Since the launch of the Beyond the Gates of Antares Rulebook, we’ve been contacted by several community members who wanted to share their own writings – and we’ve been hugely impressed with some of the fantastic work that has been sent in – it’s fantastic to see the community making their own mark upon the canvas that is the Antarean universe!
We were particularly impressed with the writings of Tim Bancroft – who has sent in a number of pieces! This is the fifth section of Tim’s stories that we’ve shared – his previous pieces can be found here, here, here, and here.
The flitters and scouts returned. ‘Report,’ boomed Shaltok. His amplified voice echoed around the cave.
‘Sir, the tunnels are extensive, possibly artificial deeper in.’
‘Shelter? Entrances? Access?’
‘Yes, sir. The twists give protection from the storm but the caves are mostly large enough for battle armour, sir. We could find only two entrances: this one and another over the ridge.’
‘Good. Any other inhabitants?’
‘Possibly a large pack of local creatures but they were diffi—’
The scout was interrupted by a quickly curtailed shout from the sentries, snarls echoing along the tunnel. Into Shaltok’s enhanced vision poured dozens of rodent-like creatures, each as long as a Ghar was tall. Jaws snapped and teeth grated on his suit’s legs, clamped around the scout’s arm. Screams of pain reverberated around the cave.
The creatures were difficult to see, the colouring of their thick, scaly plating and fur matching perfectly the stone, sand and dust. Natural camouflage. Near-perfect.
‘Assault squads!’ boomed Shaltok. He slammed the sandrat against the wall of the cave, snipped off its head with his claw. He pushed aside a pair of scouts embroiled in a melee, aimed his scourer at the rear of the pack. He dialled dispersed fire; plasma spat, tore apart several of the creatures.
Then the assault troopers joined him. Shaltok waded forward. ‘Give space for the others to fight!’ Massive Ghar claws whined, snapped, bit easily through the animal armour. Shaltok fired again. Rocks tumbled down from the roof. ‘No disruptors!’ he ordered.
The tide was already turning. The sandrats fled, chased by two troopers firing focussed scourer bursts. Shaltok trudged back up the passage, stepped over bodies – sandrats and Outcasts. ‘All squads, report casualties.’
The Outcasts had suffered: half a dozen were dead or seriously injured. Battle-armour and the height of the crawlers had saved the rest. It could be worse.
‘See to the injuries. The dust-storm is too good a cover to waste – we must scout the humans. Double-seal the caves, make dust-airlocks. Keep comms to a minimum.’ The senior squad leader acknowledged.
Shaltok looked again at the sandrats, turned to the Outcast sub-commander. ‘Strip their scales and fur, make cloaks for the Outcasts. There’s no nanosphere on this world so the camouflage will come in useful.’
The Outcast bowed. ‘Certainly, sir. Can we roast them, sir? For protein substitute?’
‘Check for poison first.’
Shaltok led his personal squad back out into the storm.
* * *
The ship’s medic met Officer Ceahray in the transmat chamber. He quickly sprayed the damaged chitin with cleanser, antiseptic and finally a sealant spray. The medic drone accompanying him complained: ‘Particulates remain in wound.’
‘No time,’ growled Ceahray. ‘Got to get back down there.’ She held up a case in front of the drone. ‘Emergency medical supplies, okay? I’ll have it checked dirtside.’ She stepped around the drone.
The tramp of marching feet sounded in the corridor outside. Batu Delhren strode into the chamber, his squad of Vardanari bodyguards at his back. A pair of drones buzzed over their heads. Like the Algoryn, all the humans were dressed in armour; unlike their shipboard hosts, their dress was multihued: purple impact cloaks, sharp contrasts of red and bright blue on their armour.
Ceahray scowled; Batu grinned. ‘Caught you in time,’ he said.
‘You’re not going down,’ said Ceahray. She blocked his way. ‘There’s a storm coming. The lander’s leaving us down there.’
Batu gestured to his troops supplies. ‘We’re prepared. Contract says I can inspect relevant ruins whenever I wish.’
Ceahray shook her head. ‘It’s your skin.’ She slipped on her armoured gloves. ‘Keep wrapped up, softskin.’ She marched to the chamber’s focal point, faced the operator. ‘Eight to go down.’ The Delhren hurriedly joined her.
Bright light bathed them all…
* * *
Hidden by the wind-whipped dust and sand, Shaltok settled his suit into the cleft near the ruins. He overlooked the Freeborn’s transmit lander and the blocky shelters that had been built in the last hour. The walls were rougher than he expected, perhaps suggesting the human’s nano-builders had struggled to bond the dust and stone together.
They may be structurally unsound, temporary at best.
The dust storm was far more severe than his briefing had anticipated. Battle suits protected for a while but already his was issuing warnings of abrasion damage.
Visible only in his combat array, the bay doors opened on the lander. An Algoryn, judging by its angled armour, leant into the wind and staggered across to the buildings. A squad of normals followed, Freeborn by their colourful cloaks and armour. Several were blown off their feet, landed awkwardly, cracking limbs and heads against rocks and spiny plants. They struggled to rise. Probably injured. Serve them right, stupid humans.
To Shaltok’s surprise the lander lifted, suspensors driving dust away from beneath it. They’re being abandoned. The ship was caught by the wind as it rose, rocked, and he glimpsed where the fuselage was already damaged, much of the surface sheen already sand-blasted away. Perhaps they’re worried that it won’t survive the storm. That was a disconcerting thought: it meant the humans believed the storm would worsen.
As if in response, the wind picked up. Dust blanked all vision, obscured a broader range of sensory input. His combat array already had to compensate for the exterior lenses becoming fogged by too many scratches. Now, there were patches in the representation it fed him. The suit flashed a warning: ‘Sensory loss is exceeding compensation limits. Maintenance required.’
Seconds later one of his bodyguard flashed him a short-range message. ‘Sir, the dust is abrading our suit’s lenses. I suspect there may be more damage.’
Time to go. Shaltok levered himself up, careful to lean into the storm. The troopers rose with him, crunched forward. ‘Back to the caves. Out of the storm.’ He led the way down. ‘We’ll dig our way back in, rebuild the barricade behind us. Run repairs, check how badly the dust has scoured the armour. There are some former technicians amongst the Outcast.’
‘Could you confirm you want us to use Outcasts, sir?’ The distaste in the troopers tone was blatant.
‘Yes, trooper. Let them earn their food and upkeep. I have no intention of wasting their former skills.’
* * *
Tim Bancroft has been longlisted for the James White SF Award 2015 and won the Orwell Dystopian Fiction Award 2014. Follow Tim on his Blog at: timbancroft.me.uk.