They left Corporal Evelyn Tam, the medic, Specialist Valerie Lawrence, and Private Anna Parunk to guard the equipment and act as their reserve in case they met any difficulty. The descent to the mysterious chamber took little time. They joined Sergeant Tanya Yates and Private Jenny T’sao outside of the chamber entrance. Sergeant Yates looked first at Lieutenant Probst who was standing at the back of the squad and then turned to Katie to make her report. Noticing the slight hesitation in Sergeant Yates, Katie wished in the back of her mind that Lt. Probst will pull his head out of his ass and lead, but the realist in her hoped he would stay out of the way and not get anyone hurt.
Katie led the squad into the chamber in absolute silence. She used hand signals to have the squad spread out and stay behind cover as she, Lt. Probst, Communications Specialist Gina Hall, and Pvt. T’sao advanced. The part of the chamber with light was a clearing among a maze of stalagmites and stalactites. Katie could never remember which ones grew up and which ones grew down. There appeared to be a small group of people standing in the clearing beside several crates and containers.
“Hello?” queried Katie, “Hello? Planetary Defense Force, Staff Sergeant Lemay speaking.” There was no answer from the group in the clearing.
“They’re awfully quiet.” whispered Pvt. T’sao.
“Quiet? They’re not even moving.” added Spec. Hall.
“Sush, stay alert!” Katie commanded in a low voice. But they were right, she could see no movement at all and the only sound she could hear was the distant hum of a generator, which probably powered the lights. Then, she began hearing clicks and hisses through her comm-link.
Reaching the clearing, they discovered the mysterious group was five individuals standing at attention wearing Star Army field uniforms. “Are they mannequins, like what you see in department stores?” asked Hall.
“They’re Symons.” said Lt. Probst, “Mark II Synthetics.”
“Androids? They look almost human except for their skin. Why the silver tint?” asked Pvt. T’sao.
“A compromise.” said Lt. Probst. “Researchers found that if the Symons looked too human, then officers would be hesitant to use them for hazardous missions. On the other hand, if they didn’t look human at all, then officers tended to use them as cannon fodder, quite expensive cannon fodder.”
“These units look brand new.” said Katie. The comm-link was flooded with hisses and clicks.
“That’s because they are brand new.” boomed a voice, “They’ve never been activated.”
They turned to see a tall bald man flanked with Star Army soldiers on one side and a band of Hishen on the other. The five Star Army soldiers were wearing tough exo-armor. The Hishen band consisted of four Hishen, a Razor, and a Grath, the standard compliment of a Hishen slaver party. Katie and Pvt. T’sao raised their weapons. “There’s no reason for alarm, Lieutenant. I’m General Donald Hauser. I recognize your uniform, but not that of the young ladies with you. Who are you?” asked the General.
“Sir? They’re Planetary Defense Force from Gryphon IV. We’ve been conducting joint exercises the past few months. I’m Lt. Marc Probst, operations observer for this unit when the emergency occurred.” answered Lt. Probst.
“Emergency? What emergency?” demanded General Hauser.
“Perhaps the General is unaware that this planet’s sun has bathed the surface with a large amount of radiation from the plasma it ejected. The General may have been down here for quite some time.” remarked Katie. There was a horrified look on the Lieutenants face as Katie addressed the General.
“Those are insolent words, miss…miss?”
“Staff Sergeant Katherine Lemay, sir. It’s just that when I see a small squad of Star Army in exo-armor standing next to the crew of a Hishen G’Narr Slaver Shuttle, all kinds of alarms go off. Especially when I see new Symons standing among crates of weapons and other munitions. You’re not a part of the training expedition, are you, sir?”
“Sir? The Staff Sergeant does raise valid points.” added a puzzled Lt. Probst.
After descending through twisting and sometimes tight passages, Pearl entered a huge chamber. The strip shopping center that held her office and Vivian’s salon would have easily fit in the chamber with room to spare. The light from their flashlights revealed crumbling ruins of buildings. It was the first time Pearl had come face to face with the fact that New Hope had been populated long before it had been settled by humans. Even in decay, the alien architecture looked more advanced than any she had ever seen.
“Azumi, Momiji… What happened here?” Pearl asked.
“Your species has a charming term for this, ‘nuclear winter’.” replied Azumi.
“Oh no, commander,” said Momiji, “what happened here was much worse. Nuclear winters don’t evaporate oceans. Still, this planet did fare better than its sisters.”
“Sisters?” queried Pearl.
“Yes, sister planets. We believe that at one time there were three habitable worlds in this system.” began Azumi. “The immense asteroid fields which hide this planet are remnants of two planets. That is why the Xeog sisterhoods were slow in contesting this system, we were looking for a system with three habitable planets.”
