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The last mission

by London Knight 9 months ago in science fiction

Part four

Chapter One: The ugly truth

10 minutes later, they had reached the entrance to the deep, thin Ravine that ran directly into the mountain. It was like someone had cut a very thin slice out of a very tall pie. The width of the ravine was around 40-80 feet, but the Granite walls were too straight to seem natural, Denzel noted. Climbing them would be... Problematic, as Chief would say. Denzel would say impossible.

They walked across a spongy film of old, compacted dry leaves and crushed branches. There was no telling where the foliage ended and the ground began. Denzel was suddenly glad for the first time that they had chosen not to land here. The phoenix's thrusters definitely would have started a forest fire.

Chief barked instructions. He spoke like he wasn't in the mood to be argued with.

"According to command, there are 6 sources of abnormal electromagnetic emissions located throughout this ravine. And we're blowing each and every one of them to kingdom come. So here's the plan. We split up into two teams. Cornelius and Tucker, I'm sending you the geo cue for the first 3 locations. The Ravine splits in a Y ahead. You'll take the left path. Denzel and I will go right, towards the last 3. We will keep Comm's on but only communicate to verify that the explosives are set. Understood?"

Corn and Tuck both shot Denzel a quick glance. He nodded.

"Understood." Was their simultaneous reply.

Chief hadn't missed the interaction though. He glared at Denzel suspiciously. But all he said was "Roger that. Meet back here in 1 hour. Move out."

The Ravine's walls grew taller as they made their way into the mountain. After a few minutes, they came to a Y in the road. Tucker and Cornelius both nodded at Denzel. He nodded back.

"Watch your back." Tucker saluted him.

Denzel waited until they were gone from view. He had questions.

"Wartime protocol article 12 section 4 designates that you must provide a valid reason for the execution of prisoners." He was proud of himself. Brianna wasn't the only one who dug her nose into the procedure books.

Chief sighed deeply and shook his head, saying nothing. He just kept walking.

"Why did you kill those prisoners?" Denzel pressed again. After a few heartbeats, Chief replied.

"I'd consider them more wounded hostiles on the battlefield than prisoners, Cadet. They weren't even properly cuffed."

Denzel glared at him. He couldn't tell if he was joking.

"Why did you kill your clone..." Denzel ventured.

"He was trying to kill us. I don't think we would have gotten along."

Chief paused.

"And because I get enough questions from you, I didn't want to have to deal with an unnecessary inquiry from everyone else until after the job is done, and these charges are set. It would just slow us down. After this is over, then we can all have a nice warm family sit down, and talk about our feelings for as long as we want."

Why was the Chief trying to rush things? Was he running towards or away from something?

They were within eyesight of their first target now. A large section of the ravine wall had been smoothly carved out to make a rounded cave, cut into the side of the granite ravine wall. It was maybe 20 feet tall, 20 feet wide, and 80 feet deep. There were dozens of rectangular-looking stalagmites, and they were all covered in mushrooms. Thousands upon thousands of them. All different types, shapes, colors, and sizes. It's too bad Tucker couldn't see this. Mycology was something like Denzel's 20th or 30th ranking skill according to the tests, but it was Tuckers 2nd. He would be able to appreciate it more. And, he would most likely be able to tell which ones were poisonous...

Chief Scraped a patch of mushrooms off the side of the wall to make some space for the charge. He clamped the explosive onto the rock and the light turned on, illuminating the flurry of spores Chief had just shaken loose.

A short moment later, a small silver orb the size of Denzel's fist, rolled across the cave floor. Chief leveled his rifle.

"Spray or shrapnel might hit the charges Chief, it could damage or set them off... We can't risk that." Denzel warned.

"Roger that." Chief kept his rifle centered. "But if it moves for the Charge, I'm shooting it."

They watched a moment longer as the little sphere rolled across the Mushrooms chief had just scraped onto the floor, seemingly oblivious to their presence.

It split at some invisible seam, and the bottom opened up to reveal a set of metal arms that resembled little tweezers. It scooped up most of the mushrooms into its internal cargo space, sealed back up, and rolled off through a small hole in the cave floor. It was the perfect size for the sphere to fit through. Another sphere rolled out of another hole in the wall and repeated the process, collecting the mushrooms and taking them to... who knows where?

Denzel suddenly knew in his heart, there was no way these charges would affect The AI's real infrastructure very much, if at all.

After a moment the Chief seemed satisfied the bots wouldn't mess with the charges. He started walking again.

"What are you not telling us?" Denzel asked.

"Quite a lot. Cadet."

Ok... time for a different approach. Denzel thought for a moment, then ran to catch up with him.

"The AI seems to rely on autonomous bots to do menial tasks. And we still don't know the location of its manufacturing facility. We blow these charges and I don't think we'll be making much of a difference. Its infrastructure is obviously far below the surface, if anywhere."

"Oh? You figure that out with your Material engineering specialty?" The Chief responded, knowing full well Denzel had no such specialty under his belt.

"I don't need one. And neither do you, to see that the AI obviously has tunneling capabilities. It can carve through straight granite, sir. And I think you don't need a geology specialty to understand that granite is really fucking hard, sir. Meaning the manufacturing facility is most likely deep enough underground somewhere to hide its signature. We have no idea where it could be, and frankly, you've killed the only inside informants that could have given us any answers. You are sacrificing the long-term success of this mission for a short-term, letter of the law approach. We have at least 7 months before the next ship arrives. We have time to do a legitimate investigation sir."

"That's where you're wrong, Cadet."

"About what?"

"We don't have time," Chief said simply.

"What do you mean?"

The Commset came alive for a second. "Charges set on location A. It's... what did you call that thing last night? A butterfly? Anyways this seems to be some kind of exhibit or breeding ground or something for them... Whatever the case you should see Corn right now--"

"That's enough Tucker. Move onto 2nd location now." Chief cut him off.

"Roger that". Tuck signed off.

"What do you mean we don't have time?" Denzel repeated. Chief looked him square in the face. He took a deep breath.

"I want you to know I'm telling you this Denzel because I need you to trust me. We need to finish the mission within 6 short hours... Or our hitchhiker goes live."

