This is the rest of the story. Click here for the beginning
When he was less than a dozen paces from the near-vertical crack in the rock face he stopped and gasped. What had seemed like a narrow slit turned out to be a large cave entrance, easily fifty metres high and twenty across. The left wall was actually set well back from the right, which was why it was so hard to see.
The tunnel ran deep into the cliff face. Probably forty metres, but then it was blocked by a rockslide. Before he could worry that the way ahead was obstructed he noticed someone waiting at the far end, near the fallen rocks.
Whoever it was stood their ground. Watching Bart, but making no indication that he was welcome. He realised he’d come to a stop and forced himself to move forward again, thoughts swirling through his mind. Why was he even here? What could he possibly say or do that other better-trained people hadn’t already tried?
He had no idea, but he was here now. He had one hour. If he signalled by then that the people were ready to leave a small fleet of transport aircraft would be scrambled to extract them all. If he signalled that they still refused then a single roto-copter would be sent to pick him up.
Probably. He didn’t have much confidence that extracting a single junior operative would be a high priority. Something he’d been trying hard not to admit to himself.
And of course if he didn’t signal at all they’d assume he was no longer alive to be picked up. And they’d probably be right.
Dammit! He was going to do his best to convince these people! He suspected Command had chosen him because they thought he was disposable, but this was about more than him now. The lives of these people rested in his hands. Or more precisely in his words. He had to make them understand the danger they were in. He could do it. He would do it!
He moved into the tunnel, shivering slightly as he did at the thought of the masses of rock surrounding him. The sides of the tunnel were rough, natural looking, but the floor was curiously smooth. There were a few spikes of rock sticking out, but other than that nothing interrupted the smooth floor.
Could that be down to water flowing through over many thousands of years? It seemed unlikely given how arid the area was, but Bart was no expert. Maybe there were deluges in the mountains at times.
He carried on moving forward, and still the figure stood watching him. As Bart drew close he saw it was an old man waiting for him.
A few steps more and he saw an entrance angling off to the left, heading deeper into the mountain. Once again the positioning made it hard to see until you drew close. With the rockfall visible from the entrance Bart thought it likely most people wouldn’t ever come far enough in to find this second tunnel.
It was nowhere near the size of the initial entrance, but it was still wide enough to allow several large vehicles to travel side by side. And that would be the problem when the Garag arrived. They would have large vehicles, armoured tanks which were damn hard to stop.
He reached the old man, who still failed to even acknowledge his presence. Fighting down an element of annoyance Bart smiled and stuck out a hand.
“I’m Bart Masters, I’ve been sent here to… to… well, to discuss things.”
Hardly a blinding start! But he’d suddenly not wanted to spell out his entire mission. It felt too likely that the old man would dismiss it with a simple no and then walk away.
“There is nothing to discuss.”
The old man’s voice was rough, and he had a sour expression on his face.
“I know you feel that way,” replied Bart. “But please, let me explain the situation. To all of you.”
“Most of us are busy. I can probably get twelve or so others together, but you’re wasting your time.”
He turned and stomped off down the smaller tunnel. Bart followed him after a moment’s hesitation. What else could he do?
* * *
As they moved deeper into the mountain Bart studied his surroundings. The way was well lit, and the corridor remained wide though it did make several turns. After a few minutes they rounded a corner and entered a much larger cavern. One with something like a hundred living units scattered within it.
Bart’s eyes were drawn to a spot slightly to the side, but closer than any of the units. A long table which could probably seat seventy people, though now with twelve people seated at it. All clustered at one end but sitting on the long sides. The end seat was free.
For a moment the sight was jarring. It was an indoor table, one where many people could eat together, but it was outside. Then he shook his head. No, it was indoors of course. Outside of the homes but still within the rock cavern. There would never be any rain here, or any weather which could drive people inside the dwellings.
The old man led Bart toward the table, then gestured for him to take the seat on the end, from where he could see all the others… and they could see him. The old man then took an empty seat further down the table.
Bart studied those seated there. They didn’t look hostile… just indifferent. And old. Not one looked to be under fifty, probably not even under sixty. And some looked a lot older.
Bart opened his mouth, but one of the women spoke first. She looked to be the oldest, her skin leathery and wrinkled, but there was an energy to her still. An intensity.
