Three Square Meals Ch. 66byTefler©
It was dark in the Xen-Nuchek mines, with weak lamps lighting the passage that led into the slumbering volcano. The tunnel led down at a steep incline; not quite enough to make the descent treacherous, but certainly at a sharp enough angle to raise the heart rate. John took the lead, with Alyssa at his side, leaving Dana and Rachel to cover the rear as they delved deeper along the foreboding tunnel.
Their cautious footfalls were drowned out by the clanking and mechanical grinding of the conveyor belts, as tons of sulphur were hauled up to the surface. When the tunnel eventually opened out into the huge cavern below, the belts took a curving turn to follow the walls, taking the deafening racket with them. As John and the girls descended further down the ramp, the noise faded away behind them, and the eventual silence came as a blessed relief.
"This place is enormous..." Dana murmured softly, as she gaped at the colossal tunnelled out chamber. "They must have been excavating here for years."
"The view is breathtaking," Alyssa agreed, staring at the flickering glow from the streams of lava that wended their way across the cavern floor.
Rachel had brought her medi-scanner with her, and she took a quick reading of the atmosphere in this subterranean hall. Her worried frown spoke volumes, and she looked at John and said, "The air quality in here is appalling. If the prisoners aren't wearing comprehensive safety gear, their health will deteriorate rapidly."
John looked grim as he replied, "I suspect that prisoner safety isn't the Kintarks' main concern."
He turned back to the ramp and they continued on their slow downward progress, with the girls taking cautious steps behind him. A flashing red warning light in his GUI drew his attention, and John realised it was some kind of temperature alert. As he gazed at the warning icon, the optical-driven GUI began to display more details. According to the sensors built into his armour, the external temperature had started to creep up as they travelled further below ground, reaching a stifling forty-one degrees. Although they were out of the blazing sunlight, the magma flowing through the huge cavern was more than making up for it.
The ramp eventually levelled off into a causeway that crossed the rest of the room, flanked on both sides by languid red flows of molten rock. Up ahead was a high ceilinged tunnel that stretched out into the murky darkness, the light from the lava not shining too far down the passageway.
"Switch to low-light amplification, ladies," he said to them as they walked forward, their weapons held at the ready. "I doubt the lizards will show up on mag-view, and all the ambient heat down here is going to overload thermal imaging."
The three young women dutifully activated low-light amplification in their helmet huds, and the clear-crystal faceplate showed an enhanced view of their surroundings. The walls were edged in a latticed wireframe, clearly highlighting the flat surfaces in the dim light.
"This looks new," John noted in surprise, turning to glance at his Chief Engineer.
Dana winked at him, and said, "I built in a low frequency sonar system to help in the dark. We've been so busy recently I haven't had a chance to demo it, and it's not the kind of thing that makes for a showy presentation anyway."
"It's pretty cool," Alyssa said appreciatively, looking around at their surroundings.
They walked forward with more confidence now, crossing the last of the causeway and striding into the big tunnel beyond. The ground was hard rock, but there was a thick layer of powdery yellow dust spread across the floor, and amongst the booted humanoid footprints were huge clawed reminders that something on an altogether vaster scale lurked down here too.
After they had travelled down the unwavering corridor for over a hundred metres, John raised his hand, bringing them to a halt. He listened carefully, then nodded as he said, "I can hear drilling, off in the distance to the right. The mining face must be near here somewhere, along with the prisoners I'd assume."
It didn't take long to reach the end of the tunnel, which finished in a T-junction, with broad tunnels leading off into the inky blackness to their left and right. The girls were able to hear the drilling sounds now, coming from the right, while the left seemed ominously quiet. A glance at the floor showed Terran and Kintark bootprints heading off to the right, while the massive clawed depressions went off to the left, disappearing into the stygian darkness beyond.
"So, which way?" Alyssa asked, straining her eyes to see down the tunnel to the left. "Do we go after the prisoners, or go dragon hunting?"
John thought it over for a minute, while the girls covered all approaches to the junction, then replied, "We'll eliminate any guards in the mine, and check on the prisoners. When they're safe, we'd better come back here and deal with the Consort and her mate. I don't want any ambushes from them while we're trying to lead out the prisoners."
She smiled at him, and said, "Alright, sounds good to me."
