Chapter 1 "The Warmest Welcome" MILAN Mars. The ‘red’ planet stood firm like a semi-circular mountain against th...
Tuesday, January 7, 2020
READ FROM THE START - Chapter 1 Scene 1 - MILAN v0.5
The ‘red’ planet stood firm like a semi-circular mountain against the black, starless horizon. It was said to be one of the sights of the solar system from this spot, and almost everyone who visited Phobos talked about that sight in gushing exuberance. All Milan Kalakov could do, however, was stare at the grey dirt and the white metal tube to his left.
Because Phobos, the larger of the two moons that orbit Mars, was a stretch of the word moon in anyone’s book. It was a glorified asteroid, with micro-gravity so low that an object floated for minutes at a time before coming to rest on the ground. It made navigating outside of the base a dull chore - so much so that it took all the joy out of being here.
As he hung a meter above the ground, Milan made the thrusters on his spacesuit briefly halt his forward momentum. The fibrous and mechanical tether that tied him to Domovoi Outpost automatically detached itself from one railing and onto the next.
It was a quick process, but, when performed many times over one hundred and fifty meters, it soon began to wear thin. Without the tether, what might be a ten-minute spacewalk to a docking tower was traversable in less than a minute. The Russian was sure that had this base been a corporate one, instead of international, he would not only be at the dock by now but would have sorted out the problem as well.
Truth be told, it might not have been all that bad, had he not been ordered to take along Zhang Xiwen - mechanic, gossip, and motormouth.
“How are you holding up, Major Kalakov?”
“Fine,” Milan replied tersely. “It feels just like any other spacewalk - slow, boring, and repetitive.”
The helmet made his breathing loud and pronounced, and having to listen to it non-stop was bad enough without the added sound of his companion’s grating, nasal voice.
“Hah,” Zhang cawed like a bird, “you should be grateful. In the old days, when people needed to go outside the base, they were made to walk, to preserve EVA fuel. You know how hard it is to walk here on Phobos? Very hard! You think it would be easy, bounce around no problem; but, you run or you jump, or even trip up, and you can fly for kilometers. That’s why we still have the netting above; never bothered to take it down once they changed to EVA thrusters, just in case the tether malfunctions.”
Zhang referred to the orange netting above and beside them that ran the length of the white tube they were journeying along. A literal safety-net corridor. The strips incessantly cast shadows across Milan’s helmet, making the sunlight blink on and off repeatedly. Combined with Zhang’s yammering, it was starting to give him a headache.
As the tether slid alongside Milan on the railing, he pondered the Chinese engineer’s words.
“And have they? Malfunctioned?”
“Never,” Zhang replied in his rough English. “Only incident I heard about was before the netting. Two of your fellow Russians got drunk, went on duty, and tried to see how high they could jump. One came down two hours later and eight kilometers away. The other guy was never found. That’s why we have the netting. You Russians are veeery crazy!”
Milan let out a gravelly huff.
“That sounds like a scare story you tell the new guy.”
Chuckling in response, the Chinese engineer seemed eager to latch on to whatever Milan said and use it to carry the conversation forward. “Ask Dovi if you don’t believe me.”
The Russian instinctively glanced to his right at the mention of Dovi, the outpost’s Virtual Intelligence. A small, orange ball covered in black dots hovered just behind his right shoulder and was following them. Some of the dots were micro-thrusters, some were camera lenses - allowing Dovi to not only control the drone but relay footage back to the Command Center. “I tell you what else you would not believe,” Zhang added, “the amount of people that I have had to untangle from this netting, even after that happened.”
This time Milan gave out a heavy sigh.
“I am sure you have many heroic stories of untangling people from safety netting, but I would rather concentrate on not flying into this one,” he gruffly replied, trying to halt the engineer’s constant chatter.
The conversation, as it turned out, didn’t need any stymieing after all, as Zhang abruptly slowed his pace. The change was so quick that Milan almost bumped into the mechanic’s EVA backpack.
“Well, no need to worry about that now, we are here.”
‘Fobos Domovoi Zastava,’ as it was named in Russian, comprised of over forty segments that had been landed on Phobos over the course of twenty-years, making it the most extensive space base beyond the Earth’s moon. Originally a Russian project, it was the concept of their national space agency, Roscosmos, and mostly manufactured by the Kosdoby Corporation. However, it only became a major refueling and cargo base after the Chinese came on board as joint partners, doubling it’s size. It soon became the pride of both nations’ long-term space endeavors and logistically the most important for human spaceflight.
