If There Be Giants
The instant their boots punched the rocky ground at the base of the cliff, Blake grinned with the thrill still rushing through all of them. “God, I love gravity!”
“That was exhilarating,” Ketha agreed. “I’ve never actually propelled before.”
“Less chatter, more science,” Sida commanded.
“And she claims I have a one-track mind,” Blake muttered, as he and Isiah started toward the mine ahead of them.
“You know, if you accidentally tazed him with a proton pistol, I wouldn’t tell anyone,” Ketha offered, while she and Sida finished unharnessing themselves.
“All comm links are still open, Lieutenant,” Blake’s rough voice pointed out.
“Gotta love an observant man,” Ketha sighed, causing Sida to grin at her with new-found appreciation.
That grin only increased, when they finally caught up to the men and found Blake standing with his arms crossed over his chest and an unimpressed scowl on his face.
“Alright, heads up crew, there’s a chance we’ll be faced with a cave-in once we reach the end of the mine, and if it’s unstable–” Sida began.
“No sudden noises, got it,” Blake finished for her, dropping the pretense of being offended under the seriousness of that possibility.
Inside the mine, their lights revealed more of the same crude tools marks along the low ceiling and walls. The deeper they went, the sharper the edges of those marks became from lack of erosion. Sida paused when Blake crouched and ran his gloved fingers over the lower portion of the wall to their right.
“Look at this,” he glanced at her. “It’s the same powdery residue caused by short or single-burst propulsion thrusters.”
“Like from a remote cargo sleigh?” she asked, crouching beside him to investigate.
“Yeah, but it shouldn’t do this,” he said, holding his glove out to show her.
Sida ran her own gloved fingers over the residue. “There’s no bonding,” she replied in confusion, when the powder transferred to her gloves, as well.
Standing, Blake looked all around them. “Given the lack of elements, I’d say these were left within the last fourteen months, give or take, but not much longer than that. They’re way too fresh.”
“Just like the tools outside,” Sida agreed, yet what that meant she had no clue. It was apparent someone had beat them there and found something in the mine worth hauling out, but what? Starblood was her first fear, but that wouldn’t require a cargo sleigh. No planet produced that much in a single vein. “Let’s keep moving.”
Along the way, they found more areas of residue and then the pottery shards started. The closer they got to the bend in the shaft, the more evidence of their ancient miners. The baked clay remnants had most likely belonged to urns of oil for torches, refreshments for consumption by the miners, or both.
“Look what we have here,” Blake said quietly, when they finally reached the end.
“Wow,” Ketha whispered. “It looks like the inside of a temple.”
Pillars built on a much smaller scale than those in the city stood like support columns along the outer walls of the mine, except the very back where the cave-in had slid down to fill most of the chamber, crushing everything in its path.
“Well, that proves your theory, Lieutenant,” Blake nodded at Ketha. “Now, you want to hear mine?”
“Nope, I’ve already heard it up here,” Sida replied, pointing at her own temple. “That was no natural disaster, it was very deliberate.”
“Which opens up a whole new realm of possibilities from a slave uprising to a civil war,” Ketha accepted grimly. “Maybe some of the citizens disagreed with slavery, or maybe they were frightened by the slaves due to their massive size and wanted to block their only way in.”
Those were both really good theories, considering where the damage had been purposely rendered.
“Captain!” Isiah hissed over the comm link from somewhere among the rubble. “Over here.”
Sida rounded the left side of unnatural stalagmites and other jutting pieces of rock or debris. Squeezing through a narrow gap, she came upon Darling crouched in the only available space, so leaned over him to see what he was so interested in.
“Aquacælestis Divinus,” he exhaled, his light shimmering off a half-dollar sized puddle of iridescent liquid deep in the crevice of the rubble.
“Starblood, Ensign,” she grinned excitedly, slapping him on the shoulder. “Learn it, like it, use it. Blake!”
“On it,” he replied. After Isiah set the probe to hover near the find, he and Sida moved out of Blake’s way and waited for the report. “It’s not a lot.”
“Superb scientific deduction, Commander,” Sida remarked dryly. “I saw that much with my own damn eyes. What I need to know is if we can use it?”
“With the right amount of additives we should be able to, Captain,” Blake returned just as dryly, before turning sincere. “At any rate, we have to try, don’t we?”
