Grinder’s Switch – “What in tarnation…
Luke squinted his eyes at the display in his Wolverine's cockpit. The Beagle had keyed on something in the jungle undergrowth, something metal. He swung his PPC to bear as a precaution, and keyed his radio back to the drop zone.
"Hey Hiram! This here's Luke. Y'all might wanna tell them Explorer boys ta come have a look out here."
Back at the drop zone, Hiram swiveled his own Wolverine from where he was standing guard duty. The dropship crew continued filling their Mule's tanks with water from the nearby lake, as Hiram keyed his response.
"Why, what is it? We done stopped here plenty of times before, ain't never found nothin' here. Not even the Star League made it out this far."
"Uh, Hiram," Luke replied as he pushed aside the undergrowth to reveal an armored bunker door, rusted with age, "I ain't so sure about that."
Adept Marshall looked dubiously at the ancient door, the two Switcher scouts standing next to him. "You say you found this during a routine water stop a few months ago?"
Luke's old-fashioned CMF uniform and long mustache contrasted oddly with the modern uniform and clean cut of the ComStar Adept. "Yep, was just doing a perimeter walk, went out a little farther'n usual'n my Beagle sniffed it out."
Marshall looked at Luke, "Farther than usual? You've been here before?"
Hiram chimed in. "Yep. This world's a routine stop fer us on the Far Rim trade circuit. Just ta get water, ain't no people here. We ain't never explored the place much; lotsa unnamed dirtballs out here like this. People ain't seriously set foot here in a prophet's age...if'n they ever did in the first place."
"Well," the Adept said with a determined look, "someone obviously was serious enough here to build a bunker." He looked around at the rest of the Explorer Corps team, who were bustling about with portable sensors and preparing access equipment. "Status?"
The nearest soldier gave a quick reply as he read his scanner. "Based on the magnetics and a little digging, it looks like there used to be a base of some sort here. There's metal and concrete under the dirt over a pretty wide area. Judging by the soil thickness and overgrowth, this place has been abandoned for at least two centuries, maybe longer." He looked up at a soldier in an armored exoskeleton, who snapped a mechanical salute.
"Looks like we're ready, sir."
"If'n y'all don't mind," Hiram said, "I'll wait out here in my Mech."
Luke shrugged as his superstitous friend climbed back into his Wolverine's cockpit. "I'll go in with y'all. Someone's gotta represent the Switchers here, ya know."
Adept Marshall nodded, and gave a signal. The exoskeleton trooper stepped forward, bringing powered claws and cutting torches to bear. There was a strange sense of time burning away, even as the rusted metal sparked and melted under the modern assault. Finally, the door gave, and was lifted aside by mechanical arms, revealing centuried darkness within.
Adept Marshall stopped to check the atmosphere as they advanced into the next room. He gave an all clear, and the Explorer squad moved in. The Switcher with them was looking around wide eyed, one hand resting nervously on his pistol. "What IS this place?"
"Your guess is as good as mine." The Adept replied as they fanned out to examine the space. "Nothing we've seen so far matches with anything I know about Star League history. Then again, as far out as we are, that isn't surprising. This was a long reach even for the Rim Worlds Republic. Or maybe not...we've never really determined just how big the Republic used to be."
"Well, one thing's fer sure," Luke said cheerfully; his mood had lightened, and the Adept turned to see why. The Switcher held up an ancient bottle, with a label printed in English: BEER, it said. "They was human."
The Adept nodded, and the group started to move on, not catching what Luke muttered under his breath. "More certain than some of the things I've seen out here."
The next door rolled up with a groan of rusted old mechanisms, with the assistance of the exoskeleton's powered arms. Its searchlights lit up the space past the door...and the pilot yelled a warning. "LOOK OUT!"
The response was instant, as the ComStar soldiers dove for the corners. Luke drew his pistol, and crouched behind an ancient crate. Dead silence reigned for several seconds, before the exoskeleton pilot gave an all clear. "Sorry," he said sheepishly. "I just wasn't expecting to be looking right down a gunbarrel."
And so he was. Right at head height hung the muzzle of a small caliber autocannon. The lights followed it back to its flexible mounting beneath a cockpit flanked by lasers, on the front of a bulbous four-legged body that stood maybe three to four meters tall. In the darkness behind the odd little Mech sat several similar shapes, perhaps a dozen. They looked like long-beaked insects, squatting in the dark.
Luke and the Adept looked at each other. Neither had ever seen anything like the odd design. Finally, they just shrugged, and Luke stepped forward like a man about to test drive a used car. "Well," he said simply, "let's see if they run."
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