After his squad destroyed the remaining pulse domes along the northern and eastern perimeters, Axel allowed himself to relax. Tapping into Highmajor Vanz’s commnet, he followed the insertion of troops into the belowground lair. Their training and equipment made the battle more of a rout. But the few terrorists remaining in the tunnels below defiantly held their ground—or tried to.
Axel accessed the images sent up from the small vidcams on the commando battle dress. Later, when the intelligence team arrived, he would venture inside with them to gloat over his team’s conquest. Out of boredom, he decided to take an early peek, try to guess what these particular bugs were up to.
The vidcam images showed only what the individual commandos faced, but Axel immediately noticed something odd about the tunnels. He frowned and froze several separate images on his VRS. “Armsmaster, are you following the assault?” he asked Benker, who was quietly conversing with Gaylin.
“Just a moment, sir,” the byveri said, turning to his scope. “I have it.”
“Take a look at these images,” Axel said, copying his display to Benker’s scope. “What do you make of the walls there?”
The byveri hummed as he studied the pictures. “They do not strike me as being of normal construct for an underground base. They almost look like… “
Axel looked down from his scope. “Like?”
Benker shook his head. “I do not know. They remind me of something, but what it is escapes me at the moment. I feel something is missing. From the walls, perhaps?”
The pilot checked his scope. After a moment, he said in his lazy Volapani drawl, “Look like walls to me, sir.”
“Do we have a composite map of the tunnels yet? Maybe that will help,” Axel suggested.
The armsmaster worked his keypads. “This is what we have so far. Rather odd.”
Axel studied the map of the belowground lair and frowned again. A wide rectangular space sat directly under the sensor dome. At its four corners tunnels running parallel with the rectangle’s long axes stretched an indeterminate length beneath the sand. Smaller corridors reached between the passageways at regular intervals. “Not like any terrorist outpost I’ve seen before,” Axel mumbled.
“Terrorists construct bases such as these for training purposes,” Benker said, “So it would follow their target looks something like this.”
“That fits the current trend.” Using his keypad, Axel reduced the size of the composite and placed it beside the vidcam images. “Damn. This looks familiar.”
“Sir, Highmajor Vanz on comm,” Gaylin announced. With the tank sitting idle at the landing zone, he had taken over monitoring the commnet at Axel’s request.
“Patch it through,” Axel said.
“Captain Fargo, Vanz here.”
The executive officer’s sigh was audible over the static intruding into the commlink. “It’s a bug stomp, sir. Most of the terrorists apparently tried to engage us on the surface. The tunnels are practically empty. We won’t have everything secured for about thirty minutes, but I don’t see why the intel boys can’t come down now. This place is harmless enough.”
Axel considered Vanz’s report, wondering if his XO had been hoping for more excitement. He knew Vanz would still be watching for surprises, but if his XO thought the base was clean enough for the intelligence team, Axel trusted the assessment. With the assault only a half hour old, the intel boys would appreciate the extra time to conduct their sweep. “Affirmative, Highmajor. I’ll invite them down. Any opportunities to use the new PDUs?”
“Negative, sir. No casualties. Not even close. These new deanimation things will have to wait for another assault.”
Axel grunted. On the one hand, he thought it great none of his men were injured. On the other, R&D had been breathing down his neck for a live-combat test of their new personal deanimation units. They wouldn’t like having to wait again. Vanz would deal with them this time, he realized, knowing by the time they got their reports, he’d be on vacation. He smiled, thinking, Good training there, too.
“Have you noticed anything peculiar about the tunnels down there?” Axel asked.
Vanz waited for a surge of static to pass before answering. “Uh, in what regards, sir? They just look like tunnels, if a bit plain.”
“Never mind. I just thought they looked different. Good work. Finish your sweep, keep me posted.” He closed the link. “Gaylin, link with Dropship Two. Inform them they may begin their descent.”
“Dropship Two, aye,” Gaylin replied.
“Benker, how’s the weather?” Axel asked.
The byveri studied his scope. “Perakin reports the storm is two hours away. The winds outside have died down considerably, though. The calm before the storm. Maybe an hour before things start to get rough again.”
Axel shook his head. Even the weather’s cooperating, he thought. Damn shuttle. Would’ve been a beautiful textbook assault otherwise. “Very well,” he said.
