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This is a story I started on the old Black Library forum and never finished. The premise is blatantly stolen from a famous John Carpenter movie...


An Unwelcome Chill

One


The blip on the screen was changing course again.

‘Whoever they are, they didn’t pay a lot of attention in flight school,’ murmured Shank.

‘Another change of heading?’ asked Lieutenant Skagard from beyond the console. ‘Already?’

‘Yessir,’ the Private confirmed. ‘Changing course to 104 mark 66 mark 93 – wait. Scrub that, sir. Changing course to 119 mark 38 mark 18.’

‘What?’ Skagard spun in his chair, frowning at the systems operator. ‘Is he drunk?’

‘Looks like it, sir,’ agreed Shank, throwing a number of switches to align a second sensor dish.

___


Out in the howling tempest, latched to a rocky promontory like a steel wall-flower, the satellite dish began to grind around to its new acquisition. Ice shattered along its ventral axis as the hundred-ton dish rotated ponderously.

___


In the operations room, Shank’s fuzzy screen took on a sharper definition.

‘Still changing course, sir,’ he confirmed, tapping the touch-sensitive screen for further information. ‘Dish 3 is picking up some sort of contrail. Could be debris.’

‘Battle damage, perhaps,’ said the Lieutenant, hanging over the systems operator’s shoulder. ‘That would explain the erratic course. He’s still inbound?’

‘1500 kilometres and closing.’

‘Keep an eye on him,’ advised Skagard, rolling his chair to another console.

___


Captain Belial was in the latrines when the wall-vox behind him chirped.

‘Dammit,’ he muttered, zipping himself up. He marched to the communications device and hammered the plastic transmit button with his fist.

‘What?’ he barked.

‘Lieutenant Skagard in the operations room, sir,’ said the scratchy voice. ‘We have an unidentified vessel on an erratic inbound course.’

‘What do you mean, unidentified?’

‘The mechanicus database doesn’t have any record of this hull design,’ said the voice. ‘Could be a tramp freighter, but I thought you’d want to know.’

Belial pursed his lips in thought. ‘Is he close?’

‘Well inside the outer marker,’ crackled the speaker. ‘If he holds his present course, he’ll hit the atmosphere in about three minutes. The problem is he’s going much too fast for re-entry and his angle’s all wrong. He’ll bounce right off – if he doesn’t blow up first.’

The Captain tapped a finger against the stained plastic vox. It really wasn’t his problem if some fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants privateer came to a sticky end in the arse-end of Imperial space. He’d just rather that sticky end came about on someone else’s world.

‘Notify the men,’ he said. ‘I’ll be up in a minute.’

___


The freighter wobbled on its axis, hurtling towards the grey-white planet below. Much of the outer hull was undamaged, but a section of plating had been stitched with holes from inside and was now venting fuel and atmosphere.

Something inside the vessel sparked and blue tongues of flame knifed from the series of small arms impacts. Black carbon scoring stretched back along the flank of the shuddering spacecraft as the flames grew in size and ferocity.

___


‘Situation report,’ Belial demanded when he strode into the operations room.

‘He’s changed course again, sir,’ said Skagard. ‘Now entering a parabolic curve straight into the atmosphere.’

‘No re-entry correction?’ the Captain frowned.

‘No sir. I’m not even sure he’s at the wheel anymore. Looks like the planet’s gravity is reeling him in.’

‘He’ll be atomised.’

A green light blinked on Skagard’s console. ‘Dr Crowley reports the medical bay ready to receive casualties.’

‘Understood,’ said the Captain, looking down at the readouts on Private Shank’s screen. ‘Although the speed they’re coming down at, I’m not sure they’ll be needed.’

___


The craft dipped lower towards the ice-covered planet. Hull panels, buckled from the heat and velocity, were beginning to peel away. The flames stretched further and further aft as the superheated fuel sliced open a narrow trench in its flank.

Abruptly, something structural was cut through and the port wing twisted and sheared off in an explosion of fragmented alloy. The ship yawed violently.

___


The shimmering green streak on the screen suddenly flashed and splintered.

‘Separation,’ said Shank, hitting controls. ‘Looks like a section of the ship just broke away.’

‘Escape pod?’

‘Could be, sir,’ shrugged the Private. ‘Although it’s a bit late. They’ll hit the upper atmosphere any–’

The screen flashed again and Shank winced in pain, yanking off his headset. The fizzle of solar static was clearly audible through its earpiece.

When the screen cleared, a score of tiny flaring particles were spreading across the screen, scattering like shotgun pellets. A single larger mass continued on through this debris cloud, speeding towards the ground.

‘That’s that,’ said Shank, screwing a finger in his buzzing ear. ‘Looks like the ship exploded on atmospheric contact. That last chunk must be the escape pod.’

‘Intact?’

‘Think so, sir. Whether the men inside survived is another matter.’

Belial watched the streak vanish off the screen. ‘Get me a directional fix on the impact site, Private,’ he said, straightening and rubbing his back.

‘Yes sir.’

He turned to the Lieutenant. ‘Tell Sergeant Rose I want a scouting party organised. And get Seagate to warm up one of the Crawlers.’

‘You think there are survivors, sir?’ asked Skagard as he reached for his console vox.

‘I really couldn’t care less,’ said the Captain. ‘What I’m worried about is the distress beacon from that escape pod. The whole point of being a secret listening post is that no one knows you’re there. We don’t need another ship sniffing around this system if we can help it. Especially an enemy ship.’

‘Understood, sir.’

Belial ground his teeth in annoyance, watching Private Shank triangulating the impact site. ‘I want that expedition underway within the hour,’ he said. ‘And tell Rose to break out the weapons.’
 

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Pretty good read, and I legitimately have no idea who John Carpenter even is...but meh.

One thing that I think you could work on in the future is the actions surrounding the dialogue, for example:

‘Situation report,’ Belial demanded when he strode into the operations room.

‘He’s changed course again, sir,’ said Skagard. ‘Now entering a parabolic curve straight into the atmosphere.’

‘No re-entry correction?’ the Captain frowned.

‘No sir. I’m not even sure he’s at the wheel anymore. Looks like the planet’s gravity is reeling him in.’

‘He’ll be atomised.’

A green light blinked on Skagard’s console. ‘Dr Crowley reports the medical bay ready to receive casualties.’

‘Understood,’ said the Captain, looking down at the readouts on Private Shank’s screen. ‘Although the speed they’re coming down at, I’m not sure they’ll be needed.’
In this portion, you tell the story strictly through dialogue, without much description or narrative. While it wasn't a huge issue, it's something that may detract from more intense portions of the story in the future.

Looking forward to seeing more
 

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Discussion Starter #3
Thanks for the feedback, BOC.


