“Whiskey Tango Foxtrot,” Bernardo’s voice crackled over the comm link. The narrow defile ended at a crevasse that descended steeply into the rocky depths of the uplift. The Pathfinder had pulled out his climbing gear and started down some five minutes earlier. “First Sergeant, you need to see this. Check my video.”
Reno pulled up Bernardo’s helmet feed. Signal loss caused by all the rock made the image grainy and unstable, but the sergeant recognized a small pile of gear with unmistakable Fleet markings.
“Our missing Marines?” he asked.
“Maybe,” Bernardo replied. “I got some bootprints nearby, but nothing else. Looks like mostly a pile of dead weight junk, but I think they also abandoned a couple of ABG canisters. My descent rig is stable, so come on down and have a look. It’s only about 50 meters.”
Reno moved to the edge of the crevasse and clipped his equipment harness onto the descent line. He turned back to look at the rest of the squad.
“CQB team next, after I’m off the line,” he instructed. “Then we’ll crank down Tex and his big rig. Basinger, you’re Tail-End Charlie. Stay sharp.”
Gamespeak: Turn 26. The next node in Cave Complex A has a requirement of Climb-2 for entry. The explorer, Bernardo, is the only squad member with the Climb skill (Climb 4), which can’t be augmented with a Command Point. The Climb skill check is RN4, yielding 1 success level. Steady progress into the depths of the cavern.
Gamespeak: Turn 27. The Climb skill check is RN5, earning another success level. The squad enters the node. The Event string for the node is 6+/A, and the draw is RN 2, so no contact. The node is also marked with a “G” icon, indicating the squad can find Grenade resources here. The number of resources in a cache is determined by the formula RN-1. I draw RN5 for the cache, so there are 4 grenade resources available. The squad can carry only 8 total resources, and I don’t want to discard any Intel or Medikits, so they pick up 2 Grenades.
Reno flipped on his battlesuit lights and disappeared into the crevasse. The rock wall dropped at about a 60-degree angle; it took only a few quick hops down the line to cover the distance. When he reached the bottom, he found Bernardo standing on the far end of a small chamber, shining his lights down a narrow passageway.
“Some oddball rock formations, probably wind-cut,” the Pathfinder noted. “It widens out a bit beyond the entrance, but I don’t think we can fit through here in our battlesuits. Looks like the only way in.”
“Well. Shit.” The First Sergeant toggled his command suit’s ranging system to macro mode and took a quick reading. For the first meter or so, the passage was indeed too narrow for a man in a battlesuit. The Marines’ soft environment suits could squeeze through, but the Cavalry was going to have a tough time riding to the rescue. “I don’t suppose you have a sledgehammer in that kit of yours?”
“We might be able to shove one of the smaller guys through,” Bernardo opined. “March, for instance.”
Reno shook his head. The last time they’d tried to turn March into a tunnel rat, he’d gotten wedged into a rock chimney jammed with not-quite-petrified bat guano for an hour before they managed to pull him out. It was good for a few grins, true, but the armorers weren’t happy when they had to steam blast his suit four or five times to get the stench out.
Phillips came rattling down the descent line behind them, followed quickly by Oppenheimer. The troopers joined in the examination of the cave opening.
“Maybe we could chunk off some of that rock with a chain blade,” Phillips offered.
“And ruin one of the taxpayers’ very expensive M-71 Powered Close Combat Systems?” Reno looked at the rock, then at the chain blade on the end of Phillips’ VRF rifle. It might work. “Have at it.”
“Heh.” Phillips spun up the high-speed blade, then suddenly stopped and looked over at Reno, grinning. “Hey. They won’t take it out of my pay, will they?”
“Corporal McGee’s gonna want to see that Form DD-2271, trooper. Unfortunately, I don’t have one on me.” Reno rolled his eyes. “Just shred the fucking rock.”
Phillips turned back to the opening and hefted the chain blade. Just as he started spinning it up, a loud “twang” echoed down from the crevasse opening.
“SHIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIT!” Miller’s coarse shout bounced off the cavern walls and crackled over the comm link. Reno turned just in time to see the heavily armored trooper come skittering down the rock wall at high speed. He hit the cavern floor feet first, then somersaulted toward the four men standing at the passage entrance. Everybody instinctively leapt backward. Miller’s feet caught a small rock, flipping him sideways, and he crashed into — and through — the wall with a dull thud.
The four Cav troopers stood absolutely motionless, their vision obscured by the sudden cloud of dust that filled the chamber. Reno reflexively looked upward and braced himself for falling rocks. All he could hear was the clatter of pebbles bouncing off battlesuit armor.
