Chapter 10: Ascent, Descent
I had climbed the last step in one of the many spiral staircases. I looked back and realized I was scorning at the sight of it all, the handrails and baseboards and step faces of a shiny, chrome alloys. It seemed trivial the sort of splendor and decorum put into the place, almost wasteful. Not one troop among us had uncovered what was so special about this mining camp other than the scale of amenity and the horde of scientists.
Coming into focus next to the staircase was all of Lima Company as well as what was left of Sierra. Struger had nothing to do without any large object to blast away and his weaponry had been inspected more times than a pelican before flight. They all waited patiently while I went on the hunt for truth and some sort of plan. Hopefully I'd be the discoverer. I might find where Amy was frequenting in the process. Little else that I'd done amounted to anything so far, so it felt now. Though I never thought I'd lead an outfit until another couple years and more stripes on my sleeve, it seemed the Gunny and his NCOs were content to let me go on this hunt. But the scientists that were scattered about a few moments prior had all but disappeared and I didn't just sense a frustration among Lima Company...I was literally acting it out.
After a few more moments of fruitless search, I hunched the labcoats retreated into their mainstays, down the elevators. Amy was MIA again. Whatever it was the scientists were trying to keep a secret—even from us—they deemed her worthy of the information.
With that, I double timed it around the perimeter of the third floor balcony just to make sure I hadn't missed anyone. This balcony was much more extensive than those below it, surrounding the circumference of the entire lobby. The palm trees crested to this height, rising to meet me just an arm's reach beneath. I only now noticed them, they blended in so well with the wall murals that depicted a wild setting to begin with. A pseudo-dome beckoned above, complete with clouds and a star. Down below, that same blackness now had all of Lima Company standing buoyant above it. I forced my gaze away and to the task. I checked every office, running from door to door. Nothing. There was no one in sight. No clues to their whereabouts.
I ran down the staircase as all other Marines loitered around the lobby floor. They'd bored by now, drinking, inventorying and inspecting anything, making ready for what was next. I ran around the entire ring of the second floor balcony. Every office was empty.
That left only the elevators.
My search ended as I walked down the staircase. The Gunny remained fixated on me, waiting, his hands half raised in anticipation. "No scientists?" he asked.
I shook my head. The row of elevators caught the corner of my eye. They were tall and wide. The highly brushed aluminum doors exhibited no seam, perhaps more novelty than a necessity. Undoubtedly, they were high speed freight lifts. I continued to stare at them.
"Are you sure?" the Gunny queried in doubt.
"Only choice now. They never did lay down any ground rules for us, so I guess we'll just invite ourselves in."
"I guess." he added.
I ran over to the wall and called an elevator with a button. Down was the only choice. A door at the far end instantly opened with a chime. I waved everyone to jump aboard as I walked closer to it. A single elevator car could probably fit half of us. The remainder would have to call their own and hopefully rendezvous at our unchosen destination. We just about reached the doors…
The lead scientist emerged from the elevator as if on cue, his frail, lanky body turning to face us. "Oh. Were you thinking about going down?" he asked with what seemed a genuine politeness.
"Actually, yeah." The Gunny answered for us.
"I think we're entitled to some answers." Haze added.
The scientist was somewhat taken back by Haze's passive aggression. He pondered our assertion with a hand on his chin. looking down at a tablet in his hand before passing his sights up into the ceiling of exposed vent ducts and framework. And then further up he gazed—into the false sky dome above. There was seemingly no limit to his thought. "Yes. I believe it is time as well. If you'll please follow me into the car, we'll make our descent together." Finally, we were getting somewhere. The man called another car and waited for it to surface at the lobby floor. "Not everyone will fit into one. Please split into two groups and choose your own elevator if you're so inclined to see the rest of the facility. You, you, and you should probably come with me." he said pointing to me, Gunny Smith, and Haze.
"Doctor," the Gunny asked, "did you receive any further intel updates?"
"They went quiet shortly after the first glassing."
"Any report on what it looks like out there?"
The Gunny's words were chosen carefully, I could sense. The need to know about peoples' chances of survival out there was only meagerly outweighed by our leader's need to know of the tactical implications as it related strictly to Lima Company's mission, whatever it should be now.
