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Science Fiction – NOMADS 3 – Among warriors

by

Allan J. Stark

 

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Science Fiction NOMADS 3

 

CHAPTER 1

„Many teach us war, and they teach us well. But who teaches us peace and how to live it?“

(Marus Payora, philosopher at the court of Simna)

Dominic was gradually losing his strength. The armor weighed heavily on his shoulders and every step hurt. He hoped that it would still adapt to his body as the gray clouds in the sky gathered into a single, dark mass. A blizzard blew in, the likes of which Dominic had never experienced before. The gusts of wind swept across the expansive landing area, threatening to sweep Dominic and his companions from the plain like insects from a tabletop. The battle group was already very close to the gate to the base when the swirling snowflakes became so dense that they obscured Dominic’s view.
Doka Dayan, the giant Akkato who was walking in front of him with heavy steps, turned into a gray silhouette in the blink of an eye and finally disappeared completely in the snow flurry. In front of Dominic’s slit of vision, everything was now white. The wheezing of his comrades could be heard from the helmet loudspeaker. A curse here and there. The indicators in his helmet display shone brighter than before, but Dominic still couldn’t make sense of the symbols dancing before his eyes. Diagrams, numbers and crosshairs appeared. He expected to stumble at any moment, to be blown over the rock by the wind and over the cliff. Dominic suppressed his fear and hurried on, not knowing exactly where he was going, until suddenly he had passed under the archway and found himself in the middle of a large hall. The roar of the storm died away almost immediately and his vision became clear again.
The Akkato captain approached a group of three grey-green uniformed people, exchanged a few words with them, turned around and flipped up his visor. He waved his hand in the air, indicating that Dominic and his comrades should also open their helmets.
The air was piercingly cold and flowed around Dominic’s face like ice water as he pushed up his visor. The sounds of working machinery and running engines reached his ears. The roar of some unknown piece of equipment lay above all the noise and made the air vibrate.
„This is Rakkos,“ the Akkato began in a thunderous voice. „One of three large bases on Dostra. The other two are called Mara and Sepan. From these bases, we lead the attacks against the Keymon, who attack our mining facilities and prospectors. In turn, we do the same with their mines and tunnel units. I am the captain of the combat units that protect the mining personnel. The units are made up of Akkato and you humans, who we call Sarro, which means sensor or feeler. And that is what we expect you to do. Track down the bugs and show us where we can find them.“ The Akkato began to walk up and down in front of Dominic and the other humans. „Winter is just ending,“ he continued, putting his fists on his hips. „I don’t know which I prefer. To freeze to death or to burn to death. But apart from fighting the enemy, the climate on Dostra is our biggest challenge, and we keep suffering losses because of it. Escaping the cold and heat is half the battle. So keep your equipment in good shape. Taro wood armor is ideal in winter. In summer, the ceramic suits are the only alternative. I hope that this armor will be ready and operational by then. We’ve had to improvise a bit lately.“
The last sentence worried Dominic more than anything Doka Dayan had said before. The remark implied that the Akkato had recently suffered setbacks that had stretched their resources.
The captain turned to one of the human officers standing behind him. „What about the armor for next spring?“
An older man with short gray hair and ice-blue eyes folded his arms behind his back.
„We have enough combat suits in stock,“ he said. „Fitting them is the least of our problems.“
A woman among Dominic’s new companions, who was no longer the youngest, had short black hair and was called Dora Foster, had a few questions for the Akkato. „What are your people mining here? Are we guards for the miners now?“
The Akkato grunted grumpily. He obviously didn’t feel like answering the human woman’s questions. But he took the opportunity to stand in front of Dora and, with a grim look on his face, explain her future job. „You will protect the miners from the skelcs. That is your most urgent task. But there will also be major war campaigns. The planet’s surface is riddled with countless cracks, caves and tunnels that the enemy uses. It will be up to you to track down attackers and warn the troops.“
„So the system is not under your control?“ Dora Foster wanted to know.
„The Keymon won’t get it,“ Doka Dayan replied evasively, confirming Dora’s suspicions and reinforcing Dominic’s fears. „Do your best to prevent the enemy from capturing Dostra and taking the To Okai.“
Dominic looked questioningly at Davis, but he waved him off. It was probably better to listen to the horsehead so as not to arouse his displeasure with further questions. Dominic suspected that the To Okai was the raw material that the horseheads mined here.
„Fight well,“ the Akkato continued. „Protect the workers and you will be treated fairly.“
With these words, the Akkato ended his welcoming speech and handed over to the man with the piercing blue eyes. He stepped forward to examine the new arrivals closely and skeptically.
„You can see two of my officers behind me,“ he explained. „A mayor and a captain. You will report to Captain Donnie Longhill. Mayor William Rice is under my command, as are six other majors who are currently on deployment. My name is Brigadier General Matt Henderson and before you ask; I’ve held that rank in the fleet.“ He approached Dominic, looked him in the eye for a long moment and then walked along the line of his new soldiers. „I make no secret of the fact that we’re in for a tough fight here, one that will push most of you to the limits of mental endurance and beyond. We are up against an enemy that will challenge us physically and mentally. How many of you have had experience with the strays?“
Dominic, Davis, Skorsky and Stephanie Dormer came forward.
Brigadier General Henderson gave a contemptuous cough. „Four out of twenty.“ He gave Akkato a look, but he did not return it. He then turned his attention back to the humans. „Those of you who lack this experience can brace yourselves. The mental assaults only affect us humans. Akkato have thick skulls and brains that are too primitive. They are immune to it.“
The battery officer gave a short, rumbling laugh. „I’ll crush you in a minute, you sensitive worm.“
„It is this sensitivity,“ Henderson continued, „that is useful to our great friends. We sense the presence of the strays. Recognize their movements, their intentions. But we are also susceptible to their mental attacks if you let the monsters get close enough. A door that swings to both sides. Be careful and always stay in the present. If you let your mind wander, you will not survive.“
He seemed to have finished speaking and Captain Donnie Longhill stepped forward. A tall, broad-shouldered man with dark skin.
„Line up in twos,“ he barked.
As everyone in the group had military training, they reacted immediately and precisely, as if following a reflex. Everyone quickly found their place in the line.
„Now follow me,“ Longhill ordered and set off.
