Chapter 6
Descent into the Pit
ESS Ticonderoga, Outside Union Space
Date: Fri 05 Sep 122
Time: UST 2053

"Five minutes to target's projected sensor range," the sensor operator said. "No sign of active contacts."
"All ships, full stop," Admiral Mfume ordered.
"Full stop," Commodore Frazier echoed.
"Full stop, aye," the helmsman replied.
Commodore Frazier looked over his shoulder to the Admiral and asked, "Time to call our eyes on the inside, sir?" When Admiral Mfume nodded in reply, the Commodore told the communications officer, "Mr. Sato, open an encrypted channel and transmit the challenge code."
"Transmitting challenge code, aye," Lieutenant Sato replied.
A spy ship had been monitoring the Sheolite homeworld and the intel its crew had gathered would prove crucial to the success of the operation. If the Sheolites hadn't found them between now and their last transmission, that is.
After a moment, the communications officer told the Commodore, "Receiving response now, sir. Analyzing... Response checks out. Ferryman is hailing us."
"Let it through," Commodore Frazier said.
The communication was restricted to Admiral Mfume, Commodore Frazier, Captain Yuen, and Lieutenant Sato, so the Commodore was pressing down on his earphone as 'Ferryman' spoke.
"Orpheus, this is Ferryman. Do you read?"
"Ferryman, this is Orpheus," Admiral Mfume said. "We read you loud and clear. Tell us the situation."
"We've been watching the Shellies here for three months now. We had the Angles and the Jutes stationed here the whole time, but last month four other fleets came in and they all left a couple weeks ago."
"You mean there aren't any Shelly ships defending Erebus right now?" Commodore Frazier asked?
"That's exactly what I'm saying," Ferryman replied. "We're getting energy readings from inside, though, so the facilities are still active."
"Have they ever left the area unprotected like this before?" Admiral Mfume asked.
"Negative. Not in all our time here. The same goes for the crews who were surveilling the area before us."
"This might be our chance then," Captain Yuen said.
"Do you have any new intel on Erebus' defenses?" Admiral Mfume asked.
"You should already have everything we know. Their gun and missile emplacements won't do much more than slow you down and their sensor fields have as many holes as a block of Swiss cheese. We have no idea about the troop strength inside, but you should have no problem inserting recon teams before you launch a full-scale assault."
"Very well then," the Admiral said. "Continue to monitor the situation. Orpheus, out."
"Happy hunting. Ferryman, out."
Staying on the private channel, Admiral Mfume told Commodore Frazier and Captain Yuen, "We do not know how long this window of opportunity will remain open. We must act quickly." To Lieutenant Sato, he said, "Open a channel to the battle group commanders."
"Opening channel, aye."
To the battle group commanders, Admiral Mfume said, "This is Mfume. It would appear the Sheolites have left Erebus virtually defenseless. Prepare to proceed with the operation. Admiral Vargin, hold position here with the Ticonderoga. Admiral Xenopoulos, Commodore Phuong, take your battle groups and fan out along the perimeter. Remain out of sensor range and hold position. Have our aviation assets on patrol around the clock. If the Sheolite fleets return, I want to know about it as soon as possible."
"Aye-aye, sir," the battle group commanders replied in unison.
"Commodore, get in touch with Colonel Grozny," the Admiral told Commodore Frazier. "I want a recon team deployed within the next two hours. We need to know what to expect in there."
"Aye-aye, sir," the Commodore replied. He then dialed up Colonel Grozny and when the Colonel picked up, he said, "Grozny, it's Frazier. Get your boys ready. It's showtime."

* * *

Location: 'Erebus', Outside Union Space
Date: Sat 06 Sep 122
Time: UST 0016

A lone Combat Sparrow quietly weaved through the gaps in Erebus' sensor coverage and set down on the surface. The insertion was a success. The enemy had not been alerted to their arrival, but the mission was just getting started.
