By Glyn Collinson
 

Chapter Six - Bridge over the Styx


As the blinding white light dimmed, Sergeant Michael Mc Kinely started to make out dim shaped emerging from the gloom. Off to the left was a wooden packing crate, and stalactites were pointing accusing fingers at him from the roof of the cave. The light faded completely and the transport was complete.

"Ok team" he said through the microphone embedded in his sealed suit to his squad of nine Terran troopers. "Activate your Anti-Tarydium fields." Mc Kinely touched a control surface on his front. The air around him sparked and shimmered as the blue energy shield appeared around him. Then it settled down and the blue light on his helmet Head Up Display was the only sign that it was on. All around him, through his suit he could hear the humming noise as the shields shimmered into existence. "Lock onto the strongest power source." He said "it should be the refinery. Everyone got it? Good. Let's move out."

The only natural light came as a feint blue haze, that appeared to come from no where. That meant that the squad had to rely on their own illuminators for light. The Tarydium mines were like no other Mc Kinely had ever seen. For a start, the rock had the texture of basalt, but where it had been carved by excavating equipment, it was as reflective as finely polished marble. The caves were filled with wooden packing crates, they were so numerous that at times they had to smash their way. The silence echoed around them. The only sound was the deep toned thud of Trooper's suit boots, and the crunch of burnt wood.

To Mc Kinely it appeared like he was walking on a lake of glass. Looking down he saw a duplicate of him staring back. The blue haze waxed and waned around them. Sometimes it was a thick fog, and at other times it was a thin mist, that bathed everything in its radiance. The Troopers Tarydium shielding glimmered as it deflected invisible bolts of energy.

The tunnel ahead of them ended in an open air lift shaft. The lift cart was no where in site, and the rails that guided it were rusted to the point of collapse. Mc Kinely scanned the sides of the tunnel looking for a device that might call the cart. One of the stones of the wall had been shaped into a square that protruded a few inches from the rock surface. Into it, and painted in red was a symbol, made up of three sharp triangles. The red paint seemed to glow with its own radiance. Mc Kinely pressed it gently, and then feeling it move he pushed the entire stone back as far as it would go.

The shaft reverberated with a loud creak, and the metal rails shuddered, the vibrations setting off showers of red dust. There was a loud rhythmic thumping, which sounded to Mc Kinely like a tribal drum, being beaten again and again. The noise got louder, and louder. The cacophony of sound was joined by the teeth-grinding sound of the screech of metal.

Then the cage appeared into view, it slowed, and stopped with a loud hiss. Mc Kinely tested the floor with one foot. Then he applied his weight onto it. The lift cart squeaked in complaint, but then fell silent.

"It seems safe, ok, everyone onto the cart. One at a time."

One by one the troopers came, and trooper by trooper the cart groaned a little more. It seemed to Mc Kinely that it was about to collapse, but then the last trooper was onboard, and the rickety old contraption had survived. "Ok, the refinery should be at the very bottom." The Sergeant said, and yanked a wooden leaver to the right. The cage shuddered, and then plummeted. Mc Kinely had no idea how fast they were falling, but the lights from his suit showed the rock leaping upwards with frightening speed. Suddenly at periodic intervals lights appeared, blazing candles that beamed into the darkness. The rush of air from the cart made each one splutter.

Then the cart reached the bottom and stopped automatically. They spilled out into a wide artificial passage that had a spine of glowing white light. Mc Kinely killed his lights, and he held up his Blaster Rifle so the squad could see it. Then he made a signal with his left thumb and forefinger, indicating the flicking of a switch. The squad of troopers got the message, and all around him, Mc Kinely heard the sound of weapons being switched onto their kill settings. He adjusted his own weapon, before leading the team deeper into the inhabited areas of the Skaarj Tarydium mine.

