Chapter One: The mission
Cadet Denzel E. Daniel woke to the sound of his alarm. His favorite song blared through the pod.
The window shields retracted and the sun illuminated his cozy steel cot and sleeping facility.
Denzel stumbled to the windowsill, where he kept his not-so-humble collection of plants perched. He began watering them with an eyedropper, the same as every morning. Each one required a different amount of H2O to survive, but sometimes when one was budding, he would spoil it with a few extra drops.
He looked out his window. The view was exquisite.
There wasn't enough atmosphere on Mars to form any blue skies up above, it was all just black during the day. But on the horizon, that was a different story. Because of his angle of view, there was always enough atmospheric diffraction so that a thin lining of hazy, light blue blanketed the horizon of the featureless red landscape.
It didn't beat the stars, but it was the one time of day that one could almost imagine what his home planet's sky would have looked like. The blue sheen glowed with vibrance in the distance on the horizon, and Denzel was lost in his thoughts for a moment.
"Wake up crew! Your need in sickbay for immediate assessment prior to mission briefing--"
The speakers blared to a life of their own accord, a gruff man belted orders from the other end.
That's right... Denzel thought. Today was the big day. Today was the day he embarked on his journey home. To a foreign, hostile world he had never before set foot on.
He looked upwards into the dark sky and could see it shining like a faint blue star.
Denzel sat impatiently through the last round of tests in sickbay. He was of course, in excellent physical condition. At 28 years old, He had trained his whole life for this mission. Their expedition came to be known as "Project Adam". A specialized task force of individuals specially and eugenically chosen at birth and trained in the art of classical warfare.
His specialty, Botany. His Crew's mission, to return to Earth and scout locations for potential colonization.
"Something on your mind?" The doctor asked
"Nothing out of the ordinary."
"Your heart rate just went up 4 degrees from standard deviation. What were you thinking about?"
"I thought I left the coffee dispenser on."
The doctor, who was also happened to be his psychologist, eyed him sternly. The truth was, the thought of returning to the blackened hellscape of Earth terrified him. And it wasn't the toxic rain, the radioactive swamps, or the rumors of mutated abominations roaming the land that scared him so much.
It was the fact that that's where the monsters of humanity's past had lived. The monsters who had destroyed the human species with a brutal, swift Armageddon. The monsters who had chased his ancestors to this rust-stained, underground world.
"It's nothing Doc, I'm fine."
Senior staff member Henry Bowers slowly put his papers down, took his glasses off, and pulled up a seat next to Denzel.
"What is it, Sir?" Denzel asked. He wasn't used to seeing Bowers act so solemn.
"I'm fine, Cadet. What you need to worry about right now is yourself."
"I've been properly trained and certified sir. My allegiances to the HUD are unquestionable"
"Denzel. Listen to me. I'm not talking about that. There are things you don't know about the earth. And I'm not talking about the gravity or the radiation."
The doctor paused as if considering his words carefully. ”Denzel... besides you are African American; you’re not like the others," He began, but Denzel cut him off.
"The hell's that supposed to mean? I've been trained for--"
"I'm not talking about your capabilities god damn it, Carter! I'm just..."
The doctor sighed deeply and ran his fingers through his hair. "Never mind. The last few missions have just started taking their toll. I'm not thinking clearly. What I meant to say was I think your botanical training will prove to be more practical than you or your teammates currently think. There's a whole host of medicinal plants from the earth that we don't have access to anymore and even a small sample could put the field years ahead of--"
"Doc. You don't need to baby me. I'm an adult. No one bullies me anymore for having been given the most boring, unscientific curriculum."
"Your heart rate seems to suggest otherwise. Now I wish you a safe journey, Godspeed, and all that. And if you do happen to find any Rosaceae, please do remember to bring me back a sample. I've been trying for years to clone one for my wife, but we've run out of materials on that particular genus."
"Sure. Yea. See you in 14 months, if all goes well."
The Doctor paused again. "Sure. See you around Cadet." Then he abruptly saluted him with the signature Martian motto: "Learn to adapt and learn to live."
That gave Denzel a chill. But he had already disconnected the electrodes so the doctor wouldn't see how much it spooked him. He grabbed his coat and marched to the mess hall. A good cadet wasn't supposed to be afraid.
Denzel marched down a rust-stained corridor towards the mess hall. His boots clicked over the steel grates. The only sound that could be heard apart from the occasional baby crying in the distance. This was a military level, and it was generally quiet.
Only a few hours remained until they suited up. He wished he had more time to go see the celebrations the civilians were throwing in the upper decks. The entire planet had been alight with anticipation for this journey. The planet had been partying for days now. It was the first step in reclaiming their homeland, and it had been a long time coming.