While it was known that Erebus was no natural asteroid, the results of the initial scans were surprising for the Marines about to unload from the Combat Sparrow. Not even twenty kilometers in diameter, there was no way it should be able to maintain its thin but breathable atmosphere. The technology to hold the atmosphere and a gravity of nearly three-quarters that of Earth's had to be different than the standard graviton generators, but what that could be was a mystery.
There was no time to wonder about the curiosities of the mysterious planetoid. They had a job to do. While the Marines of First Platoon, Echo Company took up defensive positions around the Combat Sparrow, Lieutenant Dixon surveyed the landscape with Miranda at his side.
Miranda had been to quite a few moons and asteroids throughout the system and the comparatively smooth featurelessness of Erebus was disconcerting. There were no craters, no real variance in elevation, nothing. Just black rock as far as the eye could see, which itself was not much as the planetoid was small enough that you could see its curvature from the surface.
"All units, this is Echo One-Oh-One," Lieutenant Dixon said. "Let's move out. First and Third, with me. Second and Fourth, with Echo One-Oh-Two. Fifth, you're on standby."
"Copy that, Echo One-Oh-One," Corporal Wilkers of Fifth Squad replied.
"Echo One-Three-One, Echo One-Three-Three, take point," Lieutenant Dixon said. He pointed out to a gun emplacement about three hundred meters out and said, "There should be a maintenance hatch near that emplacement. That'll be our point of ingress. Move out!"
Hoek and Solano took point and they made their way to the gun emplacement. Because Erebus was originally a Union facility, features like extensive maintenance tunnels made their job a lot easier. That was the theory, at least.
When they reached the maintenance hatch, Lieutenant Dixon said, "Echo One-Two-Two, check the hatch. If it's clean, open it up."
Lance Corporal Lee went over to the hatch and did a more in-depth scan. When he gave Lieutenant Dixon the all clear sign, the Lieutenant responded with a thumbs-up so he would proceed to the next step. Lee unspooled some BlasTape and stuck it around the edges of the hatch.
Plugging in the detonator, Lee said, "Fire in the hole. Clear!"
A muted explosion cut through the hatch and it dropped down into the tunnel below.
Before anyone went in, the Lieutenant said, "Be careful out there, people. We don't know what's waiting for us inside."
"Aye-aye," the platoon responded in unison.
Sergeant Martinez was the first one down and no sooner than his feet touched the deck, he grumbled, "It's a tight damn fit down here. Won't have much room to maneuver. Have to go in one-by-one."
"Be glad you can move around all, Echo One-Two-One," Miranda told him. "If we have to go one-by-one, that's what we do. It's bound to open up once we get out of the maintenance tunnels."
If the original designers had not intended to move hardware through the tunnels, there was no way a MediSuit-equipped Marine would ever fit inside at all. Still, the tight quarters were highly disadvantageous to them. Miranda had to half-crouch just to walk and the automatic riflemen were no doubt having a hell of a time lugging around their donner guns. It gave them all the more reason to get into the facility proper, but they could not afford to get hasty and risk alerting the Shellies.
Lieutenant Dixon went one direction with First and Third Squads while Miranda took Second and Fourth the other. They did not get far when Private Taylor, one of the greenest members of the platoon, asked Miranda, "Say, Echo One-Oh-Two, why aren't we going for the sensors and gun emplacements on the surface?"
"We've already been through this, Echo One-Two-Three," Miranda said. "We're here on recon. We don't want to tip off the Shellies that we're here."
Keenly aware that the deeper they got into the facility, the more likely their signal could be intercepted, Miranda told her team, "Alright, people. Let's button it up before we go any farther. Radio silence."
The Shellies were not known for hacking Union frequencies, but Miranda had a bad feeling about this place and did not want to take any unnecessary risks.
Miranda took point and locked on the biggest power source. Scouting a clear route to the reactor would be critical when it came time for the main force to secure the facility.
They came across a little terminal on the wall, the kind the maintenance crews used to access a facility's systems. It could make their lives a lot easier. Miranda signaled for Lee to come up and try hacking into it. She went on ahead with Fourth Squad and left Second there with Lee.