“What could have destroyed two planets and turn this one into a wasteland?”
“We aren’t sure.” continued Azumi. “We think there are clues here that will not only shed light on the fate of this system, but also what may have collapsed the Shikar Empire.”
“Light switch!” announced Momiji.
“What?” asked Pearl.
“She found a light switch. Someone’s been here before us. Go ahead and turn it on.” grumbled Azumi.
The General had been sidestepping the issue of his presence in the caverns and had embarked on a diatribe about the inevitability of war with the Hishen Empire when one of his soldiers whispered in his ear. “Well, it seems we have additional visitors in the North chamber. Do you know anything about this Lieutenant?” he asked.
Lt. Probst shrugged his shoulders and turned to Katie. “Staff?”
“The emergency broadcast was to all units to seek immediate cover. It is quite possible that another platoon has found shelter in these caverns.” replied Katie. She knew that there wasn’t another unit within a hundred kilometers and that it was probably the crew of the Xeog fighter they had seen earlier in the day. But, the General didn’t need to know that.
The General addressed his men. “Captain, take Jenkins and go find out who is down there.” As the two soldiers started to leave, the Hishen commander made a slight movement with his head and one of the Hishen and the Grath went with them. Katie was pleased to see the two soldiers and two of the Hishen leave, it evened the odds, though three soldiers in exo-armor would be hard to take down.
“Now, where was I?” asked General Hauser.
“You’ll have to excuse me, General Hauser and Lt. Probst,” Katie began, “for I’m but a simple soldier in a Planetary Defense Force and not as keen on galactic politics as those who serve in Gaea Prime’s Star Army, but the General has yet to explain what he is doing here with munitions and Symons. Furthermore, since the General is not in uniform, how can I even be sure he hasn’t gone rogue and is selling weapons and technology to the Hishen?”
Lt. Probst cringed. He noticed that the General’s face flushed and his brows furrowed. Staff Sergeant Lemay was about to cross the line into insubordination. General Hauser once again launched into his explanation. Lt. Probst noticed that the soldier standing to the General’s right was looking down. He couldn’t blame the man for being bored, but he should have been at attention or parade rest looking straight ahead. He followed the man’s gaze down and saw that the General was flashing hand signals. The General was planning something, but how could he warn Staff Sergeant Lemay? He looked to his left hoping to get her attention, hoping somehow to warn her. But she was standing at rest gazing intently at the General. Then he noticed that she was also flashing hand signals with the hand behind her back. Suddenly, the clicks and hisses over the comm-link made sense, the rest of the squad was acknowledging her commands. He looked at the Hishen Overseer, he stared unblinking with a ghastly grin on his face. He was probably using the Razor next to him to communicate with his men with telepathy. He felt sick to his stomach. All hell was about to break out and he was the only one who had no idea what to do.
Suddenly, the General raised his hand. “Blossom, now!” shouted Katie. Fran “Blossom” Mackenzie stepped into the clearing; there was a whirling sound as she brought the mini-gun to life. Jenny T’sao was the first to fire. She took down one of the Hishen and the Razor, severing the Hishen’s telepathic link.
The General leveled his pistol at Lt. Probst. Lt. Probst discharged a round while trying to bring his weapon up. Fortunately for the Lieutenant, Katie hit the General knocking him down. Blossom’s mini-gun raked the portion of the clearing where the soldiers wearing exo-armor were standing. The mini-gun was their best chance at taking out the heavily armored soldiers. She knocked down two, one with a serious wound, and the third ducked back. Having the Razor go down enraged the Hishen Overseer. He pulled his pistol and put two rounds into Jenny T’sao. He would have emptied his pistol shooting Jenny, but Private Paulina Lopez put him out of the fight. Sergeant Yates followed up on Blossom’s targets and killed the soldier that had been knocked down. The remaining Hishen fired at Lopez and missed and then targeted Private Belo and shot her. The round hit Amy Belo right above her vest at the base of her throat. Then the lights went out plunging the chamber into absolute darkness.
“Oh crap, the baby!” exclaimed Pearl clutching her stomach as she slid to the ground. “I feel like there is something over here that is pulling on the baby.”
“Good! Where?” asked Azumi.
“Good? What do you mean good?” Pearl asked through clenched teeth.
“Radiation, it’s radiation. Pregnant women often feel the effects first, especially if antimatter is involved.” said Momiji. She rummaged through her pack and pulled out a light weight survival blanket. “Here, wrap yourself in this. It isn’t ideal protection, but it will help reflect some of it. It would be best if we can move you away from here.”