Soon he reached the elevator which took him down, deeper into the restricted Military levels of Mar's underground network.
The door retracted to reveal a massive underground tunnel, carved out of the red stone decades ago. Pipes, flickering lights, and huge swathes of electrical chords ran the length of the jagged rock walls.
Denzel began to take a step but paused suddenly, hearing a whistling noise. After just a moment a bit of steam built up in one of the pipes a few yards ahead, and a brief stream of hot vapor sizzled into the cavern.
Patiently, after the whistling stopped, he covered his mouth and proceeded. It was a familiar route.
After a short walk through the corridors, he was greeted by a familiar face.
"Greetings Cadet, if you're quite done watering your plants, take a seat and hit breakfast. Briefing begins in 5 minutes." Chief Talson was a harsh, bitter man. But he was the Chief. It had always been that way. There was no reason to fight it.
The briefing began 2 minutes later.
"Today," The Chief began. "We are embarking on an unprecedented journey. You've all been trained for the worst case and the unexpected, and you're all familiar with the mission objectives. So I'm not going to beat a dead cat. What I want to talk about today is the possible existence of AI."
There were whispers throughout the room as all 18 Cadets shared nervous looks with each other.
The AI that had triggered the Nukes and destroyed 90% of the human population, 300 years ago, forcing them to escape into the deep caves of mars. That AI Everyone knew about it but you didn't talk about it much. It only caused fear to speculate. Much like the boogeyman. Monsters should be accounted for, after all.
"Alright now settle down everyone! As you all know, there are protocols for dealing with this. And that's what we'll be going over today. So far--"
Cadet Brianna Laywhelm raised her hand. She was the human relations specialist and the only one who could get away with interrupting him. The Chief sighed.
"Ok, so does that mean that the AI is still on earth? I thought all the mechanical facilities for creating drones or portable machines were demolished in the--"
"Yes, Cadet Brianna. That is the current hypothesis. Now. If you'll allow me to finish?" Silence filled the room for a good 3 seconds.
"Excellent. As I was saying. So far there has been no evidence of AI's existence. The planet seems to be free of any large scale artificial structures of any kind, according to the sentinels on Luna. But we need to be sure. There is one location that Luna has spotted with a strange signature. Any potential existence of remaining AI tech will most likely be there."
The Chief sipped his coffee before continuing.
"Yes. We are going down to establish possible locations for colonization. And yes, we will be bringing back any bio-matter samples we find for our buddies in the think tanks to play with. But our primary mission... our number one goal going down is to scout the location, and destroy any possible Ai tech or structures that might still be present."
Almost everyone jumped together at once.
"Yes, Cadet tucker?" The chief asked our language specialist.
"Is it possible there are still Old Worlders living there?"
"Glad you asked. Anythings possible, that's why we have you and Cadet Brianna with us. In the extremely unlikely event, anyone has survived in some sort of cave system I'm sure you'll be able to decipher whatever primitive dialect they're using, and/or peacefully convince them we aren't a threat." The Chief remarked.
"What if they decide otherwise?" Cadet Tucker asked, ignoring Chief's sarcasm.
"Precisely the reason you've all been trained in classical combat and modern warfare Cadets. But the real risk with any other human hostiles isn't potential natives, I think. If we run into anyone else it will most likely be pirates. Deserters from the mining colonies who may have checked our orbit and are looking to Raid the ship."
"Do you think they could be living on Earth now? Could the deserters have drilled deep underground, as we have here?" Denzel suddenly asked aloud. The Chief eyed him quietly, thinking about how to answer.
"As we all know the Earth has not healed from the radiation damage. So we've taken some extra precautions with the Exo suits, and I think this will be a non-issue for the duration of our stay. However, without military-grade Exo suits to protect from the radiation and filter the air, any expedition shouldn't last more than a few months before everyone died, unless they found extensive cave systems or, like you said, drilled into the ground. That being said, all Mining equipment is integrated with a failsafe that prevents operations from being performed outside of their designated territories. HUD doesn't take matters of unlicensed tech use or tampering lightly. You should know that."
He spits the last part out, and Denzel knew exactly what he was talking about. He had once spent a month in solitary confinement for overriding the safety of his phase rifle from stun to lethal without having the proper authorization.
"Now, if we are all quite up to date on the human element or most likely lack thereof, in this case, we can finally begin rehearsing protocols for AI contact one last time before we suit up. It will be the first of many on this journey. Who wants to start us off?"
It was happening. In just a few hours, they were going to fire off into the dark unknown, bound for their birthright. Their true home.
Cadet Denzel quietly stepped out to use the bathroom. He was alone, that was good.
No one heard him puke.
Chapter Two: Homeland
A few months later, Denzel stared out the cramped cockpit bay window of the rocket Ulysses Solar Fire Scout, or the U.S.F.S. for short.