"I would think with that many ships, it's fair to assume the situation looks pretty dismal for anyone not in a hardened underground facility."
"What I was really curious about is troop deployments groundside, Doctor. We may need to take stock of the interior situation here, set up DFP barricades and do what we can to fortify our boundaries. I'd rather not put all my trust into this Omega Wing that everyone holds so dear."
"Little point in worrying about the Omega Wing, Marine. We're headed downward at this time. And I assure you...the interior situation down there is much more defensible than it is up here."
We complied and made our way into the elevator's spacious interior—stainless walls and floor. I looked back and made sure that Haze came along. The last thing I wanted was for him to be all alone. He brought up the rear and sauntered into our elevator car. He looked a little better than before and I had a good feeling he'd stay that way. Judging by the way he addressed the scientist, I knew he was at least back in the general swing of things. Struger was next, a surface-to-surface rocket slung over his back. I could tell he favored its power. Lawrence, Holmes, and the Gunny were all in too, as well as a few others I hadn't the chance to get to know better yet. It was a comfort to have my best friends near me as we pressed further into the unknown. The doors slid closed and hissed. The cars apparently had their own atmosphere.
"Interesting." remarked one of Sierra Company's Marines.
The lift started its descent, slowly at first. It gradually picked up speed. After a moment of silence, the rate of descent was still increasing until we were falling very fast. I knew what free-fall was supposed to feel like. I had experienced it many times before. Our current speed stabilized at just a hare below what terminal velocity would be. "The car's accelerometers will throttle our speed downward, so no worries." the Doctor said. "You would've already been thrown into the ceiling, otherwise."
The scientist turned from the door face and looked at the rest of us. "We are approaching the mines now. These turbolifts, as you can probably surmise, are dropping very fast to our target—of classified depth of course."
I looked just above the doors at the LCD floor marker. It was blacked out.
"My name is Doctor Eli Kleiner. I am the civilian administrator here at the Foreclay Mining Outpost. I'm sorry that introductions come at a delay, but things have been quite busy here, as you've obviously seen." He once more glimpsed at a datatab held loosely. "I am sorry, Marines." he continued, "we haven't been able to fully disclose some pertinent information to you in the past hours and for that we are deeply in your debt, not only for playing along but for providing protection and escorting our technicians into the admin wings of this outpost. Without your service, the mission could not have been accomplished."
"What mission?" the Gunny inquired.
"Where to begin."
He began with a low chuckle, scratching at his smooth scalp. "It began several months ago, shortly after the Covenant arrived in-system. During routine mining operations, the previous administration came across a substance that was not categorized or easily referenced in any field of study. Immediate action was taken in the midst of an attempted Covenant occupation. Individuals of the highest grades in the UNSC and the intel agencies sought to take little chance when dealing with matters in which the Covenant showed interest. Normally, this thing would wind up in a museum simply because of its rarity, but the ones in charge of planetary defense learned of this too and insisted we come here for analysis. One day was all we needed. The two events occurred simultaneously, you see. The Omega Wing was built. Once erected, the Omega Wing enabled us to continue with confidence in the face of total UNSC destruction. Fortunately for us, the Covenant never knew the exact location of the substance we were dealing with. It wasn't until we energized it beyond some critical threshold that the Covenant zeroed in on our location. This was when we called for reinforcements."
"Lima Company." the Gunny concluded.
"Precisely, Gunnery Sergeant."
"We were your contingency."
"Bodyguards and escorts in the best case. A demolition and mop-up crew in the worst."
That explained it—why the Omega Wing differed so much from the rest of the facility. It was a brand new addition to the outpost. It also explained why the UNSCDF of Zaragosa was able to defeat the Covenant force time and time again. For every engagement on this colony, we only faced pockets of Covenant armies, fractions of their real strength. They never knew exactly where to tie down their resources, preoccupied and scattered looking for the one thing the Doctor already owned.
By the time the Covenant invaders found what they were looking for, they were in their death woes. Their ground assets were already whittled down to the point where Lima Company was able to take them out. Amy's choice to nuke them was the coup de grace, but once again everything had changed when a much larger force returned, seemingly out of pure wrath.
I wondered how the battle was going upstairs anyway, high above in the vacuum. If there even was a battle. Kleiner had said that the Covenant ships numbered in the triple digits.
