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- "Lost Ramos is truly a lost system...You will find nothing there but death."

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Pitch Dark

461 ATA (538 years prior to the events of Conflagration)

Amundsen Expedition, Lost Ramos, Neutral Space

“I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”

Lieutenant Avi Peretz groaned as the tired old cliché drifted forward from the rear of his squad.  “Really, Cotter?” he protested.  “All the multitudes of expression in the languages of the galaxy, and that’s the best you’ve got?”

“Hey, you know me, sir,” Private Cotter replied roguishly.  “Small words and short sentences.”

“Ain’t that the truth,” Sergeant Chen lamented.  “How about tryin’ for no words while we complete our sweep? Silence bein’ golden and all.”

“Sorry, Top,” Cotter muttered over a chorus of stifled sniggers.

Avi shared a knowing eye-roll with his NCO. She stepped past him, peering at the massive stone portal the scans had identified as having a hollow space beyond.  “Looks old as dirt,” she judged expertly, tracing the lines in the stonework with a gloved finger.  “Whoever locked it’s been gone a long time. Hope they didn’t leave the gas on.”

Avi nodded.  “Anything on the bioscans?”

“Negative, sir,” Corporal Santos replied.  “The stone’s too thick to penetrate.” He tapped a few commands into the scanner’s keyboard.  “There’s a mechanism embedded in the doors—there’s gotta be a way to open it.”

“Look for a panel on the right-hand side, about two metres up,” a new voice instructed, and Avi heaved an exasperated sigh as he turned to intercept the speaker.

“You were asked to remain with the landing craft until we secured the site, Professor.”

“How do you propose to secure it, Lieutenant, if you can’t even open the door?” Professor Maldini clapped Avi boisterously on the shoulder as he bounded past.  “Magnificent!  Look at the craftsmanship in these carvings!”

Peretz studied the glyphs inscribed in the stone for a moment, a tongue of foreboding licking down his spine and provoking a shiver.  He wasn’t superstitious by any stretch of the imagination, but there was something off-putting about the twisted, tortuous symbols. It was impossible to follow the lines, for one thing, and every time he looked at them he swore he could see something move in his peripheral vision.

Chen wriggled her shoulders at the exact same moment, her kit jangling under the movement. Avi exchanged a wry glance with her, then swept his torch over the right side of the portal, revealing a smooth, obsidian-dark square set in the dark grey stone.  “That what you’re looking for, Professor?”

“Yes, yes.  Just so.” Maldini hurried over, peering owlishly at the blank, polished surface for a moment before prodding it tentatively with a finger.

Nothing happened.

Maldini tried two fingers, then his full palm, with no better success.

“Knock, knock!” Cotter called boisterously, banging his rifle butt against the door.

“Knock it off,” Chen growled, slapping his rifle down. “Since you’ve got so much excess energy, how ‘bout you take a walk that-a-way,” the sergeant pointed to the second corridor leading from the antechamber, opposite the one they’d entered from, “and see if there’s anything down there for the Professor to look at.”

“Aw, Top, c’mon, I…”

“Do it, Cotter,” Avi cut in.  “Volkov, you too. Sound off if you find anything.  Stay in radio contact, and within a half-klick range.”

“Aye, sir.” Volkov stalked past, grabbing a still-grumbling Cotter by his gear harness and dragging him toward the tunnel. Avi crossed the chamber to Maldini’s side.

“What’s the problem?”

Maldini shook his head.  “I’m not sure. The mechanism’s similar to one reported on a dig site in the Darkwood system by an Ercinean expedition fifty years ago.” He consulted the portable comm terminal slung on a lanyard around his neck.  “Hmm.  They never did report how they got it open.”

“Fifty years and they ain’t figured out how it works?” Chen queried.  “I thought you science guys were supposed to be wicked smart.”

“The expedition was lost soon after making an initial report,” Maldini replied, a touch stiffly. “There were no survivors, and the Ercineans never tried again. This is the first expedition beyond the fifteen-thousand parsec horizon since that tragedy.”

“Oh.” Chen flushed.  “Sorry, Professor.”

“It’s fine, but do please keep the noise down for a few moments,” the archaeologist said. “I need to think.”

“We could try hotwiring it,” Santos offered, running a thoughtful finger down the edge of the panel.  “I’ve got a portable powerpack and a bypass kit.”

“This is a complex piece of alien technology, Corporal, not the beat-up old hoverbike your daddy bought you in high-school,” Maldini objected.  “You will not “hotwire” it, thank you very much.  You will leave me in peace to examine it!”

Avi waved Santos off, and the corporal shrugged.  “Suit yourself, Professor.”