Miranda and Fourth scouted further down the tunnel for a few minutes when she got a response from Lee. Typically, radio silence meant no transmissions whatsoever, but in situations like this, they would use simple coded bursts too brief to trace and with too little information to tell the enemy much if intercepted.
Lee had succeeded in hacking into the system and transmitted the partial schematic he was able to find. Miranda sent it along to Lieutenant Dixon. They could overlay the schematic with the auto-mapping their suits were doing to see how much the plans on file matched the current configuration of the facility. Miranda remembered the nightmare of navigating Villareyes Starport, which had been almost completely reworked from the original design. That did not seem to be the case here, but perhaps it only applied to the maintenance tunnels.
They had been able to move with little impediment until they were about half a klick from the power source Miranda guessed was the reactor. The tunnel had collapsed along the direct route. She led her squads around to an alternate route, but there was a cave-in there as well. She decided they would have to get out of the maintenance tunnels eventually anyway, so she doubled back to the main route and found the nearest access hatch for them to get out.
The main corridors were wide open, about four by three. Shelly bug-shell plating was fused to the walls and ceiling between the wall braces. It was not quite like the interior of the Hades, but it did not much resemble a Union facility anymore either.
Miranda had Second take point and Fourth take the rear while she positioned herself between the two squads to keep them both in line. She busily cycled through her scanners, looking for any sign of the enemy.
As Second passed an intersection, Miranda caught the blip of an enemy contact, but she was not the only one who noticed it. Private Taylor did too and he had about the worst possible reaction.
"Shit!" he yelped, breaking radio silence.
Taylor opened up with a burst from his donner gun. A blip split off and started going back the way it came. Taylor kept firing, wasting ammo and drawing more attention to them. Furious, Miranda darted over to Taylor and batted his donner gun down to the deck.
"Hold your fire, dammit!" she snapped.
It was too late. Alarms sounded and red lights flashed. However many Shellies were garrisoned here, they would be out in force soon. Maybe they numbered so few that a single armor platoon would be more than enough to neutralize them, but they did not know and Miranda was not about to take any stupid risks with her Marines.
"We need to move," she said, staying calm and collected. Positioning herself to cover their withdrawal, she then barked, "Fall back! Fall back!"
They did not get far before Lieutenant Dixon contacted Miranda.
"Echo One-Oh-Two, what's going on over there?"
"The enemy knows we're here," Miranda said as she blasted a Shelly rounding the corner. "Security systems are active and troops are mobilizing. We need to evac now."
There were no arguments or complaints from the Lieutenant. He knew what needed to be done and did not hesitate to make the call.
"Alright, we're pulling out, First Platoon," he said. "Woodpecker Three, fire up the engines and prepare for immediate dustoff. Echo One-Five-One, you and the rest Fifth keep the LZ clear for us."
"Roger that, Echo One-Oh-One," Corporal Wilkers replied.
Captain Kuntz, the pilot, soon followed with, "I copy, Echo One-Oh-One."
Now all that was left was to get out of there. Miranda and her Marines were going to take the maintenance tunnels back the way they came, but that plan was scrapped in short order when a warning flashed on Miranda's visor.
"Incoming! Get clear!"
The Marine darted to the walls just in time to dodge and incoming rocket. No one was hit, but it smashed right into the access hatch to the tunnels.
"Looks like we're sticking to the corridors," Miranda said. "Keep moving, Marines! Echo One-Four-Three, take point!"
They did not get too far before PFC Chandraraja the point man stepped out into an intersection, shouting, "Get back!" as he dove out of the way of a barrage of pulse fire that peppered the wall.
The three Marines closest to Chandraraja tripped over each other trying to get clear of the incoming fire. The Shellies did not normally use pulse weapons, so Miranda wanted to get a look for herself.
"Hold position," Miranda said. "Second to the front, Fourth to the rear." Moving past Chandraraja, she told him, "I'll take a look."
