An Echo of Yesterday

Part Nine -- by Becky Ratliff



(See Disclaimer in Part 1)

Part 9

The survey map simplified things the next morning, they
were able to go right to the area designated as Aerotech's
claim site. The track marks McQueen had found the
previous morning were visible wherever the wind had
blown the sand away from the underlying rock.

When they found the area, at first it didn't look like
anything. But they found that the track marks circled
around behind a huge block of stone at least ten meters high.
There was a narrow passage behind it, barely three meters
from one side to the other. At the end of this narrow
passage, an opening barely high enough for Hawkes and
McQueen to stand up straight led down into the mesa.

The mine entrance showed the effects of two years of
neglect, but everything looked safe enough when McQueen
checked it out. The structural bracings were plastic
compounds, not wood; dry rot wasn't a danger. There was
a bank of switches right inside, he tried the main but
nothing happened. That wasn't too much of a surprise,
after so long without maintenance. Just in case, he turned it
off again.

There was a set of narrow-gauge rails inside the mine, and
sitting on the tracks was a tram-like conveyance called a
mantrip, which was designed to carry workers into the
mine. Amy had her camera out getting a shot of the vehicle,
the Aerotech logo was prominent on its front end.
McQueen looked around for ore cars but didn't see any.

>From the other side of the vehicle, West said, "Colonel, I
don't like the looks of this--I've got a bunch of footprints
in the sand over here going up to this thing, but only about
three sets coming off."

He put a hand on the younger man's shoulder for a
moment, they both knew what they were going to find at
the end of the tunnel. "Okay, let's move out. Amy, stay
with me, if we find Danny and his friends down here I
don't want to be wondering where you're at."

"Right!" She took the burned chip from her camera and
stowed it, slotted a fresh one.

Hawkes and West took point, and they were all careful to
make no more noise than absolutely necessary. The tunnel
went deeper than they had expected, with no sign of what
had actually been mined here. Everyone was alert to the
slightest sound that would indicate they were moving into
an ambush, this would be a damn good place for the
mercenaries to be waiting for them. But Amy couldn't help
noticing that a situation that had her nervous as the
proverbial cat was just routine business for the rest of

Amy might not be accustomed to poking into dark holes in
the ground that might turn into shooting galleries at any
time...but she did have a photographer's keen eye for light
level and quality. She touched Ty's arm. "Wait...there's a
light up ahead. We must be getting close to something...."
No one had to tell her to keep her voice down, he could
barely hear her.

McQueen briefly turned off his night visor, Amy was right.
There was a greenish-yellow glow, not bright enough to see
by, but there all the same. He passed the information on to
Hawkes and West. They went on ahead to check it out,
covering each other as they advanced.

They found the source of the phosphorescence, a vein of
ore that started out no more than a centimeter deep and
soon reached waist-high. McQueen picked up a loose
chunk and handed it to Amy. She held it like she was afraid
it would make her hand drop off, studied the glowing spots
scattered through the rock. "What--is it?"

"I won't say I'm sure, but...I think it's Sewell ore. Now,
look, this is top secret, do you understand? You could go
to prison for the rest of your life if you even hint at its
existence in your story."

"I understand...but Ty..."

"They refine Sewell fuel from this. Amy, this stuff is so
rare there's no way anyone can put a value on it. Now it
won't hurt the war effort--hell, we found out about it in the
first place from the chigs--but it's still classified."

"That's all I have to say in print. That whatever was being
mined here is classified. That's what we always do. But what they..."

Amy jumped as West's voice echoed loudly from an
offshoot of the main tunnel. "All clear up here, sir,'d better have a look at this." She put the piece of
ore back carefully where it had come from and
double-stepped to keep up.

The look on West's face confirmed the suspicion McQueen
had held ever since they had first found the mine. "How

"Ten, at least," West replied. McQueen knew that tone of
voice. Neutral, carefully controlled. He usually heard it
from the _Sara's_ bridge, over the radio, when West had a
chance to kill chigs. West knew all about the demons he
carried inside, since Kylen's capture, and he kept them on a
short leash...most of the time...until he decided to let them

The desert can take good care of its dead sometimes. The
miners lay where they had fallen, despite the drying effects
of the arid environment their faces still held expressions of
surprise and terror. They had been gunned down as they

Amy whispered, "Dear Jesus. They're...just kids...."