They ran through the huge building and into a freight elevator that took them deeper into the rock. It took an eternity for the elevator to stop. When the doors finally opened again, they revealed another hall. A huge, artificial cave dome, crammed with vehicles and machines of all kinds. Gliders, tracked tanks, off-road vehicles with large wheels. Cargo tractors with immense pushing units. The quarters for the people were located in the opposite wall. Row upon row of doors to the quarters were arranged in a regular pattern across the rock face, accessible via a system of elevators, stairs and walkways. Below them were the large entrances to workshops and armories.
Longhill hurried on towards the quarters. Dominic and the others followed, while the captain cursed and swore. Dominic looked around as best he could. The open helmet didn’t allow an unrestricted all-round view. You had to turn your whole upper body to do that.
Dominic could only see people. No Akkatos. Even the vehicles all seemed to be designed for their human crews. The typical angular design of earthly constructors prevailed. They were certainly of terrestrial manufacture, Dominic assumed. Dominic estimated that there were several thousand soldiers housed here and obviously none of the horseheads were among them. They must have stored their ships and equipment elsewhere. The Akkatos obviously didn’t want to show their cards.
Once they reached the armory below the quarters, Captain Longhill told his new soldiers to line up along a series of markers. They were to remove their armor so that the armorer could take them to the camp. The opening of the armor happened suddenly and automatically after the soldiers had lined up on the markers. Dominic got out and rubbed his aching neck. He didn’t dare imagine how he might feel after walking around in his armor for a whole day. Surviving a fight in it seemed almost impossible to him.
The weapons attendant, Ray Desmond, was a stocky old soldier with a shiny bald head who asked each of the new arrivals for their names and then handed them their identification tags. He noted the numbers of the combat suits on the silver tags by inserting the metal plates into a small device that he carried on his tool belt.
„You are now married to your fighting bodies,“ he growled. His voice had a raspy sound. „You are the souls of my babies,“ Ray Desmond continued as he assigned each soldier his own wooden armor. The marking device rattled throughout the ritual. „The identifiers will be transferred to your spring garments and marked with the suffix ‚K‘. That stands for ceramic. You’ll learn to appreciate them when the sun roasts this world and makes the rocks glow. But that’s not yet the case.“
Dominic listened to the man as he talked about how important the integrity of his stockpile was to him and what dangers they would encounter on Dostra. He never tired of emphasizing that the new fighters should be careful so that no part of his precious camp was damaged. He made no secret of the fact that he would rather see every single soldier go to hell than suffer so much as a scratch on their armor. After a series of similar warnings, he dismissed the soldiers. The armor that stood behind them like monuments disappeared into the ground. Then the shafts closed.
„Remember where you were standing.“ Desmond pointed to the ground. „That’s where you’ll stand again when you receive your armor.“
Dominic looked at the stone slab he was standing in front of. Number B-three hundred and thirty.
„Now march off!“ The captain still seemed to be in a bad mood. „Your quarters are on floor three. Cells fifty to sixty-two. You’ll find showers and clothing issue on your floor at the end of the row of cells.“
The soldiers climbed the walkways and stairs until they reached the cells. There was a single room for each of them. In any hotel in an intact city on Earth, this would have been a comfortable luxury. Here, however, it meant a windowless chamber, with harsh lighting emanating from a single overhead light. A toilet, opposite the door on the wall, next to it a washbasin with a hook on which a towel hung. A shelf for clothes and personal belongings. And a narrow cot with a blanket and pillow made of gray, felt-like fabric. Apart from the uniform he was currently wearing, Dominic had nothing that he could have stored on the shelf.
He wasn’t tired enough to think about sleeping yet. Taking a shower was the best thing he could do right now, he decided. Dominic left his cell and walked down the gangplank to get to the bathrooms. After taking a long shower, putting his clothes in a vending machine and receiving a large pile of fresh laundry from it, he returned to his cell in a pressed uniform.
The small chamber was oppressive in its narrowness. It was obviously only meant to be slept in and left immediately after waking up to mingle with the troops. Or it was simply because the Akkato were not interested in creating spaces in which their human soldiers felt comfortable.
Dominic left the cell, stepped out into the corridor, leaned over the railing and observed what was happening in the hall. He decided to take a closer look at the many vehicles and find out where they came from. He recognized familiar shapes in the vehicles and gliders standing in the alcoves. They were clearly constructs of earthly manufacture. One of the ships consisted of the segments of a small destroyer that had been fitted with the hull of a civilian transporter. Each of the vehicles housed in this hall was certainly unique. With all the junk flying around between the planets of the solar system, all the Akkato had to do was help themselves and they could provide the humans with a fleet of hybrid ships. Dominic wondered how big the logistics behind this recycling program were. What he could see here was certainly only a fraction of the gigantic machinery running in the background.
An alarm siren had been wailing for some time. Dominic couldn’t figure out why for a while. In any case, it didn’t seem to be intended to get the troops ready for battle. However, he noticed how part of the hall had been cleared. An area at the far end where a wide tunnel yawned. A couple of large robots stalked up and got into position. They had just taken up position when a ship floated in through the tunnel. It was a small, heavily armed machine. Smoking and sparking, it touched down, its single front foot buckling and the bow crashing to the ground.
The robots fogged the vehicle in a cloud of extinguishing gases. Men from the firefighting team moved forward. Rescue teams arrived. At least the operation did not seem to affect the routine that prevailed in the hall. Most of the work went on as if nothing had happened. Fighters were loaded and refueled. Vehicles were repaired.
Dominic watched the action for a while until Skorsky and Davis joined him. They had also had a shower and changed into clean uniforms.
„The showers alone are worth all the trouble,“ joked Skorsky. „I’m happy to take any risk for that. There’s nothing more disgusting than stewing in your own juices. You’ll see. A week or more without proper washing facilities is hell. It won’t be long before we’re fighting for a place under the shower.“
„They make a good impression on me,“ said Davis, who also seemed happy with the situation
„How can you tell?“ Skorsky wanted to know. „Just a feeling. If you’d listened carefully to Dayan, you’d know that they’ve taken a lot of punishment. Still, they don’t look like they’re about to fall apart.“
Skorsky became serious. „Can change quickly.“
Dominic agreed with Skorsky. He had also heard Akkato and drawn similar conclusions.
„You haven’t told me what you’ve both experienced yet?“ Dominic asked the two of them.
Davis looked at Dominic with expressionless eyes. „We’ll tell you later. Everything in its own time. Just don’t rush it.“ CHAPTER 2

