Episode 212: Atlantian Dreams
by Crazymoon / BabyDoc
They had been descending into the trench for ten minutes, but it seemed liked hours. The walls of the submersible howled under the pressure of the crushing darkness around them. It wasn't the groaning hull that made it hard for Higgins to settle in his seat. It was the other noises. Every few moments as the Roughneck's tiny sub sank deeper into the Charybdian sea, he would hear faint pings echoing off the cabin walls or feel the faint shudder under his feet of something moving close to the sub in the outer dark. He crouched in front of a porthole with his camera trying to film the source of these strange sounds. The water played tricks with the sub's lights, and the tiny light of his camera did little to penetrate the darkness. Even so, he would occasionally catch a fleeting glimpse of some pale creature passing close to the porthole; strange creatures caught out of the corner of his eye as they darted back into the darkness. There were shimmering jellies, wreathed in gauzy membranes with pale lights arrayed across their bodies like stars; thin pale tentacled creatures with large eyes that gleamed bright in his camera light, and something...something large. He only saw it for a moment in his viewfinder. It seemed huge, almost as large as the sub. It had four limbs that splayed into large webbed feet. He lowered his camera and stared intently out the view port, but the apparition had vanished, swimming away into the dark. Had he really seen it?
Major Rico left his seat and passed forward into the tiny cockpit of the sub.
"How much further Goss? What's our ETA?" Rico leaned over Jeff's shoulder, peering out the darkened front view port.
"We're almost there," Goss answered. He flicked an overhead switch that brought up a small 3D radar map on the panel to his right. The sheer walls of the Hesperian Abysmal were traced in glowing light. Numbers indicating their depth and position hovered over the image. In a moment Goss had his answer. "Another seven minutes and we'll set down as close as we can to the area Carl explored."
"Good," Rico turned back toward the passenger compartment and let his eyes adjust from the bright green glow of the radar map, to the dim cabin of the sub. "Alright Roughnecks, suit up. Make sure your pressure systems are operating properly."
"Aw and I was hoping to implode," Doc joked as he rose to suit-up.
"Sir?" Goss's voice drew the major back to the cockpit. "I don't mean to complain, but I thought you should know that we exceeded this sub's safe operational depth two minutes ago. At the bottom of the trench we'll be at close to 3.5 metric tons psi." The squad's mechanic glanced disapprovingly at the welds and riveted panels around the cockpit. They had contracted this sub from Magellan with some difficulty; no one wanted to commit their property to a dive into the Hesperian Abysmal, especially after Carl's recent experience. Still Rico knew that if Goss would pilot it, he could darn well keep it together.
"You getting timid in your old age?" Rico asked sarcastically.
Goss tossed him a sardonic look that Rico answered with a smile. This was nothing Goss couldn't handle. Johnny returned to the crew compartment where the cumbersome job of donning the subsuits was underway. The subsuits were large bulky powersuits specially designed for deep-sea operations; they had thick tritanium plating that enabled them to withstand the crushing pressures of the ocean floor. The spherical helmet seated directly onto the torso armor like the old diving suits of the last century. Two high-powered carbon arc floods were situated on either side of the helmet. They were heavier and less maneuverable than standard MI suits, but could operate at depths that would instantly crush the lighter armor like a paper cup. It had been a tall order to fit all the troopers and their special gear into the sub, but they had done it. They even managed to squeeze in a Sub Marauder, the marine counterpart of the Duck Marauder heavy power suit, but it was so bulky it was left in the airlock for there was no other place for it.
The Sub Marauder resembled a small one-man submarine and it was designed to operate as one. The pilot's compartment was a thick transparent dome extending in front of the stubby metallic body of the craft; thick metal fingers surrounded the sphere binding it to the mechanicals behind. A pair of mechanical claws, bristling with weapons and tools extended just below the pilot's sphere. Two large pontoons flanked the craft on either side. These would operate as ballast tanks for regulating the sub's depth, but they concealed a second purpose. At the pilot's command they could rotate and unfold into large splay-toed legs transforming the submersible into an articulated powersuit.
