Szellenyte is a crystalline fuel that the Mitasterites wanted in the worst way. As far as anyone knew, it was unique to this planet, the 75th (of 91) rocks to orbit the decaying, binary stars of Kyss X and Kyss Y. Of the four volcanic planets in this old system, the probes picked up energy signature spikes only on this one—the coldest. The spikes came from two regions. The other region was a geological minefield of active volcanoes. Once you took into account the inhospitable nature of the place—lava lakes punctuated by toxic plumes and sporadic, explosive bursts—the location of our base was the only option.
The bulk of the crystal sat in a vast deposit just under the surface at the head of the valley. That’s where Base was located. When it became known how valuable the fuel is—versatile, stable under most conditions—the engineers were asked to refit the transportation depot into a defense facility. Even before hostilities officially began with the Mitasterite Empire—and they were itching for a fight—the T.U. Command ran a lottery among the services. That’s how 1,300 of us were pulled from all over to come here, to fill our time with snow and weapons. And to prepare for the pending fight.
I saw the chamber once, the szellenyte. It was rather lovely. The crystal’s a red-orange hue that occurs in finger-size shards. The chamber was so large the crystals could’ve been grains of rice in a deep basket. The lighting was dim, from cold lamps set a distance away of the stockpile. The element was considered stable barring the application of a sudden spike in temperature, as from fire. I could understand why that guy, Mimms, wore a special suit with soft gloves. One spark or flash and the whole pile could go up. There’d be nothing left of anything.
“Enough to send parts of this base into orbit,” Karran had joked. Half-joked. Base itself was built into the “saddle” wall at the head of the valley. Sitting atop a potential bomb made everyone nervous. It wasn’t a stretch to imagine that bomb tearing open the mountainside.
Now we could be dealing with it the way we never wanted to.
We moved into the darkness. Esch (he preferred the shorter version) went first carrying Dhani’s rapid-fire rifle with a light magnetized to the barrel. Then Prubius followed with a handgun drawn and a light sweeping. If Mitties came up this way, we’d have at least a fighting chance. I was next, helping Dhani with his left arm draped over me. He was woozy from the painkillers—I could tell by his unsure steps. Prubius and I wore backpacks we were able to make from the supply crates—rations, ammo and some items. Bohlshivra brought up the rear, dragging a makeshift sled. We’d cut a small crate’s lid into strips and affixed them to the bottom with industrial-strength adhesive. That must’ve been in the supplies to hang more lights on the tunnel ceiling. There was enough miscellany to fashion a harness, as well. I told Bohlshivra we’d all take turns with the sled. Commanding officer or not, I’ve lugged my fair share of supplies in the past.
The other crates were too cumbersome to drag over an uneven floor. From behind came the scraping of the sled, accompanied by our rear guard’s occasional grunts. It was inconsistent work. Nobody said anything for a few mins, either out of fear or in the interests of stealth. As sharpshooters know, nothing audible stands out as much as conversation where there shouldn’t be any.
We traveled slowly, sticking to the wall on the left since the tunnel curved right. Every so often, I awkwardly lifted my rifle to peer through the scope. It didn’t have true night-vision capability, but it would sure pick up distortion and shape faster than my eyes would in the darkness. Fortunately, I’d recovered after Dhani’s rifle went off. How idiotic would it be to have the leader blinded by a weapon’s discharge?
The distance seemed longer than I remembered, though there was always something more pressing—like a pending invasion—in mind. How many times had I been up and down this tunnel in the past few days? Supplies, checking on the shields, firing positions, finding my spider hole. Always working with the bright daylight ahead, I never realized the absence of lights along the way. Some crew never got around to it, occupied with other concerns. Why didn’t we have temporary torches in here, at least?
A side tunnel appeared on the left. I guess I’d never noticed that, either, hurrying back and forth. Had people checked it out, to make sure Mitties couldn’t get to us that way? Somebody must have done it. Still, where did it go?
The path straight ahead seemed a little brighter, heading toward Base. It was still a ways off—maybe 300 legs around a curve.
Are you sure this is the right path, June?
“Wait,” I told the men. Dhani and Prubius paused ahead of me.
I caught my breath. “I don’t know. I just…I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”
“Me too,” Bohlshivra seconded. “We are vulnerable, here.”
“But what’s down that path,” Esch asked.
“It’s what isn’t down that path.” Even saying this aloud, it sounded stupid to me. What did I really know? Indecision was like a foul shred of vegetable matter stuck in my teeth. “Time, from the cave-in?”
“Thirty-nine mins, Captain,” Bolhshivra reported.
“What does that mean?”
Those guys have been at it for an hour. How long can they really hold out? Even men like Jax?
I had to trust my gut on this one. “We take this tunnel,” I told them. “At the least, we won’t be sitting in the open if the Mitties come.”
“Hmm. That makes sense.”
“All right,” Esch said, resigned. He came back to help get the makeshift sled over a rough patch of rock.
Prubius took point, sweeping his light around our new environs. “I do not suppose anyone knows where this goes?” he asked.
“It goes away from danger,” Bohlshivra said. “That may enough for now.”
We started down the new path. “Shouldn’t we be helping?”
“Esch, please, Captain. Only my dad ever calls me Eschelbach. When he’s steamed.”
I hid a smile, even though it was concealed in darkness. The wall of this narrower tunnel felt especially cold, as if it was even farther from Human-made warmth or compassion. “Normally, I’d say yes, but…” I let the thought trail off, wondering if my fingertips were deceiving me.
“Hold,” Bohlshivra said. Heads turned to look. I felt it in the blackness.
“Uh—” someone started.
“Cover-cover-cover,” Bohlshivra shouted, grabbing a handful of my uniform and pulling me further up the tunnel.
We scrambled to get cover, my heart banging the roof of my mouth. I suddenly couldn’t breathe.
A flash of light.
A storm of intense heat and light devoured my arms and back and shoulders. Everything vibrated horribly. Someone—Dhani?—cried out in panic. I nearly cried out, as well.
I’m in Hell!
As quickly as it came, it was gone. We were once again swallowed by darkness cut by thin lights—and something else. Faces looked at me, and elsewhere, but nobody moved. Everyone’s breathing was accelerated—I could hear it. Five of us. Nobody on fire. We all made it through.
It. The storm. Oh no! Don’t tell me…
Finally, I turned and faced a weird, acrid smell. Before me, small pockets of steam swirled up slowly, combining with falling chutes of dust. The tunnel’s ceiling held. Ahead and to the right was a dim light. I stepped gingerly toward it.
It came from two distant slivers, daylight trying to pierce clouds of dust back down the tunnel. Where our sniper’s nest used to be, before it was closed by a collapsing cave. The daylight must’ve been from where some rocks were blown out by the blast.
The blast. Oh no!
For a min, we stood about the junction, taking in the scorched tunnel and a few chunks of debris—new, smoking things carried by the blast.
Everything seemed so quiet. Everything.
Most of the men were looking up the tunnel, in the direction of Base. Bohlshivra carefully touched the wall next to me, as if feeling out a crime scene.
“Is that it?” Esch asked. He didn’t need to elaborate on what he meant by ‘it’.
Prubius turned to me and touched his forehead in symbolic gesture. “It seems we have lost.”
Available this summer