The core of the outpost started from a central hub, the Command Center, which was a large, upright cylinder. Its main characteristic, aside from featuring an array of dishes and antennae above it, was the fact it was one of the few parts of the station not adorned with manufacturer logos. This was due to seven smaller modules surrounding it that would block the view of anything written on the side.
From there, four long connector tubes branched outward for one hundred and fifty meters in each direction like a compass, and at the end of each one resided a cargo bay underlying a docking tower. The cargo bays were fat cylinders which connected to thinner, white tubes that reached up high into the sky - the docking towers themselves. Straddling either side of them were four solar-panel arrays, much larger than any Milan had ever seen on a grounded base before. Phobos’ lack of gravity had allowed the two nations to build on a grand scale.
Despite not being able to see much upon his arrival a week ago, Milan had been keen to get a glimpse of the more prominent parts of the base. In two of the quadrants of the compass were a pair of massive inflatable greenhouses - one attached to the northwest and one to the southeast. Milan’s lungs opened up every time he entered the fresh-smelling and lush-looking domes. They were the only parts of the base that didn’t cloy of recycled air.
It was from the Russian greenhouse, while learning the layout of the base, that he had first spotted Domovoi’s most notable feature - a large, slowly-spinning inflatable centrifuge in the northeast quadrant. The tubular donut created artificial gravity for the occupants to sleep in, exercise, and do any work that required a more sensible amount of gravity than Phobos’ pitiful offering. In truth, it looked like a giant bicycle wheel had fallen over on its side. And like most centrifuges that Milan had ever experienced, he was glad that it had no windows. Despite being a trained cosmonaut, looking out at a continually spinning world always gave him a headache after a while.
The only items of note in the quadrant that Milan and Zhang were navigating was the smoothed-out ground set aside as a landing site for two personnel shuttles and the fuel processing and storage tanks. But all of those were far away and closer to Dock Four in the west, than here at the southern point of the base.
Milan and Zhang had just reached the curving metal wall of Dock Three when they came to the end of their lengthy spacewalk. The corridor of orange netting ended and an airlock jutted out from the side of the cargo bay. Zhang approached first with his helmet moving around as if looking for something. Then, it jolted slightly, spotting a small mechanical hand protruding from the far side of the airlock.
“And there’s the repair robot.”
“Let me see,” Milan said, as he maneuvered around Zhang to get a better look.
On the other side, the Russian and Chinese flags were printed side-by-side on the door-frame; and below them, the logos of their respective space agencies. Underneath was a partially blocked view of the Kosdoby Corporation logo, taken up by the sorry sight of a white and orange box with two arms lying motionless on the ground. Its head was a black dome that started on top of the box and ended midway down its chest. Without legs, it used thrusters embedded around its body for movement, but the robot showed no sign of life as it lay in the dust and gravel.
Milan moved in closer as Zhang quickly tapped away on his wrist display.
“No response, even from here. Dead as the proverbial dodo,” the engineer reported. “Open up its toolkit. The manual power button should be inside.”
The Russian sighed, irritated at the engineer absent-mindedly giving an order to an officer, even if he was the one looming over it.
“Very well. Meanwhile, you open the airlock. After all, that is the real reason we are here.”
“Sure thing,” Zhang responded, seemingly pleased at tackling the easier job.
Milan carefully opened the toolbox on the underside of the repair robot’s body. Inside were various engineering tools all neatly packed together and only accessible by the customized hands of the robot in question. It didn’t take him long to notice the large red power button at the back.
He pressed it once.
He pressed the rubbery button harder and longer for a second time.
‘Screw it!’ he thought, pressing it over and over again in frustration. And, just as he was about to tell Zhang it was well and truly broken, the engineer got in the first word.
“Huh,” he chirped quizzically. “Now look at that.”
Milan was always irritated by people who left him hanging but gave up on the robot and turned his attention to the airlock.
“Look at what?”
Zhang grasped one of the handles and pulled himself firmly onto the ground before tapping a finger on the airlock’s emergency panel. A small circular light was completely dark.
“The airlock doesn’t have power. When we lost contact with the cargo bay this emergency generator should have kicked into action, so that people trapped inside can get out quickly. This airlock? It should be the only part of the docking tower that still works, but, as you see, nothing. If you give me a moment I will open manually.”
As the engineer began to access the manual release hatch, Milan gave another glance at the orange globe that was watching them.
“Colonel Voronin, this is Kalakov. Is the drone giving you a clear enough picture?”
Alena Voronin, the commanding officer of Domovoi Zastava, was busy in the Command Center, coordinating between the internal repair team’s efforts and this external expedition.
“Yes, copy that,” replied a tinny female voice. “The video feed for both of your helmets and the drone is fine. Gurevich is still struggling to open the cargo bay from the inside. How is your progress?”