The scientist continued. "The Covenant deployed here for those six or seven months had no orbital reach back, which worked out incredibly well to our favor. Once the cruiser dropped of its assault brigade and fled, we still knew this planet would suffer gravely while we conducted our tests. So, we needed the right size force. Enough to repel the Covenant army when needed, but not enough to attract too much attention. You see, we wanted it so the Covenant's artillery could be wiped out. Every citizen of Zaragosa Prime could eventually be air lifted to this facility en masse. To no fault of our own, we initiated the exodus a little too late. The Covenant communication beacon that your Spartan found set off the chain of events that we feared most. Needless to say, the exodus failed. I believe we are all that's left."
"Wait…wait." Haze said. "You wanted the whole planet's population to come here to begin with?"
"Yes, that is what we originally intended. One particular advantage in our favor was that the Covenant army did not have any ship borne provisions. Their fleet fled hoping their ground assets could do the job of infiltrating and extracting what is was they were looking for. We would've started the evacuation process sooner, but we had to be certain of key issues first."
"What issues?" I asked.
"We had to first be sure that the device under question acted as theorized. We didn't know its full capabilities until just a few hours ago."
"You'll find out soon enough. I still can't disclose that information until we've reached the mines." He shrugged his shoulders and offered a meager smile. "We'll have to wait until we enter the SCIF...I'm just obeying protocol. We need to maintain a very tight access. The device we're dealing with is classified under X-ray directive. We couldn't have unprivileged eyes and ears around the facility, the one underground. We're just humans. Mistakes can occur, as you well know."
Another piece of the puzzle revealed—the reason why I could never hope to gain insight into the scientists' dealings. Even Lima Company was never privy to the discovery in the mines. The operational security that the Foreclay scientists exhibited during our stay was borderline paranoia schizophrenia, but it was indeed leak-proof.
The elevator halted, though, the doors did not open. Instead, I felt lateral motion and a rhythmic mechanical noise. Clunk-clunk…clunk-clunk.
"The elevator is transitioning." the scientist announced. "The cable has been severed and we are gliding on a cross-motion buoyant-gear. There are many shafts that lead to the mines, some of which are no longer in use. This transition ensures that we will traverse the correct path and that intruders will waste considerable amounts of time finding which mines are currently in use. Soon we'll hook up with another cable on the other side and descend further."
"Really?" Holmes said. "How deep does this go?"
"Extremely deep." Kleiner promptly replied.
There was a lot of time to kill in the ride down. I took the opportunity by the horns and looked my team over. I made sure they were strapped for the long haul. Indeed we all were. Command had sent us enough supplies to fight a small war. I wondered if there was still a command out there. I had the hunch that the remainder of our stay here would be in the mines, which were undoubtedly the safest place in the outpost, the safest place in the world.
"In case you Marines were wondering," the scientist added, "internal pressure will gradually equalize with that of the mines down below. If not for the elevator's atmospheric regulators, your inner ear would rupture from sudden hyper-pressurization. You would lose all equilibrium as well. This built-in atmospheric equalization feature acts as an intrusion prevention measure itself, further insuring any unauthorized access will result in breaking down the intruders' will in using any of our transport vectors to gain entry into the mines. That is, of course, if the construction of their auditory organs are as fragile as ours. Adamant security measures must be implemented in this stage of entry to the mines, for further in is where the prize lies. You will see."
A smile crept into the lines of his face and barely tugged at the corners of his mouth.
I couldn't help but notice that however calm and composed Doctor Kleiner was, he exuded a distinct pride in the facility he presided over. His delight in the place was becoming boldly palpable—almost to the point of conceitedness. The mines were a special place. I knew it, Lima Company knew it, and the Covenant knew it. But Kleiner venerated it to an almost godly magnificence. I couldn't wait to see why. I couldn't wait to see what indeed it was that they found.
"Well, apparently, we will see!" Lawrence whispered to me.
The elevator stopped. This time the doors opened.
A cool, dry air whisked gently into the elevator. It permeated my pores and excited my senses. I felt unusually awake and alert, yet calm and at ease. I was instantly fond of this new environment, just like the home Omega Wing had been to me lately. Glow rods at steady intervals illuminated the winding way with ghostly-white iridescence. Ahead, the path through the mines twisted and turned with jagged walls and a low ceiling, stalagmites and stalactites jutting outwards. Like teeth from a savage beast, they swallowed the glow rods' radiance with ease as the daring light snaked its way further into the darkness.