In the cramped passenger compartment of their sub, only two troopers could suit up at a time. Doc and Max were up first; the others waiting patiently for their turn. Rico looked down the line of seated troopers and noticed Diz. She seemed more withdrawn than before, her gaze turned inward. Rico couldn't understand it until suddenly the answer hit him. Darkness, cramped quarters, no real room to move about. She was scared. He recalled her fear of small spaces, remembering the mission on Pluto where she collapsed, overcome by claustrophobia. Carl had managed to psychically 'block' the fear from her mind then, but over time his repair had worn away. Year after year, her fear crept back slowly regaining its power over her. Though still not as powerful as in years past, it still threatened to overwhelm her. Rico's heart sank looking at her. He wanted to hold her in his arms, whisper to her that everything would be all right. He imagined her fear slipping away, and that beautiful smile brightening her face. But it was not to be. All he could do now was watch her rock nervously in her chair. He approached her.
"Diz, you don't look so hot."
She shot him a deadly glance and snapped at him, "Sir, I'm fit!"
She stopped her rocking and began running a systems check of her suit. Rico could detect the slightest tremor in her movements.
"Just leave me alone, I'm fine."
"Diz," Rico brought his face close to hers so the others would not hear, "We both know Carl's fix is almost gone. Are you sure you can handle yourself down here?"
She turned her back on him. His question had struck a nerve. Her fear was replaced by an anger that filled every fiber of her being. She turned back to face Johnny, her face locked into a sneer.
"What do you mean 'handle myself down here'? You think I can't hack it anymore? That I've forgotten what it's like to be a Roughneck?"
"No Diz, I'm not saying that. You never stopped being a Roughneck. It's just we'll be in total darkness here with no light but our own. We don't know what to expect. I guess I was just...worried about you."
"It's not your place to worry about me anymore, Major. I can handle myself fine." Her voice brimmed with cool venom.
Rico's heart sank once again as she turned away and resumed checking her suit. He moved past her to check on the rest of the squad. M'Rette was talking to Haley and he could tell something was wrong. As uncomfortable as they were in their cramp quarters, M'Rette was even more so. Though young for a T'Phetti, she stood over seven feet tall and could barely fold her lanky frame into the tiny submersible. She took it in stride, never complaining, but now something was really bothering her.
"Is there something wrong, M'Rette?" Rico asked.
"Nothing, sir. I am fine," she replied in a calm voice.
It was difficult reading T'Phetti facial expressions, but Rico had had plenty of experience with T'Phai. "We're nearly at Carl's coordinates. I need to know if there is a problem."
"She's just a little frightened, sir" Haley interjected, "We both are. It's more than the jitters. We were worried about finding whatever it was that made Carl run from this place. I know Carl well; he's not one to be frightened easily."
"Haley is correct," M'Rette spoke with the same measured cadences of her father. Listening to her brought back painful memories. "Maj. Rico, I am also unhappy with the duty assignments. I was told I would stay in the submersible when we reach our destination. I am a warrior, like my father. I do not appreciate being left behind."
Rico smiled ruefully. So like her father. "I knew your father, and harbor no doubts about the spirit of his daughter, but the duty assignments are non-negotiable. If I had my say, neither of you would be here at all. My people have been in harm's way before; I know they can take care of themselves. For all your courage, neither of you has any experience. Haley, you're here because I need your psychic gift to guide us. M'Rette, you are here...because you insisted on coming, and I know better than to argue with a daughter of T'Phai. But I have no subsuit to fit you. Your T'Phetti armor wouldn't hold up at this depth. Most importantly, I owe it to your father to keep you as safe as I can. So you're staying here."
The young T'Phetti glared disapprovingly at the major, but her response was interrupted by the intercom.
"Everybody strap in. It's going to get a little bumpy" Goss called back just as a wave of turbulence rocked the sub.
"Get your helmets on people!" Rico shouted trying to keep his footing. He grabbed for the cargo netting above the bulkhead seats and caught it as the sub lurched hard to port. The other Roughnecks were clutching the seat restraints or anything they could get their hands on. The ship rolled hard again to port then seemed to fall forwards. Rico staggered to the cockpit to find Goss struggling with the controls.
"Fumaroles, big one popped up just to starboard." Goss spoke answering Rico's unasked question. "Spun us around a little, but I'm getting a handle on it."