Zhang was quiet during the exchange until it was time for Milan to reply. The Chinese man made a grumbling noise, tapping a gauge.
“Hmm, no air inside the airlock.”
“We are just about to enter Dock Three now, Colonel.” Milan furrowed his brow further before looking at the gauge himself. “That is very wrong, is it not?”
“Exactly, and very strange,” Zhang began to explain. “The airlocks are always, always meant to be left pressurized; so that even if the emergency generator fails, like it has here, then there is still air in the airlock for them.”
“Maybe a micro-meteorite has pierced the hull somewhere,” the Russian suggested.
Zhang began sliding open the panel to the manual handle.
“Maybe. It might be a faulty...” The engineer cut himself off as he gasped. “Chi dan bian! Look, look at this! The handle has been bent out of shape. What the hell?”
The Chinese engineer moved aside to let Milan grasp the rung nearest to the panel and see for himself. What had once been a circular, valve-like locking mechanism had been bent on its axis, and another attempt made to break off the gripping handle that turned it.
Milan suddenly became very aware of the hairs on the back of his neck. This was either an extremely unusual phenomenon or it was flat out sabotage. He joined Zhang in swearing.
“Blyad, do you think the repair robot did that, while trying to get in, before it went offline?”
“I don’t think so,” Zhang replied. “The repair robots are strong, but,” he puffed out his cheeks, “Bending metal? No.”
Milan gave the broken repair unit an evil stare, as if blaming it for not putting his mind at ease.
“Explosive decompression?” The moment he said it, he realized he was grasping at straws.
Zhang shook his head once more.
“The locking mechanism has no air inside it to decompress.”
“But no man can twist metal like that,” Milan replied. “Not even with a crowbar.”
The Chinese mechanic swiveled himself around to look at the orange drone.
“Dovi, double-check for me. All the other robots are where they should be, correct?”
The outpost’s computer software delivered an instant response over the radio in its monotone voice.
“Correct, Mr. Zhang. With the rediscovery of this unit all maintenance and ore processing robots are accounted for.”
“Then I cannot think of any other way it could get like that,” Zhang frustratedly admitted. “What about you?”
“There is still insufficient data for a high probability assessment, Engineer Zhang,” the VI flatly replied.
“Hah!” he crowed in response. “Fat lot of good you are!” After a few moments of silence, Zhang sucked in and puffed air out of his cheeks once more before looking Milan’s way. “You want me to try and open it?”
Milan was reluctant, and felt that he betrayed too much hesitation to Zhang by pausing for a second in thought before giving his solemn reply.
“That is why we are here.”
“Very well. Then I will need a hand. If this does not work, we will have to do what the indoor guys are doing and go get some plasma cutters.”
Both men tried to maneuver as close to one another as their spacesuits and the small airlock panel would allow. They each gripped a side of the circular valve and attempted to twist. The shaft itself was barely turning, and had it been bent just a bit further on the axis, then all this effort would have been in vain. As it was, it felt like trying to move a spade in near-solid cement. What made it worse was that, until they braced against each other and the wall, turning the handle only made themselves move, instead.
A voice came over the radio.
“Kalakov, this is Voronin. Is the door accessible?”
“Come on... Come on... A bit more... There!”
An audible clunk rang out, most likely due to the vibration carrying from the locking mechanism through their gloves. Zhang’s sheer relief and heavy breathing came across as a rhythmic barrage over the radio. Milan had instantly sized up the engineer for being physically unfit the moment they had first met - upon entering the 3D printing module and finding him slacking off work with two packets of crisps.
“We have just opened it now, Colonel. Does it still not show up on the system?”
“No, nothing on our end,” she replied. “Dovi is still unable to connect to Dock Three and Gurevich, well, he is finding cutting through the internal doors extremely hard. So, it is down to you to find out what the problem is. If it is not something that Zhang can fix on his own then I will send out Gurevich to assist you.”
Zhang began opening the door and peered around its edge, as if opening a lion cage, while Milan pondered how to respond to his commander. He wanted to come across as evenly as possible with what he was about to say.
“Understood, Colonel. I would like to ask something, as well. Were you watching our camera footage when we examined the airlock? The handle showed signs of tampering.”
“Tampering?” There was a brief pause before Voronin brusquely stated, “Say it how you see it, Kalakov, you mean sabotage?”
“Da, I think so, sir.”
Milan noticed Zhang’s helmet twitch slightly at hearing the word, as if saying it aloud brought home the reality of their discovery.
