Note: This will probably be the last of the L&S updates for a while. I have to leave some mystery before the actual book is released later this year. Enjoy. 🙂
Finch unslung her rifle and checked the ammo supply in silence as they walked, her thoughts in a turmoil. She had accepted Matson’s leadership as a matter of course, but was he needlessly reckless? Granted, she didn’t think that things could get worse down here in Tarson’s planetary bowels, but who was she to judge his methods? Every situation she had experienced with him thus far had turned out in their favor. Okay, a few bumps, bruises, and a few cuts here and there, but nothing overtly life threatening. She wondered if Monroe was just being a coward.
“Stick close and do what you’re told and you have a reasonable chance of getting out of this alive and in one piece,” she told him. “For God’s Sake, grow a pair, will you?”
He grunted in response as the group stopped at the airlock exit.
Matson peered through the door’s rounded window. It was dark on the other side, which eased his guard not one bit. “I wish I knew what was on the other side of this door.”
“When we started exploring, all of our initial scans indicated a hollow geologic space for about one hundred and fifty meters in all directions,” Burke supplied. “There were indications that the eastern portion led to a tunnel, but we never had time to explore it fully.” She looked up at Matson. “I suppose now is as good a time as any.”
Matson didn’t hear her. His ears were perked at a faint beeping from far behind them. Three beeps followed by a longer tone and then repeating. He turned to Finch. “Remember what I said about not being out of the woods yet? I think the forest just decided to dump a load on us.”
Finch turned and watched the cylinder antenna housings flash from green to red. “Sequoia sized loads,” she reached for the door controls and began punching in access codes. “Damn it, open you recalcitrant piece of-”
Despite himself, Matson smiled at her. That’s it, he thought, express that inner rage. We’re going to need every ounce of that anger and fight because as much as I want, I can’t hold this all together by myself.
She looked back at him. “What the hell are you smiling about?”
Matson blanked out his expression. “Nothing, nothing at all. Please continue.”
Finch tried every combination that she could think of including connecting her data tablet and using its code-breaking software. Her efforts met with succeeding red access denied lights and a mounting frustration that caused her to strike the control panel with her fists until he gently restrained her. “Everything I know is useless against this thing, Zack. I don’t know what to do.”
Matson looked from top to bottom as the beeping crescendoed. “There has to be a way to override that panel.”
The closest cylinder to them matched its comrades in red and the beeping pattern reached a fever pitch. The tunnel began to heat until they heard an explosion from the other end. A few minutes later, it was followed by another and then still another. The metal walls began to crack and twist as metal fatigue combined with explosive force began to take their toll. Clouds of dust filled the air as besieging dirt broke through, slowly clogging the way behind them. The chaos inched closer.
Matson ran over to the closest cylinder and checked the antenna assembly. His heart sank as the sealed unit allowed for no external access and even boasted by design that any attempt to countermand the explosive sequence would result in an immediate detonation. “If any of you,” he looked at Burke and Monroe. “Have any suggestions, now is not the time to be shy. We’re about in a situation between choosing between suffocation, vaporizing through explosion, or being crushed by the rest of the planet coming down around our ears. If you can do something, do it.”
Burke and Monroe traded looks before she moved Finch out of the way and punched a long series of numbers into the keypad. The explosions were growing louder as she worked. When she finished, the last cylinder had stopped beeping as the airlock door swung open.
“Don’t wait for a parade,” Matson shouted. “Get through.”
They crowded through the doorway and pushed the door shut as the last cylinder exploded. Matson and Monroe hastily dogged down the secondary latches as the door window filled with dirt and debris. A few cracks appeared in the glass, but it held back the advance.
Matson slumped to the floor and wiped a mixture of dust and sweat from his forehead with a sleeve.
“I think we should take a rest now,” he offered Monroe a hand. “Good job.”
Monroe smiled and accepted the handshake. “Thank you, Sir, it seemed the right thing to do.”
“It was the only thing to do, given the circumstances.”
Burke and Finch watched them bond and for a moment, did a matching set of eye rolls. “I hate to interrupt your male bonding but we should find a better place to make camp for the night. There’s a small supply cache that the Union Corps of Engineers left just ahead.”
Matson struggled to his feet while helping Monroe to his feet. When he had found his footing, he looked ahead of them. “I’m going to assume that we’re heading into unknown territory,” he held up a finger to Finch. “Don’t say it.”
“I wouldn’t dream of it, though your action affects both you and me.”
He stumbled slightly, using the closest rock to steady himself as an invisible Torquemada went to work on his left leg. He hoped the pain in his left ankle was merely a sprain but he worked to keep his full weight off it as he led the way.
Finch came over and tried to examine his ankle. “Okay, Hero, you can stop for a minute and allow me to check out that impressive limp of yours,” she looked around at the flat gray soil with multicolored rocks embedded among it that glinted in the portable lights that ran the length of their path. Tarson was known for its mineral wealth but to see so many precious and semiprecious stones just there for the taking made her want to carve out a gem for later. She put those thoughts aside as he shook her off. “Zack, you’re obviously in pain. Let me help.”
He shook his head. “When we stop to make camp. I’ve got a bad feeling about this place and I don’t like our tactical options.”
Finch looked around. “We have no tactical options other than the fact that we’re moving down a limited access way.”
“You’re going to bug me about my ankle until I let you do something, aren’t you?”
“I think we both know the answer to that.”
He stopped and sat down. “Fine, but make it quick. I don’t like the idea of something jumping out at me while you’re poking around down there.”
She bent down at his feet and ran a medical scanner over his ankle. “The good news is that it isn’t broken.”
“What’s the bad news?”
“It’s going to hurt like hell and if I give you a painkiller, I’ll have to immobilize your whole leg. The past few days have put a lot of stress on the joint and the more you work it, the closer you’re going to get to a complete break.”
He sat up, keeping his voice down so that the others couldn’t hear them. “Understood, Marla, put a ring bandage on it and I’ll deal with the rest. I trust you.”
Finch removed his foot from the boot while taking a ring-shaped bandage from her first aid kit. Tearing open its protective bag, she unfolded the bandage, slipping it over his foot and into place around his ankle. When she removed a small cotter pin, the bandage inflated to form a flexible cast that held the weakened tendons and bone in place while she helped him slide it back into the boot. “This will hold you for a while, but it’s still going to hurt.”
He gritted his teeth as he zipped up the boot and tested his weight. The pain was still present, but negotiable. “I’ll deal with it. Marla, we need to be careful around these two. I don’t get a good vibe off them.”
“You and me, Partner,” she said, steadying him. “If you need to lean on me, feel free.”
He patted her hand and smiled. “Good to know,” he gently pushed her away and took a step forward. “Come on, let’s get moving.”