“Let me save you time. Time you probably don’t have right now. We know why they sent you. They told you we won’t see sense. That we refuse to leave. And that we will die if we stay here.
“Well, we won’t be leaving. We came here to make this place our home. A final resting place after long lives of endless travel. And it is our home now. Nothing and no-one will make us leave.”
“But the Garag are coming!” replied Bart. “They’ll be here within a couple of hours. Then you won’t have any lives to live. They’ll kill you all. Quickly if you’re lucky, but there’s a good chance you won’t be. Surely it’s better to evacuate the area and return when it’s safe.”
There were gentle smiles around the table, but no nods. The old woman shook her head.
“Garag don’t worry us. The Great Archeos will protect us, now and forever, so long as we remain here. We do not fear the Garag, for their might is as nothing next to the Great Archeos.”
That threw Bart. None of his briefing materials had mentioned any form of religion, let alone this Great Archeos. For a moment he struggled to know what to say, then he decided to simply ignore the religious overtones.
“You don’t understand! The Garag managed to land a heavy assault carrier. They have tanks, heavy tanks, heading this way right now. Some of our artillery is in place to try and stop them but it won’t be able to. The Garag will come sweeping through this area within a couple of hours, and if they realise you’re here they’ll kill you all.”
“And so you arrived here in a roto-copter? Making it quite clear to the Garag that there is something of interest at this location?”
Bart opened his mouth to reply, but found he had no words. It was a good point. Maybe the Garag would have known about these people anyway, but maybe they wouldn’t. His actions might well have tipped that balance.
“Don’t worry youngster,” said one of the men. “She’s just teasing you. The Garag already know where we are from the signals that were sent to and from us. It’s quite likely they’ll come here. But the Great Archeos will protect us. Don’t you worry about that.”
Bart fought not to shake his head. His words weren’t working, but not for any reason he could have anticipated. Command hadn’t mentioned that the people here were relying on some deity to save them. Maybe Command didn’t even know. He decided to try a different tack.
“I can see you have great faith, I don’t wish to belittle that, but can it really protect you against the might of the Garag?”
The answer was immediate and unanimous. Every single person at the table nodded and said yes. They were so emphatic he almost believed it himself for a moment, then reality reasserted itself and he shook his head.
“I’m sorry but if you stay here you’re going to die!”
“If we do die it will be by our choice,” replied their leader. “We understand the threat and believe me when I say we are not underestimating it. Now, you have done what you came to do. You have your answer. It’s time for you to leave.”
“I believe the time frame you were given is unlikely to be realistic. The Garag are many things, but slow to advance is not one of them. It’s best that you get going as quickly as possible.”
“But I was sent here to save you! If I leave now I’ll have failed!”
“Failed in your mission?”
“No! Well, yes, but I don’t really care about that. I’ll have failed at keeping you alive.”
“You know, I think I like you kid,” said the woman. “Your heart’s in the right place. So listen carefully. You never had any chance of convincing us to leave, and I’m pretty sure those who sent you knew the same. I’ll take a wild guess and say you’ve not had many missions before this one.”
“No. This is my first.”
“That’s rough. An impossible mission as your first assignment, and they sent you out on your own. They shouldn’t have done that. Get out of here, kid. Head back where you came from. Remember us but know you never stood a chance to succeed. Eventually they’ll give you a mission you can actually achieve. If you survive those you can’t.”
Bart looked at each of the people at the table, took in the calm certainty in their eyes, and realised their leader was right. There was no way he was going to win this argument. They would never leave. His head dropped and he shook his head.
“Even if Command expected me to fail, even if they thought it was an impossible mission, it’s never going to change the fact I’ll feel responsible for your deaths.”
“That does you credit,” said their leader. “Just don’t let it drag you down. We’re a cantankerous bunch who won’t take your advice. Yours or anyone else’s. Trust me, you’ll come across plenty of people like that in your life. I certainly have.”
“But I… I still…”
He trailed off into silence. The woman smiled, and when she spoke again her voice was softer.
“Go on. Go contact your commanders and tell them you tried but we’re simply too stubborn or too stupid to listen to you.”
Bart took a deep breath, glanced at each of them once more, then nodded slowly. He pushed himself up. The man who’d led him to the meeting stood too, and gestured toward the tunnel leading to the entrance. Bart followed him, feet dragging as he moved.