The wake-up alarm came after Dominic had been asleep for just three hours. He hurriedly slipped into his uniform and stepped out of his cell. Captain Longhill was waiting for his troops at the place where they had had to hand in their armor the day before. There were already a good hundred soldiers present, lined up in a precise line, while Dominic’s comrades were gradually arriving.
„It’ll run faster from now on!“ the captain shouted. „Out there,“ he pointed upwards with a curt nod of his head, „we’ll leave anyone who doesn’t sprint behind. Understood?“
„Got it!“ replied the newcomers in chorus.
„Behind me is the Yunja,“ the Longhill continued, referring to the ship standing in one of the hangar bays. „You grab your armor and get on board. But first, grab some food. Bon appetit.“
The soldiers saluted and turned away to go to the canteen. Dominic and his friends followed them through one of the workshops, at the end of which was the canteen.

***

Locked in his armor, Dominic felt nauseous. He had clearly eaten too much. Breakfast might have been nothing but flavored proteins and carb pads, but it was the best thing he’d eaten in a long time. At least after his departure from the Providence Ridge Hotel, where he had met Davis and Skorsky. He felt uncomfortable in his armor, like a crab getting too tight in its armor. A feeling of claustrophobia overcame him. It was only with difficulty that he managed to control himself to open the suit, even if only for a moment.
Breathing shallowly, the phrase of an instructor who had taught him to move in a spacesuit came to mind. It didn’t help somehow. Dominic had to distract himself a little so as not to panic. A glance at the troops could be helpful. The idea that he might not be alone in his fear helped a little. He turned his head as far as he could and could see some of his comrades. They were standing in a row of five on the loading area of the Yunja. Almost a hundred soldiers, including the ten people Dominic had „rescued“ here. They were now in front of and next to him. He tried to memorize their names as the ship swayed through the air and took them to their deployment site. Raymond Davis, Pavel Skorsky. It was easy until then. Dominic recalled the faces in his mind. He was better at remembering faces than names. Three women had come with him. Dora Foster, who had dared to ask the Akkato captain a question the day before. Tina Bowers, about twenty-five, with the big cheeks, who had hardly said a word so far. Stephanie Dormer, just out of her teens, who seemed somehow sinister and brutal. In any case, the look in her light gray eyes frightened him when they looked at him from her angular face. She had the look of a hungry cat of prey.
The youngest and smallest of his male comrades was Jeremy Leach. Twenty-one and a former gunner on a cruiser. The blond Andrew Gardner, with his alert blue eyes, was his exact opposite. Tall and lanky, he towered over the group by a good head length. At fifty-five, he was the oldest. Marcus Kellman had once been an ice hockey player for the Boston Indians. He had given up a career of almost twenty years and volunteered for the military, where he had trained as a hand-to-hand combat expert. His stature was correspondingly robust and massive. Only the rather soft face with the gentle, dark eyes didn’t seem to match the rest. The pale-skinned Steve Park made a plain impression. His watery blue eyes looked out into the world, seemingly impassive. He had red hair and a beard of his own coloring that couldn’t decide between fluff and hard stubble, although he was certainly already in his mid-twenties. David Steinberg somehow didn’t fit into the troupe at all. He was a good-looking young man of the same age as Park. Slim, dark-haired, with coffee-brown skin and melancholy eyes that had something dreamy about them, as if he was never quite with the things that surrounded him.
The brief self-therapy session had an effect. Dominic felt a little better again. The claustrophobia hadn’t completely disappeared, but it was easier to bear now that he had realized he could influence it.
The flight did not take long. A good fifteen minutes after take-off, the Yunja touched down again and opened the massive forward bulkhead. Captain Longhill shooed the crew out into the open. His voice boomed out of the helmet loudspeaker as he cursed and swore. Dominic realized that he must have an immense repertoire of expletives, because although he had been shouting his curses the whole time, he had not repeated himself once so far.
Dominic held his heavy rifle at the ready, which seemed to have no weight thanks to the hydraulics of his armor, and stomped down the ramp into the bright sunlight. The land was rocky and flat, except for a rugged mountain range that loomed on the horizon. The sky above the barren land was blue, the ground, under the soldiers‘ boots, frozen as hard as stone. A steady, strong wind had blown the snow away, exposing the light brown rocks and gravel beneath. The readings on Dominic’s helmet display showed a temperature of minus eighty-eight degrees Celsius. Just the thought of being lost out there somewhere made him shiver. He wondered what it must feel like to be that cold.
