“At least the rock is warm,” Sandy said for the tenth time.
“Yeah,” said Kap, “but why is it warm?”
“You’re the ace student, you tell me.”
“I’m still thinking about it.”
Their voices echoed loudly down the pitch black length of the cave, and the faint splash of cascading water replied from somewhere deep in the cave’s far-below belly.
“I think we should try to find another way out,” Sandy said.
“We already tried twice,” Kap replied. “We were lucky to make it back here when the hand lamps died.”
“Do you think they’ll find us here?”
“Everyone knows where the entrance to Old Toby is.”
“But we didn’t tell the instructor or anyone else in our class where we went when we left camp.”
It had been Kap’s idea for them to slip away after breakfast the day the Earthquake hit. He’d always had a fascination with the cave systems that ran through the hills on the eastern edge of town. Because of the number of people who’d been lost in the caves, it was officially illegal for anyone to go spelunking in groups smaller than five, and nobody was supposed to go in without an experienced guide. But, Kap being Kap, he’d reasoned his brain would get him out of any potential trouble.
Sandy shivered, in spite of the rock’s warmth.
“I’m sorry we’re stuck here,” Kap said quietly.
“Me too,” Sandy said. “But it’s not like you forced me to come.”
Sandy had been as eager as Kap to escape out from under the thumb of their instructor, Mister Pelton. Their class was on a Paleontology for Dummies expedition as part of their end-of-semester project, and Mister Pelton was a painful pedant when it came to fossils. For the better part of a week they’d fussed over excavations of old bones, using brushes and spades. It might have been an interesting dig, save for the fact that Mister Pelton’s nasal voice never stopped. The man loved to hear himself talk, especially when it came to his favorite subject. On and on he’d droned, until even Kapono the gifted student had rolled his eyes and cast them longingly towards the hills — a chance for a little adventure.
Too much adventure, Sandy thought sourly. They’d never dreamed that there would be an earthquake. New Mojave had weak tectonics. They’d learned that from Mister Pelton’s partner in crime, Miss Whitting. It was why there weren’t many real mountains on the planet.
Minutes stretched on in relative silence.
“Kap,” Sandy said, “I’m not sure anyone is out there looking for us.”
“Of course they’re looking for us,” Kap said. “My mom would skin Mister Pelton alive if she found out he’d let anything happen to me.”
“It’s not that. Kap, what if the earthquake hit the whole valley? A couple of missing students might be the least of their worries.”
“I hope my brothers and sisters are okay,” Kap said.
“I hope mine are too.”
Then the sound of Kap shifting his weight, his day pack’s zipper opening.
Sandy felt a folded piece of laminated paper being passed clumsily into her hands.
“You hold the map,” Kap said, “I’ll light a match.”
There was a spark, then the flaring of a tiny flame as Kap ripped a stick across sandpaper.
Sandy was momentarily dazzled by the flame’s brightness, then quickly flipped the map open, showing a two-dimensional rendering of the known extent of Old Toby’s insides. Blue grease pencil showed where they’d already been — two smaller cave mouths which had proven to be collapsed as well. Like the main entrance, the rock walls had been curiously warm.
Sandy and her best friend studied the map furiously as the match quickly burned.
“Ow,” Kap finally said, the flame reaching his fingers. They were plunged back into darkness for a moment, then Kap ripped a second match.
“Where does this go?” Sandy said, tracing a finger along a twisting corridor that lead away from Old Toby’s main grouping of caverns. It terminated in a series of dotted lines, with a large question mark at the end.
“That part hasn’t been explored yet.”
“But it’s close,” Sandy said. “Looks like we’d only have to backtrack down a hundred meters. To get to the branch point.”
“We should stick to the corridors we know will get us out,” Kap said, annoyed.
“We tried that all day the first time, and everything was blocked. Kap, I don’t know about you, but I’m starving. And I’m also starting to get really scared. If Mister Pelton knew how to get us out of here, I think he’d have done it by now. We’re on our own.”
The match burnt out, and they were in total darkness once more.
Water splashed in the far, far distance.
“It’s insane, trying to find our way through this cave system in the dark.”
“What have we got to lose?”
