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Introduction[]

Few records exist as vivid and historically important as Fajid Roha’s award winning “Six Days in Sanjii”, the account of his rather remarkable experiences aboard Sanjii, the Genghis Labs mining facility. Fajid had the dubious honor of being a part of the first TSA team to ever encounter the aliens. Located in the star fields called The Steppes, in the Mongolian Cluster (just outside the settled end of the Ariadne Arm), Sanjii became an important Frontiersmen staging point during the Ariadne campaign.

For a background of the events leading up to, and including, the Genghis Labs mission, see Background File.

Fajid was first a war correspondent, then a TSA marine, and finally a Frontiersman. He provided invaluable reports from the front all throughout his service in the Ariadne Arm. He received the Mark of the Deep Well and the Ariadne Constellation for three years of meritorious service; plus a Pulitzer, for the piece that follows.

Part One[]

We’d been onboard Sanjii for a day, crawling and knee-walking down a cramped access tunnel, the reactor’s hot breath blowing past us towards the surface -- leaving the tang of metal in our mouths, making us sweat. The maintenance dollies that had been whirring us along, dumped us on our asses a half hour ago. Seconds later our N-Screens just dropped -- went blank. We lay on our backs in the cramped tunnel, staring down our noses at the red blinking light on our collar. The sound of Shellack fumbling with plastic, a beep, and he called all clear. We started breathing again. It was nice to know we weren’t about to be disassembled by some micro-killer.

“Gridlock,” Shellack said from behind me, “Nano-gridlock. If it’s like this core-ward, we’ll need the commander to hook in, or we’ll be blind.”

“Nano-whatlock? What the hell is that?”

“I made it up.”

“He made it up. Shellack made it up.”

“Hey, I can’t tell you what it is, just what it does. There’s … something here, and it’s gumming up anything smaller than dirt. Our personal screens keep it off us. But there’s no network left to speak of. If we can get to a command station, we should be back in business.”

“Mongols,” Buld cursed.

So we slung our guns behind us, and made do. My back started aching right off, but I think more out of anticipation than anything else. It was going to be a long crawl. A long day. A purplish gunk started to accrue on our legs as we slide down the tunnel. Someone started humming “Heigh-ho, heigh ho, it’s off to work we go …” until Commander Daring threatened to hurt them.

The access tunnel eventually deposited us -- sore, slimy, and with nasty cricks in our backs -- into a corridor not far from the command center. We immediately started shivering. Breath plumed from our mouths. Moments later our armor wicked away the sweat and did its best to stop conducting heat. Now we just felt cold.

The tunnels were formed by roughly square grids of metal that had been embedded in the ice, waiting for someone to activate the generator. Over the last couple of days, they had been melting and re-melting miles of glassy walled corridors. They were tall and wide enough for mining equipment to move down, with room for pedestrians on either side. We could just make out the honeycombs of superconductive heating element through the gray, semi-opaque folds of ice. Rubber walkways lined the floors.

The lighting was grey, directionless. The ripples in the walls seemed to undulate a little into the distance, like we were standing in some big artificial organ that was still pumping. It was silent -- but for the moaning of shifting ice as the generator’s heat radiated towards the surface.

The command center was much the same -- a cube of space, with recently defrosted equipment, still glistening and wet. The remains of booklets or some paper-based matter in pulpy wads on the floor. A plasticene table and benches. We dropped our equipment, and collapsed around the table.

“I dunno about this as a base. Half a fleet could melt this all away in a couple of minutes.” Buld held a cigarette lighter up against the wall. Rivulets began to run down and refreeze almost immediately.

Daring was picking over the command station: an alcove recessed into the wall, lined with components. He answered while he worked. “Imagine there was no ice. What would a fleet do to that in a couple of minutes.”

“Smithereens.”

“Exactly. This is like a big ol’ frozen suit of body armor. Now, imagine we use the tunnelers to seed ablative reflector chips through every inch of that ice.”