It had taken the miners over a year to gather all the materials needed for her construction, or so he was told. It had just enough fuel space for a one-way trip. They would have to wait 7 months on the next ship, specially designed to only carry fuel loads to restock them so they could go home.
They had finished using the gravity of Luna, Earth's only satellite to rocket around for the final leg of their journey. The moon retreated in the distance to the left as the ship spun slowly away from it. He looked to the right side of the window, waiting.
Footsteps approached behind him. He turned to face Brianna in full battle gear, and it was incredibly sexy.
The jet black Exo suit she wore was scaly, flexible, hard, and 100% self-sustaining. It could withstand space for periods of over 2 hours and had its own parachute, along with a host of other fun gizmos and gadgets. She looked like an angel of death
"You know, you look much better without that thing on." Denzel smiled.
"Oh please. Where's yours? We're supposed to be ready in 10 minutes?"
"Are you blushing?" Denzel Jabbed, trying to get her to blush.
"I most certainly am not blushing Cadet Denzel, and I assure you if you have any emotional feelings for me they will need to be suspended immediately for the foreseeable future. The mission takes priority. Now, where is your suit?"
They had hooked up several times along the long journey. It was probably the number one topic of gossip for a good 3 weeks straight at one point.
Eventually Chief let him out of quarantine because "All team members no matter how insignificant is considered invaluable to the success of this mission and therefore under these extenuating circumstances allowances for previous fraternization violations will be made." However, he was warned that there would be consequences when they returned to Mars.
If we return to mars. Denzel thought silently to himself. Then he smiled and pulled Brianna in for a deep kiss.
She hesitated only for a second, before sinking into him for a deeper taste. After a long moment, they pulled away, breathing heavy...
She opened her mouth to lecture him but he cut her off. "Look! There it is!" Denzel pointed out the window. She turned and there it was. The edge of a blue planet shone through the side of the window, slowly rotating more into view as the ship spun.
She leaned her back into him, and they stood that way for a brief time, embracing one another. Watching an old, new world, drift right into their sights.
"It doesn't look like the pictures... why is it so green?" Brianna asked after a moment.
"I... I don't know." Denzel narrowed his eyes. There wasn't supposed to be that much vegetation...
"Cadets! God Damnit! How many times have I told you... DENZEL! Where is your suit!? You have exactly 5 minutes to get ready and meet on the bridge for a briefing or so help me... you'll be staying on the ship! And do not think I'm fucking around! Do you hear me? Now!"
Chief marched off.
"You heard the man. Get suited up, soldier." She winked, kissed him on the cheek, and whistled off down after the Chief.
Alright. This is it I guess. Denzel then ran off to find his suit with a mixture of excitement and fear the likes he'd never felt before.
The briefing began 7 minutes later.
"So our point of interest is here." Chief points to a section on the holo map, the lake next to the base of a mountain.
"There seem to be weak electromagnetic signals coming from six specific locations centered in this ravine by the base of the mountain, and our objective is to go and investigate."
"As you can see here the local flora might prove to be a bigger obstacle than anticipated.."
Chief switched the Holo view to a live feed, using the U.S.F.S. Long-distance cameras to zoom in on the topographical features. This got a series of "oooh's" and "aah's" from everyone. The scene it showed was a lush, vibrant landscape of greenery. It was like nothing Denzel had ever seen before.
Chief pointed to a small field on the edge of the lake. "We'll land here, and then use the phoenix to do further exploring. First things first, we'll need to establish a perimeter. The safety of the ship is our number one concern. It's our only way out of here. Unless you all want to eat mud for the next 7 months. "
Everyone shared an uneasy laugh.
"Tomorrow after we've secured camp with the USFS we'll go scouting reasonable landing spots. Initial scans show the heart of the target is in a narrow valley or trench in the Southeast side of the Mountain... here." Chief switched to the holo layout and pointed.
"How close will we be able to get in the Phoenix to the disturbance?" Samson asked.
"Due to a large amount of vegetation, starting a forest fire there with the Phoenix's thrusters is a concern. As you can see, the ravine is deep and thin, and I don't want to get us trapped in an inferno there. So I hope all your phase blades are charged and ready for trailblazing if necessary. We'll be landing... here."
"How is that possible?" Denzel suddenly asked.
"How is it possible that procedures even exist for dealing with... forest fires?"
"Protocol exists for everything, Cadet. You know that." Chief said in exasperation.
"No I mean, how is it possible there's that much vegetation? The reports say there shouldn't be anywhere near that much biomatter. Definitely not enough to worry about a fire, at least." Denzel said blatantly.
"I guess that's precisely what you'll be studying, Cadet." Denzel shut up. How could the reports be so wrong?
