Chimera's Breath: Chapter 3

The MOLE rumbled across the icy terrain, kicking up a plume of white powder in its wake. Schiffer consulted his navigation console. According to the computer, he was less than two hundred metres away from the target location. The interior of the vehicle was cramped, dark, uncomfortable, and smelled heavily of grease. Even through the breathing apparatus of his pressure suit, the smell lingered in his nostrils with every breath. The vehicle was not pressurized, nor did it have its own supply of oxygen. Which meant a pressure suit was a necessity. It made driving the MOLE a slow and cumbersome process, but he had no choice. He could endure the discomfort. He only hoped that the vehicle itself did not freeze up in the sub-zero temperatures. It had not been designed with this type of climate in mind. He wiped away the new layer of frost which had built up over his fuel gauge. Very close now. His only view of the outside world was through a narrow slit in the front of the cabin, shielded with four centimeter thick plastic compound. The wiping mechanism had to work in overdrive to keep the small portal clear of white frost and sleet. Not that he needed to see outside, as the bank of computers in the confined cockpit told him his exact location and even provided a 3-D map of the terrain to help him guide the vehicle. The view port was simply an added precaution in case the computer missed something, like a kilometer-deep crevasse in the middle of his path. That could put a damper on things.

He reached the target drilling location, and parked the MOLE as precisely over it as the onboard nav computer allowed. Finally content with its alignment, he shut off the engine and turned his swivel-seat to face the rear of the cabin. This was a job that would be made a lot easier with two people. But once again, he would have to make do. He thumbed a series of buttons which sent the drilling mechanism into its warm-up phase. The drill itself resembled an apple-corer, with diamond tipped teeth ringing the bottom edge. The drill would spin rapidly and descend into the ground, pulling up a cylinder-shaped sample of ore. The whining machinery rose in pitch as it spun faster, gaining the necessary momentum to drill down through metres of solid rock. Schiffer checked the small monitor which displayed the drill’s operating status, including its temperature and number of revolutions per second. A green light flashed on the screen as the RPS reached its optimal level. He threw the toggle switch that initiated the drill’s descent. With a high-pitched whine the voracious steel monster plunged its head into the ground.

Ten minutes later, Schiffer’s core samples were being brought up into the MOLE in rapid succession. To keep them at a manageable size, a powerful cutting laser sheered the cylinder of ore into segments around a metre long. They were then placed in steel-and-plastic containers and marked with an electronic tag, confirming the depth they had each come from. A steel hydraulic arm then took the samples and stored them in the back of the vehicle. Schiffer checked his data; the computer told him he was down to one hundred metres. Well, the hardest part of the mission was nearly over. All that remained to be done was to wait back at the container for the retrieval team. He considered doing some tests of his own on the samples before they arrived. RIFT command rewarded people who showed a little initiative.

A shrill beeping noise from his console brought him back to the present. He peered at the screen, frowning. The console was lit up like a christmas tree, with blinking red and yellow warning lights. Something had gone wrong. A flashing message, bordered in red in the center of the screen caught his eye: ‘Warning. Unidentified substance detected.’
What the hell? Something must be wrong with the computer. His terminal back at the container had reported that the ore deposit extended down, unbroken, for at least half a kilometre. And he was only at one hundred metres. He thought about running a full diagnostics check on the computer, but that would take time. He would give it the benefit of the doubt, for now. He punched the toggle switch on the drill back into the ascend position. Unidentified substance. We shall see.

It took several minutes for the drill to reach the surface again. The drill head stopped rotating and started to cool rapidly in the frozen air. As the whining of the machinery faded from the cabin, Schiffer sat in complete disbelief. He was staring at the newest core sample container, which had a transparent plastic strip down the side so the sample could be viewed. And whatever was in that container, it sure as hell was not any form of ore Schiffer had ever seen. It was solid, unreflective black. It was as if this substance absorbed all light which was thrown in its direction. It appeared to be liquid, or at least as far as he could tell. Perhaps he had stumbled across a deposit of oil, or something similar. Remarkable. Well whatever the case, it would require closer examination back in his lab. Schiffer swivelled his seat back to the forward position and fired up the vehicle’s engine. He accelerated hard and turned the sluggish MOLE around, then roared with all the speed it could muster, back to the mining container.