The ocean floor of Charybdis was as stormy as the planet's surface. Rico had heard of the fumaroles, geysers of boiling water and silt that could explode unpredictably from the seabed. Before their departure, the Magellan locals had regaled him with horror stories of lost subs and boiled submariners caught in these volcanic jets. He had hoped they were exaggerating, but now he realized they had a gift for understatement. The sub heaved again, the hull screaming against the pressure. Rico braced against the cockpit bulkhead and found it warm to the touch. The external temperature had jumped from a couple degrees above freezing to near boiling in only seconds. Rico looked imploringly at Goss but did not speak. Jeff continued wrestling with the controls, then as abruptly as it had started, the bucking ceased. Rico righted himself to find Goss sitting calmly in his chair. After reviewing his status indicators, the corporal cast an easy smile toward the major.
"Did you enjoy that?" Goss grinned, "You should see what I can do with a shrimp boat!"
Rico could not help but smile in return. Goss made a few minor adjustments to the controls and the sub came gently to rest on the trench floor. Groans and sighs of relief echoed in the cabin. A few of the Roughnecks had managed to suit up; others were still untangling themselves from the cargo net.
"What's everyone strapped in for?" Goss asked with a half-smile, as he rose from his pilot's seat. He faced a room full of glassy stares.
"Who the hell taught you to drive? You get your pilot's license from a crackerjack box?" Max barked. The words were angry but his voice was filled with relief.
"An artist is never appreciated in his time," replied Goss.
"Now I know how a three minute egg feels," Higgins muttered wiping the sweat from his brow.
"Pipe down people," Rico's command silenced the chatter, "Goss, you and M'Rette stand watch in the sub. Doc, I want you in the Submarauder; you'll need to get out first so the rest of us can fit in the lock. Next out will be Dizzy, Haley and me, then Zim, Max and Higgins. Gear up people, we disembark in ten."
"Uh, sir?" It was Higgins raising his hand like a schoolboy.
"What is it paperboy?"
"Sir, I'm not familiar with these diving suits. I understand that we breathe...liquid?"
"Yes, Bob," Rico rolled his eyes in exasperation, "These depth suits use LVS, liquid ventilation system. You breath a hyperoxygenated mix of fluorvent. It's the only breathing system that can function at this depth."
Higgins stared nervously at the large domed helmet in his hands.
"Higgins, after all we've been through, don't tell me your still afraid of the water."
"No sir," Robert replied sheepishly, "I've never been afraid of water. I'm afraid of drowning."
Rico turned to Goss, who was unsuccessfully suppressing his chuckles. It was Doc who stepped forward to the rescue.
"Give me five minutes with Higgins. I'll get him suited up, no problem." Doc volunteered.
"Go ahead then, sergeant," Rico replied grateful to be relieved of this hassle, "Just don't delay your departure. I want you prepped and out in ten."
"Yes, sir" the medic replied. He looked down at Higgins in his seat. Higgins stared up at the tall formidable trooper, a pleading look in his eyes.
Rico followed Goss back toward the cockpit.
"I hope he's gentle," Goss snickered as he retook his pilot seat.
Rico tried not to imagine the persuasion the master sergeant might use on the 'Paperboy'.
"Goss, keep as clear a fix on us as you can. We'll look around for thirty minutes. If we find nothing, we'll return. Keep the engines warm and the lock flooded after we leave. I want you ready for a fast get away.
"Sir," the engineer's face grew abruptly serious, "What do you think you'll find out there?"
"I have no idea, Jeff," Rico replied with a trace of anxiety, "Something scary enough to scare Carl Jenkins into a panicked run."
"Don't worry, sir," Goss spoke reassuringly, "I'll leave the porch light on for you."
Rico laid a friendly hand on Goss's shoulder then returned to the passenger bay. Most of the squad were suited up. Rico noticed Higgins seated in his chair with his helmet on. Doc was squatting in front of him, keeping his face close to the faceplate of the trooper. The 'Paperboy' was making some kind of strange noise. As Rico drew closer he could see that the trooper's helmet was filled with the ventilation fluid; Bob's features shimmered behind the veil of pale pink liquid.
Rico cast a concerned look at the seated trooper, "Is he okay? What's that noise he's making?" Rico keyed his comlink to Higgins' frequency. He listened, a look of disbelief on his face. "Is that humming?"
