A decade after the war between the corporations finds the universe in a state of crisis. OZA Salvagers are sent to the distant MINE-198 to close it before any others can raid it.
Less than five minutes ago, John Lockbridge and Tony Ferrar had been joking with each other when the communicator started to sound off. They had both been recruited off-world to come here and sweat. It had not been all bad for them: they had found cocoa powder and several grams of sugar left over in Tunnel One’s cafeteria, which would fetch a fine price on the black market. The comm. buzzed again Ferrar answered it.
“Yeah, boss?” He asked, keeping his eyes peeled as John divvied up their find.
“Team Four and Five just went dark. Everyone is to go to their last position.” Bukkard said through the now grainy sounding communicator.
“Sure thing, boss.” Ferrar replied, rolling his eyes. John had to stifle a laugh.
“Team Four must be taking a nap.” John said.
“That or they found something really worthwhile.” Tony replied, grabbing his pack. He rubbed his hands together at the thought. Both men headed down the tunnel with smiles on their faces at the thought of more wealth.
They headed outside of the small storeroom they had found and back into the corridor. The rest of Team Three was still out there loading down the roller with leftover ore, copper wire, and anything else not bolted down. One man was even trying to yank the appliances off the wall in the cafeteria.
“Hey, we need to head over to Four’s last position. Team Five and them, aren’t answering their comms. Those assholes must have found something good because they’ve gone dark.” Tony said, looking pointedly at a man coming out of a bunk area carrying every blanket and towel he could manage.
He started down the corridor, an interspersed section where metal walls gave way to earthen ones. The rest of the team quickly shouldered their gear and followed him. They let their greed guide them. After all, a team only went dark when they either found something they didn’t want the OZA handlers to know about or they were in trouble. But, what could harm them in an empty old mine? John wondered.
Tony was the first to come across Team Four. He stood stock still as John ran up to him.
“Hey, Tony why ar-” He began, but then stopped as he noticed he was standing in something wet and red. His boots squished in a large puddle of gore. Tony was completely silent for once as they both surveyed the scene laid before them. Team Four was in pieces. And those pieces were smeared all up and down the corridor. For all, they knew Team Five could be mingled in there somewhere. Tony couldn’t help but think, still too shocked to move. That's when they heard it.
A clicking noise from further down the corridor. The sound of either one giant beast with many legs, or many beasts with smaller ones, whatever it was all the men knew that it shouldn’t be here. All around them the rest of the Teams began to back up and start back towards Tunnel One. John began to pull on Tony, trying to force him back the way they came.
“Come on, we have to go!” He shouted. Behind him, came the sounds of some of the others getting sick. The smell in the tight tunnels was overbearing. He had finally managed to get Tony to start taking steps backwards when he saw them. A horde of insect-like creatures that poured down from Tunnel Four and like a wave crashed into the men at the crossroads.
They were the size of dogs; covered in all-black, chitin-like plates. They moved side to side, like a centipede or a massive earwig. The worst part was the mouths, large holes in the center of their elongated heads filled with sharp teeth and mandibles. They were like a close up to a worm’s mouth. John knew that no matter what happened he didn’t want end up in one of those things mouths.
Tony still wouldn’t move: he was frozen in shock. John did the only thing he could think of: he pushed him directly into the horde of on-rushing creatures and booked it down the hallway. Other boot steps echoed behind them and so did the screams.
Sorry Tony, but at least this way one of us gets off this damn rock, John thought to himself as he heard Tony’s screams get suddenly choked off. As he turned down Tunnel One he realized that even Tony’s death hadn’t bought him enough time as men died all around him, John knew that he would never make it to the lift in time.
He was back near the roller. Looking around, he found a spiked rock hammer and a mining laser. Maybe with these, he would have a chance. He heard the creatures as they scrambled towards him like a shark towards blood. The surviving men from the teams were quickly swarmed as the creatures covered them, biting and twisting in on themselves to strengthen their hold. The men were pulled down, some continued to struggle on the ground fighting in vain. Eventually, the men stopped fighting and were consumed in a writhing mass of shiny, black-plated bodies. Not all of them were that lucky, John saw with horror that some of them were carried off, kicking and screaming. Perhaps there was something worse than being immediately eaten.
Not me, not today, John thought to himself as he ran towards the small room him and Tony had found. He ran inside of it and went to slam shut the door. His last sight was of the creatures dragging off the dead with living. Only those empty of spoils stayed behind to charge at him.
“Help me, please!” A man from one of the others teams shouted as he was dragged off. John could only listen from behind the safety of the door.