She peeked around the corner, getting only the briefest glimpse before another barrage of pulse fire came in. She pulled back, her suspicions confirmed. This was originally a high-security Union facility and as such it had been outfitted with multiple turret emplacements to deal with intruders. They were not a great threat to MediSuit-equipped Marines, but they were not to be underestimated either. Best to take a hit only when you cannot avoid it.
"All units, be advised. Auto-turrets have been deployed. Eyes out, people."
Miranda popped out to fire off a shot that took out one turret and once the second turret was done firing off its burst, she popped out again to take it out as well. With auto-turrets now a threat, she decided it would be better for her to take point.
"Second, Fourth, this way!" she shouted. To the Lieutenant, she said, "Echo One-Oh-One, we're going to cut across to converge on your position."
"Roger that, Echo One-Oh-Two."
The plans Lee had picked up did not entirely reflect the current state of Erebus, but they were a godsend all the same. The route Miranda plotted worked fairly well. They only had about a half-dozen turret points and a couple stray Shellies slowing them down. Those obstacles did not slow them down too much, though, which was a good thing because Miranda was starting to pick up multiple contacts gathering behind them and she would rather not see them catch up to her.
After a few minutes of running through the corridors, they met up with Lieutenant Dixon and his two squads.
"All accounted for, Echo One-Oh-Two?" the Lieutenant asked Miranda.
"Every one of them," she replied. "Now let's move. Lead from the front, sir. I'll pull up the rear."
"Roger that."
They did not have far to go and they would be back on the surface. Miranda had started to notice interference creeping in earlier and it was steadily getting worse, but she could still pick up multiple contacts headed their way. They were running out of time.
She took down the first Shelly as it came around the corner from the left, then the next one coming from the right. Two more came from the left. She got one, but the other dodged her shot and more came in from the right before she could catch the one she missed. Nail gun fire started coming in. That was not much of a problem. The Shellies armed with rocket launchers, however, were.
Several rocket were fired all at once, Miranda fired off her arm cannon as quickly as she could to intercept the rockets, but the rate of fire simply was not high enough. She managed to get one, but four more were coming right at her. She dove down as the rockets hit the walls all around her. The explosions swept over her, but they were nothing her suit could not handle.
Once the explosions had passed, Miranda got back on her feet and started scanning for the enemy, sending a couple shots of blind fire down the corridor, hopefully enough to make the Shellies fall back. She was not even paying the slightest attention to the damage from the rocket blasts.
"Gunny, look out!"
Someone tackled Miranda hard, knocking her forward just as the weakened wall brace gave out and the corridor caved in. Not even waiting for the dust to settle, Miranda disengaged her arm cannon, took hold of a plasma grenade and slung it down to the other end of the corridor where the Shellies were coming from, shouting, "Plasma out!"
The grenade detonated and if the blast of plasma did not wipe out the Shellies who caused the cave-in, it would at least keep them back for a minute or two. This would give her some time to collect herself and get her bearings.
"Dammit, I can't move, Gunny," a voice complained. It was the same voice that called out to her earlier, no doubt the one who tackled her. Hoek.
Miranda turned to see Hoek half-buried under rubble. He was pinned face-down, which made it difficult for him to pull himself out. Miranda would have to hurry and get him out before the Shellies came back.
"Let me give you a hand there," she said.
She started by taking hold of Hoek's arms and pulling, but he was not moving a sench. She then tugged on a beam that was going across Hoek's back, but it was wedged in tight. A MediSuit could lift 750 kilos, but that was not nearly enough. She looked around for something that could give her some leverage, but there did not seem to be anything sturdy enough or the right dimensions for the job. They would need a team of engineers to get him out. Maybe they could hold out until then, but Hoek needed to know the score first.
"Sorry, Hoek," she said, "but you're not budging."
"Don't worry about me, Gunny," Hoek said. "Just get going."
She was not going to do that, but she did not have a chance to say anything because the Lieutenant came on the line.
"Echo One-Oh-Two, Echo One-Three-One, why aren't you moving?"
"It's a no-go, Echo One-Oh-One," Miranda replied. "There's been a cave-in."
"Look for an alternate route."
Miranda had been scanning the area. There was no alternate route.