"Probably all the same batch," McQueen replied. He knelt
by the nearest body and checked for an ID tag, was not
surprised that it was absent. All the kid had on him was a
work card--you punched that when you took in a load, it
was how you proved you'd made quota. These boys had
never had a chance, no one had ever meant for them to
finish their indenture and tell anyone about what they'd
seen here.

He heard Amy's shutter clicking and for an instant wanted
to yell at her to have a little respect...until he saw that tears
were streaming down her face behind the camera. If there
was any chance for justice here, it lay in those pictures and
the words she would write.

Vansen said, "Shell casings are common nine millimeter
rounds." That was a concrete fact, something that made
sense. Standing there looking down at the bodies of
unarmed kids did not make sense. She had seen death
plenty of times before, and worse than this, but there was a
particular horror in realizing the animals who had done this
had been of their own kind. There were still, after two
years, bloodstains in the sand. She wanted to
find and kill whoever was responsible for this.

Amy let her camera hang from its lanyard and scrubbed at
her eyes with the back of her glove. "There has to be a
mine office around here somewhere...somewhere they'd
keep records."

McQueen said, "It wouldn't be too far from the main
entrance, but it's probably concealed too."

He quickly counted heads, came up one short then saw
Damphousse off by herself, on down the main shaft near
where it came to an end in a blank rock face. The look in
her wide dark eyes was all compassion, and for a moment
he could have sworn he had seen a flicker of golden light
around the outstretched fingers of her right hand.... He
decided it would be better all around not to ask about that
one. As she caught up with the rest of them and stole
another look down at the scattered bodies, the compassion
left her expression, replaced by something just as righteous
but far colder. McQueen had never been one to believe in
heaven or hell, but seeing that expression in Damphousse'
usually-gentle eyes, he had no trouble at all believing in
Judgment Day.


Now that they knew what they were looking for, after a
brief search they found the mine office a few hundred
meters from the mine entrance. It was a prefabricated
building which had been carefully camouflaged to look like
the surrounding rocks, especially from the air.

Covered by West and McQueen, Hawkes kicked the door
in. Vansen waited with Amy while Damphousse kept
watch back the way they had come. The seconds ticked by
and the Vestan sun beat down on them, turning the desert
to an oven.

Vansen heard the all-clear over the radio. They headed on
in, Damphousse took cover right inside the door frame
where she could see clearly down the path.

McQueen stepped aside to let Amy through a doorway
into what looked like an office.

There were two corpses in there, skeletons now, still
dressed in tattered Aerotech coveralls. It looked like they'd
been standing in front of the desk when they'd been shot.
One of the skeletons still had a 9mm automatic in his hand,
he hadn't...quite...been fast enough.

Hawkes said coldly, "What do you want to bet that
matches some of those shell casings."

"No bet," Amy replied. "So much for honor among

West said, "That leaves one."

McQueen said, "That would have been the supervisor.
This was his office." He glanced around the room,
everything here was eerily familiar--as if he had stepped
back in time two decades. Easy to get lost in the
memories...except he looked over and met Shane's eyes. If
he was going to get lost, it would be in the future, not the

Amy said from the desk, "It's all here. Progress
reports--the whole thing, Ty. Original chips. Christ,
Wayne's name is all over this stuff...looks like he approved
any big expenditures they made here."

Vansen said, "I don't like this. If the supervisor got out,
why didn't he destroy these records first? This stuff
shouldn't still be lying around here...they aren't that

West speculated, "The chigs burned everything they found
in the colonies to the ground. If he skipped out of here two
steps ahead of them, he probably figured they'd do it for
him. Except they missed the place somehow--"

Damphousse called from the door, "Colonel! We've got
company out here!"