Shellack leaned over and stage-whispered, “That would be shiny and heat resistant.”

Buld cuffed him. “I know what ablative means.”

“Now your hypothetical fleet is going to take a week to pound through, blasting or beaming. If they want us, they’ll have to tunnel, or come in on foot.” Daring grinned.

“Why do I get the feeling that neither would be advisable?”

“’Cuz the only thing nastier than a TSA marine, is a TSA engineer. It’s been years since they had a new toy to play with, and they have fertile and violent imaginations. All right -- I’m going to try this now.” The command station door hissed shut. His voice came through our headsets -- a little tinny, but otherwise clear.

“Everyone check in.”

We met each other’s eyes across the table.

“Buld, check.”

“Shellack, check.”

“Mercy, check.”

“Tellig, check.”

“Fajid, check” I said.

“Okay, I can hear you and see you. Don’t you feel all safe and cuddly?”

“As much as you can when your nuts are turning into wrinkly little ice cubes.”

“Belay further mention of Tellig’s nuts. That is an order. I want a weapon check in ten seconds. Mark.”

We stood and ran through the seven point light machine gun diagnostic with practiced speed, calling out ‘optimal’ almost in unison.

“Right. We’re taking a walk, gentlemen.”

So we walked the chilled halls, while Commander Daring used our proximity arrays to activate the military nano, and flush out Shellack’s “gridlock”. Pretty boring, except when Daring cursed in our ears:

“What the hell is this stuff? I can’t tell if we’re having any effect. I can see you guys at least. Think I can operate any command rated environmental feature. Which around here amounts to a couple of light switches and a door or two.”

We approached one of the vents used to bleed heat off to the surface -- a vertical tunnel maybe twenty feet across, whose bottom lip protruded from the ceiling around fifteen feet above our heads. The air was a little warmer so all kinds of stalactites had formed around it, a circle of thick pillars almost touching the floor. That’s when it happened.

Daring shouted, “On your six!” and I got my first glimpse of alien (though I didn’t know that, yet). Glimpse being the word -- a dark green bar of movement from behind a stalactite and Shellack spun like a top, three times, before crashing to the ground. Something landed with a light thump under the air vent.

In slo-mo it goes something like this: we’re swinging our guns around and the bugger hunches down and lifts its head. We start to fire, and it leaps -- like nothing I’ve ever seen, like a frog on speed, straight up to the tube in the ceiling, and we run under the lip of the shaft, and see it touch the wall and kick off again, 40, 60 feet, again, 80, 100, like it’s swimmin’, like it’s falling down the shaft, not up, gives you vertigo, and of course we’re firing, but it’s getting smaller and smaller, and if we hit it, well, it doesn’t stop.

On the floor, on the wall, and barely visible up the shaft were these little red marks. Kneeling, I could see wet, tiny divots in the metal. I looked back, and saw Shellack on his stomach, head turned away from me, arms twitching awkwardly on the floor like he was trying to reach his back. Which he was. There were four scratches there -- two lines in his armor, with neat little curls of plasticene hanging at their ends, and two cracks, bubbling red, easing apart with his movements and squelching little gouts of blood down his armor to the floor. I figured if those claws hadn’t hit nano-plate, he’d have been torn clear in two.

Daring’s voice in my ear -- “Fajid, you’re closest. Sling Shellack over your shoulder. Everyone back to command. Assume full enemy activity. We are switching over to combat footing.” I hoisted his body into a fireman’s carry, trying not to aggravate the wounds.

The last echoes of bullets came whining down the tube. My squadmates stood looking at me, with Shellack’s blood trailing down my shoulder. He was not a big guy, but I wasn’t going to able to carry him and shoot at the same time.

“Dammit.” Buld said. “Dammit dammit dammit.”

I turned around and started walking the corridor back the way we came. My squadmates formed up around me.

