Walking through the darkened cave, the five members of the excursion team could feel a significant rise in temperature within the deep underground cavern. Beads of sweat began to drip from each of them as they felt a hot wave of heat radiating from behind their position. Sergeant Magnum still favored his left leg as he traveled. Each hobbling step would send waves of shooting agony through his nervous system. The downward slope added difficulty to Magnum’s painful gait; each alternate footfall would solicit a mad grunt from the weary soldier. Both Meg and Lady Hydra supported the injured sergeant at each shoulder as they steadily paced forward. Leading the way, Commander Kari held her flashlight tightly in her hand, throwing the bright beam in sweeping motions. Lieutenant Tatiana maintained a stern look on her face as she marched to Commander Kari’s right, a phaser drawn tensely against any potential foe.
Despite the rugged construction of the sprawling cavern, small pools of water now began to collect beneath their feet as they journeyed. Tiny beads of condensation also persistently dripped from the ceiling, throwing haunting echoes throughout the long corridor. The warm and moist environment added to the odd sense of claustrophobia within the pitch-black hallway, sending a tremor of panic up and down each traveler’s spine.
“Gee, Magnum, we should definitely book our honeymoon on this island, don’t you think?” asked Meg playfully, trying to distract the sergeant from his pain.
Sergeant Magnum laughed loudly, replying, “You know, that’s not such an awful idea, Meg. Given the right circumstances, this cave could be almost romantic, a creepy kind of tunnel of love. Besides, this tropic heat reminds me of Rio de Janeiro.”
“Mmm, sultry love! I like that,” groaned Meg wantonly.
“Common, you two!” begged Lady Hydra in a huff. “This is hardly the time, or the place.”
Sergeant Magnum grinned in the dark as he said, “You’re right, Lady Hydra. This obviously isn’t the right moment to have a honeymoon, I haven’t even proposed to Meg yet.”
Meg felt glowing warmth in her stomach as she studied the possibilities. ‘At least he didn’t clam up when I suggested a honeymoon,’ thought the love-struck woman cheerily. Squeezing his knotted neck with her free hand, Meg could hear Magnum moaning in delight as her skillful fingers kneaded his tensions away.
After about twenty minutes of trudging through the sloppy tunnel, Commander Kari halted the group, saying abruptly, “Shhh! I think I hear something.” All gathered around grew utterly silent as they listened intently for any sort of disturbance. After about three minutes, the odd sound stirred again, a strange whooshing noise directly to their right.
Now focused on pinpointing the source of the strange commotion, Lieutenant Tatiana and Commander Kari ran in the direction of the sound, hoping to locate the source. As they scurried along the cavern wall, they suddenly discovered another narrow ally embedded deep within the surface of the rocky cave. “Hey, you guys, I think we’ve found something over here,” bellowed Lieutenant Tatiana in wonder.
Quickly, the three interlocked teammates followed Tatiana and Kari’s lead, immediately spotting another room similar to the one they ducked into earlier to avoid the searing fireball. However, instead of moaning electronic equipment, this room contained only a portion of thick, clear tubing, angled in a downward slope. As Commander Kari threw bright illumination upon the unusual tube, they could all hear a faint suction sound. It was distant at first but quickly became more pronounced with every passing moment.
Then, to everyone’s utter amazement, a glimmering platinum statue swept through the clear tubing directly in front of the team’s astonished eyes. Clanking slightly as it propelled downward, the heavy object traveled at blinding speeds through the mysterious tubing. The precious monument inside was only visible for a brief moment, but for the five shocked adventurers, absolute clarity was available within that short span of time. The victim was nude and female, and the gleaming statue appeared to be mounted on a circular base. Positioned in a distinctive fashion pose, the glowing woman looked like a fine art sculpture. Yet, with their extensive knowledge of the Nil Corporation’s heinous techniques, all five astounded crew members immediately realized the plummeting maiden was most certainly a living girl only moments ago and had been transformed into shimmering platinum to serve the Valerian’s diabolical scheme.
Commander Kari felt her grip on the flashlight slacken as she quaked with fear and revulsion. The durable handheld light toppled to the hard floor with a clang then rolled a slight distance before finally stilling. Lady Hydra instantly crouched down and reached for the fallen object, handing the wayward flashlight back to her terrified commander. Quietly, Kari said in a panicked tone, “Dear, God! They’re mass producing them now!”
