Ian led the way, moving back over to the broken window he'd initially crawled in through. He crouched down and peered through the cracked window above it, looking into the gloomy cavern beyond. It remained unchanged, at least as far as he could tell, from when he'd first come through. He didn't see or hear anything.
“Looks clear,” he murmured, ducking down and carefully making his way through the broken window, avoiding the jagged teeth of glass ringing the steel frame. He straightened up, his laser pistol in hand now. Behind him, Riley ducked down and exited the cabin of the Chrome Crusher. She joined him, standing beside him with her pistol in one hand, the handheld scanner in the other. She was staring at it, frowning.
Suddenly, she tossed the pistol away.
“Why’d you do that?” Ian asked.
“It’s broken,” she replied unhappily. “Don’t even know why I bothered grabbing it. Now, the energy crystals most easily gotten to look like they're in the cavern where the rock monsters came from,” she said, her voice low and grim. “So, basic plan: we get there, grab them and get out as fast as possible, get back to HQ, fire it up and then call for an emergency transport. I don't even know why that didn't happen,” she murmured.
“It's been really finnicky lately,” Ian replied. “There's a lot of power distribution problems and we're in kind of a bad situation, power wise. We've been sending down more crews than we can keep track of because we need crystals so bad. To make things worse, there's some weird metal in this planet, stuff we've never seen before, that interferes with the transporter. That's why we've been having so many malfunctions.”
“What a s***ty situation,” she growled. “Come on, let's get this over with.”
He agreed with that sentiment. Soon, provided it all went well, this would just be a memory. A cool (if harrowing and depressing) story to tell over drinks sometime. Rock Raiders tended to have a very dark, grim sense of humor. It was a necessity given the difficulty, danger and intensity of the work they found themselves doing.
And how many of them died.
The mortality rate among Rock Raiders actually wasn't as high as a lot of people thought it was. The reason for that was because they had rigid and rigorous training standards that included a great deal of safety precautions, and they only hired professionals. On top of that, they made sure everyone knew at least basic medicine, everyone was trained on at least some of the vehicles, everyone could swim, everyone was in great shape and everyone was willing and able to perform in an emergency. Rock Raider training was...kind of a trial by fire. For the most part, you weren't in any danger when the 'proving' part came, but it was serious.
Probably the most important aspect of the training was the fact that it encourage and fostered adaptability.
Situations sometimes changed rapidly, and often in ways that weren't predictable. You had to change with it.
Often, it was adapt or die.
Or worse, adapt or someone else would die.
But the mortality rate on this mission was...far higher than they thought it would be. Honestly, it was the greatest loss of life in any single event that the Raiders had ever endured. But, despite that, despite everything, he thought that they had done very well, and any other mining team probably would have lost a lot more people.
Ian focused as they entered the cavern. Though there was a question he had to ask that was bugging him.
He glanced at Riley. “How'd you get that Crusher?” he whispered.
“The Chrome Crusher. How'd you get it? This is a really early outpost.”
“This place was very rich in energy crystals,” she replied softly, continually looking around. “We were sent ahead to get the outpost up and running. We did at least manage to get a few shipments ported up to the Explorer, but there's so much more here. There's some pretty big seams. I kept thinking that...I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, you know? And goddamn did it ever come down like a hammer.”
He nodded, knowing how she felt. Working out here on the fringe, smashing rocks for profit, tended to inspire superstition. And it wasn't always wrong. You got to get kind of a sixth sense out here. It was strange, but useful. They kept walking, coming into the cavern. The walls of the short tunnel leading into it were rough and awkward, showing all the signs of just having been cut through with no time for refinement to make them more stable.
“Ian, set your pistol to maximum power, single blast. If you see one of those things, aim high, for the head. A fully charge power blast to the head will kill them. I've seen it myself. I've done it. Take off the head and they fall into a pile of rock.”
“Got it,” he whispered, doing as she'd instructed. He was a pretty decent shot...that was another part of the training.