Everyone was quiet. Chief looked around, but no one had any questions.
"Permission to initiate deceleration process Chief?" Tinker asked The Chief flashed her a brief smile.
"Permission granted. Buckle up, everyone."
The entry was rough, but the touchdown went smoothly.
What started as a brilliant ball of blue and green shining in the distance quietly grew larger and larger, until eventually it swallowed them up and shook them with its very being. Although they were securely strapped in, Brianna had reached out for Denzel's hand during the fiery turbulence.
Her hand felt like a vice.
Eventually, the auto-correct thrusters kicked on and the ride smoothed out. With a large THUD a few moments later, they had made Earthfall.
"Evangeline! Check those radiation readings one more time! Cornelius, I want bio-atmospheric readings immediately. Tinker! How we looking on--"
Denzel unbuckled his seat belt and stumbled to the window. He had trained his whole life for this. He had worn, slept, and even showered occasionally in weighted clothing and gear to prepare himself for Earth's gravity.
Still, it was surprisingly disorienting.
The Chief screamed something in the distance. Denzel turned him out though. It seemed so surreal. It was unlike anything he had ever seen. The pictures he had seen before, the ones that Luna took and relayed to the citizens on mars, didn't look anything like this. There were the normal topographical features, sure. There were mountains and hills and rolling bowls and sharp peaks. But that was where the similarity ended.
It was as if someone had taken a brightly colored blanket and tossed it on the land. But the blanket was filled with marvelously symmetrical and fractal patterns woven into it. The hills were dotted with incredibly complex yet strangely uniform structures. No, they weren't structures, they were trees. Oh. My God. They were trees.
"DENZEL! ADAPT!!!" That threw Denzel out of his trance. He immediately turned around.
"Yes, sir you were saying?"
"Do you need a psych eval cadet?" The Chief growled slowly through gritted teeth. Denzel snapped both his feet to attention, gave the full salute, and belted: "Sir no sir!"
"You appear to be in shock..." Chief drawled on.
"SIR NO SIR! I'm capable of operating at the peak of my abilities SIR!"
"How are those atmospheric readings looking, Cornelius?" Chief said.
"Looking, good Sir. Amazing... actually. The air looks... clean. Really clean. Can't wait to get out there..." Cornelius replied. He looked up at the rest of the crew with a blatant challenge plastered on his face.
This was it for Cornelius, Denzel realized. He might be the first person in over 300 years to step foot on their homeworld. Unless Denzel got there first. He had a plan, after all... But the Chief, like an awful force of nature, suddenly intervened.
"Good! Ok, everyone on the perimeter crew. Saddle up. We're going to plant the motion sensor networks and be back in approximately.. 0800. You, Denzel, will stay here on the ship and brief command on our current progress."
That hit him in the gut.
"But that can be done through the helmet comm link to the ship, I can--"
"Don't worry this won't be our first little field trip Cadet. And I think you need to cool your head. This is a military operation after all. Or did you forget?"
"Good. Any questions? Then let's move out everyone!"
Brianna gave him a sympathetic smile and pulled her collar up, the advisor flashing on before she turned and followed everyone out.
"Cornelius hold on! Come here a second! Chief suddenly shouted."
"Yes, Chief??" Cornelius stomped over in exasperation
A few seconds passed by. Chief looked at his watch. When the room was empty, he answered him.
"...Nothing. Just giving the rest of the Crew an honest shot Cornelius. I know you. I know you probably plan to use the emergency hatch behind ladder 3. You know what that's for, right?"
"Emergencies?" Corn growled impatiently.
Chief looked at him seriously. "Yes. So for god's sake, make sure you lock it behind you. This is a military operation, after all."
Cornelius grinned and sprinted off in pursuit.
Chief eyeballed Denzel one more time. "Perform contact protocols. See you in a few hours Cadet." And then he left too.
Denzel stood there, mortified. The first expedition back to earth in 300 years and he would spend the first 4, possibly 6 hours on the ship. Doing nothing. This was ridiculous. If anyone should stay on the ship, it should be Graff, the doctor. Right? Whatever.
He eyed the radio equipment. There was a 15-minute delay right now for transmissions to mars.
"Command this is Denzel 23 checking in we have just made landing I repeat we have just made a landing."
Denzel lifted his hand off the button and returned to the window. There. That was 30 minutes before he got a response and had to do any actual communication work. They might be pissed that he hadn't initiated the full contact procedure, exactly... but that wasn't one of his 'specialties,' after all. So.... that was 30 more minutes he could gaze out at this hypnotizing... magical landscape. He didn't know what else to call it.
Suddenly he heard what could only have been Cornelius breathing hard on the Commset...