“Can I ask what that was commander? What the hell that was?” Tellig said it flatly -- TSA marines don’t get rattled … or at least don’t let it show.

“Apparently, there’s some dangerous bioform down here. That the Mongols neglected to mention.”

Buld popped a new clip in, while watching the frozen walls. “Well what a goddam surprise.”

“And how exactly has a bioform lived down here, when just yesterday everything was frozen and -- small detail here -- had no freakin’ atmosphere?”

Daring sounded around as amused as one could be, given the situation. “I left my exobiology degree back on the ship. You tell me.”

We approached another air vent, and the condensation stalactites surrounding it. Our hackles went up. Mercy covered our six, and Buld and Tellig stood under the subtle disc of light beneath the vent, backs together, air tugging at the loose buckles and pockets of their uniforms. If anything wanted to ambush us, it wasn’t getting away that easy again. I walked up, and they stepped apart to let me between. We passed through the stalactites in formation.

“I’m watching guys … looks clear. I’m working on getting a medpack to you -- this system hasn’t done anything more than heating and lighting for a few decades.”

A medpack would be good. Hook it up to Shellack, and smart nanos would flood his system, taking over for the body, supplying fluids, and fixing things like mad till their energy ran out. Get a few, and he might even be walking again … though they’re best when you’re just hurt, not dying.

“Okay, advance slow. I can’t see too far ahead.”

There were four more tunnel sections between us and the base.

It was a long trip back.

We straggled into the command room a half hour later, nerves jangled, and even more tired than we were before, if that was possible.

“Glad to have you back. I was starting to feel kind of naked here. I’ll have a medpack for you in twenty.” I sighed in relief, slowly lowering onto my knees, and gingerly setting Shellack down on his back. “Fajid, make Shellack as comfortable as you can. Everyone else, keep half an eye on the doors. I should have ammo in a minute. In the meantime …”

A signifier came into view -- a loose nano-ghost of a blocky, waist-high machine. “… I need you to pretend to be a maintenance crew and call this up for me.”

The three of them stood around it. “Can you be a little more specific, Sir?” Mercy asked.

“I’ve superceded the Genghis system with our higher grade nano -- but I’ve still got to play by its rules. Its heirchal resource allocation paradigm attempts to limit building access based on rank of individual and the task at hand. It also decides what tasks require placement oversight. So, just as a maintenance team would have to spot-oversee the creation of a device, I need you to validate my system request.”

“Uh … maybe instead of being more specific, you could just actually tell us what we’re supposed to do.”

“Just ‘use’ it, the same way you activate a lift, or access holometric displays.”

They stared at it and put their hands out. Sparks began to fly as the internal circuitry created itself out of nano-particles.
“We’re getting a work-in-progress display on our HUDs.”

“Good, the system’s buying it.”

It took another half minute. Tellig regarded the completed machine. “I’ve seen these before. In the ship’s armory, I think.”
“Yup. That’s going to teach the system what a shotgun is.”

“Good boy,” Tellig said, patting the machine. It went online, shaking a little as power hit its components. “Stay,” he said firmly.

“We can now assume this gridlock is hostile, designed to interfere with command functionality. I can see the structure of the base, but nothing moving in it, unless it’s standing right next to you. So treat this like enemy territory.”

“It’s our goddam base!” Buld cursed.

“Yes, Buld. We just have a couple of squatters in it.”

A medpack fell from the ceiling. A couple of shotguns followed. A clatter of ammo.

“Let’s go kick ‘em out.”

↑Go to top

Part Two[]

The medpacks had done around as much as they were going to for Shellak. He was awake, but with only 30% functionality from the waist down. Least he wasn't in much pain.

His first words: "Nnyone get th' number...uv th' psycho demon dog...that turned me into uh human spin toy?"

He looked down at the breastplate we took off him; the gashes in it. Tellig crouched down and propped it up so he could get a better look. "TSA nano-plate - it's got your back."