Doc looked apologetically at the major. "Sir, it's a distinct improvement over his singing. I slipped him a little Midazolam, an old drug but more effective than the suit's inboard tranqs. Five milligrams and he'll follow you off a cliff. Getting him to breathe liquid was no problem."
"Yeah, but can he function?"
"When was Higgins ever able to function?" Doc replied with a broad grin on his face.
Rico shook his head in mock exasperation. He grabbed his helmet from the overhead netting and turned once more to his squad.
"Let's get wet, Roughnecks!"
The water was colder than he'd imagined. Rico suppressed a shudder inside his suit. The icy dark pressure of the ocean washed over his suit and clawed at its seams. He had guided his team into a world of numbing darkness. Doc was running point in his Submarauder; with its legs unfolded it lumbered like some unearthly crustacean on the trench floor. With every step its three-toed feet kicked up clouds of fine black silt. Rico was behind him with Higgins on his right. The paperboy had recovered from Doc's 'cocktail' and though Rico heard him breathing heavily in his fluid-filled helmet, Higgins did not complain. The major turned to look back down the trail they had taken.
Strung behind them was a fragile trail of magnesium flares guttering feebly in heavy dark. On Earth, one flare could light up a battlefield like midday, but here on the floor of this alien ocean, they only punched small holes in the darkness. Off to his left, invisible in the dark were Max and Diz; Haley and Zim were somewhere to his right. Well behind them, Goss and M'Rette stood vigil in the sub. The three teams had searched the trench floor for half an hour with no results. Rico was beginning to question his decision to come here. Should he have risked his friends on this fool's errand? Was following Carl the right move, or just some desperate act of friendship? He had no idea what he was looking for. Rico's mind was full of questions he couldn't answer. Rico radioed his team.
"No sir," Max was the first to reply, his voice betraying a note of weariness. "Just silt and rocks and what passes for a fish in this place. Nothing, sir."
"He's thinking the same thing I am," Rico thought, "this whole op is a waste of time." Their thirty minutes were up and Rico wordlessly sent the recall signal. He and Higgins paused as Doc slowly turned his mechanical behemoth around and the three followed the glowing trail back toward the sub. They had only gone a few steps when Zim's voice crackled in Rico's earpiece.
"Major, we may have found something."
"What is it Sergeant?"
"You really need to see this for yourself"
Rico issued the command for the everyone to converge on Zim and Haley's position. Moving through the trench was slow; it took ten minutes for the entire team to converge on Zim's position. Rico drew close to the Sgt. Zim, training his helmet lights on the soldiers' face.
"What do you have? Where's Haley?"
The sergeant didn't speak but pointed off into the darkness to his left. Haley was standing motionless, bent at the waist, with both hands clutching a rock jutting from the trench floor.
"Haley, Haley," Rico spoke wading toward her, "Answer me"
"I'm here," Haley's voice was weak, distracted, "It's this way."
She seemed overcome with weariness, propping herself to keep from falling. Rico drew near and looked into her face. She was staring with glazed eyes into the blackness. He was about to touch her to help her up, but Zim placed a restraining hand on the major's shoulder. Zim shook his head slightly and spoke softly.
"Sir, let her be. She's reading it."
The Roughnecks formed a circle around the psychic.
"What does she see?" Higgins piped up. Dizzy shushed him with a dismissive gesture but Haley answered.
"He was here. Carl was here."
Rico knelt in front of the young woman bringing his faceplate level with hers. He spoke quietly as though he was afraid to wake her.
" What do you see?"
"Carl's sub hit this rock"
Rico turned his helmet lamps on the stone and it was freshly scarred from some great impact. Haley stared forward.
"He came from over there. What we seek is there." Haley pointed to the darkness before her.
