Note: These excerpts are First Draft stuff, which means that errors may be found within. When the story is complete, it may or may not resemble what you’re reading here depending on later edits. In any case, enjoy. 🙂
“Okay, the first order of business is to take stock of what we can use here,” he said, checking inventory labels, “We’re going to be here for a while and this is as good a base of operations as any. Our priorities are food, water, and weapons.” His nose detected the odor again, stronger this time, and he followed the scent until he came upon the corpses scattered near a cave opening to the east of the camp. Decomposition had not quite set in yet. Ten men and women were simply left where they had fallen. “Finch, come and look at this.”
She came over and made a cursory examination. She nodded grimly. “Same as the outpost. Multiple puncture wounds, blunt force trauma and lacerations from bladed objects. Does it remind you of something?”
“Yes, and I was hoping for a different conclusion,” he bent down and retrieved a fallen rifle, “the power pack’s exhausted. They definitely put up a fight,” he set the rifle down next to its corpse, “the poor bastards never had a chance.”
“We should do something for them,” she said, “give them a decent burial or something.”
“The ground’s too compacted for grave digging,” Matson eyed a large anti-gravity skid and set of tarps, “we’ll take them back to camp and placed them for later burial. The ambient conditions here seem to lend toward slow decomposition.”
Finch waved to Burke and Monroe to grab the necessary equipment and they set about moving the deceased to a place near the outskirts of the camp between an intersection of air currents that while not eliminating the smell of death from the air, it at least diminished it enough to where it wasn’t as noticeable. The effort of moving the dead weight took its toll and after a few hours, they all collapsed within the field office’s control room in exhaustion after Finch had hacked the sliding access doors’ biometric locks.
The corner opposite the doors was filled with an L-shaped console filled with displays connected to a computer system with christmas trees of multicolored indicators. A subsystem marked Drone Control caught Matson’s eye.
“Why would they be using drones down here?” He mused.
“I can answer that,” Burke said, “During the initial exploration stage, we found that deploying miniature drones saved us on resources and had the increased benefit of longer range and increased security.”
“I see,” Matson pulled up a status report and studied the result. “Didn’t benefit the crews down here much.” A smile crossed his eyes. “Excuse me.”
Finch stopped him. “Zack, where are you going?”
“There’s an armory module among that menagerie out there and I intend to find it.”
“What do you expect me to do while you’re out there hunting for firearms?”
“Go over all systems with a fine toothed comb and prep this place for long term. Computers can give false readings.”
Finch opened a small access door and crawled inside. “At first glance, the comms look good.”
“What about the transceivers?”
Finch slid her way out. “I guess I spoke too soon,” she said, sheepishly. She ducked back inside and Matson heard the sound of frenzied activity before she reappeared. “We can transmit and receive locally, but the connections to the surface are in pieces. The fiber optics are in good shape, but the network hub has been removed. A professional job, to be sure. I don’t know why but whoever did it made sure that no one could get a word out beyond the immediate area.”
“Curiouser and Curiouser,” Matson noticed Monroe and Burke talking to each other in hushed tones and turned toward them, “Would you two like to join the conversation or would you prefer to wait for an official invitation?”
“Zack, we were discussing things of no particular import to this situation,” Burke replied, her eyes trying to capture his like a hungry spider hunting prey. “Though I suppose that since Pierce and I are suspects, anything we say must be held to higher scrutiny.”
You got that right, Matson thought as he avoided her eyes. The problem with people like Gemina Burke wasn’t that they were attractive. The problem was that she knew the power of her attractiveness and wasn’t afraid to use it. In this case, on him and he was finding it disconcerting to spend too long under her high beams.
“I need some air,” he said, walking away as fast as his limp would allow. At first, he followed the edges of the clearing, admiring the emerald field as he moved along. Many of the pulsing green and blue stones were as thick as his head as they grew from the ground like trees with sharp points that reached for the ceiling. His mind considered the wealth possibilities as he watched them pulse in time with an unheard beat. The effect was hypnotic, so much in fact that before he knew it, an hour had passed and he found himself lost among the stacks of supply crates. As he checked for hidden holographic projectors, a random thought nagged at him. If there were no projectors in the immediate area, how was the creature able to come in and kill the camp inhabitants? He spent a long time pondering this before he heard Finch’s voice over his ear-piece and turned back for camp.
As he walked back, he noticed a squat black container on a wheeled base resting under a light pole. Closer inspection revealed a container with a large supply of laser batteries, explosives, and to his glee, several cases of smart bullets that were a perfect fit for his weapons. He filled up his speed loaders before unlocking the wheel base and pulling the crate back to the field office. After locking it back into position, he went inside the office.
Upon his arrival, he found that Finch had been busy organizing the remaining rooms into living spaces. Portable beds had been set up and repairs made to the internal plumbing to supply water to the showers and septic system. Adding to her resume, she had coaxed extra power from the portable generators and increased the control equipment efficiency, the monitors dutifully recording multicolored images from microscopic drones that flew from waypoint to waypoint that Finch had programmed in to the computers.