Sandy’s last question hung in the air between them. What did they have to lose?
Sandy was beginning to suspect it was far more than either of them had bargained for.
Kap lit a third match.
“We’d better get started then,” Kap said. “We’ll have to tie ourselves to each other and work slowly.”
Sandy fished some climbing cord from her own day pack, and quickly slipped it through the belt loops on their pants. She was loathe to leave the mysterious warmth at the upper part of Old Toby — but anything had to be better than just sitting around waiting for a miracle. Sandy’s impression that something was wrong — very, very wrong — up on the surface, got worse each hour they remained in the cave.
Two matches later, and they had their packs back on, their boots laced tightly, and their gloves on their hands. Originally those gloves had been meant for digging. Now they needed them to protect their palms against the roughness of the cave walls, as they navigated by Braille.
It was slow and tedious, each of them shuffling and keeping hands pressed to the rock for support and guidance. The further back into the hillside they went, the more the temperature dropped. With only one direction to go, there wasn’t much chance yet of getting lost. They’d have to conserve their matches for when they hit intersections, or places when the path got too steep to navigate without looking first. Sandy found herself sweating, in spite of the cold. There was an electric urgency in her now that they were moving again. Those dotted lines and that question mark both exhilarated her, and filled her with dread. It was a literally blind shot. A gamble. And if they didn’t find their way out this time…
Sandy shut that thought away, pushing it far down — now was not a good time to panic.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Heat waves distorted the air that filled the crater formerly known as New Mojave’s capital city. Squad Sergeant Jeremiah Abbott stood on the crater’s crumbling lip, the external temperature gauge of his armor registering well over 100 degrees Celsius. Abbott’s heads-up display — a series of computer-projected graphics that painted the ocular window of his armor’s face shield — told him there was no radioactivity. A fact he still found hard to believe, given the level of total and absolute devastation he’d been seeing since dropping on-planet.
In Abbott’s ears, the conversation of his squad could be heard, along with occasional pings from command and control, orbiting high overhead aboard the Emancipated Worlds Warship Opportunity. Two other ships, the Freelance and the Gambit were in orbit — the most the Defense Force could muster in short order, each vessel having come immediately from nearby star systems to investigate reports that New Mojave had been literally annihilated.
So far as Abbott could tell, those reports had been correct.
A second armored figure appeared beside Abbott on the crater lip, this one a bit more slender and shapely than the Squad Sergeant’s bruising bulk.
“I don’t think there’s anyone left,” said Corporal Lita Chowen. “We’ve checked everywhere we can think of.”
Abbot turned to face his subordinate, the sky overhead still angry with soot and ash from the superfires that had ravaged New Mojave’s delicate temperate zones.
“Reports from the northern sites are the same,” Abbott said.
“Hell of a trick,” Chowen said, experimentally kicking at a piece of rock which had partially melted, then cooled in place on the crater’s rim.
“What do you mean?”
“No nukes, man. You ever hear of anything like this, without it being a hydrogen bomb?”
“They could have used a kinetic weapon. A piece of nickel-iron the size of a building, coming down on this spot at interplanetary velocity, might do the trick.”
“Good guess, but that’s a negative Sarge.”
“How do you know?”
“Stole a look at some of the video the space station took during the attack.”
“Let me see,” Abbott ordered.
A status bar appeared in Abbot’s field of view as Chowen peer-shared the file across the suit-to-suit wireless. Abbott mumbled a few commands until the video window was blocking out all but the edges of his vision. At first all he saw were the limb of the planet and the blackness of space. An area above the limb of the planet began to sparkle, and Abbott quickly zoomed in until he saw a cluster of ships — fucking big ships — arrayed with their noses towards the surface. The bow of each ship was lit up like a Christmas tree, followed by a coordinated series of bright explosions. Orgasms of wild energy spat down towards New Mojave, frying the atmosphere and pummeling the surface.
This sequence repeated several times, until much of the polar area was engulfed in what looked like a hurricane of red-orange flame.
“Holy mother…” Abbott breathed.
He mumbled for the video window to go away, which it did.
Chowen’s mirrored eyes stared at him as she stood motionless.