Shellak smiled, "You should be in marketing."

"You watch your mouth."

"Put it on me." We helped him into it. "Gun," he said. We handed him his LMG. He pulled himself over to one of the machines we'd built while he was out, slid behind it, rested his gun on top. He had a vantage of both doors, good arcs on the room and the turret we had up. He pointed at it. "Sparky and I will mind the house while y'all are out1."

Daring - "Right. We've used up our lunch money, kids. What you see is what you get. Gonna be another day before I've got the RP's to get anything more than a few medpacks. But there is a resource node a couple miles north - and I'm betting it's still got some sludge left. I'd feel better knowing it was online."

I did a quick survey of my squadmates. Tired, but in hyper-alert mode - which for a marine isn't just a state of mind, it's a state of biotech. Nano-glands had been regulating our adrenaline since the incident at the vent, keeping watch for any sign of muscle fatigue, and loading our blood with super-coagulants, nutrients, and other goodies we probably didn't even know about. We wouldn't be feeling the effects of pushing ourselves past the limits of sleep and endurance for a couple of days yet.

There wasn't much else to discuss. We needed resources, and so we had to go get them. Buld and Mercy had shotguns, Tellig and I had our LMG's. We headed back out into the tunnels, senses hyper alert and fingers light on triggers.

What had looked sterile, boring, and cold we now saw in a new tactical light. Literally. The map of Sanjii downloaded onto our HUDs, the main hexagon of tunnels we walked, maintenance shafts along the radiating cables from the core to the surface, and little sub-clusters of rooms and halls, vent-ways and exhaust columns. A lot of ground to cover, but not many ways to do it. There was no way we could patrol it without at least ten more marines or some kind of transport - neither of which would be possible till the Libra7 returned. With the speed of the life form we saw, we could assume it would have free run of the facility, while we trudged from one place to another.

"I've been trying to dredge up some records of what the hell was going on in this place before the Mongols left."

"Uh...I don't think they 'left', sir. And this place isn't lookin' so great as a base anymore."

"Agreed on both counts, Buld. We dig in for a few days, then break through to the surface to meet the Libra7. As for records...the gridlock has compromised whatever was left in the network, and when we flushed the system I think we scrambled it even more. But I've managed to pull together a little pile of memory log fragments...mainly left over audio entries2."

We cut off of the main walkway to shorten the trip, walking into a dripping antechamber - dead computer screens bulging out from the walls of ice like ocean-smoothed stones. Simple wire rim chairs stood in front of a bank of interfaces - keyboard and HUD. All of the HUD icons were grey and inert.

"Hold here. Watch the entrances."

The crackle of roughly filtered audio came across the comm line, then the sound of people running, one person's breath in particular loud and heavy. A cut, and we heard boots on ladders - from the clangs it sounded like many boots. Daring typed onto our HUDs: [Daring: Someone named "Magnai" is the recorder in most of these. Can't find more than a few seconds at a time. I'm scanning for speech spikes, something more informative.] Next, the unmistakable sound of weapons being handed out, ammo inserted, safeties clicked off. [Daring: They would have had a modest armory, nothing fancy or heavy. Sanjii was not a real target, even for Chinese sabotage.] More men running, a few terse, frightened words - a rebuke that could only mean "be quiet!" A splice to a new clip, a door whirring open, a few steps, then "Kharaa! Kharaa!" gunfire, inhuman screeches, the disturbingly clear sound of bodies hitting the floor. [Daring: estimate - four men, non-military, with machine pistols and low-grade rifles. Elapsed time of combat: 4 seconds.] A new clip: a room, many men and women, rapid-fire discussion. Again, even in Mongol, it was clear: a war room. Desperate plans. Something shatters, "Kharaa!", gunfire, furniture knocked over, screams, cloth and flesh ripping, clips reloading, weapons falling from hands to the floor. [Daring: it goes on for another fifteen seconds. They are not victorious. Anyone speak Mongol? This "Kharaa" appears again and again..]

