THE BATTLE FOR CALLISTO by Gregory KH Bryant
 
Episode Thirty-Seven
 
Illara cast her eyes to Ward. Ward said nothing.
 
“I have to go. We have to go,” she said. “Pod 3... that’s where Story lives... Joyce... Emily. We have to go back We have to help.”
 
Ward stiffened. He had done his part, and was ready to collect his pay and go. Clean-up was someone else’s problem. Anyone else’s. But that kid. Emily. Ward had come to like her. Tough little kid. Cagey, too. She did good on IPS-3, when Turhan Mot had taken it over.
 
Carter Ward had only a few friendships beyond Mud, Illara, and Dimara, and a few scattered others. That was how he wanted it. But Emily had squirmed her way into what little he had in the way of a heart.
 
“Yeh,” was all he said.
 
He locked his ship down, with his usual request to Dimara to `keep an eye on things for me, will ya, babe?’.
 
“It’s gonna be a long march,” Illara said.
 
Ward and Mud simply grunted, and without another word, the three of them began the march to Callisto Base 1.
 
They threaded their way through the vast clutter of ships on the tarmac, some of them still smouldering with billows of smoke arising from their blackened hulks, others having somehow survived the battle that had raged quickly through here but only half an hour before.
 
Everywhere the bodies of dead Scroungers lay in heaps. Among them, the bodies of the defenders, the forces of Jovian Security, in their uniforms of purple and black. And as they came near the surface tunnel that led to Callisto Base 1, they found, here and there, broken pieces of the `mice’, the experimental pursuit ships launched from the “Bellerophon”, and to which Lieutenant Danton had been assigned.
 
None of them spoke, except Mud, who hazarded a mordant “Man, this is all going to stink like hell on a cracker.”
 
Ward grunted.
 
“Greenhouse for these guys,” he answered, kicking the headless corpse of a Scrounger as he stepped by it. “Make fertilizer outta them.”
 
“Sure,” Mud replied with a short laugh that faltered.
 
They came at last to the rail tunnels that led to Callisto Base 1. This end of the tracks was ruined, destroyed by Captain Waverley’s troops to impede the Scroungers, early in the battle.
 
The roofs and walls of the tunnels were of transparent steel. The base was clearly visible through the walls of the tunnels, as were Jupiter and its greater, inner moons, Europa, Ganymede and Io. Walkways for maintenance crews lined both sides of the tracks, and every hundred yards was a tiny way station built into the walls of the tunnel. These way stations stored emergency supplies such as medical kits, flashlights, hammers, wrenches and other such tools. These stations could also be locked down from inside, in the event of a failure on any part of the walls of the tunnels.
 
And lying on the tracks, and the walkways, and among the broken pieces of the ransacked way stations, were countless hundreds of corpses of the Scroungers. Torn, charred, mutilated and rendered into shapeless bloodied pieces, the bodies and the pieces of bodies carpeted the tunnels.
 
The sounds of engines came to them from the landing bay behind them.
 
Knowing that it could only be forces sent by Colonel Westland from the “Bellerophon”, they waited. Moments later, a vehicle with inflated, metallic spheres taking the place of wheels pushed itself through the space craft on the tarmac. It was followed by two others, and then by a platoon of soldiers wearing Earth Space Forces uniforms.
 
The foremost vehicle slowed to a stop. A crewman, her face painted in camouflage, challenged Ward, Illara and Mud.
 
“Who are you?” she demanded. A dozen plasma pistols were pointed at their heads.
 
“Captain Illara Fain,” she said. “Jovian Security. Headed for Pod 3 to give emergency assistance.”
 
The camouflaged crewman gave Illara’s uniform a close and careful study. Though her uniform was worn from battle, charred and bloodied, it spoke for itself.
 
“And you guys?” the crewman asked, turning to Ward and Mud.
 
“Mercs,” Mud answered. “Just a coupla mercs. We’re with you guys. We’re goin’ with her,” he said, indicating Illara with a nod of his head in her direction. To Pod 3. If there’s anything left.”
 
“That so?” the camouflaged crewman demanded.
 
“Yes, it is,” Illara answered
 
“You all look like hell.”
 
“Thanks,” Illara snorted.
 
“You guys need a ride?”
 
Illara, Ward and Mud cautiously eyed the camouflaged crewman.
 
Mud spoke up and said, “Sure!:
 
“Okay, climb on in back. We’re going to Pod 3 ourselves. You look like you could use a break.”
 
“Sure, thanks,” Mud said. He strode to the back of the vehicle and clambered aboard. Illara and Ward followed.
 
The back of the vehicle was open, and packed with men and women in the blue and red uniforms of Earth Space Forces.
 
Mud, towering over everyone, forced his way in and made seats for Ward and Illara.
 
Once they were settled in, the camouflaged crewman banged on the roof of the cab of the vehicle. The engine revved and began moving toward the railway tunnels.
 
“What kinda thing is this, anyway?” Mud asked the trooper sitting next to him.
 
“ATV,” the trooper grunted.
 
“ATV?” Illara asked. “And what is that?”
 
“All terrain vehicle,” the trooper answered. “It travels over any kind of terrain you can think of. They use `em mostly for science stuff.”
 
“Asteroids and comets?” Illara asked, again.
 
“Yeah. Moons, too. And they got them on Mars, I heard.”
 
“Must be new,” Mud said. “I hain’t seen these things before.”
 