*****

"Blazing stars!" The Captain exclaimed, as he entered the empty cargo bay. Empty, apart from the five hundred or so liberated Nali slaves. Ensign Vladeck, a thin pasty man with yellowing teeth, wispy white beard and a strong lisp stepped alongside him.

"I know, but that's nearly all the labour force. Where are we going to find room for them?" he said, at each S sound, he sprayed the air with a fine mist of saliva.

"They will have to stay here. Get a team together and set up water and food dispensers." Drake answered. He tapped his communicator. "Captain to Doctor Harrison, a large number of Nali has just been transported on board. Do some checks on some of the consenting ones. Get to grips with their anatomy and get the computer working on cures for the bacteria you find. It will only take one germ and we would have a plague on our hands up here."

"Understood." Came the reply from above his head. Then his communicator bleeped, and a worried voice came over the speaker.

"Captain, you had better get up here, we have a complication with Sergeant Mc Kinely's team."

*****

Mc Kinely fired wildly into the darkness, and didn't take his finger off the trigger until he saw pieces of Skaarj Warrior bounce all over the tunnel. He checked his ammunition. Not good, not good at all, they were all running low. Up ahead one of the Troopers yelled as the gigantic lizard jumped on top of him, smashing his helmet on the floor until it shattered. The troopers yell turned into a high pitched scream of agony, and then was suddenly cut off. The Sergeant took careful aim at the creature and pulled the trigger. Nothing happened. He pulled it again, but the Blaster's power cell was depleted. Swearing he powered up his climbing claws.

They shot out of their sockets, silver, jagged and needle sharp. With out any further thought he leapt at the thing.

*****

"What is going on down there?" The Captain asked the bridge, sitting quickly down in the Captain's chair.

"It is difficult to make out Captain." The communications officer said. "There has been some weapons firing, and a lot of shouting. The Tarydium is making a precise communications lock impossible."

"Chief Lieutenant Arnold, try modulating the frequencies, that might clear it up."

"I already tried that Sir. No luck"

*****

Mc Kinely had long since lost his combat suit, and all but two of his team through numerous Skaarj attacks. They had found mining equipment with which to fight, but the weak cutting or blasting tools did very little against the tough Skaarj carapaces. Only one trooper still had his suit, more or less intact, but the helmet had been shattered, and he had had to cut the arm sleeves off, as the power connectors had fused together.

Mc Kinely had the thermonuclear device slung across his back. There was no way that they were going to make it out, but they were going to finish their mission.

The tunnels were long, modern and dark. Lit only buy the throbbing of purple energy bolts that shot along the top of the passageway, heading further into the mine. Growls, snarls, sometimes very close echoed around, and very occasionally, there was a loud piercing human wail.

Clutching their impromptu weapons tightly, the three survivors limped down the long corridor. The passageway was long and tight, but with a very high ceiling. They were walking on a metal grate floor. Through the grate Mc Kinely could see winding power conduits. Several smaller pipes danced around a larger one, and at regular intervals split in two, one pipe diving into the main one and the other continuing the dance. Lights glared at them like miniature eyes from the walls, blinking on and off as their spectral owner blinked. Every now and then a hexagonal doorway would appear, recessed into the shining rock. At every door Mc Kinely expected claws to shoot out, grabbing for his throat

But none came. The three had no idea how long they had been battling for survival down in the tunnels, and they were silenced by half relief and half by dread as they saw the large door that blocked the passageway. In a strange language above the door, there was a scrawled epitaph. Because the Universal Translators had all been destroyed, they had no way to know that it read.

"Danger, primary power source. Core is extremely unstable, Place all weapons on safety."

Mc Kinely tightened his grip on the trigger of the rock blasting mining laser, and indicated for one of the others to open the door. The trooper pressed the recessed control, and the huge blast door hissed silently and slowly into the open position. The room was vast, but smaller than Mc Kinely had imagined. It was cubical, with the core running down the centre, just as Laayk had said. However he had left out the two creatures that were busily tying commands into the computers.