Rico keyed a sonar image into his faceplate. The empty black before him was overlaid with a tracery of red lines outlining a number of large shapes ahead. He ordered Doc to launch a pair of magnesium flares to give them a better look. Two bright lines arced from the Submarauder into the dark and exploded in red radiance. By the flickering light of the two tiny suns, Rico could make out a great, dark structure looming thirty meters ahead. Though ragged, broken, and covered with a thick blanket of silt, it was still identifiable. It was a wall, vast and long, standing ten meters tall and extending as far as the light of the flares could shine. Through rents in the structure, Johnny could see it was nearly as thick as it was tall. And it was not simple stone. As the sputtering flares slowly sank to the trench floor, their light shimmered off gold tracery etched into the stones; strange patterns flickered and vanished in the moving red light. It was not natural, and it was not human. Rico stood transfixed for a moment, not noticing that Haley had stirred from her trance and was moving quickly toward a great opening in the structure.
"Haley!" he called, spotting the girl too late, " Wait for us!" The Roughnecks followed in a ragged group as the young woman approached what appeared to be a gate. They paused in the entry, a massive opening in the wall wide enough for the squad to stand abreast in and still not touch the gateposts. Even Doc's Submarauder was dwarfed in this vast entryway. Little bangles floated from the sides of the gate seeming to welcome them inside. The stones of the gateposts and wall were not made from the black basalt of the trench floor but shone faintly blue. They were covered in patterned lines of gold, runes fine as spider's web gleaming like fire in the Roughnecks helmet lamps. When they could pull their gaze from the wall, they discovered something even more wondrous. Their sonars revealed a vast city within the broken wall; huge domes, chambers, and obelisks hidden in the dark and running along and into the sheer wall of the trench. It was unbelievably vast and complex.
"Analysis?" Rico inquired.
"Toto, I don't think we're in Kansas, anymore," Max cracked.
"Atlantis would be closer to the mark," Higgins added.
"Doc," Rico continued, "Anything more useful?"
"Sir," the master sergeant replied, "I've been running some scans on these structures. They are alien in origin, previously uncataloged and immensely old. My preliminary data suggests they are at least fifty thousand years old, and may be far older."
"Any current occupants?"
"I'm getting spotty life signs throughout the complex. Could be the indigenous wildlife passing through. No heat sources, mechanical noise, EM emissions of any kind to suggest industry or activity. I think this place has been dead for a long time."
"What would make Carl bolt like a bat out of hell from here?" Dizzy asked.
"Only one way to find out," Rico answered, "Let's take a look inside."
On the major's command Doc launched two more flares into the sunken city and the squad entered the ancient ruins under their pale light. Rico took the lead with Haley, who seemed to know where she was going. As they crossed the space between the wall and the first buildings, Rico heard a strange pinging echo through his helmet. Pressure must be playing hell with his comlink, he guessed.
"Any bright ideas where we are?" Dizzy's question interrupted the awful quiet of the place and startled everyone. They all looked at her, but she seemed not to notice. " This place isn't on any map I saw while we were topside."
"I don't think anyone knew it was here," Zim replied, "We're too deep for routine survey, and orbital mapping would lose this place in canyon clutter. I doubt anyone's lived down here for a long time."
"Whoa, get a load of this!" Higgins shouted from several meters back. He was standing near a large section of ruined building. "This thing's got claw marks on it! I don't think a natural disaster destroyed this place."
Indeed, the wall bore three long deep gouges over three meters long.
"Doc," Rico radioed his flank guard, "Getting anything on sonar?"
"No, sir," he replied, "Whatever took a swipe at your building isn't here anymore."
Higgins was unconvinced. The claw marks reminded him of the strange creature he had glimpsed during their descent. They continued their exploration of the city passing dozens of thresholds and tunnels even darker than the world they were in. Haley halted abruptly and Rico pulled beside her. In the light of his helmet, the psychic's face looked troubled.
"I'm getting a strange impression from that entrance over there." To their right a large broken tunnel yawned like a great mouth from a shelf of stone. Haley approached the black maw of the doorway, and Max moved protectively to her side. She stood in the threshold placing a hand on the ruined sill. Brutto held her shoulder, preventing her from advancing further. Max moved into the tunnel in front of her, swinging his light and Morita from side to side.
"Major," the sergeant reported, "We have a tunnel descending below the level of the ruins. Can't see the end of it. Big enough for us, but a tight squeeze for the Submarauder."
"Talk to me Haley" Rico spoke moving along side Haley.
The young woman paused a moment. "The impression on the sill is fresh. Carl passed through this entry."