That son of a bitch... Denzel rubbed his temples. Then he turned the volume down slightly on his Commset in preparation for the inevitable. He flicked his visor on and glanced at the display. Yep... open comm network to everyone. He was making his announcement.
Cadet Cornelius screamed a battle cry into his Commset. Just like he normally did when they went anywhere of any significance.
"One small step for man... One giant leap for humanity!!!!"
Come on Corn... Denzel thought. This was Earth, you cheating bastard. You can't just steal that from someone. And the Chief just let him have it, too... what a monster.
He wasn't alone in his thoughts. The comm's came alive suddenly with a number of rapid, furious replies from his various teammates.
"No no no, How!?!?"
"He's bluffing! It's got to be a stall tactic!"
"Didn't the Chief promise he would go last this time?"
"It's fine guys, no one was allowed to bet on Cornelius precisely because of this shit."
"Second down still gets the pot"
"You know it's not the same..."
"I don't care!"
"Guys... I've got a visual. He... he made it."
"Where is he!"
"I'm gonna kill him..."
"THAT SON OF A BIT--"
The Comm's quickly digressed into a fuzz of incoherent profanities.
This continued until Chief used his special "Chief command helmet" to override the Comms. His overpowering voice came on.
"Did I hear something about gambling, Cadets?"
The Comm's went silent.
That should have been me... Denzel thought sullenly. He had bet on himself and everything. He had even illegally mounted an electric pulley discreetly outside on his last spacewalk. He snuck it out in his 'toolbox' during his last repair run. He had been meant to lay claim to Earth this time.
Cornelius... you cheating bastard...
But it was hard to stay mad for too awful long as he stared out at this foreign world. The way the breeze made the grass on the hillside sway in unison. A million tiny blades all dancing together. And the ripples of water on the lake... it felt like a hallucination. Like he was now watching a painting breathe whereas his mind said it should be still.
He had to stop and look at the inside of the cockpit once again, to verify, to center himself. Nothing moved. The blocky, right angles of the command deck, the grates in the floor, they were still. nothing expanded or contracted. Then he turned back and It was just so... trippy.
He then leaned forward and put his head to the glass. The sky...
"Are you getting this?" Brianna chimed into his headset.
"Well other than feeling like I've been slipped some of those mushrooms Tucker likes to grow how about the part where you look UP Denzel"
"Focus on the mission, Cadet, I'll see you out there after the perimeter is set. Protocol says he can't keep me in here for more than 6 hours after touchdown anyways. See you soon doll."
Denzel muted his feed. Then he laughed some more. Almost there.
He stared out at the huge structures in the distance. Who knew trees could just... become such wild and intricate structures... Sure, he understood the concept. They would pull Carbon Dioxide directly out of the atmosphere, converting it to Mass. But they were just... so.... huge.
One thing was for sure. He would never feel the same again about the maple Bonsai he had spent the last 12 years delicately cultivating. In Doc's lab.
He had an excellent vantage point, the tip of the rocket was a good 75 feet off the ground, he was on the deck below that, so around 60 feet up. And he could see some trees that were still taller than him in the distance! Simply unreal. How had they grown so tall in such a short amount of time though? According to the reports, even 300 years wasn't enough time to...
Denzel remembered the long-range pictures from Luna's outpost that Command would broadcast to the Martians each month. They all showed dark blue oceans and black, lifeless continents.
He needed to get down there and run some damn tests. One way or another, he was going to figure this out and...
Something moved in the distance.
"Chief do you read I've got movement on... Southeast perimeter." Denzel's Comment purely out of reflex. He immediately wished he hadn't.
"I read to you what do you see?" Chief Comm'd back
"Umm.. appears to be... some sort of... monkey? It's huddling in the tall grass, I'd say about 200 yards out, near the top of Hill."
Denzel could hear the exasperation in Chief's voice as he replied.
"That's Groggins unit, the mammalian specialist I believe. Right? Hey Groggins, why don't you go over there and check it out for us alright? After all, it's your job. Hey Denzel! If we have any daisies that need to be either subdued or analyzed for the toxin in the next 4-6 hours, I'll be sure to let you know. In the meantime, why don't you shut the fuck up? Over and out"
Denzel gritted his teeth. What was that thing in the distance?
He ran back into the utility deck, rustled around storage for a moment until he found... yes. His bag of surveying equipment. He grabbed it and stumbled immediately. It was significantly heavier now. Everything was. Not that he couldn't handle it, he had trained under Earth's gravity conditions before. It just took some re-adjusting.
Dragging it back to the viewing deck, he whipped out his pair of binoculars.
"USFS this is Titan Command reaching out, we have acknowledged touchdown. What are the current atmospheric, radiation, spatial, ecological, and perimeter stats? Any signs of intelligent life? Update every 2 minutes and stand by for more directives."
