Jake Delaney’s oxygen alert system told him he had less than a minute to live.
He had made a quick survey of the tunnel, but other than a few pipes, panels, lights and other bits and pieces on the walls and ceiling, there was nothing.
Then, Delaney remembered the second doorway. The large thin groove in the left hand side of the tunnel. The second panel with the button.
Three loud beeps in his headset shot through his ears.
It was the door or nothing. Surely there would be something in there. Breathing apparatus, oxygen tanks, an elevator back up to Gateway… or he was going to buy it on this desolate rock in space… alone. Not the way for a marine to go out.
Not the way for “Devil” Delaney to finish his career.
Delaney raced to the door, the panel teasingly close as the seconds ticked away.
Then he reached it. He slammed the palm of his hand onto the flat, round button.
There was a clunking noise, then the door started lifting upwards, impossibly, frustratingly slowly.
“Come on, come on!” Delaney willed the door to rise faster.
The door stopped!
Eight inches above the floor.
Beeeeeeeeeep. The final warning in Delaney’s headset. No time left. Replace your heliox canister immediately.
I would if I fucking had a spare one, lady!
Delaney hit the button again. He pounded it frantically, sucking up the last breath of air in his backpack. His lungs screamed.
He gasped into his helmet.
His eyes widened in terror.
Then, Delaney’s body spasmed grotesquely, and he fell to the ground silent and unmoving.
Gateway was preparing for the worst.
The approaching FAVs were now clearly visible to the naked eye as they rumbled across the red landscape.
Sinclair and Kemp had taken up flanking positions amongst rocks on either side of the ATVs.
Pancho Sanchez sat behind a tripod-mounted M249 squad automatic weapon, just to the left of the group. A box of several hundred linked rounds sat on the ground beside him. He was digging into the dirt with his boots, fashioning a spot to push into for when he needed to support himself against the raw power of the SAW.
Lena and Wells were busy ferrying equipment into the cave. In the event of a retreat they would follow in Jake’s footsteps and take their chances below the surface.
“Make sure you get that transceiver unit into the cave, Wells,” Lena practically ordered the gaunt scientist, who seemed to be dallying, and at this point was only clasping a single silver briefcase-sized box tightly against his chest.
Buffalo Bill and Royce Simms would make the second line of defense at the mouth of the cave to ensure the two scientists would escape unharmed if things turned to shit.
It was decided Corporal Dwayne Foster would act as frontman for the unit to establish first contact with the approaching Chinese vehicles. Actually, the decision was more of a self-imposed voluntary action by Foster, who always put his hand up first for the hard jobs. He alone would determine their intentions and give the signal for retaliation if required.
He was fairly certain though that they weren’t coming for a friendly chat.
Foster stood several yards in front of the camp facing northeast, directly in the path of the oncoming vehicles.
He estimated they were about three hundred yards away, traveling at twenty miles an hour.
Any minute now…
Foster gripped his M4 carbine tightly, keeping it aimed at the ground, but prepared to raise and fire if need be.
No point appearing hostile, he thought. Just keep the weapon down. Get ready to use it, but don’t look ready…
Besides, the Chinese were here on Mars for the same reasons as us. To explore, carry out scientific exploration. They had the same right to use a military unit for precautions as we did. I mean, Christ, it’s an integral part of an away team. Probably just coming over to borrow a cup of sugar… yeah, right.
Foster tightened the grip on his weapon.
At two hundred yards, he could make out the yellow suits of the PLA military space uniforms.
They were basically similar to his own. An extended cold weather clothing system made of modified Gor-tex. Water resistant and insulated for use in extreme cold.
He could see the twelve men in each vehicle now. Two up front, and two rows of five facing each other in back. Apart from the standard vehicle-mounted machine guns, Foster couldn’t see any other weapons.
But why would they send so many?
Kemp, Sinclair and Sanchez readied their weapons.
“Make sure you keep me covered guys,” Foster said into his headset.
“Anything moves and I’ll nail it, Corporal,” assured Sanchez, who was noticeably itching for action. He grabbed the tripod-mounted gun by its two handles and swiveled it left and right, making certain it was free and smooth-gliding.
“That’s what I like to hear, Pancho,” said Foster. “Okay, get ready.”
