Chimera's Breath: Chapter 4

“So tell me this: Why the hell would they ram us out of the god-damned sky, chase us down through that shit-storm, and then risk landing on unstable terrain, all just to take a dozen prisoners?” Lieutenant-Commander Westmede had reached the end of his fuse. His face had been growing redder by the minute. He slammed a palm down on the table so hard that his forgotten cup of coffee nearly went into orbit.
Trace was glad that Doctor Treylan had prescribed him a hefty dose of painkillers, otherwise his headache would have returned in that moment with a vengeance.
“Calm down, Dean.” The phrase came out a little more forcefully than he had intended. Perhaps he was reaching his limit too.
Across the other side of the table, Landell leaned in close to Austin and whispered: “I didn’t even know Westmede had a first name.”
Austin suppressed a smile. This was not the time for humour.
“It just doesn’t add up.” Westmede stood and began to pace around the Battle-lab, having vented most of his steam in the previous outburst.
“Nothing much does today,” Trace said distractedly.
Westmede ran a hand through his crop of steel-grey hair. “We need to form a plan of action. Organize some defences. What have we got, in terms of weaponry?”
Sarah Langmire stood. “We’ve got six field carbines and the same number of side-arms, with enough ammunition to see out a long-term siege. Offence-wise, we can hold our own.”
Westmede stopped pacing and sat down again. “Well that all depends on how many troops they’re bringing to this party,” he said. “Two squads or a whole fucking battalion, we just don’t know.”
“May I offer a suggestion sir?” All eyes turned to Breaker.
Trace looked weary. “By all means, Lieutenant.”
“I believe we still have the weapons of the ship itself, correct?”
Brian Vlasich, who had joined the group only minutes ago, entered the discussion for the first time. “Yes, he’s right. The Van Frost is armed with super-machine guns on either flank and anti-aircraft rocket tubes underneath. Now, the rockets won’t be any use because they’re under tons of rubble, but those gun turrets would be pretty handy in a fire-fight. If we can clear all the snow away.”
“Good,” said Westmede. “Let’s nail the bastards with everything we have.”
“Just one detail,” Trace said. “First we have to work out which direction they’re coming from.”
“No problem,” Breaker said. “I can take some outboard sensors from the supply room and set them up around the perimeter. The sensors can scan for body heat, or the electrical impulses generated by a person’s brain. If anything alive steps into the network, we’ll know about it.”
“Alright.” Trace said. “Lieutenant, set up your scanners. Vlasich, start clearing out those gun turrets. Westmede, break out those weapons and work out some tactical positions for your people.” Trace stood, and everybody rushed to do something. There was, of course, another course of action which none of them had even paused to consider. Surrender. It had never really been an option. As an undercover operative, Trace had been trained to die before being captured by the enemy. He rubbed distractedly at a point on his left cheek, feeling the outline of the row of molars through the flesh. One of those molars was a fake plastic shell, which would deliver a spray of poison vapour into the mouth when twisted the right way. Each of his eleven crew members had the same escape clause. Trace would hit the Tetrans hard, hopefully with the advantage of surprise on his side. If it wasn’t enough, well, it just wasn’t. Trace grabbed his own field carbine from the weapon rack as he exited the Battle-lab. The counter-offensive was about to begin.

