Buffalo limped through the Grand Hall, supported by Delaney and Lena on either side, who themselves would have looked just as wretched under their closed helmets.
The entrance to the hall, near the mouth of the face leading outside was littered with the dead bodies of both Chinese and US soldiers. All the Chinese had died during the intense fight. Only six of the Asteron crew of eighteen remained.
The were busy mopping up after the battle, piling the corpses of fallen comrades to one side ready for transport back to their families on Earth.
Two marines approached the three weary members of Delaney’s team and saluted the Lieutenant.
Delaney gave a half-hearted response, and handed Buffalo over to the men, who were in a better position to see he made it safely the rest of the way to the Asteron.
Another marine, a Second Lieutenant, also walked up and saluted Delaney.
“Second Lieutenant Nick Jardine, sir. Commander of Asteron Two.”
Delaney nodded at the man.
“We’re glad to see you, Lieutenant. Good job,” Delaney said to the Asteron’s crew leader.
“Thank you sir. Will you and the lady be returning to Lincoln Base or riding with us back to Earth?”
“I think we deserve a rest, Lieutenant. We’ll be coming home with you.”
The young man saluted again and said: “Ship leaves in fifteen minutes, sir.” Then went back to supervising his men.
“So, what now, Lieutenant Delaney?” Lena asked, hoping Delaney would give her some sort of commitment to their shotgun relationship.
“Now… I guess we go back to Earth and get cleaned up with a nice warm shower.” Delaney said, purposefully avoiding her loaded question.
“You know what I mean, Jake. What about us?”
Delaney turned to face her fully. For the first time Lena could tell he was being serious with her and not just teasing.
“Well, maybe it is time I settled down. God knows I’m getting too old for this sorta shit. You think you could live with a battered ex-marine— ”
A massive explosion rocked the entrance to the face. Chunks of steel and carbonate material exploded into the Grand Hall knocking Delaney, Lena and the other soldiers to the ground.
It was the Asteron. The ship had completely blown up.
Three soldiers near the entrance were killed immediately by the blast and flying debris. The young Lieutenant was burnt beyond recognition.
Buffalo, and the two marines carrying him were knocked fifteen feet backwards, and lay unconscious on the polished floor.
“Jesus, what now?” Delaney breathed.
Smoke filled the void in the entrance where the hall met the Martian landscape. Delaney and Lena squinted their eyes, straining to see through the transparent acrylic of their visors and the grey dust.
Then a figure appeared… walking casually through the billowing smoke, wearing a charcoal thermal suit. The same suit as Delaney’s team had all been wearing.
The figure entered the Grand Hall and walked towards a stunned Delaney and Lena.
“N—no… that can’t be… that’s impossible…” Lena stammered.
“I’m afraid it’s quite possible, my dear,” came the voice from the helmet speaker. “It’s quite possible indeed.”
The voice belonged to Doctor Peter Wells.
“Wells?” was all Delaney could get out.
Wells had a self satisfied grin on his mouth from ear to ear, clearly visible under his face shield.
Just as apparent were the bottles of pyrozine strapped to his suit. Twelve in all. He kept his left hand on the lid of one of the bottles, which had been nearly fully undone. He needed only to yank on it, and the lid would come off, beginning its devastating chemical reaction.
“I guess I can hardly ask you not to look so surprised, can I Lieutenant? After all, I’m supposed to be dead… blown up back at the pyramid inside the Trojan Device.”
“The thought did occur to me, Wells,” Delaney said, eyeing the scientist warily. He noticed Wells wasn’t carrying any weapons.
Of course, Delaney wasn’t armed either, which gave Wells the upper hand at this point in time.
“Yes… well, I lied about the pyrozine. It’s as simple as that. The reaction time after removing the lid is actually closer to two minutes. Once I had planted the bottles near the booths, I had plenty of time to exit the pyramid via the route the good Sergeant over there had entered from.”
Delaney looked troubled.
“I don’t get it Wells. Why the deception?”
“Because, Lieutenant, it wasn’t enough to simply destroy the device itself and leave all this other technology laying around. Like I said before, SOCOM required that all evidence be eliminated.”
“So, what do you plan to do, Wells? Blow something else up?” Lena asked.