“Your comm should work once we get to the main entrance corridor,” the old man said. “Down here there’s too much rock to get a signal out.”
Bart nodded, then looked around him again.
“This is such an amazing place,” he said. “I wish I could stay longer. Is all this natural?”
“Yes. This immense set of caverns was here when we arrived. In fact it’s the reason we chose to settle here. It suited our needs.”
“Somewhere you could worship your deity? Somewhere for you to be close to the Great Archeos?”
The old man chuckled.
“Exactly! I couldn’t have put it better myself. Except maybe to say we came here to finally rest and find some peace. We’ve spent a lot of our lives travelling.”
Bart wasn’t sure about the rest part. Their life hardly looked easy, but it felt rude to point that out.
They reached the main entrance tunnel, near to the rockslide, and started to move toward the entrance.
“You should be able to make the call from here,” said the old man.
Bart reached for his comm unit, but his hand fell away again without using it. He shook his head and his hand went to the gun at his belt, a gun he barely knew how to use.
“I can’t just leave. It’s not right. I’ll stay. I’ll protect… I’ll try to protect you.”
“Are you sure? You know what we’re facing. No offence, but I don’t think you’ll even slow down a Garag let alone a Garag tank.”
“Dammit, I’m sure! I know I can’t stop a tank, but if we pull further back in the caverns so the Garag have to be on foot… well, maybe I can do something.”
“You do know we have guns of our own? We wouldn’t survive out here without them.”
“Maybe my gun will be the difference between holding them off and being overrun. If I can’t get you all to leave then maybe I can try to save you this way.”
The old man clapped Bart on the shoulder, the blow landing with far more strength than Bart had expected from the wiry figure. It actually staggered him.
“I really like you, kid,” said the old man. “Alright then, we’ll let you stay with us. And when the time comes the Great Archeos will protect you as well.”
Bart forced a smile onto his face.
“I’d certainly appreciate any help it can offer,” he replied, even while knowing there would be none.
“Have faith, kid.”
“Bart. My name is Bart.”
“And I’m Rory. Good to meet you.”
“Could we go to the entrance? I’d like to hear when our artillery opens up. That way I’ll know how long… that is, how close the Garag are.”
“Sure. Why not.”
They set off down the tunnel toward the bright daylight at the end. Rory was silent and Bart didn’t feel like talking. He was still surprised by his decision to stay and help, not that it would make much difference. But he wasn’t questioning it. He knew it was the right choice. Whatever happened.
When they neared halfway down the tunnel Rory pulled him to one side, into a small indentation in the wall. There was a slight lip sticking out just above knee height, which Rory settled down onto.
“It’s a better place to wait,” Rory said. “Especially if you’re old like me and appreciate the chance to take the weight off. We’ll hear the artillery from here.”
Bart nodded but stayed standing. He was too keyed up to sit for the moment. Besides there was plenty of time. There was still forty minutes to go of the hour he’d been given, forty minutes in which he could call for a pickup. At the earliest he was expecting the artillery to be engaged by the Garag forces in an hour’s time.
They’d been there barely five minutes when the artillery opened up. Despite it being a good five miles distant the roar was incredible and it caused some of the smaller stones on the rock slide at the other end of the tunnel to shift.
Bart glanced back at the pile in worry, but judged that even if the whole lot came down it wouldn’t block the tunnel. That was a shame. It might have been a way to keep the Garag out, but it was far too late now. It would take a massive effort to free enough rubble to block the tunnel.
The pounding roar continued, but after three minutes sudden silence fell again. Bart half thought he’d lost his hearing for a few moments, but he could hear the sound of his feet shuffling… even if it was muffled. He glanced at Rory nervously.
“Maybe our artillery saw the Garags off,” he said.
“You know that hasn’t happened,” said Rory. “They’d have kept firing as the Garags retreated. No, the enemy forces rolled straight over them without stopping. The Garags will be here within ten minutes. Fifteen at the most.”
“We should head back to the settlement then!”
“Maybe, but if you do that now you won’t see the Great Archeos in action. Trust me, we’re safe here. We’ll just stay wedged out of the way.”
Where they were would hardly offer any protection against anyone, let alone a tank, but Bart somehow felt himself following the older man’s suggestion.