Unlike the Skaarj Warriors, these Aliens were fully clothed in layers of what looked like a shiny plastic materiel. Their clawed feet were hidden by tremendous boots, which were made out of the scaly hide of some lizard like creature. Their faces were long, with pointed muzzles and gleaming black noses. Long white whiskers shot out of the sides of their faces, swaying in the breezes caused by the opening of the main door. The one nearest the door turned from his work station, and did a double take as it stared up at the new intruders.

For a moment it didn't know what to do, but then it leapt for the red emergency button. It never made it, the beam from Mc Kinely's laser cutting cleanly through the soft flesh of the Alien. The second had already reached a metal cupboard and was pulling out something long and black. A weapon.

It aimed it at the squad, who jumped for cover into the room. Mc Kinely darted behind the great glowing and humming refinery column, the Alien tracking him paused, and glanced at the red warning sign all about not firing weapons into the core. Instead it changed its target and fired at the trooper who still had his armour. The weapon had a chamber full of an explosive gas that was detonated by the Alien's shot. This propelled a long series of sharp crystalline shards at the trooper, which bounced off the incredibly tough outer shell. The trooper smiled, raised his laser, and fired.

The creature was incredibly agile, it leapt out of the path of the laser, and dove for cover behind a control surface. The shot shattered a display, sending pieces of glass flying all over the room.

Mc Kinely had had enough, they had lost so many good men, and this, this THING refused to die! He picked up a long piece of glass and leapt behind the control surface, stabbing viciously again and again into the creature's face. He continued to stab, long after the thing had let out its last cry of pain and despair. He continued hacking and mutilating, until he had mashed the thing into a pulp.

He suddenly realised what he was doing. He dropped the shard in horror, the implement shattering into a million pieces. Then he realised, in his haste to throw away his suit, he had also thrown away the shielding it provided against the maddening effects of Tarydium.

"Let's do what we came here to do." He said, walking over to where he had dropped the heavy disk of metal with the yellow radiation sign emblazoned on it. Glancing at the warning signs, telling all of the extremely dangerous nature of this package, he pressed two buttons on the side, and the lid of the metal disk popped open, revealing a large and complicated device. It was shaped like an egg carton, but made out of a dull black metallic substance. Wires leapt in and out of it, and stencilled on the front was written the words.

"Caution, Radiation" in a big military font.

Looking at the back Mc Kinely saw a shining metal clamp, which looked like the vicious jaws of a shark. With the help of the other two troopers, they got the thing into position, and pressed the button on top. The jaws closed around the soft metal of the core, digging in and securing the bomb. Mc Kinely flipped up a safety cover, black with yellow stripes. The protective sheet of metal popped up revealing a glowing red button. Mc Kinely paused for a second, and then jabbed the button down hard.

The box beeped, and then the thing was armed. Mc Kinely let go of the safety sheet and it sprung back down to cover the, now dim, red button.

"Let's get out of here." Mc Kinely said. "We will have to get out through one of the surface tunnels. I remember the way back to the cart. Follow me."

The Sergeant led the remnants of his squad back out of the huge chamber, leaving two rotting corpses, and a little black box behind to keep them company.

*****

The thing watched them leave the chamber, and march purposefully down the long corridor. It smiled. Three Minions. just what it was looking for. The creatures left his vision, so he switched to another camera, this time a long wide angled shot of the passageway. In the distance he could make out the figures coming towards him. But they were going to miss the turning!

Typing furiously onto his keyboard twice as fast as any other thing could, the creature opened door number three fours seven, and, smiling, told the system that there was a fire in the refinery room.

*****

Mc Kinely froze with horror as the sirens blared, and suddenly the long passageway ahead was blocked by a solid wall of metal that had not been there a few moments before. He swung around and realised to his horror that only the suited trooper remained. He could hear the other one beating on the partition. Mc Kinely looked around for an escape route, and then saw that one of the hexagonal doors had opened, and the holographic sign above it showed the picture of a Skaarj Warrior leaping away from a fire and a triangle pointing towards the open hatch.