“That’s exactly what I plan to do, my dear.”
“God, I wish he wouldn’t keep calling me that,” Lena said under her breath.
Wells paraded around like he was cock-of-the-walk.
“Naturally, I wasn’t able to defeat the Chinese alone, which is why you and your marines were allowed to survive long enough to finish them off. And what an admiral job you did of it, too.”
Delaney nodded his head as he began to understand what was unfolding.
“And now you can get rid of all the evidence… including us.” Delaney finally vocalized what Wells was getting at.
“You catch on fast, Lieutenant.”
“And what about the Asteron you just blew up Wells. I’m sure your bosses back at SOCOM are going to be real happy about losing both of their prize birds.”
“Yes… that was unfortunate. I really didn’t want to do that. But some idiot ordered that wonderful piece of technology down here to rescue you and your team, and we couldn’t have anybody blabbing about the strange things occurring on Mars now could we?”
“You really are a piece of work, Wells,” Delaney said. “So how are you going to do this? Tie us all up and strap the pyrozine to our bodies, then drive off into the sunset, the misunderstood hero?”
Wells gave a small laugh.
“No, nothing so dramatic, Lieutenant. You and the lovely Doctor Sorsky are going to join your friend the Sergeant, and I’m going to walk back to the entrance to the face and undo the bottles. Don’t worry, you won’t feel a thing… I promise.”
Delaney’s lips started to thin.
Wells could see the anger building up. He took a couple of steps backward as Delaney made the slightest move towards him. He made a showy motion as though he was about to rip the lid off the bottle of pyrozine his hand was resting on.
“Jake, no!” Lena stopped him.
“Uh uh uh, Lieutenant Delaney. You don’t want to die sooner than necessary.”
Just then something occurred to Delaney. Something so obvious, he could have kicked himself for not realizing it earlier. A smile began to form on his face. Then he took another step closer to Wells.
Wells backed away, and again made a show of removing the bottle lid.
Suddenly, Delaney reached out and grabbed the bottle Wells was holding. He prised Wells’ fingers off the lid, then replaced them with his own. He looked Wells straight in the eye, then slowly undid the cap.
Lena was gobsmacked.
“Jake, what the hell!” she shouted.
Delaney threw the lid to the floor, then tore the bottle from its taped moorings on Wells’ belt. Then he did something that completely baffled both Wells and Lena. He upturned the bottle and emptied its highly explosive contents all over the floor.
Wells looked on in horror.
“Have you gone fucking mad?”
Delaney had his free arm clenched tightly around Wells’ shoulder.
Wells was trying to pull away in total, absolute fear.
“Good God man, we have to get out of here. That stuff is going to kill us all.”
Delaney didn’t budge. Instead he threw the bottle hard onto the floor into the puddle of liquid explosive.
Lena moved to Delaney’s side.
“Jake, what’s going on?” she said apprehensively.
“It’s okay Lena. For all his planning and so-called genius, Wells forgot about one thing. Pyrozine only works when it reacts with oxygen, and fortunately for us there is no oxygen here.”
Wells’ head dropped.
“I— I didn’t think. H—how could I have been so stupid?”
Delaney pushed him aside.
“Wells, when we get you back to Earth, you’ll have all the time in the world to think about how stupid you really are. From inside a prison cell.”
Delaney walked over to where Buffalo was laying on the floor.
The Sergeant was just beginning to wake up from the blast. The other two marines groaned into their helmets and sat up, rubbing various limbs and body parts that ached.
“Don’t tell me, sir, someone tried to kill me again,” Buffalo said wearily.
“Buffalo, I promise you’ll get as much leave as you want when we get back to base.”
“I’m going to hold you to that Devil,” Buffalo groaned, trying to rub his sore head through his helmet.
“If the three of you are up to it, I need you to go scout for an ATV outside. One that can take us back to Lincoln Base. Hopefully, not everything was wrecked in that blast Wells set inside the Asteron.”
Buffalo got to his feet.
“Wells? Doctor Wells? What the hell are you talking about?”
“It’s a long story Buff’,” Delaney said, reaching for one of the rifles a marine had dropped in the blast. “In the meantime, you find that vehicle, while I take care of Wells.”
Buffalo looked around.
“Where did you leave that creep, anyway?”