Meg studied the upward trajectory of the plastic chute for a moment before saying regretfully, “I’ll bet the Nil Corporation is trapping them in Orientation now, before the contestants are even aware of the danger they’re in.”
Sergeant Magnum immediately added, “Damn! That probably means they’re stepping up their efforts on the elemental generators. If the Nil Corporation is already preparing to abandon the top rated holograph program on the planet, I have a sinking feeling they plan on blasting off very soon.” For a moment, Magnum found himself surrounded by the horrified faces of Esper, Stealth and Petula. A sense of overwhelming grief overtook the determined sergeant as he envisioned poor Godiva captured, her vitality immediately halted within hardened rock. In anger, the brash soldier banged his fists against the dreadful tubing, sending a wave of percussion vibrating in all directions. “We can’t let those bastards flee without a fight!”
Lieutenant Tatiana, now stationed just inside the entrance, instantly halted the somber speculation. “Heads up!” she yelled in a projected whisper. “It looks like we’ve got company!” As they all scurried silently over to study the situation, they all gasped as they spotted a large hovership, glowing like a firefly in the distance.
“Probably investigating the explosion,” whispered Commander Kari as she reached for her phaser. “They must really want to ensure that we are dead.”
Lieutenant Tatiana quickly added, “However, by the swift response time, I’d assess that we must be extremely close to the Valerian compound. Hopefully they won’t even see us in here.” Her optimistic prediction immediately soured as the enemy craft approached even closer to their position. Surrounding the humming vessel were seven armed guards running adamantly alongside, keeping pace with the propelling ship dispatched to destroy them.
Sergeant Magnum studied the thick tubing behind them thoughtfully for a moment as he plotted a hasty strategy. In an excited whisper, the bold sergeant said, “Well, if we stay right here in this room, at least they won’t be able to use heavy artillery against us. I’m quite certain they won’t risk destroying this last transport device, especially considering how damaged this cave is now.”
With a timid grin, Meg said, “That’s a great idea, Magnum. But how will we defend ourselves against them? There must be at least thirty soldiers out there! Those ground troops will surely investigate this room before moving on!”
Lady Hydra began to shiver violently as she aimed the crosshairs of her laser weapon directly at the steadily approaching hovercraft. Without offering a warning to the rest of her team, the panic-stricken woman instantly depressed the trigger, sending a red beam flying. “Wait,” shouted Commander Kari, but her order was too late to halt the shot. Hydra’s aim proved to be surprisingly accurate, but instead of slicing through the intended target, the pilot of the vessel, the hot laser beam instead dissolved in a bright blue flash upon contact. Lady Hydra immediately slumped to her knees, gasping in pure revulsion and horror. Sergeant Magnum quickly lunged out at Lady Hydra, swiftly swiping the warm gun from her trembling hand.
“No!” screamed Hydra piercingly. “I didn’t even puncture his skin!”
“So much for formulating a plan!” screamed Sergeant Magnum as he leapt into action, rolling across the ground into the main cavern. Dozens of bright laser beams rang out as he spun, narrowly missing his head by inches. Stopping directly in front of the ominous militia, he reached out using Lady Hydra’s laser gun. With a steady motion, he held the trigger down and swept the bright beam of light across the jagged roof of the tunnel. In an instant, dozens of jutting stalactites broke free from the stony ceiling, immediately plummeting to the ground directly above the enemy hovercraft. Agonized screams filled the air as the soldiers quickly scattered. However, too many sharp rocks were toppling above them, and nearly all of the men collapsed under the weight of the barrage. Strange gurgling sounds filled the air as the injured warriors’ lungs began to fill with blood. The hovercraft quickly began to buckle under the immense weight of the dangerous projectiles, until a spiky stalactite pierced even the pilot, killing him instantly. The vessel began to spin in circles frantically before becoming engulfed by razor-sharp rock. As Sergeant Magnum leapt back into the safety of the small service closet, the massive craft quickly burst into flames, the intregrity of the fuel tank crumpling under the pressure of the many falling stone daggers.