Two

2nd Lieutenant Blanker wasn’t sure what he’d wanted to find at the crash sight, but he was fairly sure this wasn’t it.

Most of the men crammed into the Crawler beside him were just grateful to be out on an honest-to-throne mission after months of interminable boredom and routine. He suspected they really didn’t care what lay at the end of it – just getting out and doing something was a relief. An endless expanse of hard-packed snow stretching in all directions might not have been their first choice, but it was still a change from cramped oil-stained corridors, piping and gantry floors.

Back in the Machinarium, Private Makasura had nearly run over Brother Mayhew, their resident Techpriest, as he attempted to anoint the Crawler’s hull for the journey. It seemed Blanker wasn’t the only one eager to get out into the open air.

He tapped the Crawler pilot on the shoulder as they grew closer to the slanting column of smoke. ‘Any transmissions?’

‘Nothing that I can pick up, Lieutenant,’ Makasura said. ‘If it was an escape pod, it must have got junked when it hit the glacier.’

The structure had smashed like an egg. Debris was scattered in a long expanding cone for several hundred metres. The largest pieces lay in shallow individual craters, formed when the surface melted from the heat of re-entry. Everything had been half-covered by drifting snow in the six hours it had taken Blanker’s party to reach the crash site.

In another six hours, all evidence of the impact would be smothered under a freezing white blanket.

‘Are you picking up anything at all?’ he asked.

‘Not much,’ said the pilot, gesturing at the console. ‘Some residual cosmic radiation, but that’s not unusual. The thermal imager’s not much use, either. Another hour or two and all this debris will be as cold as the snow around it.’

‘I don’t want to take any chances,’ Blanker said. ‘Even if the pod itself has broken up, the transmitter might have survived. We’ll have to collect it all.’

‘What do you want us to do, Lieutenant?’ Sergeant Rose asked from further back in the Crawler.

Blanker had been sent for reasons of medical expertise rather than leadership. The facility nurse and assistant to Dr Crowley, he was less experienced than the other command staff, but his rank still gave him jurisdiction over the mission.

‘Sergeant, have your men gather up all the pieces of the pod,’ he said. ‘Anything larger than a fist. We’ll pile it all together and destroy it with thermite.’

The soldiers grumbled and groaned at this, until the Sergeant cut them short.

‘Button up, you maggots!’ he snapped. ‘You got your orders – I hear so much as a mouse’s fart from any of you and you’ll be double-timing it back to the Machinarium in your skivvies!’

Sergeant Rose was a medical phenomenon. Nineteen times Division boxing champion and with a higher scar-to-body-tissue ratio than any man Blanker had ever seen, it was commonly accepted that the Sergeant was harder than a coffin nail. When he opened his mouth, the men closed theirs.

There was a general scuffle as the men squeezed into their exposure suits. The human body was a frail thing from a cosmic perspective and the wind chill on the Igness glacier brought the temperature down to roughly -60 degrees Celsius. To the unprepared, this meant hypothermia in seconds, frostbite in under a minute and, mercifully, death soon after.

The exposure suits were triple-insulated, electrically heated affairs complete with built-in gloves, helmet and over-boots. They would keep the average man alive, if not necessarily comfortable, in temperatures as low as -100.

They tramped clumsily down the Crawler’s belly-ramp and into the crunching snow.

Blanker felt the wind hit him immediately, even sheltered by the Crawler’s immense wheels, but it was tolerable. In fact, the wind-speed was well below normal for such an exposed area and as a consequence the visibility was much improved.

More typical weather on the Igness glacier was gusting wind up to 200kph and visibility of around five metres. Meteorology was next to useless in such a volatile climate and Blanker knew from bitter experience that this relative calm could change in minutes. For this reason, Private Makasura was staying aboard with orders to keep the engine running.

‘Okay, Tumbler and Cross – get over to the northern edge of the debris field and start working your way in,’ Sergeant Rose said, his voice sounding disembodied and slightly processed inside Blanker’s helmet. ‘Hook, you’re with me.’

The four men broke into two pairs, each making for a separate hunk of twisted metal. Blanker followed them a short way into the debris field, moving directly to the largest remaining section of the pod.

It was near impossible to tell architectural origins from the wreckage. Blanker stooped to lift a corkscrew of carbon scored metal and hefted it. His specialty was medicine rather than engineering, but the metal seemed unremarkable. It was almost certainly of Imperial design.

‘Sergeant Rose,’ he said into his helmet vox. ‘I think we’ll pile all the wreckage here. It’s about as central a point as we’re likely to get and this section looks too big to move by hand.’

‘Right you are, sir,’ replied his helmet speaker. ‘You heard the man, ladies. Time to earn your pay packets.’

They set to work.

___


Blanker was just about to call a halt after the next load of shrapnel when the shout came over his helmet vox.

An hour had passed and the men had carried or dragged virtually every chunk of pod they could find into a waist-high pile, fifty metres from the hulking Crawler. Already the northern side of the pile was beginning to build a modest snow drift and the wind was picking up, bringing with it swirling clouds of snow that frequently blocked his sight of the men around him.

They had found the transmitter beacon among the wreckage – in three pieces. It was marked with Imperial symbols of manufacture, but seemed to belong to a civilian craft rather than military. It looked like Captain Belial’s surmise of a drunken privateer was right, after all.

‘Sarge!’ The voice in his helmet was Private Hook’s and it sounded more surprised than alarmed.

Blanker turned in their direction, but couldn’t see much more than slanting snowfall.

‘Sarge,’ said the Private again. ‘Look at this.’

The seconds ticked out.

‘What is it?’ Blanker asked. ‘Private, what have you found?’

‘It’s a body, sir,’ said Hook. ‘Must have got thrown clear in the crash.’

‘Alive?’ It was a long shot, but Blanker felt compelled to ask.

‘I doubt it, sir.’

‘Stay where you are,’ the Lieutenant said. ‘I’m coming to you.’

He knew Hook’s general direction and set off into the blustering snow. After a few dozen strides, the hazy grey silhouettes of Hook and Sergeant Rose bloomed against the white and he quickened his pace.

The body lay between them, sprawled facedown as if it had indeed been thrown from the wreckage. It wore a flight suit common to spacecraft crew across the galaxy, but the fabric was torn and burst in a dozen places. Rising wind had shifted the skim of snow that had initially hidden the corpse. Its hands and feet were naked and pneumonic blue.

Blanker crouched awkwardly in the bulky suit and brushed snow away from the shoulders and neck. The insulated gloves were much too thick to sense a pulse, but habit made him go through the motions.

‘Dead, sir?’ asked Sergeant Rose. After six hours in sub-zero temperatures, it was unlikely to be anything else.