"The only way left is through the Shellies," she said.
"Stand by, Echo One-Oh-Two. We'll get you out."
"No time, Echo One-Oh-One. You need to extract ASAP, before they recalibrate the defenses to intercept the Sparrow."
"No one gets left behind, Echo One-Oh-Two!"
Spoken like a true Marine, but it looked like the only way Miranda and Hoek would be coming home was in body bags and that was if they were lucky.
"There's no other way," Miranda said grimly.
"If it was anyone else, you'd find a way!" Lieutenant Dixon shouted angrily.
"Not this time."
"Dammit, Gunny!"
"Echo One-One-One, get the LT onboard and get out of there," Miranda said coolly. "I'll slow them down as much as I can."
"Copy that, Echo One-Oh-Two," Comanescu replied.
Miranda was glad he understood. He would do a good job of taking care of the Lieutenant and First Platoon once she was gone.
Miranda blocked out Lieutenant Dixon's signal. She needed to concentrate on what was coming.
"Sorry you got caught up in this, Hoek," she said.
"It was my choice, Gunny," Hoek said, his voice somewhat garbled by his damaged transmitter.
"Your cannon still work?"
"Yes, Gunny."
"Good," Miranda said.
She walked over to her arm cannon and reattached it. 92% capacity. Her suit would probably give out before she ran out of shots. The Shellies were on the move again. She took aim.
"You ready for this?"
"Yes, Gunny."
"Pick your targets. Make each shot count."
"Aye-aye, Gunny."
Miranda crouched down to make herself a smaller target. It was a silly thing to think, she knew, but perhaps she and Hoek could hold the Shellies off until reinforcements arrived. Well, if Hoek was not buried under a tonne or two of rubble, maybe.
False hope aside, she could at least send as many Shellies to Hell as she could and make the work of her comrades a little easier. Every dead Shelly could make for a live Marine. That was not such a bad deal.
They would be rounding the corner soon.
"Hoek, I'll take left, you take right."
"Aye-aye, Gunny."
As Miranda prepared to squeeze off the first shot, everything went black. Her joints locked and her upper body dipped forward.
What was going on? The power cells in her suit should have lasted her another twenty hours at very least. MediSuits were also shielded against EMPs, so she did not think it was that either. Whatever the cause, she needed to reactivate her suit and quickly.
She fought against her frozen joints to pry loose her left hand, which was steadying her arm cannon. Normally a MediSuit without power was not so difficult to move. This sort of lockdown had to be some sort of deliberate function, but what could have set it off? Or who?
Miranda worried that the rest of the platoon might be suffering from the same problem. What if they were not on the Sparrow yet?
No, she could not think about that right now. She had to worry about herself first.
Once her left hand was free, she tried twisting her wrist in the SOS pattern that was the key to a manual reboot from the inside. No good.
Straining her back muscles for all they were worth, Miranda struggled to straighten herself back up and then slowly hefted her arm cannon back up. She would be shooting blind, but there were no friendlies up ahead and if she could take out any Shelly at this point, it would have to count for something.
It felt like her finger bones were going to snap as she squeezed the trigger. She could not be sure if the arm cannon even fired. It had very little recoil normally and now it was counterbalanced by the rigidity of her locked joints.
Miranda's breathing quickened. Even for a combat veteran of her experience, it was difficult to fight off the panic under the circumstances.
Not like this. If she had to go out, it should not be like this.
She felt things glance off her, maybe the spikes from Shelly nail guns. They would soon resort to heaver equipment to punch through her armor or hit her with enough concussive force to liquefy her brains.
Something hit her and she toppled over with all the grace of a fallen statue pulled down by an angry mob. She then felt something pressing down on her, even through the armor. She could not hear much of anything until the high whine of the cutters grinding against the armor plating of her suit rang in her ears. They were trying to cut her out and God only knew what would happen after that.
It may not have been worth anything, but she continued to squeeze the trigger to her arm cannon. She wanted to believe it still worked and was firing now at her attackers, but the whine of the cutters did not stop.