Excerpt from Chapter Two of The Distomos (2015):
The four mechs slowly crushed their way forward into the forest, leaving devastation in their wake. With the machines cruising through, the soldiers followed behind at a brisk pace on foot as trees fell around them. It became difficult for many of the soldiers to stay with the pack as they had to climb over toppled trees and shrubbery.
“Stay behind them and you’ll stay alive,” Xu barked into his soldier’s intercoms. His words forced everyone to tighten up formation and wait for the slower soldiers to catch up. After they regrouped, they continued forward making sure everyone hustled down the same path to prevent straggling again.
The large machines pivoted their torsos side by side; scanning the area for anything out of the ordinary. To cover as much surface area as possible, the two copper mechs took the front line, while the blue mech wandered on left of the army, and the rocket mech on the right.
The soldiers pushed forward in-between the concave of machines. Hopping over more toppled trees and manoeuvring around large rocks, the group headed towards the large mountain which was still a few hours away at their current pace.
Xu held a steady pace for his troops to follow behind. “How is the advancement, Lieutenant?” he heard Levar ask him through a private channel within his helmet.
“Progression is better than we could have asked for,” he huffed. “There are no signs of resistance.”
“Perfect,” Levar replied, hoping Xu could hear how pleased he was. “No disease. No violent animals: it seems that they were indeed, all rumours. I will come out and join you.”
“Sir, I do not believe it is entirely safe as of yet-” Xu was cut off.
“Do not worry about me, Lieutenant. I will be with you shortly.”
Xu grunted and glanced up to the blue and red sky. Beyond the clouds, he could see the Eris eclipse one of the small moons of Antila. The sun gleamed down upon his face, contrasting the cool temperature on the planet. He felt good being in armour and not having to worry about sweating in it. He smiled at the sky and turned his attention back to his team’s advancement towards the large mountain.
It seemed like only a few short minutes to Xu for the captain to catch up to the group – escorted by two other soldiers in a vertical hovering air transport. The small three-person craft slowed itself down as it reached the front of the line with Xu just behind the mechs.
Levar was sitting down and wearing a soldier’s helmet. His transport slowed to trot along with the speed of the soldiers pace.
“It seems as if this planet has been well terraformed,” Levar said into his helmets communicator. He looked around the jungle planet as his machine continued with the Lieutenant. “Rhapsody did a good job here,” he admired, turning his attention back to Xu. “And it seems as if everything is going according to plan.”
“So far,” Xu sternly replied. He did his best not to show how annoyed he was with his captain’s reluctance to stay on board the Eris. However, he did take a brief moment to observe what Levar had noticed. Looking at the healthy mix of trees surrounding him, he gauged the terraformation may have only been a few hundred years ago, confirming Antila to be a rather young habitable planet. Why Rhapsody never settled on the planet was something he was still uncertain of.
After what felt like an eternity for some of the soldiers, the army finally army closed in towards the mountain with the two copper mechs walking directly in front of the mountain’s base. The two other mechs split off and flanked their respective left and right side for a few hundred metres.
“Where are they going?” Levar asked Xu, unsure how his lieutenant was strategically deploying his forces.
“They’re trying to find the mountains entrance,” Xu answered, having his soldiers spread out along the foot of the mountain and forming a perimeter.
The captain stood up from his transport and looked around frantically with eagerness. “But we have drills. We can use them!” he boasted.
Xu looked up to Levar and figured he was clearly trying to piece together a plan to override his own. He did not have any of it. “With all due respect, Captain. We’re not entirely sure if that mountain is stable. Drilling into it could create a whole galaxy of problems.”
The captain realized his eagerness and slightly frowned upon hearing Xu’s logical explanation. He looked around again to survey the area. Trees seemed to endlessly go on across the planet. His lack of experience made it difficult to continue giving orders – irking Levar. “It would still be much quicker if we drilled through,” he restated, reaching to still hold control of the campaign.
Xu turned again to Levar. To speak over the sounds of the mechs, Xu shouted, “Captain Stanz. We are not drilling in to that mountain!”
His surroundings were so loud, Levar was unable to tell whether or not he heard Xu talking to him from his helmet or not. He did not like the lieutenant’s tone of voice to his superior. He was about to say something but Xu stopped him before he could.
“Did you not look at the specifications and layout of the mountain?” the lieutenant asked.
Levar froze. He did not know what Xu was talking about. “Keppler informed me of no-”
“He didn’t have to,” Xu snapped. “It was part of my mission briefing that you could have bothered to read.” Xu felt good knowing that he had Stanz buckling under pressure. He did not like having to do it in front of his troops, but he knew Levar’s hasty actions could bring trouble. Xu knew Levar still had a lot to learn.