“I hope that wasn’t a load-bearing column,” Miller’s voice at last came through the wave of dust. “Harness broke.”
“Hmph. You’re alive. Nice. I give it an 8.5 out of 10.” Reno stepped through the now-wider passage entrance to find the close combat specialist half-buried in rock shards and gravel. “Your feet came apart in the pike position, there.”
“Permission to insult the First Sergeant?” Miller asked.
Gamespeak. Turn 24. The entry requirement for the cave complex’s next node is Advance-3. Everybody in the squad, except Bernardo and the squad leader, has the Advance skill. I determine to check first for the CC specialist with skill Advance 3 and draw the “+” RN chit, which means I draw two more RNs and add them. I draw RN4 and RN5, for a total of RN9, three successes. Miller solves the transportation problem all by himself and the squad advances into the node.
The passageway ran deeper underground, widening slightly as the squad moved forward. Reno expected to find some sort of countermeasures left by the Marines — a mine or a grenade trap — but March and Buergel on point encountered nothing.
Both point troopers simultaneously stopped and killed their suit lights. Everyone else rapidly did likewise, leaving the squad squatting silently in pitch darkness. Reno switched to thermal imaging and quietly made his way forward.
“Motion sensor,” March whispered. “Two blips at 175. Range 30. Gone now.”
Reno nodded silently. Thermal imaging showed nothing ahead. He could hear water dripping somewhere; a slight echo made him think they were at the edge of a bigger opening in the cavern.
“Looked like a possible cavern chamber before we switched off,” March continued. “Maybe 5 meters.”
“I’ll get a snapshot.” Reno crawled past the troopers on his hands and knees. He moved forward until his hands felt the passage floor drop away slightly. A millisecond burst from his suit’s ranging system was all he needed; with luck, such a short burst of electronic emissions wouldn’t send any Robbies nearby spinning around with guns blazing.
It was a big cavern, 60 meters across at its widest and over 150 meters long. What the snapshot could capture of the ceiling was, in places, 20 meters above. The cave floor was dotted with a few rocky piles and stalagmites. A particularly large rock feature stood about 30 meters away to the south.
As Reno lie there pondering his next move, Bernardo crawled up beside him. Silently, the Pathfinder pulled one of the gadgets out of his kit and started waving it around. He pushed his helmet against Reno’s so the sound would travel between them without vox or comm link.
“Piss,” he said simply.
“This is no time for a Winslow impersonation,” Reno grumbled.
“It’s science, First Sergeant.”
“Enlighten me, Mr. Wizard.”
“The atmosphere on this planet has too little oxygen for us to breathe,” Bernardo explained. “But it’s still very Earth-like. No naturally occurring dangerous gases like ammonia, for example. My detector is registering trace ammonia down here, however. On Earth, we use the same type of equipment for remote battlefield sensors because ammonia is a by-product of bacteria working on urine. So I figure either there have been people down here for a few hours, or some other big thing that pisses just like us calls this place home.”
“Well, if it’s some big, toothy thing with an attitude and an overactive bladder, you’re the first person it gets to eat,” Reno advised. He flipped on his lights and his suit’s vox system.
“This is Bravo, 1-7 Cav,” he called out. “Identify.”
A civilian-style environment helmet popped out from one side of the suspect rocky pile.
“Uh. I’m Carter. Xenobiologist.” The man stood and another figure popped up beside him. “This is my assistant, Janek. We sure are glad to see you guys. All that noise a while back, we thought it was the AI trying to get through the caves.”
Reno stood and descended a small slope toward them as the rest of the squad fired up their lights.
“We had a little chat with Robbie upstairs,” the First Sergeant said. “He’s having some mechanical problems.”
“Do you have a medic?” Carter asked. “We’ve got two wounded Marines here. I patched their suits and they’re stable, but neither is conscious right now.”
“Medic’s in orbit.” Reno turned to look back at the troopers as they emerged into the cavern. “Mr. Wizard, rub some dirt on those Marines and get ‘em back in the game. Tex, let’s get your LBE repaired. You’ve got some weight to carry. Biggest suit totes the most gear.”
Gamespeak. Turn 24 (continued). The node’s Event string is 4+/A. I draw RN2, so no contact. The node is also marked with a “science outpost,” so the squad gets an RN draw to search for survivors. RN of 4 or less indicates one “scientist” RN of 5+ indicates two; the squad must rescue a total of four survivor “points” to complete the mission. I draw RN5, two survivors, which puts them half-way to their goal. The node is marked Explored and play proceeds to the next turn.