tone of a comlink cut into Rico's thoughts. He climbed out of the shower, draped a towel around his waist and reentered his quarters. With a touch to the bedside table the lights came up and he grabbed his comlink.
"Doc, this is Rico. What have you got?"
Though they were in 'friendly territory', Rico had taken the precaution of setting watches outside their quarters. Doc had pulled the 'graveyard' shift.
"Sorry to wake you, sir. I was monitoring communications traffic on the colony web and found something interesting. Someone's coming into Docking Bay 447. I think we'd better check on it." Doc's manner was always deadpan, but Rico detected a trace of urgency in his voice.
"What is it? What have you got?" Rico picked up his pace, drying himself hastily with his towel while he spoke.
"I overheard a transmission from the colony docking authority to a prospector out by Dante Canyon. Seems this guy discovered a downed SICON ship 250 klicks from the colony. He's been two days returning to the station and only just reported in."
Rico rolled his eyes as he rubbed his hair dry. Stories of mystery ships and unidentified wreckage were floating all over Prime. Most were pure gossip; he had run down a dozen such stories only to find nothing. This guy's tall tale would mean another day sweating in a powersuit, another dusty ride to some godforsaken hole in the methane desert to another dry well
"Doc, what makes this story so special?"
"Sir, this prospector picked up a survivor from the ship...a trooper."
Rico and Doc met in the corridor, both wearing full powersuits, their helmets tucked under their arms.
"Sergeant, what is the status of the squad?" Rico asked.
"None too happy about the wake-up call and the requested dress, sir, but they're moving. They'll be forming up here in five."
"We keeping a lid on this?" Rico asked mindful of T'Phal's many eyes and ears on the station.
"All communications have been face-to-face or secure comlink only, no station channels. Everyone knows to keep it quiet."
The first trooper to arrive was T'Phai. He had a head start on the others because he was already in his suit. Rico never forgot the sacrifice that entailed. In the T'Phetti quarter, T'Phai could have been free of the encumbrance of the powersuit. Rico half-expected he would bunk with his own people. But even after ten years, he was still a Roughneck, choosing to remain with his squad even if it meant wearing the suit. Minutes later the rest of the squad, arrayed in powersuits was assembled. Zim and Max, true to their sergeant genes, formed the group into a line. The sergeants managed to look fresh despite the early call. Goss seemed wide awake as well; Rico figured fishing boat captains were accustomed to early mornings. Higgins, despite his endless enthusiasm, was showing some wear. Johnny tried not to look at Diz. She hung back at the end of the line looking pale and tired. She stared forward refusing to meet his gaze.
"Sir," Goss asked sarcastically, "Why the early breakfast? And what's with the monkey suits?"
"Has something happened, sir?" Higgins added, the reporter in him starting to come to life.
"Apes," Rico replied, "At 0220 hours Terran, Doc intercepted a message coming into the colony net. A Terran prospector operating in Dante canyon reported finding the wreck of a SICON ship two days ago. No word on ship type or its condition. According to his report he found a survivor, a trooper wandering delirious around the wreck. He's bringing him in for medical attention. They're en route to the colony now and should arrive within the half hour. We're going to be there to meet them. If his story is true, we have two live bodies that have seen one of these mystery ships and know its location. The survivor may have even been on the craft. Doc, see if you can't rustle up some medical gear. Sounds like this trooper could use some attention."
"That still doesn't explain the powersuits," Goss persisted.
"If this guy's information is good, we're heading directly out to that ship. We aren't going to let our T'Phetti shadows beat us to this lead."
"Major" Zim added quietly, "Won't storming through the colony in prepped powersuits defeat our purpose in keeping a low profile?"
"Can't be helped," Rico responded, "Once we debrief this prospector and his passenger we're wasting no time getting to the ship."
"You expecting trouble, sir?" Max added.
Rico thought of the dark, creeping creatures of his dreams. He could not escape the feeling that they were out there, waiting for him. "Sergeant, I've given up guessing what to expect on this mission. If there are no further questions, Doc, get your gear and rendezvous with us in ten. Docking bay 447. Let's move."