They rolled the corpse over. Blanker was mildly surprised to find it still supple and not frozen stiff.

It was, or had been, a man. Snow clung to his hair and eyebrows and the skin beneath had the same numb hue as his hands and feet, but there wasn’t a mark on him. His flight suit was all but shredded, but his skin was pristine.

‘No obvious signs of damage,’ he murmured, half to himself. ‘I’d have said the impact killed him by the looks of his clothing, but there’s no tissue damage. It looks more like he died of exposure.’

‘What do you want to do with him, sir?’ Rose asked.

‘Well, we can’t leave him here,’ the Lieutenant said, frowning down at the corpse. ‘We’ll take him back the medical bay. I can perform an autopsy there and find out for certain what killed him.’

The Sergeant shifted his feet.

‘Begging your pardon, sir,’ he said cautiously. ‘Wouldn’t it be better if we buried the gentleman out here? Only, I’m not sure what we’d do with him once we got him home, other than finding out the manner of his death, as you say.’

The Sergeant was correct, of course. Captain Belial would swallow his teeth when the search party returned with a half-frozen corpse they hadn’t set out with. There was no real reason to bring the body back – no dignity to be mustered from a burial at the listening post rather than right here where he had fallen. There was no justification Blanker could give the puzzled Sergeant other than, of course, boredom.

There was something slightly mysterious about the demise of this nameless space traveller and the Lieutenant itched to find out more. An autopsy would prove infinitely more fascinating than another excruciating round of heath checks and dietary programmes.

‘Nevertheless, Sergeant,’ he said. ‘I still intent to-’

He faltered.

The dead man had opened his eyes.
 

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Discussion Starter #4 (Edited)
Three

Blanker’s heart performed a quick two-step and it took all his willpower to resist an urge to lunge backwards. He waited for the body to do something else, but the seconds passed and the man’s eyes stayed open; unfocused, ice-blue, glassy. A thick feathery snowflake landed on one staring pupil and there was no reaction.

‘A reflex,’ he said, hoping his voice sounded steady through the helmet vox. ‘Just a reflex. He’s definitely dead.’

‘You still want to take him back, sir?’ Sergeant Rose inquired. ‘Only, I think you had better check with the Captain first.’

‘Nothing more than a precaution, Sergeant, I’m sure,’ bluffed the 2nd Lieutenant. ‘You men go ahead and put the corpse into a carrier while I vox the command centre.’

He marched off through the crunching snow, missing the Sergeant’s raised eyebrows and the sidelong glance of Private Hook, who evidently didn’t share the Lieutenant’s conviction.

___


‘You’ve found what?’

‘A body, sir,’ Blanker said again, leaning over the Crawler’s vox console. ‘A single human male, perhaps thirty-five years of age. He was probably a member of the flight crew.’ Private Makasura sat nearby in the pilot seat, listening with interest.

‘No others?’ crackled Belial’s voice from the console speaker. The consonants sounded fuzzy, heavy with weather interference.

‘No sir. Just the one body. It looks like he’s the only one that got to the escape pod.’

‘Good,’ said the Captain. ‘Plant some thermite charges to clear up the wreckage and come on home.’

‘Yes sir,’ nodded Blanker. ‘I’m having the corpse sealed in a mortuary bag as we speak. I’ll have the rest of the pod destroyed momentarily.’

‘Sealed? What?’ The Captain sounded perplexed. ‘Leave the damn thing where you found it, Blanker.’

The Lieutenant rested a gloved hand on the vox console and twisted the frequency controller half a degree. The level of background static increased sharply.

‘Sir, the body doesn’t seem injured in any way. I thought it might be beneficial if I performed an autopsy. We may learn more about what happened on board the ship.’

‘Zzzever mind that, Lieutenant,’ fizzled the vox speaker. ‘Just leave the damn thing alone. It’ll bzzzzz…ssssssith the rest of the pod.’

‘I understand your concern, sir,’ consoled Blanker, twisting the controller further off the transmission frequency. ‘Let me assure you that there is absolutely no quarantine risk.’

‘Izzzzkkk….ffffantine risk, Blanker. I don’t care whassssss…ffffff…appened aboard that Throne-damned ship! Make no…fffffzzzzzzzz…to bring back anysssssssss…’

‘You’re breaking up badly, sir,’ half-shouted Blanker, turning the vox further off Belial’s frequency. ‘Don’t worry about this – I have everything in hand. You can rely on me, sir.’

‘Vvvvvvvfffffffff….ssssssszzzzzzz...’

‘Yes sir. Lieutenant Blanker out.’

He shut off the vox transmitter and leaned back. Makasura was staring at him.

‘Something you wish to say, Private?’

‘No, sir,’ the Crawler pilot said.

‘Good. Keep it that way.’

Whistling to himself, Blanker went back down the ramp to oversee the loading of the corpse.

___


Belial banged his fist on the vox console, but it made no change to the steady puttering static.

‘Blanker! Come in, Blanker!’

Behind him, Private Shank glanced at the meteorological survey unit. ‘There’s a big weather front moving in, sir. I guess it’s hitting them a bit earlier than us.’

‘The damned fool’s going to bring that body back here!’ the Captain ranted. ‘What’s he thinking?’

Lieutenant Skagard revolved a slow 360 degrees on his chair. ‘If I know Blanker, he’s thinking this will give him something better to do than check urine samples for the next six months.’

‘Urine samples?’ the Captain growled. ‘I’ll have him cleaning the latrines with his tongue before the day is out for this. He deliberately disobeyed my orders.’

‘The transmission was pretty garbled, Sam,’ said Skagard. ‘You have to consider the possibility he picked you up wrong.’

‘The hell he did,’ Belial said, bristling. ‘And you know it. Blanker’s been very good at getting things his own way up to now, but this time he’s crossed the line. I don’t like being manipulated.’ He returned to the vox console and keyed in Machine Stores.

‘Seagate here,’ said the second Crawler pilot after a moment.

‘Private, I want you to meet Crawler One in the Machinarium the minute it gets back. And bring one of the promethium units.’

‘You want a flamer, sir?’

‘That’s right – I’ll meet you there.’

‘Yes sir.’

Belial released the transmission button and cracked his hairy knuckles.

‘I wonder what’s going to please Blanker more,’ he said, showing yellowed teeth in something approximating a vicious grin. ‘Learning of his latrine duty or watching his pet project going up in the flames on the Machinarium floor.’

___


The atmosphere had changed aboard the Crawler.

The massive armoured machine ground its way homeward across the glacier, bumping and lurching over ridges of crusty snow while a steadily increasing wind thumped and scraped at its hull. Inside, despite the comparative comfort and warmth of clicking humming machines and soft instrument lights, the men were nervous.