Westmede had decided that the best way to exploit the situation was to wait for the enemy forces to fully reveal themselves, and then totally overpower them using the element of surprise. He ordered Vlasich to clear the heavy drifts of snow burying the two gun turrets, but to leave a thin covering so that they would be concealed from view. Secondly, he would let the Tetrans believe they had suffered heavy casualties from the crash. Lieutenant Breaker would be in the process of laying the ‘dead’ bodies of Langmire and Landell on the snow in front of the ship when they arrived. Breaker would then announce their surrender. They would let the Tetrans get a little closer before they sprung the trap, and the corporals proved that they were very much alive, and as chance would have it, also heavily armed. Trace and Austin would take up firing positions among the rubble to the left of the Van Frost, while Westmede took the right flank. Vlasich and Gable would man the guns from the safety of the Battle-lab. It was a sound plan, and as fool-proof as Westmede could make it given the environment and the time constraints.
From across the ice cavern, Breaker gave a thumbs up signal. He had finished the setup of the security perimeter. There were three major tunnels leading into the chamber; one on the left close to the Van Frost, and two on either side of the corkscrew at the far end. The plan would allow for the Tetrans to come from any of the three tunnels, and could be altered anyway due to the early warning provided by the perimeter scanners. Hands on his hips, Westmede turned back to face the ship. Vlasich had dug out the left turret, and was now covering it with a thin plastic sheet. He would then pile a light covering of snow on top of it to complete the deception. The trap had been set. Now all they had to do was wait for the prey to show up.

On the ice world of Chimera Minor, darkness drew closer. The raging turmoil of the upper atmosphere began to weaken, as if exhausted from the energy it had spent during the day. The sky glowed a dull, muddy orange as the sun sank below a cracked horizon. Up on the rugged ice plains, all was silent. The wind dulled to a soft mournful whisper, and then disappeared altogether. The air became tense and stagnant. A dark shadow loomed over one particularly deep crevasse in the ice plain, one which extended right down to the hollow cavern in which the Van Frost and its crew now resided. Something within the shadow peered down through that fissure, and observed the flurry of human behaviour below without compassion or emotion. Then it shrank back into the deeper gloom provided by an overhang of ice. Dusk was falling.

The hardest part was the waiting. Corporal Austin checked his field carbine again to make sure it was fully loaded, and ready to unleash a deadly hail of armour-piercing ammunition on cue. He imagined a scene where he leapt out from behind his cover, ready to cut down a dozen enemy soldiers, and his weapon jammed. At any other time the idea would have made him laugh. But there was something about a hostile alien planet populated with ten-metre tall shadow creatures and bloodthirsty foot-soldiers which tended to dampen one’s sense of humour. Austin looked around. The light in the ice cavern had dimmed to a lingering amber glow. Long shadows had begun to creep across the uneven ground. In that moment, Austin had the unnerving sensation that he was being watched. He looked across at the Commander, who was perched on a ridge of ice a few metres away. His face was unreadable.

“You know,” Corporal Landell said as he finished concealing his carbine under a light mound of snow, “There’s no-one on this whole planet I’d rather lay down with.” He stretched himself out on the ground, a smug grin contorting his face. Despite the situation, he was still making wisecracks.
Sarah Langmire rolled her eyes. “Try to concentrate on the mission, alright? There are people out there who want to kill us.”
Landell turned on his side so he could grin at her. “Don’t worry baby, your very own man of steel will protect you from the big bad Tetrans. And maybe after we’re done with all this, the two of us could find a nice, quiet place to-“
Langmire cringed. “Do me a favour and keep the rest of that thought to yourself. Now shut up and act dead.”
Landell grinned under his faceplate. “A guy’s gotta try.” He rolled over onto his back, and whistled a tune.
On Landell’s left were two empty pressure suits, to add to the illusion that they had suffered casualties. Up close the trick would be spotted instantly, but it should give them enough time to spring the trap. The comm channel in their helmets clicked on, and Gable’s voice came through: “Somebody just tripped the perimeter scanners.” The tension was clear in his voice. “The guns are prepped and ready.”
“Everybody get to your positions.” That was Westmede, invisible behind a mountain of ice somewhere on the right side of the cavern.
Over to the left, Austin clicked off the safety catch on his carbine. It was time to get this party underway.

