Children of Darkness: Chapter 16
Do you need to get caught up? Read Chapter 1 here
Adam glared at the cave entrance. He stood just outside the cave beside the cleaner’s six-man ground-assault team. They’d wiped out the camp but found no sign of Dr. O’Hare. Probably fled into the jungle. Adam hoped something ate him.
“There was definitely someone here before us.” The team’s tracker, a slim, dark-skinned man about thirty, stood up. “Two people, one much heavier than the other.”
Adam nodded. The smuggler and his lost agent. It had to be them. Somehow they snuck down to the planet while everyone was distracted by the battle. If they could catch and eliminate them it might make up for Adam losing the doctor. If they escaped with a native and made it back to the council nothing would save Adam’s neck.
“I believe the two new arrivals are a pair of high-value targets. A man about my age and a younger woman. They need to be captured or killed.”
“Sir?” The unit commander, a middle-aged veteran of many years named Colin, stepped forward. “Are these two a higher priority than eliminating the primitives?”
“Absolutely. If they manage to escape with a native we lose, it won’t matter if the rest are gone or not.”
“Understood. Sten, take point. Everyone activate your dark-vision goggles.”
Adam stepped into the cave and activated the goggles he’d borrowed from one of the soldiers left behind. Everything turned green but at least he could make out the walls and floor. The soldiers set a quick pace. Leaving the entrance behind, the darkness swallowed them.
They trotted through the dark for some time, Adam didn’t bother keeping track. This would take as long as it took. He focused on putting one foot in front of the other and trusted the soldiers to take care of everything else. “We’ve got a problem, sir.” The voice of the point man, Sten, came through his comm. It sounded staticky. Something was interfering with the signal.
They reached him a few seconds later. The soldier stood in front of a massive pile of boulders. It looked like the ceiling collapsed. Damn it. Adam hadn’t seen any side passages on the way down so if they couldn’t get by he wouldn’t be able to catch up with his prey.
Colin approached the rock pile, studied it a moment, then turned to a short, skinny man and said, “What do you think, Spider?”
Spider studied the pile. “Don’t think we better try and climb it, too unstable. Going to have to go up and over.”
Spider took a pistol out of his pack then what looked like a foot-long spear trailing a coiled line. The little man fitted the spear to the gun then fired it into the ceiling. He yanked on the line a couple times and nodded.
“I’ll take a look.” Spider fitted the line into a pulley and pushed a button. He went slowly up the line, finally reaching the ceiling. He looked back down at them. “I can see another tunnel on the other side.”
“Get down there so we can send the next man up,” Colin said.
Spider fired a second spike down to the cavern floor and attached the other end to the first spike. He slid down on the pulley. “Clear.”
It took about five minutes for all of them to make it over the rock pile. They started down the tunnel deeper into the mountain. They would catch up. Adam could feel it.
* * *
After causing the cave-in Marcus activated the tracking unit in his suit. Iaka and the natives had only covered about a mile since he left. He bounded through the tunnel after them. Something must have gone wrong. At the rate they traveled it wouldn’t take Marcus long to catch up. It wouldn’t take the soldiers long either.
In just under ten minutes Marcus caught up to the rear of the line of natives. They shuffled ahead like a bunch of hairy cripples. He spotted Iaka at the front of the line and threaded his way past the natives to reach her. As he passed they touched his legs and looked up in awe. He tried to ignore them and failed.
“What’s the hold up?” Marcus asked when he finally made it to the front of the line.
Iaka pointed to a group of children. “They can’t go very fast, so we had to take it easy.”
“We won’t make it at this pace. I couldn’t seal the tunnel. At best I slowed them a few minutes. Couldn’t they carry the kids?”
“We tried that, but it only slowed the adults.”
“Shit. What if they didn’t have to walk at the kids’ pace?”
“You aren’t thinking of leaving them behind?”
“Of course not.” What did she take him for?
Iaka gave him a searching look then spoke to the shaman. “He says if they ran they could make it to the hidden place in about an hour.”
“That’ll have to do. Round up the kids.”
