Another foot to the left and the massive icy stalactite would have speared right through Jake Delaney’s fleshy torso.
It did, however, crash down with a mighty thump dislodging the shelf he was perched upon.
Delaney had approximately two seconds to comprehend what was about to happen.
And then it did happen…
The entire section of rock, ice and crystal he was standing on sheared away with a deafening roar and plummeted downwards, carrying Delaney with it.
He yelled into his helmet as he fell to the rocky floor of the cave.
There was a muted thud as Delaney hit the floor on a hard mattress of broken rock and ice.
Surprisingly he was unhurt.
He got up and quickly patted himself down, checking all the necessary life support systems on his suit were still in order, and checking all his bits were still there… everything was okay, no limbs were missing, and for the first time in a few hours, Delaney actually felt relieved… relieved to be standing on solid ground again.
He stepped away from the rubble, kicking small particles of debris from his boots, and looked around.
It seemed a little brighter down here—the fluorescent blue glow of ancient crystals in the cave walls. A frozen cocktail of carbon dioxide, nitrogen and argon. It emanated a dull, but useful light that illuminated the lower cave.
Still, Delaney decided to keep his wrist and helmet halogens turned on. It was far too risky to rely on the natural light to see where he was going.
He turned in a slow circle.
His suit lights traced a sparkling line as they panned across the cave walls, bouncing off long veins of the blue fluorescence.
Then he saw it.
Partly exposed in the wall of the cavern, just beyond where the rock had sheared off, was a light grey steel door.
Delaney stood transfixed for a moment.
A door down here, hundreds of feet below the Martian surface.
He took in the gravity of the situation, tried to reconcile what this meant.
It was all real. The face on Mars, the pyramids. There was more going on here than NASA or SOCOM had revealed, even to their own trusted departments. It was a fucking cover up!
Delaney shook off the thoughts and walked towards the door.
It was slightly larger than a typical house door. Eight feet tall, light grey steel, it sat flush against the floor and seemed to disappear into the cave wall on both sides and the top, with no hinges or handles.
Okay, where’s the open button?
Delaney ran his hands over the door as if doing so would somehow magically open it. Maybe there was an invisible latch…
Then something caught Delaney’s attention. Something buried below the ice surface of the wall just to the right of the door.
He shone his wrist light on it.
A couple of inches under the top layer of ice was a small blinking orange light mounted on a flat black panel.
Delaney unsheathed his utility knife and dug away at the ice until the panel was exposed. He noticed a disk shaped button protruding half an inch from the centre of the panel.
He pushed it and stood back.
There was a loud whoosh as the door slid open sideways, disappearing into the wall behind the panel.
Delaney froze, unable to move.
What he saw took his breath away.
He withdrew one of his two Desert Eagle combat pistols and hesitantly walked through the door, the pistol raised in front of him.
The door slid closed behind him with a hiss.
Delaney just stood there, in shock. He looked around, his mouth open in astonishment.
He had just stepped through the doorway into the largest tunnel he or anyone else had ever seen.
Lena had salvaged as much of the sensitive scientific equipment from the ATVs as she could with the help of the marines at Gateway.
Even in their foam packed containers, many of the sampling devices, monitors, gauges, probes, transmitters and receivers had been shaken into an unusable state by the quake.
She looked across at Peter Wells, who was sitting on a rock chatting with Simms and fidgeting with his watch. He hadn’t been much help. If anything he was making Lena feel slightly uneasy, glaring at her oddly. She thought it funny that Simms would have anything in common to discuss with Wells.
Lena had felt there was something strange about Wells from the start. Even after the fiasco with the medical examinations, she had lobbied her superiors at Spacecom not to send Peter Wells as her scientific counterpart. After all, they would be the only two civilians sent to Mars for this mission. Lena needed someone she could trust, a kindred spirit.
Their answer was predictable, if not cryptic.
Doctor Peter Wells has been specifically requested by Special Operations Command. The all powerful overseeing body in charge of the mission, and the single entity which comprised NASA, Spacecom, and about a dozen other secret departments. He’s going whether you like it or not. You can always relinquish your place on board to another keen scientist. Like it or lump it.
The ultimatum made her even more suspicious, but Lena had no choice.
She had invested too much of her time and emotion in preparation for this adventure, sacrificed a two year relationship with a man who could have been “the one”.
She had to go.
Wells finally got up from his resting spot and approached Lena.
He studied her curves as she bent over some large cases. The Gor-tex stretched seductively over her curvy form.
“Find anything that works, my dear?” he said in his English professorial voice.
“Nothing much works around here, does it Wells?” Lena said, in an obvious reference to his earlier inactivity.
She lifted a smaller box onto a big one and opened the lid.
“Couple of halogens,” she said, picking through the box of parts. “One emergency beacon, a close range transceiver unit. Oh yeah, and these…” Lena bent down to pick up another case. It was shiny silver, metallic, but not heavy. About the size of a briefcase. She stacked it on top of the other boxes and opened it.
Inside sat four long heliox cylinders.
“Emergency heliox refills,” Lena pointed out, then closed the lid and placed the case back on the ground.
