Children of Darkness: Chapter 15
Do you need to get caught up? Read Chapter 1 here
“I hate this planet,” Marcus said.
In the viewscreen Alpha 114 resembled a small, green marble. They’d emerged from hyperspace one hundred thousand miles out. Iaka assured him the scanners in use at the Omni camp couldn’t reach that far.
“So what now?” Iaka asked.
“Now you give us the camp coordinates and we come in on the opposite side.”
“There’s a problem,” Solomon said.
“Of course there is.” Marcus scratched his stubble. “What is it?”
“I’m picking up another ship. Ten thousand miles from the surface and going in fast.”
A glowing speck on the screen expanded to fill it. At a quick glance Marcus picked out fourteen heavy laser cannons. Corvette class he guessed. Probably a troop transport.
“Earth Force?” Iaka asked.
“No insignia, and it’s running without a transponder,” Solomon said.
“It’s Earth Force,” Marcus said. “Off the books black ops.”
“Cleaners. They’re going to eliminate all traces of the camp. They’ll probably try and collapse the natives’ tunnels as well.”
“We should hurry,” Marcus said.
He pushed the thrusters to full power and the Star screamed towards the planet. Marcus kept his distance from where the corvette had gone in. The ship rattled through the atmosphere then smoothed out as he leveled off and skimmed the tops of some huge, dinosaur-looking trees.
“Which way to the camp?” Marcus asked.
Iaka studied the readouts on the control panel. “Northeast, maybe fifteen hundred miles.”
Marcus adjusted their heading and powered down to half thrust. They were still at hypersonic speed and it only took minutes to cover most of the distance. “Keep an eye out for a landing place. I don’t want to get much closer.”
“I’ve got a clearing on the scanners about ten miles on your right,” Solomon said.
“I see it,” Marcus said. He brought the ship to a stop, hovering over the clearing, remnants of charred trees sticking up here and there, short grass growing up through the blackened soil. “Are you picking up any seismic activity?”
Solomon tapped a few keys. “Not at the moment.”
“All right, I’m bringing her in.” Marcus lowered the landing gear and eased the ship down. When he felt them hit the ground he killed the antigravity generator.
The Star lurched right.
Iaka tumbled against the wall. Solomon braced himself between the control panel and his seat. Marcus switched the antigravity back on, leveling the ship out just above the ground.
“I think the hydraulic cylinder gave out,” Solomon said.
Marcus glanced at him and raised an eyebrow. “You think?”
He set the autopilot and the three of them went back to the cargo hold and down the ramp. Marcus surveyed the damage. The hydraulic cylinder had snapped off at the upper connector and bent the piston. None of the surrounding parts looked damaged.
“You shouldn’t have any trouble fixing this,” Marcus said.
Solomon stared at him. “Wait, I do software, not hardware. This is your area of expertise.”
“Relax, there’s four bolts. Take the old one out, put the new one in. Easy.”
Solomon kept looking at the damaged cylinder and back at Marcus. He chewed his lip.
“You could take the armor, find the aliens, and fight any Earth Force black ops that get in the way,” Marcus said. “I can stay and fix the cylinder.”
Solomon shook his head. “I’ll manage.”
“That’s the spirit.” Marcus tossed him the command gauntlet. “Here, you can get Herc to handle the heavy lifting.”
Solomon slipped the gauntlet on. He still chewed his lip but now he studied the broken part like it was a puzzle piece instead of something that wanted to hurt him. Marcus couldn’t ask for more.
He turned to Iaka. “We’d best get going.”
He went back up the ramp and opened the storage cylinder. Iaka whistled.
“That’s some heavy duty hardware,” she said. “Very illegal in civilian hands.”
Marcus held a finger to his lips. “Don’t tell anybody. Black Dragon, configure for atmospheric operation.”
The computer started to hum as it made the necessary changes to the operating system.
“Where’d you get that?” Iaka asked.
“One of the Warlords of Corrin paid me to smuggle it to him past the government blockade. Once I got it through he tried to pay me half the price we agreed on. He held a blaster on me at the time so I agreed. I didn’t mention that I’d set up the security system and synced it to my DNA. When he tried it on the armor fried him to a crisp. I never did get paid, but I kept the armor and it’s saved my life more than once.”