Turning to Dana, John said, "My chemistry's a little rusty. How flammable is all this sulphur?"
She shook her head, and replied, "It's not going to explode or anything. It's a pretty stable element, but we can set it on fire, which we don't want to do because it'll make a load of sulphur dioxide."
Rachel nodded, agreeing with the redhead, and replied, "Yes, we definitely want to avoid any fires. That gas is toxic, and the last thing we want to do is raise the sulphur dioxide levels with the prisoners still trapped in here."
When John looked her way again, Dana smiled at him, and said, "Don't worry, I'll watch it with the laser rifle."
"We should hold off with grenades as well," he said with a tinge of regret, as he glanced down the corridor to their left.
There were no objections from the girls, and they followed after him as he started down the right hand tunnel, with Dana and Rachel keeping a wary eye behind them. The ground beneath their feet was the same solid bedrock as the causeway, and any Sulphur in the tunnel had been dug out years ago. The walls were rough-hewn rock, the dark-grey stone heavily scored by marks from picks and drills.
The noise from the drilling intensified as they steadily approached the mine-face, and the corridor took a sharp left turn when it sounded like they were about to stumble into the miners. John hugged the left wall, then gingerly poked his head around the corner to get a glimpse into the room beyond. The view took his breath away, and he gaped at the scale of the mining operation before him.
They were up on a gallery that overlooked one end of a dimly lit canyon, with ramps leading down to the lower levels, where hundreds of miners drilled away at the sulphurous rock. Conveyor belts ran below the miners, and as they broke chunks of ore away from the cliff face, it dropped onto those clanking metal channels which carried it away to the surface. He'd expected to see Terran prisoners down here, but surprisingly, all the miners were Kintark. They were being carefully watched over by armed guards in shimmering-green armour, which made him fairly sure the Kintark miners weren't here of their own volition.
He pulled back, and said to the girls, "There aren't any Terrans there! It's all Kintark prisoners."
"So where the fuck are they?" Dana asked, with a pensive frown.
Rachel brightened considerably, and suggested, "Perhaps the Kintark realised how hazardous Sulphur dioxide was to Terrans? Without decent air filtration equipment, this kind of exposure would be fatal in a couple of weeks."
"Yeah, maybe..." John replied, but he didn't sound convinced.
"So where to now?" Alyssa asked glancing back the way they'd come. "Do we try the other tunnel?"
John shook his head, and replied, "The boot prints came this way, and the gallery runs the length of the canyon. I couldn't see the end, but it might lead to more rooms beyond." He grimaced, and added, "It's a shame we couldn't bring Irillith with us after all. Someone speaking fluent Kintark would be handy about now."
Alyssa grinned at him, and said, "I'm in constant telepathic contact with her. If we grab one of the Kintark, and he doesn't speak Terran, I can have a go at copying the sounds it makes for her. She might be able to translate."
"It's worth a shot," John agreed with a firm nod. "Any intel we get could be useful."
They crept into the gallery, moving quickly but carefully as they spread out, using the rocky pillars that ran from floor to ceiling as cover. It was cooler in here, and now they were away from all the lava, the cooling effect from being deep underground had lowered the temperature to a far more bearable twenty degrees, which John confirmed with a quick glance at his HUD. He looked out into the huge room to get a lay of the land, and see what kind of defences the Kintark had in place.
There were several towers that overlooked the prisoners, each manned with a couple of inattentive Kintark guards. He spotted a number of Lizardman overseers, who were armed with pistols and whips, and were strolling amongst the miners and checking on their captives productivity. The Kintark prisoners looked thoroughly cowed, and the overseers meandered through their ranks without bothering to stop and chastise anyone.
"Who first?" Alyssa asked him, as she lined up a shot on a guard in the furthest tower.
John looked over the guards, and replied, "Let's clear the towers first, then take out the overseers. When we start killing them, the prisoners are bound to notice, and might cause a disturbance." He glanced at Rachel, and added, "Switch back to low-power mode. We might be able to drop all the guards without anyone realising."
She nodded, quickly changing the power mode setting on her Punisher rifle, before raising her weapon to take aim. Dana covered the corridor with her laser rifle, knowing that accidentally burning holes into the Sulphur wasn't going to be a good plan.
"Open fire," John said quietly.