Maldini studied the door for a few moments, rapt with concentration as he traced the lines of the carvings with his fingers. Muttering to himself, the old man worked his way methodically up the doors until he could reach no higher, then he turned away with a sigh.  “Nothing,” he muttered. “There’s no glyph pattern, no pressure switches that I can detect.”

“Sounds like Santos gets a shot at boosting the hoverbike after all, then.” Avi smirked at Maldini’s predictable wince. 

“We really shouldn’t.  Breaking it open isn’t going to teach us much.”

“Sitting outside hoping someone comes home from being extinct is going to teach us even less,” Avi pointed out. “Besides, I don’t think my captain is going to want to hear we came all this way to be turned back by an old door lock.”

At Maldini’s resigned nod, Avi gestured to the panel.  “Have at it, Santos.  If you can’t crack it, we’ll have to get some demolition charges from the lander.”

“You got it, sir.” Santos stepped over to the panel, opening his chest pack and rummaging through it for his electronics kit.

“Place is deader than a templar whorehouse, sir,” Cotter reported as he and Volkov returned.  “No other doors, no other passageways.  This one dead-ends about two-hundred metres along.”

“There are shafts sunk from the surface every twenty metres,” Volkov added.  “For ventilation, maybe. But Cotter’s right – there’s nothing down there.”

“Thanks, fellas,” Avi replied. “We’re just gonna see if Santos can pop the lock.  If not, we might need…” He cut off as the doors creaked, then emitted a piercing squeal of metal on metal as they moved for the first time in God only knew how many centuries.

“I ain’t met the cherry yet I couldn’t pop,” Santos boasted with a grin as he stepped back from the panel.  Turning to Maldini, he offered the professor a sardonic bow.  “After you, sir.”

“Hold up,” Avi ordered.  “Let’s keep to the SOP, shall we?  Santos, Cotter, Volkov, with me. Doc, you and Khan escort the Professor when we give the all clear. Top, you bring up the rear with the rest of the squad.”

Chen nodded. “Yes, sir.”

Avi stepped to the doorway, and peered through.

The tunnel beyond was pitch dark.

He sniffed cautiously. The air smelled musty and old, but it carried an edge of something else, an acrid scent he couldn’t quite place.  “Santos, gimme an environment report.”

“Atmosphere’s fine, sir, within operational parameters.  Ambient temp coming down, but still above threshold. No sources of radiation—there are trace readings, but it’s background. Looks good.”

“Smells funny,” Chen commented, sniffing now too.  “That what’s got your dander up, LT?”

“Little bit,” Avi admitted.  “Smells like… I dunno, it’s hard to place.”

“Smells like a cottonmouth,” Cotter offered.

“A what?”

“Snake—they’re pretty common where I grew up.  Stink up like a skunk when they’re threatened.”

“I’ve got no bioreadings,” Santos reiterated obstinately. “No life forms except us.”

“All right.” Avi shrugged off another prickle of unease. “Let’s move out.”

Volkov fell into step with him, and they worked their way down the open corridor with Santos and Cotter, one pair covering the other’s advance in turn, until they reached a second circular chamber, smaller than the entrance, but with four doorways branching off. “Shit,” he muttered.  “Now we got a multiple choice option.”

As his comment died into the musty silence, he heard a sibilant whisper off to his left.  He looked around, lifting his flashlight to sweep it across the chamber, but all he could see was smooth, dark rock.

Looking around the squad, he could see he wasn’t the only one feeling jittery. Santos was chewing on his thumbnail, and Volkov kept shifting his weight from foot to foot, poised on the edge of movement all the time. Cotter was equally fidgety, sweeping his rifle slowly back and forward in an unceasing arc. “Damn robots. Gave us all the heebie-jeebies,” the private muttered.

The incident had occurred en route to Lost Ramos, shortly after they’d crossed the 13.5k horizon. Their ship, the Amundsen, had fallen out of FTL to be confronted by a much larger vessel of unknown silhouette.  The ship had identified itself as belonging to a collective of cyborgs, and the commander had warned them to abandon their mission. “Lost Ramos is truly a lost system,” it had told them. “You will find nothing there but death.  Turn back, Terrans. Turn your curiosity to less foolhardy ventures.”

Captain Held had threatened to open fire, despite the fact the Amundsen’s paltry armaments would scarcely have scuffed the cyborg ship’s paintwork. The threat had been enough, though: the cyborgs had, reluctantly, released them to go on their way. The command staff of the expedition considered the warning proof that there was something of value in the system, something the cyborgs clearly didn’t want others to find. In the warm, well-lit fug of the officer’s mess, Avi had agreed.

Now, though, he wasn’t sure if the cyborgs hadn’t had the right idea after all.

Snap out of it, he chided himself. Your men look to you for an example, and if you’re nervous, they will be too. “Damn robots have got no bearing on this situation,” he said shortly. “Let’s stay frosty, all right?”

