|26 MAY 3009
The hot sun burned down on Chambers’ unprotected head as he once again thought of the hat he had left back at his quarters. He stepped into the shade provided by the jaws of the giant stone Riptor head he had been painstakingly excavating for the last couple of weeks, and sat down with his back against its throat. ‘What the hell were we thinking last night?’ He asked Kai Tero, who was working next to him. ‘I know it’s been twelve months since we got here and everything, but I haven’t stayed out that late in ages.’
‘We volunteered for this, remember?’ Tero said, ‘And we both know why we did. Sundari said this was one of the most promising sites she’s seen. A structure like this hasn’t been discovered anywhere else on Arkadia.’
Chambers couldn’t deny it but grumbled under his breath anyway, his head pounding incessantly from his hangover. He went to stand up, pushing against the wall when it suddenly collapsed. He fell backwards in a shower of rock and his curses quickly turned into cries of pain as he rolled down a series of steps.
He came to a stop at the bottom of the stairs, bruised and winded. For a long moment he lay struggling to suck down a breath.
‘Chambers! Chambers, are you alright?’ Tero yelled from the entrance.
‘I’m alright.’ Chambers called up once he got his breath back. He sat up slowly and tried to work out where he had landed. He was at the bottom of a flight of stairs, at a bend in a passage that was lit somehow by devices in the walls.
‘Hold on, we have to move some of this rubble to fit through.’ Tero said. ‘Just stay there.’
Chambers examined his surroundings. The floor where he sat was dusty but obviously artificial. The stone paving was too uniform and smooth to be anything else. Was it possible that he had fallen into one of the Oratan’s underground lairs? Their briefing had said the closest camp was some distance to the north, but who knew how many more encampments were lying just under the colony’s feet?
Chambers hardly dared to breathe, expecting the sounds of approaching Oratan at any moment. He listened carefully but could hear nothing from deeper down the passage despite the noise of his fall. After a moment of consideration, the craftsmanship of his surroundings was enough to convince him he was safe. He could not imagine the Oratan creating such a structure. He got to his feet, smiling despite his aches, realising he may have stumbled onto the colony’s biggest discovery yet. Deciding he couldn’t wait for the others, he started to slowly make his way further down the passage. At the bottom of the next flight of stairs he was greeted by the sight of several Riptors. Momentarily freezing at the sight of the aggressive creatures, he chuckled to himself when he realised they were just statues lining the walls. As he got closer he noted they were so detailed, that they seemed almost life-like.
He continued onwards, passing through an ornately decorated antechamber and more Riptor statues before he came finally to a large, well-lit room. The entrance was guarded by two imposing warrior sculptures. They bore no resemblance to the Oratan, and he would have bet his last PED that they were Arkadians. He gazed around the room in wonder before turning and running back towards the entrance. He soon met Tero, accompanied by the rest of the dig team and half the troops sent to guard the expedition, already making their way through the passage.
‘Kai, follow me. You won’t believe what I’ve found.’
He led them back to the massive chamber and laughed with joy at their expressions when they saw the treasure trove he had discovered. In the centre of the room was a collection of pots similar to those that had been found at the surface, but that wasn’t what drew their attention. All around the room there were hundreds of items in stacks and piles as though they had been hurriedly stored.
Within half an hour they had catalogued some of the most interesting objects in the room and sent them back to the teleporter. No one doubted that these artefacts were Arkadian. The collection was made up of all kinds of equipment ranging from a number of weapons and armours to the simplest of pots. To top it off, everything was in extremely good condition. There was even a device with a display that unbelievably had the faintest power charge remaining. Chambers wished that he could be the one to discover its secrets, but decoding devices was a foreign skill to him.
The greatest find so far had been what appeared to be the last stand of a squad of Arkadian soldiers. The team had found nearly a dozen complete sets of scorched and scarred battle gear strewn around the room, arranged in what the troops recognised as defensive positions. The Arkadian formation appeared to have been set in order to protect a series of intricately designed doors embedded in the walls of the chamber, which were sealed with a technology unlike anything the dig team had encountered before. The armour sets had been immediately tagged and shipped back to Celeste Harbour for detailed analysis, but the doors themselves were an enigma. Chambers didn’t have a clue how to unravel their secrets as the team’s basic tools couldn’t work the complex locking mechanisms. No doubt when the scientists arrived they would be able to work out how the doors opened.