‘RIFT scientist succeeds in the face of certain death, and discovers new fuel source.’ Schiffer had to admit the headline sounded good, even if the public did never get to read it. He watched as the hydraulic arm carefully unloaded the core samples from the MOLE’s rear hatch. He was so eager to analyse the substance that he had not even bothered to change out of the pressure suit once he had reached the container. He unlatched the faceplate and helmet and discarded them in a corner. If it was indeed a previously undiscovered material, then this would be by far the biggest breakthrough of his career. That research grant was looking better all the time. The hell with the bigger lab, command would give him his own building after this. The Edgar Schiffer Research Facility. He smiled.
The last core sample was removed from the vehicle. He punched commands into the computer. This one would not be destined for storage like the rest. The robotic arm clamped around the cylindrical container and rumbled along a track in the roof, heading for the laboratory section. With mechanical precision, the sample was placed upright on his steel bench. A clamp rose from the bench top and grasped the object, locking it in place.
He would begin his analysis right away. He moved into the lab and logged the current time in his palm-top computer. Schiffer glanced at the black substance. It hadn’t changed. A small chill ran up his spine. He couldn’t help but think there was something wrong with it….
Nonsense, the rational side of his brain said, and the sensation quickly passed. It must be this damned planet getting to him. He shook his head and turned his back on the sample, and began to prepare the necessary equipment on the opposite bench top. He would start by taking a small ammount of the substance and running it through the atomic compositor, a device which would identify its precise atomic makeup. He reached into a steel drawer and removed a small glass vial the length of his index finger. That would be more than adequate. He turned back to the sample.
The vial fell and shattered into a thousand glittering shards. Schiffer didn’t even notice. His eyes, filled with dread and shock, were locked on the sample container. It was standing upright on the bench top. Still locked in place and unopened. Exactly as he had left it. Only the black substance, whatever it had been, was now gone.

“Well where’d it go? It can’t have just vanished.” Commander Trace was growing more confused with each passing minute. He stood in the center of the Battle-lab, surrounded by a crew who appeared to be just as clueless about the whole situation as he was.
“I don’t understand it either sir,” Breaker said from his terminal. “But none of the other cameras picked the thing up. It’s like it was never there.”
“Oh, it was there all right.” Trace had watched the film of the dark shape moving in front of the ship. He had then ordered Breaker to check the recording from all the other cameras positioned around the ship’s hull. But none of them had shown anything except ice and snow. Whoever, or whatever it was, had eluded their electronic eyes.
“Do you think it was our friend the Professor?” The LC said.
“I don’t see any other explanation.” Trace replied. “But if that’s the case, it still doesn’t explain where he went.” He paused for a second to stare at the frozen black-and-white image on Breaker’s monitor. It currently showed the last frame of the recording, right before the shady figure had vanished off the screen and seemingly into oblivion. “Is that camera still recording?” He asked the young Lieutenant.
Breaker nodded.
“Good. Continue to monitor it and report to me if anything changes.”
He nodded, and the screen switched to a live image of the ice cavern. Everything looked normal.
“Alright.” Trace turned to Westmede. “Get your people suited up. I think a little excursion is in order.”