Marcus activated his antigravity generators until he hovered about three feet off the floor. All the natives fell to their knees. Being a god was starting to get old. He adjusted the controls until he floated horizontally.
Iaka led four kids over to him.
“Put them on my back.”
She started setting them on his back and each time she added one he sank a little lower. He had to increase power twice before the last one settled in place. This wouldn’t do his power cells any good.
“Do they have a good grip?”
They took off at a run, Marcus following at ten percent thrust. It beat walking, he just hoped he didn’t run out of power before they got back to the ship.
According to the suit’s clock it took exactly forty-seven minutes to reach a Y in the tunnel. Down the left the branch the radiation was off the chart. His suit could shield him but he needed to get Iaka away in a hurry. He could just pick up fresh air straight ahead. There had to be an exit.
“Get the kids off me. We need to go.”
She helped the kids off him then turned to throw up, not good. When she had herself under control Marcus asked, “Is there another exit out of their hiding place?”
She spoke to the shaman then nodded.
“Tell them to get going and I’ll seal it behind them.”
She spoke again to the shaman who faced Marcus and bowed deeply. Then the whole tribe hurried down the tunnel. Marcus gave them a full minute to get clear then fired a pulse into the ceiling. The mouth of the tunnel came crashing down. It’d take some digging to get through that.
He checked his power meter. Twenty-five percent left. He needed to get to the sunlight, the cavern’s low level radiation wasn’t recharging his battery fast enough. Iaka leaned against the tunnel wall, head bowed, body trembling. Marcus bent down. “Get on my back.”
“I can walk,” she said.
“You can barely stand. Get on.”
She staggered over and wrapped her arms around his neck and her legs around his waist. He looked down at the little native who looked back up at him, big black eyes shining in the dim light. Marcus bent down and carefully picked him up. Then he ran.
* * *
When Adam heard the clanging steps of someone running in armor he knew they’d caught up. “After them!”
The soldiers took off at a sprint. No way someone in power armor could outrun them. They pounded down the tunnel, past a sealed side branch. In the distance Adam could just make out a dim light. He snapped a shot at it but missed.
“Come on, we’re gaining.” They rounded a bend in the tunnel, in the distance bright light streamed in, an exit from the tunnels. “No, no, no.”
Adam shot again as he ran. The blast gouged stone out of the tunnel wall but came nowhere near the fleeing figure. The armored figure reached the opening and leapt into the sky. Adam skidded to a stop. The tunnel ended in a vertical drop of easily three hundred feet. He spotted a black-armored figure streaking away from them. He fired a few more shots but at this range and their speed he had no chance of hitting them.
“Damn it!” Adam just couldn’t get a break.
“Don’t worry, sir, I’ve got combat skiffs inbound. We can still catch them.”
“Good, Commander.” Adam saw the skiffs approaching. Two of them took right after the fleeing figure – it had to be the smuggler – while the third came to pick them up.
The armored figure had a woman riding piggyback and a native cradled in his arms. The fact that he could even fly like that impressed the hell out of Adam. Still, no way someone so burdened could outrun their skiffs.
* * *
The little alien shrieked when Marcus leapt out of the tunnel. He didn’t know if the light hurt it, it was terrified of falling, or if it was having some sort of religious experience. Whatever, when he fell silent Marcus gave a sigh of relief.
Iaka tapped his helmet. He turned toward her and she yelled over the wind, “We’ve got company.”
He looked past her and spotted the skiffs coming up fast behind them, no good. He carried too much extra weight. Hell, even unencumbered he couldn’t outrun those skiffs. At least his battery charge started coming back up thanks to the high-efficiency solar collectors built into the suit. He flinched when the first wild shot screamed past.
“Hang on tight,” he said.
“What do think I’ve been doing?”
He grinned behind his helmet. Only one way they’d have a chance. He angled down searching for an opening in the canopy. The blasts came faster and closer now. The skiffs closed the distance sooner than he hoped.