The troop rushed towards a crowd of Akkato, who looked as huge and dangerous as prehistoric monsters in their battle suits. Dominic saw a huge ship take off. It rose from a large crater, on the edge of which stood the Akkato warriors. The roar of its engines sounded like a landslide. The magnetic fields on which it slowly rose into the air made the air shimmer.
„This is a tender,“ Skorsky explained. „Fully loaded. The crew that was guarding it and the prospectors is leaving now. We are the relief. There’s a new tender coming. When it’s full, our shift is over and we fly off again.“
Dominic watched as another of these impressive transporters swooped down and almost ran into one of the waiting Akkato.
The large alien looked down at Dominic, but refrained from snapping at him.
„Form up!“ ordered Longhill and the soldiers began to form a loose, roughly square formation. „The troop we’re working with here is called Harrook Skur. Means something like ‚black bull‘. I’ll spare you their unwieldy official name.“
An Akkato in armor decorated with golden runes emerged from the group. It was also made of the same dark wood as the humans. He stood next to the captain, put his fists on his hips and looked at the humans.
„This is Mayor Kerek Jakar,“ Longhill explained to the newcomers. „He commands the Arat you see circling up there.“
Like everyone else, Dominic dared to look up at the sky, where an accator spaceship hovered, looking like a short, gnarled branch. It was in low orbit above the surface of the planet. „We’ve been working with his team for a long time,“ Longhill said with pride, „and we haven’t let him down yet. It’s very important to me that it stays that way. Understood?“
„Roger that!“ Dominic shouted into his microphone. The voices of his comrades echoed in unison from the loudspeaker.
„We have earned a good reputation among the Akkato,“ the captain reported. „They call us Sqirkaji. I would translate that as tunnel rats. It’s an honorary name that I want to preserve. So do your best not to step out of line.“
After the captain had finished his speech, he divided the „tunnel rats“ into groups of ten from each of Akkato’s hundreds. As far as Dominic could estimate, there were about ten teams. The Akkatomajor therefore had a good thousand men at his disposal.
Longhill had assigned one of the experienced „tunnel rats“ to the newcomers. A non-commissioned officer named Fred Ableton, whom he had never seen before. Dominic couldn’t place his voice, which was currently barking orders into the radio system, in a specific image. It certainly sounded dark and a little rough.
The troops scattered across the terrain. Dominic’s unit approached the crater at the bottom of which the conveyor was driving its drills into the rock. It looked like a giant octopus that had been washed into the funnel-shaped hole by a spring tide. The tender slowly sank down and sat on the rig. The drive units switched off and silence fell at once. Now all that could be heard was the wind blowing over the rocks.
The troop moved down the steep slopes into the crater. Under the shadow of the tender, Dominic tried to discover the facility that had almost completely disappeared beneath his archaic body. The tender had cannons that could fire at the inside of the crater. Just as Dominic noticed the holes yawning in the crater walls, the order came to stop. Most of the tunnels were halfway up the crater. Dominic watched as the Akkato prepared to enter one of them.
Ableton’s voice could be heard. „Where are the newcomers who haven’t had contact with the sniffers yet? Step forward!“
Nobody reacted, which was not surprising, because someone who had not yet experienced a mental assault by Keymon could not understand what Ableton was talking about.
„Good,“ continued the sergeant, who also seemed to realize this. „Anyone who has experience with the snoopers to me.“
Dominic, Skorsky, Davis and Stephanie Dormer then lined up in front of the sergeant, who took a few seconds to regain his speech.
„Four bloody beginners,“ growled Ableton. „This is a bad joke.“ He walked towards the soldiers. „But do you hear me laughing? Do you hear me?“ Another long pause. „No one will laugh today, I promise you that.“ He waved a few of his men over. Four of them each grabbed one of the newcomers and took him into their midst. „You can survive today if you play your cards right. If not, you’ll die knowing that no one here will have to bother with you.“
Everything inside Dominic was resisting. He hadn’t come here for this. He was about to confront the sergeant when Davis and Skorsky held him down.
„Stay where you are,“ Davis hissed. „There’s nothing wrong with that.“
Skorsky added his two cents. „This is about survival. Not about mercy.“
Dominic understood the logic in her words. Grim reason that ensured the group’s continued existence and dispensed with consideration. But there was something wrong with it, Dominic felt deep down. He just didn’t have the opportunity to get to the bottom of the feeling and find the right words to formulate his thoughts.
One of the accato officers spoke up. „Move out now!“ he creaked in a throaty accent and a group of ten men disappeared into the tunnel with one of the sensors.
