Sida stared across the barren wasteland of a long-forgotten planet, her hazel eyes squinting slightly against the stagnant particles of dust. Thanks to modeling the NISS helmet, strands of strawberry blond hair had pulled free from the braid wrapped halfway around her head. She brushed them away from her face and sighed, resigned to her ongoing mission. Turning, she saluted the lecture hall of cadets one last time, before lifting her rifle and pointing it right at them. Rather than penetrating the entrance she’d just climbed through, the shot dispersed like it hit a solid wall and started frying the World Opening out of existence. The small window to Earth shrank in on itself, leaving charred marks on the small rocky hillside.
The sound of boots scraping rubble and scattering loose pebbles had her twisting at the hips. In a blink, her rifle was aimed between the eyes of the intruder, her finger switching the stream from harmless to ‘Fry the Bastards,’ her personal favorite.
“Captain,” Blake Yarring, her First in Command greeted with his usual cocky smirk hidden behind a mini-mask, not in the least intimidated by her itchy trigger finger.
Sida lowered the barrel, until it was his crotch in the crosshairs of her scope, though she never took her eyes off his face.
“Hey, if you wanted another close up,” he offered, his voice slightly digital through the comm link.
When he held up the extra mask and waved it back and forth, she powered down her rifle, propped it on her shoulder and waltzed up to him, like she had all the oxygen in the world to spare. Blake didn’t hesitate to secure the mask over the lower half of her face, when she stopped. The moment the oxygen kicked on and she could breathe normally again, she blew him a kiss and kept walking.
“Tell me you found something on this godforsaken rock in my absence,” she demanded, once he fell into step beside her.
“What, and ruin the surprise?”
Sida gave him a narrowed sideways glance, keeping the spark of excitement to herself for now. She knew the man inside and out. He wouldn’t lead her on about a mission. If he was insinuating they’d found something, they had. Sida merely hoped it was the evidence they needed to officially declare the dead planet as the missing link in Bremm history, so they could move on. She was more than ready for a change of scenery.
“You know, I’ve never seen anyone take time out of a mission to give a lecture a billion light years away before,” Blake commented. “But, you have to admit it’s pretty bad ass that you’re an actual subject of study at NASE.”
“I find it offensive,” she countered, believing herself far too young and alive to be the subject of study anywhere.
“Yet, you do it anyway.”
“I find you offensive, too,” she pointed out.
“Har,” he smirked blandly, before perking up. “Speaking of doing me, have I ever told you how much your cranky side turns me on?”
“Vrolesian heart ticks turn you on, Blake, that’s not exactly praise, so what are you buttering me up for?” Sida paused.
“Nothing, swear,” he held his hands up, sulking. “It’s just been… I mean I can’t even put a time frame on it without a calendar–”
Making sure her eye roll was profound, Sida continued onward. “How about you reveal this grand surprise to me, before I decide to drop your ass off at the nearest Mrelin colony. You’ll get plenty of action there.”
Mrelins had a taste for Earthling flesh, but they particularly enjoyed Earthling males for all their other appetites, before eating them. Again, Blake was unconcerned. Ugh, it was so annoying trying to threaten someone who knew their own damn worth. Blake didn’t say a word, as they continued toward the edge of the rise they’d been traversing. The moment they crested it, he no longer needed to.
“Eyes,” she demanded, accepting the binoculars he held out for her.
Across a fifty yard trench that looked more like the remnants of an abandoned rock quarry, stood a two-mile high jagged cliff topped by the ruins of an ancient metropolis. The air felt tight in Sida’s lungs, and it had nothing to do with the planet’s low oxygen levels.
“Are those step pyramids I’m staring at, Yarring?” she asked in disbelief.
“Sure looks that way, doesn’t it?” he replied. “Yet we’re on the fringes of the Cremylaean Galaxy and according to all of our data, and what we know of their history, this should be Molta Cremyss, the oldest planet with Bremm origins.”
“That’s not Bremm architecture, Blake,” she exhaled tightly. “It’s ours.”
The rubble they carefully picked their way across once they reached the valley floor, was more than just rock. Taking the massive amounts of debris lying across the trench and stacked against the base of the cliff up ahead, it was easy to determine that a cave-in had brought part of that city down at some point. Natural disaster was in the top five causes for city abandonment, but they wouldn’t know anything conclusive until they got topside to investigate.
They found the rest of their field team near a crude opening in the cliff wall, far to the right and partially camouflaged by natural piles of rubble. There was evidence it had originally been hacked away at with metal tools, but the elements had smoothed the roughness over time.
“This had to have been exposed to weather conditions prior to the planet’s loss of vegetation,” Sida remarked.
“Agreed,” Blake nodded.
“Captain,” her two other crew members greeted in off-key unison.
“How was Earth?” Lt. Ketha Minnows asked.
“Crowded,” she nipped the questioning in the bud, before it could get out of hand. “Tell me what we’ve found. Where does this cave lead and did it contribute to the landslide?”
“It’s not a cave, Captain,” Ensign Isiah Darling informed her, dropping a roll of thick material on the ground and kicking it open to reveal the contents. “We think it’s a mine.”
“Think?” she questioned severely.
“You weren’t gone that long,” Blake intervened, crouching to rummage through the find. “Do you really think I’d risk my ass by proceeding without you? I like sleeping with both eyes closed, thank you.”
Sida studied what little she could see of his handsome face, the rugged sensuality of it. The truth was, if they hadn’t been stuck in space together every damn day and night for so long, they never would’ve even exchanged link codes, let alone bodily fluids. They were too much alike to ever be anything more than respected colleagues, but space was cold. It was lonely and it was harsh. There had to be something to take away from that, even if it was only a handful of hot, mind-numbing hours.
“I knew there was something smart about you, aside from your mouth,” she smiled approvingly. “Where are the readouts from the probe?”
While Darling went to retrieve them for her, she crouched beside Blake and picked up one of the modified hydro-torches from the array of mining tools.
“Apparently, we’re not the first modern crew to have landed here recently. Look.” She turned the torch upside down and ran her fingers over the casing of the spent energy core where a serial number should be.
“Black market issue. Nice,” Blake commented. “None of these tools made that opening.”
“No, the mine was already here. The question is why,” she agreed. Standing, she activated the handheld remote for the probe Darling returned with and scanned the results on the central screen. “A single, straightforward mine shaft that curves down, around and up just under the heart of the city? How is that even possible?”
“I’ve been thinking about that while you were taking your sweet ass time on Earth,” Blake said. “It seems unlikely an ancient civilization would’ve had ground-penetrating sonar in order to pinpoint an exact vein of ore without divine intervention. There would be evidence of failed mining attempts, several dead-end shafts branching off the main one, but there is one natural resource every culture in history had a knack at finding with nothing more than a stick–and what typically stands in the center of a town square?”
“A natural spring or well,” Sida nodded. “Sounds probable. I like probable over divine intervention.”
“Me, too. Gods can be dicks,” he agreed. Then, his cheeks moved in a way that revealed a wolfish grin behind his mask. “So, you want top or bottom first?”
Holding his gaze for a moment, Sida addressed the others. “Gear up, crew. We’re going rock climbing, and your Commander just volunteered to take point.”
© A.C. Melody
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