Chapter 2

2514 Words
Chapter Two “Knight Two, report,” Erik ordered through the comm. He glanced out the window of the armored flitter, a dedicated troop transport. Even though a lot of people referred to flitters, civilian or otherwise, as hover vehicles, they technically relied on antigravity technology rather than any sort of thrust-based hovering. He didn’t know or care much about the particulars. They were fast and could maneuver well. “Not seeing anything. Just dust, rocks, stars, and Quijote,” responded Biyu over the comm, her voice cutting through the clinks of armor against the flitter’s walls or floor when someone moved. “Pretty as always.” The bulky but angular black vehicle zoomed over the flat, featureless plains of the moon. Erik was in front next to the driver, with the rest of the squad one in the back. The other squads were in their own flitters. His platoon was on their way to the mines, which were located far from the habitation domes for safety reasons. To his right, the massive blue-green-ringed gas giant Quijote hung in the sky. Technically, the moon Molino had an atmosphere, however thin, and some geological activity, which was why it was covered with rocks and dust, and more than a few small mountains, but it wasn’t a crater-ridden graveyard like Earth’s moon. It also wasn’t worth the terraforming effort to get a glorified quarry. Small domes and self-contained buildings defined the settlements there. Erik grunted, his thoughts drifting to Earth’s moon. It’d been a long time since he’d been to the heart of the UTC. For all he knew, they’d blown up the moon and concealed the evidence from everyone on the frontier. It didn’t matter. If Earth was the shining imperial planet ruling all of them, it was his responsibility to help protect it from the barbarians on the frontier. Unfortunately, the thin atmosphere of Molino didn’t include significant amounts of oxygen, nor did it help much to fight off the cold. Every man and woman in all four of the deployed squads wore military-grade exoskeletons and full tactical suits that kept them warm, with their helmets producing more than enough air to breathe. They could operate on the surface of the moon for days without resupply if necessary. Erik tapped his wrist, the smart lenses over his corneas interfacing with the faceplate of his helmet to provide an enhanced augmented reality interface that he could see by looking out. The newly forward-deployed recon drones weren’t spotting anything. No visual confirmation of trouble. No unexpected thermal traces in the sky. No unusual radiation or other energy spikes. Did he get attacked by terrorists or ghosts? “Base, did we get any other transmissions from the auditor?” Erik asked. “No, Knight One,” the comm officer replied. “The line went dead about two minutes after the platoon left the base.” Erik frowned. His unit had been assigned to the moon as part of an entire division. The UTC military had ferried people away from the moon over the last few months to help cool the border tensions once it became obvious there would be no Zitark invasion or raid. The remaining troops weren’t local cops or security. They no longer had a purpose here. The vast expanse of human civilization, the entire United Terran Confederation, stretched in one form or another over fifty light-years from Earth, and included scores of settled worlds and moons. Given how the UTC had used colonization as an excuse to boot troublemakers off Earth since the start of the Social Cohesion Transport policy of 2136, only the most naïve citizen who paid any attention was shocked by the fact that the galaxy was filled with a rich collection of terrorist and rebel organizations. It was unlikely, but not impossible, that a terrorist group had gone to the trouble of infiltrating the Mu Arae system. The only thing Erik couldn’t figure out was why they would bother. Erik shook his head. It didn’t matter who was there. They could determine who was responsible once they rescued the auditor. The team was heads up, looking around using the age-old Mark One Eyeball to see anything that could be seen without their sensors. A few minutes passed. Still no enemies. The troop transports coasted to a stop. The mine’s exterior was unimpressive, nothing more than a collection of large metal tubes extending to massive gray warehouses, all topped with landing pads for collection drones. A huge square tunnel jutted out of the surface at a steep angle, black reinforced doors protecting the entrance. If the doors had been open, they could have easily driven one of the troop transports straight inside. “Deploy,” Erik ordered. The side doors of the transports lifted. The four squads rushed out, rifles at the ready. The combined footfalls of fifty armored pairs of feet produced a light rumble in the area. Everyone in the past had believed robots would inherit the battlefield, but too many militaries had learned the hard way what it meant to rely on autonomous gadgets, especially far from their supply lines. Maybe if they ever managed a true AI, that would change, but for now, dozens of soldiers in