The Chinese vehicles were less than a hundred yards away now. Foster eyed them carefully, looking for a sign—any sign—that would spell an attack.
Abruptly, they veered apart in a wide arc, now presenting two moving targets.
“Shit! They’re splitting up!” Foster yelled.
“I see it, Corporal,” said Sinclair. “I’ve got the one on the left! A.K., the one on the right is all yours.”
“No problem,” Kemp said confidently. He raised his M4 to his shoulder, trailed the vehicle on the right down the length of the barrel. “Just make one false move, you little bastards…” he whispered.
Foster, meanwhile, was trying to keep his eye on both vehicles.
At the cave entrance, Buffalo Bill’s view of the oncoming soldiers was hampered by his own ATVs and poorly placed stacks of equipment. He was torn between staying put and moving out into the open, but had enough confidence in his men to let them handle the initial skirmish. It was important, he decided, to remain as backup for the two scientists.
“Keep your heads down and your asses tight, marines!” Buffalo said, attempting to keep in touch at least verbally, if not physically.
“You’ve got that right, Sarge,” agreed Sinclair. His adrenalin was starting to pump hard. It was the one reason that almost had Delaney reconsider him for the team.
A marine’s survival was dependent on the ability to remain calm in any situation. Panic was a soldier’s worst enemy. But, Sinclair had proven himself to Delaney where it counted, in battle on previous assignments. That was all the Lieutenant asked for.
In fact, it was quite possible Sinclair’s excitability was what gave him the edge he needed. The one thing that got him through a fight when it counted. And hell, they all needed an edge.
The Chinese APCs were now charging in on a parallel path, about thirty yards apart. Smoke billowed in a bubble above each vehicle.
Then Foster saw it!
At first, just a glint of light in the waning afternoon sun. But it was unmistakable.
One of the Chinese soldiers had lifted a Norinco Type 95 assault rifle off the floor between his legs.
Foster saw another. Then two more!
In a few seconds they had all lifted their hidden weapons.
“Fuck! The bastards are going to— “
Foster’s faceplate shattered as a bullet slammed into his forehead.
The other marines heard the deafening crack through their headsets, and looked over at their corporal. He was still standing, legs wobbling.
A torrent of thick, red blood spewed from his helmet.
Then Foster’s body crumpled and fell.
“Motherfuckers!” yelled Sanchez.
He engaged the SAW’s firing mechanism and started shooting in sporadic bursts towards first one FAV and then the other. A hail of metal cascaded over the vehicles as they continued their approach. A frenzied firework of sparks shot up from the hoods of the FAVs.
“How do you like that, fuckers!” Sanchez screamed, as he rocked the large gun back and forth, unleashing waves of molten projectiles towards the vehicles.
He seemed to be wreaking havoc against the Chinese soldiers, who leapt from their vehicles and continued their approach on foot. He saw a wall of yellow uniforms rushing towards Gateway.
With all the firing, Sanchez had only managed to take out two of the enemy, whose bodies lay idle in the bullet riddled carriers.
Now, Sinclair and Kemp opened fire against the approaching soldiers.
Kemp watched in amazement as two of the Chinese helmets exploded.
None of the marines had ever witnessed somebody being shot in a pressure suit before. The damage to a human body was both horrific and instant.
Kemp saw a fountain of blood erupt from the top of a yellow helmet. The liquid spurt shot three feet straight up.
“Jesus! Did you see that!” Kemp shouted, not even realizing he was talking aloud.
“Stay focused AK!” Sinclair responded.
Bullets pinged off the rocks all around them.
Small clouds of magenta clay dust puffed up every time a Norinco round struck a rock.
Sanchez was sweeping his machine gun in a wide arc, back and forth. He held the trigger firmly, letting loose a barrage of hot metal.
Several yellow-suited figures turned partially red and dropped to the ground.
There were still fifteen Chinese soldiers alive. Some of them ducked behind rocks, while others continued their ground assault. Somehow, all fifteen made it through the next volley of shots.
They reached the edge of the encampment, running hard, and ducked into a large outcrop of rocks and boulders that were positioned to the left and right twenty feet in front of Sanchez.
Sinclair and Kemp, also positioned amongst the rocks, no longer had a clear field of vision to the enemy troops.
“Where the fuck did they go, Lenny?” screamed Kemp.