The troops continued on their way. Whenever the Akkato officer felt like it, he sent his men, tunnel rats and newcomers into the tunnels. In the end, the remaining warriors entered one of the tunnels. Dominic, Skorsky, Davis, Stephanie Dormer and Ableton took the lead among the soldiers. The helmet lights scanned through the darkness as misty fingers of light. Dominic saw the traces of the drill heads that had cut their way through the rock. Shiny golden metal veins ran along the walls. They shimmered when the spotlight hit them.
„The cutter follows the main vein,“ explained Davis. „That could be hundreds of kilometers.“ Dominic hoped that they wouldn’t penetrate that far into the tunnel, which wound its way through the planet’s crust in countless bends.
„Stewing in your own juices,“ Dominic remembered Skorsky’s words. „Is that what you meant?“
„Meaning what?“ replied Skorsky, who certainly knew what Dominic was alluding to.
„That we could spend days in our armor?“
„Yes, exactly,“ Skorsky replied with a laugh. „But even on board the Yunja, there will only be capacity for the bare essentials. There’s no room for a warm bath every day. A mission like this is nothing for fine noses.“
They had been walking for a while and the deeper they went into the rock, the more Dominic’s fears took hold of him. The fear that the suit might have a defect and could no longer be moved. The fear that it could leak or that the heating would fail. But Dominic’s greatest fear was of suffocating. Even if he opened the visor, his lungs would freeze when he breathed in. He studied the displays shining before his eyes and was pleased to see that all the parameters were within acceptable values. That would be enough to calm his nerves for a while.
Suddenly Dominic felt sick. He had to stop for a moment and calm down. At first, he thought it was another bout of claustrophobia, but it felt different. He heard a gasp and images flashed through his mind for a moment. A calving glacier, its icy flanks plunging into a fjord. Dominic heard the rumbling and roaring of the masses of ice and water. A hailstorm that hurled huge chunks of ice onto a mountainside, where they shimmered and burst. The clink of splinters on the rock, bright and clear like bursting glass. The ground trembled under the dull thuds of the hail.
„What is it?“ Davis wanted to know. „Did you feel something?“
Dominic didn’t answer immediately. He wanted to make sure his fears weren’t playing tricks on him. „They were just pictures.“
Skorsky wanted to know more. „What pictures? Of this planet?“
Dominic thought about it for a while. „I think so. Lots of ice and snow.“
Davis took the safety off his rifle.
„What’s going on,“ Ableton inquired.
„We have a contact,“ Davis informed.
The sergeant looked skeptical. „Are you sure the boy didn’t just eat something bad?“
Dominic didn’t know what to say in response. He was actually unsure. His tension was too great, he had to admit that much to himself.
„Keep advancing!“ Ableton ordered and the column set off again.
„What was going on?“ Stephanie Dormer demanded to know. „I’m very sensitive about monsters and I didn’t feel anything. And neither did Abelton, apparently.“
„I’m not sure,“ Dominic admitted. „But there were images in my head. I suspect memories of a snoop.“
„And now?“
„There’s nothing there now.“
At least Stephanie didn’t make a snide remark, but Dominic knew he had to be careful with his sensory abilities. He couldn’t risk incurring the displeasure of his comrades by raising a false alarm, even if he was perhaps more sensitive to the Keymon.
The troop continued for a while into the tunnel, from which a number of side tunnels now branched off and formed an unmanageable labyrinth. The planet must be full of holes, like a sponge, Dominic thought.
Finally, the Akkato gave the order to return to the surface. Everyone seemed to be in a hurry to leave the caves and set a brisk pace. Dominic was relieved to have made it back to daylight. The sun was now very low and the crater was in the shade. Once they reached the edge of the crater, Dominic enjoyed the golden evening light for a while, which bathed the frozen stone desert in a deceptively warm glow. Kerek Jakar stepped out of the crater with new, unpleasant orders.
„I’m dividing up the night watch now,“ he said, instructing Ableton to select some „tunnel rats“ for the night ahead. Stephanie and Dominic were included, while Skorsky and Davis, along with several others, were allowed to board the Yunja.
„Bloody hell,“ Stephanie hissed. „I’m always there when it comes to eating dirt.“
Dominic was glad that the microphones in their suits were limited to the immediate vicinity. This meant that no one further away could overhear unless they were shouting into the microphone or had information for the whole squad.
„I hope they let us rest a bit.“ Dominic watched as the Akkato also regrouped, but he didn’t get the impression that they wanted to take a break. The squad that formed the night watch set off in the direction of the sunset.
Ableton waved his men over. „Off we go. We’re going for a ride with the horseheads.“ CHAPTER 3