their powered exoskeletons with gunmetal-gray limb extensions, heavy weapons strapped to their backs, might easily be mistaken for robots. Erik disembarked last. He raised his weapon, a custom black Selene Firearms TR-7 Quad. With four selectable hungry barrels, he could use it for massive suppression fire, or just switch down to one for some snap shooting. Was it over the top? Maybe a little. Ok, yes. Satisfying to use when taking down the bad guys? Abso-damn-lutely. He’d had to pull a few strings to bring it along the last few years as they tried to make him upgrade, but the gun had saved his life more than a few times. It was another good luck charm, like his arm. “All squads spread out,” he barked. “Keep an eye out. We should be able to find one lost bureaucrat. Just look for the paper trail.” He kept his safety on but set his weapon to single-barrel mode. “Remember, the grav fields from your exoskeletons don’t mean crap once you fire and that bullet’s away from you. Keep that in mind. Anything you shoot is going a long way on this moon. There’s also no grav field in the mine, for transportation efficiency. Knights Two, Three, and Four, on me.” The other squad leaders rushed over to Erik, including Biyu, who was in command of squad two, Lieutenant Ahuja in command of squad three, and Lieutenant O’Malley in command of squad four. Erik switched to a direct frequency. “What are we thinking, people?” Biyu shook her head, her frown visible even through the darkened faceplate of her helmet. “This doesn’t feel good, sir.” O’Malley nodded. “I agree. There’s nothing. Where’s the damage? Where are the vehicles? We took a few minutes to get out here, but our drones got here quicker, and we didn’t spot anything with those either.” Erik pointed to a few parked collection drones atop a warehouse. They resembled giant metal dragonflies with long metal baskets beneath them. “None of the drones are moving either, but there haven’t been any alerts from the mines other than the SOS. I’m thinking a couple of terrorists sneaked in as new hires, maybe anti-expansionists or pro-aliens. They sabotage the mine, and our auditor friend sees them.” “That’s kind of farfetched, sir,” Ahuja suggested. “Really? I’m working on farfetched at the moment. So, ask yourself why a UTC auditor is all the way out in Mu Arae investigating a mine?” Erik turned his head toward the mine’s access tunnel. The presence of the auditor had lodged in the back of his mind since his arrival last week, but Erik’s orders were clear. He was to maintain the garrison and keep his soldiers in line so they didn’t interfere with either corporate or UTC personnel. Biyu hissed, her eyes taking in Erik’s drones. “That would explain why we’re not seeing a bunch of vehicles. If they’re terrorists who have infiltrated the workers, they might have come here with the help of a drone or driven right in with the codes.” Erik grunted. “Damn it. At least this means there are probably only a few of them. If they’re smart, they’ve kept the auditor alive as leverage. I’m going to take squads one through three in. O’Malley, you watch our backs with your squad, just in case the rats are hiding somewhere other than the mine.” “Yes, sir.” Erik nodded toward the doors. “Let’s move.” The officers split up to return to their squads, everyone switching back to general broadcast frequencies and delivering the orders. Soon, squads one through three were gathered at the tunnel doors, spread out in an inverted wedge, their rifles at the ready. There was no reason to crack out the heavy weapons yet. Erik neared the access panel to the door and lifted the dust shield. The screen came alive with a message in English and Mandarin. Xingguang Mining Molino Site A. No trespassing. All violators will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of UTC law. Erik snorted. Get a lot of trespassers out here, huh? Terrorists don’t care about signs. Erik entered the emergency override code in short stabs, twelve digits in quick succession. They’d trained several times for potential Zitark incursions into the mine. He figured the aliens would always just blow the colony and mine away from orbit, but it wasn’t like anyone on Earth had direct experience with Zitark invasion tactics. For all they knew, the reptiles would demand to settle it over a game of chess. With a groan, the behemoth doors began to slide apart. The soldiers waited, their breath held and their guns pointed at the doors. Anything from angry reptilian aliens to terrorists might pour out of the tunnel. The doors continued separating. Ceiling lights kicked on in sequence, pushing the darkness into the distance and revealing nothing but a long, empty tunnel. They heard nothing, but Erik’s mind wanted to add a click as each light turned on. Sonofabitch. Erik hit the comm. “Base, this is Knight One. Confirm the absence of other personnel at the main mine.” Erik glanced at the readout of every person on his team. His eyes flickered through the menu systems, making sure of the overall status in case something went… Wrong. “Confirmed, Knight One. Xingguang says no one other