Chapter 19

I push my fingers through the mat of hair on my head.  For a moment I am suspended between the magic of my moments with Sophia and the certainty that if I don’t move—right now—that the crew of the Allgood will die.  Including me.  I gotta find my way out of these tunnels and back to the ship but I don’t know how I’m gonna do that.  I got here by making a bunch of random choices—this branch or that, go up or go down—in a panic, always one step ahead of that murderous drone.  Now I’m lost somewhere within a red labyrinth in a strange pressurized room that built itself for me.

I’m not sure how this works; is there some kind of airlock?  Sophia wouldn’t have left me locked in.  First thing’s first.  I pull on my gloves, lift my helmet over my head and hear the reassuring clicks as it latches down.  I turn on the suit’s electronics and watch the indicators below my chin as the tiny computer performs its familiar system checks.  It says everything still works, just as it always does.  Thank God.  I start the flow of O2.  Pressure is holding A-OK.  The suit detects the soft light levels in the room and brings up my visor display in normal visible-light mode.  But I still don’t see a door out.  “How do I get out of here?” I mutter to no one in particular.  A round section of the wall before me dilates like pupil of a giant eye, revealing a softly lit, meandering red tunnel ahead.   A strong breeze comes from behind me as the air in the room evacuates out the hole into the vacuum beyond.  Then my suit turns itself off.

Oh crap.  The electronics have quit.  I feel the fabric of my suit relaxing, yielding to the vacuum around me.  If it doesn’t come back up, I have seconds to live.  I contemplate the number of ways I could die, not sure which will kill me first.  In a panic, I look over my displays and the lights on my chest piece in the futile hope that I can find something to fix.  I knock on the chest piece, hoping to jolt the system back to life.  But within a couple seconds, the indicator lights below my chin flash back to life, and then the display pops back up.  I breathe a sigh of relief, then gulp in amazement.

Everything is different.  The visor is alight with much more information than before.  I see a three dimensional image not only of the room around me, but of all the tunnels beyond the room, in full color.  I see the room outlined in light red, the tunnels beyond in blue, the path I need to take in yellow.  And more…I can see through the rock and iron, to the ships still in place on the surface almost a kilometer away.  The image doesn’t seem to be based on reflected light or temperature differences. This is more data than my cameras could possibly provide.

Then I understand: Structure has ‘liberated’ my suit.  The stroid itself is now my sensor.  “Thanks,” I say.  Sophia was right; Structure don’t talk much.  But at least I’m not alone.  I step cautiously through the orifice to the tunnel beyond, wary of what lies ahead.  The scene in my visor updates as I go.  I follow the path glowing in my display and pick my way through the maze.  The yellow path anticipates where I need to go.  I gain confidence, weaving my way out, picking up speed.  Higher and higher I climb, ducking through the low parts, turning right and left and right again.

Finally, I turn a corner and see the light of the distant sun glimmering on the rim of the tunnel’s exit.  I stop and press the wristy buttons to turn on my suit radio.  I have to remind myself that the real wristy is embedded down inside this shell of goo.  The materia camouflage is convincing but the wristy seems to function as before.  Only better.  I hear voices, but none of them are from my Allgood crewmates.  It dawns on me that these are the voices of the Kestrel crew: the transmissions of suit-to-suit radios that are normally encrypted, that I can somehow hear.  Structure again.  Glad he’s on my side.  If he can break their radio encryption that easily, ain’t nothing safe. I just hope they can’t hear me too.  “I don’t want the Kestrel people to hear me,” I whisper.  A little text flashes briefly before my eyes: “muted.”

There are outlines of distant human figures on my visor, walking around, carrying what look like weapons.  I interpret these icons as Kestrel people searching for me on the surface, or maybe they’re searching for their lost drone.  I need to avoid them either way.  I walk the last bit to the cave exit.  I pause at the lip and look around.  All clear, for now.

