UR06 was a hostile, deadly and unreasonable planet alright, but it damn it, her south pole area was beautiful. Felicia couldn’t take her eyes from the window. The untouched snow covered the hills, glittering in the faint sunlight, drifting over the plains like silk veils in the wind, packed into sharp wave-like sculptures, almost as hard as the rocks they were growing from.
And then there was the blue-green frozen waterfalls of melted snow from the cliffs, in shapes that no hand could copy, icicles hanging from the edges like spearheads of titans. Those who fell victim for UR06’s unforgiving mood would at least rest in a grave worthy of a royalty.
The Ignis crew weren’t there to enjoy the view, however. There had been a cave in during an expedition to explore a system of natural tunnels in a glacier. Rescuing the trapped scientists probably wouldn’t be too big a task for the staff at the research station they were from, but the distress call had been rather ominous. One short S.O.S. and then a hushed message claiming there was something in the tunnels, then radio silence.
The shuttle had landed at the main structure (to call it a city, or even town, was to stretch it too far) where the station was located, and was preparing for the ride to the tunnels with two borrowed transport vehicles. Team 1 and team 3 were both assigned on this, plus Roz from the TR. Felicia was leaning her chin in her hand, playing with the zipper on her uniform jacket as she tried to focus more on captain Avril’s voice than the scenery outside.
”I hope everyone put on an extra pair of long johns”, captain Avril said as they reached the end of the briefing, that was taking place in the small, and only, conference room at the station. ”It’ll be cold even inside the tunnels. Our premise is that there are survivors, and that there are hostiles.”
”And snowstorms”, stated Roz dryly.
”According to weather service it’s fairly pleasant up there today”, said captain Lace with a smile. How the leader of team 3 managed to always find something positive and genuinely lift it up was beyond Felicia.
”I doubt ‘fairly pleasant’ in this place bears any kind of resemblance with the usual meaning of those words”, Roz muttered.
”I’m sure the five layers of thermo clothes and socks you managed to squeeze in that environmental suit will keep you warm enough”, Keith grinned at her.
”Friendly reminder, never stand still”, Nyree pointed out.
”So you suggest we should all skip around like a shore leave soldier on the dance floor?” asked Cory.
”Weird as it may sound”, she answered, “I prefer to watch you dance than to have to amputate your toes.”
There was some giggles around the table.
”Any questions?” captain Avril said, her stern voice revealing the growing irritation.
”Are we there yet?” asked Tianyi.
More giggles, and not so few groans were heard.
“I swear to Earth private, you ask that question on our way to the location and I’ll personally kick your teeth in.” The look on the captain’s face made even Tianyi nod silently without more comments.
Captain Avril then turned to Haylen with a critical look. ”Are you back on track, corporal?”
He looked up at her, the usual idle predator look on his face, not visibly reacting to the captain’s underlying distrust.
Yesterday’s sim training session had given him a pretty bad migraine attack, and he had still been dazed this morning as they had prepared for the mission. The extra hour of sleep on the shuttle seemed to have been needed.
The captain seemed content with his answer nevertheless. “Alright then people, gather for departure at the vehicles in fifteen.”
They all made the last preparations, putting on their outdoor suits and their armor in the narrow corridor outside. Felicia was trying to tuck her cloth mask in under the helmet in a comfortable way, as she heard Cory talk to Haylen.
“Do you ever get migraine attacks during missions?”
“Yeah.” The answer was short. Then again, they tended to be.
“That must be really awkward, considering you can barely stand up when you have one.”
Felicia glanced at Cory. He had been taking his sweet time to build up the courage to go for the biggest kid in class…
Haylen adjusted his chest guard before answering. “Usually don’t get that bad until after.”
Cory nodded. “Well, I suppose that’s convenient.” He checked his rifle, glancing at Haylen.
Haylen didn’t respond, just clicked his shoulder guards in place.
“At least it’s nice having someone else take care of your equipment every now and then”, Cory continued, hanging the rifle over his shoulder.
Haylen lifted his chin some, then looked at Cory, but the sniper was busy putting the protective goggles on his helmet.
“Can you not be an asshole for five whole minutes Cory?” Felicia snapped.
He looked at her, his eyes owlish. “What did I do wrong, Lissy? Enlighten me.”
“First, you basically said he’s simulating. Second, you called me Lissy.” She glared back at him.
“Is that what you made out of what I said?” His eyebrows went even higher up on his forehead, and he turned to Haylen. “Look, I’m sorry if you feel that I stepped on your toes here. I was only asking, you know.”
Haylen, who had turned back to what he was doing, just nodded some and picked up his gloves and gun. Felicia grabbed the rest of her stuff too and walked after Haylen towards the vehicle hall.
– – –
The personnel transport vehicle wasn’t a comfortable one. No isolation on the walls, barely any springs left, and the seats had never had any padding. Even if it moved on continuous tracks, it was a bumpy ride. At least there were decent seatbelts to hold them in place.
The silence outside as they climbed out of the vehicles sounded differently than at UC19, but it was the same kind of vast, untouched silence that made your eardrums start making high-pitched noise out of restlessness. Only the faint whisper from wind forcing snow over the ground was heard.