“Do you have a plan for… well, if the Great Archeos isn’t able to protect you completely?” Bart asked.
“No kid. The Great Archeos is our last and only defence. Has been for a long time. It’s never failed us yet.”
Bart nodded glumly. He doubted Rory and the others had ever seen a real battle, not with heavy tanks, artillery, and massed groups of infantry. Though to be honest he hadn’t either. But he’d seen the videos during his briefings for this mission, so he could convince Rory and the others of the threat they faced. Something he’d completely failed to do.
He stared glumly down the tunnel toward the entrance. He realised he didn’t really want to be anywhere else, despite everything. He’d failed. His first mission and he’d failed completely. If he couldn’t even do this then how was he going to be any use anywhere else in the war?
No, this was where the war would end for him. At least this way he couldn’t harm anyone else. Not that it was just his fault. If they’d sent someone experienced instead of him then all these people could have been saved.
He shook his head. Maybe not. Even if Rory and the others had been convinced somehow, and he was fairly sure that no one could have done that, the Garags had moved too quickly. If he’d called for an evacuation almost as soon as he’d met Rory it still wouldn’t have arrived in time. He half wondered if Command had always known that.
“Do you feel that vibration?” Bart asked.
More rocks tumbled down the rock slide behind them, larger ones this time, and the very floor seemed to be shaking.
“I’d say that’s a Garag heavy battle tank,” replied Rory. “It’ll be here in a minute or two.”
“You’re not going to leave this spot, are you? You’re going to wait while the tank comes right alongside us!”
“That’s right, kid. I’m not moving. Do you want to? You could head back to wait with the others.”
Bart took a deep breath then shook his head.
“No. I’m staying here with you. I might even use my gun, if I can figure out which end the bullets come out of.”
“Damn but you’re green, kid. They should never have sent you out on your own yet, especially not on this mission. But you’ve also got spirit! Listen to me. Trust me. The Great Archeos will protect us.”
Before Bart could argue, something immense eclipsed the light at the end of the tunnel and a massive shape hove into view. Bart had been near some of humanity’s largest tanks, had seen videos showing the Garag tanks were larger, but it was only now that he really understood what that meant. The monstrosity rolling towards them was massive, and the turret was already turning, rotating until it was aimed exactly where Rory and Bart sheltered.
“It’ll be best if you put your hands over your ears, kid,” said Rory, doing so himself.
Bart stared at Rory in disbelief for a moment, then shrugged and copied him. Why not? Everything else had gone crazy. Maybe putting your hands over your ears would protect you against a heavy shell from the tank’s cannon. And just maybe by drawing that heavy fire they would cause the entranceway to be blocked, preventing the Garag from reaching the main settlement.
Even with his hands over his ears he heard a larger rock fall behind him, the vibration from the tank shaking larger and larger rocks loose. A thunderous roar shook him to his core and his eyes shut instinctively. And completely pointlessly. Somehow his body overrode all common sense, convincing him that cowering down and shutting down all his senses might keep him safe.
He tensed for the pain of death even while knowing it would be over in an instant… then it occurred to him that he should already be dead. The shell should have struck at the moment he heard it fire and felt the vibration. How the hell was he still alive?
The sound rolled over him still, deafening even with his hands over his ears and vibrating the floor and his body. A long rolling barrage of thunder which reached a crescendo with a massive explosion… and then fell eerily quiet.
Everything sounded muffled. Bart could hear more rocks shifting in the rockfall back down the tunnel, but nothing else.
He managed to force his eyes open, stomach clenched as he expected to be looking down the barrel of the Garag tank. Instead all he saw was a smoking wreck, metal bent and melted and only his memory of what had been there telling him it had ever been a mighty vehicle.
“There you go kid!” shouted Rory, his voice sounding muffled too. “You’ve seen the wrath of the Great Archeos now! If you turn the other way you’ll see the Great Archeos. Besides, there’s more tanks coming. We should probably get back inside now.”
Bart turned, and his jaw nearly hit the floor. He stared in amazement for a few seconds, then turned to look at Rory.
“That is the Great Archeos?” he asked.
“Yep!” replied Rory with a grin. “I told you it would protect us.”