Yes. Yes, they did. “Alright, you two get it contained and see if there’s more without risking another cave-in,” she ordered. “I’ll call in the request. Minnows, you’re with me.”
Aboard the small shuttle located about two klicks east of the mine, in the only clear portion of the trench, Sida sent the request to her crew still manning their ship in orbit. Surprisingly, it only took thirty minutes to get a reply back, which was fast even under the best conditions.
“Must be my lucky day,” she muttered to herself.
“Captain, Fleet Admiral Dent is coming on Vidlink One,” Lieutenant Commander Winston rushed out, her expression filled with apology.
Jumping out of the chair, Sida brushed her clothes off, straightening them and her hair in record speed. She was standing at full attention, when the screen crackled on, revealing a large, robust older man with silver hair cut to perfection. The stars on his uniform were nearly blinding, they’d been polished so profusely.
“Admiral,” Sida saluted, wondering why the top dog of all top dogs was doing something as mundane as answering a contact request.
“Captain Marx,” Joaquin Dent, five-star Fleet Admiral of the entire Galactic Interstellar Navy of Earth and its Solar Systems, aka GINESS, greeted. “You sent a request. Report.”
She knew the FADM was a no-nonsense man and the lines carved into his aged face weren’t all wrinkles, so she didn’t hesitate. “Sir, while conducting our mission to locate and verify proof of the lost planet Molta Cremyss, we discovered the existence of what appears to be an ancient mine, where one of my ensigns has found Starblood. It is a very small amount, Sir. Permission to attempt a World Opening?”
“Molta Cremyss,” Dent repeated. “Have you verified this planet is truly one and the same?”
“We have not verified that at this time, Sir.”
“But you found a mine?”
“A single shaft, sir, partially caved-in,” she replied. “To look for more Starblood could cause further damage without proper precautionary re-stabilizing procedures put into place first, which my crew and I are ready to do should you prefer it, sir.”
He seemed to contemplate that for a moment, before responding. “Meddling with an unstable environment is an unnecessary risk without a guarantee, Captain. Permission for a World Opening granted. Keep me informed.”
“Sir, yes, sir,” she saluted again.
When the screen blinked out, revealing her starmap instead, Sida slowly relaxed her stance and hailed her ship.
“Winston, was my request for contact sent through the usual channels?” she asked.
“Yes, Captain, I’m so sorry, I had no idea the Admiral would respond, himself–”
“Relax, Winston, it’s okay,” Sida cut her off. “Do me a favor, though and check into all the latest news from Earth. Send the most current links to my personal unit.”
“Will do, Captain.”
“We’ll be attempting an Opening. Send the usual roundup and tell Barnes to bring me three extra grunts. If we’re successful, they’ll be going with me. Maintain current orbit and contact Barnes if necessary, but nothing changes until you hear otherwise.”
It took another two hours for the second shuttle to arrive with the rest of her field team and the soldiers. By then, Ketha had already shoved gear packs together for everyone, and they’d loaded them on cargo sleighs to take back to the mine. When she spotted Blake and Isiah suiting up just outside the entrance from half a klick away, she halted Barnes and his men.
“Stay here and wait for the all clear,” she ordered.
Once Sida and the rest of her team were suited up, she set her Xtreme World Opener to neutralize, while Blake loaded the newly formulated capsule of Starblood into his rifle and set it to Activate.
“Comm links on?” Sida checked. “Barnes, can you hear me?”
“You’re good to go, Captain,” he replied.
“Activate gravity and pressurization systems.”
A resounding grunt of discomfort echoed through the link, when everyone obeyed. In an oxygenated environment, despite how thin, it was as good as wearing a lead suit. The weighted pull toward the ground caused perspiration to break out over Sida’s skin with the effort to remain standing, yet it would’ve been just as impossible to get knocked over as it was to lift her boot from the ground.
“Okay, Commander,” she said. “Fire.”
Blake shot the capsule at the largest, flattest portion of the cliff wall and the Starblood splattered like a paintball. It started glowing almost instantly, reaching levels that had all of their face masks tinting black as night. Cheers went off through the link, their success evidenced by the brightness. When the light dimmed and diminished completely, they were faced with a far smaller Opening than they were used to, but one person at a time could fit through without their packs. Those would have to be tossed through one at a time, as well.