“Let me take care of those for you,” Wells said, quickly grabbing the case of canisters.
Lena eyed him suspiciously for a moment, then continued sifting through the equipment.
Buffalo Bill Jackson walked over. He was a giant of a man, and looked even bigger in his suit and helmet.
Wells smiled nervously and took a step backwards as the big sergeant stepped in between him and Lena.
“Damn, that was one hell of a shake up!” Buffalo commented.
Lena nodded as she continued working. She pieced together one of the transceiver units and set it for Delaney’s com frequency.
Wells leaned forward. “There’ll be another one you know,” he said.
“Huh? Another what?” asked Buffalo.
“A quake, of course. There always is. An aftershock, or a preshock depending on the situation. Perhaps the one we just experienced was the warning tremor. A precursor to something of unearthly magnitude. Maybe the next one will be the real big one. It could—”
Buffalo glared at Wells who suddenly took the hint and shut up.
Buffalo Bill Jackson was a burly “old school” marine, complete with the shaved head and barrel chest. He was forty five years old, and at least six feet three tall. He had seen more than his fair share of action in combat, which was evident from the scars, bullet wounds and other marks on his weathered face.
Buffalo looked like the kind of guy who would eat a bowl of gravel for breakfast and wash it down with a mug of engine oil.
Wells could picture him standing on the parade ground barking orders at unsuspecting recruits, while they emptied their bowels involuntarily out of pure fear. He began to feel ill and excused himself.
Lena shuddered. “That guy really gives me the creeps.”
“I know what you mean, ma’am. If its any consolation I don’t like him either,” the brawny Sergeant said as he watched Wells walking away.
“Any word from the Devil?” asked Buffalo, turning back to Lena. He could see her fidgeting with the communication dials.
She looked tired. She didn’t answer.
“Lieutenant Delaney, ma’am… any word?” he repeated.
“Oh… no, Sergeant… nothing…sorry.”
Her morose expression said it all. She was missing Delaney, Buffalo thought.
“You know ma’am, the Lieutenant’s a tough cookie,” the Sergeant went on, sensing her thoughts. “I’ve been in some pretty hairy situations with Devil Delaney, and like they say, when he gets in a situation, everything turns to hell,”
“That’s what I’m afraid of, Sergeant Jackson,” Lena said.
“I mean that in a good way, ma’am. I was with the Devil in Iraq,” Buffalo continued. “Man, we got into some tricky situations there. I remember the Lieutenant was leading us on a recon mission on the outskirts of Baghdad, just a small team, four of us. We picked up a mayday from some troops that had been cut off by two Iraqi intercept units.
“Devil Delaney drove our Humvee across six miles of open desert right towards the ambush, and before anyone could say anything, he barrels directly into the side of one of the Iraqi vehicles. You shoulda seen them guys dive for it.
“Devil climbs out of the wreckage, M4 in hand, and proceeds to kill seven of the bastards before a grenade goes off, sending shrapnel all over the place. Devil was hit in the arm, but we managed to finish off the rest of the bastards and rescue the entire group. Not one of our men was killed.”
“What are you trying to tell me, Sergeant?”
“All I’m saying ma’am is that the Lieutenant can take care of himself. You don’t need to worry about him. Anyway, enough of my war stories… how are you coping with everything else? Need any help?” Buffalo said, changing the subject.
Lena smiled wryly. “Apart from Wells trying to mentally undress me at every opportunity, I’m fine Sergeant.”
Buffalo Bill scowled in Wells’s direction like a protective father. “Don’t you concern yourself with him. I’ll make sure he stays off your back.” He unshouldered his assault rifle and looked at Wells menacingly.
Lena let out a laugh. “Thanks Sergeant, but I can handle Wells in my own way,” she said, turning back to the radio.
Buffalo Bill was about to walk off, then stopped and turned.
“You know ma’am, if I could send someone down after him, I—”
“Yes I know, mission outline states that only one goes down the rabbit hole. If he doesn’t come out, nobody else goes down,” Lena interrupted. “Bureaucracy doesn’t allow for quakes or other unexpected accidents to occur though, does it Sergeant.”
“No, I guess not ma’am,” Buffalo said uneasily.
“In fact… it doesn’t even allow for a rescue operation at all, does it?” she asked suddenly.
“No, ma’am, it doesn’t,” Buffalo said. “And that’s why they chose the best man for the job. That’s why they chose Devil Delaney.”
Delaney was standing at one end of an unbelievably large artificial tunnel.
It appeared to extend into infinity.
He was like an ant in a subway. A ridiculously massive subway.
He estimated the ceiling was about one hundred and twenty feet above his head.
At the floor, the diameter from side to side was about two hundred and fifty feet across. The whole thing was like a tube that had been slightly squashed from above, not quite round.
The tunnel was completely black. Not darkness black, but made of a black material. Plastic, with a matt finish. Although it wasn’t really plastic either. More of a synthetic black steel that didn’t look like steel, because it had no shine. It defied explanation.
Delaney had never seen anything like it.