Night fell quickly and soon swallowed up every shape and contour of the surroundings. It was as dark as if they were back inside the mountain. The helmet headlights bravely burned bright tunnels of light into the darkness. Stephanie didn’t say a word and Dominic was more concerned with not falling into a crevice or tripping over a stone.
As before in the tunnels, the humans walked at the head of the troop. In addition to Dominic and Stephanie, there were four other tunnel rats, or Sqirkaji as the Akkato called them. They had not gone far when Dominic again sensed the presence of the sniffers. He staggered for a moment as the visions flowed unchecked into his mind.
„Pull yourself together,“ Stephanie’s words squawked from the helmet loudspeaker. „Are you sure you’re not ill? I don’t notice anything.“
„But I do,“ Dominic replied. „Very clearly. Very close.“
„Where are you locating them?“
He stopped and turned his head from left to right. Dominic felt like a living antenna searching for the strongest signals. „Straight ahead.“
The whole troop stood still. Dominic heard the Akkatos take the safety off their rifles. The throaty voices of the horse-headed creatures sounded distantly through the communication system.
Ableton approached with quick steps. „What’s Porter now? Are you seeing ghosts?“
Dominic received further impressions. „Sir, I’m sure we’re running into the sniffers.“
Ableton turned to his comrades. „Do you have a locator?“
The other sensors reported negative. „No. No contact.“
Ableton stood up in front of Porter. He spoke so quietly that only Dominic and Stephanie could hear him. „I don’t know if you’re just trying to make yourself important. But I would advise you to consider your actions carefully.“
„I assure you,“ Dominic defended himself. „They’re there.“
„Where exactly?“
Dominic concentrated. He felt sick again, the proximity of the Keymon was so obvious. And there seemed to be a lot of them. He pointed at the mountains and downwards. „They’re moving through the tunnels. Not very deep.“
„If we don’t come across Skelcs, I’ll report you,“ the sergeant threatened. „You’re obstructing the operation.“
„Yes sir,“ Dominic replied meekly. „Understood.“
They marched through the night for a few more minutes. More images flooded into Dominic’s consciousness. He had trouble concentrating on running. He had to manage to occupy his mind with something else to push back the visions and distract himself. He quietly began to sing an old song whose lyrics he knew well.
„What are you singing?“ Stephanie wanted to know. „Something about heroes? And swimming with dolphins? You’re making me nervous.“
„I sing because I’m nervous,“ Dominic replied.
„I still don’t feel anything.“
„I can’t explain it either,“ he replied. „We came across a whole herd of sniffers a few days ago and I didn’t feel anything beforehand. My girlfriend sensed something and warned us. She was never completely alone in her head. I know now how she must have felt.“ Dominic gasped. The suit began to pinch his neck again. In a few hours, he would be sore in this spot. „I think it’s the metal they’re mining here. It heightens the senses.“
„Not mine,“ Stephanie objected. „And not the tunnel rats‘ either.“
„Then I don’t know either. Can you tell me something?“
„What do you want to hear?“
„Something to distract me. When I talk to you, the images are gone.“
„I can’t think of anything.“ She gave a gasp, as if she had tripped. „Oh yes, I just thought of something.“
„Yes?“
„Do you still have that gold piece?“
„I always carry it with me.“
„Then why are we walking around in the tunnels instead of dining at a table with this Akkato prince?“
„We are here and alive. Isn’t that enough?“
Stephanie gave a contemptuous laugh. „We could die on these missions.“
„You think I don’t know that?“
„Then why don’t you do something with the coin and get us out of here?“
„The nephew of Ulan Mestray must have had something in mind when he sent us here. And I don’t think it’s appropriate to show this thing off again and demand an audience with Mestray without providing some service first.“
„Without making a name for ourselves first, you mean.“
„Exactly,“ Dominic replied. „That’s what I mean.“
„Names are for gravestones.“
„Exit located,“ Dominic heard one of the soldiers say over the loudspeaker.
Someone lit a cold light torch and marked the hole. It was at the front of a large rock, which the torch bathed in red light. Dominic recognized more rocks lying at the foot of a long hill.
„Adorru!“ Kerek Jakar shouted into his microphone, causing it to overdrive. His soldiers swarmed out to search for more holes.
Ableton gave Dominic a quick glance before joining him. „Are you still in contact?“
„Yes,“ Dominic replied, pointing to the tunnel in front of the large stone. „Those aren’t boreholes, are they?“
„No.“ The sergeant watched as the Akkato discovered more entrances. „These are rummage tunnels. They must be new. Anyway, we haven’t noticed them before. Retreat tunnels.“
Dominic didn’t have a chance to ask what that meant, because the Akkato officer demanded Ableton’s attention. They had a brief, secret conversation and then Ableton had new orders.
„We’re going in,“ he ordered his men. „Porter, Dormer. You lead ten Akkato in there. I don’t think we’ll run into any enemies, but don’t risk too much if you do run into bugs.“