They kept going. Their boots sounded too loud in the green-tinted gloom. Distantly, Ian heard a few rocks tumble down and clatter along the ground. Both of them froze up, scanning the cavern, but there was nothing. Annoyingly, they couldn't see the whole thing. Their vision-amps only went so far, giving them maybe a thirty meter sight range. Everything after that faded to darkness. He looked over at Riley.
“How far?” he whispered.
“Thirty meters. Follow me,” she replied, her voice harsh. She’d been through a lot, even for an operation as a Raider.
They kept walking and he tried to keep a sharp gaze out, but honestly, how could such a thing sneak up on you? It was a freaking twelve foot rock monster. But it wouldn’t do to make assumptions, that’s how people got killed. Honestly, Ian was freaking the hell out. He’d faced down some weird s*** before, but this? A rock golem? No, nothing like that. And he’d seen the utter devastation the things had been able to deliver.
But if he kept his head and paid attention, then he had a decent chance of getting out of this alive with Riley and the others.
“There,” she whispered.
He saw a dim green glow ahead and frowned at that. Something was wrong. He could make out the sharp shapes of two energy crystals, resting on the ground at the base of the far left wall of the new cavern, as though casually abandoned. But they should be glowing. They looked...depleted. Not entirely, but definitely not holding a full charge. Maybe that’s why they were left behind. Or maybe...these things had the ability to suck energy from the crystals? It was a strange concept, as humans needed all sorts of machinery to extract the energy from these green crystals, but nothing was impossible out here on planet Upsilon.
“Cover me,” Riley said, pocketing the handheld scanner and ducking down. Ian tensed, preparing himself for some sort of attack. If there was going to be one, it felt like now would be a perfect time. “Got them.” Riley stood back up, each crystal cradled in her arms. She turned to face him. They’d done it. They still had to walk back to base but-
Behind her, the entire rock wall shifted. Ian felt pure, frozen black terror shoot through him as he saw a face emerge from the rock, breaking through as easily as he might break through the surface of a pool. Twin eyes of gleaming, glowering red stared at him with all the threat of a malignant tumor. He stood stock still, transfixed by his terror.
“Ian! Shoot it!” Riley screamed. “Ian!”
That jolted him from his fear. He raised his pistol. It was coming out of the wall now. Two burly arms burst out of the rocky surface, spraying bits of stone everywhere. Several hit him in the face and hands, stinging him with pain. The thing let out a roar as it began pulling itself out, coming towards them, its intent clear.
Ian aimed right at the thing’s head and pulled the trigger.
There was a brilliant yellow burst that briefly burned out his vision, and he was left with a flash-frozen afterimage of the beam meeting the rock creature’s head and blowing it into a plume of free-flying material.
Ian stumbled away, already groping for the recharge on the pistol. It would take time, but hopefully that was the only one…
“You got it,” Riley said. “You got-” She froze as more rumbling came from somewhere nearby. “Oh God...run!” she screamed.
Then they were running, stumbling away, as two more of the things began emerging from the dark walls around them. Sprays of broken stone spewed out and scattered across the ground as the two Raiders ran for all they were worth back to the tunnel. A roar of pure, alien, grinding fury followed them.
“Dammit, should’ve gone back for another pistol! Stupid!” Riley growled.
“We’ll make it, just need to wait for this to recharge,” Ian replied. It took about thirty seconds to get a full charge. He threw a glance over his shoulder. The rock golems were free of the walls and were coming towards them at a startling speed, their pulsing red eyes stabbing out at him from the gloom. He looked down at the pistol, tearing his eyes from the hulking horrors. Eighty percent charged. Not fast enough.
They hit the tunnel and bolted down it.
Then Riley dropped one of the crystals.
“s***!” she screamed, skidding to a halt and scrambling for it. Ian turned around and aimed his pistol, knowing this was the perfect time to take down at least one of them. The gun let out a small chime and he zeroed his sights on the one in the lead. It was maybe fifteen meters away now, coming closer, a moving target, but he’d trained for this…
Ian squeezed the trigger.