Rico didn't speak, but for reasons he couldn't understand he felt drawn into the tunnel as well. He left Higgins and Doc in his SubMarauder to watch the door. Max would take point and the rest would follow into the deeper dark of the tunnel.
The interior of the tunnel bore little resemblance to the pale blue stone outside. Inside, the walls were black just like everything else. Max's light cut a feeble circle in the darkness as he advanced. The tunnel descended in a dizzying series of twists and turns for about four hundred meters; sonar revealed that the passage was just large enough for a Submarauder in a pinch. He would remember that in case he needed to call in the cavalry. His path veered hard right and the tunnel narrowed. It must have been a doorway for he passed through the narrowed threshold into a larger space. Max was surrounded by dark shapes cluttered on the floor, leaning from the walls, and hanging from the ceiling. Debris, he figured, though a thick layer of silt blanketed everything making identification uncertain. He tried brushing away the film from what looked like a fallen roof strut and created a cloud of silt that obscured his vision. He swore quietly at himself.
"Watch your step when you guys come in here," he radioed back, "There's all sorts of junk tossed around here. I think whoever...what was that?" Max spun himself to his right. A cloud of silt billowed toward him as though something had moved suddenly in the still water of the chamber. But he could see nothing.
"Max, what happened? What's going on?" Rico responded as he pushed his way past the slimy seaweed that clung to the tunnel wall. Haley, Diz, and he had been tailing Max, but had fallen behind.
"I think I just saw something, sir. Going to investigate." Max moved into the murky water to the right, picking his way quickly around the debris.
"Max, wait for us! You need backup!" Diz called into her com from behind Rico. "You don't know what's down here!"
"Like father, like son," Rico muttered under his breath.
"I'm a big boy, private. I can take care of myself. I just hit my beacon. Follow that in."
"Max, hold your position till we reach you," Rico commanded trying to hide his exasperation.
"Ain't...luc...I was...an..." Max's comlink was breaking up fast. He was moving away from the squad.
Rico quickened his pace, moving now in a gliding-swimming walk trying to catch up to his sergeant. Haley and Diz followed in his wake. He crossed into the cluttered chamber and stopped so abruptly that Diz swam into him and tumbled backwards into what looked like the remains of a table.
"What did ya stop for, you idiot!" Diz snapped as the silt settled on her suit.
Rico turned and offered her a hand up. "Which door do you guess Max walked through?" he answered nodding behind him. As she rose her light settled on a series of seven doorways encircling the chamber before them. Haley joined them adding her perplexed expression to Rico and Dizzy's. Johnny consulted his tracker, and while he could locate Max's beacon, the device gave no clue which path would lead him to the sergeant.
"Haley, can you help us?" the major asked. He hoped she could snatch a psychic impression from one of the doors.
"I'm sorry, sir," the Haley replied, "For someone to impress an inanimate object, he must either be psychic or experiencing strong emotions during the contact for me to read anything."
"Probably would require a brain as well," Dizzy muttered, "And that disqualifies Max."
Rico moved to each of the doorways, watching closely the signal read on Max's beacon. He thought he noticed an improved signal in the second doorway to the right. It was a thin lead, but all he had.
"Max, which door did you take?" Rico called into his comlink.
"I don't...ow...you...than one?...still wa...Can't...whe...go...g?
There was nothing for it but to follow the door Rico had chosen.
"Follow me, and stay close," Rico ordered.
The troopers moved into the corridor which seemed to narrow the further they went. Rico now had two problems on his mind; his missing trooper and Diz. Moving into the cramped darkness of the passage would be hell for her. He wasn't sure how much more of this she could take. Whether she liked it or not, he still cared about her. They continued deeper into the ruins and Dizzy's movements began to slow. She remained silent, her head bowed. Rico was afraid she might lose consciousness. They needed to find Max soon and get out of here.
"Max, can you hear me?" Haley's voice broke the silence.
There was a moment's pause, then Max's gruff voice bellowed over their comlinks.
"Thought maybe you guys decided to stay topside."
The signal was clean, reassuring Rico that they must be close.
"Max, we're close by. Start shining your lights around so we can spot you." Rico commanded.
"No problem, Major. Just look for that shining beacon in the darkness."