All eyes were on the glossy black satchel lying in the gangway between their booted feet. It rocked and slithered in time with the Crawler, but the quick eyes among them had detected a suggestion of something else. Sometimes, the thick plastic of the mortuary bag would settle or shift microscopically, almost of its own accord.

It was substantially warmer within the ground vehicle than without, and rational minds supposed that this was to blame – warm or cold air thermals mixing inside the bag, or some other uncommon physical reaction witnessed only in great disparities of temperature. That was it.

All the watchers privately reassured themselves that the vehicle’s heat seeping through the plastic cocoon was the catalyst for these odd, tiny disturbances. No one entertained the possibility that the thing inside, blue and frozen, could possibly be moving.

Of course not.
 

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Discussion Starter #5 (Edited)
Four

Brother Mayhew hovered nearby as Belial watched the inner Machinarium doors grinding open. The Techpriest Overseer’s eternal optimism and industry were a source of irritation to the foul tempered Captain on the best of days. Today was the not the best of days.

At his elbow, Private Seagate waited with the promethium flamer over his shoulder. Seagate was a good soldier, Belial mused. He did what he was told and took pretty much everything at face value – he didn’t question his superiors and that was really all it took to grease the wheels of military hierarchy.

Not like Brother Mayhew, whose loyalties and devotions were for those things mechanical and electrical, and certainly not that viper Blanker, whose concern went no further than the preservation of his own greasy skin.

Give me a few more Seagates and I’ll give you an army to be proud of, he thought.

‘Crawler One approaches, Captain,’ Mayhew said, sounding as always like a vox transmitter in a bathtub. ‘I must lay the sacrament of Faithful Service to mark its return. With your sanction.’

Belial flicked the Techpriest away impatiently. He had little truck with the arcane side of the great Machine Spirit – in his experience of field mechanics, you could get just as far with an expletive and a kick as you could with a ritual of chanting and sacred oils.

The Techpriest hissed and clanked his way across the cavernous vehicle garage and began laying violet plas-silk scarves on the oil-stained concrete. His servo limbs wove and chattered as he threaded the Crawler’s path with blessings.

A moment later, red warning lights began to revolve and a klaxon blared rudely. The weather-scored outer doors yawned open, emitting a knifing wind into the Machinarium that stole the breath from Belial’s lungs and made the Private at his flank turn away wincing.

Brother Mayhew was transformed to a jittering spider silhouette as the Crawler’s huge blunt head appeared through the driving snow, sporting a dozen sets of blazing halogen lights. The giant transport grumbled and rumbled its way into the garage, all eight wheels and much of its outer skin glazed in ice.

Belial refused to turn his head away from the stinging cold, shrinking his eyes to slits as the swirling cloud of frozen air engulfed him. He heard Seagate cursing under his breath. These were the things that made a commanding officer more than the emblem on his sleeve, he knew. He felt the terrible cold as much as the Private beside him, but was careful not to show it.

Set your jaw, son, he thought, and one day you might be me.

___


‘Outer doors are shut,’ Makasura reported as he guided the lumbering vehicle across the Machinarium floor to Garage No 1. Away down below, he could see the tiny shape of Techpriest Mayhew laying a track of blessed epitrachilions to mark the Crawler’s path back to the garage. ‘We’ll be docked in just a moment, sir.’

‘Good,’ said Blanker, but without conviction. He had already spotted Captain Belial standing to the left of the Garage entrance, with Seagate at his side. The Private was carrying a flamethrower. There were no leaps of deductive knowledge required to understand what that was for.

That damned ape Belial was going to burn his prize. He knew it was nothing to do with quarantine or regulations or anything else, although the Captain would certainly use one or all of them to justify himself later.

He was going to do it to punish Blanker.

The Lieutenant glared out through the armoured windshield at the post commander, the wheels of his mind turning furiously. He wouldn’t be denied his autopsy.

Blanker put a gloved hand on the Crawler pilot’s shoulder. ‘Get me a vox line to the medlab,’ he said, his eyes never leaving the image of Belial and the waiting flamer.

The game’s not up yet, Captain.

___


With the Crawler parked and its access ramp down, Belial and Private Seagate moved forward. Both outer and inner doors were now closed, but as the Captain walked under the shadow of the massive transport vehicle, he felt the temperature drop sharply. To touch the metal hull of the Crawler now with bare flesh would be to have fingers turn black as coal and snap off. The entire vehicle would have to be blasted with super-heated steam before Mayhew and his servitors could continue their machinations.

‘Light that thing up, Private,’ Belial said. Seagate twisted a dial and the flamer emitted a reassuring snap-hisssss as the blue pilot light ignited in its muzzle.

The men began to disembark in single-file, still wearing their environment suits with the helmets removed or flipped back to protect stray limbs from the frozen skin of the Crawler.

Sergeant Rose came first, backing down the ramp with one end of the mortuary bag. Private Hook had the other and looked none too pleased about it. Between them, they humped the heavy cocoon down and dropped it unceremoniously half a dozen metres from the rear of the Crawler.

Belial noticed how the other men milled around a distance away. No one seemed to want to get anywhere near the black shape.

‘Sergeant,’ Belial snapped.

Rose straightened and threw him a salute. ‘Sir.’

‘This is the body you recovered from the crash site?’

‘That’s right, sir.’

‘What did you make of it?’

The Sergeant paused a moment in thought. ‘Just a body, sir. Frozen in the snow.’

‘And you brought it back. Why, exactly?’

Sergeant Rose met Belial’s gaze. ‘As I understood it, sir, Lieutenant Blanker had cleared that with you already. I believe he intended to autopsy the…’

‘Did he,’ cut in the Captain. ‘Very good, Sergeant. Take your detachment to the mess hall and get some hot java in them.’

‘Sir.’ The Sergeant threw another salute then gathered up the lingering Privates with a barked command.

Belial waited at the foot of the Crawler, his gaze alternating between the empty ramp and the inert plastic satchel on the Machinarium floor. The seconds ticked past and the Captain’s internal mercury climbed. He could have given the order to burn the body right there and then – watched as Seagate bathed the corpse in flaming promethium – but he didn’t. He wanted Blanker to be there when he destroyed the thing, and what frustrated him the most was the Lieutenant knew it too.

So long as the medical officer lingered inside the Crawler, Belial was forced to await his pleasure.

‘Blanker!’ he roared presently. ‘What are you doing in there, man? Front and centre!’

At excruciating length, the Lieutenant appeared at the top of the ramp and clanked down to ground level, a pleasant smile on his face.