By the time the Tetran contingent finally arrived, it was almost fully dark. The Van Frost’s running lights painted the cavern walls in an electric blue. The ice formations glinted like jewels in the soft azure light. The scene was surreal. Framed by the blue light, Breaker held up two flat palms to the approaching force to indicate he was unarmed. From his position on the apex of the Van Frost’s domed roof, he watched the armed troops file in through the far left tunnel and dissolve into the pools of shade on the ice plain. The beams from their helmet lamps reached him nearly six-hundred metres away. For some reason, Breaker had been expecting more of them. He stepped forward and waved to the figures with both hands. There was some sign of movement, and a small band detached from the main group. Two minutes later a tall, ungainly Tetran moved up to stand among the debris below the ship’s damaged nose. He was flanked by two shorter men sporting carbines. The trio angled their weapons up at his chest. “Who is your Commander?” The Tetran snarled over the intercom.
“Killed in the crash,” Breaker lied. “I’m Lieutenant-Commander Breaker; I’m in charge here.”
“Very well. Your crew: where are they?”
“Several are still inside.” To his credit, Breaker looked the looming figure straight in the face without betraying a hint of fear. “I have three seriously wounded and five dead. ” He motioned to the row of limp figures in the snow below him, which were now covered from head to toe in plastic sheeting. He caught the look of suspicion in the Tetran’s eye. “Go ahead and check the bodies if you want. They are all well and truly dead. Your people made sure of that.” He glared into the other man’s face. The Tetran stepped closer and scowled up at him. “My people did what was necessary.” He motioned for the two soldiers to check the bodies. His gaze stayed locked with Breaker’s.
The soldiers started from the right, ripping off Langmire’s plastic cover. One of them knelt down to examine her for a few seconds. “There are no life signs on this pressure suit, sir.”
The Tetran leader was immediately suspicious. “If they’re as dead as you say they are, why are they wearing pressure suits? Dead people don’t need to breathe.” His eyes became dark slits behind the thin faceplate.
Breaker sighed, as if the explanation was obvious. “All the room in the infirmary is taken up with the sick and the dying. We needed somewhere else to store the dead. So here they are.”
The officer’s tone was acidic. “Answer my question.”
Breaker glared at him. “Consult your data. The air on this planet is highly corrosive to human flesh. Now maybe you don’t keep your dead preserved so they can receive a proper burial, but we sure as hell do.” Breaker had lied; the air was not corrosive, at least not as far as he knew. But he was gambling that the Tetran didn’t know that.
“Shall we check the other bodies, sir?”
The Tetran leader paused for a second to consider. Breaker’s heart pounded in his chest.
“Check them. All of them. And Sergeant…”
The trooper looked up.
“Take off the faceplates.”
Breaker’s heart raced. They had called his bluff. To be expected probably, but it made things a whole lot riskier. One of the troopers leaned down and fumbled with the latch on Langmire’s helmet. It was time to get things moving. “Nice night for a walk,” Breaker said to the air.
“What?” The Tetran leader scowled up at him.
“I said, nice night for a walk.” He repeated, louder this time. He couldn’t help but snatch a glance at the buried flank cannon over to the right. Damn it. Were Gable and Vlasich asleep downstairs? That was the sign they had told him to give, the sign to start-
The other soldier whipped the sheet away from Landell’s body.