The computer beeped, the update complete. “Black Dragon, armor up.”
He stepped into the armor and it wrapped around him. Marcus backed carefully out of the storage cylinder and looked down at Iaka through the helmet. “Ready?”
“I don’t see a passenger seat. Where am I supposed to ride?”
Marcus scooped her up. She felt like a cloth doll in his armor-enhanced arms. He clanked to the end of the ramp. Solomon glanced at him and Marcus nodded.
He activated the armor’s antigravity generator then hit the thrusters. Iaka yelped as they blasted into the sky.
“Which way?” he asked.
She pointed toward the mountains to the east. He angled that way, hoping they wouldn’t have too much trouble finding the aliens.
* * *
Adam’s transport shuddered as a missile exploded a little too close for comfort. He waited near the boarding ramp. Captain Wen monitored the battle from the bridge. He had orders to let Adam know when the worst of the fighting died down.
The commander of the cleaners contacted him when their transport emerged from hyperspace. They had a simple enough job, eliminate the mercenaries protecting the clearing while Adam retrieved the cure research. The director wanted it in the hopes that something might get salvaged from this mess.
“Sir, the second Omni mech has been destroyed,” Captain Wen spoke through the small com in Adam’s ear.
Adam hit the open switch and the ramp lowered. “I’m heading out.”
Darting down the ramp, blaster in hand, he activated an Earth Force frequency transmitter so the cleaners wouldn’t target him. Smoke filled the clearing and blasts from plasma cannons rang out. Despite the loss of their mechs the Omni mercenaries still fought, brave, but stupid.
Adam dashed through the clearing toward Dr. O’Hare’s tent. He didn’t expect to find anything valuable but better safe than sorry. He found the charred corpse of a mercenary a few paces from the tent, smoke still rising from the blackened flesh. Ignoring the body, Adam raised his blaster.
He ducked through the flap, weapon ready. The inside looked the same as the last time he visited. Adam holstered his weapon and started tearing the place apart. He pocketed a diary but left the rest scattered around the floor.
The tent didn’t amount to much so Adam ran to the lab. He didn’t know the access code so he blasted a hole in the side of the tunnel. Adam went in, coming to the chemistry lab first, no tests running, no one visible. He moved deeper into the lab. A pair of technicians cowering in the far corner, the same two he’d seen before, stared at him, eyes wide. Did the doctor lock them in here?
One of the techs raised his hands. “Please.”
Adam shot him in the face.
The second one screamed and Adam turned the gun on her. “Shut up.”
She stopped screaming and just whimpered.
“Where’s Dr. O’Hare?”
She pointed at the wall that separated the chem. lab from the testing room. Of course, he was with his precious experiments.
“Thank you.” He shot her in the head.
Adam turned his weapon on the wall, blasting a hole into the lab next door. He darted through, not waiting for the smoke to clear. He found Dr. O’Hare standing beside one of the tanks smiling up at the dying alien.
“It’s quite remarkable, you know,” Dr. O’Hare said. “To think such primitives could share so much genetically with the most advanced race in the galaxy. Amazing, just amazing.”
Adam leveled his blaster at the doctor. “I’m going to need all your notes and research. It would really speed things up if you could just hand them over.”
Dr. O’Hare looked at him then gestured to a data slate sitting on the table.
“This is everything?” Adam asked.
The doctor nodded. “Tell Oliver he can choke on it.”
Dr. O’Hare pushed the button on a small transmitter he held concealed in his right hand. A light on the slate flashed. Adam threw it and jumped the other way.
The explosion shook the lab.
Adam coughed and brushed glass off his sleeves. He looked around but saw no sign of Dr. O’Hare alive or dead. Smoke swirled around a jagged hole in the wall.
“Captain Wen,” Adam said.
“Sir? Are you all right? Our scanners picked up an explosion in your vicinity.”
“I’m fine. The good doctor tried to blow me up. I survived, but he escaped.”
* * *
“Is this it?” Marcus asked. They stood in front of an irregular-shaped cave that led deep under the mountains. He couldn’t see more than a hundred yards before the darkness swallowed everything.
“This is the area where the first native was captured. I told you I didn’t have any specifics.”
