༺ First Burn ༻


The warhead was roomy inside the tip of the missile. He relied on the exo to secure him, but at four points this time. The exo had been upgraded with an extra layer of capabilities. Parachute, radiation shields, re-breather and supplies. Life support for ten days plus, of course, the all important munitions. The servos in the exo had been louder carrying the extra weight. Enough to vaporise a city.

They must’ve had much faith in him. If he went down then they’d lost a missile and another fully trained and equipped Hr09. Expensive. But all he had to do was ride the missile’s g-forces, parachute to the surface and - God alone knew what the surface was like after all this time - send their telemetry and find a way down beneath the layer the ICBMs could damage. Locate their centre and damage it as much as he could. The ultimate guided missile.

The countdown started. He sealed his exo. Ten micros of chill took the edge off the tension. He didn’t register the main engines starting but he could feel the acceleration. OHMYGOD could he feel that! Crushed against the back of the exo, his face distorting and then black out.

Weightless, he floated back to consciousness. He couldn’t really see anything but guessed he was at the top of the parabola. The engines shook his bones but at the same time he was disconnected. Maybe it was the shot of chill, but he felt as though he stepped sideways out of the world. Out of time and into the void. A nameless terror filled the world, the drop yawned below. Certainty sucked him down into the abyss.

Suddenly, inexplicably, he could see himself from outside just as a camera might. As the missile gathered its apocalyptic downward plunge, he saw his own figure wedged inside the warhead. Saw the exo with its fluted rib cage of hi-explosives. Saw his own face through the helmet, past the headup assembly into the bewildered eyes, into the cavern of pooling shock as he screamed along with the missiles jets, dropping into the maw of silence.

Pressure sensors triggered the eject sequence. Parachute straps snapped taut, he grunted and looked down for the missile. Already out of sight amongst the blackening vapors. Dark, violent winds span him through clouds of caustic moisture. Shortly the ground lunged up and brutalised him. While he struggled to regain his breath, towers of volcanic rubble loomed over the crumpled crash zone. The cold of the windchill penetrated even through the exo’s protection. His head cleared and he got up and faught his way through the gail to shadows. The base of a cliff undercut and he hoped it would provide some shelter. Deep in the recesses he thermo-scanned - nothing! He sat down on the rubble and turned down his lights to half. He didn’t want to be spotted but he needed to take stock. He wasn’t injured in the fall but the exo had absorbed a hell of an impact. System scan showed the broadcast beacon non-functional. The telemetry data was stored but he wasn’t going to be able to send it yet. He didn’t expect to be able to send it from the surface anyway. No signals had been received for years. Enemy infrastructure might provide means though. The blast of a falling bomb shook the world. Rocks fell heavily down the cliff face. They hadn’t paused the barrage in order not to give any signal of anything unusual to the enemy. He had to find a way down. The micro-tremor scanner picked up something. Heading into the deeper darkness he thermo-scanned again. There! Figures watched him.

There must be some tunnel entrance. The figures had disappeared once he started towards them. Starting a scan on an air sample at the tunnel mouth, he watched the exo readout. These where ordinary humanoid air breathers of some sort. They would probably want to eat him. Rather than fight them, he decided to give them bait. Looking down the list of supplies, he found the sweetest thing he had. Chokblobz! He chucked one down the shaft and waited. A short cafuffle and much grunting soon followed. Pairs of eyes now peered at him from the top of the tunnel. Another chokblob, chucked on the floor to the right. They would have to get nearer to him to get it but they would have to come out of the tunnel. The bravest of them was soon to move. He bet that they had never tasted such sweetness. He lobbed a whole handful and they all came out. Rags, hair, twisted limbs. A group of six, delight shining in their eyes. The first had begun to cry, overwhelmed by the beauty streaming from his taste buds. Boy could chokblobz deliver!

He made a slow move towards them. Their fear still strong but over-powered by the melting glory in their mouths, they moved back. He hefted another handful of the sweets over their heads and made for the tunnel as they scrambled away after them. Lights on to full, he made out the ledges the creatures used to go up and down. Before long he got to a chamber. The mutant’s tunnels went in every direction. Excited whispering came from the shadows. Noticing what looked like a sheet of metal leaning against a wall of the chamber, he went over to check it out. The curving side of a big, vertical shaft. Maybe an old missile launch tube or an air intake?

Starting his main laser made the whisperings turn to shrieks. Footsteps fled away and he could start on getting into this tube without an audience. The metal was thick and he had to cut a largish hole. Ten minutes and he shut off the laser. The circular hole was nearly complete except for a small strip at its base acting as a hinge. Getting a thin gemmy into the cut at the top, he levered his entrance outwards. He didn’t want to drop it down the shaft and alert anything down there.

He braced against the metal whorls and bent the metal flap down, servos whirring. Carefully, he nudged a remote into the hole. Nothing! He edged his head through and the exo measured two hundred metres down. No problem! He set up a line and got ready to rappel down.