Denzel's blood went cold. A hitchhiker was a rocket-powered nuclear bomb. It was sent alongside missions with a low survival probability rate. The only time Denzel had heard of HUD using them was on pirate bases. They were typically launched a few hours or days, depending on the mission, after the main ship.

"How much time do we have... exactly," Denzel asked quietly.

Chief looked at his watch. "6 hours, 23 minutes."

"Criteria?" Denzel asked.

"There needs to be a considerable reduction in signal strength coming from these caverns. Otherwise, it's programmed to go live and drill straight down on top of us."

Denzel thought for a moment. God how he wished he had Tucker or Brianna with him. They were both better at connecting the dots when things didn't make sense.

"So it was 24 hours from our launch? They launched the hitchhiker 24 hours after the USFS left mars for Earth... Why such a short window of time?"

"I'm not sure of that one, Denzel," Chief replied. He seemed uncertain though.

"And where's the electromagnetic frequency coming from? These caves don't have anything but plants in them! The signal must be leaking through the caves from deeper under the surface."

"This is where command said to light the fuses," Chief said simply. "Maybe collapsing the caves will be enough to show a reduction in signal strength."

"And if it isn't?"

"Hopefully there's enough fuel in the phoenix to escape the blast radius."

"What's the payload size?"

"No my clearance level, Cadet. I don't know."

"That still doesn't make sense though Sir. The hitchhiker will ignite on impact. It will be a lot of surface damage, but whatever facilities are underground will still probably remain intact. Why nuke the planet at all?! Isn't that what started all this bullshit 300 years ago?!

"Maybe they wanted insurance on their last expedition. I'm not here to speculate. Either way, now you understand the full mission parameters, Cadet."

"Why haven't you told anyone!?" Denzel demanded again.

Chief eyeballed him.

Then Denzel stopped. "Why are you telling me?"

"Because your insubordination has gotten out of control. You are unpredictable, you deviate from the protocol, you act like this is a fucking vacation. You need a wake-up call. You need to focus on."

Denzel was finally getting information from Chief and it was definitively not satisfying.

"Chief? What do you mean... 'last 'expedition'?"

Chief ignored him and walked up to the second exhibit. It was another large cave cut into the wall of the Ravine. There were a number of different ferns and tall grasses inside the Cave. Thankfully though it was covered with some kind of glass door because on the inside swarmed what could only have been hundreds of thousands of Coccinellidae. Small, red, spotted beetles. Thousands upon thousands of them. What did they eat in there?

Chief set the charge against the wall of the glass and turned to Denzel. "What did they used to call these little ones?"

"I'll answer your question if you answer mine." Denzel ventured. Chief's reply was quicker than he expected.

"To my knowledge, there have been a total of 5 manned crews to earth over the past decade or so. None have responded after landing. I believe we are the last expedition, Denzel. Command told me they have 'run out of stock' as it were. It's possible that after this, they will begin moving people in Mass. I don't know. Either way, protocol dictates it is Crucial that we finish the mission in order for that to happen.." Chief said.

"...Ladybugs, Sir," Denzel said after a moment of silence.

"Hu. They don't seem very ladylike to me. I mean they are almost cute but... not very ladylike. Those Oldworlders and their names..." He shook his head, activated the charge, and headed off again.

Was this what the Doc was trying to warn Denzel about? He said he'd been unable to clone a Rosacea because they had run out of "stock" on that genus.

"Tal... am I a clone?" Denzel asked quietly.

Chief stopped and turned around. He looked as if he had been waiting for Denzel to ask this. Then in a surprising, uncharacteristically gentle tone, he confirmed his fears.

"We all are."

Denzel's gut fell to the floor. They were just... cannon fodder then. They weren't even people in the eyes of the HUD. His entire life, it had been a lie. He had no real rights. He couldn't even process that right now.

"Who was my original donor?" He finally managed to get out.

"I don't know specifically. An Oldworlder though."

Denzel stared at Chief angrily in disbelief. If he walked away in silence again with no further explanation after that little Gem, Denzel swore to God he would stun him several times, right then, right there.

Chief Sighed and continued.

"Command saved the DNA of a few athletic Oldworlders. Olympic medal winners, professional athletes, e.t.c. because before we fled to mars, we didn't know how much the decreased gravity would affect humans. We had 2 sets of data to go off of back then. Earth's gravity, and zero gravity. Command didn't know if 30% of earth's gravity meant 70% atrophy in humans. If 40% of earth's gravity meant 60% atrophy in humans, E.T.C... They didn't know if it was a sliding scale or not. We got lucky, as it turns out, and it's not. Obviously. The deterioration and atrophy of muscles and bone tissue are still present in Martians, just not to the extent that we feared."

Chief paused as if he realized he was ranting. Then he took a deep breath and just kept on talking.

"Command never released the identities of the donors. Not even to me. Anyways. Despite the gravity on mars being adequate for humans, the clone program was still kept alive. It was used as a means of recruiting fresh, strong, focused, near-perfect soldiers in a time when there weren't enough civilian humans to spare. Every life was precious in the early days of the HUD. We are the 6th... and final group to touch down on this planet. And we are officially and legally, not considered people. We have no rights. That's why we spent so much time on Titan, getting used to pain and protocol. Why they kept us busy with, in some cases, archaic studies. It's so that you all wouldn't have the time or the inkling to question the status quo. To look deeper into the systems in place and find the truth."

"How long have you known," Denzel asked him.

"Since we were 16."

The two men then just stood there, staring at each other until the comm's blasted Tucker's voice through their earpiece.

"Charges set at 2nd location. Man... I wish you guys could see this! Are we sure command wants us to--"

"Thank you, Cadet. Keep moving. Over and out." Chief cut him off and signed out of the comm's. Denzel suddenly had a suspicious thought.

"We're all just Cannon fodder to them. We aren't even people in their eyes. So why would they trust you with all this knowledge? How do you know all this?"

"Do you remember that time on Titan, when we were 9... Remember when there was a surplus in the regular food shipment that one month, with the chocolate, and we stashed it in the cargo bin next to the entrance to the maze?" Chief asked him.

"Yes..."