Rory moved off, heading towards the far end of the tunnel but sticking to the side. Bart found himself stumbling along behind… toward the massive outline of the war-walker which was still shaking itself clear of the rock pile which had hidden it until now.
Bart had never seen one in real life before. Very few people ever had. The secret to manufacturing them was a closely guarded secret, and learning to pilot them took many years. Becoming a true expert took decades. From what Bart had heard most of the experienced pilots were well into their fifties and tended to serve for another ten or twenty years beyond that.
And then the penny dropped. The people he’d been sent to save had a war-walker. And one of the most powerful types by the look of it. Each and every one of them was old, most were well into their seventies if not significantly older. Yet they all looked physically fit and mentally alert.
This wasn’t some religious cult as he’d half believed. It was a group of war-walker pilots who’d been allowed to retire… and, unbelievable as it seemed, allowed to take one of the mighty war machines with them.
Bart stared up at the machine as he jogged along behind Rory. It stood on massive legs, powerful and armoured. Above that was a torso laden with a variety of heavy weaponry, from artillery to beam weapons. He thought he even saw a plasma launcher. The tank had never stood a chance. And above that was a heavily armoured head, bristling with sensors and more weaponry.
As they reached the end of the corridor and were about to turn into the side corridor the war-walker shocked Bart by raising one massive armoured arm and waving at him.
“I think Beryl took quite a liking to you,” said Rory.
“Our leader. The woman you were speaking to earlier. She’s the most experienced of us, so she gets to take the first turn in the old machine.”
Bart was unable to speak for long seconds as he processed everything, then words burst out of him.
“Surely you could do more than this! You could do so much good with that war-walker! You could completely turn the tide of battle in this area!”
“And completely blow open our secret? No. We’ll stay where we are. Don’t worry, the Garag are pretty predictable. They’ll lose an awful lot of heavy tanks and other forces attacking us before they finally give up on trying to beat us, and they’ll never actually realise what they faced. That will help shift the balance. And you kid… well, you might just become a hero for drawing us into the fight!”
“That’s not what happened! It wasn’t anything like…”
“Kid, you showed more guts than most people would. Trust me, we’ll find the right wording for you to get allocated to a role which actually suits you. Someone sent you here on a suicide mission. There’s no way they planned to pull you out. Or us I suspect, even if we’d agreed to relocate.
“But instead of failing and being killed you’ll get a public commendation for the number of enemy forces you managed to destroy… while keeping the details of how you did it vague. And I guarantee you the career prospects of whoever sent you out here will plummet when it becomes clear what they did.
“They should never have hung you out to dry like that, but we can use it to get your career back onto the right path. You’ll have the pick of any role you want. So tell me young Bart, what role would you most like to take on?”
Bart turned to stare at Rory and he grinned, then he risked asking the unthinkable.
“You know, I think I have a new goal. I’d like to become a war-walker pilot!”
Rory laughed at that, then slapped him on the back.
“You know what kid? You might just have what it takes. And you’ve sure as hell come to the right place. I like you, and so does Beryl. I think we can come to an arrangement. Are you sure though? It’s a huge commitment. It’ll be long, long years before you get to pilot a war-walker into battle… if you ever do. Do you really want to sign up for that?”
Bart thought for a moment, picturing the mighty war-walker and what it had done to the huge Garag tank. Then he turned to Rory with a wide smile, and an answer.
“Yes! By the might of the Great Archeos yes!”
Rory laughed at that.
“Alright kid, we’ll see if you have what it takes, though I have a good feeling you do. But before that… let’s get well out of the way and let Beryl have her fun. She can get a little… carried away, but with nothing but Garags in front of her she’ll be having the time of her life.
“While she’s doing that I’ll introduce you to the others. You’re going to be with us a long time. But by the end of that I reckon you’ll be a war-walker pilot, and believe me… there’s nothing in this universe to match that feeling!”
Bart didn’t need convincing… he’d seen the war-walker in battle, he’d felt the thunder of its weaponry, and he’d felt the wonder settle into his soul. He didn’t care about having been handed an impossible mission. He didn’t care about having been sent to most likely die. His entire world had changed in an instant.
There was no going back… and thinking of the power of the war-walker there was nothing in the universe that would make him want to! He would become a war-walker pilot… and when he did the Garag would never know what hit them!