There was a brilliant yellow burst and one of the rock golems began falling, as it did, it started crumbling into rocks and dust and earth. The other one was still barreling towards them. Ian hit the recharge button.
“Let’s go!” Riley called as she snagged the crystal and got back to her feet. Ian turned and began running with her, terror and adrenaline making him shaky. He almost dropped the gun as they burst out of the tunnel.
Riley wheeled right. “Get to the base! Lead it away from the Crusher!”
Smart move. He sprinted after her, running on, looking at the pistol again. Only fifty percent charged now. God, why did it have to take so long!? Why hadn’t he grabbed another pistol? Pointless questions for later, if there was a later. But they were outrunning it. They’d make it. They’d run until the pistol was recharged and then-
The walls to either side of the short tunnel that led to the cavern where the outpost was were rumbling, coming apart.
Two more rock creatures were emerging.
“Oh s***!” Riley cried.
Ian raised his pistol, it was almost recharged, but what could they do? Could they possibly hope to keep this up for another minute while they waited for the damned thing to recharge? Maybe...but there had to be a better way…
An idea sprung into his head.
He reached into his pocket and pulled out one of the power cells he’d grabbed to reload the pistol with if it ran dry.
“Get back!” he called. He’d have to time this just right. He waited until the two new rock monsters were close enough, then pitched the thing towards them, high, underhanded. He took aim, not needing a full charge for this one at least. Right as the cell sailed through the air, right between the two unnatural horrors, he fired.
The shot was good, his aim dead on.
There was a brilliant burst, an explosion of yellow this time, as the cell was hit by a bolt of energy and reacted violently. Ian immediately slapped the recharge button. He had one good shot let. As the dust settled, he saw that he’d blown both of the monsters to bits. He heard a heavy thud behind him and spun around.
The final golem was fast approaching.
“Keep going!” Riley called.
They picked back up their sprint. Ian was feeling exhausted by now. He was winded and in pain. The teleporter malfunction had done a real number on him and he was paying for pushing himself and not taking a break...not that he’d had a choice. But he had to keep it together. Just a bit longer. Just a little bit longer.
Now they were in the cavern with the remains of the outpost, and thing was following them, leaving the Chrome Crusher alone. Good. The rock monster kept up. It was catching up with them now. Between his troubles and Riley’s head injury, and other injuries, they were slowing down. He kept running.
In the end, it was a near thing.
The rock monster was within a few meters of them when the gun finally recharged. Ian spun around, aimed and fired.
Its head blew up and it crumbled to so much falling dust and debris. The two of them waited, listened, hoping against hope that that was the last one. As the silence fell, it remained static: they were alone.
“Oh thank God,” Riley whispered. “Let’s get this over with, before more of them show up.”
Ian nodded weakly.
They headed for the HQ.
* * * * *
They managed to make it out alive, all four of them.
Riley watched his back while Ian reinstalled one of the crystals into the main communications relay. He used to it to call the Explorer and report the situation. They said they had taken most of the transporters offline due to malfunctions in the grid, and they wouldn’t be able to receive them. However, they could link up with another outpost not too far away and seek medical attention there. So that’s what they did.
He uninstalled the first crystal again, then hooked both of them up to the teleportation pad, which was still intact enough to work. Both of them hurried back to the Chrome Crusher and managed to get the other two out and across the cavern. They teleported out one by one. He was the last one, and as he began the process, (secretly terrified that he would be forced to endure another malfunction), he heard that familiar rumbling.
But he got out before any other creatures emerged.
And now, here he was, lying on a cot in an infirmary at another outpost, hooked up with an IV that was feeding a cocktail of painkillers and healing agents into his bloodstream, staring up, weary but content, at a generic gray ceiling.
He’d done it. They’d done it.
Just another day in the life of a Rock Raider, he supposed.