"Let's get him and get out of here," Dizzy spoke with a controlled intensity, "I don't have a good feeling about this place. It gives me the creeps."
They had moved forward a few yards, when there came a burst of garbled noise from Max's comlink. Rico tried to quicken the pace, but moving through the water was dauntingly slow.
"Max, what's the matt.." Rico never finished the question. He heard, or more correctly felt a tremor in the water and knew what it must be.
"Plasma grenade!" Johnny screamed, "Brace!" A fraction of a second later the shock wave hit them. Channeled through the narrow corridor the blast force was amplified and hit them like a hurricane. They were in the barrel of a gun when the gun went off. All were blown backward off their feet. Rico scrambled to his knees.
"Roughnecks, sound off and status!" he called, his head still ringing from the pressure wave. He keyed his own suit status onto his HUD. A shock wave that intense at this depth could breach a subsuit like an egg and implode it, but his suit indicators showed green.
"What the hell. . ?"
That had to be Dizzy.
"I'm in one piece, I think" came Haley's soft voice.
Rico didn't hear from Max; he sincerely hoped he was alive so he could kill him for detonating a plasma grenade at this depth. The three rose slowly to their feet. Rico looked forward and saw a light swinging frantically in the distance approaching them. Before he could speak, the light was upon them. Max crashed into Rico nearly knocking him to the floor again. Johnny looked into the sergeant's face and saw the wide, white-rimmed eyes of panic. Before Rico could speak he heard Haley scream over the comlink. All eyes looked back down the corridor.
There hanging in the darkness were a pair of pale green eyes. Involuntarily Rico recoiled grabbing a magnesium flare from his belt. He ignited it, and in its red glow they saw two huge apparitions floating in the passage twenty feet away. They were hideous creatures roughly twice the size of the troopers in their bulky subsuits. They had huge heads that tapered without a neck to massive shoulders and chests. The torso narrowed abruptly to a smaller pelvis and ended in a long eel-like tail. They had four limbs: the front pair from the oversized shoulders were massively enlarged and muscled, the hind limbs were smaller and more slender. Each limb ended in a webbed appendage; neither hand nor fin, each had three slender fingers ending in long, murderous claws. The misshapen head was nearly as broad as the shoulders and dominated by an oversized mouth. It was a broad crescent rimmed with hundreds of long chitinous teeth jutting out at odd angles. Dangling around the border of the mouth were dozens of slender tentacles that moved in and out of the huge oriface as though the creature were tasting the water. Two large oval eyes extended from the head on a pair of thick stalks. The two creatures hesitated, startled by the glare of the flare.
"Johnny," Diz whispered in a terrified voice, "I think we should get out of here...right now."
Rico agreed. Never taking his eyes from the two creatures, he put his hand behind him and motioned the squad to move.
"Max, Haley," Johnny spoke in a quiet measured voice, "Take point back down the corridor. Diz, stay with me. Watch your step. We are leaving."
The troopers began slowly reversing out of the passage. Rico holding the flare in his left hand grabbed his shock stick with his right. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Dizzy on his left shoulder holding her Morita high ready to fire. The creatures remained motionless behind them, slowly disappearing into the dark as Rico backed slowly away. They had almost disappeared from view, when the corridor was shaken by deafening roar that reverberated through the water. One of the creatures lunged forward. It pulled itself with frightening speed along the tunnel with its huge front legs. Dizzy's Morita burst into life sending tracers of light toward the monster. In a moment she was joined by Max who added his fire to hers. The beast jerked and turned in the water and backed abruptly away. It was impossible to run at this depth, but the troopers were lurching back towards the entrance as fast as they could. The second creature burst into the light of Rico's flare and Johnny jabbed it in the snout with his shock stick before Dizzy and Max responded with more weapons fire.
"Max," Rico shouted over the sound of the Moritas, "Get Haley out of here! Diz and I will try to hold these things off!"
"Are you crazy, sir?" Max protested, "Those things will snap you in two!"
"That was an order! MOVE!" Rico shouted. Quickly, he chin-keyed Doc's comlink.
"Doc, were coming out! We could use a little cover!"
"You got it," was Doc's reply, laconic as always.