One step out the door and I was eager to complete the journey we started.
"I must confess," the scientist said before assuming the lead again, "your visit to the mines is a little premature. We're still in the testing phase and would prefer just a little more time. We wanted to ensure consistency first, but your presence here is justified seeing as how you have given so much. The Captain seems to think it's the appropriate time to brief you as well. I usually don't take chances when dealing with people, myself, but I suppose it couldn't hurt either way. We're far enough along in our evaluations and it seems reasonably consistent to proceed with the final steps. Follow me."
As one, we stepped, out of the elevator and onto a solid foundation of rock, mostly granite from what I could tell. I traced my sights onto the glow rods fading into the distance as the path before us winded away. The sounds and the scents were soothing. The dense rock all around shielded us from enemies high above. Metal tracks were sunken into the bedrock in front. Some of the older, more worn-in tracks looked electro-mechanical while others were clearly MAGLEV. They curved with the path and disappeared into the farthest recesses. That was it: the carts riding these lines ferried the mineral ore and various precious metals upwards aboard the turbolifts, out the back side of Omega, down the docks and into the courtyard where they were palletized and prepped for interstellar shipment. The giant mound of dirt we climbed for air-dropped supplies and MEDEVAC was made entirely of excess materials exhumed from these mines.
A noise caught my attention, a steady drip. Off to the side, droplets of water pooled both below and above. "Is it safe to drink?" I asked.
"Yes. Feel free to indulge." Doctor Kleiner assured, looking at as many Marines as he could before walking deeper inwards.
I walked up to a small puddle resting on a low shelf, stooped over the crude fountain, and scooped up a mouthful with my cupped hands. Before drinking, I covered my face in it, pressing it into my skin and rubbing away the salty sweat stuck to my eyelids. I took another scoop and fed it into my mouth, slurping and savoring its coolness as it soaked into my tongue. It tasted pure.
As I loitered for another few seconds at the fountain, I entertained the possibility of leaving my radio behind, yanking its encryption module and tuning the bandpass filter to accept all frequencies including civilian bands...in hope of listening in on anyone still out there seeking shelter. It was a foolish notion, I then realized an instant later. The device's diminutive amplifier couldn't hope to cut through all the dirt and rock and sintered Iron between me and the surface, and the amount of radiation between the TAC-Nuke and the glassing would surely do a traveling survivor more harm than good.
A brief pause and I was back on the move, pulling just behind Kleiner and the Gunny in front.
"This is the only region in the entire planet containing clay deposits and the clay layers reside at the surface. Thus, the aptly-named Foreclay Outpost. Geothermal vents below continually satisfy the clay layer above in its affinity towards plasticity. And where there is clay, there is Iron. Large amounts of it. Coupled together, the clay and Iron act as a natural Farrady Cage. Interleaved at varying depths, the layers above our heads are both conductor and insulator. Oh yes, you could say the process effectively screens out any electromagnetic probing the Covenant used to pinpoint us. Even with higher-intensity scans, the backscatter simply propagates into and around the planet's magnetic field lines and would only suggest that the returning signal comes from everywhere on the planet at once. This is why we and the device, were able to avoid detection for nearly six months. We readily exploited the thermal activity as a limitless power source as well, mainly used for the admin wings. The Omega Wing and other special sectors required more, reliable power."
The history lesson was intriguing. I was repeatedly drawn away from it by our surroundings. Doctor Kleiner became background noise as the path winded left, right, up and down…sometimes a combination of them. Traveling single file as only our path would allow, we each took our turns weaving between rocky protrusions. Low ceilings opened up to tall ceilings, and then back again. Wide, waist-high shelves glittered with microscopic crystals beneath the pools of water that collected there, shining like constellations in a night's sky. The deeper we proceeded the cooler the air became. The polypropylene suits were the only effective barrier against an all-out shiver. Alternate paths soon stemmed away from ours. Unlike topside, there were no signs to indicate destinations. Instead, Doctor Kleiner continually consulted the tablet in his grasp.