The next thing Delaney noticed were the tiny blue lights running down the length of the tunnel, about midway up the walls and on the roof. The lights were embedded into the black surface, flush. Part of the structure it seemed.
The lights continued for as far as Delaney could see, becoming faded specks of blue in the distance.
Miles into the distance.
There was also an ambient light all around him. A light with no visible source. It was just there, subdued and cold.
The door he had entered from sat to one side of the tunnel’s end.
Covering the rest of the end wall were four gigantic metal disks on big rotating hinges.
Delaney walked over and stood before the large grey plates. Each one measured at least thirty feet in diameter.
Then he heard it.
A dull thud was emanating from the walls of the tunnel.
Thud… thud… thud.
He looked across at the left wall, turned and walked a couple dozen paces.
Delaney saw a thin line carved into the black lining of the tunnel. It was barely an eighth of an inch thick, rising from the floor halfway up the wall, across fifty or so feet, then back down to the floor again. There was a familiar looking panel to the right of the seam.
Then he realized what it was he was looking at. The seam was another door! A much bigger door.
Delaney moved closer, approaching the panel.
Alright then, let’s see what other surprises this place has to offer.
He was about to push the small circular button in the centre of the panel when he heard a sound that made his blood run cold.
A shrill beep emanating from his arm mounted systems monitor.
His heliox alert!
Delaney had forgotten the time. He looked at the little display screen on his arm. It was flashing orange—thirty minutes!
He started walking quickly back towards the first door, then stopped. It was pointless.
Even at full stretch it would take him forty minutes to reach the surface, maybe longer.
Then there was the large piece of rock face that was sheared off in the quake. It had left an impossibly sheer cliff to negotiate.
And, nobody was going to come looking for him. He was on his own.
Unless he could find some oxygen or a quicker way out, Jake Delaney was going to die.
The afternoon sun was disappearing behind the horizon.
The Martian moons, Phobos and Deimos hovered in the northern sky like two potatoes, pockmarked from relentless hits by asteroids, the moons themselves most likely ancient asteroids that were pulled into Martian orbit eons ago.
Phobos, the closest and only four thousand miles away, was inky black. A charred remnant of some forgotten collision countless millennia ago. Deimos sat slightly obscured behind it’s brother. A faint glowing outline cutting its edge.
Silhouetted in front of the two satellites stood the massive Hellas pyramid to Gateway’s northeast.
Lena hadn’t really thought about its magnificent size until now. She took a moment to reflect on the strangeness of what she was seeing. She had finally made it into space. Her childhood dream had been fulfilled, and she wondered how proud her father would have been of her.
And now, here on this cold, barren planet a million miles from home, she was looking at an ancient monument to a forgotten race.
It cut an impressive figure against the purple-orange sky.
The peak, Lena estimated, rose half a mile or more above the ground. It was several times higher than the Great Pyramid at Giza. Many times larger, too. Its outline formed a clearly defined triangle from where she stood. Smooth-edged from the apex to the ground, with only the haze from a dust storm to the east clouding the right side.
Lena watched the small clouds of dust billowing in the wind. Rolling, little puffs of smoke. They were becoming larger and darker. More pronounced. Almost as if they were getting closer…
Lena noticed a couple of the marines looking toward the dust clouds with growing interest too.
Corporal Foster raised his binoculars to the clear window face of his helmet. The two inch gap between his eyes and the eyepiece made it difficult to see, but it was enough to recognize that something wasn’t right.
“Oh shit!” he said. “I’m scoping something here, Sarge!’
He let the binoculars drop, suspended around his neck, and quickly picked up his M4 rifle.
Foster’s team, Privates Andy “AK” Kemp, Enrique “Pancho” Sanchez, and Lenny Sinclair were already in motion, grabbing weapons and any other gear they might need.
Buffalo Bill strode through the men to the northern end of the encampment. He looked through his single lens scope.
“Well, it’s definitely not from Lincoln,” he said, referring to their more permanent base station on Mars.
Lena appeared at his side. “The Chinese?” she asked.
Foster took up his binos again, tweaked the settings, cursing the faceplate. The image was becoming clearer. An object inside the dust storm.
“Some sort of military vehicle,” Foster said. “A soviet FAV. Fuck me!”
“FAV?” asked Lena.
Buffalo re-kitted his scope and turned. “Fast attack vehicle. An armored personnel carrier, heavily armed too. Machine guns, grenade launchers. What the hell are they up to?”
Foster continued to watch the approaching vehicle.
“Jesus! It’s a full pack. Sergeant Dawson, they’re carrying a full load. I see twelve uniforms, bright yellow. Ten sitting in the back, two up front. Man, haven’t these guys heard of camouflage?”
Buffalo Bill swore under his breath. This was not part of the mission brief.
Foster was becoming more agitated.
As he gazed intently at the FAV rumbling through the dust, he noticed something strange.
Another set of wheels!
Another vehicle had pulled out from behind the first one and sidled up alongside it.
“Oh shit oh shit oh shit… that’s not good.”
Two dozen heavily armed Chinese forces were heading their way. And they were approaching fast.