Denzel did remember. They had been hungry for so long. They had been given extremely meager rations the previous few months, and the extra food had seemed like a prize worth its weight in gold. They walked with full bellies for less than 2 days before the Command officers began picking them up, one by one, interrogating them.

Denzel remembered he had been scared and folded quickly under their "questioning". The food didn't seem to be worth the pain he endured. After he folded, they locked him up in isolation for the next 5 days and that was that. He had always thought it had been a punishment, but now looking back on it...

"It was another test... wasn't it..." Denzel asked.

"Precisely." Chief verified. "Apparently, I was the last person of our batch to fold. There are a number of other incidents. But when I look back on it, I believe that was the particular test I passed to gain this position. So In essence, I was chosen to be Chief in Command... based solely on my ability to.. 'keep a secret."

Chapter Two: Trauma

Denzel was silent for a good 2 minutes as they walked.

"It still doesn't make sense, Chief."

"What doesn't?"

"Are you sure Command isn't feeding you misinformation?" Denzel asked.

"No way to tell, so no reason to act on that assumption Cadet," Chief replied.

"What does your gut say?"

Chief was quiet for a long moment. He really was considering it. Then he sighed and looked down.

"I don't know Denzel. My gut has been in knots ever since the USFS exploded. Ever since we lost everyone... I just don't want to lose anyone else. I just want to set these charges, return to the Phoenix, use up as much fuel as we have left to retreat, and then from a hopefully safe distance, we can watch for possible fireworks and speculate about this or that long into the night. That's all I want. I can't think further ahead than that right now."

Denzel didn't know what to say. He had never seen the Chief this vulnerable. He truly believed command was going to nuke this mountain if they didn't blow these charges.

He grudgingly realized he trusted the Chief, but he didn't trust the orders Command gave him. Something was seriously wrong. And even after the chief outlined mission parameters as he was given them. All the protocols were lined up... but it still felt like something was off. If he could just think faster... God he wished he could call Brianna or Tucker right now.

They approached a corner in the Ravine. Denzel heard a very strange buzzing noise. It sounded like hundreds of extremely small generators, or gear systems, possibly made out of plastic or aluminum, or maybe the pages of small books being flipped open? Or... What the hell was that noise? Denzel had never heard anything like it. Could this be the source of the signal? Could this last cave house one of the AI's manufacturing machines?

Maybe they could get the signal to stop after all and the Bomb hurtling down towards them would power down, go inert, and land harmlessly, parachuting to the ground. Maybe there was hope... Denzel was still processing a lot.

They rounded the corner cautiously. It was beautiful.

The walls of the ravine cut out entirely so the sunlight could filter in from the top, hundreds of feet up. Here, the theme was neither mushrooms nor butterflies, but flowers. Thousands of them of every shape and size and color. It was like someone had handpicked one of each and every type of flower, from all over the world, and had planted them all here, together. There were some that Denzel realized he didn't even recognize.

And the buzzing, Denzel understood now, was coming from the cave's own personal army of Apis. Hundreds of the little black and yellow insects looped and circled the cave, dipping their little antenna into flower after flower before buzzing out, only to have another come in from outside and take its place.

Where was the electromagnetic disturbance??

There was nothing here but a few rolling metal caretakers and a bunch of different types of plants and animals. Rhopalocera, or Butterflies, naturally spread pollen among wildflowers. Ladybugs, eat parasites that destroy fields and crops. Fungi, great for everything from breaking down plastic to breaking down your ego.

And Apis. They were perhaps the most important critter in the whole ecosystem. The number of trees and plants that depended on them to spread their pollen was simply enormous. His study books said at one time they pollinated over 80% of the world's flora. They were in the truest sense of the word, Earth's custodians. And here they buzzed on a buffet. It was a literal Api buffet.

"What do we have here?" Chief asked.

"Old worlders called them Bumblebees. I'd raise your helmet if I were you, they were known to sting, even kill people."

"How on Mars would they kill a human?" Chief asked in disbelief. "They are so small... It would take thousands of them.."

Denzel ignored him though as he stared into the vast canyon, filled to Brim with flowers. How long would it take him to smell each one... if given the chance? A whole day? 2 days?

There was even a dandelion in the mix. The biggest he had ever seen. Bigger than his fist. It was nestled among some Orchidaceae. Even as Denzel watched, alone bumblebee ignored the Orchids, circled over, and lazily perched on the bright yellow surface. They were all so beautiful...

As his eyes rolled over the sea of colors, his heart skipped a beat. He suddenly spotted what Doc had asked him for. A single, thorned Rosacea. It Towered slightly over what looked like a purple group of Aubrieta. It sat, a mere 6 feet deep into the Cave. Its lively red reminded Denzel of the lipstick some of the inner city girls would wear.

He went and gently clipped it, and pocketed it. He had made a promise. But even so... A sea of self rage billowed inside him. Doc had tried to warn him of something, hadn't he? But Denzel hadn't been listening... what had he tried to say?

Tucker's voice suddenly came across the Comm's.

"Just armed the 3rd charge. Although I don't see how a bunch of cactuses scares Command so much. Over and out."

Did the people who burned down the library of Alexandria... Did they feel just like this before they set back humanity a thousand years? Did they feel great shame and horror for what they were about to do?

There was no threat here. There were no machines. No weapons, or supplies. There was nothing but Flowers... What kind of a mission was this!? Denzel thought angrily to himself. And then, something clicked, deep inside Denzel's psyche. This wasn't a mission at all. This was all wrong. Right here, what they were doing... it was wrong.

He was a representative of Mars. Meant to serve the best interests of the human populace. He thought about it. He was their voice. The voice of 2 million civilians, living in fear under the surface of that small red rock. And this isn't what any of them would have wanted. This wasn't what Denzel wanted.

Sure, there might be Ai here, but it seemed entirely non-aggressive. The hundreds of humans living here, the ones who had attacked them on horses, were proof enough of that. Sure, there were things he needed answers to, but right now, right here...

He watched as the Chief armed the explosive. God, he wished Brianna were here. She would know what to say... Oh hell. He'd give it a try...