He stopped and scrutinized the display, pointed towards the right with a firm nod, the path gliding gently down a bit. "This way."
We each took our turns again, duck-walking under a low ceiling, only able to fully pass a mining cart contently. Only a half-meter partition of solid rock separated us from an unusually straight path with a much more comfortable head room to it. I sensed it was angled slightly down, maybe a five-degree grade. It felt good to let gravity take my feet for a change. The trek so far had felt more like a session of calisthenics. Flashbacks of boot camp physical conditioning raced through my mind. Burning muscles, evaporating sweat in a cool breeze and a drill sergeant seeking more misery for recruits.
We arrived at a large, circular intersection with many paths to choose from. Tracks from all directions led to this wide junction, all terminating in the center where a complex switching platform laid. Off to the side troubleshooting some electronic conduit was Hal Overton, dressed in the same grease-stained blue coveralls. This time he had a hard hat, gloves and knee pads. In his hand was the ubiquitous yellow plastic case of a Fluke digital multimeter.
"Say," Lawrence said, "didn't we see him back in the Omega Wing?"
Lawrence regarded the technician one last time before we moved on. "Heavy maintenance guy with a clearance, how 'bout that."
Kleiner led us along a path just beside the one Hal occupied. Before we passed through the grand intersection, Hal paused his work to get a good look at Lima Company, nodded curtly like a colleague, then quickly went back to his maintenance duties. We passed through another low ceiling. Another few paces and we appeared onto a much wider lane with a very high ceiling, Mercury-vapor lamps recessed into the rock like the prying eyes of an apparition floating above.
"Ground's perfectly level." Holmes said.
And it had a single track for a mining cart stretching on into the dimming distance. Twin concrete sidewalks flanked either side of us.
"Must be the main service tunnel." the Gunny said.
"One of many." Kleiner announced over his shoulder.
"I think the air just got a little warmer." I said.
We were now adjacent to the concrete slabs as we walked. They stretched deep into lighted alcoves, the farthest recesses containing rows of free-standing shower heads over tiled flooring. At the edge of the raised slabs were a few aluminum sinks and lockers lined in rows. Duffle bags and running shoes and loose clothing articles were draped over wooden benches.
As one, Lima Company turned heads and looked at the slab to the other side. Cots and sleeping bags were lined in rows as well.
"This," Kleiner said gesturing to the sides, "is our living quarters. Accommodating, considering we don't see the surface very often. You are welcome to make yourself at home, Marines. In fact, you might find a shower refreshing after all you've been through. I leave it up to you."
Gunny Smith nodded while glancing at all his troops.
"Yeah, I think we could all use a good cleaning up. I know I stink to high heaven."
"Very well." Kleiner said. "I'll come back in about an hour to resume our passage to the laboratory."
"What do you think he's talking about?"
I shook my head while donning the last piece of armor in my loadout, cinching the adjustment strap snuggly against my torso. My polypropylenes were still immaculate despite all the damage they'd taken. Everything was in place. I took a seat next to Lawrence on the bench. Steam from the nearby showers was still propagating through the open-bay locker room and funneling upward toward exhaust vents leading to somewhere outside the large chamber.
"Hard to say. Civilians around here are awful coy. But I think we'll find out soon enough."
"Are you ready?" I heard the Doctor say as his footsteps got louder.
I turned around toward the main corridor and found the elderly civilian standing in the middle of the high-vaulted lane, waiting there with a smile on his face as if eager to chaperone the remainder of our stay. Only at this stage in our mission was he overtly enthusiastic.
"I think there's just a couple more people rinsing off, Doctor, and we should be ready in a few minutes."
We waited for the last wave of troops to dry off and get dressed as others finished with their personal routines. My loadout was already squared away and I was starting to bore. I took advantage of the idle time, lit my first cigarette in three days.In these brief moments of elation, the realization started to sink in that there were likely no other survivors out there unless the UNSC had other places like the Omega Wing.
Then someone said,
The Doctor led us to a high-vaulted granite arch that led the changeover to a very wide chamber, this time with a ceiling just high enough to fit a man of average height. Rows and rows of cafeteria style tables took up most of the space, with a conveyor belt butted up against the far left wall. Further behind the serving line were cooking stations and revolving coolers much like one would see at a neighborhood buffet. In their clear windows were all varieties of imported fruits and vegetables and desserts. And further, the doors of the galley where food prep took place. Far to the other side of the mess hall was the dish and trash line—a long conveyor belt laden with plastic trays and glasses and soiled silverware.