The railguns called out to the guards with soft murmurs, but the Kintark had no chance of hearing, what with the deafening noise coming from the mining face. Lizardmen began to drop as twenty-millimetre rounds smashed into their heads, the hyper-accelerated bullets punching fist sized holes through their scaled craniums.
With only John, Alyssa, and Rachel firing, they took a guard tower each, leaving the fourth and largest guardpost until last. One of the guards in Alyssa's designated tower turned to chat to his companion, only for Alyssa's precisely aimed shot to take off that Lizardman's head in a shower of yellow blood and brains. The first guard gaped in shock as he watched his companion keel over, but before the thought of raising the alarm had entered his brain, a heavy bullet got there first.
"Alright, you two switch to the overseers," John said, as he focused on the last guardtower.
The girls switched targets, and he barely heard the whisper of the Punisher rifles as they began to methodically execute all the Lizardmen. There were four guards in the last tower, and he aimed at the first of them, who was busy drinking from a heavy flask of some kind. As bad luck would have it, the Kintark leaned back to down the last of his drink, just as John pulled the trigger. His round hit the flask instead, causing the container to explode with the impact, and showering the guards with sharp ceramic fragments and sticky purple liquid.
He heard the startled cries over the noise from the mine, and the four guards whirled around to look at the gallery, grabbing for their plasma rifles as they did so. Snapping off a quick follow up shot, he hit his original target in the torso, driving a sucking wound through the creature's armoured chest. It let out a horrified shriek, then toppled over and out of sight.
*Watch for incoming fire!* he thought to Alyssa as he looked for another target.
The other three guards started returning fire, sending bright green plasma bolts towards the gallery. Their shots sailed through the gaps between the pillars, or hit the stone itself, leaving eerie green fires burning wherever the plasma struck. After John's warning, the girls had ducked back behind cover, and were safe from the vicious plasma bolts.
He was about to shoot back when a searing blue flash, originating from further up the gallery, made him blink rapidly to clear his vision.
"BEWWW!" Dana's Justice Laser sang out, as she fired it on maximum power.
The bright lance of energy blasted into the base of the guard tower, neatly melting through a supporting strut, and causing the top heavy structure to lurch to one side. Two of the Kintark guards were flung from the tower, while the last managed to grab the wall around the edge with a clawed hand, leaving him dangling helplessly in the air.
John flipped his Punisher rifle to high-power mode, then shot the two on the ground as they struggled to their feet. The gaping craters he punched through their chests sent them crashing to the floor, then he sighted on the airborne Lizardman to kill him too. Alyssa got there first however, and she blew his head apart with a well-aimed shot.
"The overseers are all dead," she said with an impish grin. "I didn't realise we were supposed to play with them first..."
He smiled at her, then glanced at Dana with a raised eyebrow, and asked, "What happened to being careful with the laser rifle?"
Dana had an innocent expression on her face as she protested, "Hey! I was careful! I lined that shot up carefully and everything!"
"It was a very nice shot," he said in a conciliatory manner, and she smiled at the compliment.
The Kintark miners were staring at the mostly headless guards in stunned disbelief, too shocked to even move. As the surprise began to wear off, they looked around, and then spotted the white armoured Terrans lurking by the pillared gallery that overlooked the mine. There was lots of furtive whispering amongst the prisoners, with most eyes looking towards a tall Lizardman who held himself with a noble bearing. After some cajoling from his fellow miners, the Kintark began to walk their way, his arms held high.
"Looks like we might have a volunteer to try out my Kintark," Alyssa said with an eager smile.
"Hail, Terransss, I wisssh you no harm," the tall Lizarman said as he drew closer to the ramp leading up to the gallery.
"Or not," Alyssa murmured quietly.
John stifled a laugh, then said, "You girls hang back here, and watch out for the Consort or any reinforcements. I doubt anyone heard the shooting over the din from the mining, but we better not take any chances."
"Yep, no problem," she replied. After throwing a glance at the Kintark miner, she added, "I'd tell you to be careful, but he doesn't look too dangerous to me."
Stepping around the pillar, John lowered his rifle, and strolled down the ramp to meet the Kintark spokesman. "My name's John Blake," he called out with a friendly smile on his face. "We aren't here to hurt you."
The Kintark looked relieved and he said, "My name isss Balrac, and I am pleasssed to hear you do not plan to harm usss. Are we free to leave?"
