doorway_upI listened… but there was little sound to be heard from inside the thick-walled concrete room where the insurgents had been holding me. The room smelled damp. From time to time, the naked bulb above flickered with a quick tick tick noise. At one point, I thought I heard a trickle of water behind the wall to the rear. Then I heard nothing again. I knew I was below ground but that was the extent of my knowledge. I could be anywhere. This thought made me uneasy. If I were to escape this room, which way would I run?

The warm bowl of noodles felt good in my cold, nervous hands. I ate in silence, savoring every bite of hot food. The food was energy and energy was strength. The clinking of the utensil against the side of the bowl echoed off the walls. Pili, a towering figure of a man, stood guard in the corner of the room, watching the door, unmoving. He didn’t look at me. But I stared at him. He’d nearly choked the life out of me once already. He frightened me.

Pili carried a chemical flechette rifle. Typically, these were non-lethal, but the dart releases agonizing venom that sends the nervous system into a fiery panic. Some versions also release an endorphin blocker, so the victim can roll around in anguish without any aid from the body’s natural painkillers. I wanted none of that.

I chewed and swallowed another bite. I wanted out.

A series of quick knocks at the door preceded Dada entering the room. Pili managed the door for Dada, checked the hallway, and closed it after him. Dada strode to the bed with a bag slung over his shoulder. “Feeling stronger?” he asked.

I nodded.

“Good.” He dropped the bag. It made a soft thump. “If you’re up to it, I’d like to tell you a little about the landscape here.”

“Please do,” I replied and listened attentively as Dada told me about the city above and the underground below.

“On the surface, Bellingshausen can be hostile,” Dada said. “In winter, outdoor temperatures drop to nearly negative seventy degrees Celsius. The wind whips through the streets at an average of eighty kilometers per hour with gusts up to three-hundred. The environment is unsympathetic to humans and LMOs alike. If you’re unprepared, exposed skin can freeze in less than thirty seconds. Death can occur in mere minutes. Down here, you’re somewhat safe. The city works and thrives inside the buildings and below the ground.”

I nodded again. Dada continued.

“The underground connects all major structures and provides exit points to nearly every spot in Bellingshausen. It’s a multi-level network that allows the people and equipment to move freely, when the street levels are impassable.”

“How many levels? How deep?” I asked.

“There are many levels. But how many, I can’t say for certain,” Dada replied. “Much of the deep underground has never been formally mapped. Some of it still remains unseen.”

This was puzzling. “That doesn’t make much sense,” I said. “Why? How?”

“Good questions. The lowest levels, some eight stories deep or so, are the remnants of clandestine tunnel work that dug deep below the planned substructure. The laborers who first cut the ice and built much of the underground for Bellingshausen were treated harshly, like third-class citizens, here only to do the hard labor. Many lives were lost on the job. Working conditions never improved and there was no recourse available. So they dug themselves a deep subterranean hideaway for illegal labor movements and criminal activity during the earliest days of the city’s construction.”

“And now?”

“Over the decades, the deep underground grew and spread, providing passage and refuge for enemies of the LMO Development Plan. Most of the underground is difficult to navigate. All deep underground trespass is considered illegal and strictly prohibited by the LMOs.”

“But your team operates here?”

“Yes. For those who know how to navigate the underground, these lower levels are highly-valued traffic networks for contraband, information, and people.”

“And you have knowledge of the layout, the mapping?”

“Ghia does our navigation. She’s the expert.”

“If the underground here is off-limits and hazardous,” I started. “How do they regulate trespass?”

“LMO sentries and advanced-technology organisms are routinely sent to crawl the passages. Fatalities are common and the bodies are often left as a warning. Those that are taken from the lower levels of the underground alive …are rarely ever seen again.”

“Why tell me all this, Dada? It seems like a dangerous topic to even speak about.”

“You’re right. It’s not something I would ever talk about to someone outside of the team. But I need you to understand where we are and how we operate, if you are going to help us fight against the Director and the LMO Development Plan.”

I stared at Dada for a time. He was entirely serious. I set the empty noodle bowl on the ground.

“What are you asking of me, Dada? I’m not some liberator or super soldier come to lead you to victory against the LMOs.”

“Maxim, I didn’t expect…”

“No, Dada, I expect you did, from the sound of it.” I was exasperated. This was too much. “What is going on here, Dada?”

“I have something to tell you that may seem unbelievable.”

“More unbelievable than what you’ve told me already?” I asked with a sarcastic tone.

Dada smiled uneasily. “Maxim, I know that I’ve asked a lot of you recently. Hopefully, what I’m about to say next will help you understand us and our actions a bit better.”

“I’m listening.”

“Good. As I’ve said before, there are a number of people who are actively working against the Director and the LMO Development Plan.”

“Yes.”

“Under the actions of the Director and the LMO Development Plan, our people have lost their freedoms, their rights, even their ability to procreate. Our humanity is at stake, Maxim.”

“What does that have to do with me, Dada?”