A wide set of double doors at the end took us further, this time to a small auditorium with its ceiling hewn high. Semicircular rings were carved right out of the rock and enveloped the room, cascading higher and higher until the farthest ring nearly met the ceiling. The sitting surfaces were polished smooth and simple cushions adorned them at regular intervals.
"Our briefing room." Kleiner said as he strode through.
The empitheater-like room was adorned with a podium and microphone as well as a PA system occupying all 'corners'. A holographic pedestal took up the floor space just about center stage.
We did not stop. Kleiner paced through as if on autopilot.
"What is all this?" Haze asked aloud.
"This is our Daily grind." Kleiner stated matter 'o factly. "We start our day like most people, only we wake up with briefings and spend our working hours in the lab."
"Is that part of the tour?" Smith asked.
Once led past the auditorium, the Doctor then brought us to a narrow corridor, able to fit two men shoulder to shoulder. On either side was wire shelving filled with personal protective equipment and various handheld electronic devices. Hard hats, ear plugs, ballistic goggles, steel toed boots, lead aprons, welder's masks, spectrum analyzers, bit synchronizers, power meters, microwave simulators. Most of the equipment I was familiar with.
"It's like you live here." I heard the Gunny mumble.
Another low ceiling and we emerged on the other side, the grandeur of the site catching me and everyone else by surprise: a cavern of immense volume, hollowed out to look like an empty hemisphere. A generous ledge arced around the entire circumference of a vast lake in the center. It must've been at least a hundred meters in diameter. Murky water just a few feet away sucked up the light from all the glow rods and cast eerie reflections onto the rocky surfaces. The Doctor paused for a moment just outside the threshold to the chamber.
"Please watch your step, Marines." Kleiner cautioned. "This is the primary coolant sump for our nuclear reactor. It is quite hot, just a shade below boiling."
He resumed once again at a brisk walk.
Every footstep reverberated off the concave bulwark dome, so voluminous that I felt singular, as if Lima Company around me didn't exist. Far ahead and straight in line with our entrance was a white light. Not harsh or glaring, but soft and natural. Inside the light were men in white lab coats laboring in duties, just specs from our vantage. Among them, barely distinguishable, was a tall military man in the whites—service dress uniform. I had almost missed him, like camouflaged Elites. He blended in well, but every few seconds, he didn't. He stood there, broad-shouldered, watching the laboritorians scurry about in their tasks. Gleaming in the light was the unmistakable silver sheen of a metal eagle as he turned our direction.
A Naval Captain.
The eagle insignia sat in the middle of his cap, glinting in its ambient light like a survival mirror even from this far away.
"What the hell is an oh-six doing here?" Struger blurted out.
"Well, we just entered the big leagues, now didn't we?" Holmes said almost absentmindedly as he stared straight on.
"What do you make of this, Holmes?" Haze asked.
The Corporal gazed off into the murky green abyss around us as he replied, "Usually, Captains in the Navy are out and about commanding warships or briefing Admirals on intelligence matters. Think about everything we've been through since our insertion into the Omega Wing. Think."
"Seems as though all this riff-raff is an intelligence matter." Haze fired back. "Of different sorts."
"Oh-six, huh?" Gunny Smith said over his shoulder from the lead. The familiar, tell-tale jest that we all enjoyed crept onto his face in the form of a teeth-baring grin. "Then be on your best behavior, Marines."
We'd just about spanned a quarter-length of the giant lake's circumference in a two-element march, shoulder to shoulder and slowly, careful not to slip off the edge.
The light began to fade from view. My eyes took several seconds to adjust to the dim, almost dark of the glow rod panorama. I looked back and saw my friends, my Marines. One at a time, I gave a curt nod to Haze, Holmes, Lawrence, and Struger. They each replied in their own mannerism—thumbs up or a tip of the helmet or an identical nod. I turned back to the front just as we came back into view of the light a few moments later, now within our grasp.
Our coming here was a fate in the making. I had the feeling something significant was going to happen as we approached the threshold. I just knew it.