Using the mining laser, John welded shut the metal door since at least that way he would be safe inside here. There were still rations inside this storage closet so he could survive until OZA sent in their Troubleshooters. Yes, all he had to was wait and everything would be fine. However, the thought didn’t bring much comfort. If he had wanted to be confined to a small room for hours on end he would have stayed and faced his sentencing on Terra V.
He began to hear a scratching sound that seemed to be getting louder and louder. He looked everywhere but could not find the source. The back wall began to move outwards, the metal being pushed out, and then burning. An acidic chemical smell filled the air as the metal of the back buckled from the acidic stream.
John stood with his back to the door. No way out. Something began to make its way out of the hole as more of the acid sizzled and dripped onto the floor.
Its head was the size of one of the creatures out there. It moved on a snake-like body, except at its torso it had four arms, each equipped with a three-clawed, taloned hand. John began to scream as the creature began to pull itself out of the hole. Its attention entirely locked on to him. John tried to kick the damn thing's grasping hands as it reached for his legs trying to pull him into the hole, but that caused him to stumble and fall. He knocked down one of the large pantry shelves onto its tail and grabbed for his hammer. The thing screeched as the heavy shelf crushed its part of its softer serpentine form. It began to rub the mandibles that pulled prey into its mouth together and gnash its rows of teeth in a way John could only think to call angry.
He smashed its outstretched hand with a hammer but another hand quickly took its place. The creature was covered in wriggling appendages seeking to grab him and pull him into the darkness. Then it pounced, trapping John under its bulk. He screamed as it’s acidic juices burned through his uniform and into his chest. He screamed even louder as that horrid mouth hungrily met his shoulder. The acidic smell mingled with that of burning flesh as the creature dragged him into the darkness below. John screamed and he screamed, but the only people left to hear him scream, were the dead.
Telos kept fidgeting with his pistol. “Sir, what do you think is down here anyway?” He asked. Bukkard looked at him. “I think maybe what we have is some miners too greedy for their own good or worse a saboteur working for another corporation. My money would be on GYNZO, those bastards tend to put their nose in everything out this way.” He said. He remembered all too well the lengths GYNZO would go when it came to sabotaging OZA operations.
Telos cursed and Saff couldn’t help but to agree. After all, it would not be the first time an enemy corporation had attempted to steal from a scavenger mission. It was the perfect time to strike since most scavenger missions were undermanned. They could easily slip a small team of guys into one of the freelance scavenger crews and have them start enough havoc and map out the good stuff for the other corporation's Troubleshooters. For the many, it was considered a good business practice.
“I didn’t pick up any small craft on Mine 198 and there was nothing in orbit.” Saff said.
“Doesn’t mean anything,” Bukkard muttered. “Just because they don’t have an immediate way off the planet doesn’t mean they don’t have some comrades in wait for a transponder signal.”
This time, it was Saff that cursed. If this was indeed an enemy corporation sabotage, there was a very high probability that none of them would leave Mine 198 alive. That way they could make the whole thing look like an accident. It really made you wonder how many of the scavenger missions that went wrong were really accidents in the first place. None of that mattered now. If it was truly corporate espionage, there wasn’t anything any of them could do about it right now except try not falling into a trap. If they managed to survive and be able to testify it would mean a big payout from OZA.
Bukkard’s communicator chirped. Unlike the rest of the crews, his communicator allowed him to stay in constant communication with the main monitor, which enabled him to track the rest of the crews' progress. Looking at the screen, he thought he was going to be sick. There was no way what he was seeing was possible. Not if the culprit was only a couple of corporate spies.
“Sir, what’s wrong?” Saff asked, his panic starting to rise as he noted the look on Bukkard’s face.
“They’re all gone.” Bukkard said slowly. “The other teams all went black.”
“What does that mean?” Telos asked.
“It means either we had a lot of rats on our ship… or there was a reason that so many Troubleshooters were stationed here, and it had nothing to do with miners getting out of hand.” He finished in a voice that sounded more like a whisper.
Saff looked up at him. “You think they found a native species?” He asked incredulously.
Telos felt as if the floor was falling from under him, “That’s impossible.” He said, trying to keep his voice from cracking.
Bukkard shook his head. “Pull yourselves together. I don’t know why the damn Troubleshooters were here. It doesn’t change anything. After all, it's illegal to mine any world with life on it so I highly doubt that they are going to start breaking Trade laws for some back world mine.” He finished, but even he looked unsure.