Diz and Rico backed away now facing the thrashing horrors alone. The monsters moved so quickly Rico wasn't sure if they were hitting them. They kept shuffling back as quickly as they could. Abruptly the tunnel ended and they stumbled into the large cluttered room they had visited before. Rico turned briefly to see Max, and Haley standing at the wide threshold where they had first entered the room, gesturing madly for them to hurry. This wasn't good. The room was wide and cluttered. Backing through it they could easily trip or the monsters could swim around behind them and cut them off. Suddenly, a familiar deep voice echoed over everyone's comlink.
"Grab a wall now!"
The room rocked with an explosive percussion so intense Rico thought Max had detonated another grenade. Johnny dropped his shock stick and the two troopers toppled to the floor. He scrabbled up to find the scene dramatically changed. The exit threshold was now filled with the nose end of the SubMarauder. Doc had retracted the legs of the sub and rammed it into the room entrance, leaving only a narrow space for Johnny and Diz to squeak through. Diz and Rico moved clear of the SubMarauder's line of fire, and Doc opened up with a hail of tracers into the dark passage ahead. The room filled will silt and the two troopers groped blindly for a wall and inched around the room toward the exit. Rico felt Dizzy brush his right side, and he grabbed her hand to guide her.
"Johnny...I lost my Morita", Dizzy's voice sounded spent.
"Forget it. We are leaving!" Rico replied
Guided by feel he found the narrow sliver of the exit beside the bulky SubMarauder and slipped through pulling Dizzy behind him. Rico fell to his knees exhausted and felt hands lifting him up. He looked up to see the welcome faces of Max and Haley. Regaining his feet he looked back the way he had come. The remaining space of the entryway was far too narrow for the creatures to follow. They were safe. Smiling, Rico pounded on the flank of the SubMarauder and in answer, the rear hatch popped open and Doc crawled out.
"Some pretty fancy driving, Doc," Rico exclaimed, "Thanks for the assist. I was fresh out of ideas."
"My pleasure, sir," Doc responded, "Though you're gonna have to bill me for the sub. That puppies' wedged in tight. No way were taking it out."
"Put it on my tab," Johnny answered. "What happened to Higgins and Zim?"
"They're a few yards up the exit tunnel watching our flank." Doc continued, "I suggest we beat feet out of here."
"You read my mind. Troopers," Johnny directed the squad along side the sub through the exit passage. He reached for Dizzy's hand to help her along the exit, when she stumbled.
"Watch you're step, Diz..."
She had not stumbled. A long glistening tentacle had passed through the entryway and snagged itself on her boot. Before Rico could act, a second tentacle shot through the opening grabbing her ankle. She began to slide back toward the room.
"Dizzy!" Rico screamed and grabbed her extended arm with both hands. Max wedged in beside him and grabbed her wrist as well. Both pulled with all their strength, but the slender tentacles had the strength of iron. All three were dragged back toward the opening. Rico released one hand to grab his knife from beside his boot and began hacking at the clinging tentacles. It was useless. Every severed snake was replaced with a dozen more. Dizzy's legs were now enveloped and her lower body was slipping through the crack. A tentacle snagged Max around the helmet and he released his grip to pull it free. Diz slid entirely through the crack but Rico held on. Now his arm and head were back in the room. All he could see was Dizzy's frightened face as her arm slowly pulled out of his grasp. His body snapped back through the crack into the passage, and Dizzy's outstretched hand disappeared into the dark. Rico looked down to see Max and Zim hanging onto his legs.
"Dizzy! Hang on!" Rico screamed as he wrestled the restraining hands of his friends away. He lunged toward the crack, but was stopped as Zim braced him up against the side of the SubMarauder. The taller stronger man held Rico fast.
"Save your strength, Major," Zim admonished, "We need to contact the surface and call for reinforcements."
"Negative, Seargent!" Rico yanked himself free of Zim's grasp, "You can take Higgins back to the sub and call for backup. Doc and Max are going to stay here to guard the exit point. If Haley and I don't return in half an hour, I want you all to resurface and get M'Rette to saftey."
"What? Where are we going?" asked Haley, dreading the obvious answer.
"Haley Roman, if you're you're going to work with this squad there's one important rule you're going to have to learn -- the Roughnecks never leave a man behind!"
Next Episode: 213: The Jailer