“Look at it again, so that I may see,” the radio voice ordered. Milan responded, angling his helmet back around the open door. Voronin mumbled something inaudible, before raising her voice. “Dovi, prepare a probability assessment from all the data that you have, everything. That includes perimeter sensors, Kalakov and Zhang’s cameras, and the video footage from your drone as well.”
After the VI acknowledged its order, Voronin gave the command to continue onward. The two men told their tethers to permanently unhook from the safety railings before turning their helmet lights on and entering the dark, empty airlock.
Zhang, surprisingly, continued venturing ahead and pushed himself over to the interior airlock door. Reaching to open the mechanical lock, his attention was distracted by the door itself.
He tapped a finger against it. The door moved and he gasped.
“Kalakov, it’s already open.”
“What?” The Russian froze mid-way through closing the outer-door. He turned around and saw the gap for himself before controlling his voice to a slow, formal tone.
“Command, all the air inside the cargo bay has been vented.”
“All of it,” Zhang almost whispered, with his eyes like saucers.
Had anyone been inside the cargo bay when this happened would have died after only a minute or so. Milan should have felt relief, glad that no crew member had been lost during his first week at Domovoi. But he couldn’t, the situation was far too strange.
Voronin acknowledged over the radio before the Chinese mechanic lightly pressed on the door again, opening it slowly and cautiously. Releasing it halfway through and leaving inertia to do the rest, Zhang himself floated backwards - or so it seemed to Milan.
Instinctively, the Russian unclipped the laser pistol from his waist.
Upon entering the cargo bay, what little light remained from the outside had almost completely disappeared. Everything apart from the airlock was pitch-black, and they soon became solely dependent upon the headlamps and enhanced night-vision of their helmets.
Gently pushing forward with their feet, their lights revealed that the area was littered with various bags and crates of different shapes and sizes, with most stacked on metal shelves that made up the many aisles of the cargo bay. Nothing instantly appeared damaged, but things did look extremely untidy. It only added to Milan’s unease.
Without life and power, the entire room felt like a tomb. The enhanced visuals that his faceplate displayed seemed to drain the color and vibrancy out of everything, and made distant objects hard to define. He could barely see the walls. It was like looking at a post-apocalyptic world, one where everyone had just ditched their belongings and fled for some unknown reason.
The silence was so intense that he hadn’t realized how quiet and shallow his breathing was until Zhang shattered the moment.
“Definitely not a meteorite.”
With no sound to announce their movement, Milan realized the engineer had ventured down one of the aisles and couldn’t see him. Thankfully, looking for Zhang made his peripheral vision catch sight of the airlock once more. It helped him notice the orange spherical drone hover inside - something that might have startled him had it come from behind. Another pair of eyes also made him feel slightly better.
“How can you tell?” he asked.
“If a micro-meteorite had hit the dock and created a tiny hole, the air rushing out would have shifted only small bags at best. We do not leave crates like this in the middle of a walkway. As much as I hate to say it out loud, to move that much weight, someone completely ignored procedure and vented the atmosphere through the airlock. The question is, were they coming in or going out?”
Milan turned a switch on his laser pistol. The safety light changed from green to red.
As the drone controlled by Dovi floated away down one of the aisles, Milan picked one himself and began methodically checking everything in his path.
“This does not make sense,” he thought out aloud, just as much for himself as to Zhang and the listening Colonel. “Why cut power, remove air, and then sabotage the door? We get in eventually, no matter w...”
Instantly, amongst the various clutter, one thing stood out in the center of the path ahead. It was a small, black, rectangular block, with a rubber coating. Unlike everything else in his view, it had four metallic arms that protruded from each corner and were firmly gripping the floor.
“Zhang?... Zhang!” Within a moment or two, he saw a swaying light - that of the mechanic pulling himself around the corner as fast as he could in micro-gravity. “Xiwen! Is this what I think it is?”
“La shi!” swore Zhang, before continuing. “La shi, la shi!” was all he could muster in response.
Milan thought that the device was going to detonate there and then, and just stared at it, having never stood this close to a live bomb before. After realizing he had stopped breathing entirely, he tried regaining control of his thoughts. It was the sight of Dovi’s orange drone popping into view further down the aisle that finally snapped him out of it.
“Ai ya! Another!” Zhang shouted, as the drone’s light revealed one more bomb at the far end. “Dovi, do you see it?”
“Confirmed,” the VI replied. “Two explosive devices have been sigh-”
It was cut off by the Colonel shouting.
“This is Voronin! Get out of there now, Kalakov. Do you read me? Get out!”
With that, Milan instantly turned for the airlock and grabbed Zhang’s arm to force him into doing the same.
“Copy that, Colonel,” Milan replied. “What shall we do about...”