If Mc Kinely had been in his right mind, he might have realised that this was probably a trap. But instead, his panicked brain saw a way out, and he took it. The last remaining trooper followed him, still protected by an aura of forgotten energy.

*****

They were out of the passageway, very good. Then the thing realised that he had been too hasty, and that he had lost one of the Minions. The creature sighed. The Warriors would probably get him, and if he was lucky, they wouldn't take him alive.

Forgetting his failure, the creature stung around to face another screen and typed into an old model keyboard, which still relied on buttons being physically pressed. He typed in a series of commands, opening or shutting doors or drain gates. It was a cunning mind, and this was its masterstroke.

Smiling the creature returned his gaze to his main monitor, and switched the camera to one set, it knew, in a dingy side cave. It couldn't see anything, so it switched the camera to Infrared detection. It was only after it saw the things feeling their way around that the creature realised that they probably couldn't see anything either.

The creature activated the lights in the cave, and shut the door.

Now all it had to do, was to convince the system to make a fire, rather than put one out.

*****

The lights blared on, half blinding Mc Kinely for a few seconds.

"Must be automatic" he said, looking at his surroundings. The cave bore the signs of excavation, but it obviously hadn't been used in some time. Gigantic cobwebs spanned the entire width of the tunnel. He shuddered at the thought of the size of a spider required to make that kind of web. It must be at least a foot across. He stopped just before the web, frozen by fear.

The spider was looking at him, through eight red eyes that stared unblinkingly at him. It got up, and scuttled down to where it might get a better view of its prey.

Mc Kinely screamed, and fired his laser at the thing. It detonated, leaving only a loud high pitched howl and the smell of burning web behind.

"Sir are you ok?" The trooper asked him "I didn't know that you were afraid of spiders."

"But, I'm not." Mc Kinely said in puzzlement.

After a long walk, and, luckily, no more spiders, they reached their destination.

The cavern here was large, and lit by dim hanging lanterns. Only half the floor seemed to be finished, because after a few meters, the floor dropped into a large curve, which went down a way, swung back up, and then the floor continued, but this time in the cave's natural floor.

At either end, the curve formed a tube that was cut neatly into the rock, making it look as if a gigantic worm had eaten its way through the solid rock. When Mc Kinely looked down into the curve he saw that it was lined with flat black packages, which lay in rings, separated by a meter or two.

The two stared at each other, confused by the spectacle.

It started as a whisper, an then slowly built to a roar, and then, the transport shot into view rushing out of the tube and along the curve, it slowed and came to rest filling the gap between each wall. The tube was cylindrical, but at each end the cylinder had been pinched and a window placed near the top, to make it more aerodynamic.

A section of the cylinder popped open, spilling light out into the otherwise dark cavern. The curved edge seemed to flow down and form a flat boarding ramp.

"If that isn't an invitation to come onboard, I don't know what is" the Trooper said.

"Well, we can't stay here. I bet we are only one step ahead of the Skaarj, and there might be more spiders out there." Mc Kinely said, stepping onto the boarding ramp.

His foot hit the metal plate with a clank, and slowly, as if his boots were stuck to the ramp at each step, he walked into the transport. The trooper cautiously followed him. As soon as they were inside the clinically white space, the hatch closed, sealing them in.

There were no seats, and there didn't appear to be even any walls. The whiteness seemed infinite. Mc Kinely looked around, and then at the dirty and burned figures of himself and the trooper.

*****

Excellent, they were in the transport tube. Congratulating itself, the creature typed in more commands, and his monitor showed the transport start to move. Soon it had cleared the cavern, and was shooting down the tunnel. The thing changed his camera view to the view seen out the front of the transport. Lights shot past like bright stars, making the transport look like it was hurtling through space.