“Among these people – our people – there is a long-held prediction that someone with advanced technology and intelligence would arrive at the very spot that the first LMO had landed a generation ago. This unique individual would pose a terrible threat to the structure and longevity of the LMO Development Plan. This person would be the blade that severs the LMO’s umbilical and helps to re-start the whole of our wounded species. This person – I believe – is you, Maxim.”

I was stunned silent. I couldn’t believe it. This was madness. But, I could see the honesty in Dada’s eyes and hear it in the sound of his voice. He was absolutely convinced. I looked over at Pili, who stood silent and held up his corner of the room. These people were desperate. They wanted more than I could offer. They needed leadership, direction. I wanted to hear nothing of the kind. I wanted out.

After a long silence, in which Dada merely stared at me, waiting for my response, I was finished listening.

“Hold on, Dada. This is madness. I’m not here to…”

The door burst opened with a bang and Parker entered the room.

Ghia was standing in the hallway with her back to the room, her head swiveled back and forth as she scanned the hallway beyond. Parker brought a rifle, one of the flechette varieties that Pili was carrying. He eyed me and then looked at Dada. Turning the rifle over, he slapped a magazine in and worked the action. He tossed the rifle to Dada.

“Why isn’t he dressed?” Parker asked, disdainfully.

Dada handed me the bag he’d brought with him. It was full of clothes.

“What’s this?” I asked.

“Street clothes,” Dada said. “They should keep you inconspicuous and warm enough to travel at street level for short distances. Each garment is impregnated with a system of thin heating elements that will keep you from freezing during any exterior travel.”

“Are we going up to the street level?” I asked.

“I hope not.”

I pulled the garments and a pair of boots from the bag. I stood and stripped out of my basic duty clothes. Ghia glanced into the room, looking at me suspiciously. I slipped into the street clothes. They were lightweight and warm. The jacket had long cuffs with a set of embedded controls to control the temperature.

Parker looked me over and gave me an approving nod. “One last thing,” he said, pulling a device with a thick needle from his gear bag. “You need an asset tag.”

I looked at the needle. I’d seen them before. In my experience, they used them on all LMOs for tracking purposes. I’d recently tried to cut one from a dead LMO aboard the ship that brought me here. “What if I don’t consider myself an asset to be tagged?”

Parker didn’t answer my question. He looked at me with serious intent and held up a sub-dermal implant a little bigger than a grain of rice. “You said that you were a communications specialist.”

“Yes, I was,” I answered, thinking about how an asset tag could jeopardize my ability to escape undetected.

“Good to know. I just happen to have a tag that should suit you.” Parker fit the grain into the gun. “You know, we could use a little advanced communications experience around here.” Parker held the tag gun up in front of me and waved it around. “Ready?”

“You’re not tagging me like an animal, Parker,” I said, taking a step back.

Parker pushed forward into my space. “You don’t understand, Maxim. Without one of these, you’ll stand out, draw attention. We can’t have that.”

Dada stepped in. “Everybody in Bellingshausen has a sub-dermal tag, Maxim.”

He was trying to ease the tension. “If we run into an LMO security patrol and they scan five people and only come up with four tags, we’ll all be hauled off for some serious questioning.”

“I understand that much” I replied.

“Do you?” asked Parker.

I started to open my mouth again. Parker cut me off.

“I don’t think you do, Maxim. I don’t think you have a clue. See, we’re engaged in a ground war with some serious opposition. Our success comes from our ability to remain wholly unremarkable until it’s time to strike and withdraw.”

I made no reply. I was eyeing the needle, seething inside.

“We’re starting with the tag,” Parker said, reaching out and making a grab for my arm.

I shook his hand away and made a back-handed slap to the tag gun with my free hand.

Parker acted without hesitation. I saw him push one foot back and throw a well-aimed jab at my jaw. Instinctively, I raised my forearm, elbow out, and let the blow deflect to my side. Parker was fast, but he didn’t anticipate my ability to react. Before he could recover, I cocked my right and drove a powerful strike to the center of his chest with a loud shout. Parker’s feet shot out from under him and he took a full-body drop to the floor with a heavy smack.

I cocked my arm again and took a step forward. Dada jumped in, cutting me off. Parker quickly recovered and threw an open hand up to hold both of us off.

“Hold it,” Parker shouted.

Dada froze. I stood my ground.

Parker began to laugh and sat up. “Maxim has some skill. How about that?” he said, getting first to his knees and then his feet. “I’m getting up,” he said, waving Dada back. “We’re calling this one a draw. Agreed?”

I didn’t move. Dada looked at me and then at Parker. Dada had a decent build for a tech expert, but he couldn’t hold both of us away from each other.

I looked at Parker, nodded an understanding, and dropped my hands to my side. Parker stood all the way up and rubbed his chest where I had struck him. I took a step back to give him space and bumped into Pili who was standing right behind me. I looked up into the big man’s smiling face. He’d been there all along. He was big but quick and quiet. He could have crushed me at any time he wanted.

“Maxim,” Parker started. “I can understand your apprehension. But we have a highly-specialized function here. We wait, we receive orders, we execute those orders, and we disappear into the crowd. Isn’t that right, Pili?”