“Keep it down, A.K…. I’m looking for ’em,” Lenny replied, trying to keep his cool.
Buffalo added to the conversation. “Sinclair, Kemp, status report, now!”
Sinclair crept down from his rocky perch and weaved through some boulders. “Sarge… we have several targets at close quarters… we—huh? What the fuck was that?—A.K. is that— “
“Jesus, Sinclair how many targets do you have… Sinclair….”
There was a short silence, then Sinclair’s voice came back online. “It’s ok… thought there was something… Sarge, we have enemy troops…a dozen, maybe more.”
“Lenny, I’m not seeing anything,” Kemp said nervously. He was taking small, measured steps, his eyes fully open as he looked around every rock, into every dark hole.
Buffalo squeezed his rifle hard. “Fuck this… I want you guys to pull back now… pull back towards the cave… Sanchez, keep an eye out for anything, and I mean anything. If it’s wearing a yellow uniform, you fucking kill it, understand?
“Got it Sarge,” Sanchez answered.
Sinclair was about to back up when a couple of yellow flashes streaked past in front of him. They continued running, somehow not noticing he was standing there.
“Fuck this…” he said, and began climbing back up to the relative safety of his original position on top of the rock.
Kemp was in an equal amount of trouble now. He saw yellow uniforms dodging around in front and back.
The rocks were a maze.
And now they were all in that maze together…
Inside the entrance to the cave, Buffalo turned to Lena and Wells.
“Okay, that’s it! Time for you two to go!” he said. “I’m sending Simms down with you. I’ll stay behind as a final defense.”
Simms spun around.
“Sarge, you can’t be serious! I’m—”
“That’s an order Private. Now get moving!”
Lena quickly set up her radio gear on a large rock, and switched on the transmitter.
“What are you doing?” Wells asked nervously.
“I’m sending a mayday to Spacecom,” Lena said. “With a little luck, if any of us survive this, they might be able to send a rescue mission to pick up the survivors… or at least the bodies.” She started speaking into the transceiver as the others scurried about the cave.
“Are you sure that’s necessary?” Wells asked.
“What?” said a stunned Lena.
“My dear, we hardly need to get Spacecom involved at this point.”
Lena glared at the pale scientist. “What the hell are you on about Wells?”
“It’s just that I— “
The pinging of stray bullets ricocheting around the small cave interrupted his protestations.
Simms picked up whatever heliox and other necessary equipment he could carry, along with the remainder of the gear they would need to strap to their suits.
“How much heliox have you got?” Buffalo asked Lena as she packed up the comset.
Lena did a quick count.
“Enough for about two hours each. We’ll leave a bottle here for you.” She said, opening one of the silver briefcases.
Buffalo smiled. “Keep it. I’ll refill from one of the ATVs as soon as we take care of these bastards.”
“And what if you can’t “take care” of those bastards, Sergeant?” asked Lena.
“Then I won’t be needing this oxygen, will I ma’am?”
Sanchez had little time to react as four soldiers moved out from behind their cover in a coordinated move and began firing at him. Sanchez flung himself backwards into the dirt and flattened out.
Small explosions of dust puffed up all around him.
He rolled to his left, and grabbed hold of the machine gun with one hand, pulling the trigger. The Chinese soldiers dived to the ground.
Sanchez fired blindly through the haze towards the rocks. His helmet visor was caked with dust on the outside and smeared with condensation on the inside.
Then without warning his machine gun stopped firing.
He was out of ammunition!
Sanchez could barely make out three blood spattered uniforms laying on the ground a few feet in front of him. A hazy mist of dust had created a curtain between him and the bodies. But something was wrong. There were only three bodies…
Where was the fourth?
He reached for the box of MPMG rounds that lay to his side. As he did, he felt something prod the back of his neck.
It was the last thing Sanchez would ever feel. There was a sharp click.
The bullet seared down the barrel of the assault rifle, through his airsuit, severing his spinal cord at the base of his brain. Sanchez’s eyes bulged with a last second realization of what had happened.
His helmet filled with blood.
Sanchez’s body slumped forward over the gun tripod.
Now it was two against twelve.
Sinclair climbed onto the ledge that looked down over the entire encampment. He felt better now he was back above the soldiers who were weaving through the immediate area.
He could see several figures darting through the labyrinth of craggy rocks below him.