Saff suddenly felt the weight of the firearm he carried. Against humans, one of the little laser pistols could easily cut through flesh, searing it all the way through to the bone. But if they were indeed about to stumble upon a native species, there was no telling what their strength and weaknesses were. There were some very strange beings out in the universe.
“Sir, maybe we should reverse our course and call this a loss.” Saff said. “At least until we can look through the Troubleshooters' files enough to see what we might be dealing with.”
“No.” Bukkard all but growled. “We have men down here. They may be freelancers, but we at least owe it them to try and help them if they are in trouble.”
“What if they're dead, sir?” Telos asked.
“Then we at least need to know what to put in the report.” Bukkard replied.
He was right. They could turn back and call it a loss. And perhaps not lose their jobs for failure to comply, but they would all wonder for the rest of their lives if they could have helped those men. Even if they chose to detonate the mine at this point it wouldn’t matter. They had to know what happened.
Saff knew that and he was sure the others thought the same way, but this way the offer had been there. He was happy in a grim way that they hadn’t decided to take the easy way out.
The lift screeched to a halt at the end of the shaft was the first tunnel, which Saff knew would be made up of the miners' quarters, a cafeteria, and storage areas. After that, there would be more rooms and corridors spread throughout the rest of the tunnels. Most scavenger teams didn’t go too far from Tunnel One unless they were certain that the richer veins or tool caches were in deeper tunnels.
“Okay, we start by retracing their steps, the last place we heard from any of the teams was near the intersection them. That’s going to put us out in the open facing three open tunnels with god knows what in them. Keep your eyes peeled and for the love of God don’t shoot each other.” Bukkard said. Saff and Telos, just looked at each other and shrugged. Each of them took a firmer grip on their weapon.
The lift gate opened. Fluorescent light and dull metallic walls greeted them as they stepped into the entryway of Tunnel One. And right into the remnants of the blood bath that had just occurred there.
They stood stock still, taking it all in. The floor was coated in a dull red and drag marks painted a trail to the intersection. None of them spoke instead, they looked to Bukkard who signaled for them to move farther down the shaft. They all carried their weapons at the low ready. Saff was nervous, he could feel the thick coat of sweat between his pistol and his palm. Unlike Telos and Bukkard, he had never had to fire a weapon in the field of duty. The last time he had handled one was in training, which was over four years ago. And the way he heard it Telos’s claim to fame was shooting some sort of wild dog.
Telos took point as they went down the shaft. Bukkard was in the middle, staggered off to the left, so Telos wouldn’t be in his field of fire and Saff took up the rear staying on a constant swivel so he could watch both the front and the back. The further away they got from the lift, the more of a sinking feeling he felt in his gut. Whatever happened to those teams and caused that much blood loss, he knew it couldn’t be as simple as espionage or a couple rogue scavengers.
Telos signed for a halt.
“What do you see?” Bukkard asked. They spoke in hushed tones, their voices barely above a whisper. Saff had to move closer just to hear them at all. “Up ahead is a corridor with a small doorway, probably nothing more than a storage closet.” Telos said.
Bukkard nodded. Saff turned around and guarded their rear as Bukkard faced forward and Telos slowly peered around the corner, his pistol at the ready. “Sir, it’s clear.” Telos said.
Bukkard never looked away from his rifle, “Can you open it, Telos?”
Saff heard as Telos tried to open the door. “I think it's welded shut and it looks like something tried to get in.” Telos said, this time, his voice had risen and now carried down the shaft, as he pointed to the dented and scratched door.
“Shush!” Bukkard huffed. “Saff, take point while I inspect this damn door. There's nobody left to come down from the lift anyways.”
Saff moved forward and took Bukkard’s position as he and Telos examined the door. Curiosity overcame him and Saff couldn’t help but turn his head to look over at the door. He immediately wished he hadn’t. From what he could see between Bukkard and Telos, it looked like something about hip level had repeatedly rammed into the door and left some purplish goo behind. He could hear Bukkard and Telos as their voices rose to their normal level.
“Sir, if the teams came under attack from a native species we need to leave now.” Telos argued.
“They might not be company men, but they trusted us. We owe it to them to at least try and help them.” Bukkard replied his tone making it clear he wasn’t going to budge.
“But, sir, there's a good chance that they are all dead or worse.” Telos told him.
“I understand that, but let me ask you, Telos, what would you want me to do if it was you down here?” Bukkard asked him.
Saff could hear as Telos struggled with his reply. “Sir, it doesn’t matter, but if you must know, I wouldn’t want you two to die coming after me. Besides, it won’t matter if we save them or not because OZA will never let some common scavengers run around with the information that they mined a habitable world or at least one with sentient life.”