***

Stephanie and Dominic looked around a few times for their horse-headed companions, who were following them at a good distance.
„Shouldn’t they move closer?“ asked Stephanie.
„Yes. If I had my way.“ Dominic had his visions under control to some extent by now. „You still don’t feel anything?“
„No.“
„How far have we penetrated the rummage tunnel now?“
„A good two kilometers,“ Stephanie replied. „Ten kilometers from the extraction station. Doesn’t look like the bugs are going to launch an attack.“
Dominic couldn’t figure out what he was feeling. Perhaps he was actually wrong. He turned to the Akkato, waving at them. „How much further into the tunnel do you want to go?“
One of the aliens came closer. Its headlights blinded Dominic. „Russk aban?“
Dominic raised his shoulders. He had no idea what the horse’s head had just said and pointed alternately into the tunnel and towards the exit. The Akkato thought for a while, then grunted a few words and trotted off.
„They’ve probably had enough too,“ Stephanie ventured to guess. „And if you ask me, I’m angry with you too. The tunnel scares me and we’ve gone in a hell of a long way.“
„Why were you scared if you didn’t feel a sniffer? You’re lucky I only have an upset stomach.“
She didn’t say anything back. „You should be afraid of Ableton. He’ll kick your ass for a false alarm.“
„Well, the tunnels here are a fact,“ Dominic defended himself. „At least that surprised Ableton. We’ll have to keep an eye on them.“
As if they had read Dominic’s mind, the Akkato began to install mines on the walls.