McQueen ordered, "Hawkes, get Amy back to the LZ.
We'll rendezvous with you there."

"Sir!" Hawkes replied.

Amy hesitated. "Ty--"

"You have to get this information back to the _Saratoga_.
It's our job to make sure you do that. Now get moving."
He realized he'd snapped an order at her just like she was
one of his Marines, and softened it with a little smile.
"Don't worry, we'll be right behind you--as soon as we
take care of these people."

Amy nodded, and told them, "Be safe." Then she turned
around and went with Hawkes to the rear exit without a
backwards glance.

McQueen joined the others at the front door. Damphousse
reported, "They were coming up the path, it looked like the
scout was tracking us. But as soon as Danny spotted the
building, they scattered up the hillside, and I'm not sure
where they went after that."

McQueen knew where they were, circling around through
the rocks to get a better command of the front of the
building. Only when Wolfe was sure they weren't getting
out that way would he send someone...probably the
scout...around to check out the back. Once he had them
trapped inside, he'd either use explosives if he had them, or
send one of his people for whatever ship they had. Either
way, they didn't dare let themselves get pinned down in
here...they had to get out now, while Danny was still trying
to get his people into position.

Aerotech had designed the building to be nearly invisible
from the air, so they hadn't cleared many of the rocks
away. That gave them pretty good cover, but they would
still have to cross about fifteen or twenty meters of clear
ground from the door to the first of the rocks, then a couple
hundred meters beyond that a large open area that looked
like it had been cleared naturally by a rock-slide at one time
or another. Above that, the terrain all the way to the ridge
was very rough--if they made it that far, they'd be on an
equal footing with the Aerotech team.

There was nothing for it but to make a flat-out break for
better ground. Everyone knew their only chance was to get
across the first clearing before Danny could react, so when
McQueen ordered them out nobody waited around. As
soon as they started drawing fire, McQueen and West both
saw where it had come from and shot back. That got them
to the safety of the first rocks.

West snapped down his visor to compensate for the glare
off the rocks, and got off a shot at someone directly up the
ridge from them. Whoever it was yelled a surprised oath,
they wouldn't be sticking their heads up with quite as much
confidence from now on. He and McQueen moved up to
join Vansen and Damphousse looking over the path of the

McQueen told Vansen, "Go, we'll cover you."

She and Damphousse took off across the clearing. Footing
was precarious, but nobody had time to worry about that.
McQueen got a brief glimpse of Danny and shot up there,
they traded misses but that gave Vansen and Damphousse
time to get across the open ground.

West said, "I'll bet he's expecting us to go the same way
the girls did. What do you think of that space between
those two big rocks over there?"

"I like it fine," McQueen replied. He conveyed their
intentions to Vansen with a hand signal, she signaled
understanding with a thumbs-up. Then he and West made
their break. Near misses sent showers of rock fragments
flying back up at them, West stumbled as he got hit in the
leg. Vansen and Damphousse saw where the shooting was
coming from, however, and laid in a barrage of covering fire.
McQueen reached out to grab West's arm, neither of them
actually broke stride until they were relatively safe in the
shadows between the rocks.

West ripped his pants leg to see how bad his injuries were,
and cursed. The rock fragments had torn his leg up as badly
as if he'd been hit by shrapnel. "Sir, I'm not going to be
able to climb around in that stuff. You'll have to leave me

McQueen didn't like that but there was no choice, West
would never be able to keep up with him in the rocks. He'd
be able to get himself killed more easily trying than he
would staying here under cover. "Nathan. Don't do
anything crazy, just sit tight until we have a chance to come
back for you."

"Understood, sir." West found a good place to wait and
pulled out his medical kit, got his leg bandaged up before
the bleeding became a problem. Then he made his careful
way up to a perch he saw in the rocks. He'd sit tight all
right...he'd picked a vantage point with good cover. He'd
just sit here and rest his leg and his headache...and take a
good look up the hill every so often through his scope.
McQueen hadn't said he couldn't shoot at any convenient
targets that just happened to cross his sights....

<end part 9>

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