Chapter One

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Lieutenant Danyel King was blind.

He hoped it was just because he was lying in total darkness. Dust from the explosion billowed around him as he coughed painfully and dragged himself to his feet. He stretched his hands out in front of him but could see nothing—feel nothing. He took a couple of hesitant steps forward and tripped over the body of another man. He knelt down and ran his hands over him. Was the man dead or alive? He could feel the slight rise and fall of his chest, a faint breath of air against his hand. Alive, then. He felt carefully for any injury but could find nothing obvious.

The man stirred under his hands. "What happened?" he croaked.

"I don't know. Alpha team was checking out the cave and there was an explosion, but I don't know what caused it. Methane gas, maybe. There were twelve of us and you're the only one I've found so far—we need to check the rest of the area. Are you injured? Can you get up?"

"Give me a minute. I'm okay, I think. Just a bit dazed."

King held out a hand to help the other man to his feet. They both explored the space with their arms outstretched and discovered they were alone inside a small cavity about three metres square, with smooth rock on two sides and rubble on the others.

"It looks like we're trapped here. Hopefully everyone else is safe on the other side of the rock fall, working at getting us out."

Neither of them mentioned the possibility that the other men were underneath the rubble. What a disastrous end to what was supposed to have been a routine training exercise—locating and retrieving a package hidden somewhere in the cave system.

King spoke again. "I don't even have my utility belt with me. I think I remember taking it off so I could squeeze in here. Can we contact anyone outside? Have you got a wristcom, or any sort of light that's working?"

The other man ran through his gear. Checking to see if anything was operational.

"My wristcom seems to be damaged and no, nothing with a light. Except maybe my stunner, but I'm reluctant to fire that in here. At least I've got some water we can share." He took out his water bag and handed it to King.

"Thank you, I'll just take a sip." King took a mouthful and returned the bag.

"I know my wristcom isn't working properly but let's see if I can get the time."

A moment later, a slightly mechanical voice advised, "The time is thirteen hundred hours, ten minutes and twenty-one seconds ship-time."

"That can't be right can it? We couldn't have been here for two hours?"

"It doesn't seem likely. The dust is still in the air and I'm sure I heard the noise from the actual explosion."

There was a small pause. "Unless that wasn't the only one."

Neither of them liked the images that conjured up.

"I'm going to see if I can climb up to the top of that rock fall, see if there's a gap or any indication of how wide this fall is." King moved slowly forward as he spoke, arms outstretched. There was a scrabbling sound as he tried to find a foothold and a few rocks rolled back into their cave.

"I've reached the roof. The rocks seem to continue all the way up. Watch out." He moved a few rocks and let them roll backwards to the cavern floor. "I think we might be able to make a bit of a tunnel here, they seem to be packed fairly loosely. Oh-oh, I spoke too soon, there's a huge piece of rock here blocking the way. Let me see if I can get around it." There were more scrabbling sounds and some swearing. Then a crash as King slipped backwards to fall at the other man's feet, accompanied by a small landslide. He coughed and stood up.

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