“Nothing of the sort, she stays here.” Azumi insisted.
“Commander?” asked Momiji. “What about the health of Pearl and the baby?”
“We came here to find artifacts, perhaps the artifact. Pearl owes a debt. And we can always make another baby.”
“That’s right,” hissed Pearl, “I know I owe you and I know it was you who impregnated me and not that transwoman. But this baby owes you nothing.”
“Look, Pearl, the sooner we find what is affecting the baby, the sooner we can safely get it away from you.” said Azumi. “Now, both of you, look for it!”
The women rummaged through the rubble until Pearl found a cubic frame with an ornate oval shaped device inside. “Here, this is it!” she exclaimed.
“It fits the description of an antimatter energy resonator.” said a wide-eyed Momiji.
“What does it do?” asked Azumi.
“It’s kind of like a battery. When it detects a matching energy wave, it begins to resonate and release an amplified energy wave with the same energy signature.”
“Looks like it belongs to this machine. Help me attach it.” ordered Azumi. Momiji and Azumi lifted the device and reattached it to an ancient machine while Pearl wrapped herself in the blanket and slumped to the ground.
“It’s attached, how do we turn it on?” asked Azumi.
“Is that wise, Commander? We don’t know what this machine does.” questioned Momii. Azumi shot the junior Xeog an icy stare. “Very well, Commander. Since it is an energy resonator, we have to supply the energy wave that matches its configuration.”
“How do we do that? I don’t see any receptacle on this machine for another energy source.”
“Sound.” said Pearl. “Sound waves. Sound wave resonate.”
“Of course! Sound waves are a form of energy.” said Momiji. “But there are countless patterns, which one would have the correct frequency?”
Azumi bent down to where Pearl lay. “How do you know this?” she demanded.
“Remember that database you stuck in my head? It leaks. You meant it to be available for the baby. You meant for me to teach her everything about the Xeog sisterhood culture as she grew up. But I have news for you, sister. You outsmarted yourself. You picked a time when I was ovulating to implant a Xeog zygote. Guess what? Thanks to some miracle of biology, your zygote merged with my egg and this baby is going to be half-human. And I’ll be damned if I’ll raise her to be a Xeog.”
Momiji sang a few notes from scales and chords searching for a pattern. “This is going to take some time.” she remarked.
Pearl gave Azumi a defiant stare and said “Sing the hymn ‘Journey of the Seven Sisters’.”
“‘Journey of the Seven Sisters?’ How do you know that is the one?” Momiji asked.
“The mural above the machine. It depicts seven women walking into a sun.” said Pearl.
“You’re right. That has to be it, Commander!” Momiji began singing the ancient hymn and the machine came to life.
“What is it doing?” Azumi asked.
“It appears to be sending a signal. It must be a beacon or transponder of some kind.”
A sound of shifting rubble attracted their attention. “Someone’s coming.” said Azumi.
In the complete darkness, infrared night vision was useless. His own helmet was equipped with thermal imaging. He could easily see the bodies of the Razor and Hishen Overseer. And Lt. Probst could also see the arms, legs, and lower faces of his own squad. However, he could not see the soldiers in the exo-armor. The exo-armor did have exhaust ports, but they were small and difficult to spot. It seemed everyone was groping for cover. Then he heard Staff Sergeant Lemay on the comm-link. Katie whispered “Whiskey, Tango, Fox.” “WTF? What does that mean?” thought Lt. Probst. He soon heard his answer. “On our way.” The staff sergeant had called in her reserve.
He began to hear hisses, clicks, and grunts on the comm-link. The squad was planning its next move. There was a moment of silence and then evenly spaced clicks, like the ticking of a clock. “A countdown?” he thought, “a countdown to what?” It didn’t take long to find out. There was a pop followed by a brilliant red light. “Flare!” someone shouted and the chamber erupted in gunfire. “P-Lo”, Private Lopez took out the remaining Hishen. The squad had the edge as they had prepared for the brilliant light. Everyone else was momentarily blinded. His helmet visor quickly adjusted to the light and the Lieutenant knew that if he could see, so could the soldiers in the exo-armor. He saw General Hauser moving toward the chamber’s exit. He fired hitting the General’s armored vest knocking him back. Private Lopez moved up to Lt. Probst’s right and fired at a soldier in exo-armor coming to General Hauser’s aid. The general pointed at Lt. Probst. The soldier fired at “P-Lo” and missed, but the General fired at Lt. Probst and sent the Lieutenant out of the fight with his second shot.
The opposition was down to two members, General Hauser and the soldier in exo-armor at his side. Katie took down the General and Sgt. Yates nailed the soldier. It was over before the flare burned out.
To Be Continued …