Stranded - Part 1
Balac woke with a scream boiling in his lungs and the world on fire. The heat of it bit into his skin, raw and feral, and the sudden, molten pain turned his vision white. The smell of burning flesh choked the air inside the dropship cabin. Balac had been in the field since the beginning. He had, as Krin was fond of saying, “seen some shit.” Images of Krin’s smiling face being torn apart by a plasma round. He stared at the inch of air that now separated his lower leg from the rest of his body. Yeah, some shit, he thought, numbly. The flesh on his upper thigh bubbled softly. It was a clean cut. No blood. Whatever had chewed through his leg had cauterized the wound instantly. Already the nanites in his bloodstream were converging on the trauma site, and as they worked, the pain subsided to a steady thrum.Read story
Balac sat mesmerized by the severed limb sprawled in front of him. For a mad moment, it seemed that he could just reach out and put it back on, slip it on as easily as an old shoe. The click-whir of movement snapped him alert. He looked up. The drone looked down. For a long moment they stared at one another before, slowly, its front limbs detached from the roof of the dropship and its segmented body arched downwards. It hung there, waiting, dangling in a way that seemed idly threatening, possibly curious, and then with stop-stutter grace pulled itself up and out of the hole it had made in the dropship’s roof, the skitter-scratch of its movement echoing in the empty cabin below. Seconds later, a viridian beam sliced through the hull, paring apart a section of metal that clanged to the floor no more than a few feet from where Balac sat. His thigh twitched, in fear or recognition he didn’t know, but Balac was already moving. Kicking and cursing, he dragged himself over the edge, grunting as he dropped the last few feet to the ground.
Outside, cords of smoke twisted into a broken sky. Balac watched as, in the distance, dark shapes swam through a haze of smoke and settling dust. Hundreds of them trawled back and forth across the wide, arid bowl.Skitter drones were among the first wave of Reclaimers sent in after the fighting died down. Cutting, grinding, and tearing, they reduced anything left on the battlefield into manageable waste, ready to be collected by the swarms of Harvesters that followed in their wake. With single-minded focus, they erased the battlefield, making sure nothing of value went to waste. Behind him, Balac could hear the drone going busily about its work. In a few hours, he thought, it would be as though the battle had never happened. As though they had not fought and died and bled here. It was then that the gnawing unease that had been growing inside him burst into realization. The battle was over! And yet for some reason he was still here.
He ran two fingers across his forearm and the embedded display reacted instantly, conjuring a shimmering topographic map of the area. In any given battle, the map would be overlaid with dozens of blinking bio signatures pinpointing the location of his fire team and any enemies within scanning range. Now, it was empty. Balac blinked. He was alone.
Hotswaps were common in areas of the galaxy where the fighting was particularly intense. There was seldom time to pack everything up. Far more efficient to redeploy on the frontlines and let the Reclaimers do the cleaning up. Somebody in operations would hit the kill switch and every clone keyed with the proper ident would drop dead where they stood. Seconds later they would wake up on the other side of the planet or half a galaxy away – the exact location seldom mattered anymore - ready to fight. This time Balac never made it.
He drew his sidearm. A Minmatar-designed weapon, the weight of it felt good in his hand. Familiar. Like a warm breeze on the Matar plains. Like the smell of wild Rikmal at dawn. It felt like home. He wondered idly if he would ever see it again.
“Your body is worthless,” said a long ago voice.
“Equipment can be replaced. Your knowledge is what’s important. Your experience is what matters. Whatever happens, you get back into the fight by any means necessary.”
“Standard operating procedure,” Balac finished for the voice, lifting the weapon to his temple. The metal felt cool against his skin. There was no-one around. No CRUs and no waystations that he knew of. And definitely no MCC. If he died, would he even wake up in his clone body? Probably. Maybe. He couldn’t be sure. His hand trembled slightly. On his worst nights, he had prayed for death. The true death. To join Kali and The Hundred as they rode across the Sky Road for all eternity. His finger tightened on the trigger.
I need your help, Traveler.