“Get a hold of yourself, man. We don’t even know that's what it is.” Bukkard said.
“Sir, I would like to also point out that they won’t let us live with that information either.” Telos told him.
Saff shook his head. Good old Telos, always saying the thing that none of them wanted to hear.
Bukkard seemed to relent. “Fine. We will go to the intersection if we don’t see anything we pull back and head topside. We will just message headquarters, tell them our crews went missing and ask if they want us to blow it. Hell, burying evidence of OZA wrongdoing, we will probably all get a promotion and a raise.” Bukkard said, audibly clapping Telos on the back.
Saff looked over and could see the small smile already on Telos’s lips as he mentally counted how much that raise just might be. Saff couldn’t argue the logic as the corporation was notorious for scratching the backs of employees that helped cover up any sort of trade crimes. At the same time though, they were notorious for taking the skin off the backs of those that tried to bring those crimes to light. Literally skinning them alive.
Resuming their earlier positions, they headed farther up the tunnel. They stopped where the metal became dirt; not because they were about to turn back, but because they couldn’t believe the sight before their eyes. They had found some of the missing crewmen. Pieces of them anyway. Human parts were strewn around, but as Saff’s eyes adjusted to the horror he noted that it was only body parts, no bodies. Blood pooled in the along the metal floor, fresher than what they had come across in Tunnel One. Whatever did this was coming back for more. Saff realized. As they surveyed the scene before them.
They moved closer, almost without their own volition doing their best to sidestep the puddles of gore. They gave up after awhile there was just too much and inevitably they would have to walk across it.
Telos cleared his throat, “Sir, where’s the enemy?”
Bukkard looked at him for a moment, then his eyes went wide with realization. “You’re right, there’s no way these many men died without taking a single one with them.”
Saff immediately grasped the problem. “So we are either vastly outnumbered or they took the both their dead and ours with them. Which would mean sentient life.” He said, the full horror of the situation dawned on him for the first time.
“Sir, we need to leave now. We need to let the company know that we didn’t see any of this. Do you know what lengths OZA would go to, to make sure this never got out? To make sure this never made it to the World Courts?” Telos asked, his face contorted in a look of sheer panic.
Saff crouched down on his haunches: he felt like he was going to be sick. No matter what, there was little chance that OZA would let them live, but then again there was all likelihood that they would destroy Mine 198 anyway.
OZA would not just collapse the shafts, but blow the core. Hell, all they would have to do is paint it nice and neat for the media. Simply state that the core was unstable after extensive mining operations. They would have to; it would be too dangerous just to move on. If anyone else discovered it, well even one of mightiest Trade Corporations was nothing compared to the power wield by the World Courts. And the genocide or suppression of a sentient species was a capital offense. It would mean capital punishment for all employees with knowledge of the operation.
“Get up and get yourselves together. The trails continue up that way. It looks like they go all the way into Tunnel Four” Bukkard said.
“Yeah, bodies, the crewmen’s corpses or whatever’s left and isn’t strung across the floor, sir.” Telos told him. “Think about that for a minute. We need to leave.”
“Those men trusted us dammit.” Bukkard retorted.
“Look, sir, I agree with Telos on this one, even if we find them there’s no way the company will allow them to live.” Saff replied
“Us, maybe, if we spin it right we could get a nice promotion and raise.” Telos said his face as grim as his words.
“Then we’re just as guilty in the eyes of the World Courts” Bukkard told him feeling guilty for even considering abandoning the freelancers.
“But we would be made men, sir. No more scavenger jobs. We'd have office gigs on a decent planet.” Saff said, feeling awful with every world that fell out of his mouth.
“That’s a little mercenary for you.” Bukkard said to him. “Besides, if the crews came across sentient life you know damn well they’d know enough to keep their mouths shut. If OZA was so afraid of that they wouldn’t have sent us here in the first place.”Bukkard said, walking towards the start of the trail.
They fell in behind him, Saff first and then Telos. Perhaps the idea of heading back down the tunnel alone made them lose their courage.
The trail led them to the intersection that divided the tunnels. It took a sharp right down into Tunnel Four. Right, where Team Five had gone dark. Whatever lived here apparently lived in Tunnel Four. Saff remembered it was where the Trouble Shooters and several miners went missing too from the reports. No bodies recovered. It had been written up as a cave in.
Bukkard turned to them, from the look on his face Saff could tell he also remembering those incident reports they had read in the control room.
“Stay close,” was all he said before turning back around and walking into the mouth of the tunnel. Saff and Telos had no choice but to follow.