“Lieutenant,” started Levar, visibly annoyed with Xu. He leaned over in his transport, “I assure you, I read all mission briefings and saw no such description of the mountain written down in any of the manuscripts. I can repeat anything written in the briefings verbatim.”
Xu gave a short, hearty laugh and shook his head. “It was not written down, Captain. Perhaps next time you should take a closer look at the images and schematics provided within the briefing.”
The captain felt his stomach sink as he recognized his failure. He hesitated before he sat back down in his craft. His head went down for a few seconds and propped back up. Accepting his mistake, he pressed on. “Lieutenant Xu,” he calmly addressed. “Tell me, what was in those schematics?”
With a calm composure, Xu informed, “According to whatever scans Keppler had done on the mountain, it’s mostly hollow.”
“And?” Levar inquired, wondering what Xu was getting at.
“And a hollow mountain could easily collapse, making this job more dangerous and a lot more time consuming.”
“Secondly,” Xu began. “While it’s mostly hollow, there’s an intricate series of tunnels and holes that lead down into the surface’s core.”
“So it’s a hollow volcano?” Levar asked. He began to reconsider whether or not he should have stayed on the Eris.
“Essentially, yes,” Xu said. “The last thing we need is to blindly start drilling into it or using explosives to get in. There’s a lot of volatile gas built up inside the cave. Any kind of major combustion could-”
“I understand, Lieutenant,” Levar affirmed, waving his hand. “It was a bad idea.”
Before he had a chance to give another subtle lecture to his captain, Xu paused and tapped on his helmet to hear the transmission being put through. He stood still for a moment and then looked up at the captain with a smile that Levar could see even under his visor. “Delta Three has found the entrance.”
The group with the two copper mechs veered left to see the massive navy blue mech facing away from the mountain, twisting its torso back and forth as it scanned the area. The camouflaged rocket mech appeared from the opposite side of the mountain as it finished walking its way around the entire base.
“Look at the size of that cave entrance!” a soldier barked in everyone’s intercom.
“Cut the chatter,” Xu announced. He turned off the intercom to speak to himself. “But damn, that is pretty big.”
Xu waved over a group of soldiers and told them to guide the copper drilling mechs up to the cave to see if they could fit in.
The soldiers split off and waved the two machines to move forward towards the entrance. They escorted them as the group approached it.
Watching the small grey and black suited soldiers from the ground, the two giant mechs had no problem fitting through the entrance and following them into the cave.
“What could have made an entrance that big, Lieutenant?” one of the soldiers asked.
“A combustion of gas built up in the cave, perhaps. Quite frankly, I don’t know.” Xu turned to the captain who seemed to be in awe over the size of the entrance. “Are you coming, Captain?”
Levar started to step down from his hovering transport while keeping his eyes locked on the mountains entrance. He would not risk going back to the landing shuttle without a proper escort. He hesitated and answered, “Yes.”
The group headed into the mountain with the two unique mechs standing outside. The two drilling mechs were ordered to stand at the cave entrance in case their cumbersome bodies were to accidentally bump into something and cause a cave in. The machines had their body headlights turned on inside the tunnel to illuminate the immense size of the mountain’s interior.
The soldiers pressed in and removed their visors and flicked on their personal floodlights. They were all dumbfounded by the intricacies of the cave they were walking in to.
“This place is massive,” said one soldier.
“Who could’ve built something like this?” asked another.
The cave spread out like an open field. Tunnels and pathways littered the cave with different levels. Most of the caverns were large enough for the mechs to enter, while there were many smaller grottos throughout the cave that only a crawling soldier could squeeze through.
“It’s as if someone was flying around in here and cutting holes,” Xu mentioned to the captain. “A lot of these tunnels were not in the original schematics.”
Levar did not even bother to reply. He was perplexed by the mountain’s interior and accomplishing his mission.
“From what the sensors say, sir, we should go through that tunnel,” one of the officers said to Xu. He was pointing at a large entrance within the cave.
“Affirmative,” Xu said, gauging the size of the entrance. He figured the mechs could still make it through, but did not want to risk it in case the walls became tight. He headed up in front of the group and turned around to face the few hundred troops under his command. “Okay soldiers, this is what we’re going to do.” He pointed to one group of soldiers. “Bravo team. You go outside to guarantee a secure entrance to the cave.” He pointed to another group. “Tango team. You remain here in the main room in case we need assistance. The rest of you will come with me through this corridor towards the objective.” He looked towards the captain.
“After you, Lieutenant,” Levar said as he looked upon Xu in curiosity. However, Xu knew it was a look of fear more than anything.
“Let’s go. Keep a tight formation.”
The group of over fifty soldiers walked towards the tunnel entrance to complete their mission. The remaining soldiers lifted the visors from their helmets and flicked on their floodlights for better vision in the dark tunnel.
