Lena Sorsky, Peter Wells and Royce Simms were halfway down the icy cave.
The last thing Simms had seen as they began their descent was his Sergeant, “Buffalo” Bill Jackson, letting spray with a burst of M4A1 automatic rifle fire.
“Are you okay, private?” Lena asked.
Simms lips tightened. “The thought of leaving the sarge behind during a firefight just ain’t right Ma’am. I should’ve stayed at his side. It’s the way a marine’s taught. It’s what makes a Special Forces soldier so special. Unit, Corp, God, country. And now, I’m doing the opposite of what I was trained to do. Running away.”
“You’re not running away private,” Lena said reassuringly. “Sergeant Jackson ordered you down here to protect us. You’re doing your job. Don’t let anyone tell you different.”
Simms looked at her. “No ma’am. I won’t”
All communication with the surface had gone. The sounds of Buffalo swearing into his headset were no longer audible. In a way it was a good thing. At least they wouldn’t have to listen to his dying moans.
Simms decided his job now was to look out for Lena and Wells. And recover the body of his Lieutenant, Devil Delaney. He would do as Sergeant Jackson had ordered, and do it professionally.
The young marine’s thoughts were broken by the reality of his group’s current situation.
All three of them were perched on a small shelf of rock about twenty yards above the ground. The extra gear and backpacks they were carrying made it a tight squeeze. They took each footstep carefully.
They were standing in the precise location where Delaney was when the cliff face had sheared away. The only thing was, now there was nothing but a smooth, glassy face of slippery rock all the way down to the floor.
Lena looked around, searching for another ledge or anything that would aid their descent. Nothing.
“Great… we’re stuck here with no way down,” she said, pointing out the obvious.
Wells sidled up alongside her. “Are you worried about yourself, my dear, or more concerned whether or not your precious Lieutenant Delaney is waiting for you down there.”
Lena tried to back away from the sleazy Doctor, but was met by a wall of rock. “Wells, there isn’t much room on this ledge. God forbid I should accidentally trip and knock you off the edge,” she glared back at him.
Wells took a step back, pushing himself hard up against the wall.
Simms, in the meantime, had unfurled a length of rope from his backpack. He pulled the rope through a piton and locked it into a crack in the rocks.
He threw the remaining rope over the ledge. It landed with a thwap on the cave floor.
“Okay, who’s first,” Simms said with a smile.
“Me. I’ll go,” said Wells quickly.
Lena looked at him and frowned. What are you up to Wells.
Simms wrapped a harness around Wells’s torso and hooked the rope through it, as Wells slung a couple of extra equipment packages over his shoulder.
“Alright Doc. Just step out over the edge and let me do the rest.”
Wells took a tentative step backwards and looked down. It was a long way to the bottom—a long way to fall. He grimaced.
Lena smiled evilly at him.
“You’re doing fine Doc,” said Simms. “Just step out one foot at a time.”
Wells’s expression was one of sheer terror.
Lena stifled a laugh as she watched his fragile frame dangling awkwardly on the rope like a puppet. Slowly, methodically, Simms lowered the archaeologist into the abyss.
Wells managed to descend one foot at a time, just like Simms had instructed. The going was painfully slow for Lena who wanted nothing more than to get to Delaney as soon as she could. There was a possibility, she thought, that somehow he’d still be alive.
After a few minutes, the rope slackened. Wells was at the bottom.
“I’m down,” Wells said into his mouthpiece. His voice was one of nervous relief.
“About time,” Lena whispered.
Simms looked at her and furrowed his brow.
“Okay, that’s good Doc,” said Simms. “Now, unhook the rope from your harness and wait for us.”
There was no answer.
“Doctor Wells, can you hear me?” Simms said a little louder into his mike.
Simms pulled on the rope. It rose about three feet then stopped abruptly. He gave it a sharp tug, but it wouldn’t budge.
“What the fuck…?” Simms breathed. He looked at Lena. She frowned.
“Wells, quit screwing around and let the rope up!” Lena yelled into her microphone.
Still no answer.
