He could almost feel it from here.
About 20 miles below, the sand raged, creating a storm that probably could have been seen from high orbit. Their shuttle was already on its way down, barely keeping course through the wind. The ship rocked violently and he grabbed hold of his rifle at his side. He knew the shield would protect the ship and anything in it. Guess some habits die hard.
He’d only been away from earth for a few years, and he’d spent the majority of that on the station training and running drills. He’d rarely felt anything but boredom and fatigue, but this was different. Now he felt excited. Nervous. He was finally going on a mission. A real one. The feel of a real gun in his hands gave him a rush, though he knew part of that was the suit’s chemicals readjusting his system for the quick atmospheric entry. One of it’s many marvels.
He looked it over quickly. Air tight and made of the toughest metals in the known galaxy, it was built to withstand nearly any weather damage, and even the helmet had a second visor layer that could be deployed in events of extra danger, though it made it more difficult to see. Each suit came pre equipped with two things out of the gate: A vibro sword, which could be heated to extreme temperatures, and a rifle that was genetically locked to whoever owned the suit. It also came with jump jets for small height boosts.
He really enjoyed that part.
“You done admiring yourself, rookie?” He raised his head to see Milo, his commander, looking at him sternly. The man had more that a few scars and his share of wrinkles, though nobody would ever call him old to his face. His age didn’t slow him down. It just made him the one who knew how to survive.
He straightened his back and saluted. “Sir, yes sir!” The older man nodded.
“Good. Don’t get cocky. We’re picking up some VIPs. The weapons are only in case the other inhabitants are having a really bad day, which judging by this storm, wouldn’t be a surprise, so stay sharp.”
He took a deep breath and let it out.
“Hey, don’t worry about it too much. Keran, yeah? Just stay in the middle and we’ll keep you safe.”
He turned to look at the woman beside him. Lila was older than him, though not by much. The only signs of age showing in the pronounced stress lines around mouth and on her forehead. Her dark brown hair was cropped short, almost shaved, as required for all soldiers. Like the others, she was wearing a suit, though hers, like the commander’s, was a deep blue as opposed to standard white, denoting their leadership rank.
“I’m just a little nervous.” Keran said. “I’m used to the feel of a heavy gun in my grip, but the suit makes everything feel weightless.”
“You’ll get used to it quickly. Soon enough you’ll be wearing that suit almost full time and you’ll wonder how you ever lived without it. Don’t go breaking it though eh? They ain’t cheap.”
He grinned. “Aye, Captain.”
Suddenly, the shuttle rocked to the side and Keran had to steady himself against the ship wall. “What was that?” He asked.
“That, rookie” the Commander replied, “was what it feels like to land in a 100mph sand storm at top speed. Be sure to activate your grav boots. You won’t need your jets to fly if you forget.”
The Commander pulled open the shuttle door and shouted out “On your feet people, move out!” and then jumped from the ship. Two others followed, then Lila, then he followed behind her. He felt his boots immediately pull him to the ground, though even with them anchoring him in place, he could feel the storm trying its best to pull him from the ground, and he suddenly realized what all those dreaded muscle exercises were for. Walking in the storm would be a chore, and every moment would be spent trying to keep his balance. Regardless, he pushed forward, following the Captain in front of him. The trek took them about an hour, and finally, through the sand whipping about, he could see the faint outline of a large metal door, likely the base where they were picking up their VIPs. About time. The only reason they were picking them up in this damn storm was because supposedly they had critical information; something that could affect the entire galaxy. It wasn’t the first time of course. It was a mark of how often these scientists claimed they had made “galaxy wide discoveries” that command had sent a squad with a rookie like him. Still, it had been several years since there was any word from them, and they’d sent Milo, so they must not want to take too many chances.
“Rookie, let’s get a move on!” Captain Lila’s voice was barely audible over the screeching wind. “Now, if you please!”
He ran forward as fast as he could, reaching the entrance as they all deactivated their grav boots, feeling an enormous release of pressure now that he could move freely again.