Silence. Tellig coughed. "Sir: sounded like there were two dozen men in that room."

"Close enough."

We could all see where this was going. Buld looked like he was swearing under his breath to make a pirate blush.

"One, even two of those things isn't going to slaughter that many men. I don't care how nasty they are."

"Maybe only one survived the freezing? Hid at the core or something? Hibernated in the residual warmth?"

"That's a nice thought, Fajid. Let's all commend Fajid on positive thinking."

Buld turned to the doorway. "We're heading back. Now."

"Negative. Proceed to your waypoint, soldier."

The waypoint popped up on our HUDs - "Recessed Node: 35 meters," floating off to the northwest, maybe thirty feet below floor-level.

"I'm not entering a siege situation with no supplies. Shellak and I will be fine here. You double-time to the node, then back to base. Alert, all of you. Don't get sloppy."

Buld and Tellig took point, Mercy and I trailed ten feet behind.

Mercy muttered to me, "I overheard our squad mates complaining of boredom, after the mission briefing. I did not say anything - did not want to appear superstitious."

"What did Haverhill use to say? 'I have it on good authority that death is far more boring than sentry duty.'"

We entered a narrow secondary tunnel that snaked towards the core. Ambient strips sent an unearthly sheen of light through the smoky ice.

"And yet, I would much rather be here, than Morocco3." He took his hand from the shotgun, touched his forehead - a casual gesture, but because I knew Mercy, I could tell he was thinking a quick prayer to Allah4.

I peered up at a dripping vent as we passed below, trying to see through its slats, into its shadows.

"I guess the difference is we chose to be here."

"Or we were fated to be."

"Well, fate or no fate, I'm going to be watching your six."

"And I yours, my friend."

I nodded. We moved to our waypoint.

Fog. The main corridor was filled with fog.

"Commander?"

"Don't get it. There must be a heat source nearby. But there shouldn't be."

We exchanged glances, a silent "Oh, I'm sure that bodes well."

"I'm moving the waypoint right to the top of the stairs. Estimated visibility?"

"Six feet."

The waypoint slipped up in our vision, now floating ten meters away, just down the corridor.

We stopped in the doorway, listening. The mist beaded on our armor. Far away, the ice groaned.

Buld subvocalized: "Back to back. Make a beeline to the stairs. Let's move."

I watched our eight, Mercy our four. The other two covered forward. I could feel muscles in my temples and shoulders forcibly relaxing as the adrenaline rush triggered higher routines in my conditioning, working to counter the stress, keep me loose and ready. As one, our breathing steadied. We were alert to every swirl and shift in the vapor.

The attack came from the right, some kind of projectile spanging into Mercy's armor with a fft fft fft sound, at a rate of around four a second. I stood next to him fired short bursts in what I thought was the reverse trajectory - I could barely make out the tiny darts. A creature like the one that savaged Shellak sprinted in from our left, not seeming so impossibly fast now that we were expecting it. Buld stepped beside Tellig and knelt, giving it a shotgun blast practically at point-blank, flipping its head up and back into a dead-stop somersault, bits of its flesh and dark blood windmilling off. Tellig and I kept firing short bursts, mainly to keep anything else at bay. Mercy took a position next to me with his shotgun. The creature lay on its back and was still.

Daring, "No less than four! No less than four!...Watch your six!"