He didn’t get chance to finish, as Voronin cut in yet again.
“Get back to the Command Center! Dovi, assessment of the explosives.”
Dovi’s small drone began circling one of the bombs.
“They appear to be type-three USDA spatial charges,” the VI calmly reported.
Voronin’s voice, in comparison, was now speeding along like a runaway train.
“Is there any way to re-pressurize and blow the bombs out of the cargo bay, once Kalakov and Zhang are outside?”
“The explosives appear to be clamped or screwed onto the floor-plating, Colonel.”
There was no vocal response from Voronin over the radio, just a loud thud; presumably the sound of her hitting something hard.
Bundling themselves into the airlock, Milan and Zhang clashed together, and almost got themselves comically stuck in the door-frame. The Russian planted both hands on his companion before pushing him through first. A thought came to mind about closing the inner door behind them for protection, but, with Milan’s brain now moving through the gears, he realized it would waste valuable time to escape and only make a contained explosion worse.
“Alert,” Dovi began reporting, “One of Dock Four’s exterior cameras has just gone offline.”
A minor clip of static burst in their ears as the colonel turned the channel off, probably to ask questions she didn’t want others to hear.
“Zhang, Dock Four, that’s northwest, correct?”
The engineer gestured with his hand as they exited the airlock, bursting into daylight once more.
“Yes, that way.” He nearly pointed in the same direction they had come from, confirming Milan’s mental layout of the base. Dock Three was the south-point of the compass, Dock Four the west-point.
“Okay, then we go back to the Command Center on the other side. Come on!”
With their automatic tethers snaking and readying themselves to attach to the railings once more, neither man wanted to hug anything remotely close to the outpost. Gripping their control sticks, the pair began flying around the outside of the safety netting. As they did so, a two-tone beep denoted the radio channel was open once more, with Dovi bringing an update.
“I have now lost all connection with Dock Four as well, Colonel.”
Voronin growled. “Chert poberi, chto proiskhodit?!”
“Dock Four, however, has not gone offline in the same manner that Dock Three did,” The VI continued. “Someone has hacked into the module’s systems.”
The thought struck Milan as if he had been slapped in the face.
“Wait. So, they are there, right now? Did any cameras see anything?”
“No, Major Kalakov,” Dovi replied, “I would have spotted an intruder quite easily. Somehow, the infiltrator has disabled Dock Four’s internal security systems as well as the external.”
Having had enough, Voronin began barking at them.
“Gurevich, try and stop the saboteur sealing the interior of Dock Four, if they haven’t already! Dovi, send a maintenance robot to unscrew the explosives that we know of. Kalakov, get to Dock Four immediately and stop whoever is planting explosives in my base!”
Milan almost hit his head against the faceplate of his helmet as he attempted to halt his forward movement. His reverse thrusters billowed dust up off the ground into a cloud that blew beyond Zhang in front. The Chinese mechanic took a moment or two longer in slowing down, as if the dust passing him by brought about the dawning realization that the order included him, as well.
Swaying around to regard Milan, Zhang looked every bit as shocked as when he had first seen the explosives.
Milan was about to reply when Voronin answered for him, confusing the question as being intended for her.
“If Gurevich finds the interior door sealed, then you will be our only chance of stopping them, and faster than me suiting up a new EVA team. Now get going!”
“Copy that, Colonel,” Milan confirmed. “Come on, Zhang, move!”
“But I do not have a weapon,” the mechanic almost pleaded, “How will I be of use to you?”
“For fuck’s sake, even if we have use our bare fists, we have to stop this guy; otherwise, the entire base gets blown to shit. Now move!”
The Major maneuvered himself up into the sky, above the white tube and orange netting to their left, turning to face the northwest.
“We’re going to move fast, so keep up,” were the last words he uttered before pressing forward and picking up momentum.
Zhang began following, and the faster they went, the louder his breathing became over Milan’s radio.
“Projecting trajectory onto your faceplate, adjust thrusters accordingly,” added the spacesuit’s internal software.
Milan shifted angle until the green circle on his helmet was super-imposed on the distant sight of dock four, all whilst continuing to increase speed. But therein lay the problem; too much speed and the computer would have a harder time slowing them down and cause complications. Too slow, and it could give the bomber all the time he needed to finish laying and priming the explosives. Even today, people died in computer-assisted spacewalks from sheer stupidity and recklessness.
“At least we don’t have to fly over the greenhouses or the centrifuge. That would scare the crap out of me,” Zhang commented, causing Milan to look to his right.
