Outpost One: “Gateway”—14 miles west of Lincoln Base
Cydonia Mensae, Mars (8 miles southwest of “The Face”)
He was in the belly of a cold, dark cave.
Lieutenant Jake ‘Devil’ Delaney glanced at his depth meter and cursed under his breath—four hundred and sixty feet. The journey had been mostly straight down, over impossibly sharp icy rocks and slippery narrow ledges. A thin film of greasy frost covered everything he touched.
Delaney’s solid and muscular build wasn’t ideal for this cave descent. His five ten stature meant a lot of dangerous overreaching. But Delaney wasn’t the type to shy away from a challenge.
It had always been assumed his nickname—Devil, was a reference to the fact that Delaney was known as ‘a bit of a devil’ to his female colleagues back at Peterson Air Force Base, the Spacecom training facility.
Delaney had always shrugged it off with a wry smile whenever someone mentioned it. Only a privileged few knew the real reason he was called Devil. It was because whatever situation Jake Delaney got himself into, it always turned to hell.
It dawned on Delaney that he was descending into an unmapped region.
The Martian soil this far down was mostly glacial. Fissures such as this one honeycombed the planet.
Frozen shards of ice, some as big as limousines, hung perilously above Delaney’s head as he maneuvered around the slippery ledges inside the gloomy cavern.
He looked back up at the faint glow of light filtering in through the hole at the cave’s entrance. It was barely visible now, hundreds of feet up.
And he was alone in this miserable hole.
Only his standard issue Oxytherm suit protected him from the elements and allowed him to breathe in the harsh environment of Mars.
Special Operations Command had made the use of the Oxytherms in such extreme environments compulsory for one reason only—combat ability. With a little training, any special ops force could be suited up and fighting in low-g, zero oxygen, or near-freezing conditions at a moment’s notice.
Delaney smirked. One thing was certain… the “therm” in Oxytherm sure as hell wasn’t living up to its name, and he felt himself shivering uncontrollably.
Another precarious stretch downward and Delaney grabbed hold of a chunk of rock jutting out above a wider ledge.
He lowered himself a full body’s length and rested for a moment on the flat surface.
Delaney panned his halogen wrist light in a wide arc below the ledge.
Shimmers of vivid ultramarine light bounced off the crystal walls. It was the first splash of color he had seen in two hours.
He aimed the light directly downward.
The floor of the cave lay thirty feet below him. It looked soft like snow, yielding and inviting. He considered jumping to save time.
Delaney decided against it. At thirty six, he was fit, but he was no stuntman.
He pushed a small green button on his arm-mounted communications panel. Inside his helmet, a headset mike swung smoothly into position near his chin. There was a soft crackle.
“Gateway, this is Recon. Do you receive?” said Delaney.
He waited, adjusted the frequency tuner.
“Gateway, this is Recon. Lena, are you still with me?”
“I’ve got you Jake,” Lena replied. “Looking good at four eight eight feet.”
Doctor Lena Sorsky was Delaney’s mission guide, navigating him from the surface near the cave entrance where she waited with the rest of Gateway Team.
Delaney’s voice crackled over the receiver. “Damn, your voice sounds good, Lena. After two hours of static, I was beginning to think I’d have to go it alone all the way. Did you work out what caused it?”
Lena sat in the warm comfort of an all terrain vehicle parked in a natural bay of large rocks near the cave entrance. Inside the vehicle with her were two marines. Ten yards away, another ATV held her colleague, Doctor Peter Wells and three more marines.
Lena peered at her display monitor.
“Looks like some sort of plasma field, Jake,” she said, studying the screen intently. “Odd though, the tectonic structure doesn’t seem to be large enough to cause a field this big.”
“Never mind, I can see the bottom of the cave now anyway. It looks soft. Might be snow. I figure I can make a jump for it. Save fifteen minutes or so.”
“Negative on that Jake,” Lena said quickly, tilting the mouthpiece close to her lips. “It’s probably only an inch thick at best, covering the stone floor. I suggest you continue your controlled descent.”
“If we don’t find the source of that signal soon, then this journey is pointless, Lena. You know what SOCOM’s like.”
“And if you kill yourself it’ll be for nothing, too.” Lena said.
Delaney had already decided he wasn’t going to make the jump anyway. He just wanted to see how Lena would react. See if she cared enough to stop him. It appeared she did. He smiled.
“Copy, Gateway. Controlled descent it is.”
Delaney had been mesmerized by Lena from the moment she arrived at Lincoln Base. After three weeks of living out of each other’s pockets in such confined quarters it was obvious to him that the feeling was mutual. He hadn’t felt this way about another woman since losing his wife in a terrorist hijack six years ago. Ten years of his life had been ripped apart in an instant.
Suddenly Delaney felt dizzy.
He stumbled momentarily and reached back to get a hold of the rock face. His legs wobbled.
Then it happened again. And he realized it wasn’t him that was wobbling.
The ledge was moving!
In fact, the whole cave began to vibrate with a loud hum that shook through the icy rocks and right into his bones. Delaney gripped the wall tighter. He pushed himself flat up against it, trying to steady himself.
Small slithers of ice began to drop all around him. Then the pieces became larger and more frequent. It was as though someone was pouring a giant slushy over him.
Delaney decided the best move was to get the hell out of there.
He crouched down, then got into a position laying on his stomach with his feet dangling over the edge of the little outcrop. He was going to attempt to lower himself over the ledge.
It was slippery and he started to slide.