"Talson, We've known each other our whole lives. We've bled together in the pits of Titan. You saved my life during the pirate raid onPhoebe. And I saved yours during the riots on Ganymede. You know, in your heart that I trust you with my life Chief. And right here, right now, I need you to trust me, in a big way.."

"What are you talking about?" Chief looked at him seriously.

"This is a cleanup." He said calmly. "We need to leave. Immediately."

Denzel watched Chief's face carefully. There was no change of expression.

"You've considered this already?!" Denzel asked.

"Of course I have! Do you really think I wouldn't consider all possibilities?"

"Then what are we doing here! This is so wrong on so many levels... it's the only explanation! Let's go. Right now. Let's call Brianna in for a pick-up and fly away as fast as we can. There might still be time Chief... Please. Consider it one last time. We weren't publicly sent off, a hundred million miles into space, just to kill some fucking daisies."

Denzel put a special emphasis on the last word.

"You know as well as I do... this isn't a real mission."

Chief closed his eyes and was silent for 10 straight seconds. Denzel could tell by his minute facial expressions, that Chief was warring with himself. Fear and anger flashed back and forth over his face in rapid succession. He was actually considering it... Denzel let himself feel a sliver of hope blossom. But then after a few more moments, a tired resignation spread across his features. He breathed out slowly. He had made his choice, Denzel could tell.

He opened his eyes.

"But it doesn't matter. We've got evidence of Ai now. In either case, the protocol would dictate--"

"Forgive me." Denzel interrupted him.

Then he shot the Chief at point-blank in the chest.

The Chief lay on his back, unconscious. Denzel pulled out his cuffs and bound his stunned former commander.

After their big heart to heart, the Lethal setting just seemed inappropriate. He pulled up direct links to Tucker and Cornelius.

"This is Denzel. I'm assuming Command. Regroup immediately on my location." Before they could reply he cut those Links and opened one up to Brianna.

"Brianna, do you read? I can't explain everything right now. But you need to come to pick us up immediately."

"Denzel!" He could hear her laugh. "What are you waving like that for? And what are you wearing?"

Denzel's blood turned to ice in his veins.

Hadn't Cornelius said he had seen 11 hostiles? There had been only 10 accounted for.

She continued on in his ear "What do you mean to pick you up? I can see you from the window right now. What's wrong?"

"Brianna! That's not me! Take off now! Take off now--"

The comm's cut out. Someone was blocking their signal.

"FUCK!" Denzel screamed.

He tried to get through to Tucker a few times, but it was no use.

He paced about for a few minutes. He desperately tried to think of different scenarios, counter-attack strategies, a solid plan of action for... anything. Anything other than curling up in a corner somewhere and waiting to die. How had everything gone so wrong?

After a few minutes of dancing dangerously on the fence of helplessness, a thought struck him.

He yanked his helmet and visor off, then grabbed Chiefs and put it on. He prayed she had re-inserted her Geo chip. There were so many extra settings and functions he had to navigate through... but there had to be... there! He saw Brianna's geo chip on the display, she had re-inserted it at some point. Thank god... it showed her moving fast... Denzel skipped a beat when a message appeared before his eyes. The sender's name read "Chief" He opened it up.

Chief: See you soon

Then, as Denzel was trying to figure out how to reply a second message popped up.

Chief: I've sedated your woman. She will be unconscious for a few hours, but she is alive. Next to her is a large explosive I've armed. I have the detonator. Do not try anything. I don't like killing women.

Denzel pulled the visor off in a daze. How had everything gone so wrong? Tucker and Cornelius rounded the corner a few moments later, breathing hard.

"What happened? Is this a Mutiny?" Tucker stared at the chief laying on his side.

"You just... assumed command? You just shot the fucking Chief? Am I understanding this correctly? Is he ok?" Cornelius went on.

"He's fine. I need you both to focus, Cadets." Denzel drilled every ounce of steel into his voice now. It was too late to turn back.

"I don't think this is a mission. I think this is a cleanup."

Confusion spread across their faces.

"You think?" Cornelius stared at Denzel like he was speaking another language.

"What could we possibly have done that requires--" Tucker started.

"It's not what we've done... Tuck. It's what we are. But there's no time to explain. Right now we have a hostile coming in hot. He's incapacitated Brianna and is flying the phoenix over here as we speak.."

"How do you know--" Tucker began

But Denzel interrupted him.

"Pull out your Geo chips and find a defensible position in the Cave. He says he's got Bri next to some kind of explosive, and he has the detonator. So if you DO get a chance to snipe him, you only get one shot. Make it count. Understood?"

"What about you?" Cornelius asked.

"I'm staying right here."

They looked uncertain, but nodded and began pulling their chips out.

Suddenly the booming, roaring thunder of rocket thrusters could be heard overhead. They were too late...

They watched as the Phoenix rotated in circles with its side blasters on full thrust, lowering itself from the sky. What a waste of fuel, Denzel thought. It was like he was trying to start a fire...

It settled to the ground in the ravine about 200 feet away. The engines torched the ground foliage, setting it ablaze. The fire licked it's way all around the ship, dancing 2-3 feet up in the air. The rear door opened and a figure in a jet black Exo suit and command helmet emerged, walking through the flames.

Denzel could see behind him. Brianna lay motionless on the floor. Her Exo suit had been stripped off, she lay on the steel floor in her undergarments. Then the rear bay door slid closed, concealing her from view as the flames grew higher. That son of a bitch... He had taken her suit.

They watched as he strode out of the flames confidently and stopped. Cornelius began to raise his rifle when Denzel put his hand on his arm and shook his head.

Everyone's comm's came back on.

"So good to see we are all here. Relieve your rifles of their cartridges. Behind you until the charge is spent. Then extend your phase blades. Let the charge run dry or Cadet Brianna dies." The hooded figure demanded.

Tucker and Cornelius looked at Denzel. He was thinking... when suddenly a message popped up from Brianna. He checked the timestamp. It had been sent when the Comm's were off, so it had been a delayed send. It read:

I'm sorry Carcar. I locked the doors. But he used his command helmet to override them. He got the jump on me. When I came too he said he shot me up with tranquilizers. I'm using the voice-to-text app to send this but I'm so tired. I'm sorry. Car. I'm

Denzel read the message once, then twice. Then he turned and looked at Tuck and Corn.