He suddenly realized that he had a spectacular view of the base. With both greenhouse domes and the slowly spinning gravity wheel in sight, it was the best view of Domovoi he had witnessed since arriving. And, with most of Mars behind him, the base seemed very small and alone on this broad landscape, adrift in the starless void of space.
As they hurtled over the flat ground where two small people-carriers lay near some refueling tanks, Milan was caught off-guard by just how fast dock four was approaching.
“Warning - current speed for the projected landing is beyond safety guidelines. Alter course, or prepare for a computer-assisted emergency landing sequence in eight seconds. This is your last warning. Assisted emergency landing in five...”
Milan let the timer run out, knowing it was the only way he would have a shot at slowing down at the last possible moment and not killing himself in the process. Hopefully.
A blast of white exhaust fumes instantly filled his vision as the reverse thrusters kicked in. His legs and arms flung out, and his entire body jerked forward in the suit so hard that this time he did violently head-butt his faceplate. The rest of his body reacted so harshly to all the jostling that he nearly span out of control. A moment later, the computer began adjusting and adapting to his movements. Still, that did not make the next few seconds any easier, as the white exhaust continued to disorient him and block the sight ahead.
When it stopped, the ground was everything he could see. His feet crunched into the gravel and dust, sending up a gigantic plume of dirt that he then lurched into, head first, as momentum flung his torso forward. The thrusters kicked in yet again, attempting to stop his head impacting the surface. The result was his body twisting around and losing control once more. After another couple of twists and turns, and a final flurry of thruster bursts, he was surprised to realize he had come to a near stop. His right boot kicked the gravel as a final act, and he was all but lying face down just centimeters above the ground.
Milan pushed off with his left hand, spinning himself up and around to try and catch sight of Zhang. The moment he faced the dock, he instantly spotted him. The engineer’s right leg caught the edge of a metal rung on the cargo bay as he came down, flinging him headfirst into a spin. It made the spacesuit computer go crazy, shooting thrusters in all directions like a firework display. He headed close enough to Milan that the Russian instinctively took a large, quick sidestep to the right, and attempted to stop his momentum by digging his right boot into the gravel.
In the next second, Zhang collided more violently with the ground than he had, and bounced up into Milan’s chest. While on Earth, this would have been an end to the matter, here Zhang’s momentum lifted up Milan as well, and both were in danger of flying out into the black void.
The Major gripped the back of the engineer with one hand, and then pressed his thumbs forward on the thrusters, forcing them to push towards the dirt below. Even then, it took a second before Zhang’s computer understood it was receiving assistance.
“I have you! I have you!” Milan repeated, trying to calm the Chinese man’s intermittent screams. He even left the thrusters going for a half-second longer than he thought necessary, just to make sure they were firmly planted. “Are you okay?”
Zhang’s helmet, face down in the gravel, wiggled.
“Shi, shi, ...yes,” he panted, with his breathing beginning to ease as he regained his composure. “This is insane, completely insane!”
“Are you two alright?” Voronin asked over the radio.
Milan curtly re-assured his superior officer before attempting to re-focus his companion.
“Come on, look. The airlock, it is still open,” he noted as he helped Zhang up. The open hatch was like a domino missing its dots against the harsh white metal. There was simply nothing to be seen inside at this distance.
As the two men began approaching, Milan once more unclipped his laser pistol and turned off the safety.
“Zhang, have you got anything that could be used as a weapon?”
“Not really. I have only my basic toolkit.”
“Okay, when we get inside, keep an eye out for something to use. We have to stop this guy, no matter what. No. Matter. What. Understood?” Milan made sure the mechanic both nodded and replied in acknowledgment before continuing. “Good, let’s go.”
Stepping into the darkness this time felt far worse than before. An almost preyed upon, fight or flight instinct took hold and made Milan very aware of the adrenaline coursing through his body. With the previous cargo bay, the trepidation had come from the sheer mystery. This time, the odds were down to one. There was definitely someone in here, and they weren’t going to be content until all the docks, and possibly the base, had made a brand new crater on this pock-marked little moon.
The Russian instinctively lowered his voice, despite the fact it wouldn’t carry beyond his helmet.
“Night-vision only, no headlights.”
The shadow of the door frame was so razor-sharp and the interior so black that it almost felt like passing through a gateway into another world. Without the headlights, his augmented night-vision had a far fuzzier look to it, and what little enhanced color there had been before was now completely gone.
Milan silently gestured for the engineer to follow him in, before motioning to head down the aisle to his left, whilst he ventured to the right. Zhang, to his credit, actually looked as if he was searching for something to use as a weapon. Milan, however, had to concentrate on speed and disrupting the infiltrator as soon as possible.
