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A short story by

Micky Neilson

Chanuk was a large asteroid, 616 kilometers in diameter. At some point in the distant past it had been captured by the gravitational pull of a gas giant known as Gantuan VI, and afterward Chanuk had settled into a fairly smooth, steady, and predictable orbit. It had been roughly five years since the Kel-Morians had discovered the rock (not-so-lovingly referred to as "Chunk" by the miners who worked it) and started extracting from its high-yield veins of minerals.

Many of these veins were now depleted, but Chanuk had not given up its full bounty just yet. There was still a few years' worth of the "good stuff" to be mined. Deep excavations, shafts, slopes, and adits riddled the asteroid, resulting in a stony mass not unlike a giant worm-ridden apple. Inclines connected the active workings to the subsurface, where a spiderweb of passageways linked to central hubs-domed enclosures with regulated oxygen and gravitational acceleration.

It was in one of the passages connecting two excavation tunnels in Deep Core 2 that Isaac now waited, poised in an entry that intersected with a larger adit just ahead. A digital readout on the heads-up display inside his visor revealed the Mission Elapsed Time thus far.


The whole show would be over soon enough.

In front of Isaac, hypersonic spikes split the air, smashing into the solid rock at the adit's end and providing a heavy deterrent for any marines wishing to advance on the position where the pirates had barricaded themselves.

A deterrent for regular marines, maybe, but not for Isaac. This was what the marauder armor had been built for. Still, dark thoughts passed through Isaac's mind, and not, unfortunately, for the first time: why not just bounce on the KMs? Let the pirates have 'em? Yeah, odds were that most of these chumps had never served in the Guild Wars all those years ago, but still... Isaac hated that he was here, actually helping them... risking his own damn life.

Sousa's exuberant voice blurted over the squad freq, "Sergeant White, you ready to roust these boys?"

Isaac did a final systems check. Good to go. Looked like it was the KMs' lucky day. "Ain't nothin' but a thing. Let's do this."

Four marines rushed into the tunnel and laid down a withering suppressing fire. Isaac's suit auto-loaded two Punisher grenades as he rounded the corner. Ventilation was maintained in the asteroid core, but gravity was not, so Isaac relied on the micro-gravity accelerators in his boots while pressing forward, servos propelling the modified heavy armor.

A few spikes ricocheted off his hardskin as Isaac pushed past the marines. A microsecond later he'd locked on target, and a Punisher rocketed from each arm to pass final judgment on the luckless bastards who had dared to piss off the Dominion Marine Corps.

The ground and walls quaked. Smoke billowed down the passage. Isaac allowed himself a smile... somewhat prematurely, as it turned out.

Out of the smoke stepped a red monstrosity, an armored beast roughly the same size as Isaac. The word SMOKIN' was written on one shoulder pad; JOE, on the other. The firebat's arms shot up to chest height, and a gravelly voice issued from the suit's external speakers.

"Need a light?"

Within another half second, Isaac's hardskin was baking in the scorching fury of the firebat's Perdition flamethrowers.

Isaac's arms locked into a defensive position. His HUD flashed red. An instant more, and the heat would be enough to detonate the explosives stored in the marauder's forearm compartments. He needed a countermeasure. And fast.

A massive boulder nearby provided the only possible cover, but more than that, a shield.

Emergency warning systems neared critical as Isaac dislodged the boulder and rushed forward, the giant stone clamped between his massive arms and thrust out before him like a battering ram. Within six strides the boulder had parted the firebat's arms and smashed into his crimson chest piece.

"Joe" stumbled backward through the wreckage of the barricade. Instantly, he seized the top and bottom of the massive stone and rotated his body, spinning Isaac around. Now Isaac was the one backpedaling, dimly aware that they were headed for a boarded-up vertical shaft.

There was the sound of splintering wood as they crashed through the barrier, followed by a serene sense of weightlessness as they were swallowed by the yawning abyss. They continued to tussle, the boulder forced aside, as they tumbled through the near-zero gravity. The firebat managed to spew flame once again, and Isaac knew that at least one of the grenades in his left arm was set to blow. He had to launch it now.

He pushed "Joe" away and fired the grenade. There was a flash of white, and then there was only darkness.

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