"Do as he says."

They sighed and drained the juice on their weapons, throwing them to the side. Then they sat there in silence for another 2 minutes with their phase blades out, waiting for them to drain down.

The fire encompassing the ship grew ever larger, spreading both out and up into the ivy growth on the sides of the ravine.

"Now Cuff your friends." The figure said over Denzel's Comm.

Denzel sighed. He looked at Cornelius and Tucker. They had heard it too. They shared a look like "Are we really gonna do this?"

But they handed him their Cuffs. He did the deed.

The stranger took his time walking over. He closed the distance between them until he was about 20 feet away. Then he retracted his visor and stared at them.

Denzel had known what to expect, but he still wasn't prepared. Not really.

He looked at his own face. It was bitter and mean, maybe a few years older, and there was a scar across the left eyebrow Denzel didn't have, but it was still his.

"Clever move, taking out your Girls Geo unit. It made it hard to find your ship." The stranger said.

"Who are you?" Denzel asked. He was desperately trying to figure out what to do. They had to leave. Soon.

"I'm the Ambassador."

Denzel almost laughed.

Cornelius was the first with a retort.

"Suit looks a little tight on you, mister Ambassador."

Denzel's clone glared at them. Chief groaned. He was coming too.

"Ambassador to what?" Denzel asked.

"'Of Gaia. The creator of all you see before you. That's what." He replied in a strangely defiant tone.

"Ok Mister Ambassador, here's the status. We have a live hitchhiker inbound in less than 6 hours, unknown exact ETA. We need to leave. Now. I'll cuff myself if you want. But please, help us."

The 'Ambassador' walked over to where Chief lay bound and kicked him lightly in the side. "This true?"

Chief groaned and groggily confirmed it.

Ambassador stopped, as if in thought. Then he seemed to relax. Like someone had told him he had the day off. He spared a glance at the mouth of the cave where the charges were set.

"I see no reason to continue this then. I will take Cadet Brianna to safety. I'll see to it no harm comes to her. You have my word. I suggest you all stay put."

"Continue what? Were you really just going to kill us?" Denzel asked his clone.

But the Ambassador showed no expression on his face. He simply turned and walked back towards the ship, which was fully engulfed in flames and slowly spreading across the ravine. It would take rocket fuel to melt its steel frame. Regular old carbon-fueled fire wouldn't be nearly hot enough. It was insulated for spacewalks for god's sake. Brianna would be fine inside, he kept telling himself.

"Where will you take her?" Tucker called after him. Ambassador just kept walking.

"How do you think you're gonna board the ship with that fire?" Cornelius yelled.

He still said nothing. Just kept walking at a leisurely pace. Like he didn't have a care in the world.

Denzel shook his head. Thinking of Brianna, unconscious inside the phoenix. Suddenly, thunder crackled in the sky above. Little droplets of water started to pour down and turn into heavier droplets. It was a deluge in seconds. It came quickly, just like when the USFS had exploded.

It took no more than 15 seconds and the rains had already beaten the flames down into defiant, billowing gusts of black smoke. The Phoenix was caked in black, wet soot.

"If he sets off the explosive in the ship, it could damage the ship. Then we're all dead because we can't escape. He won't do it." Cornelius continued.

But Denzel doubted that. Ambassador knew things. He knew it would rain, that's why he didn't care how many fires he started with his theatrical entrance. He might know of another way to escape. A cave system they had overlooked... Maybe he just wanted the phoenix. Or maybe he wanted Brianna...

Denzel's stomach turned into painful Knots. She was a fighter. She'd find a way out eventually, he told himself. As long as she was alive he knew she would figure something out.

"Denzel, uncuff me damn it" Cornelius held his hands up.

"No uncuffing until I leave. Or your girlfriend dies." Ambassador's voice came over the Comms.

Denzel sighed and looked at them all with a sorry expression. What a top-notch bunch of soldiers they were. Brought to their knees by this world filled with flowers, butterflies, and one fucking evil Clone.

He typed up a brief explanation and goodbye note to Brianna and sent it off, hoping the 'Ambassador' wouldn't intercept it somehow. He hoped the Ambassador was a quick pilot. He didn't know how much time they had. He didn't even know the payload size of the hitchhiker. Who knew how large the blast radius would be.

He turned back to his friends. If Chief could kill with a look, Denzel would have keeled over just then.

"It's been an honor gentlemen..." He didn't know what else to say.

"I'm... I'm sorry." He added a second later.

And he just stood there, holding the keys to their cuffs in his hand, waiting for their ride to leave with his girlfriend. This did not feel right

BOOOOOOM

An explosion of epic proportions rocked the atmosphere above them. The light was blinding. Everyone ducked and covered their ears in a primal reaction.

Thoughts rushed through Denzel's head in a panicked flurry.

If the hitchhiker had detonated on land, they'd be dead instantly. That's where it was supposed to detonate. If they could hear it, that meant it had been intercepted somehow. The thunder drained on above them, the light was intense.

It felt like Denzel's only chance. He flipped Chief's visor on and the safety feature instantly darkened the lens to a jet black, protecting him against the blinding nuclear light.

Denzel took his chance. Wasting no time, he dropped the keys to the cuffs on the ground, and sprinted towards where he last saw the Ambassador at top speed. As he ran he switched on the Geo cues, praying... there it was. Brianna's suit location, just 30 feet in front of him.

He closed the distance quickly, sprinting blind. The screen of his helmet was Black, save for his interior displays. That was what he watched now. The glow on his screen of Brianna's Geo chip location. He ran straight towards it. 20 feet. 10 feet. 5 feet. This was it.

3...

Denzel screamed in pain suddenly as he felt a hot phaseblade tearing into his body, sliding between his ribs. A second later his visor cleared up and went transparent again. The light from the explosion had dissipated. He could see.

2...

He could see the phase blade, sticking out of his side. Steaming, sizzling blood gassed out from the wound as it boiled from the intense heat. He could see the shocked, sad expression on the Ambassador's face as he twisted the blade.

