Chapter Nine

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Chapter Nine – Exploration

Manesh gingerly shifted his injured leg in the suffocating darkness. The light on his helmet was broken and the visor cracked. A faint groan from close by told him that at least for now he was not the only survivor. The violence of the explosion had permanently destroyed the turbo-car tunnel. They could neither go forward nor back. When Cydon-1 was destroyed, it triggered a violent quake which set off the explosive booby trap laid by Besal’s team as the troopers approached the junction workshop area. The ragged edge of his broken thigh-bone poked out through his suit’s material into the almost airless confines of his living tomb. Nothing could have survived the blast let alone the massive quake. His body was cold despite the thermal protection of the suit. The early stages of shock were setting in.

~~~

In the dim glow from the phosphor lights, the community, or rather what was left of it, sat in stunned silence hardly daring to believe they were still alive! Khan looked around him at the dust covered ghosts huddled together inside the cramped confines of the maintenance tunnel. Iset and Nefer moved from group to group checking everyone for injuries and passing out food and drink as they went. “We have to find a way out of here, Akhen. The air’s foul and will only get worse,” Hoetep said, dusting himself off as best he could.

The community was now down to roughly a third of its original size. Hundreds had not made it to the safety of the long forgotten maintenance tunnel before Cydon-1 disappeared forever.

“He’s right, Akhen,” said Besal, crouching beside Hoetep and Khan.

“We can’t go back the way we came so we’ll just have to move on and see where this tunnel leads,” Manouf said, as he looked back over his shoulder into the gloom of the tunnel.

“Nemaar, Raman, take what you need and explore the tunnel. See how far it extends and report back in a couple of hours from now,” Akhen ordered.

“Meanwhile, we should make a list of who’s here and who’s missing,” Jamal offered, in his quiet way. His skills as a former medic in the Drana forces included ‘body counts’—a job he hated.

“I’ll help you,” Seti offered, gloomily getting to his feet.

“Me to,” Apis added, from the shadows.

Akhen noticed blood matting Khan’s back. “Are you alright, you’re hurt!”

“It’s nothing.”

“You’ve got a piece of metal sticking out of your back; you can’t ignore it!—Nefer get over here,” Akhen ordered. Iset and Nefer went to work quickly and efficiently, removing the thin sliver of jagged metal from Khan’s back, before cleaning the wound and closing it with a medical laser.

~~~

Nemaar’s phosphor light illuminated their progress as he and Raman followed the twisting path of the maintenance tunnel. The pipes and cables overhead that had supplied Cydon-1 with light, heat, energy, and air, were now just scrap. The tunnel, as far as Raman was able to work out, was gradually rising in a north-easterly direction. Nemaar felt the pipes’ surfaces. “They’re still hot. Maybe the power plant in the junction is still functioning!”

“Which means the junction might still be intact,” Raman said, slapping Nemaar’s shoulder with excitement.

“You go back and report. I’ll go on and see if we’re right,” Nemaar shouted, as he quickly moved ahead.

“Anything is better than staying here, let’s go!” Manouf exclaimed, when Raman returned with the news.

“Alright get everyone organized; let’s get out of here!” Akhen decided, helping Khan to his feet.

Nemaar looked out into a vast cavern where the junction had been. A couple of hundred meters below him he could just make out the entrance to the turbo-car tunnel. Fixing one end of the rope from his pack to a spike in the tunnel wall, and utilizing one of the many skills necessary to a forester back on Andras, he quickly rappelled down to the bottom of the cavern. The mangled remains of the vast workshop shifted dangerously underfoot as he picked his way through it, gradually descending to the tunnel entrance. In the distance, he heard a faint sound coming from the direction of the booby-trapped section of tunnel. Striking a fresh phosphor light against the tunnel wall, he walked towards the sound, carefully checking the floor for signs of the laser mines. After ten minutes, he arrived at a major rock fall. The combination of Semac and mines had practically sealed the tunnel. Barely recognizable body parts were strewn all over the tunnel floor. Some were even embedded in the walls. The sound changed into an almost imperceptible whimper as he drew closer. “Easy now,” he said, gently removing the trooper’s mangled helmet. Making splints from two useless disrupter rifles, he strapped the broken leg as best he could, careful not to put any pressure on the exposed bone. Shansur’s eyes watched the Andrasian as he stopped the bleeding from his femoral artery, and then he blacked out.

“He’s the one I stole the maps from,” Seti said later, as they looked at the unconscious trooper.

“What maps?” Nemaar asked.

Seti reached into his shirt and pulled out the geology maps. “Delal, what do you make of these?” Akhen asked, passing them to the Andrasian.

“Nemaar, hold the light steady,” Delal said, as he looked at the ancient survey maps. “Hmm, mostly locations of different mineral deposits across the surface. But this one is a plan of a system of underground tunnels made centuries ago when this place was first explored.” Delal added as he looked at the map. “I’ll need time to study them,” he said finally, carefully rolling them up.

“Alright go ahead,” said Khan. “In the meantime we’ll make camp here in the power plant. At least the air is breathable.”

~~~

Manesh opened his eyes. As his vision adjusted, he looked around him. The carrier’s sickbay was practically deserted except for a couple of medics sitting at a desk by the door to the companionway beyond. One of the medics came over to his cot. “Feeling better, master sergeant?” the young medic asked, checking Manesh’s pulse and the dressings of his many wounds.

“Fine!” he growled. ‘Why do people always ask you how you’re feeling when they can clearly see you’re in pain?’ Manesh thought to himself. The medic disappeared back to the desk. Manesh was bored already. He wanted to get out of here, but the itching beneath the surface of his partial body cast reminded him that for the moment he was going nowhere.

~~~

Admiral Shimuh sat at the desk flanked by two senior officers. At the front of the desk, a ceremonial scimitar lay pointing forward. “Accused stand,” the master-at-arms ordered. The captain rose to his feet nervously standing to attention. Shimuh’s cold eyes looked at the young officer brought before the court-martial. “You have been found guilty of gross negligence and incompetence. Have you anything to say in your defence?”

The unfortunate officer shook his head. “Nothing sir.”

“Very well, it is the sentence of this court that you be stripped of your rank and then be taken down to the surface of the planet below, where you will spend the rest of your life in the Negan mine.” Shimuh nodded to the master-at-arms who marched the prisoner out. “How he got his commission is beyond me,” Shimuh sighed, shaking his head.

The carrier’s sensor system suddenly sprang to life. “Sir incoming ships,” cried the operator.

“Identify,” the officer of the watch commanded.

“Alliance ships sir!”

“How many and what type?” asked the young lieutenant, as he ran across the bridge. Peering over the operator’s shoulder, he looked at the sensor screen. Breaking into a cold sweat, he switched on the intercom and shouted, “Admiral to the bridge!”

Shimuh looked at the screen as each contact changed to an identification icon. Aten class carriers, Hadit class battle cruisers, Khons class light cruisers, and Mentu class destroyers—hundreds of them. This is an invasion fleet, and they will be here in less than thirty hours!

~~~

Back in the depths of the planet, Delal had finished studying the maps. “I think I can get us out of here. There are two passages leading away in the general direction of the mine.”

“By now the mine will be retaken. We need to find a way to distance ourselves from the Drana as quickly possible,” Khan replied, smiling to himself.

“What are you grinning at?” asked Manouf.

“Ha—that’s the first time I’ve ever thought of myself as anything other than Drana!” Khan said, shaking his head at the thought.

~~~

Next time Chapter Ten

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