"I just hope the locals enjoy the parade," Goss muttered under his breath.
It was not clear that the colonists 'enjoyed the parade', but they certainly took note of it. Rico, mindful of the political controversy his team represented, was always careful not to let his men appear in public in large groups or wearing the armor of the SICON military. That was why this morning's spectacle was so unusual. Eight fully armed and outfitted troopers were passing through the halls, helmets in hand, walking casually but falling into formation guided by muscle memory. Though they didn't speak, the clatter of equipment against powersuit and the heavy footfall of jump boots announced their approach as clearly as a military band.
During their long walk from the periphery of the Terran arm to the docking bays in the colony hub, curious faces and disapproving looks popped up like weeds from cracks in doorways and the corners of view ports. They were few and scattered at first, but as the Roughnecks proceeded word seemed to spread in their wake. Five hundred meters from the colony hub, groups of colonists appeared in the halls and cross passages, paying careful note to the parade. Two hundred meters from the docking yards, the groups of onlookers became larger, nearly obstructing the passage.
By the time they reached their destination, Johnny was sure the whole colony was buzzing about them. The Prime docking yards were on the ground level. Cavernous bays built to accommodate everything from massive ore cats to smaller scout vehicles were arrayed in a grand arcing semicircle around the hub. Mining traffic streamed endlessly in and out of these ports delivering raw ore, which was processed and passed up through the colony to the elevated landing pad where heavy transports could carry the mineral wealth to colonies and planets throughout the Alliance.
Rico paused at the entrance to the facility, trying to divine the quickest route to Bay 447. A few minutes later, the squad reached their destination. The foreman responsible for controlling access to the bay offered only token resistance as the troopers passed inside. Bay 447 was a midsize facility, with a high arched roof that supported a web of catwalks, cranes, and platforms. Across the bay was the huge pressure door that opened to an air lock, and then to the desert beyond. The bay was already abuzz with personnel. A vehicle support crew was busy preparing the equipment to check and refuel the incoming craft. On his right Rico recognized a medical team with a levbed preparing for the rescued trooper. In all the hubbub, Johnny spotted Sturbridge with the medical team. Seeing Rico's group, he approached.
"I called your quarters about ten minutes ago, but you were already heading here," the chief observed. He looked a little frayed around the edges this morning. "You got here 'faster than gossip'. I only arrived about a quarter of an hour ago. Te Kooti has arrived and his scout is in the outer lock. Be about five minutes before we complete the purge and bring him in."
"Who is this guy?" Rico asked.
"Armin te Kooti? He's a free-lance prospector, operates mostly out of his scout. Works the periphery hunting for new deposits and pays the bills with occasional work for the mining companies. He doesn't spend much time at the colony except to restock his supplies. Pays his bills, never in any serious trouble. Just a small time operator, like about a hundred other guys, trying to scrape a living out of the desert."
Sturbridge's monologue was interrupted by the loud warning alarm of the pressure door. With a harsh mechanical whine, the door slowly opened. Even after the airlock purge Rico could still detect the unpleasant odor of methane passing into the bay. The scout rolled in and the heavy door slowly closed behind it. The ground crew went into action connecting umbilicals and pipelines to the vehicle. The scout was about twice the size of a SICON medium truck; it's large dome-shaped body was perched high atop six barrel-shaped wheels. To Rico it resembled a giant box turtle. As he approached the vehicle Doc joined him, still breathless from catching up to the squad.
"Did I miss the party?" Doc asked.