1...

Denzel held up the modified EMP grenade in his hand and smiled.

"Surprise."

The pulse went off. The phase blade flickered out of existence from between Denzel's ribs as all the cells and circuits in both their suits short-circuited. He saw sparks before his helmet went dark.

He staggered, he could feel the wound. He knew it was deep. Scary deep. The pain was sort of immense, but he was still within his threshold. He knew pain. He knew his limits, and he knew how much of it he could take before he blacked out. Courtesy of the managers at Titan. He wasn't there yet. But he was close...

He ripped off his dead helmet to see again. He kinda wished he hadn't. The Ambassador shrieked in rage and socked him in the mouth. Suddenly he felt the full weight of his suit as all the micro assist mechanisms went dead, and he fell backward, helplessly to the ground.

He tried to open his Comm's to tell the others to run, that the ship would be safe until Brianna woke up. But of course, his Comms were dead. Both Command helmets were now dead. Thank god. Ambassador couldn't get into the phoenix now from the outside. His detonator and anything within a 10-foot radius of them would be fried, as well. Brianna was safe.

Denzel looked up at the sky. The explosion had seemed to clear away the clouds. It no longer rained. But there was an enormous smoke cloud that remained. It looked distant like it was in the higher reaches of the atmosphere. It was like a giant bruise in the blue sky.

The remnants of an upper atmosphere nuclear explosion. He briefly wondered how much radiation had released...

As he stared at it on his back the 'Ambassador' loomed into Denzel's field of view. He was not happy, Denzel thought distantly. He mounted him and began delivering blow upon brutal blow, wailing on Denzel with elbows and fists and Rage. It hurt, but Denzel had known pain before. He had spent his childhood drenched in it. This was nothing. His lip was split badly now, and he laughed in the Ambassador's face, spraying blood on him.

The Ambassador's eyes grew wide. Denzel watched as the realization dawned... he knew it too. The Ambassador knew there was nothing he could do anymore to punish Denzel. He grabbed something from his boot sleeve. A knife of some kind, it looked crudely fashioned. Was that a mining rig Screw that had been sheared down? Well, it looked sharp.

So this was it, Denzel thought to himself.

At least his corpse would provide nutrients to his homeworld. At least he had found a way to give back. His girlfriend was safer now, his friends safer, maybe they would be ok. Maybe he hadn't done that bad after all. All things considered. He smiled and shut his eyes as the Ambassador raised the knife. Alright God, here I come...

Suddenly a booming, all-encompassing voice cut through the air from all directions like an electric wave.

"I think that is enough, Abel."

Denzel opened his eyes. "...God?" he asked hesitantly, a little punchdrunk. The Ambassador looked around frantically.

"But... But they were going to destroy the--"

"Enough. Please."

Shockingly, Denzel watched as the 'Ambassador' shook his head in defeat and dropped the knife. He looked... confused. Hurt? Betrayed?" A few seconds later Cornelius, Tucker, And Chief all tackled the Ambassador at once, like the heroes they were.

The pain of that particular collision, however, was just the tipping point Denzel had needed to blackout. Thank you, gentlemen.

Sweet, sweet darkness took him.

Chapter Three: Helpless

Somewhere on Ganymede, one of Jupiter's moons.

The director quarters were dark. The ceiling shimmered from the reflected light of his fish tanks. They lined every wall and were filled with slow drifting octopi, glowing fish, and winding black eels that drifted in between the shadows of the rocks.

It was serene. He lay in his purple, plush, silk sheeted bed, the sound of an ocean playing over the speakers. He imagined he was deep underwater. Drifting in the dark with absolute freedom.

The calm was broken when a message holo blinked at his bedside. He tapped it absentmindedly.

"Report?"

"Sir we've just got confirmation from Luna 1's cameras that the Team 23's Hitchhiker detonated..."

This was good. He would radio the Commander on Titan later and announce they were ago for the next phase of their resolution plans. The council would be pleased.

But there was a hesitance in the lieutenant's voice...

"Yes, Lieutenant?"

"It appears that it went live prematurely. It detonated in the upper atmosphere. No signs of ground damage, Sir."

The Director shot up in his bed. What?

"Was it intercepted, lieutenant, or was it a malfunction? Any sign of AI interference in ANY of the Phoenix logs so far?"

"...Unknown. Last footage that was examined from the onboard 360 camera show a flash of light, approximately 8 seconds before detonation. No known reasons for malfunction. No projectiles were seen of any kind. No logs of AI existence or otherwise in the data banks last time we remote uploaded them which was... 9 minutes ago."

"Evidence of solar flare?"

"None so far Sir."

This was stressful. The Director hated stress. It appeared he would be having an entirely different conversation with the Commander tonight altogether.

"Understood. Anything else?"

"Yes... we spotted the USFS scout ship, Phoenix 6 leaving the region as well. Waiting on the next cycle to get a visual again."

Hmm.. The Commander would become nervous if there were survivors. It was better to start the meeting with good news before he used the Old World Comm to contact him.

"...Understood. Activate scout ship sleeper Seppuku. Update parameters to Goliath. That will be all."

"Yes Sir."

The Comm flared off. The Director rubbed his eyes and stood up. He walked towards the wall of fish tanks. This was stressful. He wanted to move forward. This was the last mission to clean up the Earth before they settled. They were almost there... And now this setback?

He would have to deal with that rotting piece of meat of a Commander... He'd need to think of some story or some way of stalling him from acting rashly. The Commander was like a rabid Canis. Best kept on a tight leash.

He picked up a piece of meat from the display board and dropped it into the tank. He watched as his beautiful, jet-black eels slithered out from the nooks and shadows of their hiding places. They found the meat in a matter of seconds. A few seconds later, they began to swarm and fight over it.

He needed to relieve some stress before his inevitable meeting with the Commander.

"Computer, call support."

~calling~

The speakers went silent for a moment before the voice of a woman came on.

"Yes sir?"

"Send in my next appointment." Fear crept into the woman's voice on the line. It aroused him slightly.