“Aye aye, sir,” Santos agreed, backing him up in properly stoic NCO fashion.

“Chen, hustle on down here,” Avi ordered over the comms.  “We need a few more eyes and ears. Doc, bring the Professor too.”

“Roger that, sir. On our way,” Chen confirmed.

One minute later, with seven more bodies in the room, and seven more high-beam flashlights, Avi felt a bit better.  “What did these people have against lights?” Chen complained as she lit a pair of flares and tossed them on the ground.

“You’re assuming they needed them, Sergeant,” Maldini lectured. “If they were subterranean dwellers, they’d have little use for interior lighting.  And this planet’s a long way from the system star—the light levels outside are probably as close as it gets to broad daylight.”

“Everyone remember to take their vitamin D pills?” Doc joshed cheerfully, and Avi winked gratefully at her.  Not much ever got her down.

The moment of levity was short-lived.

Far off in the distance, a deep rumble sounded, reverberating through the floor and shaking a deluge of fine particles from the ceiling. 

“Fuck was that?” Cotter demanded.

“It felt like an earthquake,” Maldini said, casting an anxious glance at the ceiling.

“Lander taking off?” Chen suggested, though she sounded doubtful. “They said they were going to return to the Amundsen to get the rest of the gear.”

Avi clicked on his comms. It had been too large a tremor for such a small craft, but maybe the crew had seen something on the surface. “Peretz to Amundsen lander, come in.”

No response.

Amundsen lander, this is Lieutenant Peretz. Sound off.”


“We may be too far underground for communications to be fully effective,” Maldini said.  The professor was sweating profusely, Avi noticed.

“Maybe,” he allowed dubiously. “Khan, Deng, hump it back to the LZ and check it out.  Straight there, straight back, and call in when you get there.”

The two marines, looking somewhat relieved, headed back the way they’d come at a fast jog, the noise of their boots quickly swallowed up by the thick, dark silence.

“Did you see that?” Cotter demanded suddenly, aiming his weapon. 

“See what?”

“Something’s moving over there.”  He pointed past the edge of the pool of light from their flare.  Avi swept his flashlight across the area, but there was nothing.

“There’s nothing there, Cotter. Stop jumping at shadows,” Peretz reprimanded the private sharply.

“I’m still not picking up any thermal signatures,” Santos noted as Cotter drifted toward the second door on the left, stepping beyond the light of the torch to vanish into the murk.

“Cotter,” Chen growled in warning.

“I saw something,” the private replied adamantly.  “I just wanna check.”

“Oh, for God’s sake,” Doc muttered, rolling her eyes.  “You’re imagining things.  I was looking right over there and I didn’t see a thing.” 

“Check the other doors,” Avi ordered, huffing an exasperated sigh.  “No more than three paces deep for now.”  He looked at Chen.  “We’re going to need a generator and some bigger lights – it’ll be too easy to get turned around and lost if we try going further in with just torches.”

Another rumble sounded. Louder this time, though the ground didn’t shake.

“What the hell is that?” Chen grumbled.  “An animal of some kind?”

“Sounds like my dog, but bigger and meaner,” Doc replied.

“I’m telling you, there’s nothing down here,” Santos protested again.

Nothing your sensors can detect.  Avi shivered at the thought, and as he turned back to his discussion with Chen, a flicker in his peripheral vision shifted, darting right across his field of view and sliding through the door Cotter had advanced through. “Cotter? Cotter! Sound off!” Avi demanded.

No response.

Chen unshipped her rifle and primed it, moving to the door.  “Doc, Volkov, Marks, fall back!” She cracked another flare, hurling down the passage Cotter had disappeared into.  “Cotter!” she bellowed.

“What? I’m here,” Cotter replied, stepping back into the light of the flare a few seconds later.  “I had to answer the call, Sarge, sorry. Did y’all think I got eaten or something?” He giggled, but his humour was sharply arrested as Chen wrapped a hand in his harness and yanked him down to her eye-level.

“Listen up, you little shitbird. I’m sick of your sloppy-assed attitude,” the sergeant growled. “Get your shit together, or I will kick your ass so hard my boot will break your fucking teeth!”

“Sorry, Sarge,” Cotter whined, retreating meekly into the middle of the chamber.  “But I did see something.  A shadow, moving.”

Doc, standing at the leftmost door, peering into the dark, whistled sharply.  “Sir, I can hear something down this way now too. Cotter’s right.” She turned back to face them. “Whatever’s going, on, I-” 

A shadow reached out, hooking her ankle, and dragged her to the ground in a clatter of polymould and metal.  “What the fuck…” Her protest tailed off into a yelp of shock as she was yanked out of the circle of light, armour squealing as it was dragged along the stone floor.  “Help!” she screamed.  “LT! Top! Somebody help me!”