Marcus activated the light in the chest of his armor, the bright white light piercing the darkness. He swallowed and led the way in. Sharp, jagged stones hung from the ceiling. Marcus tried not to think about them.
A short distance into the caves the floor sloped downward. They walked for about twenty minutes when Marcus noticed a spike on his sensors.
“I’m picking up low-level radiation.”
“Good, we thought radiation might be the cause to the native’s evolution. Hopefully we’re getting close to their home.”
“Forget that. What about you? Will you be okay?”
“As long as we don’t linger and the levels stay low I should be okay.”
They trudged ever deeper. One good thing, his suit absorbed enough energy from the radiation to maintain his battery. They hadn’t seen anything living, much less sentient yet.
Marcus estimated they’d walked over a mile when he picked up a faint squeak. “Did you hear that?”
“I didn’t hear anything,” she said.
Of course she hadn’t heard it. He’d only heard it because of his audio enhancers. “I’m picking up sounds near the ultrasonic range.”
“Good. We must be getting close. The natives use shrieks in that range for sonar. We haven’t passed a side tunnel so this path must lead straight to their village.”
It was about time. Marcus had had his fill of trudging through the dark. “So what happens when we find them?”
“I’ll attempt to speak to them and convince them we want to help.”
Marcus laughed. “Good luck with that. The only humans they’ve seen have captured and tortured them.”
“I didn’t say it would be easy.”
The tunnel opened onto a domed cavern. Marcus looked up and his light glinted in hundreds of little eyes. The bats went nuts, flying in every direction when the light hit them. Great, they’d hunted down a colony of actual bats.
“What now?” he asked.
“Turn around, slowly.” Iaka spoke in a low, even tone. Like someone trying to calm a puppy.
He did as she asked and found himself chest to face with six hairy bipeds pointing stone-tipped spears at them. He doubted they could even scratch the enamel on his armor with those things. The natives shrieked and raised their arms when his light hit them. He powered it down to five percent and they fell to the ground, hands stretched toward him.
“What’s that all about?” Marcus asked.
“I suppose I should try and talk to them.”
Iaka squatted down beside the closest one and began to make a strange combination of squeaks and grunts. As she spoke the natives’ wide eyes got even wider. When she stopped they crawled into a little circle and began to confer.
They waited in silence for a minute. “What did you tell them?” Marcus asked when he couldn’t stand the waiting any longer.
“I said we meant them no harm and that we’re here to help.”
“What did it say to the others?”
“I didn’t catch it all,” Iaka said. “But it mentioned that it didn’t realize the pale demons could speak their language.”
“They think we’re demons?”
Iaka nodded. “Me at least. With your armor on, who knows what they make of you. Anyway, given the differences in our technology levels and the circumstances of our first contact it’s hardly surprising that they think of us as demons.”
The discussion broke up and one of the natives, Marcus thought it was the same one Iaka spoke to faced them and began to squeak at them. It babbled for several seconds then looked at Marcus.
“Well?” he asked.
“They say they’ll take us to the tribe’s shaman. It’s up to him to make any other decisions.”
Marcus frowned. “Does it seem odd to you that they’re willing to trust us considering what’s been happening here?”
She raised her eyebrows and laughed. “They say the god of the dark depths will protect them. They think that’s you.”
Marcus blinked. Perhaps he misunderstood. “They think I’m a god?”
She nodded and her smile grew.
“Well, whatever. Let’s go.”
They followed the natives through twisting tunnels for a good fifteen minutes before Marcus picked up new ultrasonic vibrations. He could identify several dozen distinct voices. The village had to be just ahead.
“We’re getting close,” Marcus said. “The ambient radiation has increased fifty percent. Are you sure you’ll be okay?”
“I’ll be fine. I’m more worried they’re leading us into a trap.”
“What are they going to do, throw rocks at us? I’ve got a pair of vortex cannons built into the gauntlets of my armor. I could blow away hundreds of the little guys if it comes to that.”
“Let’s be sure it doesn’t come to that. We came to help, not commit genocide.”
Marcus nodded. The now-familiar native approached and tugged on Iaka’s shirt. She looked down and he pointed toward the cavern just ahead. A small group of natives stood huddled together. The little guy squealed and ran toward them.
“What was that about?” Marcus asked.