The Commander retracted his wind visor. “Well, now that we’re out of that, let’s see what bullshit the wizards have pulled out their asses this time.” He walked up to a console by the next door. “Commander Milo, here on assignment from Nebula command, requesting access.”
He waited a few moments, but there was no response. He tried again. “This is Commander Milo on behalf of Nebula Command, we are requesting access to pick up some VIPs. Please respond.”
The Commander sighed. “Well, tried to do things polite and all. You three, with me.” He pointed to the Captain and two others, motioning them to grab at the crease in the middle of the door. With the four of them working in tandem, they gradually pried the door open, and he immediately knew that something was wrong.
Several lights along the hallway they were in had gone dim. A surprisingly thick layer of dust covered every surface and there were very fine but deep scrapes along the walls and floor. He felt his heart begin to race, but knew this time it had nothing to do with his suit.
The commander straightened up and pulled out his gun. “Captain Lila, take the rear, make sure we don’t get any surprises. Leto, you’re with her. Rookie, stay in the center.” He shook his head. “This mission just got a lot more complicated. Let’s move.”
They crept at a slow pace down the winding corridors. Many of the doors were broken open, with empty rooms. At least, empty of people. Equipment, furniture and rotting sustenance lay disheveled everywhere. Several doors were locked, and they would knock and call out, only to continuously be met with silence. Eventually, they came upon the command center. Most of the consoles in the room were either smashed or covered in layers of dust and dirt. Several had wires torn from the wall and had seemed to be tossed across the room. He could see more of the earlier scratches raked across the floor. A persistent clicking seemed to be emanating from somewhere, though he couldn’t seem to ascertain it’s exact location. It seemed to be everywhere at once.
“Commander, there’s an active terminal here.” Captain Lila’s voice called out from one of the consoles, a digital orange display appearing above it.
Commander Milo went to her side, observing the view screen. As Keran got closer he noticed that it seemed to be a log of some sort, dated for almost 5 years earlier.
Commander Milo’s face scrunched into one of concern. “Anything more recent?”
Lila shook her head. “Negative sir. Nothing.”
The terminal must have access to other databases, look for anything related to the distress call.”
The Captain pressed some buttons on the console, and the screen flashed red. A few more presses, and another red screen.
“I can’t seem to access the other databases sir.”
“Can you bypass to lock somehow?” He replied.
“I’m not locked out sir. It’s as if…well, as if nothing else exists.”
Everyone went silent. One of the other soldiers spoke up. “Shouldn’t that be impossible? I’m no expert, but aren’t most systems designed to contain all clearance level information on every terminal?”
The Commander crossed his arms. “That would be the protocol. Which means one of two things. Either the scientists didn’t trust each other to the point they refused to share information with each other…or the database cores containing all the information except the things on this console were intentionally destroyed. As unlikely as it sounds, given the state of the facility, I’m liable to bet it was the latter.” He pointed at the last entry on the console. “Play that log. Let’s see what these people were up to.”
Captain Lila opened up the file and the face of a middle-aged woman appeared on the screen and began speaking.
“This is research director Helena Adderson. Log number- what is it now, 83? Gods, I don’t even know anymore, these past few days have been a disaster. We had another containment breach. Six of the subjects got loose and we had to gas the whole section. I feel bad for the guards, but I’m just glad we didn’t lose any researchers. We can’t afford to lose any key personnel right now.”
One of the men, Leto, spoke up. “That’s fucked man. Just killing ‘em like it was nothing. That’s sick.”
“No shit, now shut up and listen.” The Commander replied.
The scientist continued. “-starting to think that he’s intentionally trying to release him. Keeps insisting that she “overpowers” him occasionally, but I call bull. He’s always quick enough to gain control again once the loose ones are all dead. We thought giving him one of our older woman would placate him for a bit, but apparently he needed “a young queen”. Whatever. This whole thing creeps me out. We sent a request out to terminate the program, but Nebula Command denied it. Says the potential is too valuable to ignore.”