It ain’t the opening that I entered; the rocks around this one are mostly made of the red materia.  There’s a path I can walk but there ain’t much cover.  I’ll have to be careful not to be seen.  My visor says the Kestrel men are not far away.  I crouch low, engage my boots, and take a step onto the red rock.  The boot’s claws immediately find purchase, which sets me aback.  With every step my grip tone sounds right away, even when I’m walking on natural rock.  Not like before, when I had to wait between each step.  Now I can walk almost naturally, although crouched over to stay out of sight.

The rocks around me are all of different shapes, now a mix of natural rock and materia; some rocks are small and round, some very tall.  The tallest is maybe 10 meters max.  Together they form a shallow canyon.  Ahead of me is the long, meandering path back to my ship.  Through gaps in the rocks I see a couple of Kestrel thugs up ahead, holding tools, with side arms dangling from their belts.  They are having a private conversation, their helmets butted together so they don’t need to use their radios.  Trying to keep something from their bosses?

If I keep low enough, I’m pretty confident they won’t see me.  I keep going until I’m up on a rise, the men and their guns to my right and below me on the other side of a series of tall boulders.  Taking it real slow so I don’t send no rocks tumbling down their way, I creep along the path.  When I’m past them, I relax a little, stand up straight and pick up my pace.  That’s when I hit the trip wire.

My left boot catches it; I lose my balance and fall—slowly and with plenty of time to catch myself—onto the path.  I look back at the fine wire, suspended low to the ground.  It’s wrapped around a jagged boulder on one end, and leads to a grey box on the other end.  Damn.  The box is a transmitter and the alarm has already gone out.  They’re on their way.  I stand up a little too quickly and in my panic launch myself away from the ground for a few terrifying, flailing, helpless seconds.  I fire my emergency jets and luckily my feet come back to the rocks—if my jets hadn’t worked I would have been launched into space.  I check the jet status; there is only solid fuel cartridge left.

I’ve lost time; the orange Kestrel avatars in my visor display are moving fast, coming my way.  I try a fast walk.  So far so good, the boots are keeping me down.  Even though the Kestrel guys will have boots too, they won’t be able to catch me.  Then a rock to the left of me explodes.  I’m reminded that they don’t need to catch me…they have guns.   “I saw him and took a shot, over,” says an excited voice into my headset.

“Kill him if you can,” comes another voice, “We can get the key from him just as easy if he’s dead.”

“Roger that.  I’m gaining on him, over.”

I crouch down behind a rock.  The sky here is not quite as hazy with dust as it was back in the mining area, but it ain’t completely clear neither.  I squint through the thin yellow fog, trying to see what’s shooting at me, holding my breath to keep my visor as clear as possible.  I hear only the thumping of my desperate heart.  There’s a man-shaped shadow moving out ahead.  I grab a chunk of hematite in my fist and prepare to chuck it at him but just then another rock explodes, this time on my right.

“I see him.  He’s close…I took a shot but don’t think it hit.  He’s headed for his ship.”  I turn and see the source of the voice.  A Kestrel spacesuit with green armbands is rushing my way, face hidden by his dark visor, methodically taking step after step, closing the gap to get a good kill shot.  His gun is pointed at my face.  My visor tells me that the other guy is coming from the other direction.  For a moment I consider the possibility of climbing up and over the tall rocks that line the path, but I don’t see no good handholds and I’d be a sitting duck up there anyways.  I pull my arm back and heave the rock at the spacesuit closest to me, the one with the blue armbands.

He ducks but the rock misses.  Blue Armbands stops, plants his boots, and brings his gun to his shoulder, tilting his head along the sites on the barrel.  I don’t know which way to run; I’m stuck here in the open, I don’t know to do.  His finger comes off the trigger guard onto the trigger, ready to shoot.  A red tongue of materia launches from behind him.  It wraps itself around the man’s gun arm, jerking it to the side.  The man’s other arm flails in surprise.  “Whoa…holy crap…something has got me!” comes the voice.

“What?  What something, what?  Just shoot!” says the other voice.