“He said we should wait here while he speaks with the shaman.”
“Which one is that?” The hairy little things all looked the same to him.
“I’d guess the one in the middle.”
Marcus used the suit’s optical zoom to get a closer look at the group. He couldn’t differentiate between age groups as they all looked short and wrinkly. He watched them speak and they all deferred to one native, the one in the middle, no doubt the shaman.
The shaman pointed at the spokesman and began waving his hands. “Looks like our little friend is getting chewed out,” Marcus said.
“They could have endangered the whole tribe bringing us here. I’m sure the shaman is just pointing that out.”
The spokesman began waving and motioning them forward. “I guess that’s our cue,” Marcus said.
They walked over to the natives, slowly and making no sudden gestures. Even so the natives cowered away from them. Considering what had befallen them Marcus couldn’t blame them for feeling afraid.
When they reached the group the shaman began to speak. Iaka listened, nodding several times. The shaman pointed at a large boulder a short ways away and waved his hands again. When he finally fell silent Iaka turned to Marcus and said, “He doesn’t believe you’re their god of the dark depths. He says if you really are a god you should have no trouble destroying that boulder.” She nodded her head at the boulder the shaman indicated earlier.
“So I blast the rock and we can get the hell out of here?”
“Yeah, if they think you’re their god this should go much smoother.”
“No sweat. You want me to make a big show of it?”
She nodded. “It’s a religious event for them after all.”
“Got it. You might want to move back.”
Iaka moved away from him and Marcus began to power up his vortex cannons. The palms of his gauntlets began to glow as they approached full power. He heard the natives hissing behind him. He hoped that wasn’t the local equivalent to boos. Here goes.
He threw his hands forward and shouted. “Fire!”
Twin spirals of energy lanced out and struck the boulder dead center. It exploded in a shower of gravel. Marcus turned to see the reaction and found all the natives on their knees, heads touching the ground.
“Looks like that worked,” he said. “Can we go now?”
Iaka spoke to the natives, every once in a while pointing back at him. No doubt explaining it was his divine will that one of them accompany them. He moved a short distance away. He picked up a distant, rhythmic thumping. The sound of hard-soled boots on stone. Shit.
“Time to go,” Marcus said.
“The shaman has decreed that the spokesman from earlier will come with us.”
“Great,” he said. “But everyone has to move, now.”
“Soldiers are coming.”
“Are you sure?” She looked around as though expecting to see them running down the tunnel.
“I can hear them.”
“All right. What do you want to do?”
“Find out if they know of any hiding places. The higher the radiation the better. It’ll screw up any sensors they’re using.”
She bent down to speak with the shaman. After a moment’s thought he spoke and waved his hands about. She nodded. “He knows a place that might do. It’s a ways from here though.”
“You’d better get moving.”
“Me? Aren’t you coming?”
“I’ll be right behind you. I’m going back to try and collapse the tunnel leading to that big cavern we went through earlier.” Marcus removed a homing beacon from the suit’s utility belt. “Take this. If you get too far ahead I can use it to find you.”
“Won’t the Earth Force soldiers be able to find it as well?”
“If they happen to be scanning that particular frequency, maybe, but what are the odds of that? Now get them moving.”
Marcus watched Iaka usher the natives out of the cavern. Of all the stupid ideas he’d had over the years, starting a cave-in on purpose ranked up there among the stupidest. His hands shook slightly in his gauntlets. Some god of the dark depths he was.
He left Iaka and his new congregation behind and hurried back up the tunnel. With his antigravity generator on about half power he could cover yards with each stride. It took only minutes to retrace their steps to the large cavern where they’d first met the natives.
The roof looked stable to his untrained eye but he let the computer scan it for structural weaknesses. After a minute three points appeared in his heads-up display. He raised his arms and fired vortex blasts into the weak spots. The powerful streams of energy ripped huge chunks of rock from the ceiling. When the dust cleared a huge pile of rubble blocked the passage but he hadn’t managed to bring down the whole ceiling the way he planned. Apparently it wasn’t as easy to cause a cave-in as he assumed.
Well, that would have to do. His battery gauge read half power after those blasts and he didn’t want to waste any more juice. In the distance, but approaching at a run he could hear the enemy.