Dropped on a frozen planet under suspicious circumstances, a group of marines struggles to discover the true objective of their mission. “Cold War” is set in the same universe as Adam Christopher’s novel The Burning Dark.
This novelette was acquired and edited for Tor.com by editor Paul Stevens.
“This is bullshit.”
First Sergeant Furusawa’s voice came back over the comms. “I don’t like your attitude, Marine.”
“Sorry,” said Anderson. “This is bullshit, Sergeant.”
The sergeant laughed. “Better.”
It was there again: the pulse, the tick; something echoing across the comms, weaving around in the empty space behind the voices. It sounded like interference, the rhythmic tap of something electrical shorting, but that was impossible.
Then the comms clicked off and Private Grec was left with nothing but the sound of the blood in her ears and the schtomp schtomp schtomp of seven pairs of boots wading through the snow.
Corporal Anderson was right, Grec thought. It was bullshit. Icy, covered-in-six-feet-of-snow, a hundred light years from anywhere bullshit.
What the Special Operations team had been doing here was a mystery—at least, a mystery to those who really needed to know, which at the current moment included Sergeant Furusawa and her two three-person fireteams trudging onwards from the drop zone. The planet had a name, a real one, according to the brief—Hrostar—but to the Fleet it was just Warworld 3663. A lump of ice, big enough for Earth-type gravity, but slightly too far out of its sun’s Goldilocks Zone to comfortably support much life worth writing home about. And since contact with the Spec Ops team had been lost five cycles ago, the Fleet war catalog had been updated, changing the planet’s entry to Warworld 3663Ω—Omega for “danger unspecified.” The Spec Ops team had apparently met that danger, and now Furusawa’s search and rescue ground team was here to find them.
Of course, Grec and the others—Anderson and Alonso in her team, Bowen, Palladio and Khouri in the Psi-team—all knew what “unspecified danger” really meant.
The Spiders were here.
Relentless, implacable, totally alien; the Spiders were a machine gestalt swarming across the galaxy, consuming—literally—whole planets, even stars. The eight-legged war machines ranged in size from just a few meters across to the giant Mother Spiders, as big as a moon, with legs long enough, powerful enough to crack the crust of a planet.
But if Warworld 3663Ω really was a mostly lifeless lump of rock, then there was no reason for the Spiders to have paid it any heed. The machines seemed only to target inhabited planets, preferably those under the control of the Fleet. The Spiders were less an enemy, more a plague, a contagion. And after decades of conflict, the Fleet were becoming more and more desperate as the Spiders kept coming, and coming, and—
Grec snapped out of her thoughts, and smiled. As the SAR team walked on through the snow, Grec spun on her heel, keeping pace but walking backwards through the tracks of the marine in front. Psi-Marine Maryam Khouri was on rear point, Grec in the center of the line. Grec gave a thumbs-up and Khouri did the same, signaling that all was well, then Grec turned back around without missing a step. Behind the opaque visor of her helmet, she smiled to herself and focused with her mind, pushing the feeling out, hoping that Khouri, three places behind, would be able to sense it. Grec had no psi-ability, and the Psi-Marines weren’t supposed to communicate with the regular forces like that, officially. But it was common. Sometimes the quickest way to get a message across without anyone else knowing—enemy included—was to use your mind. On the long tour aboard the Union Starship Hit and Run, the two of them had worked at it, Maryam insisting that everyone, even Kat, had the power buried up there somewhere in their cerebrum. With a little effort, you could make yourself heard.
“Back to work, Marine.”
Grec glanced up. The Sergeant’s voice was loud and clear in her helmet—the private two-way channel—unlike the message Khouri had planted in Grec’s mind.
“Always at work, Sergeant.”
Grec dragged her legs through the snow. The others remained silent, as quiet as the frozen wasteland across which they marched, a peace disturbed only by the soft sound of the team pulling themselves forward.