Corporal Austin listened to the soft hiss of his pressure suit’s breathing mechanism as he stepped down onto the cavern floor. The camera really hadn’t done the place justice, he thought as he looked around in wonder. The cavern was big. Colossal, in fact. The roof was at least fifty metres high in some places, and broken by a series of cracks that extended all the way to the surface. Shafts of light stabbed down from a hundred clefts and fissures. Austin wondered how far down they were. He bent backward and looked up through a particularly wide crack in the ice. The slick grey walls extended up until they converged on a tiny sliver of dull sky. It seemed that this maze of subterranean caverns had served to cushion the Van Frost’s landing. If they had crashed into solid ground, maybe none of them would have survived. He looked back at the ship, half-buried as it was in metres of powdery snow. The ice it had carved through on the way down had collapsed on top of it, sealing off any route to the surface. Crushed under tons of frozen rubble, the rear of the ship was invisible from the outside. It seemed likely that the Hayden Van Frost had found its final resting place.

Austin turned back to his comrades, who were fanned out a few metres ahead of him. Corporal Landell took up pace alongside him. “Pretty little **** hole, aint it?”
Westmede barked over the com: “Keep those comments to yourself, Landell. We’re still on covert status.”
Landell looked over at Austin through his frosted faceplate and made a face.
Austin smiled. Stephen Landell was the joker of the team, and also a pure-bred male chauvinist. He had made several passes at various female members of the crew during the voyage to Chimera, and currently had his eye set on the young Corporal Langmire.

Austin recalled one particular effort his fellow soldier had made during the morning meal in the mess hall. “That outfit looks good on you,” Landell said to Langmire as she swayed past in a sweat-top, carrying a tray of steaming food. Landell waited until she had passed, then leaned in close to Austin. “Cant wait to see what it looks like on my bedroom floor.” He said quietly, but not too quietly. She flicked a strand of blonde hair out of her face and sat down next to Breaker on the opposite side of the table, where the two shared a private joke.
“Looks like Breaker and the young Corporal are getting on just fine,” Austin said with amusement. Landell watched the pair and stabbed a fork into his meal.
“And you know what they say; three’s a crowd.”
“Hey,” Landell shot him a stern look. “That little geek’s got nothing I can’t match ten times over.” He produced a small silver aerosol can from his hip pocket and sprayed some of its contents around his chin and neck.
“Man what is that shit you keep spraying yourself with?” Austin reeled back and scrunched up his face.
“The scent’s a combination of bourbon and cigar smoke. I hear it drives the ladies wild.”
“You heard wrong.” Hannah Greene passed by six empty seats adjacent to Landell and sat down halfway across the table. Austin laughed. Landell was a good friend, but he had all the tact you’d expect from someone with a tattoo of a naked woman ‘pleasuring’ herself on his arm.

Up ahead and to either side tunnels curved away from the main chamber, as if carved out of the ice by some giant worm. Austin was uneasy. He gripped the barrell of his stocky field carbine tighter. Only he and Landell were armed; it had been a last minute precaution on Trace’s part. They were to bring up the rear of the party and keep a lookout for trouble. But what ‘trouble’ could possibly mean, Austin could only imagine.

The rifles themselves also made Austin unhappy; they were new technology, straight out of the RIFT combat labs and lacking any real field testing. Their official designation was the COMA 514 assault carbine, and they were compact and sleek with a bull-pup design. Austin had only flicked through the operating manual briefly, but from what he gathered they were infinitely more advanced than the conventional firearms he had been trained to use. The rifle fired six five-millimeter rounds per second. Each round was super-heated by a tiny generator within the cartridge, causing it to expand rapidly after it left the muzzle, and resulting in a horrific wound to anybody unfortunate enough to be standing in its path.

Landell made a sharp whistling sound, and Austin realized he had drifted away from the group. He quickly made his way back into formation.
His boots crunched on the recent deposit of snow. The ground felt surprisingly soft under his weight. Apparently the Commander had been thinking the exact same thing, because he said in a hushed voice; “Watch yourself, people. This ground feels a little unstable.”