‘My apologies, Captain,’ he said. ‘I didn’t realise you were waiting for me. I was going to bring you my report once I had secured…’

‘...the body?’ Belial finished for him. ‘The body that I expressly forbade you to bring back?’

‘Forbade?’ Blanker’s expression of bafflement was flawless. ‘But, sir, if you remember the vox transmission from the site – I indicated that an autopsy would help me piece together what had happened to the transport and you agreed. I remember distinctly that you agreed.’

‘You are standing on extremely thin ice, Lieutenant,’ Belial growled. ‘Choose your next words carefully.’

‘Sir, I recall the conversation clearly,’ Blanker continued. ‘As I understood it, you concurred with my suggestion to bring the body back to medlab for further investigation. I’m sure that Private Makasura will corroborate this – he was present in the Crawler and must surely have heard the conversation.’

‘I’ll bet,’ said Belial. Makasura was a spineless ingrate who had yes-sir, no-sir, three-bags-full-sir’d his way to the relatively cushy position of Crawler pilot. ‘When we check the vox logs, I’m sure we’ll find that I unconditionally refused your request to bring that body back here. What I told you to do was to leave it with all the rest of the wreckage and destroy everything with thermite.’

‘I don’t understand how this could have happened,’ said Blanker. ‘There was some transmission breakup, but I thought…’

‘I know exactly what you thought, Lieutenant,’ interrupted the Captain.

‘Sir, I…’

‘I’ve heard enough, Lieutenant,’ he said, holding up a hand. ‘Seagate, burn that thing.’

The Private stepped forward, aiming the blackened nozzle of the flamer.

‘Just a moment, Private,’ said an authorative voice behind them.
 

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Me likey so far, would i be correct in guessing that the carpenter film you "aquired inspiration" is the thing?
 

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Discussion Starter #8
Wow - having real problems adding the next segment to the story.

Any reason why it should suddenly start throwing up 404 errors? Is there a maximum amount of data that can be posted per day?
 

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Discussion Starter #9 (Edited)
Five


‘Ah,’ smiled Blanker. ‘Captain Crowley – just the man I was hoping to see.’

Belial finally realised why the Lieutenant had taken so long to come down out of the Crawler – he’d been on the vox to the facility doctor, and the only man in the station who, under the right circumstances, could oppose his authority.

‘What’s going on, Captain?’ Crowley asked. His narrow face and glittering black eyes always gave him the appearance of some wizened raptor, watching for the hint of a field mouse.

‘Nothing you had to leave medlab for, Basil,’ he countered. ‘What are you doing here?’

‘2nd Lieutenant Blanker requested my assistance in the Machinarium. He mentioned something about a crash victim and impending autopsy.’

So that’s it, Belial thought. Share the spoils with your superior officer. Assisting in an autopsy is still better than watching the whole thing go up in smoke.

‘Well, I’m sorry you made a wasted journey,’ he said. ‘The Lieutenant brought a corpse back from the crash site against my orders. I was about to reprimand him after having it destroyed.’ He motioned with his hand. ‘Carry on, Private.’

Seagate stepped forward again.

‘Have you considered,’ cut in Captain Crowley in such a manner that Seagate halted again, ‘that an autopsy might actually prove beneficial?’

Belial rolled his eyes. Boredom clearly wasn’t confined just to the junior medical staff. ‘In what way?’

‘If a virus or disease killed this man, we may all be in danger,’ Crowley said. ‘An autopsy would reveal that. More specifically, the autopsy would reveal an affliction with an incubation period that might not manifest itself for days or even weeks. Fore warned is fore armed, wouldn’t you say?’

‘So what you’re saying is Lieutenant Blanker broke the regulations of quarantine?’

‘Not necessarily,’ Crowley said. ‘The Lieutenant has sealed the corpse in an airtight container and it is unlikely that any microbes clinging to the outside of their environment suits would have survived the temperature outside.’

‘So there’s no risk of disease, then,’ Belial said.

‘I said unlikely, not impossible,’ the doctor corrected.

He’s a slippery one, Belial thought.

‘Alright, Basil,’ he nodded. ‘You can have your autopsy. I’ll detail two men to take the corpse to medlab, on the condition that the body is destroyed after you identify the cause of death. Agreed?’

‘Agreed,’ nodded the doctor.

‘I’ll go and prepare the…’ started Blanker.

‘Not so fast, Lieutenant,’ said the Captain. ‘You’re on latrine duty, effective immediately.’

‘Sir?’ The Lieutenant blinked. ‘Captain Crowley will need an assistant…’

‘But not you,’ Belial snapped. ‘You’re on punishment detail.’

‘Captain Belial,’ said the doctor. ‘Lieutenant Blanker is my medical staff. Surely it is for me to decide…’

‘In medical matters, absolutely,’ Belial continued. ‘But in all other station matters, specifically discipline for disobeying direct orders, I have authority.’

Crowley nodded and stepped back. He had what he wanted. It was just possible that Crowley disliked Blanker even more than he did.

‘Still here, Lieutenant?’ snapped Belial. ‘There’s sixteen crap-stained heads needing your surgical skills. Snap to it!’

Blanker lingered long enough to shoot his superior a look of pure green venom, then offered an insolent salute and stalked away across the Machinarium.

AUG-915444X, one of the station’s two Servitors and christened ‘Laurel’, rattled into Garage No. 1 and began dousing the frozen Crawler with jets of angry white steam. Captain Belial stood in the warm, billowing smoke and took a deep breath and savoured the intoxicating vapours of petty victory.

___


‘How long, now?’

Munich flicked through loose printer leafs clipped to a board on the rust-blistered wall. He did some quick mental arithmetic.

‘Four-hundred and sixty-one days,’ he said. ‘Getting close.’

‘Not close enough, though, huh?’ Burbank grinned.

‘Closer than it was yesterday.’

‘Trust me, baby,’ the Corporal said, stretching on his bunk. ‘It’s not the leaving you’ll remember. It’s the coming back for another 500 shift.’

‘Leaving? Not me, man,’ said Munich. ‘They’re not getting rid of me. No way.’

‘Oh?’ Burbank cocked an eyebrow. ‘You know something I don’t?’

‘I’m gonna have me an accident,’ said the Private. ‘Just before the shuttle leaves. I got it all worked out.’

Burbank leaned forward, listening with interest.

‘Reckon that a tumble down the dock steps ought to do it,’ Munich continued. ‘Bust a leg, maybe my head. I’ll be in the medlab for at least a week – the shuttle’ll be long gone by then. Another 500 days before the next one…’ Munich shrugged. ‘Nothing to do but kick back and make snowmen.’

‘What you want to get stuck in a dump like this for, anyway?’