The tongue grows thicker while holding its grip on the gun hand; Blue Armbands pushes back on it, but the goo responds by branching out another tentacle and grabbing that hand too.  “Ahhh!  It’s got me.  It’s a boa constrictor…I don’t know what it is…just get here dammnit!”

“I’m coming,” says the other voice.

Blue Armbands loses his footing—the materia pulls him into the sky like a wrestler in a cage match.  I crouch back behind my rock, just in time to see the other spacesuit shuffle past me, the one with green armbands, his gun up and ready.  Blue Armbands is upside down now, the red goo gripping both arms and one leg, shaking him like it’s trying to loosen some coins from his pockets.  “Shoot it, dammnit, shoot!”

Green Armbands fires.  The zero-G gun is the type that fires plasma out the back as the bullet is expelled from the barrel.  The bright flash of plasma is blinding; I close my eyes and all I see is that flash floating in front of me.  When I open my eyes, it’s obvious that the projectile did no good.  The materia just swallowed it.  And now Green Armbands has his gun arm and foot caught too.

“Mayday, mayday,” I hear, “Kestrel this is team 2, we are being attacked.  Send help ASAP, repeat help ASAP.”  I watch as Green Armbands struggles to free himself, yelling angrily at the person answering his call, cursing to his radio.  I stand up.  I got nothing to worry about now.  My friend Structure has taken charge and the rest, as they say, is history.

“Team 1, team 3, this is Kestrel.  Converge on team 2 location and render assistance.”

I’ll be long gone by the time they get here.  I saunter on my way, turning as I pass Green Armbands.  I smile and wave and do a little booty dance.  That gun ain’t gonna help you now, is it.  I walk up as close as I can to Blue Armbands and bounce a couple of pebbles off his helmet just for fun.  More obscenities…oh my goodness.  Once I’m past them both, I turn to wave one last time.

I shouldn’t have been so cocky.  Green Armbands had dropped his gun but with his free hand has pulled something else off his belt, something hooked to his backpack by a thick power cable.  He shoots at the materia.  A brilliant blue beam fires from the lens of the laser.  The red matter flares up from the concentrated heat and melts, jetting a cloud of dark red dust into the space around it.  The laser cuts the materia like a hot knife through butter—in fact the materia seems to catch fire from the laser, but somehow manages to put out its own flame.  But now it’s a real fight: Green Armbands starts methodically slicing through the thick red arms holding him. The materia turns itself to a shiny mirror color when it anticipates a shot, deflecting the laser beam, but the thugs still manage to make random cuts.

I feel my wristy trembling.  Does Structure feel pain?  “Kestrel, tell all teams to use laser,” I hear.  “This thing…this stuff burns.”  The materia ain’t giving up: more of it flows in the replace what was burned and Green Armbands keeps firing.  I turn and move as fast as I can.  They’re distracted for now but if they can free themselves it won’t be long before they turn their attention back to me.  The path bends around and once again I am obscured by boulders.  But there ain’t no safety for me: if I can follow the path, they can too.  I come to a rise in the path.  I bend backwards and look up. The way ahead snakes up and over a steep hill, rising maybe 100 meters.  Beyond the hill is a straight shot to the CM, still moored to Hrothgar’s surface.  This is real rock; I’ve left the red matter behind.  The yellow path in the display tells me I must climb.

I retract the boots’ grippers and plant the toe of my right foot into a jagged scar in the rock; slip at first, but then push hard and establish a foothold.  Hand over hand I ascend, choosing each handhold and foothold carefully, thoughtfully, like playing a vertical chess game against death.  Even in this low gravity, falling would likely kill me, with the impact against sharp rocks tearing my suit if nothing else.

Halfway up, the rock under my left foot gives way just as I’m pulling my right foot out of a crevice.  Pebbles tumble downward and dust plumes out in a ragged sphere.  I am dangling from the cliff.  My legs swing back and forth as my gloved fingers strain to hold.  I wonder, at that moment, how much tearing stress these gloves can take.  They ain’t made for rock climbing.  I also wonder if a laser is going to burn a hole in me from the back.  Or maybe a bullet will blow up my head.  Which would be a better way to die? I wonder.