"I'm sorry, she's... she's not ready yet. We still need to clean and dress--"

"Shhhh shhh. That's fine, that's fine. Just a quick rinse and dry will be acceptable. At your earliest convenience, of course. Thank you."

He cut the comm's and put his hand gently to the glass. The eels paid him no attention. They simply continued to tear into their meat with violent abandon. Like a dark, slithering storm cloud of hunger.

The director smiled.

Brianna's heart-shaped face was the first thing that Denzel laid eyes on when he woke up, Thank god. She held his hand up to her face. Her eyes were red.

He tightened his grip. "Water?" He whispered in a cracked voice.

She flinched, then screamed.

"He's awake!"

She kissed his forehead. Then his lips. Then she fetched some water from a large clay bowl that rested on a stone slab. Who had made those clay bowls? Denzel thought groggily. Where were they?

He looked around. It hurt to turn his head. But then again, everything hurt. They were in a massive cave of some sort. At least 20 feet high, and 60 by 60 feet with various furniture carved out of stone here and there. He lay on one such structure now. There was also what appeared to be... some metal chairs and stripped parts from what looked like old HUD mining rigs?

The cavern was well lit... but he couldn't seem to find a light source. Where...

It took Denzel a moment to pinpoint the source of illumination. He had to focus his eyes to make out the details of the tiny little guys. The cavern was lit with thousands and thousands of small, luminescent mushrooms that stemmed mostly from the ceiling, but Denzel spotted them on the walls and other structures as well.

Brianna returned with the clay bowl of water and lifted it to his lips.

"How long?" Denzel asked after his throat wasn't so dry. Pain emanated from his core. It felt... absolute. Dominating. Like a 10 ton stone slab on his chest.

"Almost 18 hours." She lifted the bowl to his lips to let him drink "Listen. Chief is gone, he took the Phoenix to go collect some of the Exo-suits we left in the Lake. He left a time lock note explaining why on the hard tablet... Abel, the guy who tried to hijack the Phoenix has been sitting in handcuffs, behaving for now. Cornelius and Tucker have been taking turns watching him. You have a fever. I've anesthetized you, but I think I need to operate..."

Tucker came running into the room.

"Denzel!!"

He began to hug Denzel, thought better of it, then put his hand on his shoulder. He opened his mouth to say something, then looked at Brianna and paused.

"Thank god you're alive, Denzel. You look great, by the way. Also, there's a robot thing here that says it can fix you."

Brianna's fists shook. She looked at Denzel with a fiercely protective concern. She tried to feign a casual tone. "Oh, yea. And there's also an alien metal sphere robot thing at the mouth of the cave that says it wants to stick you with some sort of... medicine."

Well, this was a lot to take in. How to prioritize...

"Has the robot thing been civil?" Denzel asked. Brianna looked at him like he was mad.

"I don't trust an Ai, a cold, emotionless, calculating harbinger of the doom of old humanity to--"

"I'm dying." Denzel interrupted her quietly.

Tucker nodded after the barest hesitation.

Brianna shook her head. Tears fell from her eyes. She wiped them away.

"That's not true! We have enough supplies to do the surgery if we start now! I worked with Graff on her papers before! I can do the procedure, Tucker! The message from Chief will open in the next few hours. We should just see what he said before doing anything crazy. We just have to stop the internal bleeding somehow. We just... have to stop the bleeding..." There were tears in her eyes.

Chief left a timelock? Did he really not expect to return from his trip? Did Denzel even have an hour left in him?

"What were Chief's last words, exactly?" He asked Brianna.

"... He asked me if I had recorded in the Phoenix's log your first encounter with the rolling Ai. Of course, I didn't. I told him that. He said 'Good. Denzel will need an extra exo-suit. I'm going back to the lake to recover some,' and that was it. That's all he said.

Denzel turned to Tucker. He shrugged. "We tried to talk to him, but he just shoved past us, dumped the contents of the Phoenix on the ground, and took off."

"We just have to stop the bleeding..." Brianna repeated again, Like a mantra.

"Listen, guys. Has the robot thingy been..." Denzel struggled with his words. His head swam with the mother of all headaches. "Has he been aggressive?"

Tucker replied. "No. It's been... logical. Strangely polite. It says it wants to talk to you before answering too many questions. We didn't trust it near you though because you were unconscious. It says it can heal you somehow, but It won't go into the specifics of what it wants to inject you with though. Some kind of nanite soup."

Denzel closed his eyes. He needed to think. But he heard them both gasp slightly, thinking he was going unconscious again. He sighed and opened his eyes.

His side, his abdomen, his lungs, his heart, they all beat with pain. He could feel parts of himself he had never felt before. Nooks and crannies of his being that reeked with agony and panic, crying out as they shut down. He was dying. This is what it felt like. He just... knew.

He tried to breathe lightly, and move his mouth as little as possible when he spoke.

"How long has it been here?" Denzel managed.

"Almost 10 hours. It arrived right after Chief left and has been sitting at the mouth of the cave. Ever since. As far as we can tell, Abel doesn't know. Corn is keeping him under lockdown further inside."

"I want to talk..."

Denzel coughed suddenly, spitting blood. His innards screamed with so much pain from the heaving that he saw stars. His vision swam. He closed his eyes. He was afraid he was going to blackout. He wanted to blackout, he realized with horror. He didn't want to worry about anything anymore. He just wanted to sleep for a second longer... let the darkness soothe him... let someone else worry about all this... just go to sleep... just let it... He realized he could hear Brianna in the distance, muffled. Like he was underwater. 'Just stop the bleeding' he could hear her say again and again. Like a distant echo. Fading away.

No. He couldn't do this yet. He tried to open his eyes. They were just... so... heavy. But he wouldn't give up. He gritted his teeth in focus so hard that he heard, then felt, a molar chip off slightly in his mouth. That was a good pain. A wholesome, broken pain. Not some organ failure, shutting down, dying helpless, kind of pain. It was different. Like a needle sticking up from below, incentivizing his drifting mind to stay afloat. It helped him focus. Woke him up. He swallowed the broken tooth chip down with a mouthful of blood...

"...to them both."

Tucker ran off and disappeared behind a rounded stalagmite the size of his old room.