***

Contrary to Stephanie’s prophecy, the sergeant did not bother to reprimand Dominic. He ignored him, which Dominic somehow felt was the worse version of a punishment. They marched until dawn, circling the conveyor crater in a wide radius.
It was shortly after sunrise and the Yunja was only a good two kilometers away when a snowstorm broke out. A blizzard that was far heavier than the one that had greeted Dominic when he arrived on Dostra. After just a few minutes, so much snow had fallen that it reached up to his hips. The machinery of the armor was running at full speed so that Dominic could work his way through the masses of snow.
The Akkatos were further ahead, but they too were struggling against the storm and the snow, which was piling up higher and higher. The Tunnel Rats, who had certainly had their fair share of experience with the weather conditions on Dostra, were also further ahead. At least Ableton stayed a little behind to keep an eye on the newcomers. Dominic knew that most of the experienced fighters only saw the newcomers as a burden. They were useless, putting themselves in danger and forcing their comrades to put their lives on the line. The same thoughts were certainly running through Ableton’s mind. But at least he seemed to be someone who couldn’t bring himself to act against his conscience.
„The bastards,“ Stephanie cursed in the direction of Akkato. „They’re leaving us out here. We’ll be buried alive in the snow. And all because of you. If we hadn’t gone into the tunnels, we’d be back on board and safe by now.“
„Shut up and run!“ Dominic barked at his companion, who was starting to get on his nerves with her fears. He had thought she was stronger.
The snow was up to their necks when they finally reached the ramp that led inside the Yunja. Ableton flicked a switch and the outer airlock gates opened. The soldiers staggered into the airlock chamber in their heavy armor. After the bulkhead had closed again, the inner doors slid apart. The empty battle suits of the Akkato, who had saved themselves in the ship of the little humans, stood around in the hold of the ship like the abandoned remains of giant butterfly chrysalises. Their bearers were sitting on the floor, passing the time with a game of cards, oblivious to the humans they had left behind in the storm and who needed them to stay safe from the snoopers. Dominic couldn’t blame them for their angry mood at the moment. Word must have gotten around by now that they had lost time and endured mortal fears in the rummage tunnels because of him. On the other hand, he reflected, they did call themselves black bulls – Harrook Skur – if he remembered correctly. A term that conveyed courage, strength and invincibility. They should be able to forgive him for the trouble he had caused them.
„Fellow bastards!“ muttered Stephanie to herself, clearly unwilling to show any leniency towards the Doka Dayan warriors. „Bastards!“
„Settle down.“ Dominic was as glad that the seemingly endless stream of visions tormenting his brain had ebbed as he was at the prospect of finally getting out of the armor. He trudged through the hold until he found the spot that marked the anchor point for his suit, opened it and climbed out. It was an indescribably liberating feeling to have finally escaped the confines of the body armor. The air in the ship was cool and fresh, in contrast to the air he must have breathed in and out a thousand times in the last few hours. His neck ached. Dominic’s fingers palpated the area and he felt shreds of abraded skin and the fresh, smooth flesh that emerged from beneath them.
Longhill was on hand to give Dominic a telling off, as he could easily see from his angry expression. Dominic hadn’t heard him coming.
„I have a few questions for you,“ the captain began. „The comrades who arrived before you made some rather disparaging remarks about you Porter. Your name is Porter, isn’t it?“
„Yes sir. My name is Dominic Porter.“ He risked a glance through the hold, but the aforementioned comrades seemed to have already retired to their bunks. „May I know who said what?“
„My people think you’re either over-excited or a busybody,“ he told Dominic. „By all appearances, you see ghosts and bring unrest to the troops.“
„I sensed the Keymon,“ Dominic replied in a firm voice. „I know they’re there. I can’t explain it, but I’m sure they’re just waiting for an opportunity. Out of range of normal sensors.“
„Normal sensors?“
„I think I’m different.“
„I need more than just a feeling that there might be something there. Who’s to tell me you’re not just a lunatic who thinks he has superpowers?“
Ableton joined the conversation. Dominic had never seen the sergeant before. He was a tall man of color, with an energetic chin and serious features.
„We’ve actually found something,“ he said. „Maybe the men neglected to tell you what we discovered. A retreat tunnel. It wasn’t there a few days ago. It was well hidden under large boulders.“
Dominic thought he saw an expression of astonishment flit across the captain’s face. „Are you sure?“ asked Longhill.
„We went in, but had no contact at all.“
Dominic wanted to know what these tunnels were all about and dared to ask the disgruntled captain a question. „What is the purpose of these tunnels?“
Longhill left it to the sergeant to unravel the mystery.
„When the Keymon enter the facility through the drilling tunnels,“ Ableton explained, „they don’t retreat the same way. They climb out of the funnel and disappear through secret passages they have created beforehand. In this way, they avoid the troops that accompany the drilling teams and could block their way back.“
Longhill was not yet convinced. „Are you sure these aren’t older tunnels?“
„That would have to be checked in more detail,“ Ableton conceded. „But I didn’t get the impression that they were old. Or we and other squads have overlooked them so far.“
Longhill thought for a while before telling Ableton his intentions. „I’ll let Kerek know. You issue an alert to our people who are traveling with the drill teams. Tell them to stand by.“
He left Dominic and Ableton alone with this.
The sergeant tapped his neck. „You’ll have the ship’s doctor look at it,“ he said. „Then off to the trap. Should there be an attack, they should be rested.“

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