Slowly, Delaney began to lose control, sliding towards the edge as his body gave way to gravity. First his legs, then his waist were pulled over the greasy ledge.
He was now hanging on with just his armpits resting on the rocky ledge.
Thirty feet above the hard floor.
Delaney’s fingers dug into whatever notches he could find in the rock. But his arms were still slipping.
He felt his elbows rubbing against the sharp points of tiny icy rocks. The weight of his entire body and backpack was slowly pulling him downward, and there was nothing to grab on to.
The cave continued to shake.
Delaney yelled out. “Gateway, what the fuck is going on!”
Up top, Gateway had their own problems.
The ground was shaking violently, rocking the two vehicles like toy trucks at the hands of some insane child.
Even strapped in to her seat, Lena found it difficult to stop her body being jarred about like a puppet. She gripped onto the flexible steel microphone which extended from the dashboard.
“Jake, are you okay? Please come in!” Lena shouted.
Nothing but static.
“Damn it! Doesn’t anything work in this friggin’ place!”
The two marines in the vehicle with Lena, Private Royce Simms and Sergeant “Buffalo” Bill Jackson were holding on to anything they could find to steady themselves.
Some rocks had started falling from the cliffs surrounding the ATVs. There was a sudden, deafening crash on the roof of Vehicle One.
A huge round dent buckled inside the vehicle above Lena’s head.
“What the fuck was that!” shouted Simms, as he was jarred backwards into his seat. Then he looked apologetically at Lena for cursing. “Excuse me ma’am.”
Buffalo Bill laughed.
Lena looked across at Simms.
Simms was only twenty one, a farmboy from Iowa, and he had never experienced a quake before. He was a tough soldier, but something told Lena he was way out of his comfort zone. He was staring wide-eyed at her, searching for some kind of response.
Lena saw his anguished look, and managed a wry smile.
“Marsquake,” she said matter-of-factly, as more rocks pounded down on the vehicle.
Her calm response only made Simms appear more uneasy.
He looked out the side window and saw the other ATV bouncing around wildly. He shivered and slunk down into his seat.
Then, as quickly as it had begun, everything settled. The quake petered out into small vibrations, then finally… stillness.
Buffalo Bill moved forward from his seat and approached the mike.
He tilted his head to look out the window.
“Gateway Two, this is One. Everyone okay?”
Corporal Dwayne Foster in Vehicle Two signaled thumbs up, then they all stepped outside to survey the damage.
Gateway was a makeshift camp set up as a temporary post while Delaney explored the cave. The crews of the two vehicles had driven there from Lincoln Base with basic supplies and not nearly enough replacement parts for car troubles.
Lena jumped out of her vehicle and looked around at the damage.
Behind her, Buffalo Bill stumbled off the steps and limped onto the dusty Martian surface.
Lena smiled cheekily.
“I’m not as young as you are Ma’am,” he said with a friendly grimace.
“Well, they give us NASA scientists a pretty good fitness test before they let us pass Sergeant, but I’m not as young as might think. It’s all that digging around archaeological finds that gives me the illusion of youth,” she smiled.
Lena walked to the mouth of the cave and peered into the darkness. It gave her the creeps. A bottomless hole on a distant planet, and it had swallowed someone she cared about a great deal.
The cave was the source of the signal that had been picked up two days ago by Comint, Communications Intelligence. SOCOM required someone to search out the signal source and report back with their findings.
That someone was Devil Delaney…
Lena watched as the marines from the other vehicle stowed away loose equipment that had been laying around the site.
Amongst the military men she spotted Peter Wells. He looked up and walked over to her.
Doctor Peter Wells was fifty two, the eldest of the team.
Lena studied his pale, sallow features as he strode across the campsite. Pompous Brit, she thought.
“Lena, my dear,” Wells smiled thinly, “I trust you’re okay after that nasty little shakeup.”
“I’m fine Wells. Unlike you, I actually did the training for just this sort of situation. We don’t all have the luxury of signing our own medical certificate.”
“Ahh Lena, you still have your father’s feisty Russian temperament I see. It’s that sort of thing that can get one into trouble. Still, I suppose as the daughter of a failed Cosmonaut, you feel you have something to prove to NASA.” He sneered at her. “Just don’t forget who’s in charge of this mission.”
“Screw you Wells!” Lena spat.
Just then, Buffalo appeared behind Wells.
“Everything alright here?” The Sergeant asked.
“No problem at all, Sergeant,” Wells said, turning. “The lady doctor and I were having a chat. I was just leaving.”
Buffalo looked carefully at Lena then turned to Wells. “Doctor… one thing. Just for the record, Lieutenant Jake Delaney is the only person in charge of this mission.”
Delaney had managed to find a foothold on a small precipice while still hanging, by one hand now, onto the ledge where a minute ago all hell had broken loose.
He lowered himself carefully, blindly, and found another ledge to the right of where he previously stood. He was still a good ten minutes from the bottom of the cave.
Delaney checked the reading on his heliox supply. Almost half used.
That meant very little time to find the signal source when he reached ground zero. At a stretch, he could locate it and mark it for a second attempt later. He looked down. Still over twenty feet to the base. Where’s an express elevator when you need one.
Then he felt a sudden, thumping vibration.
Delaney snapped his head upwards. His mouth fell open.
A massive shard of ice—a stalactite, was falling silently through the cave. It was plummeting directly towards him from the roof of the cave a hundred yards up. As big as a bus. Very sharp and very, very pointy.
“Oh shit,” he whispered.