Haylen and the others put their crampons on, then began to walk the dug out path through the snow down to the tunnel system. The goggles shifted color with the intensity of the light, and still he thought the reflection from the snow was strong enough to irritate his eyes. The sun was strong at UC19 too, but the sand was red there, not white.
To get inside the tunnel system, they had to climb down a narrow and very slippery ice path. There was a rope attached to the ice to hold on to, but that was it. Many people had climbed this path with crampons, that was obvious, but it hadn’t done much to rough the surface up.
Down in the hole, which was honestly the best description because it couldn’t be called a cave, the light had taken a strange, but not unpleasant, green-blue tone. The shiftings in the ice let enough sunlight down to make flashlights unnecessary.
Well. Here at least. When Haylen looked into one of the four tunnel entrances, it hinted on deeper darkness further down. The tunnels were bigger than he thought, however. One and a half his own length, and wide enough for two people beside each other. It wouldn’t have been very weird if he didn’t know these tunnels were not dug out by human hands.
“Team 3 will stay here for now”, captain Avril said as the last one had made it down to the floor. Even Rashida had managed the climbing without screwing up. They all pulled the cloth masks down for now and pushed their goggles up. No snowy wind would blind them down here.
“Team 1, we’ll follow the target’s route”, captain Avril continued, and checked her watch. “We’ll report in every fifteen minute. Haylen, take point. Keith, navigate us, and give me updates on where the targets’ transponders are compared to our position. Felicia, at the ready behind Haylen. I’ll take the rear. Move out.”
Haylen held his gun ready for firing, and headed into the tunnel. As he had imagined, the tunnel got darker the deeper inside they went, but before it got too dark to see, the light slowly returned. Their steps made weird, muffled echoes down here. The resonance gave every sound a melodic ring, but ice was a soft material, and the walls it formed were thick.
It felt a little weird walking with the crampons. The spikes weren’t that long, but it still gave him a little too good a grip so he had to pull his feet up for every step. But it was that or waste even more energy to stay on your feet on the slippery floor.
There was a wariness among the team members this mission. Not knowing what you were about to meet was one thing. They were all experienced enough, and could handle a surprise or two. But after UR03 and the derailer’s attack on Felicia’s amps, it had woken up the war anxiety within most of them. Treacherous enemies were easier to handle than treacherous friends, and if the Federation had started infiltrating civil stations it would more likely they’d encounter the latter.
With short, silent instructions to Haylen, Keith led them further into the system. Every now and then, Felicia pointed out suspicious shapes and hollows, but no bodies so far, living or dead. Captain Avril sent out calls every five minutes to their targets, hoping they would still have working comm devices, but she never got an answer.
They reached a wider part of the tunnel, and this time it could be called a proper cave. At the opposite end, part of the ceiling had collapsed and formed a pile of broken ice blocks and shards. As a result, the ceiling was thinner, and the cave practically had daylight.
“We reached the cave in”, captain Avril reported back. “We’re taking five, then we’ll start working on an opening.” She tried to call out to the targets again, but got no response this time either.
Their laser cutters, and small, foldable shovels and pickaxes didn’t make the work on said opening quick and powerful, but at least they made progress.
“Take it easy, people”, the captain said as they were half way through. “There might be bodies under there, I don’t want you to cut them to pieces.”
Tianyi and Santo, who were the ones currently toiling at the frozen rubble, slowed down a bit at that.
“I can’t see any body shapes there though, captain”, said Felicia, who was also regularly scanning the roof so the rest of it wouldn’t fall down on their heads.
“Well that’s good I suppose. How’s the air?” The captain turned to Leon.
The medic flipped the meters up on his wristband, and reassured them that there was nothing to worry about air-wise. “Not even carbon dioxide be a problem, so you all doin’ a good job shuttin’ up too.”
“About fucking time they learned that”, the captain muttered.
“We’re through”, Morgan said eventually and pulled out his pickaxe. He sat back, looking at the captain.
“Felicia, Haylen, at the ready. Morgan, Santo, open it up.”
Haylen put his barriers up while Felicia kneeled and hoisted her rifle up to her shoulder.
“I see no people on the other side”, Felicia said.
When the opening was big enough, Haylen crawled through it. The tunnel on the other side was narrower than the one that led to the cave, and darker. It was sloping slightly downwards, curving enough to limit the sight to ten or so meters. He took a few steps forward to see further into the tunnel, switching on the flashlights on his helmet and gun, but the tunnel kept curving.
“Clear”, he said, and the others began to move through.
According to Keith’s tracker, they were getting closer to the transponders for a while, but then the tunnel forced them into another direction. They were also going deeper and deeper down all the time. Their flashlights were reflected back at them, or further into the ice.
“What is that sound?” Keith asked after a while.
“Hold”, said Felicia, and they all stopped while she and Tianyi listened as well.
All Haylen could hear was a soft, dull humming coming in long, irregular intervals, but if he had heard it before or not he couldn’t tell.
“An engine?” Keith suggested with a frown.
She slowly shook her head. “Can’t tell. Might be a rattle, maybe the ice makes it more buzz-like.”
Captain Avril frowned. “Keep me updated. Let’s move on.”