Captain Lila’s mouth dropped open. “Command knew about this? They didn’t say anything to us about it.”
“It’s not our job to ask, just to do.” Commander Milo replied, though Keran could see the deep-set concern in his face. He clearly didn’t like it any more than them.
The woman on the screen turned and said something inaudible to another researcher behind her before turning back. “Much as I hate this whole thing, I don’t want to think about the alternative. If he were to lose control of them we’d all-”
Suddenly a piercing loud alarm started up in the background and the screen flashed red. The woman rolled her eyes and sighed.
She turned to speak to someone out of frame. “Gas the section, quickly!”
The voice replied, “I can’t, something happened to the controls, nothing is working!”
“Damn it!” She cursed and pulled out a pistol. “I don’t know who screwed up but when we’re done shooting bugs I’m shooting them next! Now lets get to that sector before-”
She went silent, and they could hear the sounds of metal clicking. A man in the video screamed. “They’re in the room! Everyone fire at will, fire at-”
A scream went off and he was silenced. The woman’s face came up on screen again, her voice frantic. “If anyone comes to investigate and sees this, run! Run and don’t fucking stop! The base is compromised, repeat, the base is-”
Her eyes went wide for a moment before she went still. She dropped from view and suddenly the squad was face to face with a large, chitinous creature with mantis-like arms appeared on the screen.
The Captain sighed. “Well at least we know what happened to everyone here. Question is, what happened to all the bugs?”
The group was silent, but then Keran noticed something on the screen and pointed it out. “Wait, look. What are they doing?”
Everyone looked back at the video still playing. In the background, they could see the creatures destroying each console, one by one, until only theirs remained, and then as a group, left through one of the doors.
Everyone was silent, and Keran knew they were all thinking the same thing. Why would the bugs, no matter how intelligent, destroy every console in the room? Even more, why would they leave one remaining? The woman had said someone was controlling them. But why would he turn against the others? There was more going on here than they could see. He glanced around again, realizing that the stains he noticed earlier wasn’t dirt. It was blood. A lot of blood.
Captain Lila turned to the Commander. “Orders, sir?”
It was a few moments before he responded. “This is no longer a VIP pickup. This is now a search and rescue. We’re to find any survivors and get them out. However…” He turned to the squad. “If we find this ‘controller’, then we grab him and leave. We need to know what these idiots were up to. Ready?”
After a full squad confirmation, they continued through the door opposite the one they’d come through. He could hear every squadmate breathing heavily, occasionally pointing their guns at the smallest of sounds. There were too many questions. They continued along the tunnel and straight ahead they found themselves in a security room with dozens of video screens that must have been used to observe the entire base. Most of them were damaged, but a few were still functional, though none seemed to be actively recording.
“Vix,” the Commander called out. “Can you pull up any recorded footage from the time of those logs from 5 years ago?”
The man walked up to a console and typed in a few commands. “Looks like they stopped recording a few weeks after that time, I can only get the last few days of footage.”
Vix typed in a few more commands and pulled up a camera screen. There was nothing but silence. He sped through the footage, occasionally stopping when he saw the bugs crawling around, but it wasn’t until the second day of footage that they noticed anything out of the ordinary. It happened so quickly in fact, that they almost missed it.
The Commander pointed to the screen. “Reverse and play again right…there.”
Before their eyes, they watched one of the creatures wandering aimlessly, before suddenly vanishing.
“Where the hell did it go?” He said quietly.
Vix put in a few more commands and they saw his face turn white. “Sir, I uh..I think we might have an issue.”
The Commander turned to him. “What is it?”
Vix seemed hesitant to speak. “I just checked the camera settings. It’s set to motion detecting only.”
“Meaning that the video wouldn’t be recording unless it was detecting movement.”
The Commander’s eyes went wide and he looked at the video screen, noticing the distinct lack of life appearing on the footage.
Keran heard the clicking noise again and realized it wasn’t machinery. It was movement.