Now, all the thing had to do now, was to let the laws of physics take their course.

*****

Laayk stared out of the window, and watched the howling storm clouds let of silent explosions of lightning. The oceans of Achranis were being whipped into a froth by the power of the gales that hurled their forces against them. Laayk had often wondered what the world had been like before the 'Gods' came. Then it had been a planet where you could go outside in the summer and say,

"There isn't going to be a storm today."

But now, after lifetimes of constant abuse, the planet was fighting back. The clouds of smoke, visible even from this height blown into the air from the towers of the fortress. Laayk remembered with pain the time he had spent underground in the hellish environment of the Fortress. The endless tunnels, the wrath of the 'Gods', the scream of the Nali slaves. He closed his eyes, fighting tears.

But now the Minions had come, maybe all that had ended. Laayk continued to stare down as the fortress went out of site behind the planet, as the Avenger continued its silent and continuos fall.

From behind Laayk there was a hiss and the door sprung open, spilling in an amazed Captain.

"Laayk, you had better come with me to the bridge." He said "You will not believe the communication's message we just received."

*****

Mc Kinley collapsed onto the gently vibrating white floor and propped himself against a wall. In this white nothingness, time did not seem to exist. The Trooper sat down next to him, the remains of his combat suit whirring and sparking as the central computer relayed commands to non-existent servos and motors. "Sir, maybe you should get some rest." The Trooper suggested.

"Maybe you can stop that insubordination, trooper." Mc Kinely snarled, even though he could barely keep his eyes open. "I have had enough of you pointing out my weaknesses."

"Sir, I protest, I have done nothing of the sort."

"Oh really?" exclaimed Mc Kinely, his voice raised. "What about 'I didn't know you were afraid of spiders'". Mc Kinely was so tired now. He just couldn't keep his eyes open any longer, so he just rested them for a second. He felt sleep grabbing at him. Slowly, like swimming through treacle, he forced his eyes open a crack, to see the blurry black shapes reaching for him. Instantly he felt adrenaline pulse through him. He tried to raise his arms to ward off the black creatures, but his arms refused to move. The phantom wrapped illusory claws around his arms, pinning him to the floor. He opened his mouth to shout at the now sleeping trooper, but all that came out was a gurgle. Mc Kinley's face was a vision of panic, sweat running in torrents down his cheek, eyes staring wide at the things that were all around him. One placed a metallic object, shaped like a bridge over his forehead, and with a high pitched teeth jarring whine, tiny needles punctured his scalp, his skull and went all the way down into his pain. There they injected the Microscopic Skaarj creatures, whose only purpose was to destroy... Mc Kinley had given up protesting now, and watched the world do one continuous roll, the blackness of the shadows expanding into the whiteness of the surroundings, the blackness filling his world. He now was now one of them, dark, shadowy, and evil.

With a scream he jolted awake, sitting upright, the sweat running in torrents down his head, his eyes staring wide to take in the surroundings. He saw that he had slipped down the wall, so his arms were under him.

"A bad dream" he comforted himself. "Nothing more. Simply a bad dream!" He rubbed his forehead, which for now had erupted in a gigantic headache. He looked around. The door was open. The trooper was no where in sight. Mc Kinely took one cautious step outside, and saw a dark cavern.

A flicker of movement caught his attention. Whatever it was, it wasn't human.

He tore out his laser and, screaming, fired at the thing. The laser refused to work, staring down at it, Mc Kinely saw that the power pack was reading no charge. Howling with rage like an animal he leapt at a weapon propped up against the wall of the cave. He picked it up, and powered it up. Aiming at the darkness he let a series of shots fly into the night.

"Hold your fire, I am here to help you!" something said.

"Bullshit!" Mc Kinely screamed, and let another round go in the direction of the voice. Silence greeted him. In a combat stance he rushed over to where the sound had come from, searching for the body. But there was none there.