Three of the Chinese soldiers were winding through the maze towards his position, single file, guns raised to their shoulders. The one in front signaled the others to split up, and they veered off in different directions.
Sinclair was looking slightly down on them, about five yards in front of their path. He could still see all three for the time being. Fortunately, they hadn’t seen him yet.
Sinclair took aim and fired at the leader of the small group.
The bullet ripped through the soldiers left arm. A rush of escaping gases burst out through the unfortunate soldier’s thermal suit. He doubled over and fell to the ground, gripping his suit in a useless attempt to stop the flow of precious oxygen.
His two compatriots watched in horror for a moment as the life was sucked out of his suit, and blood replaced the escaping air.
Quickly they dodged into the rocks to avoid being next on Sinclair’s list. Now they new his exact location.
The two soldiers split up and encircled Sinclair’s position from either side, like a pair of lions circling their prey.
Sinclair moved quickly from one side of his high perch to the other, trying to keep an eye on the soldiers. He whispered into his mike, “Sarge, Kemp… if you guys can hear me, now would be a good time to give me some backup.”
Suddenly, a burst of gunfire sprayed the rock he was standing on. Puffs of dust flew up all around his feet.
Sinclair spun around.
One of the Chinese was crouching at the base of his position, shooting directly up at him.
Sinclair held his M4 over the edge of the rock with one hand, and fired downwards hoping to hit something—anything. A geyser of red liquid exploded upwards, coating his gloved hand in the unlucky soldier’s blood.
There was still one more nearby.
Sinclair couldn’t see a damn thing. He stuck his head out over the rock face to get a better view, and was met by—
A rifle barrel!
Hard up against his face shield.
“Fuck!” he screamed, and jerked himself backwards just as a molten projectile flew out of the gun and whizzed past his head.
The only problem was, Sinclair had now lost his balance.
He continued to fall backwards in one long motion. Backwards over the flat top of the rock tower, and down the steeply angled side. He crunched and cracked his way to the bottom.
Sinclair landed with a heavy thud on a hard flat rock.
He groaned into his mouthpiece, then laying motionless, he slipped quietly into unconsciousness.
Kemp was moving silently through the maze. Left. Right. He darted from boulder to boulder. He could sense the presence of the enemy troops all around him. A marine’s instinct. Barely visible shadows and movements caught in his lateral vision. He noticed a wide natural hole at the base of a towering boulder.
If only he could get to it. It might provide some temporary shelter. Give him time to formulate a strategy, maybe sniper the bastards off one by one.
He maneuvered stealthily past a few large rocks. Turned right, and—
He hit something. It was a Chinese uniform!
Kemp and one of the Chinese soldiers had both been moving around the same large rock, and were now facing off.
Kemp looked through the two layers of helmet glass, his and the enemy’s. He was looking right into the soldier’s face. Terrified. Just like his face was right now, he imagined.
They stood facing each other without moving. Neither dared to move. Just waiting to see what the other would do. Neither man willing to give away their next move.
Then slowly the Chinese soldier’s brow began to furrow. His mouth tightened into an angry snarl, and Kemp watched in shock as the young soldier yelled ferociously into his soundproof helmet.
It was odd to be so close to such a display of rage without hearing a thing.
Then Kemp noticed the slightest of movements in his enemy’s arm, but the wily marine had already unsheathed his utility knife during the face-off. He tried not to make it obvious as he raised the knife just above his waist. Keep it slow… steady…
Just as the Chinese soldier was about to make his move, Kemp brought the knife smoothly and quickly upwards and plunged it into the soldier at stomach height.
There was a disgusting hiss of escaping air and blood.
Kemp continued watching the man’s face contort with pain. He saw the realization of death in the soldier’s eyes. The same eyes that a few seconds ago had shown only rage. He was staring at Kemp, pleading… wishing this wasn’t really happening and wondering why it was necessary.
Now, when he was about to die, everything seemed so pointless. He gurgled a small amount of blood that began seeping out of the corner of his mouth.
The eyes remained open as the body fell.
The dead soldier’s comrades must have heard his moans of agony, because suddenly they were running towards Kemp from all directions.
“Oh shit!” he said into his mouthpiece.
He ducked as low as he could and began to shoot.
“Lenny! Lenny! Oh fuck… man, help me!” Kemp pleaded.
Crack! One down.