“Eris, this is Captain Stanz,” he said into his wrist communicator. “We’re closing in on the target location. Stand by.”
Xu noticed the warble in the captain’s voice. Although the cave was overwhelming, he knew that the uncertainty in Levar’s voice came from the fear of messing up the mission. He could not help but smile to himself.
An unaccounted-for fork in the tunnel was going to split the group into two. Xu announced, “Group One will remain with the Captain and me. Group Two, continue forward and report any findings.”
Xu noted to himself that the cave continued to have different pathways unrelated to the schematics. He considered the fact that if Keppler did not know about how many tunnels were in the cave, then perhaps he was wrong about other things.
“So what is it that we’re looking for again?” a soldier quietly asked to another.
“I don’t know. Rumour says it’s some tool,” the soldier sighed. “You know how Keppler is.”
“No, I don’t,” Xu chimed in, listening intently to their conversation. “Tell me. How is he?”
The soldier could feel his hair stand up. “I didn’t mean anything by it, sir,” he replied in shock.
“I didn’t think so,” Xu smiled. Static noise suddenly came up into Xu’s helmet. “Group Two?” Xu asked. He tapped on his helmet as he was not sure what sort of communication error could be popping up in these tunnels.
They pressed on for a few more steps as what seemed like either a high-pitched scream or feedback pierced into Xu’s intercom. “Group Two! This is Lieutenant Xu! What is your situation?”
The rest of the group stopped and looked at Xu as he spoke into his helmet. “Group Two!”
There was silence.
Xu switched channels. “Tango team, find and intercept Group Two. Bravo team, take Tango’s position. Delta Three and Four, focus on visual scanning.”
Levar’s eyes widened with fear. Suddenly he was no longer concerned about the mission.
Xu calmly looked at Levar and nodded. “After you, Captain.”
“What is the situation, Lieutenant?” asked Levar. He did not want mirror Xu’s calm and cocky attitude.
“I’m not sure right now, Captain. So let’s continue to our objective. It’s not that many metres away.”
The group moved forward and reached the end of the tunnel. The tunnel ended in a large room. Various small holes in the mountain’s shell illuminated the outside sun into the room, allowing the soldiers to turn off their personal floodlights. A pedestal was seen against the back wall. On top of the pedestal was a small, see-through ball with what seemed to be a silver, diamond shaped object inside it.
“Is that it?” sassed one of the soldiers.
“Shut up,” Xu barked. He turned towards Levar. “Captain?”
Levar’s eyes fixated on the ball. “I believe it is,” he responded, walking towards it.
Xu got back on the intercom. “Tango team. What’s your situation on Group Two?” Static filled his helmet.
“What’s goin’ on, Lieutenant?” asked a worried soldier.
He paused for a moment. “I don’t know. Delta One. Delta Two. Give me sit-rep.”
The intercom shrieked with more feedback.
“This is Delta Two,” a voice screamed into Xu’s helmet. “I don’t know where they came from! They’re everywhere!” the frightened pilot shouted.
“What are you talking about, soldier?” demanded Xu. Levar turned his direction towards Xu with fear over what was happening. He could feel sweat forming within his helmet as his concern grew.
“I don’t know! Huge creatures! Hundreds of them! Huge creatures! We’ve lost Delta Three and Four outside! There’s too many of them!”
Xu’s experience and instinct fired up. He shouted at his soldiers, “You five take the entrance!” He turned and pointed at a few rocks in the room which seemed to offer decent cover. “I want a man on point there, there, and there.”
Levar jumped in. “What is it, Lieutenant?” his confidence was shaken.
Xu ignored him. “The rest of you take point along the back of the wall.” He ran over to Levar crouching down on one leg in front of him. “Charge up!”
The soldiers, along with Xu all flicked switches on their energy rifles which all emitted a short, high-pitched ringing noise.
“Now what?” asked Levar against the wall.
“Got a weapon?” Xu replied.
Levar quickly padded himself down. “No!”
Xu grinned, knowing Levar had seemed more unprepared than he had realized. “Keppler said that ball was some sort of weapon, so maybe you can figure out how to use it.”
Levar looked at Xu with a puzzled look on his face. “Wasn’t it for helping the energy crisis on Cancri? In the mission briefing-”
Xu smirked as he turned his head from Levar and interrupted him. “Energy crisis,” he scoffed, revealing Keppler’s bluff to Levar. “He doesn’t have to tell you everything, you know.”
The captain’s long face turned pale as it mixed with both fear and frustration. He looked down at the clear ball on its pedestal.
“Delta Two. What’s the situation?” Xu commanded.