Which gave us the second we needed to spin and target the two that gulped out from the mist we had just walked through. There was a sound like a hydraulic venting and a yellow cloud effect broke around us - wasn't there one moment and then it was. We were firing, I unloaded a clip at the left one, Mercy got off two shots on his, and it was like a dream where nothing works right, our bullets just seemed to skitter aside or slow like they were under water, one in every ten or so finding their mark, and we began to backpedal to Buld and Tellig but they were too fast and for the next ten seconds it was a desperate mess of all four of us firing, sticking our guns right in their faces as their mouths sagged open and sawed shut, slashing across our legs and chests, bits of armor flying, desperate reloading, Buld sprawled on his back fending one off with his legs, one arm holding the shotgun between his feet firing over and over; Mercy pinned against a wall by two bladed feet as the other one turned its head sideways to hook its jaws around his chest and popped his breast plate off with one wrenching motion; Tellig and I firing and firing and at some point we stumbled out of the yellow and suddenly our guns were working again, suddenly our LMG's tore the one off Mercy and knocked the legs out from the one trying to get at Buld - who somersaulted back into a kneeling position and blasted most of its neck away, leaving a flat splotch on the floor between its head and body.

Mercy was down. I picked up his shotgun without thinking about it, fired a finishing shot into the other. Three medpacks fell from the ceiling onto Tellig, Buld and I. We immediately felt better, a rush of warmth spreading from the outside in. I watched our resource count dive to almost nothing. "Commander, we need a couple more for Mercy."

"Guard him."

We were right on the waypoint. The corridor was too vulnerable. "Let's get down the stairs." Buld and Tellig took an arm each and started to drag him.

A glance at my HUD showed only one round in the shotgun. I scanned rapidly for my dropped LMG. It was two paces away - I stooped over and picked it up with my left hand.

"Look out! Fajid!" The thing that swooped down would have made a buzzard look handsome, I got only a glimpse as it came out of the mist from above and hit me standing there with a gun dangling in each hand, swinging the shotgun in my right up to meet it at the last second, the blast going low, barely catching its dangling feet, its wings blocking my vision as it rammed its long jaws into my shoulder - I could feel nanoplate cracking and the points of its teeth rake my skin. The force of it hitting slammed me back into the doorway and my helmet cracked against ice so hard something shattered away and I hoped it wasn't from me - I heard the boom of a shotgun, something wet and green all over my chest, and in my destroyed equilibrium the stairs yawned to my right like a shaft straight down, sucking me in. While passed out I think I was aware of the impacts of falling down the stairs, like a large drum being beaten right behind my ears. I might have also heard guns firing. The last to go, though, was my HUD - my health indicator dropping in increments of five, the remainder of my armor hitting zero, numbers floating against the black, and me waiting, detached, to read the report of my own death.

Sloshing...And I was back in the sewers, the vast network of mud and sand of my childhood, hiding in a limestone niche, waiting for a gang of fishermen to give up their search and go back to their camp. I was filled with dread - the old hopelessness, the hunger, the loneliness. Then a surge of defiance - I had lived through that, found my uncle, had a second life on Port Rasmus. Ten years as a security officer in a floating war zone. Then fighting the bureaucracy to get into the TSA. The TSA...which brought me to Sanjii. Yes. My eyes opened. The sewer sound, a wet glug glug, was coming from my right.

I rolled onto my back, some squidgy matter squelching beneath me, hand falling on the stock of Mercy's shotgun. The resource room was transformed - a kind of lichen had turned the gray walls purple, and to my left a large growth, stately and utterly alien, stood - maybe four feet high, rubbery, looking unreal but for the fact that it moved, shifted subtly, just enough to make it clear it was alive. My nano-trained eyes could just make out the telltales of particle movements around its top, as if it was creating some kind of vapor or cloud.

At this moment I realized two things. One - my LMG, with ammo, was somewhere on the steps above me5, and Two - I was not alone in the chamber. The sounds alerted me first, like a large hog eating its full of slop, and when I slowly lifted my head, that's what I thought it was doing: I was looking at the portly behind of some creature around the size of the largest hog there ever was, and it was hunched away from me, seemingly gorging itself on a particularly slimy and wet meal. Its body wiggled with the effort, somewhere beneath its fat, muscles strained - which is when I thought it might actually be throwing something up. Then it began, without pausing its efforts, to shuffle to the right, in a circle, its mouth stuck to the same spot, and I saw the resource node, and I saw the pile of gloop covering the node and the creature's fascinatingly agile and repulsive mouth (or the mouth inside its mouth, I couldn't say exactly): somewhere between how a spider coaxes thread from itself, and how a toddler might look with a whole jar of baby food dumped on its face.