Red skies came into view, suggesting the likelihood of a volcanic planet, with the dark silhouettes of thick, tropical vegetation. It appeared to be night time, but not a single one of them put much stock on appearances alone in their line of work.
“Probe,” Sida ordered.
Isiah tossed it through the Opening and watched the screen on the remote in his hands, as the readouts started showing up.
“Quite a bit more sulfur in the air than usual, but otherwise oxygen levels are really good. Better than here, that’s for sure. No indication of pollutants normally found near modern cities, which opens a few variables. I’m picking up mildly elevated amounts of minerals in the moisture, which means the air might have a tangy flavor. Temperature is a lovely seventy degrees Fahrenheit with a seventy-five percent humidity level typical of tropical climates, and the wind is a calm two knots.”
“Mildly elevated amounts, or we’ll be dead from lead poisoning by morning?” Sida questioned.
“No worries, Captain. The air might have a slight coppery taste, but that’s all,” he answered.
“Alright, suits off. Barnes, move in.”
After they’d each rolled their suits up into their packs, the crew entered the Opening one-by-one, the next in line tossing their pack to the last person to climb through. Finally, it was just Sida, who’d tossed her pack to Blake. Turning, she addressed Barnes one last time.
“As soon as I’m through, activate the Curtain, put one man here and hold base at the shuttles.”
“Yes, sir,” he saluted.
Sida climbed through the odd Opening, having to bend low and pull her knee up high to manage it. The moment she was fully, and officially, on a completely different planet, she removed her NISS helmet and turned to watch the Curtain go up. Octagonal pockets of energy replaced their view of the debris littered trench. It would keep everything from microscopic bacteria, pollen and insects all the way up to the force of a boulder running downhill in an avalanche from getting through.
Sida tucked her helmet into her pack, then pulled the cap free from her back pocket. She unrolled it and tugged it down over her head just as the rest of her crew had already done. They all wore their Standard Exploration Uniforms with Advanced Automatic Ballistic Vests over their jackets and All Terrain Boots on their feet.
“Are we dealing with volcanic activity?” It was the first thing she wanted to know.
“The sulfur content would indicate as much, but that,” Isiah paused and gestured to the crimson sky with rolling dark clouds. “is not the reflection of molten lava flow. It encompasses the entire sky and it’s steady, rather than fluctuating. And those really are clouds, not ash.”
“A Red Dwarf system?” she pondered aloud. “It’s too warm.”
“I agree, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a Red Dwarf present,” Blake interjected. “What does this remind you of, Captain?”
Sida turned to check out the small mountainside their Opening had appeared in and ran her hand over the uneven stone, frowning from the shallow, sharp-edged grooves. “It’s nearly the same as the crude tool marks from the mine. Do you think they came through and tried to start one on this side, as well?”
“Possibly,” he mused. “Maybe the natives took them by surprise.”
“Then, what? They enslaved them?” Sida shook her head in disagreement. “They would’ve just made the natives dig the mine for them afterward.”
“Yeah,” Blake sighed, before stilling and turning his light eyes on her slowly. “Sida, if this is the home of those giants…”
Startled, Sida opened her mouth, then closed it and narrowed her eyes at him. “Bad Jack! So bad!” she shot under her breath, before pivoting back to the rest of their crew. “Alright, kids, listen up. I want you three to get real comfy right here and guard this Opening. No fires. If this really is this planet’s night cycle, you obviously won’t need the heat and your rations can cook themselves.”
“Yes, sir,” the three grunts she’d stolen from Barnes saluted, then started setting up their camp right away.
“Crew, we need higher ground so we can get a better idea of what we’re dealing with, but in the meantime, we treat this like any other exploration. Remember your training, keep your weapons on neutralize with reserves at max power, until we establish contact with this planet’s possible inhabitants and determine whether they’re hostile or not,” she continued. “Also, we’re in a tropical environment, which means higher risk for carnivorous and poisonous flora and fauna, so stay on your toes and keep a wary eye out for plants that looks suspiciously well fed.”
“The optimism of your speeches always gives me goosebumps, Captain,” Blake smirked, switching his rifle settings over and feigning a full body shudder.
“Cheap thrills, Commander,” she returned, following her own weapon instructions, before looking him over pointedly. “I’m a sucker for cheap thrills.”
Thank you for reading! You can find previous episodes under The Wicked Web link on the menu bar above. Until next time….