Denzel ignored the U.S.F.S. comms, and staggered towards the window, raising the binoculars to his eyes. Wait... that wasn't a monkey... it was a human, a hairy, mud-covered human. He wore... animal furs and some sort of dark, black-feathered hood over his head that concealed his face.
"Chief do you read? That's not a monkey, it's a human. Looks native." Denzel keeps talking before he realized the Chief had muted him.
So he tried Groggins.
"Groggins do you read! Pull back. That's not a monkey, It's a human, I repeat it's a human do you read Groggins!"
"I read you, Denzel, are you sure? I'm about to Comm Chief... wait what's that sound?"
Denzel looked through the binoculars once more to see the hooded figure blowing through some kind of animal horn.
"Does anyone else feel the ground vibrating?" Cornelius Comm'd the unit.
What was going on down there...
"Brianna, Tucker, retreat to ship. Something is going on here I don't like---"
Movement caught his eye through the binoculars. Denzel Zoomed in. Something huge, like a tumultuous shadow, moved over the land, just about to crest the other side of the hill.
Denzel Zoomed closer.
An army of beasts. Equus Caballus, if he wasn't mistaken. They pounded up the hill on four, powerful hoofed legs. They were large. Anywhere between 6 and 8 feet. They had to have weighed at least 2,000 pounds each. There were hundreds of them... And there were humans with long, flowing hair wearing animal furs, riding on the tops of every one of them. They were carrying clubs, heavy, crude sticks with rocks knotted at the ends. And bows, from what Denzel could remember from the history lessons, though of course, he had never seen one in real life. They looked determined. Wild.
"Denzel? I'm on my way back now from the lake. What's going on--"
The Comm's shut down.
"Brianna? Brianna do you read!?"
It was like someone was jamming the signal. But how...
Denzel stepped to the window again. He could see his friends in the field below, hundreds of yards out. They began lowering their visors so that they could yell verbal commands to each other and started slowly coming together.
And then it happened. The first band of savages crested the hill and thundered towards Cadet Groggins, who happened to be the closest. He stood up, waved in greeting, and his last words, although no one was around to hear him were:
"Are those horses?"
They all fired in unison from 50 yards. There were so many arrows, it didn't matter that most of them bounced off his Exo suit. He had his visor down. And it only took the one to go through his eye.
Chief and the others raised their helmets and started firing their phase rifles.
It was a madhouse.
Horse after horse went down, but more simply swarmed past and around their fallen like a furious stormcloud. They had already managed to rush Cadet Samson and Cadet Williams through the sheer mass of numbers. The savages fell on them in a circle and clubbed them relentlessly. The Exo suits were designed to mitigate blunt force trauma, but there was only so much they could take.
Denzel watched as Cadet Williams pulled the pin on his grenade, and blew the half dozen savages that were bludgeoning him into messy pieces. But from the viewing deck, it was all silent. Like watching a horror film on mute.
They were still easily outnumbered 10 to 1. The storm of beasts and their demon riders pounded closer, relentlessly towards the ship.
Chapter Three: The phoenix
The Phoenix, the smaller Scout ship was one deck below.
Denzel miscalculated the extra gravity once again and slid too fast down the sides of the ladder, landing in a painful mess. It took all of 30 seconds to pick himself up, load up some medical supplies, extra ammunition batteries, some stun grenades, and his personal emergency bag.
He flipped the U.S.F.S. bay door switch, and as the massive steel sheet retracted in front of him, he was afraid he might have been 30 seconds too late. The greenfield they had landed in was now dotted with so much red. So much blood.
In some distant part of his head, he acknowledged most of it had to have been horse blood. There was just too much of it.
Arrows began to clatter against the glass of the Phoenix scout ship. He snapped to attention and hit the thrusters, thundering out of the U.S.F.S. with explosive speed. The roving bands of horses under him reared and panicked, throwing off their riders and scattering.
Where was Brianna? Where was Tucker?
The savages clumped together by the dozens around the ship. He zoomed in a circular arc swooping down closer to the ground. The thrusters spat up clumps of dirt and dust, scorching the earth and blasting the riders off their beasts. They thinned under the onslaught and began to disperse, dropping their weapons and sprinting in retreat.
Where was Brianna? Didn't she say something about the lake? Denzel tried the Comms again, but they still seemed to be jammed.
Then, he could see it in the distance. An angel in black, right at the lake's edge, firing her phase rifle, again and again, knocking the savages with bloody efficiency off their beasts.
Denzel floored the thrusters at max capacity. He soared through the sky like a comet. A hundred yards later he did a hard rear spin, dropped elevation, and reversed the thrusters, swooping down the Phoenix between right between her and the herd of rushing savages.
He lowered the ramp, killed the rear thrusters, eased on the back throttle gently, and scooped her up.