“We can’t hold them! We’re the only ones left. Those things! I don’t know where they came from!” The pilot was even more panicked than before. The mechs loud thumping was heard within the background of the pilot’s voice.
Keeping a calm demeanour, Xu inquired, “What is your current location?”
“I’m running towards you!” he shrieked. “It’s right behind us!”
“Damn it,” Xu said to himself as the thunderous sounds of the mechs stomping feet became louder. “Brace yourselves!” he called out to his troops.
The mech quickly trampled its way into the large room, accidentally tripping over one of the rocks where Xu’s soldiers took cover behind. The soldiers were crushed as the copper coloured mech toppled on top of them. The loud thud from the falling machine cancelled the sounds of the soldier’s screams. Lying on its stomach, the mech attempted to push itself back up with its drilling arms pushing into the ground.
A massive, multi-horned mammal with large ears barged into the room. Xu recognized it as a hybrid of an Old-Earth elephant. It was a bit smaller than the mech and had many jagged tusks, all stained with fresh blood. The four legged giant sprung towards another one of the rocks with soldiers behind it and pierced two of them with its horns as it bellowed a loud roar. Other soldiers were crushed by its massive trunk swinging across the room, while another two soldiers were squashed beneath its feet.
Xu stared at the creature that had instantly wiped out ten of his men. “My God.”
Panicked, Levar grabbed the clear ball on the pedestal and struggled to see how to make it work.
As the other soldiers fired their weapons at the creature’s tough hide, the beast turned its attention to the struggling mech on the ground. The screams from the pilots were echoed through the room as the mech was forced to roll over onto its left side by the creature. It pushed the machine with its head and tore off the mech’s left arm in the process. The beast attacked into the mech’s torso with its many jagged horns.
With its right arm free, the mech pilots activated the drill. Spinning wildly, the drill dug directly into the creature’s side. The monster howled in pain as it began to jitter from the drill spinning its insides. Blood splattered across the room as the beast’s lifeless corpse collapsed onto the mech. Pulling its right arm out from the creature, the pilots of the mech called out for help to be freed from beneath the creature.
The remaining solders came out of their cover and looked at the destruction that both the creature and mech had left.
“What was that thing?” a soldier shouted to the trapped pilots as he approached the mech. Both pilots responded with screams.
“What are they saying?” asked Xu the soldier by the mech.
He soldier turned ghostly white as he faced the lieutenant. “There’s more coming.”
Familiar roaring could be heard through the tunnels as sounds of trampling grew closer.
Xu spun around. “You figure that thing out yet?” he demanded from Levar. The panic-stricken captain did not respond as he was consumed by trying to figure how to activate the weapon.
The trapped mech spun up its drill again as the stampeding sounded louder.
Two more beasts like the first one followed behind each other into the room. One of the creatures mindlessly leapt towards the fallen mech and landed onto its spinning drill. Piercing its stomach, its body fell limp while it collapsed onto the mech. The creature’s tusks cracked through the heavy glass cockpit, revealing the pilots. As the drill continued spinning, the innards of the monster quickly filled the cockpit, drowning the strapped-in pilots.
The second beast attacked the soldiers who stood firing at it. The monster seemed unaffected by the energy-based weapons as it rapidly worked its way through each soldier against the back wall –piercing them with its tusks and tossing them aside with its massive trunk. It worked its way towards Xu and Levar.
“God help us,” Xu said to himself. Overwhelmed by the death of his soldiers and the dire situation, he ran screaming towards the monster. Firing wildly at the creature’s wide mouth, Xu was too blinded by his emotions to feel the pain of the beast’s foot crushing his body.
Levar turned to run towards the tunnel’s exit with the clear ball in his hand. The few remaining soldiers firing useless shots against the beast were enough of a distraction to give him a head start. Running with his arms by his side, he was unaware of the a bright violet glow coming from the diamond object within the ball.
As he reached the exit, Levar looked down in horror to see a blood-stained ivory horn poking through his chest. He was lifted horizontally into the air and his body slid down the horn towards the creature.
As the warm sensation of life floated from his body, the violet ball fell from his hand. It dropped to the floor and rolled to a stop against a rock, prompting the violet colour to turn red.
The explosion which erupted from the ball was exponentially magnified by the gases within the mountain. The explosion forced itself through the tunnels of the mountain and deep down inside Antila’s core. The tectonic plates shifted, causing major splits in the planet and global volcanic eruptions.
The close orbiting Eris only had seconds to react from the fated Antila as the core’s explosion ripped through the planet and went skywards. Chunks of the planet ripped apart and expelled into space – obliterating the Eris from existence.
As the fractions of the planet went into every direction, a clear ball containing a silver, diamond shaped object raced across the vastness of space. Unsure of its destination, the object looked for a place to land.