than the auditor was scheduled to be at the mine today.” Erik frowned. It wasn’t like they had a bunch of internal sensors set up. “Squads one through three, on me.” He tapped on his wrist to bring up the layout of the mine. “It looks like it branches off in three directions. Let’s go check it out. Drop transmission boosters at the intersections just to be sure. I don’t want anyone getting cut off down here, and I don’t trust the mine’s internal comm network right now.” “Yes, sir,” replied his squad leaders in unison. Quick steps brought the soldiers to the intersections. They continued on their way, the squads consisting of twelve soldiers each, except for Erik with fourteen. All that firepower proved unnecessary, given the emptiness of the mine tunnel. A few squat four-armed inactive black loading and maintenance drones were against the walls on occasion. Every once in a while, a door led into a small room, but it was obvious the facility had been designed with the idea that humans would be minimally directly involved with its day-to-day operations. “Squad two, anything?” Erik asked. “No, sir,” Biyu replied over the comm. “Drones, mostly. There are also a few inactive ore haulers loaded up, but nothing besides dust and quiet. No blood, no body, just nothing.” Erik furrowed his brow, eyes darting to his left as the squad progressed. “Squad three?” “Quiet and boring, sir,” Ahuja replied. “Continue. The man sent off an SOS. Even if he used the mine’s comm to boost his signal, he’s in here, and I doubt he went very deep.” A few more minutes passed, with Erik’s gaze darting back and forth. The small icons on the side of his HUD identified the active status of the squads. All green circles. Everyone was fine. Between their exoskeletons and the anti-ballistic nature of their snug tactical suits, even if a terrorist surprised them, the soldiers would win. If the terrorists didn’t surprise them, and the Knights deployed their shields, there was no way they could lose. Luck, as many a wise man had said, was where opportunity met preparation, and the Knights Errant were well prepared both in equipment and training. Squad one turned at another intersection and Erik narrowed his eyes. Splattered blood covered the walls. “Potential contact,” Erik called, sweeping his weapon back and forth. His soldiers took formation and aimed. “We have blood. Proceeding forward. All squads, continue with caution. Squad four, you still good?” “Yes, sir,” O’Malley replied. Erik crept forward, squad one on his flanks. The blood formed a trail around the corner. “Three, two, one,” Erik counted. The soldiers spun around the corner. No enemy awaited them, just a bullet-riddled body in an excursion suit on its back. A few spent shell casings lay on the ground next to the body. Erik locked his gun onto his exoskeleton’s storage rack before crouching. Blood had painted much of the white excursion suit red. The helmet was cracked open. Even if the man hadn’t suffered from a lethal reaction to excessive lead, he wouldn’t have survived. His eyes remained open in a death stare. “Looks like we found our auditor. Death by enemy action,” Erik muttered. “Base, we have located the UTC auditor. He’s dead. Multiple bullet wounds. No sign of assailants.” “Copy that, Knight One.” Erik stood and shook his head. His gaze lifted to a thick door a few yards behind the body. “That isn’t…normal. “ The door was heavily reinforced compared to most of the doors he’d seen. “Sir?” “Wait one. We’re going to see if anyone is behind door number one,” he answered Erik walked over to the access panel and tapped in the emergency code override. Nothing happened. He attempted to interface with the door using his military credentials directly sent from his PNIU. ACCESS DENIED. “Now we have moved from not-normal to weird,” Erik mumbled. “What, sir?” asked one of his squad members, Sergeant Pena. “This door is too secure,” Erik responded. “Way too secure for some random door in an automated mine on the ultimate frontier world. Why is it here?” Pena grinned. “We’ve got torches and explosives, sir. Maybe we should crack it open and see.” “We’ve got no reason to blow through this.” Erik grunted. “If we can’t get through, the terrorists couldn’t get through, and I don’t need the UTC brass crawling up my ass for unnecessary facility damage.” He glanced at the body again. “But where the hell are the killers? This guy didn’t shoot himself.” “Deeper in the mine, sir?” Pena shrugged. “If not here, then one of the other passages.” “Maybe.” Erik frowned. He didn’t like mysteries. “All squads, meet up at the entrance. I’m not going to poke around a deep mine with a single platoon. We’ll have the company seal the mine, and then we’ll send some drones to explore in case the terrorists are still down here hiding. For now, we’re retreating. We’re leaving the body here. The locals might want to investigate this with their own resources.” Erik gritted his teeth. “We signed up to be soldiers, not cops.” He took one more look at the locked door. “For now, let’s get out of here.”
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