“How did you get this?”
“Not supposed to say.”
The Corporal’s silence confirmed Abbott’s hunch. Onarak was the squad’s resident hacker and tech expert. A very bright kid, almost to a flaw. No doubt Onarak had gotten the footage from one of the other geeks in one of the other squads, who’d nicked it off one of the aerospace Chiefs or someone else who’d actually visited the planet’s lone, remaining orbital station. In any case, it was impressive stuff. The sort of thing to make an experienced soldier’s blood run cold.
“I think we’re in for a universe of hurt,” Abbott said.
“Yah,” was all Chowen said.
The Squad Sergeant went back to staring into the gradually cooling depths of the crater. Once, there had been people there. Buildings, shops, schools, homes, children. In the space of a single afternoon, the Colonial Administration Authority had vaporized it all — killed all of the citizens across the entire world. Without even delivering a warning, nor an ultimatum. Just, bang, the Authority fleet went to work, and was gone again.
New Mojave never had a chance.
“She always said they’d be back,” Abbott said.
“Who said they’d be back?”
“Noribatu. I remember seeing her retirement broadcast.”
“I think I was too young to care.”
“Yah, you were. Anyway, she warned us — everybody, really — about how the Authority wouldn’t rest in peace.”
“What happens now, Sarge?”
“That’s for bigger and better paid brains to figure out. Until I get orders from C and C, we’re to continue looking for survivors.”
“Like I said, I don’t think there’s anybody left.”
“Maybe, but it’s the best mission we’ve got. Until they find us something or someone to shoot back at.”
“Do you really think it’s war?”
Abbott was quiet for a long moment.
“We’d better hope he’s an EW fan. Go find the others, tell them we’re moving on to a different location. This place is toast. I’ll get us some transport.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
It had been hours since Sandy and Kap had set out in search of alternate route. They’d managed to find the unexplored corridor, but the numerous ups and downs in the floor quickly confused Sandy as to whether they were progressing towards the surface, or going deeper into the guts of the hill. They’d run across a gentle trickle of what had tasted like fresh water, refilled their canteens, and moved on. The air had been getting gradually staler, which lead Sandy to suspect that they were headed in a direction they didn’t want to go. But since there didn’t seem to be anything better for them to try, they persisted on their present course.
“I’ve been meaning to ask you,” Kap said as they slow-shuffled in the blackness, hands and arms stretched out achingly to either side, brushing the rock walls.
“Ask me what?” Sandy said.
Conversation was better than quiet, lest the fear leap up and grab hold of both of them.
“Is it true that you and Dar Prado…”
“That me and Dar what?”
“Well, you know… like… you know.”
“Oh. No, it’s not flipping true. I went on exactly two dates with him.”
“That doesn’t mean that you didn’t –”
“Who the hell have you been talking to, Kap? You think I go for a romp in the bushes with every guy I take out?”
“Some of your friends were saying –”
“Some of my friends are sluts, Kap. Just because they’ll bang it easy doesn’t mean I’ll bang it easy. Holy hell, what made you think of something like that down here? Two days underground got you horny? Need a little privacy? I am sure your hand misses you.”
“Fuck off, Sandy, I was just asking a question.”
“Right, sorry. I didn’t mean to sound like a bitch. I’m kinda spooked.”
“Make it a lot spooked, Kap.”
Suddenly there was the sound of crumbling rock, and Kap let out a small yelp. Sandy felt herself jerked forward at the waist, unable to reach for purchase before Kap’s considerable 130-plus kilos pulled her face-first over the edge of a sudden drop-off. Sandy screamed, and then went silent as she thudded painfully into rock that was damp with water, then began sliding down what felt like a sharp angle. Clothing and skin ripped away in equal amounts before Sandy heard the sudden rushing of water, then was plunged in over her head, the rope tying her to Kap like a noose around her hips. She momentarily thought to pull out her switch knife and cut loose, but then she felt Kap’s strong grip haul her to the surface.
Sandy gasped for breath.
“Are we moving?”
“Yes!” Kap yelled.
“I still can’t see anything!”
“Neither can I, oh shit, hold on!”