Finally the Commander spoke. “Mission objective changed. We’re leaving.” He looked over them. “Now! Move!”
Captain Lila led the squard with Leto and himself right behind, heading back through the corridors. Even with the slamming of their boots on metal, he could hear the scuttling of crawling bugs getting louder. The three of them had just gotten back to the command center when the door behind them closed and they were split from the other three.
“Commander!” Lila shouted, though it was drowned out slightly by the sounds of gunfire. She tried to pry the door open, motioning at the two of them. “Don’t just stand there, help me!”
They moved into action, pulling open the door slightly. Unlike the last door they forced open however, this one seemed to have some sort of stretchy mucous sticking the doors together.
Lila shouted again. “Commander, can you hear me!”
A call came back. “Captain, we can’t get through this sticky shit, and they’re all over us! Take Leto and the rookie and get the hell out!”
“That’s an order Captain! Now go!” He yelled as a human voice screamed in pain. “Go!”
Cursing, the Captain let the door closed and motioned to him and Leto. “Let’s go, quick. Before we end up like them. And for fucks sake, stay together.”
The three of them moved at a brisk pace towards the entrance, coming to a sharp stop at an intersection.
“What the hell is that crap?” Leto asked.
Keran moved closer. “It looks like the same kind of thing that held the doors together back at the command center.” He pulled out his sword and tried to cut it, but as the weapon sliced through, the membrane parted and then immediately reconnected, as if slicing through water. “The bugs must be able to create it.”
Leto let out a frustrated cry and kicked a console laying on the ground. “This is bullshit! What are we supposed to do now?! There are invisible fucking bugs everywhere and our exit is blocked!”
The Captain grabbed him by the shoulder. “Keep your ass in check Leto! Now you see that?” She pointed to a door to the side of the blocked exit. “We’re gonna go through there, look for another way out, and you’re gonna make zero noise unless I tell you to fucking shoot something, you got it?!”
Silently, Leto took a deep breath and nodded.
“Good. I’ll take point. Leto, you take rear. Keran..” She looked sympathetically at him. “Piss on the gods for making this your first mission, but you’re still alive at least. Stay between us and let’s hope we can keep it that way. Now, swords out. Gods help us if you have to reload while they’re swarming us”
They followed the winding tunnels, occasionally encountering more doors blocked with mucous, almost always leaving but a single path available to them. He had the uneasy feeling that the creatures were trying to herd them somewhere. The further along they went, the more signs of the bugs they encountered. Whatever- or whoever had loosed the creatures, it seemed like this was where it began. But it still left one burning question.
“Where are all the bodies?” Keran asked as they continued to walk down the hall. “That much blood had to come from somewhere, but there are no blood trails. Just…stains.”
Leto spoke up. “Frankly the only bodies I give a damn about are ours, and I’m sick and tired of wandering around without knowing where the hell we’re going!”
The Captain gave him a stern look. “You’re out of line soldier! We’re all on edge but that doesn’t mean you can lose your shit the moment we get in-”
“The moment?!” Leto burst out laughing. “It’s been a lot of moments now Captain, and each one just puts us in more shit! We’re probably wandering into a trap and have no idea what we’re doing and you’re just okay with that?!”
The Captain closed her eyes and let out a deep sigh. “Fine Leto. You don’t like it, what would you suggest we do?”
He perked up at this. “We didn’t try to break through those barriers for very long. I think we should keep trying. They can’t be indestructible.”
She then turned to Keran. “And you private? Do you agree?”
His mouth gaped slightly and he paused. He had no clue what to do. He looked back the way they were headed. He had a feeling it was their only option. Yet, he turned back to the two others and said, “Can’t hurt.”
The Captain nodded. “Alright then. Lead on Leto.”
The two of them followed behind, this time watching the signs that were still hanging on the walls. Observation A..then B..Research Room..Melding Chamber..whatever that was..