The man’s eyes bulged. Landell was sprawled on his back, clutching his carbine with both hands. He brought up the gun’s heavy muzzle and pointed it at the stunned trooper. “Surprise.” He depressed the trigger. A stream of super-heated projectiles erupted from the barrel, hitting the Tetran square in the chest with a series of sickening thuds. The man fell backward down the icy slope, tumbling end-over-end.
“Attack!” The Tetran leader screamed into his pickup, before diving behind a mound of ice.
Still on the ground, Langmire brought her leg up fast. Her heavy boot connected with the second trooper’s faceplate, cracking it and toppling him backward onto the ice. She pumped a round into his torso before he could bring his own weapon up.
Trace’s voice shot over the comm: “Heads down people, it’s time for the fireworks!”
Breaker dropped and slid down the ship’s hull. He dropped the full three metres to the cavern floor, landing heavily on the ground. His sidearm clattered away. He moved to pick it up, but Langmire seized him by the shoulders and fell to the ground on top of him. They rolled to the side a second before one of the Tetrans took the initiative, and peppered the ground with gunfire. Still on his back, Landell grabbed the empty pressure suit next to him and dragged it on top of himself as cover. He felt a series of jolts as a burst of ammunition punched into the suit. Damn, these people weren’t half-bad shots. “Any time you’re ready in there, Gable!” He yelled over the intercom. In reply, the fake mound of snow on the Van Frost’s left side exploded in a cloud of white. The super-machine gun screamed to life, laying down a devastating barrage of fire. It kicked up vast plumes of snow along the entire width of the plain, randomly tearing up rock and ice. The Tetrans dove for cover. The right-side gun screamed into action moments later, vaporising a mound of snow which had been cover for two of the unfortunate troopers. The first tried to dive out of the way, but the wayward burst caught his upper thigh as he fell sideways. A shower of gore rained down over the ice. The Tetran soldier lay screaming in agony, but his cries were lost in the sounds of battle raging all around him. The second trooper caught at least a hundred rounds in the upper torso, disintegrating internal organs and turning his chest into a burned-out empty crater. He slumped face-down into the snow.

Trace gave the signal. He and Austin leapt from their hidden positions, and added to the lethal crossfire with their own weapons. Austin tagged one trooper in the back of the neck as he was running for cover. He ducked instinctively as a volley of fire smacked into the ice wall behind him. He noted the suppressed rumble his COMA made, which was a sharp contrast to the loud chattering of the enemy weapons. Moments later he popped out again and let off another burst, but this time he found only snow and ice. Trace lit up the darkness with his own form of punishment. A prolonged burst from his carbine nailed two enemy soldiers, one in the head. He ducked again as more rounds punched into the ice all around him. “Gable!” Trace yelled into his helmet pickup. “We need some cover fire over here!” There was no reply. Trace tapped the side of his helmet. “Comms are down!”
They heard a high-pitched whistling noise. A second later a small black object thudded into the ice wall right above Austin’s head, leaving a smoking trail in its wake. Trace and Austin looked at each other. “Fire in the hole!” Austin screamed. He leaned out and laid down a storm of covering fire, then tumbled down the ice slope onto the cavern floor.
The thunderous boom of the grenade’s detonation literally rocked the entire cavern. Chunks of ice rained down from the roof, hammering the ground with incredible force. Trace and Austin’s hiding place had been vaporised in the blast, along with an entire section of the ice wall. All that remained of their sniping position was a frozen pile of rubble. The cavern was filled with white powder, making it even harder to see in the darkness. Austin coughed and struggled to his feet. The Commander was nowhere to be seen.

“Shit!” Westmede yelled over the sounds of chaos breaking loose on every side. “Crazy bastards’ll bring the whole place down!” He loosed a salvo into the white haze. Somebody screamed. Up on the slope behind him the Van Frost’s cannons whined, pelting any remaining cover in their unrelenting fury. The Tetrans had no chance. They had to retreat. Westmede fired off another random burst. His gun clicked dry. “Shit!” he said again, fumbling for the spare clip attached to his belt. He looked up again just as the stray bullet streaked toward his head. The image didn’t have time to register. The round punched through his faceplate, and lodged itself somewhere in the rear of his brain. The inside of his faceplate was painted a sticky red. He flopped to the ground, the useless carbine tumbling away. Lieutenant Commander Dean Westmede was no more.