Two hands came out of no where sending the weapon flying. The creature pinned him down.

"I MUST be mad" Mc Kinely thought as the thing jabbed something into his neck. "This thing has the face of one of those creatures we saw in the refinery, but it has the body of a Nali!"

*****

He awoke several hours later, his head throbbing. He looked around him, and saw that he was in the same cavern that he had been in before. The transport car still stood there, only a few meters away. Somehow he felt, cleaner than before. His mind was far more calm and placid. Had be been drugged? He thought

"I should be angry here, but I am not. I must be drugged."

Mc Kinely stood up, and got a proper look at where he was. The strange creature sat at an elaborate workstation, typing into two workstations at once with his two pairs of arms. The workstation was long, but curved so that it could reach every part of it. There was a large main monitor, which was about three feet wide by one and a half feet tall. From this angle he couldn't see what was on it. There were other monitors, all smaller than the main one, but on the one that he could see, was a picture of the refinery.

The creature looked up and glanced over to Mc Kinely. It did a double take, and then stared at him.

"Ahh so you are finally awake." It said, in perfectly understandable English. "How do you feel? That shot I gave you should have neutralised the effects of the blue crystal."

"What are you?" Mc Kinely asked. The thing laughed.

"A fantastically perceptive question. I am an outcast, but you can call me Fa'liene."

"You couldn't elaborate more could you, Fa'liene?" the Sergeant asked, and was rewarded by another laugh.

"All in good time, but I think first you should tell me who you are." It said.

"Mc Kinely, Sergeant. Terran Battleship Avenger."

"I see, and are those all your names, Mc Kinely Sergeant?"

"No" Mc Kinely answered with a patience that he felt was out of place. "The Terran Battleship Avenger part was referring to my ship."

"Your ship? Ahh yes, the flying metal chariot. I saw the fight in the blackness. Very impressive flying." The entire tone of the creature seemed to be half-toying with him, and half-serious. "So I imagine you are wondering what happened to your companion?"

"It had crossed my mind."

"It didn't need an injection, you will find it safely over there, in that corner. Oh and one word of advice. I know you don't have that impulse any more, but don't try to shoot me. There is a level twelve force field around you. Ricochet is always a killer." The creature laughed again, and pressed a button on his workstation. The air in front of Mc Kinely shimmered as the force field died. "But I think you are safe now." It concluded.

"So why did you lead me here?"

"I want to make a deal." The creature said, typing in a series of commands with two hands, and crossing the other two.

"Go on."

"I am an outcast here. I have to hide my whereabouts. I have not seen the sun in over a year now. In return for safe passage out of here, and a new life in your Space Empire, I will not only get you two out of here, but give you tactical knowledge and aid. I know you have large numbers of Nali on your ship, but let's face it. They know very little about the Skaarj, and what they do know is not exactly classified. Still, they led you to the Fortress. I can understand that, but I think it was only co-incidence that you did what you did."

Utterly confused Mc Kinely held up his hand.

"Wait a second. What are you talking about?"

"My dear Mc Kinely Sergeant, you wanted to starve the Skaarj, and instead you have cut their windpipes. I noticed that package you put on the central core. Some kind of bomb I presume?"

"A fairly powerful one."

"Ahh yes. Well when that thing goes off, it should detonate the entire blue crystal seam. I can't wait to see that."

"Why?"

"It will detonate with enough force to destroy half the planet."

"Half the planet?"

"Well, maybe that is a minor exaggeration, but it will make a pretty large hole, I can tell you. That is why I put you on that transport, and then sealed the tubes. We should be far enough away, do not worry. So, do we have a deal?"


Move on to Chapter Seven

STARFIRE is copyright Glyn Collinson.

UNREAL is copyright to Epic Games.

Please do not plagarise this story! I have done hours of work on it, and to copy it and say it is yours would just show how un-imaginative and illiterate you are. I am sure you agree.