But my grip holds and after a few tries I find a slot for my right boot.  No lasers burn through my flesh.  Not yet.  I pause a moment to listen to my own laboring breathing and try to calm down.  I carefully turn my helmet to see if the bad guys are back on my tail.  Blue Armbands and Green Armbands have both freed themselves and are stomping around in the distance below.  The dark red haze around them is thick with burned materia. Red tentacles swing at them like the arms of a giant squid from a Jules Verne novel but the Kestrel thugs have clearly gotten the upper hand.  Huge volumes of the materia have been disintegrated.

I shake my head at the sight.  My heart is heavy—I’ve brought all this destruction to a peaceful traveler from a strange and faraway world.  It’s suffering to protect me.  And then I wonder: how much of the materia does it take to support Sophia?  She said there has to be a certain amount of the stuff for her to live.  But how much?  If enough of the materia is destroyed, will she…die?  Or will she lose her mind?  Grim thoughts.  I look back again and see other men joining in the fight, riding in a powerful rover from the Kestrel, with tall spidery wheels that grip the rock, and a much bigger laser mounted on its upper deck.  They’re sweeping back and forth with its beam, destroying the materia in wide swaths, sending up tremendous clouds of billowing smoke.

I feel a tremor in my feet and hands.  The ground is moving under me.  Can’t stop—gotta keep climbing.  I’m in bright daylight now, sweating inside my suit, pushing the cooling system to its limits.  I hear the sounds of my breathing, the sounds of my heartbeat, the shouts of the Kestrel crew below.  Their cries of victory hurt my heart, but they also push me faster and further up the cliff.

Finally, I summit the rock and stand up onto a plateau.  I re-engage the grippers but once again, the ground beneath me feels unstable, jolting and vibrating.  I nearly lose my footing.  Is it a stroid equivalent of an earthquake?  I pause to look at the battle below.  The rover’s beam and their guns can reach me here, although I’m not sure they can see me.  They’re still burning the materia, as waves of it sweep up from the interior of the stroid to join the fight.  The haze is so thick that it is almost opaque.  The cloud is lingers close to the ground but random fingers of it reach up into space.  I am above most of it here.

Then, I watch in amazement as a tremendous spire of red matter rises up out of the fog.  It gets taller and taller, the peak growing taller than the plateau where I’m standing.  The tower is narrow at the top, broad at the base, and soon so tall that I have to lean back to see the top of it.  What the heck?

I hear the Kestrel men calling to each other and I look down again, squinting to see them through the haze.  They see the spire too, although I doubt they can see the entirety of it in from within their self-made cloud.  The materia is keeping them away, fighting to draw them away from the spire.  I don’t have much time; I’ve got to keep going.  I can see the CM in the distance, and the Kestrel still parked close by.  The yellowish fog has lifted somewhat since mining operations stopped.  The mining bots are still sitting in place on their rails, idle, right where they were when I left.  I look up and see the long cargo section of the Allgood still faithfully keeping its station out beyond the horizon. Her stainless steel cargo boxes gleam brightly with reflected sunlight.  My boots are working good now, at least when the ground holds still; I stride along the rocky path at a good clip.  I take a last look up at the top of the spire.  A finger of red dust floats near the tip of the spire—that’s when I see something I don’t understand.

It’s a beam.  An invisible, narrow, focused beam, revealed only by its dappled red reflection in the dust.  It’s coming from the top of the spire.  What is going on?  Is Structure shooting at something?  Is it shooting at the Kestrel in retaliation for what it’s crew is doing to him now?  But no, that can’t be, the beam is aimed much too high.  The line of the beam leads to the sky.  What is it that the beam it aimed at?  I crane my neck to follow the path to its destination.  It ain’t pointed at any spacecraft.  All I can see in that direction is faraway Earth, shining like a bright blue star, and nearby its smaller and dimmer neighbor, Luna.  Seems like the beam is aimed that way.