Finally Leto stopped, letting out a cry of triumph. In front of them stood a mucous barrier, just like the rest, and to their right a dusty plaque in which they could just make out the word, ‘Garage’.
“Alright,” He moved closer to the mucous. “Here’s what we’re going to do. Earlier, when we tried to cut through it, it melded together again. But if the two of your cut it at once- one up, one down- then I might be able to get through before it shuts if I move quickly enough.”
The Captain frowned. “Leto…are you sure? We don’t know what happens if you get stuck. We don’t know anything about this stuff at all.”
He grinned. “Anything is better than wandering around waiting for death. Now let’s do it.”
“She halfheartedly nodded. “So be it.” She stuck her sword into the barrier, which aside from an uncomfortable squelching noise, seemed to have little detrimental affect. “You next rookie.” She motioned him over.
Keran, hands shaking slightly, thrust his sword in by hers.
Leto retracted his sword and got into a preparatory stance. “Ready? On my mark. In three..two..one..now!”
Keran and the Captain slashed their swords in opposing directions. They seemed to move effortlessly through, as if cutting through cloth. The moment they did, the barrier started to close again, but Leto was already halfway through. As it shut, it looked as if it would catch his feet, but in a moment, he was through and safely on the other side.
“Leto?” The Captain called. “You good over there?”
There was silence and the two of them looked at each other with concern when they heard his voice from the other side.
“I’m okay! I made it! You guys..you would not believe this.”
“What are you seeing?” The Captain asked.
“Well..let’s say I found the staff.”
She paused for a moment before speaking. “Bring up your video feed.”
The Captain pressed a button on the arm of her suit and a holographic screen popped up with video from Leto’s side.
Both of their eyes went wide. “Holy shit.”
On the screen they could see something vastly different from their side of the hall. The entire section was barely recognizable. Both walls and floor were covered in a thick, dirty layer of some sort of crust. Stuck inside were eggs, likely housing more of the creatures. The worst part was the ceiling. Above, there was a mucous layer, much like the barriers, but from long strings of it hung over a dozen human corpses, as if they hunks of animal meat that were sitting in a meat locker waiting to be served on a platter. In a way, they were. Fortunately, there didn’t seem to be any living creatures there and they could see the garage door at the end of the hall. The feed turned towards the barrier as Leto drew his sword and stuck it in the barrier.
“Okay, now one of you get ready to go.”
The Captain looked to Keran. “You next.” As she motioned him to get ready.
He leaned forward, preparing to run the moment the barrier parted.
They waited for a response, but none came.
“Leto, are you-” She seemed to have a sudden thought and pulled up the feed from his camera. “Ah, shit.”
Leto must be on his back, because they could see his sword stuck in the barrier and swarms of small bugs crawling on the walls, ceiling, and floors around him. The eggs they’d seen before had cracked and opened, perhaps activated by the soldier’s presence. There was no sign of how exactly he died, but given the previous footage they saw in the command center, they could likely hazard a guess.
There was a minute of silence before the Captain finally spoke up.
“No choice then.” She turned to Keran. “We keep following the tunnels. We see this too the end, wherever that leads. Understood?”
He nodded his affirmation and they continued down their original path. They both knew at this point that they were being kept alive for a reason. After all, the bugs intentionally seperated them from the Commander and the other two, which means he didn’t need all of them. Just a few. But for what?
The scuttling of pointed feet clicked against metal, growing louder as they approached the next room. A sense of grim anticipation fell over them, realizing that whatever they were being led to was likely beyond the door that now stood closed in front of them. Moving slowly and deliberately, the Captain motioned at Keran to step back, pressing a button on the access console and opening the way forward.
In front of them stood a large open room. As they stepped inside they were forced to shield their eyes, now accustomed to the darkness in the rest of the base, from the over-sized floodlights that stood on either side of a dark line leading straight through to a door at the far end of the room. Keran looked up and his eyes went wide. The room must have been about 100 feet high, and at the top, a swarm of what must be hundreds of the alien creatures were crawling around on the ceilings and walls.