Although she had only seen concept sketches of it, Lena instantly recognized the Asteron prototype spacecraft that had crashed through the ceiling of the tunnel and the large stone door, and was now resting at a precarious angle on what remained of the ramp at the tunnel nexus.
“It’s the Asteron,” she said to Delaney and Buffalo.
“The what?” Delaney asked.
Lena took a couple of steps towards the massive grey and black craft.
Buffalo was sitting waist-deep in the flowing water, his head on his knees.
“Motherfuckers,” he groaned. “He was just a kid… a fuckin’ kid.”
Delaney sighed heavily. To say his team had taken a beating was an understatement. But, there was nothing left to say. No words would make it better. They had to carry on.
Delaney turned back to look at the spacecraft protruding into the tunnel.
“What’s an Asteron?” he said to Lena with little enthusiasm. Lena found it unsettling that Delaney could be so blasé considering the significance of this new discovery.
“It’s a NASA prototype,” she said, trying to convince Delaney of the magnitude of what they were looking at. “It’s a highly maneuverable vehicle. It can move like a jetfighter does on Earth, except it does it in the near vacuum of space.”
“What’s it doing here?” Delaney asked, becoming more curious as they walked towards it.
Buffalo also started to become interested and got up to join them.
“They must have had this thing based on one of the moons,” Lena said. “Probably Phobos, being the larger of the two.”
Delaney studied the Asteron’s sleek form. It was completely sealed, with no visible cockpit or doors. Just the beautifully shaped reverse delta wings housing long, slender intake valves.
“If they had this thing on Phobos, then they’d need an actual, physical base of some sort up there,” Buffalo noted. “With maintenance crews.”
“And military support,” Delaney added thoughtfully.
“That’s it!” Lena shouted. “This is Spacecom’s cavalry. When I sent the mayday from back at the cave, they must have contacted the Asteron crew. Obviously, there wasn’t enough time to get a ship here from Earth, so the Asteron was their only choice. This is our rescue ship!”
Delaney and Buffalo raised their guns as they neared the craft.
It stood a hundred feet high, wedged in the ceiling of the tunnel, the nose suspended about eight feet over their heads. It was protruding into the tunnel on a sharp angle, and appeared to be almost fully through, except for the end few feet of the tail section. Strangely, there was no visible damage to the hull.
“You think they’re still alive, Lieutenant?” Buffalo asked.
Delaney looked up at the gleaming surface. “Doesn’t seem to be any damage… Lena, what do you think?”
Lena stepped over some rubble that had fallen into the tunnel. The ship groaned as she walked around underneath it.
The massive craft began slipping through the hole it had made in the ceiling. Slowly at first, then quickening its slide into the tunnel.
“Lena! Move!” Delaney shouted.
Lena dived awkwardly away from the massive craft as it fell headlong to the floor.
It nose-dived almost perpendicularly the fifteen feet it had to travel, stood balanced for a brief moment, then tilted backward landing with a crash up against the wall near where the ramp used to be.
Lena was laying face down in the water amidst the wreckage of the tunnel. She sputtered into the water and pulled herself up, straining against the flow. She stumbled back towards Delaney and Buffalo, who had backed off down the tunnel several yards.
They watched for a moment as the ship settled into place, then Delaney led them back toward it again.
Delaney kept his M4 trained on the hole on the stone door, which had somehow remained intact through all the commotion.
A couple of yellow-uniformed bodies hung through the hole, caught in the blast the ship’s initial crash had caused. Sinclair’s crumpled body lay beneath them.
Apart from the sound of the ever-increasing rapid flow of icy water, everything was silent.
Lena touched the hull of the Asteron. She leant up against it, pushing her ear to the surface.
“Rumors are that this ship can withstand a direct hit from a nuke,” she said quietly.
Delaney was busy watching the hole in the door. Something had grabbed his attention. He glanced at Buffalo and made a silent signal.
Lena was about to say something else when Delaney brought his gloved finger up to his faceplate in a shooshing motion. Then slowly, carefully, he stepped backwards across the rubble in her direction.
“We’ve got company again,” he whispered. “You’d better hope your cavalry in that ship wakes up soon, or we’re gonna be seriously outnumbered.”
Delaney waved Buffalo to fall back to a spot behind the ship where he could still manage a direct line of sight of the door.