He wove a random path, trying to throw off the gunner’s aim. They weren’t dead so it must have helped. He spotted a gap where a giant tree had fallen and ducked down beneath the canopy. He dodged around trunks bigger than a hovercar and tried his best to shield his passengers from the small branches he couldn’t avoid.
The laser fire slowed as the skiffs had more trouble getting a shot at them. That part of the plan worked okay. Marcus dodged under a vine that might have decapitated Iaka at this speed.
“Solomon, you read me?”
His comm crackled. “Marcus? Where have you been? I tried to contact you earlier but I couldn’t get through. I thought sure you’d had it.”
“Not yet, but I’ve got a pair of skiffs on my tail. I need you to get the Star ready for our arrival.”
“My scanners show three skiffs, but I can’t see you.”
“That’s because I’m below the canopy trying not to get blasted or splattered on a tree trunk.” Marcus twisted sideways between a pair of trunks.
Iaka rapped on his helmet. “Watch it!”
“Marcus? Are you there?”
“I’m here. Get the shields up, the weapons charged, and open the ramp. As soon as they’re in range blast those skiffs. Even if you miss at least they’ll be dodging and not shooting at me.”
“Will do. How far out are you?”
“According to the computer about five miles. Set everything on auto. I’m going to need you in the cargo hold.”
“Okay, be careful.”
“Too late for that,” Marcus said after the comm disconnected.
A few seconds later the blasts from above stopped. The report of his ship’s cannons echoed over the trees.
See how you like getting shot at, you bastards.
Marcus streaked into the clearing and jackknifed so his legs faced forward. He used his thrusters to kill his momentum before they splattered across the side of the ship.
He spotted Solomon at the top of the ramp. The ship sat on its landing gear so he must have managed the repair. Marcus felt a slight pressure as they passed through the shield then he landed on the ramp and walked into the hold.
“I’m fine,” Marcus said. “I’m not sure about these two.”
The native had passed out at some point and Marcus could see scratches on his body where tree branches cut him. Iaka groaned and Marcus kneeled down. She slid off his back and staggered a couple steps away.
“Take him.” Marcus held out the unconscious native.
Solomon grimaced but reached out with trembling arms and accepted the little alien. Marcus went over to the storage cylinder and disengaged his armor. When it had released him he stepped back and set it to recharge.
He could feel the vibrations as the ship’s guns continued to fire. The skiffs still buzzed around them, but their weapons didn’t have enough power to penetrate the shields. The guns fell silent and he guessed they figured that out too. That meant they’d head back to the corvette which had plenty of power to fry them to a crisp. They need to lift, now.
Marcus went to the controls to shut the ramp. His finger reached for the controls just as a hoverbike came streaking out of the jungle towards them. A ragged figure trailing a white lab coat waved at them. “Wait! Please wait.”
Iaka staggered over beside Marcus. “You’ve got to be kidding.”
Iaka clenched her teeth and swallowed hard. “That’s Dr. O’Hare. What’s he doing here?”
“Let’s ask him.” Marcus waved his hand. “Hurry up.”
The doctor brought the bike to a stop at the end of the ramp then fell off it. He scrambled to his feet and hurried up the ramp. “Thank you. I thought I was going to die out there.”
Marcus closed the ramp. “Thank me later. We’ve got to go.”
He left Iaka glaring at the doctor and headed toward the cockpit. When he passed Solomon he said, “Don’t let her kill him. She also needs some anti-radiation pills. You should find some in the med kit.”
“Okay. Marcus, do you think I could stop her if she decided to kill him?”
“I think you could knock her over with a feather. The only thing keeping her on her feet is willpower.”
* * *
Iaka watched Marcus leave the cargo bay. A minute later the ship lurched as they took off. Her knees wobbled and she almost fell. God, her head hurt, and the less said about her stomach the better. Solomon made his way over. He had a bottle of water in one hand and a pill bottle in the other.
He held both out. “Anti-radiation pills. Marcus said you needed them.”
“Thanks.” Iaka took the pill bottle and shook two out into her hand then tossed them back. Solomon handed her the open water bottle. She washed them down and the headache receded a little. She took another swallow. “Shouldn’t you be up front helping Marcus?”