Ambling forward with greater ease now that he had things to cling on to once more, he came to the end of the first section relatively quickly. The unnerving difference this time was the number of items floating by, presumably from the cargo bay being unceremoniously de-pressurized and not enough time having passed for things to come to rest.
Gently pushing aside what he presumed was a ration pack floating in his way, he rounded a corner and gained a grainy sight of the cargo bay door - the door that connected internally to the rest of the base.
‘No wonder Gurevich was having problems at Dock Three,’ he thought, ‘If it’s anything like this one.’
Whoever was in here had jammed a bar between the door handle and the railing of the door-frame itself, making it impossible to open. Chief Gurevich or the other engineer, Benjamin Fu, was probably on the other side right now, trying in vain to open it or possibly unpacking the cutters.
Milan began moving closer.
“Gurevich? This is Kalakov, do you copy?”
“I’m here. What is it?”
“The internal door has been jammed with a pipe, or a bar or something. Are you using plasma cutters?”
“I am about to put one to the door right now. But there are two sets of doors to get through.”
“Then do not bother, I will try and open it fr-”
He winced as a loud burst of static screeched through the radio.
“Robot! It’s a god-damn military robot!” Zhang screamed.
Milan caught the echo from a flash of light somewhere in the cargo bay behind him.
“Kalakov! Kalakov!” came another cry.
Milan took hold of a rung, swiveled around, and pushed himself off the wall, thrusting himself back towards the first section of the bay, back towards the airlock.
He caught sight of Zhang as the Chinese engineer hit the airlock door, and, along with a metal pole he had found, tried to bundle himself through. An instant flash momentarily lit up the entire room as if lightning had struck. Milan had been looking at Zhang at that exact moment, enough to see a thin, straight line of blueish white light silently hit the back of the Chinese man’s left shoulder. The mechanic didn’t seem to react for a moment, but then let out a bone-chilling shriek and turned hard against airlock’s interior wall, frantically trying to use the door for protection.
Milan couldn’t see the attacker but knew the laser strike had come from an aisle to the right. It was confirmed when a second flash lit up the room. Fortunately for the engineer, the following shot hit the airlock. Zhang’s attempt at escape was now hindered by him clutching the back of his left shoulder and panicking to find the hole in his suit.
The Russian knew that if he did not act now, the robot would race him to the airlock within seconds, not only having Zhang at its mercy but with a clear shot on him as well.
With only a momentary thought, Milan chose to reveal his position, firing his pistol pointlessly to the right, out across the open section in front of the airlock. The moment he did so, he flung himself towards the engineer. His jump ended up being better than he had hoped and went through the door so smoothly that he had to grasp hold of Zhang to stop himself from going further. The engineer barely noticed, however, continuing his flowing stream of Chinese curse words. Milan pulled on the airlock’s interior door, hoping it might shield them better.
A flash of light. The briefest flicker of warmth near his right cheek, or was it imagined? The laser must have been centimeters away from hitting him.
He fired another aimless shot, hoping it would make the robot take up a more defensive posture and give him time to check on Zhang. The problem was that with every pointless blast he fired the quicker the robot would work out that he wasn’t aiming. From Milan’s knowledge of military units, he guessed that he had one more shot, at best, before the assailant would change its tactics.
“Are you okay?”
“I don’t know. I’m venting!” the engineer yelled in frustration, trying to reach for his spacesuit’s repair gel, a glue that solidified within seconds in a vacuum.
Milan was about to ask if the laser had made two holes in his suit or one, but then saw how far down the back of the shoulder the air was escaping. His body must have taken the worst of it.
“It is only on the one side; you can plug it!”
Zhang ripped out the small glue gun and tried hanging it over his shoulder.
“I can’t reach the hole!”
“You have to,” Milan growled through gritted teeth, “if I do not properly shoot back, it will charge at us, and kill us both.”
Zhang’s panting edged into a high pitched whine as he continued to grasp over his shoulder. Milan tightly gripped the airlock door handle with his left hand. He was at the very edge between the light reflecting from the outside and the darkness from within. The contrast was playing havoc with his night-vision.
However, pushing the door ajar, he could see enough to get a first, brief glimpse of their attacker. A fuzzy, shadowy figure was off to his left, about ten meters away. It most certainly wasn’t human – it was nothing but sharp angles and the limbs were all wrong. The moment he realized what he was looking at, he fired. Giving yourself time to aim at a robot was virtually a guarantee of them hitting you instead.
Pulling back on the airlock door, Milan couldn’t tell if he’d scored a hit, but could certainly feel when the door slightly bucked. The robot had responded instantly, just as he had expected.