“He’s just over there with—”
Delaney spun around. Just in time to see Wells in the distance dragging Lena towards the control room with his hand around her neck.
“Fuck!” Delaney yelled. “Go! Outside… now Sergeant! Get that vehicle ready. I’ve got a feeling we’re going to need it in a hurry.”
Delaney sprang away like a cheetah, rifle in hand, just as Wells and Lena entered the control room.
Delaney hit the door panel button and waited impatiently for it to slide open. He burst into the room with his rifle raised.
Wells and Lena were standing near the hole in the stone door. Wells had Lena in front of his body as a shield.
“Now, now Lieutenant… be careful of the lady,” Wells said. He was moving erratically, wrenching Lena back and forth across his body like a madman.
“Let her go, Wells.”
Wells felt down his body with his other hand until he reached a pyrozine bottle. He unscrewed the lid a couple of turns. Then he retracted his helmet and breathed in deeply.
“Ahh, oxygen. On the one hand it keeps us all alive…” He pulled the pyrozine bottle of his belt and held it up, his thumb wedged under the lid ready to flick it off. “On the other hand, it means certain death.”
“Just let Lena go,” Delaney tried to remain calm as he spoke. He was dealing with an insane man now, that much was obvious.
Lena struggled as Wells hugged her tightly.
“I have a mission to complete, Lieutenant. You wouldn’t want me to disappoint my superiors would you?” he snarled. His face contorted into a grotesque shape as he spoke.
Delaney kept his rifle trained directly at Wells’ head the whole time. He looked at Lena—looked right into her eyes. Then glanced down at Wells’ stomach. He was willing Lena to make a move… elbow Wells, or kick him… anything to distract Wells long enough to get a clear shot.
Lena got the message.
She swung her arm down alongside her own body, fully extended with a closed fist, smashing hard into Wells’ groin.
Wells groaned and buckled.
Lena ducked to the side as his grip on her loosened.
And Delaney fired a shot into his chest.
Wells was thrown up against the door by the impact. His muscles contracted tightly… and his thumb flicked the lid clean off the pyrozine bottle. His eyes followed the lid in its arc through the air. He leaned up against the door and laughed insanely.
“Well, looks like I’ve completed my mission, doesn’t it?” he coughed as the blood started to seep into his lungs.
Delaney grabbed Lena by the arm.
“Negative Wells. You’ve left some evidence behind—us.”
The two of them then gathered all their remaining reserves of energy and ran for their lives.
Delaney and Lena hit the rocky landscape of Mars at full speed, and continued running around the wall that made up the entrance to the great face.
They looked out across the landscape.
Large billows of red dust were forming in a windstorm. There was no sign of Buffalo and the other marines.
They stopped running. Where was the vehicle?
Just then an ATV roared up in front of them.
“Jump in!” Buffalo yelled, helping the Lieutenant and Doctor in as the vehicle sped off.
“Get us as far away from here as you can, marine!” Delaney yelled at the top of his voice to the driver. The young marine nodded and floored the accelerator.
It had been a minute and a half since the lid came off the bottle.
The ATV was still too close.
A minute forty-five.
The heavy-laden vehicle strained against the wind. It bumped and jumped over mounds and rocks.
The driver had all the weight of his leg on the gas pedal, almost pushing it through the floor.
Two minutes. BOOOM!
The explosion was terrifying.
It sent out a shockwave reminiscent of a nuclear bomb blast that spread across the surface like wildfire.
Then it hit the ATV—
—just as the ATV dipped into a crater-like gully.
The shockwave blew over their heads as everyone aboard the vehicle ducked for cover.
The blast subsided.
The wind and red dust dissipated.
They were safe.
A whole minute passed with nobody moving or saying anything.
Delaney was the first to sit upright and look back at the face.
It was almost completely gone. As was the pyramid.
The shattered remnants of two magnificent structures that once stood proudly as an example of a civilization’s will, now turned to piles of rubble.
And with them, all the technology and dreams they housed.
Delaney pondered what he had witnessed.
The vast, leviathan tunnel…
The magnificent Grand Hall and its control room …
…and the cavernous Hellas Pyramid containing the technological culmination of one race’s desire to survive—The Trojan Device.