“I knew we shouldn’t have let him go first,” she said. “A little voice inside my head kept telling me “don’t trust Wells… don’t trust Wells…” and I just stood there and did nothing about it.”
Then Lena noticed something… something missing.
“Oh Jesus! He’s got the heliox canisters. He took our only oxygen supply,” she spat.
“Alright…” said Simms, looking around for something, anything, that would help. Then he started to get pissed off. “Okay, we go after him… we climb down the rope and find him… we find him… and then we stove his fucking head in…” he said calmly.
“Climb down?” said Lena, raising her eyebrows. “Private, I’m a scientist, not a marine. I really don’t think I can— “
“It’ll be okay, ma’am. You’ll do fine,” Simms interrupted. “Just keep a tight grip on the rope and use the rock face to dig your boots into. Remember, you only weigh a third of what you weigh on Earth. A slim lady like you should have no problems.”
“Hmmm… thanks for the compliment Private, but I’m not sure that’s going to help me safely to the bottom.”
She moved around to the edge and gripped the rope tightly. She was just about to take her first step, when—
A bullet ripped through the cave, slicing the rope apart neatly, an inch away from Lena’s hand. She stumbled forward, leaning dangerously out over the edge of the cliff.
Simms quickly caught her and dragged her back in. The rope fell to the floor below.
“What the hell what was that!” she screamed.
Several more bullets slammed into the rocks around her head. Little jagged pieces of ice and rock exploded in every direction.
“Jesus!” Lena shouted.
They both looked up.
Three yellow spacesuits were clearly visible in the dim cave light about fifty feet above them. Simms noticed they were all carrying QBZ Type 95 assault rifles, the weapon of choice of the Chinese PLA elite forces unit.
A hail of high-powered rounds rained down all around Lena and Simms as they squeezed up against the rock face on their little ledge.
Simms unslung his M4 and was waiting for the right moment to return fire.
The Chinese weapons stopped for a moment as the soldiers reloaded their spent magazines.
Simms stepped out onto the furthermost point of the ledge and swung his M4 upwards. He emptied a full magazine of thirty rounds in the direction of the soldiers. Simms ducked back into the wall to reload.
“Did you hit anything?” Lena asked.
A yellow-suited body slammed onto the ledge at Lena’s feet, the soldier’s faceplate shattering spectacularly on impact. A spray of blood painted the rocks in a wide circle around the dead man’s head and shoulders.
“That answer your question?” Simms said with a smile.
The remaining two soldiers were climbing steadily down the rocks. Down towards Simms and Lena. One of them reached into a pack attached to his suit.
He withdrew a round, dark grey object from his pack.
It was a grenade! An HE—high explosive incendiary device, designed to cause maximum damage to surrounding structures rather than personnel.
The soldier removed the pin and dropped the grenade. It fell rapidly, silently down towards its intended targets—Lena and Simms… and sailed right past them… about fifteen feet past them—then, it exploded!
A hideously loud thump! shook the walls of the cave.
It knocked Simms and Lena hard up against the rock wall. Lena had never felt such a destructive force. The shock slammed right through her suit and jarred her bones, taking her breath away. She coughed and sputtered as her chest was forced inwards by the sudden jolt.
The shockwave had also caused damage to the cave itself. Large cracks started to appear in the wall of ice covering the entire surface of the cave walls.
Pieces of ice and rock rained down inside the full circumference of the cavern. First, small shards of crystal ice fell from the outer walls, then larger pieces from the roof. Larger, sharper pieces—stalactites.
“This isn’t good,” said Simms, glancing upwards. He looked for a place to take cover. But there was no damn cover anywhere. They were out in the open.
The sharp rocks continued to fall, narrowly missing the pair by inches.
Then Simms noticed the backpack on the fallen Chinese soldier. He leant down and unzipped it, dodging the falling debris.
“Yes!” he said excitedly.
It was a rope. Exactly like their own rope that had been severed earlier. Simms quickly hooked the rope into a small crevice, and tossed it over the ledge.
As he leaned out to throw it a spear of ice, four feet long, crashed down past his arm and hit the ledge with a loud crack.