My eyes (very wide I'm sure) locked with its watery empty ones, and it gave a snort that made the complicated assembly of glop attached to its mouth shake, as if it too were furious. With a snop! sound it disconnected, disgorging a vestigial sack that seemed to be the top of the organic thing it was creating. Then it came for me.

I turned and scrambled up the stairs, looking for my LMG, or anything with ammo. After around four strides I heard a wet noise behind me. After eight I heard it again, and something small and heavy hit my back hard enough to slap me into the steep stairs in front of me. I blacked out again and slid down them on my armor for a moment, chin guard going clack clack clack as my head bounced along. I gathered my wits and kicked my feet to either side, anchoring them against the walls. A green wad of matter hit the stairs between my splayed legs - like a very gooey hairball from a huge green cat. My armor informed me that something had eaten away one-third of my backplate, and the spitball sat there in its juices, hissing against ice and rubber.

Daring's voice: "Left hand." A mine fell onto the stair6. I slapped it against the wall without thinking, got my feet under me, grabbed the railing, and launched myself back up the stairs - taking them three at a time.

I was making too much noise to hear much else besides my breathing and my boots hitting rubber. I was around halfway up, so risked looking up from placing my feet. There was the barrel of my LMG, perched over the top stair. Simple bad luck it hadn't fallen after me. Fantastic good luck it hadn't yet been recycled by the command network7.

A trip mine's blast is amazingly contained: when the laser is tripped, the charge is instantaneously released in a tight narrow kinetic chain of potential energy that penetrates the target before discharging its force. It literally blows things to bits; I could hear pieces of the creature that had chased me up the stairs bouncing back and forth off the walls.

I leant against the railing and caught my breath, savoring the silence. A second later, my wits returning, I realized how very bad silence was. Not just that there were no voices or gunfire above me, but apart from Daring's two words moments ago, not a bit of chatter on the comm lines.

Then I heard four clicks, and I knew everyone above was dead. The dog-like creature's four bladed feet had landed straddling my gun, its grotesquely fanged head hung down, regarding me. It seemed to understand that I was no threat. We stared at each other. It eased back, like a sprinter casually settling into a pre-race position.

What was I supposed to do? Give up? I was suddenly aware of the walls around me, the tunnels, the creaking miles of ice, all of Sanjii slowly melting into space, and somewhere in the space beyond, the Libra7 on its way back to us - they would probably escort a tech crew down into this slaughterhouse, figuring we were having comm problems.

The shotgun was little better than a club. Maybe I'd draw my knife, go for the throat. I knew not to make a stand on the stairs - I'd probably just get knocked down them again, and I was sick of it. Be better off with some room to maneuver. Understand - I knew it was ridiculous. This thing could climb metal with the swords that it used for legs, and had jaws that made nano-armor shred like a kid's Halloween costume. But you take hopeless odds, and you do what you can with them.

I saw, in its eyes, that subtle trigger fire between tension and action, and I turned and pounded like hell back down the stairs.

Heading down I took them eight or nine at a time, one hand sliding down the rail, practically free falling. I could feel it keeping pace on my heels, as if it was observing me, watching how my odd and gangly body almost tripped with every rebound.

I hit bottom and caught the last flicker of nano-telltales on the ceiling, rose from a crouch into one long bounding step and met the ammo pack in midair, spun and saw it less than a foot away from me, moving much faster, jaws open, neck taut like it was straining for a finish line, both of us floating through a few seconds of stately freefall before I fired and a cone of millimeter-small pellets painted a blur between the barrel and its head and shoulders, looking in my hyper-acute state like a skin rash before purple blood jetted back out the holes and most of the meat around its head lifted away like a ship disintegrating in zero gravity.