He pulled a Desert Eagle pistol from one of his holsters and handed it to Lena. “Take this,” he said reluctantly, as though the act of giving a scientist a weapon signaled the hopelessness of their situation.
Lena held the pistol uneasily in the palms of both hands.
“Just point and shoot at anything in a yellow uniform,” Delaney said.
He held Lena warmly by the shoulders, and looked into her eyes.
“I’m sorry I got you into this mess, Lena,” his voice was full of remorse.
Lena smiled. “Hey, it’s not your fault, Jake. None of us would have made it this far if it wasn’t for you.”
Delaney’s lips tightened. “I promise we’ll get out of this in one piece.”
“I know,” Lena whispered, thinking this would be a perfect moment to kiss the rugged Lieutenant who was holding her in his arms, and cursing the fact she was confined inside a spacesuit and sealed helmet.
Delaney could sense it too, and gave her a look that said “later”.
Delaney positioned Lena further down the tunnel behind Buffalo, then he darted across the tunnel to create a flanking position near the run-off pipe where Lena had fallen earlier.
Lena stared at the Asteron, willing it to open. Praying the troops inside were not injured, or worse—dead.
A movement came from the hole in the stone door.
All three of them looked in its direction, Buffalo and Delaney with shouldered rifles, and only one magazine of ammunition left each. This was going to go right down to the bone.
The bodies of the dead Chinese soldiers were suddenly being pushed unceremoniously through the hole. Their comrades were about to follow them through.
Delaney was wound like a coiled spring. His arm muscles were at full flexion as he gripped the rifle.
Make each shot count…
He thought how easy it would be to accidentally hold down on the trigger in the heat of battle, and expend all the bullets in his mag.
Buffalo was just as charged as his commanding officer.
He was pushed up against the hull of the Asteron. He could barely see around its massive girth to what was once the ramp to the door. Buffalo held his M4 vertically, pressed against his large chest. Every couple of seconds he quickly darted his head forward for a glimpse of the onslaught that was about to happen.
Then it came.
A blur of yellow thermal suits came jumping through the hole in single file, quickly dodging left and right as they landed on the tunnel floor, guns blazing like wild west cowboys.
Only, they weren’t expecting the piles of rubble that lay strewn about, and this gave the two marines the advantage, who carefully picked them off as they stumbled about and tripped over themselves.
Delaney and Buffalo were shooting with technical precision. Breathe. Hold. Aim. Fire. Over and over, as the enemy soldiers rushed in.
About seven or eight bodies lay scattered in the dust near the entrance, the water washing over them as it streamed through the debris and into the run-off tunnels.
Then as quickly as it had begun, the onslaught halted.
Buffalo could still see some movement on the other side of the hole. Flashlight beams cut a swathe through the smoke as he watched intently, waiting for the enemy’s next move. He rested against the Asteron, breathing hard.
He unclipped his ammunition magazine and held it in his right palm, jiggling it up and down. He slapped it back in, then signaled to Delaney he had about a dozen rounds remaining. Delaney probably had about the same, he thought.
Suddenly, Buffalo felt a small vibration coming from the Asteron’s hull. He pushed himself forward with his strong back muscles, then spun around and looked up.
Lena was right behind him. She saw him move quickly and guessed the ship was also moving.
“Sergeant Jackson, move back… that thing weighs several hundred tons,” she said as quietly as she possible could, while still making the message clear.
Buffalo heeded her advice and moved away from the ship.
“Actually, I think something’s going on inside it,” he said shakily.
He was right.
Suddenly, there was a loud hiss as the side of the hull opened up revealing a doorway. An inflatable firm canvas ramp unfolded from under the opening and swooshed out, landing with a muted flap on the floor of the tunnel.
“Looks like the cavalry has decided to join us,” Buffalo said to Lena with a grin.
Lena sighed a great sigh of relief and patted Buffalo on the shoulder.
“Let’s greet our saviors, Sergeant,” she smiled.
The two of them started to walk around to the bottom of the inflatable ramp, smiling across at Delaney.
Then Buffalo noticed something in Delaney’s eyes.
It wasn’t delight, or pleasure, or even exhaustion. It was something he’d never seen before. The look on Devil Delaney’s face was one of pure fear. And Buffalo realized at that instant something was wrong.
His head snapped up to the top of the ramp.
Walking out of the ship, fully armed and combat-ready, was a team of soldiers in bright yellow oxytherm suits.