‘This ain’t my first posting, that’s why,’ the Private said. ‘You think you’re doing well getting off this ice-ball? After a few days R&R, they’ll stick you in a trench on the front line of some war-torn crap-hole with a lasgun and a couple million screaming Xenos running at you. That’s why.’

Burbank chuckled. ‘You got it all worked out.’

Figures were marching past the open dormitory doorway and both men glanced up. Their expressions froze when they saw Privates Hook and Cross struggling with a body bag.

Munich swore. ‘Somebody bought it on the glacier?’

‘Relax, lads,’ puffed Hook, pausing with his labour. ‘Nobody’s bought it. We found a body out at the crash site. He’s on his way to medlab so Doctor Death can cut him up.’

‘Good riddance, I say,’ muttered Cross. ‘Creepy looking sonofabitch.’

The soldiers struggled past and on down the corridor. Munich and Burbank watched the darkening doorway for a while, their mirth forgotten.

Outside, through layers of concrete and plasteel, the wind was howling.
 

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Discussion Starter #10
Grrrr. Does anyone else have trouble importing data onto the forum?

I'm cut-and-pasting from Word onto the site using Firefox - it seemed to be working fine...and not it's not. Error 404 every time.

This is getting very frustrating.
 

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Discussion Starter #11
Six


Crowley pulled the latex gloves on slowly, methodically. He was in no hurry.

‘Subject is a human male, roughly thirty-five years old,’ he said, while the medlab recording unit clicked and hummed. ‘No visible signs of injury to the cadaver, despite damage to subject’s flight suit that would suggest considerable impact trauma.’

He glanced at the ripped and mangled suit in a nearby basin, smoothing the powdered latex on his long, clever fingers. It had given him pause for thought when he had first unzipped the mortuary bag. Such catastrophic damage to the fabric would have indicated the body within should have suffered corresponding injury, but the skin was unbroken, unbruised – utterly without blemish, in fact.

Lieutenant Blanker had been right – this was an interesting case.

‘Cause of death is not immediately clear,’ he continued, crossing to a cabinet and perusing a selection of cutting tools. ‘Likely the internal organs will be damaged or even liquefied by the crash impact while leaving much of the outer shell intact. It is possible that the extreme cold has caused immediate contraction of surface capillaries, restricting bruising to deeper dermal layers. In any case, the formation of bruised tissue would have been arrested by the loss of circulation upon the subject’s d…’

He twisted in place, staring at the body on the table.

Had it just..? He stood in place, his hand closed into a fist around a long-bladed scalpel. Ten seconds passed and the corpse stayed as a corpse – lying on its back on the mortuary table, naked and quite dead.

His heart rate settled. Just for a moment there, he thought he had seen the leg move in his peripheral vision. He shook his head, licked dry lips.

‘…the subject’s death,’ he finished.

Returning to the table, he looked closely at the body. The grey-blue pallor had rescinded in the warmer temperatures of the station’s interior, and a subtle pinkish hue had returned to the naked tissue. One could be forgiven for thinking this was merely a man asleep rather than dead, were it not or the open, staring eyes.

Slightly unsettled by the body’s daunting gaze, Crowley had closed the lids twice already, only to turn his back a moment and find them sprung open again. He had the strangest sensation that he was being watched.

Other than the clicking and breathing of various machines, medlab was silent and empty – he was alone with the body. He caught himself wishing that he had pushed Captain Belial harder over the issue of preventing Blanker from assisting with the autopsy. Not that the self-possessed 2nd Lieutenant would have been of any use to him, but some human company would be comforting right now.

He cleared his throat and leaned over the body, positioning his left hand in the hollow of its ribcage while he lowered the glinting scalpel in his right.

Through the latex, the corpse’s skin almost felt warm.

‘Beginning the y-incision,’ he said and pushed the silver blade into the dead pilot’s flesh.
 

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Discussion Starter #12 (Edited)
Seven


Blanker stood in the latrine doorway, one hand on the utensil cart he had wheeled from the custodial office and the other clenched into a white knuckled fist.

The stench from the poorly maintained toilet block was appalling, but his revulsion at the opening of the door was quickly grappled into a headlock and subdued by his all-consuming sense of injustice. To be reduced to this when all he wanted was a moment’s release from crushing boredom…he ground his teeth.

Belial knew what Blanker’s work rota consisted of – weekly dietary checks for station personnel, weekly health checks for station personnel, weekly urine sample checks for station personnel – and yet he wouldn’t allow the man a single glimmer of distraction.

So what if he brought a corpse back? Really, in the grand scheme of the Imperium, was one recreational autopsy so much to ask? What did the pilot care? He was dead for Throne’s sake.

More frustrating yet was the knowledge that old Crowley was up there in medlab, cutting up his body – reaping unjust rewards while his junior officer paid the price for his afternoon’s distraction. The doddering old fart had probably dropped his scalpel down the sink, he was so excited.

Blanker glowered at the gloomy, stinking latrine and its double row of cubicles. Each one doubtless contained an unsanitary horror and each one would be inspected ruthlessly by Captain Belial the moment he reported back from punishment detail.

The Lieutenant huffed and squared his shoulders. He wasn’t going to give that bald-headed megalomaniac the satisfaction. Besides, if he tore though it fast enough, he might get back to medlab in time to…

His train of thought shuddered and derailed, shunted off the tracks by an echoing conflagration coming from somewhere deeper in the facility. He looked back along the concrete tunnel in confusion and alarm as several different thoughts came to him at once.

At first, he thought an air vent or cowling on the surface must had torn off and the howling arctic wind had burst into the facility. But no – drowning out that sharp-edged shrieking was a basso profundo rumbling unlike anything he’d ever heard. It sounded alive and angry and utterly, utterly alien.

And then the howling wind wasn’t wind any more. It was a human voice, distended beyond recognition by terror.

___


A knot of men raced to the door of medlab, Corporal Burbank in the lead. He skidded to a halt with arms spread wide, his eyes bulging, absorbing the impacts of the troopers behind. His mouth began to make stammering noises of denial.

But there was no denying the thing that writhed and twisted in the centre of medlab.

It was standing on the chromed metal autopsy gurney, or perhaps crouching – it was difficult to tell. Crooked limbs twisted and re-hinged themselves even as he watched. The crackling of moving bone was audible even through countless layers of livid boiling flesh.

‘Sweet Emperor’s Mercy,’ Burbank said in a voice almost devoid of emotion – his traumatised brain had forgotten to include it.

The upper half of the thing was a mountainous swaying tumour of pink muscle striated with white fat. Round black protuberances were emerging from the trembling hulk, somewhere between knobbed brain tissue and huge multi-faceted eyes. Barbed ropes of tissue were erupting from blisters all over the tortured surface, whipping and cracking, throwing droplets of thick pink jelly everywhere.