"Denzel!" She screamed over the engines as she jumped up the ramp. "You're getting a special surprise tonight if we live through this, I promise you that! Chief was northeast last I saw, I spotted his signal flare near the base of the mountain!"
"Roger that" Denzel hit the thrusters and lifted the phoenix off the ground a good 15 feet, then soared directly over the mob of savages. He left a trail of smoking death in his wake. Melted hooves, charred and smoking humans, all distorted and mangled together.
"Right there! It's Cornelius!" Brianna exclaimed.
Denzel looked where she was pointing. She was right.
Cornelius's Exo suit was now a bright red, covered in blood. He had his phase blades out and glowing, extending from his forearms. He slashed viciously at the legs and sides of the horses attempting to stampede him. He was surrounded by dozens of corpses, both man and beast. Even as Denzel watched he took the heads off 2 fallen savages.
Denzel cut a hard arc in the air, then circled around Cornelius in a spin with both rear and front thrusters slammed hard into overdrive. The resulting thunder thinned the herd of horses. Some threw their riders off and trampled them in a panic. Others galloped away in fear.
He lowered the phoenix a few feet from the ground, door open and ramp already extended. The lower thrusters were scorching the ground, cooking something. Denzel smelled burnt meat as Cornelius came stumbling up the ramp.
"Denzel! Brianna! Where's the Chief? Is the ship still secure?"
"Corn! Are you ok?" Brianna turned her head in horror as she saw him.
"I'm fine. Suits showing no major injury stats. It's mostly not my blood. My rifle ran out of juice and... Is the ship still secure?"
"Yes, it's fine. I initiated sealant protocols, so the only way in is with the Phoenix's lock key override."
"Good. They're not gonna dent cold rolled steel with arrows and clubs. Personnel update?" Cornelius asked.
"Unknown while Comm's are down. We're headed towards the chief's last known location now. Apparently, he fired a Retreat flare in the Northeast quadrant by the mountain base. Should be making visual any moment. Why don't you plug your rifle in so it's recharging?"
"Roger that," Cornelius said
"But why did our Comm's go down?" Brianna asked suddenly. "It seemed like a blocker, but that means that someone had to know the USFS frequency, to begin with. Who down here could possibly..."
Denzel had a thought. More of a sick hunch than anything. He stopped the ship and spun it back around. He switched on the telescopic sight function and a new display popped up on the smart glass. He zoomed in. There was a pack of savages holding a circular perimeter around the ship. They weren't moving.
"What are they doing..." Cornelius asked.
Denzel zoomed in closer on the scope cam. There it was. The man with the black-feathered hood. The same one who had called the savage riders in with his horn. He was messing with something at the base of one of the ship's three legs.
"The ship is the first priority," Denzel said. "We'll find Chief later. Buckle up Corn."
No one said anything.
He zoomed back towards the U.S.F.S.
"They... They're all retreating..." Brianna said.
She was right. He could no longer see the hooded man but he watched as all the riders began to retreat, galloping up the side of the hill, into the woods. After a few moments, the field was motionless, littered with nothing but the tangled corpses of humans and horses.
"This doesn't feel right..." Cornelius said.
"Noted," Denzel replied. "Now buckle up." They were closing in on 400 feet.
"Uh. Denzel? This feels like a trap.." Cornelius continued.
Denzel floored the front thrusters, and they came to a halt 100 feet away. Cornelius fell on his face.
"Noted! Now for the last time buckle up Corn! Brianna, zoom in with scope-cam. I want a closer look at the leg of that--"
The leg of the rocket exploded into shrapnel. Brianna and Cornelius both screamed.
No... no, no, no.
The U.S.F.S. was a brilliant piece of engineering. The rocket was 110 Feet tall, 40 feet wide, and complete with all the necessary equipment needed for cramped, tiny living conditions. It had been his home for the last 7 months. And now, he watched, completely helpless as it fell, slowly, to the side. It was essentially a gigantic tripod. And without its third leg it just... fell.
"DENZEL! PULL UP!" Cornelius Panicked. That's right. There was a massive reservoir of fuel in the lower holds of the ship... And with all the fires he had started with the phoenix's thrusters... "
Denzel pulled up just in time.
The U.S.F.S. careened down onto its side. It hit the ground, with a deafening crack as some part of the Hull ruptured. And then, a half-second later, it all exploded into a mushroom cloud of biblical fire and fury. The Phoenix rolled twice in the wake of the blast and Cornelius, who hadn't strapped in yet, tumbled around the cabin like a loose can.
Denzel re-centered backed up and hit the float motion. Cornelius limped to the window and propped himself against the seat.
"You okay Corn?" Brianna asked.