Crack! Crack! Two. Three. He was firing like a man possessed. They fell all around him, twisting, screaming, and bleeding all over the place. Anything to survive.
Just keep shooting.
And he did.
He swept his gun right and left—point, shoot, point, shoot—no time to aim. Kemp was running on auto-pilot, all his training coming to the fore, operating with prescribed movements that had been drilled into him over years of exercises.
Flashes of yellow and red filled his vision. A blur of uniforms and blood… death.
But there were too many.
A wall of searing bullets slammed into Kemp and knocked him six feet backwards. He screamed a futile scream into his helmet mike. He was dead before his body hit the ground.
Now there were six Chinese soldiers left.
And they were moving towards the cave.
Buffalo was alone in the cave entrance.
It was like a spacious foyer, a few scattered rocks at the mouth with very little to take cover behind.
The cave extended back about thirty feet to the descent point where Lena, Wells and Simms had just said their goodbyes.
Buffalo had a reasonably good view of the area immediately in front of the cave, and he figured he could pin the enemy down as they tried to wind their way past the boxes of gear strewn around the ATVs.
Nevertheless, he did move slightly back into the cave—into the cover of darkness, and waited for their approach.
It soon came.
Three yellow uniforms were crawling along the ground under the closest all terrain vehicle.
Buffalo shouldered his M4 and took aim. Fired.
The shot was accurate. It entered through the top of the unlucky soldier’s helmet as he crawled across the dirt. His head erupted like a volcano, red foamy brain matter pumping out through the newly created hole in his helmet and skull.
His two comrades, realizing their vulnerable position, hurriedly jumped to their feet and charged towards the cave.
The first Chinese soldier made it approximately four feet before one of Buffalo Jackson’s standard NATO rounds ripped a grotesque hole in his chestplate.
The soldier screamed and twisted in agony as his organs were sucked out into the low pressure atmosphere.
The second soldier ran a few feet further, then did something completely unexpected…
Just as Buffalo was about to send him to an early grave, the soldier stood still, dropped his weapon, and raised his arms above his head in surrender.
Buffalo was bewildered.
This was just what the other three Chinese soldiers, who were on a ledge above the entrance to the cave, wanted.
The ploy gave them just enough time to drop down in front of the cave, about twelve feet from where Buffalo stood, with their Norincos at the ready.
“Sons of— “
Crack! Crack! Crack!
All three fired in quick succession into the cave. It was sheer luck that none of the bullets hit Buffalo. The Chinese soldiers had taken him by surprise, but in doing so they hadn’t given themselves time to acclimatize to the darkness of the cave.
Now, they blocked the entrance completely, making it even darker.
Then, in a fit of something akin to insanity, Buffalo made a move that was beyond imagination…
He lunged forward, rifle raised, and rushed headlong like a locomotive straight into the Chinese troops!
The move made their surprise attack look lame.
They were in complete shock as this hulking giant of a marine barreled down on them with the full force of a football tackle.
Buffalo slammed into them with a bone shuddering crunch.
The soldiers toppled like bowling pins as the large man charged through them like a battering ram, his M4 held across his chest.
One of them was hurled backwards and slammed into the wall of the cave. His head smacked sickeningly against a sharp rock and he fell straight to the ground.
But it didn’t end there.
Buffalo continued running out into the open area of Gateway, gun still raised.
The soldier who had been standing out there with his arms raised, watching his comrades being bowled over by the hulking sergeant, realized he was no longer holding his weapon.
His eyes widened in horror, and in a move Buffalo had never seen in battle before, the hapless soldier turned and ran—
Right into the side of the ATV.
Buffalo kept right on charging at him. He slammed into the soldier with such force, his body left a dent in the side panel of the vehicle. The soldier dropped, his faceplate completely shattered and covered in red goo.
Buffalo stood dazed for a moment, but was soon brought back into reality by more bullets pinging off the panels of the ATV. Now was a good time to make a strategic withdrawal.
He ran past the ATV and ducked behind some rocks. From there, he fired off the rest of his magazine in a frenzied burst.
He saw one of the uniforms change color from yellow to red.
Now he was out of ammunition. Fuck!
And then, the Chinese soldiers made another unexpected move. Instead of coming out after him, they slowly turned and moved back into the darkness of the cave.
They had other plans…