The entire thing seeped and glistened like a fresh wound.

And that was when Burbank noticed Captain Crawley – suspended four feet above the medlab floor, snarled like a struggling fly in layers of pulsing tendrils and thick limbs that might have been loosely classified as humanoid but for the yellow spines emerging from each joint. Crawley’s attempt at a scream was drowned by coils of rubbery matter filling his mouth.

Stripped of rational thought in his terror, the Corporal snatched up a metal chair and made to advance on the bubbling, screeching apparition.

Strong hands gripped him.

‘Stand away, soldier!’ barked Captain Belial. ‘Whatever you do, don’t touch it!’

‘It’s killing the Captain!’ Burbank jabbered, his eyes fixed on the shivering medical officer.

‘Seagate!’ Belial roared, still forcibly restraining the NCO. ‘Where’s that flamer?’

The Private shouldered his way through a goggling throng of terrified men. His face was white as milk, but the flame unit was in his hands and its blue pilot light ran steady.

‘Burn it, man!’ the Captain ordered.

‘Doctor Crow…’

‘Burn it!’

Grimacing, Seagate aimed low and pressed the release stud.

The flamer’s high-pressure hiss of ejected promethium was almost instantly overshadowed by the tremendous whummphh of ignition. A rolling ball of white fire washed across the silver autopsy gurney and licked at the exposed flank of the creature.

It recoiled instantly with a burbling, gargling scream, sloughing off layers of scalded and charred flesh. Twisting to face this new threat, the men saw shiny scales like black fingernails erupting along its flanks. The burned skin on the lab floor squirmed, its fatty residue bubbling and spitting in the heat.

‘Again!’ Belial demanded, succeeding in getting Burbank behind him.

A second blast of fire engulfed the monstrous thing. It reacted by throwing a slime-plastered Crawley across the lab where he smashed a plastic cupboard and dropped boneless to the floor. The creature was already rippling and changing again. Arms suddenly buckled and expanded in a titanic crackle of muscle and tendon. Snapping, slavering jaws stretched out towards the startled Seagate.

The Private dropped to one knee and jetted a steady stream of white flame over the advancing horror.

Those at the back of the lab could feel the incredible heat from ten metres away. Boiling white flames engulfed it, blazing promethium pouring down its bulbous torso and as its roars and struggles intensified, churning clouds of acrid black smoke began to fill up the medlab.

A fire alarm was already warbling, but Munich was at the wall console, frantically trying to override the sprinklers with fear-numbed fingers.

Through the searing heat distortion and licking fire, they could see the creature bursting open again and again, shedding one layer after another as it fought to resist the flames. Nightmarish shapes were glimpsed through the blaze, blackened skeletal images and knots of foreign tissue that spouted and wrenched their way to the surface.

Seagate kept up the steady stream of white heat, fanning it back and forth across the gurney, washing and re-washing the burning, fighting thing with more fuel. The smoke had reached the men by now, and with it the stink of charred meat.

Screaming in a horribly human way, the lashing thing toppled over backwards, crashing into a utensil cabinet and scattering stainless steel apparatus everywhere. There it lay, warbling and howling in agony, still engulfed in roaring crackling flame.

‘Watch it,’ warned Belial. ‘Don’t get near it – it’s not dead yet.’

The screeching lasted a long time. At length, the blackened mass could manage little more than convulsive shivering, but it seemed the cracked and blistered tissues had lost their metamorphosing ability. Seagate washed it again and again with the flamer, holding his breath against the choking fumes while almost all the others had retreated to the doorway to retch or strive for cleaner air.

Shank and Tumbler grabbed Captain Crowley and dragged him out into the corridor – the semi-conscious man left a trail of pink sludge.

In the end the thing was motionless. Belial left it burning and began pushing the rest of the men away from the scene. Traumatised, smoke-blackened faces stared at one another, doughy and slack with shock.

‘Emperor’s Mercy,’ whispered Burbank again. He was still clutching the steel chair.
 

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Discussion Starter #13
Eight


Blanker arrived just as they were dragging Captain Crowley into the hallway. The older man appeared to be liberally covered in transparent pink jelly and was vomiting up great masses of the stuff onto the concrete floor.

Black, evil smelling smoke was venting into the corridor. It caught in Blanker’s throat while he panted to regain his breath – four hundred and sixty days of desk work and urine samples had taken their toll on his fitness.

‘What happened?’ he asked as soon as his lungs would permit.

‘Some big frakking thing had a hold of the Captain,’ explained Shank, his eyes wide with fright and adrenaline. ‘Never seen anything like it.’

The 2nd Lieutenant crouched over his medical superior – the man’s thin hair was slicked to his head with the jelly; his flesh glistened with it. Conscious of a possible bio-hazard, Blanker neglected to touch the Captain and instead indicated the other men’s wet hands.

‘You’d best clean that off,’ he said.

They wiped their hands on their fatigues absently, clearly still traumatised by something that had happened inside medlab.

Hook and Munich came through the door into the corridor, both of them pale as ghosts. Corporal Burbank followed a second later, carrying a chair.

‘What’s going on in there?’ the Lieutenant asked.

‘Better go speak to the Captain,’ Burbank said. ‘It’s all frakked up in there.’

Blanker went to the doorway and peered in, his eyes smarting from the thick smoke.

A great blackened shape was sprawled in the centre of the room amid broken and overturned gurneys and tables. It looked rather liked a burned tree. Private Seagate was prodding it cautiously with a boot and still holding the flamer that had undoubtedly scorched it to a cinder.

Beside him were Captain Belial and Sergeant Rose. Both faces wore identical expressions of concern.

‘Captain?’

Belial turned and caught sight of the 2nd Lieutenant. ‘How is Dr Crowley?’ he asked.

‘Well, he’s breathing at least,’ Blanker said. ‘He’s covered in some sort of...’

‘I know,’ Belial said. ‘It came from the...creature that attacked him.’

‘What was it?’

‘Look for yourself,’ the Captain grunted, indicated the smoking hump on the medlab floor.

Blanker advanced cautiously. What he had first taken to be a tree turned out to be five or six different animals all apparently spliced together. He recognised limbs in a variety of forms; tissue formations and organs from radically different branches of evolution all overlapping and mixed with each other. There were mouths everywhere. It was a biological nightmare.

‘Emperor’s Mercy,’ he said. ‘What is this?’

‘With Dr Crowley out of action, it’ll be your job to find that out,’ the Captain said curtly.

Blanker had expected this of course, but it didn’t make the duty any more palatable.

‘I’ll need help,’ he said.

‘You can have Seagate and Burbank – they got the best look at it.’