Before the stunned team could begin to celebrate Magnum’s successful first strike, several shots rang out from the main tunnel, narrowly missing Meg in the leg. Quickly, Sergeant Magnum tackled the endangered maiden delicately, making certain not to injure his precious friend on the solid surface of the floor. “Stay low, everyone!” shouted Magnum frenetically. While Magnum guarded Meg from any further volleys, he quickly returned fire using his blaster. The flaming shots landed square in the middle of the survivor’s chest, yet the blast failed to halt the maddened soldier. Just as before, the powerful fireball dissolved harmlessly upon contact, a blue spike of energy seemingly leapt out of his chest to neutralize the hostile missile in an instant.
Lady Hydra unexpectedly sprang up from her crouching position, saying as she flew out of the small room, “This is all my fault! I’ll take care of this asshole!” Running at a full clip, she skillfully dodged the rapid shots intended to halt her. Once finally reaching the lone gunman, the strange man studied her for a moment before slowly placing his gun on the floor. With a taunting sweep of his hands, he spurred the panting damsel forward, saying in a mocking tone, “Common, little girl! Let’s see what you’ve got!”
While her four teammates looked on anxiously, Lady Hydra began to hop around the smug man like a trained boxer, aggressively sizing up her opponent as she bounded about. Quickly, she sensed a weak spot within his defensive posture. In one swift motion, she spun herself around, throwing a powerful roundhouse kick towards the grinning soldier’s grubby face. As she reached the apex of her swinging movement, she felt her foot connecting forcibly against his bony face, a direct hit. Yet something had gone horribly wrong somehow. In the distance, her four teammates could see their ally landing the blow to her opponent’s face, but the instant she made contact, she immediately became stilled by a blue flash of light, the expected follow through never came. Letting out a stunned gasp, the tiny blonde suddenly realized she’d been rendered immobile within a split second. Unable to budge from her unstable posture, Lady Hydra seemed to be inexplicably rooted to the ground somehow, since her unmoving body failed to topple from its perched position. With every muscle still tensely flexed at the moment of attack, she stared straight ahead in terror as the soldier walked casually around her fixed position.
“It’s his armor!” screamed Lieutenant Tatiana in horror as she watched her close friend in her paralyzed state. “He’s unstoppable in that dreadful armor!” With dedicated concern, the Russian woman studied the aggressive soldier through her scope, searching for some sort of weakness along the surface of his protected body.
“Not so tough now, are you?” toyed the victorious cheater as he stroked her flushed cheek. Lifting his right arm up to his mouth, he mysteriously uttered, “Gold.” Then he reached out with his right hand, gently caressing his motionless adversary’s shapely derriere. As he lifted his hand away from her enraptured body, a shimmering patch of bright yellow began to appear at the location of his brief touch. Quickly, gleaming gold metal began to envelop the helpless woman, rolling across her tight stomach and her tensely locked thighs. Even her blue uniform became altered by the transforming wave, the delicate stitch work immediately becoming embossed along the reflective surface of her bikini top and bottom. A ringing sound began to echo throughout the cavern as the swift metamorphosis captured her muscular calves and her rounded breasts. Even in the dark recesses of the deep tunnel, shimmering highlights began to reflect off of her swiftly hardening curves.
As the gilding transformation swept all the way down her voluptuous body, cementing her planted foot within her high-heeled shoe, the flaming liquid gold continued to flow outward, quickly forming the ground beneath her position into a glittering base of solid gold before eventually fizzling out. Now pulsing up her sweat-drenched neck, the swift conversion relentlessly trickled up her determined facial features, forming the delicate skin tissue into rigid arcs of rounded metal, a lifeless mask of glistening gold. Within seconds, the iridescent process moved all the way up her frozen figure before burning out suddenly, rendering her swept locks of gold-spun hair into tightly set golden metal. In an instant, Lady Hydra had been completely transformed into solid gold from head to toe.