“Dropship Two ETA two minutes,” Gaylin reported. “Homing beacon activated.”
“Very well,” Axel said again, leaning back in his seat. He rubbed his forehead above his right eye, worried that another of his painful headaches, a head-buster, was gathering strength. Under his fingertips he felt the peppering of scars, a reminder of one of the many wounds he’d sustained the night Celeste died.
Suddenly, his command chair felt confining, the air inside the tank stale. “I’m going out,” he said. “Alert me if there’s trouble.”
He noticed Benker, who knew of Axel’s headaches, turning in his seat. “Yes sir,” the byveri said, his round ears twisting forward in concern.
Grabbing his mask and goggles, Axel waved. “Just need a breath of fresh air.” He sealed his compartment off from the rest of the tank with force screens before opening the cupola dome. “If there is such a thing on this dirtball.”
Benker chirped. “Aye, sir.”
Axel settled into a sitting position on the cupola rim. NR-7710’s weather had indeed calmed. He could breathe without his mask, though the air was thinner than he liked. Still feeling confined, he removed his gloves and unfastened the top third of his battle dress.
Gaylin had parked the tank facing the outpost, where the cluster impact on the sensor dome was most visible. Nearby to his left sat the smoldering remains of the two wrecked shuttles. Axel glanced beyond them at the bodies sprawled in the sand. He counted fifteen corpses, parts for many more. Strewn about the shuttles were the components of prefabricated shelters. Dumb bastards, he thought. Probably out here assembling the shelters. He looked around at the scrub beyond, all of it stained orange by the sand. Sure picked a pit of a planet to die on. Still, it’s our pit.
Squinting against the glare of the sun, he searched the sky for the approaching dropship. At a screech of tearing metal, he turned back to the outpost in time to see a small chunk of smoldering debris tumble from the ruined energy tower. “Benker, warn Vanz to be alert for falling debris,” he said into his comm. “And check the energy tower and pulse cannons again, make sure they’re stable. Last thing we need is for something to explode.”
Axel turned back to the sky. The glare of the sun seemed to reach inside to encourage his growing headache. He looked down at the distant horizon as a weariness settled over him. He’d come to expect it after battle, as his adrenaline rush subsided, but it usually waited until he was safely aboard his dropship. This was the second engagement in a row both weariness and headache had come early. Maybe I do need a break, he thought, some time away.
He mulled over the possibility. He still enjoyed his work, the planning, the heat of battle, the camaraderie. And ridding the Unity Sphere of bugs still filled him with the greatest satisfaction. But he suddenly found he could not easily recall doing anything else. Or planning to do anything else. His life before he joined the Unity Fleet seemed a vague blur. Even his memories of Celeste were growing fuzzy. Granted, they had spent precious little time together, just over two years total, but those days had been so emotional, so intense. How could he ever forget them? With a jolt he realized it was all too possible his job was consuming him, as his immediate superior, Highcaptain Tayson, had warned.
He tried to imagine where he’d be in five years. No one remained a tac-team captain for more than seven years. He’d completed three, could easily see three or four more. But after? Command post at one of the main stations? Training post or desk job somewhere?
I need to think of my future, he thought. Been living here and now long enough. He shook as a deeper realization came to him. Been drifting long enough.
He frowned at the sand. That what I’m doing? Tayson had suggested it once, during one of their infrequent off-duty get-togethers. Six years since Celeste’s death. Made peace with her brutal passing, buried myself in my work. Not once since have I visited her grave, spoken with her family. Aimlessly day-to-day, just doing my job… Not thinking about it. Have I really let go?
Suddenly, it seemed he had not.
A distant roar caught his attention. He glanced up again. The intelligence team’s dropship was visible now. Behind it, the approaching storm front loomed ominously across the horizon. Under the swollen red sun, its black depths appeared particularly foreboding.
The pilot considerately landed the dropship north of the LZ, sparing Axel the need to duck back into his tank to protect himself. Its screaming turbines kicked up a cloud of sand and small rocks until it settled. Axel jumped from his perch as a large hatch opened in the dropship’s side.
Axel waved to the byveri officer stepping through the hatch. “Major Westyr.”