The rushing water became a torrent, and suddenly Sandy felt herself being swept bodily through a series of twists and turns, the air vanishing out of her lungs when she bumped into a particularly sharp corner. Kap’s hand never let go, though, and she grasped his forearm so hard she was sure her nails were drawing blood. Seconds later, they both popped their heads back up, coughing and fighting for breath.
A dim bit of light announced itself, far off, like a pinhole.
The water was headed straight for it.
Sandy and Kap clung to each other — thank goodness for Kap’s buoyancy — while the bubbling, sand-clouded water roiled about them. It might have been seconds or minutes before they got to the opening, but when they did, they both screamed as they were at once blasted with a wave of scorching wind, then pitched head-first down a lengthy waterfall into a wide pool whose surface plumed steam.
Bobbing to the top of the water, they gagged on air that was far too hot for comfort, and clogged with mist. They kicked away from the cascade dumping down from above, but only until the heat became so intense they couldn’t stand it. Everything above the surface was a void of throbbing, white clouds.
Mustering enough strength to speak, Sandy kept her legs kicking to stay afloat, put her hands to her mouth, and yelled, “Helllloooooo?
Nothing in response but the crashing of the falls.
“Helllloooooo! Is there anybody who can hear me?”
“I don’t think anybody’s there,” Kap said in her ear.
“Where the hell are we?”
“I have no idea. It feels like my face is going to cook.”
“It’s worse than a sauna out here!”
“We need to swim to shore.”
“And get out of the water? In this heat?”
“What else can we do?”
Just then, a terrific splash concussed the surface a few meters away. Waves rocked the clinging teenagers and they choked and coughed anew.
A second, equally terrific splash. More waves.
Huge hands, stronger than any man’s, gripped their ankles and yanked them under. Sandy screamed reflexively, her voice bubbling ineffectually out of her as they went down, down into the murky, tossed water. Kap was torn free, the rope joining him to Sandy suddenly cut. And then Sandy had the distinct impression that she was being shoved into a plastic bag. She tried to scream again, but had no breath for it. Her vision began to tunnel and floating pricks of nothingness haunted the darkness as it funneled down into her.
No! No! No!
The plastic bag suddenly sucked shut around Sandy’s body, like refrigerator cling wrap, the water around her expelled for a brief instant, then air flooded into the bag and Sandy was coughing up fluid and gasping. The bag expanded until she was laying on the bottom of a sphere of air roughly big enough for a grown person to stoop in. There were transparent windows in the top of the sphere, and Sandy thought she saw movement out of one of them.
The world shifted.
Sandy rolled across the bottom and side of the sphere, like a tumbler on a water bed, the bubble deforming as it was dragged, dragged, dragged, and then plop, the sphere — and Sandy — were out of the water, laying on what felt like very hard rock.
Sandy slowly sat up, bruised, bloody, exhausted, and knelt so that she could peer out of one of the windows.
The air outside was still badly fogged with rushing vapor, but there was a gloved hand there.
A hand. It was more like a gauntlet. Attached to an arm, similarly armored, which eventually materialized into the upper half of a whole person — though much taller and larger than an ordinary human. The anonymous titan put its mirrored eyes — like a pair of wraparounds — to the window, looking in at Sandy for a moment, then the figure stood up and placed on of its hands directly on top of the sphere.
A tiny speaker in the sphere’s ceiling crackled to life.
“YOU OKAY IN THERE?” said a modulated male voice.
“I’m half drowned, but I’m alive. What is this?”
“EMERGENCY EVAC POUCH. WE NORMALLY USE THEM IN VACUUM. BUT FOR TODAY’S PURPOSES, THEY OUGHT TO INSULATE JUST FINE.”
“OH, HIM. CORPORAL CHOWEN’S GOT HIM.”
“What happened? Why is the air so flipping hot?”
“HOLD ON… IT WILL BE EASIER TO EXPLAIN WHEN WE GET YOU OUT OF HERE. STAY CALM, I’M GOING TO DISCONNECT FOR A MOMENT SO THAT WE CAN CARRY YOU.”
Sandy suddenly felt herself being lifted off the ground.
Where she was going, or who she was going with, she had no idea.