“You bastard!” screamed Lieutenant Tatiana in a rage as she helplessly watched her venerable ally inexorably frozen into unbending yellow metal. Spotting a small, square device sealed within the back piece of his armor, she fired a blinding shot. With deadly precision, the bolt of energy landed as intended, immediately blasting the exposed power cell. The miniscule device instantly smoldered then blew, creating a gaping hole within his rugged armor. Four more shots rang out as Lieutenant Tatiana screamed in anger, immediately slicing the dastardly man at the waist. His legs began to kick around after landing to the ground, the instinctive reflexes still propelling the severed limbs hysterically. A gut wrenching groan escaped from the legless man as he felt searing pain pounding through his decimated body. Reaching out for his abandoned weapon, he fired a barrage of shots towards Lieutenant Tatiana before turning his weapon on himself. With a muted thud, the bloody torso collapsed lifelessly to the rocky ground.
Ignoring the shooting pain in her left shoulder, Tatiana sprinted over to her captured companion, tears streaming behind her as she flew. “Why?” questioned the mourning brunette as she angrily kicked the villainous cadaver in the chest. Slowly reducing her rage to a whimper, she turned to face her gilded friend. Woefully, the grief-stricken woman began to weep uncontrollably as she hugged her partner’s now chilly golden body. With her right leg extended high into the air, poor Lady Hydra now appeared more like a life-sized kickboxing trophy than the vibrant woman Tatiana had grown to admire over the past few days. In her anguish, Lieutenant Tatiana cursed herself for allowing such a horrifying fate to occur to her cherished friend and comrade.
While Meg and Magnum studied the jumbled wreckage in search of other dangerous survivors, Commander Kari ran up to her dedicated lieutenant, offering a warm, reassuring hug. Noticing an immediate wince on Tatiana’s puffy face, she stepped back delicately to investigate. Upon spotting the raw gash on the top of her friend’s shoulder, Commander Kari reached into her bag in search of a suture kit. Slowly dragging the medical device across the sore wound, she breathed a sigh of relief as the stinging slice began to close. Gently wrapping a bandage around the injured shoulder blade, she said sympathetically, “Tatiana, I’m so sorry this happened to Lady Hydra. She was such a powerhouse of energy and vigor, it seems so unnatural to see her stiffly halted like this.”
After tucking away the first aid gear, Commander Kari delicately placed a trembling hand on Lady Hydra’s rigidly clenched right hand, slowly tracing a line down her cold forearm. Incredibly, every minute pore and hair follicle was flawlessly rendered in lustrous gold, so hyper-realistic, Commander Kari could scarcely believe her glistening skin wasn’t simply coated in luminous gold paint. However, once she wrapped her knuckle upon Lady Hydra’s outstretched leg, she could hear only a dense clanging sound emanating from the unyielding monument. Kari somberly bowed her head in grief for her fallen ally. Immense sadness and remorse swept across her pleasant facial features as she mourned the loss of her invaluable officer.
As Meg and Sergeant Magnum slowly approached the tear-streaked faces of their teammates, they both felt incredible compassion for their fallen ally, captured at the height of her power. Delicately, Sergeant Magnum said quietly, “Everyone is either dead or dying over there, so I think we’re safe for the moment.” Lowering his eyes as he approached the shimmering statue of Lady Hydra, Sergeant Magnum slowly saluted the brave woman before saying proudly, “I fully admire your courage, Lady Hydra. You risked everything to protect us, regardless of the danger to yourself.” Crouching down with a grunt, the solemn sergeant reached into his shirt pocket producing a tiny blue flower in his quaking hand. Elegantly, Magnum laid the frail flower in front of Lady Hydra’s stationary position, gratefully returning the flamboyant petals to her during her greatest time of need.
“We won’t rest until we find a way to save you, Hydra,” proclaimed Meg defiantly. In encouragement, she chucked her buddy on the chin, wincing in pain as she felt her knuckles striking the solid metal surface a bit too exuberantly. Deep down, Meg knew that her solidified friend would have laughed boisterously at her high-spirited gesture, and Meg hoped her friend would somehow be capable of uproarious laughter again sometime soon.
With heavy hearts, the remaining crew slowly packed up as much gear
as they could carry with them on their trek towards the enigmatic Valerian
headquarters. In grim determination, the four competitors lunged
onward, quickly endeavoring to close the distance between themselves and
their quest for justice and liberation.
To be continued...
On to Part Sixteen