“Yeah, boss,” came the big man’s booming reply from behind me.

“Let me explain something clearly. I have one job today. I have to move our team safely from one location to another. To help facilitate this move, you will need to give me your full cooperation, without issue or question. Having said that, if you want to go without an asset tag, fine. But if the LMOs close in, I’m going to order everyone here to withdraw from you and let you twist in the wind. You get me?”

“I do.”

“Great,” he said with a smile. “You’re quick on your feet, Maxim,” he said, pointing at me and winking. “Where did that come from? Military experience? Combat training?”

I paused for a moment and thought. It had been ages, so long ago. “I had an uncle who trained me in battōjutsu and shinkendo.”

Parker gave me bemused look. “What did you just say?”

A chuckle came from behind me. It was Pili. Dada was also laughing.

Parker looked even more perplexed. “What’s so funny?”

“He’s a sword fighter,” Dada said, continuing to laugh.

Parker gave Dada a worried glare. Dada was smiling and shaking his head.

“The man is full of surprises,” Dada added.

Parker stepped back and stared at me, sizing me up. “You’re kidding me.”

“No,” I replied. “Many years.”

“Great,” he said, sarcastically, throwing his hands up. “I’ll see if I can get you a samurai sword next time we hit one of the armories. Unbelievable.” Parker pointed me toward Pili. “He likes to fish, you know. Maybe you can help him cut bait.”

I began to explain. “I don’t think…”

“Shut up,” Parker said abruptly, staring me dead in the eyes, turning strangely serious. “Let’s get moving,” he said. “Dada, get your swordfighter in line.”

“Can do,” Dada replied, clapping me on the back.

I stared back at Parker, who didn’t seem to care.

Parker crossed the room away from me. “Ghia, how are we doing?” he asked.

From the hallway, Ghia shouted back. “Not good. Somebody is running interference. I have crawlers, I don’t have crawlers. Nothing looks good.”

“No visual signs?” Parker asked, stepping toward her position in the hallway and working the action on his rifle.

Ghia stared at her tracker and shook her head. “All clear out here. Nothing moving.”

“We move now,” said Parker, urgently snapping his fingers and pointing from Dada to Pili and back. “Give me a standard five-man protective escort detail in the hallway.”

“We only have four,” shouted Ghia from outside the room.

Parker looked around quickly. “Pili, you stand for two.”

“You got it, boss,” the big man replied.

With final orders to move quickly and quietly in a staggered formation, we left the room. Parker sent Pili down the hallway first, followed by Ghia. Dada placed me between Ghia and himself. Parker brought up the rear. There were two in front, and two in back of me, rifles up. They moved me down the dim corridor into the depths of the underground.

As we crept, I was in the pocket, in step with their every move, but without a weapon. Turn by turn, they took me through a web of passageways and doors, always moving downward. We routinely cut from one passage to another though concealed doorways. Although Parker appeared to be in charge of this kind of maneuver, Pili took the point position. To his right, Ghia kept her eyes on a handheld tracker and gave the navigational instructions through hand signals alone. There was no sound, save for the shuffling of boots.

During a changeover from one passageway to another, I saw a stairwell leading upward to a doorway. I did my best not to turn and look, for fear that either Parker or Dada would catch me taking interest. Slowly, I began to count off the steps and the turns from that point. I didn’t know if the stairwell lead to safety or danger. I only knew that, in the underground, up was good.

We rounded a corner strewn with clutter and saw a short passageway that ended in a darkened turn ahead. Ghia stopped and threw a hand up into the air, fingers splayed. The team halted suddenly. We waited, as Ghia stared intently at the handheld tracker. After a breath, maybe two, I felt a hand on my right shoulder and Parker slowly pushed past me on my right. Dada appeared on my left and moved forward. He motioned for me to stay back and get low. I backed up a few steps.

Ghia shook her hand forward toward the dark end of the passageway. She counted off the numbers with the fingers on her raised hand. One. Two. Three.

The passageway before us stretched for twenty meters or so and then took a turn to the left. It was completely dark. I saw nothing. I heard nothing. When the number Ghia was counting off hit five, she cursed softly, dropped the tracker to her waist, and raised her rifle. The rest of the team moved closer together, creating a human barrier between the movement on the other side of the darkened passageway and me.

Dada looked over his shoulder at me. His eyes showed alarm. I crouched lower.

From the far end of the passageway, I heard a clicking sound, like dozens of tiny claws traversing the concrete floor. Pili straightened up tall and broad, taking up as much space as he could. Parker cursed quietly. All eyes were forward. I leaned to one side and tried to see the ground ahead of us, waiting for something to come out of the dark. The clicking continued but there was nothing there. As the noise grew louder and louder still, I lifted my gaze up, and saw that all four of the insurgents were pointing their rifles at the ceiling.

That’s when I saw the massive purplish-black bugs crawling toward us.

[Communication Relay: 27MAR2086 Alexander Island, Antarctica]