“All the comforts of home,” he remarked as he accepted a written report, “While I have no intention of staying here for any length of time, it’s good to know that we have a surviving chance until help arrives. How are we doing on supplies?”
Finch pointed to a dozen crates marked as field ration kits. “I hope you enjoy Alliance Issue Field Rations because we have a lot of them. Whatever they were doing down here, they planned on staying for a while.” She reached over and gave the evaporator a pat. “Another plus is that we won’t run out of fresh water any time soon.”
“No shortage of possible explanations,” he replied. “The emerald field alone would add up a lot of credits to a properly equipped trade hub. I would estimate potential profits in the millions just waiting to be harvested.”
“More like billions,” Burke said. “One of the preliminary geologic teams tested crystal samples and found them to be the purest examples they had ever seen.”
A flicker passed over the monitors, catching Matson’s eye. He went over to the station and studied the readouts. “Did you guys see that?” He pulled up a location screen. “The anomaly is located in the next chamber.”
“We had issues with the mobile sensors from the first time we deployed them down here,” Monroe stated. “Higher Level electronics didn’t seem to work as well down here than up above. We suspected that the mineral formations were generating interference but we could never lock down exactly a cause or a cure.”
“Just to be safe, I’m going to recall all the drones and keep them in this general area,” Matson said, his hands entering commands into the computer. “We’ll get some rest tonight and start out first thing in the morning.” He studied the monitor’s clock set to regulate day and night in the absence of sunlight. “Whenever that is.” He set the clock to wake them at what he hoped was first light before settling in at the sensor station. “Everyone get some rest. I’ll take the first watch.”
Finch waited until Burke and Monroe were out of earshot before she sat down next to him. “Zack, we need to talk about those two.”
He nodded, rubbing the fatigue from his eyes. “They are the subject du jour. Go on.”
“How long are we let these two run around loose?”
“Look around you,” he replied, “we’re four people stuck underground with limited survival resources and, at present, no way to know for sure how we’re going to get back to the surface. We need every hand we can get.”
“They’ve been evasive since we pulled them out of those stasis pods,” she observed, “and while we’re at it, I’m not happy with this dynamic between you and Doctor Burke.”
He frowned, but had no words. He cleared his throat. “Don’t worry about me. I know my job.”
She placed a hand on his shoulder. “I certainly hope so. Good Night.”
He sighed as he watched her leave before turning his attention back to the controls. It was quiet outside the camp with no movement and even less to keep his eyelids from growing heavier as an hour turned to two and more. When the fatigue became too much to bear, he stood and paced back and forth while keeping an eye on the monitors. The portable food processor synthesized a decent coffee strong enough to keep him going and alert.
He settled back into the high backed padded chair and sipped at his coffee while switching through different monitor views. He stopped at a view of the easter cave when he saw a shape framed by the rounded opening. At first, he was prepared to dismiss it as an optical illusion, but when the man-shaped image lingered for several minutes before retreating, he hunched forward and tried to enhance the playback while multiple questions filled his mind. Was it an illusion? Was it real? Why did it not move beyond the cave entrance? He studied the area around the cave entrance and noted that the emerald field bordered onto the cave entrance. Leaving his post, he located a rock hammer and went out to the emerald field. After chipping off several pieces of the tall stones, he returned to the field office and placed the shards under a portable scanner. Matson was no geologist but the inability of the scanner to properly evaluate the samples provided an answer of sorts. He removed the shards from the scanner and placed them in a belt pouch. When Finch came to relieve him, he handed her one of the shards.
“Why, Zack,” she said, “I don’t know what to say. I’m touched but-”
“Don’t flatter yourself,” he replied, “these stones appear to have disruptive properties. I have a theory that the emerald field was instrumental in keeping our friend out there from moving too far into the camp.”
“So, you’re saying that the deaths could have been prevented by simply moving closer in?”
“Okay, let’s say that you’re correct,” she said, “what do we do with this information?”
“Other than making guns that fire emerald shards, I don’t know,” he pointed outside, “In the meantime, I found the camp’s armory crate and moved it next to the building. I suggest that you grab what you can carry and get ready for our next move.” He stood and bade her sit. “Get me if there is trouble.”
“Where are you going?”
She stared at the pulsing shard in her hand for several minutes after Matson left before placing it in the scanner and swinging a twin-eyepiece attachment into place, she aligned the eyepieces to offer a better view in addition to the larger monitor display. She modified Matson’s earlier settings and got to work on a new analysis.
Matson’s watch read 2:30 AM local time as he settled into his room. The area past the control room was partitioned by clear walls that instantly opaqued at the twist of a control knob and bordered on a narrow hallway that ran through the center of the space. The room he appropriated had a small bathroom with a shower and sink. He took a moment to wash up before collapsing upon the small bunk that pulled down from the wall and was propped up by legs that extended out from the bottom. He raised a small remote control and adjusted the interior wall’s picture window to display a view of the outside cavern that punctuated the bare wall with the illusion of space. He set the remote aside and slowed his breathing until sleep claimed him.