“Captain Fargo, nice to see you survived,” the major said, walking down the short ramp to where Axel stood in the sand. He removed his helmet and goggles. Unlike Benker, Westyr appeared comfortable in his battle dress. “Looking forward to your vacation?”
Axel feigned exasperation. “Does the whole damn Fleet know about my vacation?”
Major Westyr chirped. “When Captain Fargo of Unity Fleet Tac-team Four takes a break, it reaches the newsnets,” he said with a toothy smile. He nodded his round chin at the outpost. “Any initial impressions?”
Axel moved out of the way of the equipment-laden teams descending the ramp. “Well, we definitely caught them napping. And from my XO’s reports, I’d have to say this bunch weren’t quite ready to be called terrorists yet.”
“Think maybe we caught them in the middle of an exchange?” Westyr asked, lifting his small scanning module and starting toward the outpost.
Falling into step beside him, Axel shrugged. “That’s what I was thinking. This group looks small enough to have to share with someone else.”
Westyr waved at the ruined energy tower, cannon and cracked dome. “Three direct cluster hits, I see. Impressive. And two clean hits on the shuttles.”
“Unfortunately, there were three shuttles,” Axel admitted. He still couldn’t believe Perakin had allowed the third to escape.
“Yes, I know,” Westyr said. “From Perakin’s report, though, it was not her fault the last escaped. The shuttle apparently had jamming capabilities.”
Axel laughed. “A craft that small? Impossible. It would scramble its own systems.”
“Perhaps those on the shuttle found a way around that particular problem.”
“Let’s not think that, Major.”
Westyr stopped before the smoldering shuttles. “Nothing unusual about these. But we will learn who they belonged to.”
“Are you going to start your scans here?” Axel asked.
Westyr smiled. “Rank has its privileges. These are for the junior technicians. The fun stuff is inside.” He headed for the door, glancing at the bodies sprawled in the sand. “Did you know these people were here before you blasted the shuttles?”
Axel only distantly heard the question. His attention had locked on a small blue object half-buried in the sand. Everything else faded from his awareness. Without having to pick it up he knew what it was. A blue pistol. A Krakker 303.
His blue 303.
He sank to his knees, reached out and slowly lifted the weapon from the sand. In his mind he saw his wife’s killer holding the exact same weapon. Impossible, he told himself. Hetz is dead. He’s dead. Saw the clusters destroy his bunker. Saw him die.
But the thought rang hollow. Hetz had been reported dead many times during his infamous career. Even after the Fleet’s devastating assault on the Black Diamond’s command bunker, Axel had harbored inexplicable doubts, had never fully believed the bug was dead. Those doubts, withered and almost forgotten, suddenly blossomed.
Axel emerged from his thoughts to see the major reaching for the 303. “No!” he shouted, pulling it away.
Westyr jerked his hand back. “Captain? Is everything all right?”
“Yes. No. I don’t know.” Axel stared at the weapon in his hand, rational thought slowly taking hold again. He offered the 303 to the byveri. “Major,” he said, rising to his feet, on legs surprisingly steady. “I need you to identify which body this came from. Positively identify the body.”
Westyr took the weapon from Axel, holding it by its slender barrel. “That should not be a problem. It looks as though it has been handled quite a bit.” He looked up into Axel’s eyes and frowned. “Do you recognize this weapon? You look, how do you humans say, like you have encountered a spirit.”
“I very well may have,” Axel replied, rubbing his forehead. His headache, strengthening with each beat of his heart, would not be so easily assuaged. “And Major, turn this base inside out. Do not overlook the smallest detail. Document everything.”
“I normally do. Should I look for anything in particular?”
“A sign, Westyr. Anything that suggests we’re dealing with our worst enemy. Again.”
Ears curling back in agitation, the byveri’s frown deepened. “Do you mean the Black Diamond? Hetz? But he is long dead.”
Axel closed his eyes, suddenly wishing for the cramped confines of his tank. “I hope you’re right, Major,” he whispered. “I hope you’re right.”
TERRORCRUISE – a science-fiction action-adventure novel by Charles Brass
Published March, 2011 by ClearView Press, Inc.
Available in soft cover ($12.99) and Kindle ($3.99)
Contact Charles Brass by email at: email@example.com