“Doc!” Chen took two running steps before Avi could drag her back by her rifle strap, jerking her off her feet to land on her ass.  

“Maintain formation!” he snapped as she scrambled up, fury in her eyes. Charging blindly into the corridor would only get more people hurt. “Doc!” he yelled. 

Gunfire erupted down the passageway.

“Doc!” Avi scrambled to the mouth of the passage with Chen. The muzzle flash from Doc’s weapon danced like a firework sparkler in the dark.

“Doc, fucking talk to me!” Avi bellowed.

There was an enraged shriek of pain, then the futile click click click of Doc’s weapon dry firing, out of ammo, then silence.

Avi didn’t dare breathe.

A rumbling growl echoed down the corridor, crescendoing into a rabid snarl.

Doc let loose a terrified, blood-curdling scream that quickly morphed into a wail of agony, rising and rising in pitch until finally, suddenly, it cut off, leaving only the soft, vile sound of flesh and bone being rent apart.

“Oh Jesus,” Chen whispered.

“We gotta go,” Avi muttered, choking back the urge to vomit.  “Fall back by pairs to the lander, weapons hot. Let’s move.”

Suddenly, the air around him was filled with the cottonmouth stench, acrid enough to make his eyes water. As he blinked, trying to clear his vision, the darkness rippled, coalescing into massive, quadrupedal shadows with wickedly curved claws and dripping, fang-rimmed maws.

“Shit!” Chen screamed, quickest to react and first to die as the shadows leapt upon her, ripping her head and spine from her body as though she were made of tissue paper.  Blood fountained from her collapsing corpse, spraying all over Maldini, and he shrieked in horror, marking himself as the next victim. His horror-struck gaze found Avi’s as his intestines flowered from the slash across his belly, and then he was dragged beneath the darkness, his final scream cutting off with a choked little hiccup as his throat was ripped out.

Santos opened fire, wild and uncontrolled, spraying the room with plasma and killing Marks instantly as a bolt caught him in the face. Lucky, was all Avi could think as he staggered back toward the doorway with Volkov at his side.  He wanted to scream at his troops to retreat, but the words were stuck in his throat, jammed by the fear that even the slightest noise would make him a target and choked by the clot of Maldini’s flesh that had hit him in the mouth.

Santos howled with rage as his ammo ran out, his defiance met with a snarl of fury and a swift decapitation.  In the centre of the chamber, Cotter stood paralyzed, bug-eyed with terror as he spun around, back-to-back with his two surviving mates, the centre of an ever-decreasing vortex of ghostly alien forms.  “LT!” he squealed.  “LT, help! You gotta help us!”

“You can’t,” Volkov growled, unclipping a grenade from his webbing.  “Run, LT. You have to warn the Amundsen.  Go! Run!” He shoved Avi backwards as he ripped the pin from the grenade with his teeth and hurled himself into the thick of the shadows with his gun on full automatic. Avi tripped and stumbled, but caught his balance and began to run, chased through the dark by the screams of his soldiers as he abandoned them in the grip of pure, unrelenting terror.

He didn’t look back, not even when the ground shook beneath his feet as Volkov’s grenade detonated.  He ran until his lungs were on fire, given speed and stamina by the certainty that hell was breathing down his neck. His only hope was to reach the lander, and he channelled every last scrap of his focus into achieving that goal.

Breaking onto the surface, he failed to see Khan and Deng, torn to scattered shreds across the mouth of the tunnel. He only had eyes for his salvation.  Breath sobbing in his throat, he sprinted for the LZ. 

He crested the rise of the hill, and stumbled to a halt, sinking to his knees in despair as he took in the wreck of the landing craft, scattered amid the more massive debris of the Amundsen, and the pack of aliens prowling around the LZ.

Tears streaming down his face, Avi drew his sidearm as the creatures advanced, there one moment, gone the next as they shifted through the weak, dappled starlight, like wraiths in the shadows.  He didn’t want to die the way Chen had, the way Maldini had, and that left him one final choice about his destiny.

As he pressed the cold muzzle of his pistol up beneath his chin, sucked in one last acrid breath, a final thought occurred to him.

The cyborgs had been right.

Lost Ramos harboured nothing but death.

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Books Conflagration (Book One)Conflagration (Book Two)Conflagration (Book Three)Insurrection (Book One)The Art of Burning Suns
Series Conflagration - Issue 1Conflagration - Issue 2Conflagration - Issue 3Conflagration - Issue 4Conflagration - Issue 5Conflagration - Issue 6Conflagration - Issue 7Conflagration - Issue 8Conflagration - Issue 9Conflagration - Issue 10
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