The recoil sent me back first down onto the vestigial plant, the sac hissing like a whoopee cushion, more purple blood jetting from its sides. The creature slammed into the wall above me with startling force, its skull cracking against the ice and its body crumpling with a whump. I rolled off to the side before it could collapse on top of me.

"Commander."

"Commander."

"Anyone on any channel..."

"Shit."

What happened while I was out? I put the shotgun by my side, and pulled up the text logs of comm traffic8, scrolling until I saw Daring's "No less than four! No less than four!"

Daring: No less than four! No less than four! Watch your six!

(gunfire)

(gunfire)

Fajid: Commander, we need a couple more for Mercy.

Daring: Guard him.

Buld: Let's get down the stairs.

Daring: Look out! Fajid!

(gunfire)

Tellig: It's a field affect. Move outside of it.

(Fajid offline)

Daring: Fajid, report!

(gunfire)

(gunfire)

Mercy: Aaa --

(Mercy offline)

Daring: Move here, get your backs against the wall. Here dammit!

Buld: Keep still you little -

(gunfire)

Tellig: I'm getting out of this soup.

Buld: I'm with ya.

(gunfire)

Daring: Two, no three -

(gunfire)

Tellig: Uh...

Buld: Crap.

(gunfire)

(gunfire)

(Tellig offline)

Buld: Well come on then! I'm not going to make it easy on you.

(gunfire)

(gunfire)

(gunfire)

(gunfire)

(gunfire)

(gunfire)

(Buld offline9)

Daring: Fajid, report. Report. Dammit.

..

..

Shellak: I wasn't going to say anything, but I think there's movement in the corridor here.

Daring: (sigh) I'm coming out.

(Commander log out)

(gunfire)

(sentry firing)

(gunfire)

(Shellak offline)

(Commander log in)

..

..

..

(Fajid online)

..

Daring: Left hand.

(mine explosion)

..

(gunfire)

(Daring offline)

Fajid: Commander?

Fajid: Commander?

Fajid: Anyone on any channel...

Fajid: Shit.

I was alone. That meant no commander, and no supplies forthcoming. I rested a moment, trying to think of a good idea. When none came I stood, shotgun in one hand, and headed up the stairs.

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Background File[]

How the TSA came into ownership of the Genghis Labs mining facility The Mongolian Independent States had been a trans-system entity for only fifty years, before information came to light revealing shocking violations of The Charter’s fair trade and population abuse statutes. The violations were so extreme, the sanctions imposed cost them half their assets -- an ironic turn for the young corporation, as the following note explains. The Sanjii mine was a long term venture, and was no longer economically viable. The TSA had no base in The Steppes, so as part of the reparations was scouting the repossessed and abandoned Mongolian facilities as possible outposts. These scouting surveys weren’t considered to be combat missions -- but experience had taught the TSA to assume the worse, or at least be suspicious. Especially of bitter corporations.

The Origins of The Mongolian Independent States The Mongolian Independent States broke of from China Territories in ____, a mere two years after the Charter was finalized. It was cannily timed -- every major and minor player affiliated with the TSA (plus the media) was watching closely -- waiting to see if the Territories would follow the new guidelines of the Charter, which forbade military response to anything it termed a “peaceful and popular protest or uprising.” The China Territories had an extremely bloody history in this regard, dating back well before The Expansion. If they responded true to form, the Charter would be revealed as a farce, and much, if not all of the ground gained over the last half of a century would be lost. Even under this pressure, it was still admirable that China’s response was purely legal -- battling with the Mongolian secessionists over their claim to the gate, and its territories. A battle they, in a sense, won: the Mongolian Independents were ordered to “buy” the gate, its territories, and all the material investments contained within from China Territories, on a long term payment plan with low interest. Not an ideal resolution in their eyes, but tolerable.

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