“I plotted the escape vectors during our hyperspace jump here. As soon as we clear the atmosphere all he has to do is flip a switch and we’re gone. What about that?” Solomon looked at the unconscious native.
Iaka bent down beside the native. She felt steadier as the pills worked. The little guy’s breathing seemed regular. Aside from a few scratches he looked fine. Probably just passed out from the shock of flying in the arms of a god. “He seems fine.”
Iaka flinched when Dr. O’Hare spoke right beside her. “You stay away from him. You’ve done these poor people enough harm.”
“Listen to me. I’ve been studying these creatures—”
“People! They’re intelligent, they have families, religion, they aren’t animals you can experiment on because they’re less evolved.”
“Everything I did, I did for the greater good.”
“Greater good? Since when is killing innocents for the greater good?”
“Surely a healthy, vibrant Vencar society is a greater benefit to the galaxy than the lives of a few primitives.” Dr. O’Hare spread his hands. “I wasn’t planning to wipe out the species after all.”
“Generous of you. How many did you kill, for the greater good?”
He frowned. “I’m not sure, a few hundred perhaps. I couldn’t say with any accuracy without checking my notes. They expired much faster in the beginning before I better understood their biology. The radiation is the key.”
Iaka could only stare as he lectured her like a first-year intern. He had no concept of the evil he’d done. She clenched her fists and tensed. She was going to beat some sense into him.
“Did you feel that?” Solomon said.
Iaka had forgotten he was there. “Feel what?”
“The vibration. We just entered hyperspace.”
A moment later Marcus appeared. He wore a casual grin but dark rings shadowed his eyes. “We made it. I jumped just out of the corvette’s weapons’ range. Everyone’s still breathing I see. That’s a good sign.”
“For now.” Iaka and Dr. O’Hare spoke at the same moment.
Iaka glared at him. Was that some sort of threat? “Listen, you arrogant—”
Marcus laid a hand on her shoulder. “Doctor, would you care to explain?”
Dr. O’Hare smiled at Marcus. “Finally, someone willing to listen to reason. Your lady friend is entirely too emotional.”
“Too emotional.” Iaka took a step toward the doctor.
Marcus held her back. “Easy, let’s hear what he has to say. If we don’t like it then you can beat the shit out of him.”
She looked back at him. “Promise?”
Marcus smiled and kissed the top of her head. “Promise. You were saying, Doctor?”
Dr. O’Hare coughed. “Yes, the key to the natives’ survival is the radiation in their tunnels. The first ones we captured died quickly without exposure to it. We lost many specimens before I figured out how to artificially mimic the natural radiation.”
“They’re not specimens,” she said through clenched teeth.
“Of course. I forgot your excessive affection for the hairy brutes. The point is, this one will die in only a few days unless a source of radiation can be brought to bear.”
Marcus looked down at Iaka. “Is that right?”
She nodded. “It explains a lot. Bringing the little guy with us may have been a death sentence.”
“Not necessarily,” Dr. O’Hare said. “I saw you have a cryochamber with you. I believe I can reprogram it to suit his needs.”
“I bet you can,” Iaka said. “I imagine you’re familiar with it since you stuck me in there five years ago.”
Dr. O’Hare looked over at the chamber through heavy lidded eyes. “Is that the same one? Imagine seeing it again after all this time.” He turned to face her. “Shall I begin reprogramming?”
Marcus’s hands tightened on her shoulders. “It’s your call,” he said.
Iaka looked at the native lying unconscious on the floor. She couldn’t just let him die. “Go ahead, but I’ll be watching.”
Dr. O’Hare sniffed and turned up his nose. “Yes, you do that. Maybe you’ll learn something.”
Iaka watched as he manipulated the outputs and gas mixtures. Some settings he altered only a bit to make it as near to the native’s natural habitat as possible. Iaka couldn’t deny his genius. If he hadn’t lost his morals somewhere along the way she would have been honored to study with him.
* * *
Marcus kept his distance while the scientists worked. For the moment it looked like Iaka had decided to let the older man live.