"Naw, it's just starting," Rico replied. The two men waited with the medical team as the docking crew recycled the atmosphere in the scout. After a few moments, the vehicle's large rear hatch hissed open and lowered to form a gangplank to the bay. A stocky man in a dusty, ramshackle powersuit stood at the opening and walked slowly toward the welcoming party. He pulled off his helmet and Rico was taken aback by his appearance. Armin te Kooti was dark, far darker than the other sun-baked colonists of this world. He sported a huge mane of black, curly hair that could barely have fit in the helmet. His features were broad; a prominent brow, broad nose, full mouth. Even through the week's growth of beard on the man's face, Rico could see etched into his dark skin, the blue-black lines of a tattoo. Across the whole left side of his face, from forehead to neck the prospector's face was covered in an elaborate tracery of whorls and lines. Johnny struggled not to stare at the strange dark apparition. The prospector turned toward Sturbridge.
"Passenger in there," the dark man gestured over his shoulder into his vehicle, "Seemed kinda bad. Did best I could, but ya better go see." He spoke with a heavy accent that Rico couldn't place.
The medical team with Doc in tow moved into the craft while Rico approached the prospector.
"I'm Major Rico, Mobile Infantry. I hear you found one of our ships."
The dark man's face broke into a broad friendly smile. "Armin te Kooti" he replied offering his now ungloved hand. "Found more than a ship. Got one 'a your soldiers, too. Was runnin' some soundings in the southeast corner 'a Dante canyon, 'bout two klicks south of Pelier wash. Found a big ship half buried in the canyon floor. I almost drove over it 'fore I saw it. I took a look around, didn't see nobody, so I was packin' to leave when I spotted this trooper wandering 'round the canyon."
"What did he have to say?" Rico asked.
"Didn't say nothin'. Trooper lookin' sick, sun-crazy. Packed 'em up and came here."
As the stranger spoke, Doc and the medical team began pushing the levbed down the gangplank. Restrained on the medical bed was a trooper lying motionless. Rico paused to see this strange passenger. It was a woman, slight in build clad in poorly fitting battle armor. Only her head and left arm were exposed. The suit was strange; it was not one of the new MI powersuits, but an old Bug War model. He looked at her face. She was young, maybe late twenties, with a fair face punctuated by pale freckles on her cheeks and nose. Her hair was sandy blonde, and had been crudely cut short.
"Miss," Rico leaned close to the still face, "Can you hear me?"
"Forget it, major," Doc replied. He was standing on the left side of the stretcher, his powersuit umbilical hooked to the suit of the silent woman. "She's comatose, unresponsive. My read-out indicates moderate dehydration, hyperthermia, and a moderate concussion."
"Any ID?" Rico continued.
"Suit ID reads Granger, A., corporal, November squad, Second Mobile Infantry. But that's a Bug War unit; doesn't exist anymore. I'm assuming the suit is borrowed."
Rico stared at the woman.
"Who are you?" He thought to himself, "And how the hell did you end up alone in the desert in a stolen powersuit?"
"Sir, have you ever seen anything like this before?" Doc, who had been monitoring the IV in the woman's left arm, directed Rico to a small smudge on her inner wrist. On closer inspection, he saw that it was a tattoo, a faint barcode.
"Yeah, that's Intel," Rico answered, "Could she be one of our missing psychics?"
"If she is, I could download her biostats, maybe come up with a name for you. I'll need to get to colony communications to access the Tom Davis's records."
"Do it," Rico ordered, smelling the first hard lead he had found on this trip, "But don't loiter. I want you back in fifteen."
"Aye, sir," Doc followed the medical team and their mysterious charge out of the bay.
Rico tuned back to te Kooti, who was now talking to Chief Sturbridge.
"Mister te Kooti, would you be willing to guide us to where you found the downed ship?"
The smile on the prospector's face darkened at the question.
"Sorry, no can do, not least 'til my claim is filed."
"Claim?" Rico's countenance fell as he contemplated yet another complication, "I don't understand?"
"Look at this." The prospector reached into one of the pouches on his suit and produced a small, faintly yellow stone. Rico examined the prospector's prize but could not identify it.
Te Kooti smiled condescendingly. "Xylon, boss. I'm figurin' close to seventy, eighty percent clean. Found not far from your trooper. New claim with hot rock this pure worth a 'hole lotta credits to me. I'm telling no one where I've been till my claim is all filed and legal."