Without being able to stop it, that one, brief moment of contact had burned into his vision. Three featureless chrome eyes on a long, rectangular head had been staring straight at him. With an eye on every other side of the head, apart from its neck, the shot had come from the laser mounted where its jaw would have been. It was indeed a military-grade soldier unit, and would undoubtedly have multiple lasers, mostly on its limbs, maybe one on its back.
Milan had to shake himself from the moment and stop thinking about it. Zhang growled again, before letting out a brief cry of frustration at not being able to pin down his gel gun over the hole accurately.
“I can’t reach!”
“Oh, come on!” Milan irritably snarled back, before letting go of the door and turning to help with the gel.
Keeping the pistol pointed towards the hatch, the Russian still had to turn his head and see where to plant his free hand on the shoulder. He hadn’t noticed that the act of releasing it gave the door enough momentum to begin drifting open. There was only enough time to fully push down on the gel gun once before his peripheral vision caught movement. Milan turned his head back to the airlock door but instinctively fired anyway.
For the briefest moment, he was stunned in a feeling of amazement and hope. Amazement, at the sight of the machine vanishing as quickly as it appeared, and hope, at the thought he might have actually hit it - which he probably hadn’t.
Then, his right eye caught sight of something new. It was a small and barely perceptible white speck in the top right corner of his faceplate. A dot that, when his eyes brought it into focus, became a white hole. Searing pain erupted on his scalp as the wound pierced his consciousness like a hot skewer. A gentle breeze began blowing over his face as the air started escaping the hole, and brought with it the smell of burnt hair. This time, Milan let out a scream of his own.
“Warning – air pressure is dropping, your suit has ruptured. The location of the rupture is being displayed on your faceplate. Please apply repair gel as quickly as possible,” his spacesuit computer coldly pointed out, placing a circle around the hole he could already see.
The Russian, with his face scrunched up in pain, kept his right eye closed and lurched for the door, swinging it shut. Without turning the handle, however, the momentum gently bounced it against the door frame and began to slowly swing open once more. Milan wasn’t thinking straight; he was surprised that he was still thinking at all, let alone appreciate that his right eye was still working.
“Are you okay? Did you get it?” Zhang’s voice sounded distant.
“No. Maybe, I don’t know!” He grimaced and screamed again as another wave of pain cut into his head like a rusty razor-blade. “We need a better position. Here, plug my hole as we move.” He gestured to the hatch, before ripping open the patch on his suit containing the repair gel and holding it out for Zhang.
Pressing down on it as quickly as the engineer could, they pushed towards the exit.
Outside, Milan motioned for Zhang to hide behind the right side of the airlock. Being right-handed himself, he wanted to be on the left side of the doorway with his pistol, and have only his right arm exposed. The Russian tried to dig in his position with his feet, fighting off the pounding waves of pain that quickly turned from the sharp lances of a machete to a dull jack-hammer banging on his head. His eyes were watered and felt burning hot, but he couldn’t blink. He had to keep his view and the pistol fixed on the darkness ahead of him.
The interior airlock door continued slowly drifting open until it once more turned into a rectangular black hole.
Milan began counting - more out of habit from combat training than anything else. It wasn’t until he reached six that he asked himself aloud why it wasn’t attacking, and realized he had been ignoring a voice over the radio. It was Colonel Voronin.
“Kalakov, Zhang, respond! Are you both alright? Kalakov!”
‘Let Zhang answer,’ was the only thought he allowed himself. He simply could not take his concentration away from the hatch.
The robotic soldier should have continued its attack by now. What was it doing? Why didn’t it charge the airlock the moment he’d been hit?
Lying rigidly still against the door-frame, for what seemed like an age, slowly brought his senses back. Sweat inside his suit made him chilly, and combined with the adrenaline, made his teeth chatter. Stopping himself at the third clack, his mind began to furiously rethink his position.
“What tactics are you using?” he murmured.
Was it holding off so that it could resume planting explosives? Was it just stationary, waiting for him to make the first move and expose his position? Or was it perhaps waiting a specific amount of time before charging through, knowing that his attention might wander while contemplating these very scenarios? Military robots had so much data about human behavior, psychology, and stress levels in combat situations that it probably knew he was lying here in wait, that was for sure. What haunted him was the thought of the machine predicting how long he would wait before making his move.
Milan slowed his breathing and took a gulp. With one deep breath, he made the decision.
“Zhang?” he croaked, with his finger tightening up on the pistol trigger. “On three, we charge at it. One...”
Then, the cargo bay exploded.
Chapter 1 "The Warmest Welcome" MILAN Mars. The ‘red’ planet stood firm like a semi-circular mountain against th...
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