The scream burst around Jensen as he exploded from the mouth of the corridor. Even in the muffled heat of his sweat-slicked suit, it was loud enough to make his ears ring. The scream had sounded as it had come from a woman. But the only one besides the unit commander left alive was Terrance, the demolition specialist. And Jensen dreaded whatever could make the seven-foot behemoth shriek like that.
He stumbled over his boots as a shockwave of air hit him from behind. Terrance’s last thermite charge. The depleted pulse rifle flew from his hands, end over end in the flickering lights of the red beacons before they shattered in their brackets. The crimson scene plunged into thick darkness. He heard the clatter of the weapon, and then a long fall before it impacted with something watery. Like a coin down a well. But it wasn’t water down there.
The suit cushioned the fall, but he came down on his faceplate, and the toughened glass spider-webbed as he impacted something hard and unyielding with his head. Alarms screamed for his attention, and he felt the suit inject him with enough stim to regain his feet. But instead, he rolled onto his back and lay still, as the rumble of the blast echoed through the dark labyrinth. Dust shook invisibly from the foundations and lent a stale scent through the air filters. His heart rate spiked, and the suit hit him again. He jerked his head at the dying brain of the helmet and shut off its higher functions. They couldn’t serve him now.
His natural night vision was fogged by the sudden condensation of his breath in the helmet. He dealt with this by removing it.
The air in the chamber was stale and warm. There was a faint undertone of something long rotten. But it was breathable. And a man had the right to a last breath before it was stolen from him.
He felt in the leg of the suit for his sidearm. It was depleted too, the holographic readout in the hilt of the pistol reading double zero. But he felt the better for holding it.
He sighted down the weapon through his legs, down the corridor he’d come running from. The pistol wavered in his grip. Jinn was the best shot in the unit. Her hands wouldn’t have shaken. And she’d never missed. Even at the end, she’d made every shot count, blasting holes in the entities that filled as soon as they were punched. For the first time, he’d seen fear cross the face of his best soldier, before they’d fallen on her like a fog.
There was a flash of dim light down the end of the corridor, twenty metres distant. Jensen let himself believe for a moment that it was Taylor, the pilot, dropping in ahead of schedule after his team’s comms went dark. But if the boy had any sense, he’d be halfway to Regula by now. It was the first time he’d have been glad of cowardice.
The light flickered again. Jensen knew he should move. Before they found him. Before the whispers began, before the sensation that you were running under twelve G’s with a battleship on your back. Before that ghostly blueness, vibrant enough to glow off the backs of your eyes. But with the death of the lights came the death of hope. They were three klicks deep in the maze of ruins, and the concussive blast had fried any of the beacons in reachable distance. They’d mapped as they’d gone, but the place had a way of fooling the scanners. Where once was a wall, suddenly a drop a kilometre deep. Into something green, boiling and angry. He didn’t think he could face that kind of death.
The walls were silent, the only sound in the darkness his own laboured breathing. Sweat trickled into his eye and stung, blurring what little vision he had. A soldier never knew when his last mission was coming. But he always knew he would go down fighting, with his teeth and nails if necessary, to the last. Even that last comfort had been stolen by the alien world, that had only existed after he’d been told of its existence. And the goal of the men in the dark suits and faces that flickered in and out of phase, as if nervous of the light. Augments like that should have told him something. But he was a poor listener.
He felt them before he heard them. The lightweight suit seemed to press down upon him, to swallow him down into the temple floor. The pistol hand sank into the harsh stone like it had been struck by a jealous God. His chest tightened and constricted, and he heard his bones creak. Breath came with difficulty.
Then the whispers. Low, mournful sounds. Echoing softly down the corridor walls. There was almost a rhythm, if he concentrated. Like drumbeats on some vast hollow crystal. They sounded sad.
Jensen felt a wild laugh at this irony escape him as the form began to slowly coalesce before his eyes. The small chamber was lit by a soft blue light that seemed to creep from the stone as if summoned. For a moment, it became blinding, focussed on a gleaming indigo orb, and then muted as wisps and tendrils of a lighter shade sprouted from its heart, wrapping the orb in a thick blanket, and then blossoming out again around it. There was a sound like a low hum.
Jensen managed to raise his head against the suffocating pressure as one thin tendril reached for his face. But he couldn’t turn away, and he couldn’t fight it. He shivered at the touch, cool and airy, like a breeze in a cloud city.
For a moment, the pressure lifted, and he tried to bat the tendril away, but only succeeded in slapping his own cheek. The explosion of pain inside his skull was disproportionate to the force. He heard the sounds of someone screaming, far away as his mind lit on fire, and realised it was him. But just before his brain shut down from the sensory overload, he heard the words in his own voice. “I’m so sorry.” There was no time to think about the words before Jensen never thought again.