Chambers and Tero soon had the next collection of items topside and almost loaded for transport. These would be the last to go over land to the teleporters as the IFN were organising aerial transport for the rest. Chambers was trying to decide if the last spot should be filled with another suit of armour or a container of shortbladed weapons that emanated with cold, when he was interrupted by one of the troops stationed as a lookout on the hill above the tunnel entrance.
‘What is it?’ the Sergeant called back.
‘We’ve got Oratan incoming from the north! They’re still some distance away but moving directly towards us. We’ve been spotted.’
‘Looks like nearly a hundred, Sarge, spreading out to surround us. Way more than we can handle.’
The Sergeant ran a short way up the hill and took one look at the enemy before hastily interrupting the excited chatter on the communicators that everyone in the expedition carried. ‘Alright, everyone back to the surface immediately, we’re heading back to the teleporter.’
‘No!’ Tero yelled, wishing they’d installed a teleporter at the digsite. ‘We can’t just abandon what we’ve found here.’
‘We’re taking this load back to the teleporter and I’ll seal up the chamber as best I can. Gather your gear, we’re leaving.’ The Sergeant barked.
Chambers quickly tied the shortblades to the rest of the items as the last of the group came running out of the Riptor’s mouth. Chambers looked around and saw the Sergeant finish burying something in the loose sand a short way up the hill before sprinting back down to the group.
‘Alright, civilians around the transport.’ The Sergeant said. ‘Troops, form up around them. On my command, we’re going to skirt this hill to the west and hit the Oratan flank while it’s still weak enough. We punch through these bastards, then we make for the teleporter as fast as we can.’
‘But, what about the passage? We can’t leave it for the Oratan to find.’ Chambers said.
‘I said I’d deal with it. They’re nearly on us. Everyone ready? Go!’ The troops rounded the hill and opened fire on the Oratan rabble, creating a hole in the thin line that the group passed through in seconds.
‘Run, but stay in formation.’ The Sergeant yelled, and everyone obeyed, quickly opening a small lead on the Oratan. Chambers ran like he had never run before, too afraid to look back as he listened in terror to the gunfire and the cries of the fallen Oratan behind him. Suddenly, everything was drowned out by an explosion and he risked a quick glance over his shoulder. His eyes widened in shock at the sight of sand filling the air as a small landslide raced down the hill. I hope it’s enough to cover the Riptor head, he thought to himself as he strained to keep up with the others.
They had only gone a few hundred metres before Chambers’ breaths began to rasp raggedly from his throat.
‘They’re gaining on us.’ He heard one of the troops cry.
‘Faster!’ The Sergeant yelled, but Chambers’ legs were already burning as he struggled over the soft sand. Desperately fighting for more speed, he could hear the other archaeologists labouring just as hard. He could tell they weren’t going to make it. But even as that thought formed he noticed a new sound and looked up with relief to see a pair of IFN gunships appearing overhead.
The gunships fired as they came, buying the retreating group precious seconds, before circling to land in front of them. Before they could touch down, a rocket leapt out of the horde of Oratan and struck a gunship square in its side. With a deafening roar, the wounded craft rolled over and exploded into flames. Cursing, the Sergeant steered the group towards the remaining craft.
‘Civilians inside, quick.’ The Sergeant shouted. ‘Grab what you can carry and leave the rest; we’ll try to draw the Oratan away.’
Chambers scrambled in with the others and as soon as they were inside, the gunship took off towards Celeste Harbour as the troops continued on towards the teleporter. It hurt him to have to leave most of their newly discovered items behind, but there was no choice. As he watched, groups of Oratan chased the gunship and the remaining troops as they sprinted away, but some remained to swarm over the abandoned relics. He could only hope that they would not discover the cache in the hillside.