The purpose of the excursion was to scout the surrounding area, and find any trace of the black shadow. But it also had a more sombre goal; to gain external access to the Van Frost’s bridge and retrieve the body of Lindy Banks. So far they had been unable to get into the bridge from the inside. Austin suspected that the bridge was flooded with tons of snow, and the pressure was jamming the door shut. The bridge view shield was entirely buried under the white hill of snow, which leant to that explanation. Up ahead, Trace and Westmede reached the distinctive corkscrew-shaped ice formation they had seen on the recording. For a brief moment, Austin wondered what natural phenomenon could have caused its creation. Then a thought struck him. The formation was huge, rising at least twenty metres above the cavern floor. And on the recording, the dark shape had risen almost half way up the twisted column as it shuffled past.

Trace, Westmede, Landell and Austin stood at the base of the corkscrew. Trace had come to the same realisation as Austin; they could now rule out Professor Schiffer as the figure in the recording.
“Look at that,” Westmede pointed at the ground, where a light covering of snow sat undisturbed. “Something that big would’ve left some form of track in this snow. It doesn’t make any sense.”
“No it doesn’t,” Trace almost whispered.
“I suggest we divide into teams and conduct a search, sir.” Landell offered. “It could be somewhere in the surrounding tunnels.” He patted his rifle.
Trace was shaking his head. “It’s too dark down there.” He motioned to the nearest tunnel, which loomed above them like a great yawning mouth. “And we haven’t completed a scan of these caves yet. I’m not dividing my people until I know where we are.”
The Corporal looked disappointed, but he knew better than to argue.
Trace was about to give the order to move back to the ship, when Breaker’s voice filtered in through their helmet speakers. He sounded nervous. “Commander?”
“Lieutenant, I thought I told you only to transmit to us in an emergency.”
“Yes sir, but I think this might qualify.”
“Well what is it?” Trace frowned, starting to get impatient.
“I think you’d better just come back and see for yourself, sir.”
The Commander sighed. “Alright Breaker, we’re on our way.” There was an audible click as the connection terminated.

Once again, the members of the crew currently on active duty gathered in the Battle-lab. And once again, Breaker and the information he had just received were the center of attention. Trace unlatched his pressure suit helmet. With a hiss of escaping gas it detached, and he sat it down on a free section of bench. He wiped off the accumulated moisture from his face and hands. “Lieutenant, you have our undivided attention. What is it?”
Breaker was standing up, having tired of his swivel chair quite some time ago. He stood close to Sarah Langmire, so that they touched occasionally. It was a sure sign that they were together, but were trying to keep that fact secret. Trace wasn’t really concerned about what they did in their spare time, as long as they remained part of an efficient military unit. After all, they were both still kids. And despite a few rumours circulating within the junior RIFT barracks, Trace had not been born old.
Breaker cleared his throat. “We received a short-wave transmission just after you left. It was audio only, no image was sent.”
“A transmission?” Westmede frowned. “From who?”
Breaker leaned over his console and punched in a brief series of commands. “I think the message itself will explain a lot more than I can.” He stepped back and adjusted the volume controls.
The overhead speakers kicked in. For the first few seconds there was nothing, just hissing static. Then some garbled background noise. It sounded like a number of distant voices, all blended together. No words were distinguishable. A series of clunking sounds. More static. And then the voice came through, heavily distorted and laced with static. “RIFT intruders.” The voice was deep and coarse, almost as if the speaker had a throat infection. It was grating on the ears. “This is General Long, representing the Confederation of Tetra.” A sudden burst of static cut off the beginning of his next sentence. “- are intruding in Tetran territory, in direct violation…..treaty signed by your government. Your subterfuge is an act of war. I demand the unconditional and immediate surrender of your crew and your ship. You will be treated fairly as prisoners of war. Failure to comply will result in the use of lethal force.” A loud click came from the overhead speakers as the message finished. In the Battle-lab, Commander Trace and his crew stood in stunned silence.

Chimera's Breath: Chapter 3


Burnie, Australia

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A post-apocalyptic adventure/horror tale

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