‘Alright. In that case, I have to insist that no one touches anything from this moment on. We need to treat all these secretions as bio-hazards until I’ve had a chance to run some tests.’

‘Fine,’ Belial nodded. His eyes were still on the black ruin.

Blanker chewed his lip and stared at the smoking mound on the floor. Xeno-biology was way over his head and in truth he didn’t have the first clue how to start identifying it. Perhaps discovering where it had come from would point him in the right direction.

‘How did it get in here?’ he asked.

‘Sergeant, organise an immediate facility-wide search,’ Belial said. ‘I don’t want any more of these things turning up.’

‘Yessir,’ Rose said. ‘Whatever hole this frakker crawled in through, we’ll find it.’

Blanker cast his eyes over the trashed medlab. Something in the picture didn’t quite fit – there was something out of place. It took him a while to realise it.

‘The dead pilot,’ he said. ‘The autopsy.’

‘Huh?’ grunted Belial.

‘The body,’ clarified Blanker. ‘It’s gone.’
 

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Discussion Starter #14
Nine


The command centre was abnormally quiet and Captain Belial had worried his remaining nails to the quick. In the hours since the creature had attacked Dr Crowley, an uneasy expectation had settled over the men. Sergeant Rose’s and Corporal Burbank’s teams were down in the service tunnels under the listening post, working their way methodically from one air duct to the next, checking for breaches.

No possible entry point had been found within the facility itself and Belial had argued that the creature must have come from that dark labyrinth beneath their feet – perhaps a maintenance hatch or vent cover had been left ajar.

Lieutenant Skagard was still manning the outpost dish monitors, but at his elbow Private Munich was in constant contact with the two teams, murmuring into a headset every few seconds as Brother Mayhew ticked off intersections and hatch covers on the facility schematics.

Belial had ordered the men to go armed; lasguns and a flamer for each three-man team as well as a Servitor. They would need welding equipment and technical expertise if they found a ruptured vent or hatch that needed sealing.

Things had been progressing smoothly, but Belial was agitated. There were too many unanswered questions regarding this turn of events. The creature could only have come from outside, yet this planet had no indigenous life and despite its horrific nature it didn’t look equipped to survive -100c temperatures. And how had it got into medlab? Even if it had found a way through the maintenance tunnels, surely someone would have seen or heard it moving through the corridors? And why go all the way out to medlab to attack the Doctor, when there were almost a dozen men closer to hand in the command centre and crew quarters?

And where had the body of the pilot gone? That was the strangest conundrum of all. Belial had toyed briefly with the creature having eaten the corpse – perhaps the smell of carrion was what attracted it in the first place – but his instinct told him this was unlikely. He had a suspicion of something else, something that hadn’t fully formed in his mind yet, but even the suggestion of it made him intensely uncomfortable.

He spat out a crescent of chewed nail and frowned over Brother Mayhew’s facility schematics.

‘Anything?’

‘Regretfully, they have found nothing so far, Captain,’ the Techpriest said. ‘I estimate that they have covered sixty percent of possible access points to the facility.’

‘Every nook and cranny, remember,’ reminded Belial. ‘I don’t want another of these frakkers creeping up on us during the night.’

‘Understood, Captain.’

___

Sergeant Rose was doing his best to stay sharp as they moved along yet another grey octangular corridor, but the tunnels were all beginning to blend into one another. Every few seconds, they would pass a crude white stencil of the intersection number and Private Cross would give their location to the command centre through his vox headset.

It was dark down here and other than Brother Mayhew activating sections of tunnel lighting according to their position each man had only flashlights and the mobile spotlight on ‘Hardy’s servo-arm.

The power current made an audible thrum when the lighting activated and almost half of the roof bulbs were dead or dying. The grey concrete tunnel wavered between blue-white and areas of sickly yellow or flickering orange. The longer he stayed down here, the more Rose felt like he was crawling along the gut of some giant diseased animal.

There was no heating down here and the temperature was a steady -25c. Even with heavily insulated fatigues and flak jackets, helmets and gloves, they were all cold. No one spoke other than Cross’s whispered check-ins and the fluttering echo of their boots. Fortunately, ‘Hardy’s tracks were rubberised – the puttering and occasional squeaking of his motor was strangely comforting in this hollow, barren place.

Along with himself, Cross and ‘Hardy’ the servitor was Private Tumbler. Lingering at the back of the procession and repeatedly glancing over his shoulder, the Private seemed unduly agitated. Perhaps the events of medlab had shaken him more than he liked to admit.

As they advanced, a section of lighting was shut down behind them, plunging the tunnel at their back into pitch darkness. Tumbler twisted around, hunching ever so slightly as he played his lasgun flashlight across the dark expanse.

‘Why can’t they leave the lights on, Sarge?’ he complained. ‘Feels like a mausoleum down here.’

‘There’s nearly forty klicks of tunnels down here,’ Rose said. ‘The generators couldn’t take it. That’s why.’

‘Yeah, but every time those lights go out, I get the feeling somethin’ is creeping up behind us.’

‘Stow that chat, Private,’ Rose growled, but the damage had been done. Cross twisted around to regard the shadows behind them with an unsettled expression. ‘Eyes front, Cross. Intersection ahead.’

They arrived at a crossroads – four identical octagonal tunnels stretched out before them, each one dissolving into inky blackness. Flashlights were played around and illuminated nothing.

Cross read out the stencil on the intersection floor, unconsciously touching the vox-bead in his ear. ‘Four-six-kilo-six. Copy?’

‘Copy,’ fizzled the bead. ‘Proceed north to four-six-kilo-niner – maintenance hatch on the western wall.’

‘Understood.’

Tumbler was looking off to the west, an uncertain frown on his face. He took a hesitating step away from the little knot of humanity, squinting into the gloom.

‘Don’t wander off, Tumbler,’ warned the Sergeant. ‘We’ve got-’

His words were drowned by the crack and crimson flash of a lasgun.

‘There! There!’ Tumbler shrieked and fired a second brilliant beam down the west tunnel. ‘I see it!’

The others dropped to one knee in firing positions, but could see nothing other than Tumbler’s jittering back.

‘Get out of the way, Private!’ snapped Rose. ‘You’re in my firing line!’

‘It’s running!’ the Private shouted and began to race down the corridor. His pounding boots filled the tunnel with huge rolling echoes while his flashlight beam bounced wildly up and down the walls.

‘Hold your ground!’ roared Rose, but the Private was already fifty metres out and showed no signs of stopping. ‘Frakking fool’s going to get himself lost – hold the intersection, Cross! I’ll bring him back.’

Rose raced down the tunnel, leaving Cross hunkered in a small illuminated crossroads surrounded by menacing black tunnels.
 
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