Solomon stepped up beside him. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen her that pissed. She might have actually strangled him.”
Iaka looked up at them. “Marcus, could you bring him over? I think we’ve got everything set.”
Marcus bent down and scooped the little alien up. He carried him over and set him in the chamber. Marcus shuddered. He looked like a corpse in a coffin. “Will this work?”
He was asking Iaka but Dr. O’Hare answered. “It will prolong his life, nothing more. Only returning him to the tunnels will allow him to survive.”
Marcus nodded. “Well, if that’s the best we can do then it’s the best we can do. Now, Doctor, let’s talk about you.”
“Yes, about how you’re going to tell the council everything you’ve done for the past five years. About Earth Force’s involvement, all of it. You’re also going to turn over all your research.”
“My research? In case you didn’t notice everything was destroyed.”
Marcus grabbed him by the front of his lab coat and jerked him over so their noses almost touched. “Don’t give me that shit. There’s no way you left without a copy of your precious research. I imagine you thought you could bargain your way out of prison with it.”
Dr. O’Hare looked away and Marcus knew he’d hit dead on.
“Give it to me or so help me I’ll strip you naked and stuff you in the chamber with our little friend.”
Iaka grinned at him. She seemed to be enjoying herself, Dr. O’Hare not so much.
“Fine, here.” He handed Marcus a small data chip.
Marcus tossed it to Solomon. “Why don’t you and Iaka check this out and make sure he didn’t just hand over his porn collection.”
* * *
“Reversion in ten seconds,” Solomon said.
Marcus, Solomon, and Iaka sat strapped into their seats in the cockpit. Dr. O’Hare was in the spare room, the door locked from the outside. The native, Iaka assured him, rested comfortably, his vitals stable if not ideal.
“Three, two, one.”
Laser fire streaked past them as soon as they emerged from hyperspace. Marcus dove and spun as more red beams blazed past. The ship lurched as one bounced off the shields. “I guess they’re still pissed about the door,” Marcus said.
“That isn’t the asteroid, we came out well beyond their range,” Solomon said. “That’s the corvette we left behind back at Alpha 114.”
“I guess they’ve got faster engines than us.” The ship shook again. “Better weapons too. Contact the council, see if they can help.”
“I’ll do it,” Iaka said.
Marcus tuned her out and focused on keeping them alive. He powered toward the asteroid weaving a random path. Despite his best efforts the shields took a pounding.
“Want me to return fire?” Solomon asked.
“Don’t bother, we couldn’t scratch their shields with our toy cannons. Divert weapons’ power to the shields. Anything else we can spare send to the engines.”
“You sure? Engines are redlining as it is.”
“I’m in contact with council weapon’s control. They’re powered and ready to fire if we can make it in range.”
“Power to the engines, Solomon.”
The power gauge went over the red line to one hundred fifteen percent. “Come on, baby.” Marcus patted the control yoke. “Just a little more.”
The restraints cut into Marcus’s chest as the ship lurched again. “Shields down to ten percent,” Solomon said.
“Weapon’s control says we’re in range but the corvette is behind us and they can’t get a clear shot.”
“I’m going to dive in three seconds. Tell them to be ready. Mark.”
“Three,” Solomon said. “Two,”
Something exploded on the side of the ship. Shield failure.
Marcus rammed the yoke forward. A blinding streak of power shot over them. Explosions and alarms rang out. Marcus slammed his fist on the console silencing the alarms. “Status report.”
“Everything’s broken,” Solomon said. “Scanners, shields, and weapons are down. Both engines are gone. We’re on emergency life support and dead in space.”
“Dead,” Iaka said.
“What about external cameras?” Marcus asked.
“I’ve got one still functioning,” Solomon said. “Putting it on the main screen now.”
An empty star field filled the screen. “That’s very helpful. What’s happening out there?”
The council asteroid rotated into view. “I’m sorry, Marcus. This is all I’ve got,” Solomon said.
Marcus gave Solomon’s shoulder a squeeze. “It’s all right. At least they haven’t shot at us in a while.”