Landell saw Westmede go down. He looked around for his other companions, saw no-one. Maybe they were all dead. But from the sharp rattle of automatic gunfire coming from several directions, he guessed that someone was still out there. All of a sudden, the screaming rage coming from the ship’s cannons came to a stop. He glanced over his left shoulder, where the Van Frost’s running lights sliced through the gloom. Landell spoke into his helmet pickup: “Gable, Vlasich, do you hear me?”
“Austin? Do you read me?” Austin didn’t respond. “Commander? Langmire?” Still nothing. Well somebody had to be out there. He turned back to the icy slope. The intermittent flash of gunfire lit up the smog. A dark shape appeared in the cloud of haze, somebody running toward him. Landell raised his carbine to eye level and centred the figure in his sights. Whoever it was had better be friendly, or their last meal would be a mouthful of armour-piercing bullets. “Hey!” Landell shouted. The figure offered no reply, but kept coming. His finger tensed on the trigger. “Hey!” he called again. Whoever it was, they were about to die. Austin charged through the wall of fog. He didn’t have his carbine. Landell lowered his gun. “Man, what the fuck are you playing at? I nearly killed you.”
Austin looked up at him and frowned. He tapped the side of his helmet to indicate the comms weren’t working. He hadn’t heard.
Landell nodded, and then saw the blood crystallised on Austin’s arm. He motioned for the Corporal to get back to the ship. Austin nodded, and started to move up the slope.
Landell was about to turn away when something caught his eye. Another dark shape hurtled through the fog, coming up the slope fast and hard. Probably Breaker or Langmire.

A Tetran soldier appeared, his gun levelled at Austin’s back, a menacing sneer on his face. “Get down!” Landell screamed. Austin read his lips, and flattened himself on the ground. The Tetran fired just as Austin dropped. Landell felt three rounds thud into his body. He looked down in shock as a trio of hissing white jets erupted from the punctures. He stumbled backwards. Before his balance went he managed to get off a short burst. The Tetran yelped in pain as blood spouted from several new holes in his upper torso. He landed on the ground hard.
Landell lay sprawled on his back and watched as his own blood began seeping into the ice. He watched as Austin scrambled to his feet and screamed something. Then the world faded to black.

The Van Frost’s right-side cannon started up again, spewing a horizontal barrage of death. The remaining Tetran forces had fallen back, and now sought cover among the debris near the base of the corkscrew. The cannon was keeping them pinned down.
Sarah Langmire rose from behind a nearby mound and snapped off another burst. She ducked back and leaned down to Breaker’s faceplate. He was laying on the ice, having been hit right above the elbow with an airborne piece of shrapnel. She mouthed the words, “Are you okay?”
He nodded and gave a weak thumbs up signal. From the gritted teeth and the sweat beading his forehead, she could tell he was in a considerable amount of pain. She offered him a worried smile. A tremendous crack filled the air, and Langmire looked up over the mound. The roaring cannon fire had shattered the base of the corkscrew. The towering column of ice gave a loud groan, and then slowly began to tilt forward. Then gravity took over, and it met the cavern floor with a thunderous boom. The ground trembled beneath them all. With their last cover destroyed, the surviving Tetrans rattled off a few erratic bursts of defensive fire and dragged their wounded back down the tunnels. A blanket of white dust flooded the entire chamber. Langmire hugged Breaker tight as the wave swept over them, and for a long time they saw nothing.

Trace awoke in total darkness, with a great weight pressing down on his chest. He found it hard to breathe. A few minutes passed and he heard a series of crunching, scrabbling noises. Then distant voices. He tried to call out, but all he could manage was a soft groan. Lances of pain shot through every part of his body. He tried to move, but he could not shift himself under the immense weight. More scrabbling noises came from above. Then a tiny pinpoint of white light stabbed through the darkness. The hole became larger. Flecks of ice fell down onto his faceplate. He looked up again, as someone worked to widen the hole. A hand descended through the narrow opening, and the weight above him began to yield. He managed to get his own hand up and grasp the one reaching down. With a great heave he was pulled from his icy tomb. He stepped free from the pile of rubble, supported on Brian Vlasich’s sturdy arm. Trace squinted in the illumination provided by half a dozen lamps, taking in the familiar faces of his crew. He wiped a layer of encrusted snow from his faceplate and coughed violently. “How many did we kill?”

Chimera's Breath: Chapter 4


Burnie, Australia

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Artist's Description

Chapter 4. Still a work in progress.
Warning: Bit of coarse language.

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  • AndrewJP
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