“Go!” Simms yelled at Lena. She nodded through her faceplate.
Lena quickly clambered out over the high ledge and started climbing down.
Meanwhile, the remaining two Chinese soldiers were busy dodging the falling icicles themselves.
Simms watched from below as a massive stalactite, eight feet long, plunged into one of the soldiers above him. The stalactite pierced the soldier’s chest on a narrow angle. The sheer weight of it drove it down through the length of his torso.
There was an eruption of blood and body parts that spewed out through the exit wound near the soldier’s lower back.
Simms winced, then decided it was time to join Lena on the rope.
Simms jumped the last six feet to the cave floor, where Lena had found shelter under an overhanging rock.
A few more splinters of rock and ice fell down around him as he thudded to the floor. He quickly ducked under the overhang with Lena.
They both ran a quick equipment and life support check, then surveyed the area.
Lena was first to notice the grey, steel door in the cave wall. The same door Delaney had originally gone through.
“Private Simms, over here,” she said walking towards the door.
They were a few feet away and Simms cautiously raised his gun. He nodded to Lena to move forward toward the panel at the right.
Lena casually approached the panel like she was out on a Sunday walk through the park.
Simms frowned, and moved forward to join her.
“I guess we push the button,” Lena said.
“Okay, but be careful,” Simms cautioned.
Lena reached her hand up to the button, and Simms pulled his weapon in tight against his shoulder, looking straight down the barrel aimed at the door.
He nodded, and Lena pushed the button.
The door whooshed open and Simms quickly moved forward, pivoting left and right with his gun held high, anti-terrorist style. Once inside he turned to Lena.
“Okay ma’am, come in.”
Lena had already strolled in behind him, oblivious to military attack patterns, or to her own safety for that matter.
The door slid closed with another whoosh.
And, as their eyes became accustomed to the light, Simms and Lena just stood there, mouths agape, inside the gigantic tunnel.
“Jesus H Christ!” said Simms, turning a slow circle where he stood.
Lena was equally in awe. She couldn’t believe the size of the tunnel. It was massive. She tried focusing down the length, but there was no way to take in its sheer size.
“Damn! You could fit the USS Lincoln in here,” Simms noted.
“You could fit a whole armada of ships in here,” Lena added.
They both stood for a full minute, trying to comprehend the enormity of the place. Behind them, the four large disc plates on the wall were gathering condensation. Simms ran his hand over the bottom of one of the huge steel circles, scraping off a crust of sheet-ice.
“Weird,” he whispered.
Then Lena saw the other door.
The larger door to the left of the tunnel. It was wide open, and a glow was emanating from inside.
“Private Simms. Over here… I think I may have found something.”
Simms followed Lena to the opening. His gun was back up at his shoulder again, ready for anything. He saw the bright light coming from inside the room beyond the door.
As they got closer, the size of the room became apparent.
It was as large as an aircraft hangar, perhaps larger.
Several strange vehicles, shiny, black bug-like cars with six wheels and bulbous roofs were lined up against one wall.
To their left was a large array of pipes, like a plumbing system, and in front were huge banks of monitors and other equipment. Consoles covered in buttons and dials were further behind those. Lights on display screens flickered off and on in every color imaginable.
At the far wall of the hangar, monstrous rust-colored gearwheels, forty feet in diameter rotated slowly on large axles.
Lena’s gaze continued around the room. She noticed a long bench, like a carpenter’s workbench, only it was made of some black plastic material rather than wood or steel.
Bits of machinery and other items littered the top. Small discs, lengths of pipe, pieces of lattice, and a thousand other unrecognizable objects were scattered everywhere.
Here eyes moved further along the bench.
Then she saw him.
He was wearing a charcoal colored thermal suit, sitting at the bench and hunched over a panel, poking and prodding at things. Her heart jumped as she recognized him. The pistols on his waist, the broad shoulders, the wavy black hair.
It was Jake! He was alive.
Then it struck her—the hair. Lena’s eyes widened.
Jake Delaney was sitting right there, twenty feet in front of her, a quarter of a mile beneath the surface of Mars—without a helmet!