"I'll adapt..." His voice drifted off as he stared out the window. She followed his gaze and put her hands to his mouth.
Denzel trembled slightly. They all sat in silence and watched their castle, their only refuge on this savage, bloody planet burn-in smoldering pieces.
The fire was both as beautiful as it was terrifying. sure they would light candles on Mars to pay the respects of the fallen. But because oxygen was precious they only did it on special occasions.
This... This was an inferno that raged hundreds and hundreds of feet in the air and danced like veils tied to an air vent.
Cornelius finally broke the silence.
"I lost my virginity on that ship..." He said sadly. Brianna whipped her head at him, utter surprise in her face. "Who?"
"Ok," Cornelius pivoted. "What's the protocol for this?" What do we do now?"
"I would think rescue protocol, right Denzel?" Brianna said.
"Chief's last order was to retreat..." Was Corn's reply. He sounded unsure.
There were no signs of the savages. Denzel raised elevation by 1000 feet and spotted them through the telecom as they rode off westwards, across the plains, and into the distance.
After a good 20 minutes had passed, and there was no remaining sign of hostiles, Denzel made the choice to land the phoenix on the opposite side of the lake, a good distance away from the smoke and mayhem.
"Cornelius. You and I will go look for survivors. Brianna, stay with the ship and lock it uptight. See if you can't find out what's blocking our comms."
"Why do I have to stay with the ship? Why can't Corn--" But she was cut off when the Comm's came back online suddenly.
"--is Chief Talson, do you read! Does anyone read?"
Denzel and Cornelius looked at each other. Denzel said nothing.
"This is Cornelius reading you loud and clear chief. I'm with Car and Brianna. Do you have a Geo Cue on us?"
"...Yes. I'm 15 minutes out. No word from the others yet... Status on the hostiles?"
"5 miles Westward and still withdrawing last we went to elevation and checked," Cornelius replied.
"Roger that. Hold position until I return but prepare for retreat and reply protocol. We'll need a defendable position to park the phoenix. Start going over the ship's maps to find any potential locations. I'm gonna try to link up Comm's with the others again on my way. Over and out."
Chief's comm buzzed out. They all sighed. If Chief was alive, at least there was some sort of order. At least they weren't on their own. Right?
"Alright, you heard the man," Brianna wiped her eyes, took a deep breath, and got to work.
Cornelius turned to Denzel. "Good call on grabbing the phoenix. And quick thinking on getting all this gear.."
Denzel looked at Cornelius slowly.
But he hadn't been quick. Not nearly. He had spent nearly 20 minutes straight just staring like a child at the sky. He should already have had the phoenix loaded for an emergency. It was only prudent on a mission like this. He had all the time in the world to prepare and he just... sat there, mesmerized by fucking trees. He should have grabbed his binoculars sooner. Should have called chief only after verifying the hooded "monkey" was really a Human. Should have done so many things... And now his teammates were dead. They were all dead.
He was about to say something very cutting, but he stopped and glanced at Brianna, rifling through the medical bags. As he watched she absentmindedly pushed a streak of her Jet black hair behind her ear.
"I guess." That was all he said.
"Denzel, no one could have predicted this. The earth wasn't supposed to be habitable enough for humans yet. No one expected any of this, and you pulled our asses out of the fire. Chief will be proud." Cornelius clapped him on the shoulder.
"Somehow I doubt that." Denzel shrugged him off, grabbed his phaser rifle, and walked off down the loading ramp outside.
Cornelius started to follow with a limp when Brianna stopped him.
"He'll be ok," Brianna said and forced him to sit. "Now about that cut on your head. It's not so deep, but with your baby blonde hair Cornelius it looks much worse than it is and it's freaking me out."
"I'm fine, Bri, honestly--"
"Correct me if I'm wrong but until Graff makes contact I believe I am the leading medical professional here. Do you want me to tell Chief you're at risk for concussion and he doesn't let you play with the other boys for the next 12 hours? Hmm?"
Cornelius growled, but he didn't argue. Instead, he sat back down and tried the comms again. "Does anyone read me? This is Cornelius here, does anyone read?"
After a long time of listening to silence, Cornelius looked at Brianna with a straight face and asked
"I wonder what mud will taste like."
Brianna sighed before trying the Comms again. "This is Brianna... does anyone read?"
Suddenly Chief staggered up the ramp into the cockpit.
"Read you, Bri... Where's Denzel?" Chief put his hand to his ear "Denzel do you read?" Chief hesitated a moment, "Denzel, do you come in? Denzel! Do you......... DENZEL!!"
The Chief turned slowly towards Brianna and Cornelius, his face was redder than either of them had ever seen it.
"What?" Brianna asked innocently.
"He muted me..." The chief said quietly.
Table of Contents
Chapter One: The mission 2