John nodded, and replied, "Sure, you're free to go. I had a couple of questions for you first, if you wouldn't mind answering them?"
Balrac bowed, and said, "My friend, after what you have done for usss, it isss the leassst I could do!"
"Firstly, what are Kintark prisoners doing here? I thought this place was using Terran prisoners of war as miners," John asked curiously.
The Lizardman was startled to hear this, and replied, "Our people are at war? When did thisss calamity occur?"
John looked sombre as he replied, "There's been increasing tension in the Dragon March for months now, but it finally escalated into full scale war a matter of days ago."
Balrac sighed, which came out as a rasping hiss, then said, "I've been a prisssoner here for ssseveral yearsss. I am sssure you appreciate how difficult it isss, to find out newsss down in thisss hole."
"Why were you held captive?" John asked, studying the creature's noble bearing. "I'm guessing it was political?"
The Lizardman nodded, and replied, "I was a member of the Sssenate, and I objected to the foul indulgancesss of the Kintark Emperor and hisss kin. Sssuch objectionsss are not a wissse move in the Empire, and my land was ssseized and title revoked, before I wasss thrown in thisss dreadful place."
"Speaking of which," John said, glancing back to check on the girls. "We're trying to free the Terran prisoners here. Can you tell me anything about where they might be, or maybe something about the Consort and her mate?"
Balrac looked upset, and he replied, "I've overheard talk from the guardsss, about a 'feeding room', and I have ssseen Terran captivesss taken that way." He pointed towards the other end of the gallery, then continued, "These are sssome of the excessesss I mentioned earlier. The Emperor and hisss cassste have become convinced that they are immortal, and wisssh to be worssshipped like godsss, while they do as they pleassse."
"And the Consort?" John asked, grimacing at the thought of what a 'feeding room' might entail.
"Her real name isss Tamolith, and ssshe isss mated to the Emperor'sss brother; Kindralax 'The Dessstroyer'," Balrac replied, the dragon's nickname said with no sense of irony. In fact, the Kintark looked terrified at even mentioning his name.
John leaned in and asked, "We saw Tamolith exert some kind of mind control over the Terran prisoners. Do you know anything about that?"
Balrac nodded reluctantly, and replied, "I've ssseen the Empress do sssomething sssimilar. On Kintark the effectsss wear off after a while, usually after the femalesss get what they want. I have no idea how it will effect Terransss, though."
"Alright, thanks for the information, Balrac," John said gratefully. He smiled at the polite and helpful Lizardman and added, "We've killed all the guards we came across on the way in, but be careful when you try and leave. We haven't dealt with Tamolith or Kindralax yet."
"I sssincerely hope you have no intention to try," Balrac said, sounding sombre. "Do not underessstimate them John Blake, they are exceedingly powerful. It isss not without good reassson that they've become convinced they are immortal."
"We might not have any choice," John said with a frown. He held out his hand to the Kintark prisoner, and said, "Good luck, Balrac. You've been a big help."
Balrac shook the proffered gauntlet with his scaled, three-clawed hand, then said, "I believe that you are more in need of luck than I. Good fortune to you, John Blake."
John nodded to the friendly Lizardman, who bowed to him respectfully. The two parted ways, with John striding back up the ramp to rejoin the girls in the gallery.
"Well, that all sounded very ominous," Alyssa said as he reached her, and he could see the tension in her eyes.
Dana and Rachel were looking similarly worried, and they clutched their weapons tightly as they glanced over at him.
"We better get moving," John agreed. "I didn't like the sound of this 'feeding room', one bit."
They jogged down the long gallery, covering the ground at a brisk pace, with the girls trotting along behind him. When they neared the end of the passageway, he slowed down and glanced back over his shoulder, curious to see what Balrac and his fellow Kintark were doing. He saw the hundreds of Lizardmen prisoners were seizing the opportunity to flee from the mine, and they were running up the ramp and heading back the way he'd entered in one long stream.
John hoped the friendly Kintark would make it out safely, but at the moment, he had other far more pressing things to worry about. At the end of the gallery, a broad tunnel had been carved out of the rock, descending further into the dormant volcano at a gentle curving decline. He stopped for a moment, and listened for any sound coming from the tunnel, but it seemed quiet up ahead.