It was as if someone had breathed the words into his ear, and Balac almost blew his brains out from the sheer surprise of it. Instead, he jerked the weapon around and leveled it at the space where he expected to find the person who had somehow crept up on him. His sudden movement caught the drone’s attention. It twisted its torso in his direction, but detecting only Balac, chirped indignantly and resumed its methodical dissection of the dropship, prying it apart with the care of a mother and the precision of a surgeon. Balac almost fired on it out of spite.
You must listen.
This time, Balac felt the voice more than he heard it. Felt it in the knit of his augmented bones, in the slow turn of his genetics. He wondered absently if this was what insanity felt like.
He tried to stand then, but overbalanced and landed on his freshly amputated limb. Pain clawed up his spine and his pulse slammed in his ears.Instinctively, he grabbed at the wound, which only made the pain worse.
You are here for a reason. There is something you must see.
Through gritted teeth, he grunted, “Sorry, but I’m a little busy right now. Maybe another time.”
You must head south. There’s something you need to see.
“Yeah, you said that already.”
The voice pressed on. It must be you, Traveler. Only you. You must come quickly.
Balac glanced down at his stump. “Sure, I’ll get right on that.”
And then the voice was gone and Balac felt silence seep back into the world, the kind of thick quiet that comes from exhaustion. From a world that, in the aftermath of such sudden explosive violence, had grown numb. He pushed himself upright and went back to studying the map. One way or another, he decided, he was getting off this planet. But it quickly became obvious that the map was hopelessly out of date. His suit’s built-in sensors were severely limited, and the last global refresh – each fire team was supported by a networked TACNET augmented by ground- and air-based surveillance units - had been hours before. If he'd had any doubt he was alone, the absence of reliable telemetry was proof enough.
He picked and prodded his way across the virtual terrain for what seemed an interminably long time and was about to shut off the map to conserve energy when he saw it. A communications outpost five hundred clicks from his current position. Radio for help. As plans went, this was pretty straightforward, but he didn’t have much else going for him just then. It was his best shot. The biggest problem was getting there. He didn’t much like the idea of dragging himself across five hundred kilometers of rocky terrain on his stomach. He started crawling anyway.
It didn’t take long to find what he was looking for: a C12-KLK sniper rifle. It leaned against a blood-soaked rock, as if it had been waiting for him all along. The Kaalakiota-manufactured weapon was a favorite among mercs. Using microscale railgun technology, it effectively weaponized velocity, placing an otherwise inert round accurately downrange in excess of 2,500m/s. It could easily penetrate two-inch-thick depleted uranium plating from over a thousand meters. It would also make a fine crutch. Using the rock for purchase, Balac pulled himself to his feet and tucked the upended rifle under his arm.
Finding transport proved a good deal harder. What hadn’t been wrecked beyond repair had already been pulled apart. All around him, white-hot sparks flashed in the quickly settling dark. The Reclaimers were nothing if not efficient. He stood there for a moment, unsure of where to go.
Balac tried to make sense of the rock and sand and shadow. In the dying light, it all looked the same to him. The wind had started to pick up, and flecks of sand stung his face. He couldn’t imagine the sort of weather that had hewn the ragged, awkward columns... And then he saw it, a shape that was less than the ghost of a memory. He turned toward it, moving with more certainty than he felt. He picked his way up a short slope of loose gravel. It was hard going, but in the hours since he first set out, he’d become quite adept at using the upturned rifle to pick his way across the shale and loose rock of this world. He crested the small peak and saw it just as it had been in his mind’s eye.
His heart leapt in his chest at the sight of the smooth-curved Light Attack Vehicle, exactly where he had left it. And then fell to his feet as he saw the familiar shapes of Skitter drones moving towards it. He counted two. Without hesitation he dropped to the ground, ignoring the pain that fleeced up his half-limb, tucked the rifle neatly into the crook of his arm, and fired. The lead drone crumpled in a heap, and even as it did the second was turning and heading for the slope and Balac. Reclaimers were not designed to fight. But they were programmed to protect themselves and their salvage, and as Balac knew all too well, they were more than capable of doing that.
The Skitter drone moved quickly across the uneven terrain, closing the distance with alarming speed, its long legs a blur of motion. Balac fired and missed as the drone cut between an overhang, the round pulverizing the shale outcropping just as the drone disappeared behind it. He adjusted his aim, tracked just ahead of its zig-zagging path, exhaled, and fired again. This time the round tore through the drone’s torso, which shattered, pieces twitching horribly, in some unfelt caricature of pain. Then he heard a familiar noise and realized his mistake.