60 seconds later Denzel watched as Abel the 'Ambassador' was led in cuffs by Tucker and Cornelius, rifles drawn and ready, alongside the Ai robot. Abel was dressed in some leather pants and a fur vest. They looked worn but well made. He looked like a savage. But it was the robot Denzel watched now.

It was similar in design to the rollers they had already seen, but this one was bigger, more complicated looking. It was a large, rolling sphere around 3 feet in diameter. It rolled higher than that though, maybe 4-5 feet tall, raised by a series of extending and retracting spokes, Denzel imagined it would make a clicking noise as it rolled across the stone, but the spokes end seemed to be fitted with a rubber or sound dampener of some kind. It just thudded along quietly and slowly. Almost patiently.

It was a metallic silver sheen, but as it drew closer Denzel could see it wasn't entirely smooth. It looked slightly organic, due to the sheer number of small fittings and slots and lines curving and threading in between the spokes repositories. It rolled to a respective 10 feet away, pivoted so that a small, 6 inch, circular blue screen seemed to stare directly at Denzel, settled down a few inches, and spoke.

"Hello... How are you feeling?" The blue screen lit up in sync with its voice. It sounded soft but cold. Like an old-world English accent.

Denzel saw there was a sheet of metal on its side that looked older, faded. Like it was an old patch. The older metal had the letters 'A.I.' printed on it with some kind of labeling machine. But before and after the printed letters were the letters 'G' and 'A', in what looked like old black paint smeared across to form the word 'GAIA'

"Who painted those letters on your side?"

"That would be Abel."

Denzel glanced at the prisoner. His clone. His face was older, harsher. More scars.

"Why did you paint that?" Denzel asked him.

He was met with silent treatment. Ok...

"How did you two meet?" Denzel asked.

The man just glared in silence. Ok, fuck you too buddy.

Denzel gritted his teeth. He needed to Focus. He needed to live long enough to kill that son of a bitch.

"How do you two know each other?" Denzel asked the robot.

"He came here on an expedition.... 8 years ago... Your officials placed a bomb on the ship. He and his friend were the only survivors... I decided to make my presence known to them then."

"So you two are friends? Did you know he was trying to kill us with those people on horses?"

The robot paused.

"I generally try to make it a point of practicing a policy of... non-intervention... when it comes to humans... but I do consider Abel a... friend..."

Denzel thought deeply about this. How truthful was this robot?

"What do we call you?" He asked.

"Gaia is fine."

"Pleased to meet you, Gaia. I'm Denzel."

"...Likewise." It replied.

Well, this was it. Either it was lying or it wasn't. Either way, he didn't want to waste any more time.

"Are you in any way responsible for the nuclear cataclysm that destroyed the Human race 300 years ago?" Denzel asked.

"No."

"How can we believe you?" Brianna asked.

"...Have I done anything to lead you to believe otherwise in the... brief time we've spent talking? Because in the absence of proof... which I'm afraid I'm unable to provide... you'll simply either take my word for it, or you won't... In the meantime... Your friend is... close to expiring. And I have... a serum that will heal him."

"Why do you want to help us? Why not practice your non-intervention policy?" Denzel asked.

"Because things... have changed... Your officials tried to nuke the planet yesterday... I want to know why. And... I think you can help me with this."

Ok. This metal ball thing planted had drones that roamed around planting sunflowers, he could see why his clone had named it Gaia. If he was being real with himself here, out of all the fucked up shit that Denzel had seen in his life, how far was this up the list... Was it even on the list? But then again, bad things came in small packages... Command said this Ai had destroyed humanity hundreds of years ago. But Command had also tried to kill him along with his entire team. The blinding nuclear explosion the previous day was proof of that. He thought about it some more. Fuck what command said...

Choices... choices. Then Denzel came to a silent conclusion. What "Choice" did he really have? He was dying. Fix that first, then move onto other priorities. Yeah. That sounded like a good plan.

"What's in the serum, or the medicine you want to give me?" Denzel asked. Gaia went quiet for a brief moment. The blue screen lit up again as it spoke.

"Your people would call it Nanotechnology... It's a small, experimental blend I've been working on for worst-case scenarios, should the case ever arise... You are bleeding internally... Your organs and blood are as we speak mixing with the feces of your upper intestine... It will need comprehensive work... The process will be... painful... but I believe you will live."

Denzel tossed away every known law, procedure, and protocol that had ever been drilled into his head, and decided to gamble with his life, with the boogeyman of his childhood.

"Do it."

"Denzel?" Cornelius asked.

"Are you... positive?" Tucker sternly asked. They all looked at him.

"Learn to adapt, learn to live, Cadets." He meant it as a joke. But Brianna stood straight up, like a soldier at attention. She was pissed.

"What do you want us to do?" Tucker asked.

"You heard the bot Tuck, this will hurt. Try not to shoot him when I start screaming."

"This is so beyond protocol it's not even funny. We should wait for the Chief's locknote to time out. See what he said." Cornelius said.

Tucker lowered his rifle, then looked at him. His voice was unusually stern. "Fuck protocol, Corn."

Denzel managed a smile. That was the spirit. Abel's eyes widened as Gaia slowly rolled closer to Denzel, and a small spoke extended towards his arm. It had a pointed, needle-tipped end.

"Forgive me," Gaia said quietly as it injected something black. Denzel suddenly grew terrified. That was the last thing he had said to the Chief.

"For what?"

"For not being able to find a... less painful means of recovery. This was... originally designed to be used on a deceased specimen... good luck." It said as it rolled away on silent wheels. "You will probably.... want to hold him down." He said louder now. "If he... seizes too much... it will most likely... prolong the process" The robot added.

Shit. That didn't sound... Wow. Denzel thought a few seconds later as he could feel something worming its way through his body towards his chest. He thought he knew his body's previous limits for pain pretty well... but those limits were somehow helplessly shattered into nonexistence as he felt the nanites reach his spine. He was suddenly taken to soaring, astronomic, cosmically new, and vaster heights of torture.



science fiction

London Knight

London Knight is an emerging sci-fi author on a mission to create plots that entertain and inspire.

https://www.instagram.com/a_wrinkle_on_the_brain/

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