“Dunno,” the trooper replied. “They just said, get in there, so we did. The rest of them guys, they gotta march.”
 
“So we lucked out,” Illara said.
 
“I s’spose,” the trooper answered.
 
“So how fast do these things go?” Mud asked.
 
“Dunno. Maybe twenty miles an hour. That’s what I heard.”
 
“That so?” Mud replied. “We’ll be getting to Callisto Base 1 real quick that way.”
 
“Depends on what it has to get over,” the trooper said. “But maybe an hour. Maybe half an hour.”
 
“In that case,” Mud said with a grin, “Y’all with excuse me while I close my eyes and catch a nap while I can. We got no idea when we’re going to be able to get any sleep again, eh, Carter?”
 
Mud gave Ward a nudge, but Ward did not reply. He was already fast asleep.
 
“Looks like your friend has the right idea,” the trooper remarked.
 
“Yep,” Mud agreed, closing his eyes and laying his head back. “He does.”
 
And in only a moment, Mud was also sound asleep.
 
 
 
“This way! This way!”
 
It was the commander of an emergency crew, standing only a few paces away from Emily and Jeffrey. He bent to one knee as several other members of his crew clustered around, laying in with strong backs and muscular hands to assist him.
 
Between them, they were able to force open a hatch in a sidewalk that opened to a utility tunnel, one of many that stretched throughout the colony, below the streets. The hatch was narrow, permitting no more than a single person to climb into it at a time, and then down the precarious ladder that led to the tunnel.
 
The commander knew full well that there was not time to crowd everyone into the tunnels below Pod 3, nor was there any guarantee that those who did manage to crowd down into the cramped tunnels would survive themselves.
 
But it was a chance. A last, desperate chance. And if even only one person survived the catastrophe, that was enough to make the desperate effort worthwhile.
 
The commander slapped the helmet of each member of his crew.
 
“Down with ya!” he ordered. “Get on down there. Show these folks the way outta here! Except for you, two,” he said. “You go open up those other tunnels. See if you can’t get these folk into them before this whole thing comes crashing down.”
 
A loud screaming groan of tortured metal rang through the pod. A beam overhead bent suddenly downward.
 
“Get going!” the commander shouted. Two of his crewman dashed off to where they knew the manholes opening to other points in the utility tunnels were. The other four climbed quickly down the
 
“Come on, come on with ya all,” he said, turning to the many people who had crowded round.
 
“One at a time. One at a time.”
 
The commander’s cool calm and his efficiency had much to do with keeping the crowds from panicking, though everyone there in Pod 3 was but moments from death. Each person, in turn, followed the first into the manhole, and all moved with silence. No screams of terror filled the air, only but a heavy silence, as each person counted the seconds to escape.
 
Jeffrey and Emily waited while their parents made their way with the crowd to where they stood. With Story Talbot and Joyce, there came also Ellen Bridgemont, Alyshia Stern and her fiancée, Antoni Zimmerman.
 
The time passed with an agonizing slowness. Several times, Jeffrey and Emily, who was them but barely conscious between the pain of her broken arm and the morphine that only barely masked that pain, lost all sight of their parents in the throng. And, sometimes, Story Talbot and Joyce lost sight of their two children.
 
But finally they found each other in the crush of the crowd.
 
“Emily!” Joyce cried out, throwing her arms around her daughter. “And Jeffrey! We are together, at last!”
 
“Keep it moving,” the commander shouted, not just at Joyce, but at everyone. “Down with ya! Into the hole. It’s your only way outta here!”
 
Zimmerman helped Alyshia into the manhole, then followed behind her, with a glimpse toward his friends waiting their turn.
 
“Awrite, ma’am, in with ya,” the commander said to Ellen Bridgemont. An elegant woman, and one with little experience climbing ladders into deep manholes, she hesitated, but only a moment. Then, gamely, she sat on the street, swung her legs into the manhole, and then grasped the flimsy ladder in both her hands. She clambered down, and disappeared into the tunnel, below.
 
Emily and Joyce, equally unaccustomed to manholes and ladders took their turn. They were followed by Jeffrey. Story Talbot was the last of his little group to climb down into the utility tunnel.
 
 He had no chance to acclimate himself to his surroundings. One of the emergency crew workers stood at the base of the ladder, and, with a hand to Talbot’s shoulder, he gently prodded the man to take a step.
 
“That way, sir, if you please.”
 
Talbot saw the form of his son Jeffrey hurrying down the very narrow tunnel.
 
“Thank you,” he said, and he moved on, following Jeffrey’s form.
 
And just behind him came the footsteps of many others.
 
Talbot hurried to catch up with his son. He had just caught up with the boy, and was about to place his hand on Jeffrey’s shoulder when a gut-wrenching rumble echoed loudly through the tunnel.
 
Talbot looked back, only in time to see a huge cascade of cement and asphalt crashing down into the tunnel.
 
“Run!” someone shouted. “Run! Run!”
 
From above, the muffled sounds of emergency sirens rang through the collapsing tunnel. All went black. The last thing Story Talbot saw before the darkness fell was the silhouetted forms of those behind him crushed under tons of cement and steel.
 
CONTINUES NEXT WEEK

Carter Ward’s earlier adventures, along with those of other interplanetary rogues, are chronicled in Warlords of the Asteroid Belt and Deep Space Dogfights.

 

 
 


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