Sturbridge leaned close to Rico's ear. "Sir, our man here is an independent contractor. If his discovery is real and he can establish a legal claim, it's worth a lot of money. The Mining Consortium would pay a pretty penny for surface xylon."
"And there are a whole lotta folks would love to jump my claim" the prospector added.
"Any way you could fast-track this process?" Rico suggested, searching for a solution.
"Sorry, sir," the chief replied, "At the fastest we could process a claim in...oh, maybe half a day."
Rico rolled his eyes in exasperation. More time wasted. "Chief, do what you can for me."
Sturbridge and the prospector turned and headed for the bay door. Rico wheeled in frustration toward the open door of the scout. He was surprised to see Goss in the doorway, leaning nonchalantly against the sill of the hatch. Jeff looked suspiciously around for witnesses, then signaled Johnny to come up. When he reached his friend the two turned into the scout so their conversation couldn't be seen.
"Goss, what are you doing up here?"
"Well, I was interested in our friend's rig. I just followed the maintenance crew in, been hanging around asking some of the fellas questions, checking things out when I managed to get a quick look at the cockpit of this beast. Professional interest, you understand."
"Of course," Rico responded, knowing better than to interrupt Goss when he was onto something good.
"Figuring you might be needing some info, I took the liberty of running a patch into his PPS log. Only took a couple minutes. No one even noticed."
"And..." Rico encouraged him, hoping to hear the payoff to this story.
"Well, I managed to snag a copy of his navigation log for the past couple days."
"You telling me you know where our friendly prospector's been?"
"To the cubic centimeter. Get me a ship and I'll drop you right on his tire tracks." Goss smiled, savoring his triumph.
"Capt. Gossard," Rico returned the smile and clapped Goss on the back, "Get me out to that wreck and I'll be first mate on your shrimp boat."
"I don't know," Goss retorted, "I'm not sure you're qualified. Give you a little time, you may work your way up."
Jeff Gossard was as good as his word. Rico was in his accustomed position in the cockpit of the shuttle, standing behind the pilot's right shoulder. Only this time, Goss was at the controls. Johnny was reassured to have someone of more mature years and experience flying this boat; Goss seemed to relish the experience as well. In his trooper days, Jeff had been flight certified on the assault craft used by the Mobile Infantry, but he always figured he could handle fleet craft just as easily. They had spent the past hour tracing a path over the canyons south of the colony searching for the place where the prospector found the abandoned craft. More than once Rico flinched at a close pass to the canyon walls, but Gossard seemed calm and unconcerned.
"Is that it?" Johnny pointed to a dark spot at two o'clock low.
Jeff cast a passing glance to the guidance monitor. "Yep, that's our spot."
The shuttle pulled smoothly to a hovering position, and began the slow vertical descent into the canyon. The dark shape that he took for the crashed ship was nestled on the floor of a narrow box canyon that flared out to the southwest, took a sharp right hand turn then quickly narrowed to a blind cliff to the east. The cliffs overlooking the canyon floor were tall and lined with outcrops, ledges and caves; perfect cover for an ambush. The memory of dozens of patrols in similar terrain on Tophet came to Rico's mind. He didn't like this spot at all.
"Skinnie hidey holes, everywhere," Rico thought. Not for the first time he wondered if this intelligence coup was nothing more than a set-up by T'Phal and his pals. Be very easy to corner his men in this hole, attack from those elevated positions, and in minutes Rico's Roughnecks would be just another disappearance in the desert.
"Goss, set us down three hundred meters from the wreck. I want plenty of room to look around."
"Aye, cap'n," answered Goss.
The ship eased softly down. Rico passed back into the crew compartment where his friends were already suited. His plan was simple. Goss and the 'Paperboy' would remain on guard in the shuttle. Rico, Doc, and T'Phai would explore the wreck while Max, Diz, and Zim maintained a perimeter. The shuttle hatch hissed open. One by one the suited figures passed through the entryway into the bright furnace of Erebus.
Next Episode: 205B: The Guide - Part 2