underground_crawler_bugOut from the shadows, the purplish-black insect-like crawlers advanced toward us.

The clicking of sharp claws punctuated each step. I watched them emerge in complete disbelief. They were huge, nearly two meters in length. It was a creeping madness, a nightmare brought to light, slowly crawling across the ceiling. The ceiling! My mind seized and I froze.

From behind the team, I watched them swivel their aim from one crawler to another. Dada turned quickly to glance at me. Sweat on his brow. Fear in his eyes. He turned to Parker. “What is this?” he whispered, taking a few steps backward. The rest of the team followed in step.

“Don’t know,” Parker responded brusquely. You make a wrong turn for us again, Ghia?” Parker asked.

Ghia took a side glance in my direction. She curled her lip. “Wrong cargo, is more like it,” she responded, her Spanish accent giving much more weight to the sneer. “He’s the bait. Let them have him.”

“Hey, hey…” Dada started.

“Shut up and keep it together, both of you,” Parker interrupted. The sound of clicking claws increased. More were coming from behind the first wave. Parker spat. “The Director sent a lot of bugs for you, Maxim. What is going on?”

I was fearful but instantly angry. “You people brought me down here,” I responded.

“And now we’ll get you out,” Parker replied hotly.

We backed away with increasing speed, as the crawlers advanced from the darkness. They had large compound eyes that shone blue-gray in the light. Chattering mouths opened wide and snapped closed, showing a tangle of mandibles and fangs. Three pairs of spindly legs and two twitching antennae preceded each long, segmented body.

“They’ll eat us alive,” said Ghia, with a slight tremble to her voice. “He’s going to get us killed.”

“I don’t need this bullshit, Ghia. Not today,” Parker replied, harshly. He snapped his fingers and pointed everyone back down the passageway. “All of you keep moving back. Let them follow us. I want them all out in the light. Pili, you’re in front.”

“You got it, boss,” replied the big man, as he moved his big frame front and center.

The bugs kept coming. All eyes watch their movement. One bug at the front of the pack dropped from the ceiling and began to scurry across the floor toward Pili.

The bug stopped only a few meters away from Pili’s massive form. It raised its head. It looked at us and began shrieking. Pili jumped and fumbled his rifle.

“Shit! Let ‘em have it!” Parker shouted and all four of the insurgents let loose with their weapons.

Pili and Dada shot first, piercing the insect-like body with a volley of flechette rounds. The close-knit passageway was filled with the airy pop pop sound of gas-propelled flechettes. The crawlers screeched and began writhing on the floor as the flechette venom attacked their nervous system.  The crawlers behind the first wave advanced more quickly, chattering excitedly, jumping and hissing.

We hurried backward, tripping over refuse and cursing. The rifles aimed and fired rapidly. Parker stumbled and fell. A crawler jumped for him. Parker screamed.

Vete al carajo!” Ghia shouted, stepping between Parker and the bug and firing her high-power EMD pulse rifle into the body of the insect at close range. There was a loud crackle. The fried creature convulsed on the floor, all six legs trembling.

“What are these things?” I shouted to Dada over the screeching and chattering and gunfire.

“We don’t know, damn it!” he shouted back. “Keep moving!”

Ghia fired at another crawler on the ceiling. The discharge from the EMD caught part of the electrical system and burst open part of the ceiling. The lights flickered. A storm of dust and sparks rained down on our heads. I looked up. More bugs came crawling out of the darkness after us. The flickering light only added to the horror.

I fell over a pile of waste construction materials. My foot kicked loose a length of heavy pipe that clattered across the floor. I scrambled for the pipe. It was long and sturdy, with a pinched end that came to a point. I raised it to my shoulder, and took a defensive position.

Dada saw me coming up from behind with the pipe in my hands. “Maxim, back off. Keep running!” he shouted.

“Move your ass, damn it,” Parker added. “Move, move, move!”

We retreated from the creeping horrors. They jumped after us. Ghia fried another bug with the EMD, punching a scorched hole in its shellback and sending it skittering across the floor. Smoke rose from the body and filled the air with a burning chemical stink that reminded me of hot bile.

The crawlers advanced relentlessly in quick waves. They crawled over the refuse, the writhing bodies, and the smoking carcasses strewn across the floor. One crawler jumped toward Ghia, opened its mouth and spat out a stringy brown liquid. Ghia dove to the side to avoid the stream but the spittle caught her across the legs and stuck to her, sending her tumbling to the floor.

Mierda!” Ghia shouted, shaking herself off and scrambling to get to her feet.

“Damn it, Ghia, what are you doing!” Parker shouted, pulling her up and dragging her back by the collar. “Come on!”

“Get your hands off of me, pendejo!” Ghia spat back.

“Then move your shit, Ghia!”

Parker released her with a toss and Ghia made a stumbling return to a running retreat.

“You gotta run, people!” shouted Parker.

As we ran, the flechettes continued to fly. The EMD blasts filled the air with the smell of scorched bugs, electricity, and choking dust. I kept low to avoid fragments of concrete and metal that burst forth from the walls and ceiling.

One of the bugs shot past the line, with five or six flechettes stuck through its shell. Pili stood his ground with the creature, reaching out with one of his huge hands and swiping it down from above. The crawler landed on the big man, hissing and thrashing. He fell back, with a loud groan, struggling with the huge creature. It bit into his arm with its mandibles and tore at his legs with hind claws.

“Get off, me!” Pili grunted, as he swung around and threw the thrashing creature to the floor between the two of us.

The bug jumped to its feet, raised its head, hissed, and made a leap for me. The pipe I was carrying came down with a vicious swing, connecting with the head with a loud ping and breaking it free of the thorax. A spray of noxious yellow fluid burst into the air and sprayed Parker.

“Damn it, Maxim!” Parker bellowed, wiping the vile yellow fluid from his face. He reached out and gave me a shove. “Move your ass, spaceman! I’m not gonna tell you again!”

Dada grabbed my arm and pulled me free of Parker’s reach, screaming. “Get back through the passageway, Maxim. Get to cover. Go! Now!”

I looked at Ghia, running along at a wounded pace, covered in sticky spittle. Parker was shooting with almost reckless abandon. Pili was battering bugs off the ceiling. Dada saw my hesitation, gave me a series of forceful shoves, shouting at me to run.

That was enough. I turned and ran back down the passageway, as they continued to shoot and shout behind me. I held the heavy bar tightly in both hands, ready for anything that was waiting around the corners. My legs quickly found their full stride and my heart pounded. Faster and faster I ran, until I was sliding around the corners and leaping over debris.

Back through the maze of passageways and cut-throughs, I went. I made my way quickly, remembering how we had come before. Soon I was far ahead of the action and could hear no more of the battle behind me.

In my head, I counted back the turns. Soon, the doorway I saw on the initial trip down loomed ahead. It was a short run of steps, maybe fifteen or twenty. I took them in leaps.

I stopped at the door, panting. I had no idea how deep I was. I put my ear against the surface and listened. No sound came from beyond. It was too thick. I grasped the latch and pushed. No movement. I pushed harder. Nothing. I dropped the bar to the stairs with a loud clang, leaned back and hit the door hard with my shoulder.

I burst through the doorway into the freezing open air and tumbled out into the snow and ice. Bellingshausen. I was in the city streets. Snow and howling wind blew fierce and stung my eyes. I gasped and the chilly air filled my lungs. With a snap, I turned back and watched as the exit door slammed shut in the wind.

There was no latch on the outside.

[Communication Relay: 01APR2086 Alexander Island, Antarctica]