The skitter-scratch sound reached his ears an instant before the third drone – the one he never saw - mounted the ridge and reared up, pincers stabbing and tearing at the air in front of it. Balac dropped the rifle, simultaneously pulling his nova knife, and with practiced skill slammed the blade up and in, the white-hot edge activating on contact, cutting into the soft underbelly, the buckled metal tearing at his flesh as he buried his hand into the drone’s abdomen. Blood, his own, poured from the drone’s wound. It practically shone against the brushed metal luster of the drone. The momentum of the strike carried him forward but, without a leg to steady himself with, fell over, teeth gritted tight as he collapsed on top of the drone. It flailed frantically beneath him, one of its limbs catching and tearing open his armor, gouging a deep red line along his side. In response, Balac leaned heavily on the knife, driving it in up to his elbow. The heat of pain and then, after, the warmth of blood flowed along his arm. The drone’s twitching grew slower and then stopped altogether. When he was certain it was dead, Balac pushed off it and rolled onto his back, breathing heavily and grasping for his rifle.
Working quickly in case more Reclaimers showed up, Balac pulled a corpse free from the driver’s seat, got in, touched his hand lightly to the dash – the vehicle’s onboard systems synced immediately with his suit – stalled, cursed his missing leg, restarted the engine and peeled out, the tires spinning then gripping as the four-wheel-drive Methana accelerated out of the loose gravel. Balac didn’t look at the corpse as his high beams flashed across it, pale features defined briefly and then gone, swallowed in the black of night. He didn’t need to. He already knew the dead body was his own.
He hadn’t been driving long when the voice spoke again. You said you would come immediately. You lied. Balac thought it sounded genuinely hurt.
“I promised nothing. Look, I’m sorry. I can’t help you. I’m getting off this planet. Tonight.”
You will not find what you seek.
“Well, then I guess one way or another one of us will get what they want tonight.”
The communications outpost was nothing but a crater, a half-kilometer-wide wound of rock and metal. Billions of ISK obliterated. Balac could only guess at what happened. For all their greed, for all their talk of bottom lines, the corporations were a spiteful breed. Whoever lost this location must’ve decided that if they couldn’t have it, then no one else would either. Or maybe it was a warning. Whatever the reason, it no longer mattered.
“You win.” He said, knowing the voice was listening. “Tell me where to go.”
Balac drove through the night in silence. Perhaps sensing his mood, the voice spoke only when it needed to.
Follow the river bed east 40 kilometers. Continue due south for 10 kilometers.
And so it went until, just as the light of a freshly cracked day seeped in over the horizon, the voice simply said, Here.
It looked no different to Balac than any of the sparse dryland he had traveled across over the course of the last six hours. He wondered, not for the first time that night, just how insane he really was.
“I have a better idea,” he said and fished around in the vehicle’s stow crate. He came up smiling, his hands filled with Tri-nine explosive.
“Hope there’s nothing fragile down there,” he said to no one in particular, and started digging. After he had dug a small hole, placed the shaped charge, refilled the hole, and retreated behind the cover of the LAV, Balac pressed the remote trigger.
The earth sighed, a deep sucking in of air, and then bellowed as it spat a tower of dirt into the sky. Balac felt an odd sense of petty satisfaction as clods of soil rained down.
When the smoke and dirt and dust cleared, Balac lowered himself down into the hole, which was far larger and deeper than he had anticipated. He had, he guessed, tapped into an underground cave of some kind. He coughed, choked on the millions of dust motes that clung to the stale air, and wished he had thought to bring a light. As his eyes grew accustomed to the dark, he noticed the thin outline of a shape, an obsidian surface discernible only by how much darker it was than the black around it. Balac had almost walked into it before he realized it was there. He ran a hand across its ice-cold surface, which, despite being directly underneath the blast, didn’t appear to have a scratch on it. He was still marveling at how impossibly smooth the surface was when an opening appeared and the voice spoke.
Welcome home, Traveler.