How much farther they had to go was mystery number two. According to the briefing back on the U-Star, now orbiting somewhere far above them, the search area itself was small: a patch of ground not five klicks square, at the northern edge of which was a range of low hills. The drop zone, for some reason, was ten klicks further south, which meant they had to walk the rest of the way. Anderson had questioned this, but before the ship’s Commander had even opened his mouth to reply, Sergeant Furusawa had butted in, casting doubt on Anderson’s masculinity. The two fireteams had laughed and were dismissed, but Grec knew she wasn’t the only one who noticed the question had never gotten an answer.
And another thing. SAR was usually done in little one-man hotseats, small and agile U-Stars that could skim through a planet’s atmosphere, allowing a close ground scan with both the craft’s instruments and the pilot’s own senses. SAR on foot was a rare occurrence. And hell, if it was a Spec Ops team that had gone missing, why not send another damn Spec Ops team down after them? Sending a bunch of regular grunts and their Psi-Marine babysitters was surely the wrong decision and—
The line of marines stopped. “Here” was a featureless patch of snow, indistinguishable from the terrain they’d spent the last two hours slogging through. The marines fell out of line, each looking around, as if expecting to find a giant X emblazoned on the white ground. Grec turned slowly, eyes to the horizon. The sky was just a shade darker than the ground, but the heads-up display of her visor enhanced the view, throwing up a reference grid and picking out the difference with ease. Without the HUD, Grec thought, they’d be nearly blind.
She turned one-eighty and raised her hand, thumb skyward, signaling everything was A-OK and hunky-dory.
Then she took a step forward, her raised hand falling back to the plasma rifle clipped across her front.
“Where’s Khouri?” she asked.
The other marines all turned to face back the way they’d come. Sergeant Furusawa walked to the front, then turned, looking the group over, counting them up. Grec did the same.
Anderson, Alonso and herself. Palladio, Bowen, and Sergeant Furusawa.
Furusawa turned away and Grec moved to her side. Looking out, she could see nothing but a nearly featureless white expanse, the ground broken only by the half-meter deep trench the marines had carved in the snow as they walked.
The Sergeant took a step forward. “Psi-Corporal Khouri, what’s your twenty?”
There was no response. Khouri was gone.
They moved on after an hour. The two remaining Psi-Marines, Bowen and Palladio, had spent all of the intervening time trying to contact the missing third member of their fireteam, but without luck. Neither of them could reach out to her with their minds, unable to make contact or even sense her presence.
And there was another problem.
“See?” said Anderson. “Bullshit. Bull. Shit.”
The comms—the regular communication channel between the marines, and between the marines and their starship in orbit—wasn’t working.
“Shut up and keep trying, Marine,” was all Furusawa said over the crackling emergency radio channel as she paced back and forth, scanning the surrounds, her HUD on maximum magnification and enhancement. Grec and the others watched the sergeant’s view displayed on their own HUDs, each studying the image, just in case someone missed something. Anderson—the communication specialist—worked on the failed comms link. They’d only discovered the fault when Furusawa had tried to contact the Hit and Run to report their situation and realized that nobody—not even the marines standing next to her—could hear her.
They’d been planetside three hours and were one marine down with basic systems failure. The operation had been screwy from the very start, and now Grec knew they were in even worse trouble.
She swallowed, focusing on the situation, pushing the fear over her partner’s fate out of her mind.
“We have to go back, Sergeant,” she said. She watched Furusawa continue her slow pace as she scanned the way they had come. Then the sergeant turned around, the opaque visor of her elliptical helmet reflecting Grec’s own.
“Our primary objective is to locate the missing Spec Ops team, Marine. We have our orders.”
Grec paused, then said “Sergeant,” her training kicking in even as every instinct screamed to her that something wasn’t right.
Palladio shouldered his rifle and came to attention in front of the sergeant. “Permission to track back to the drop zone to locate Khouri.”
“That’s a negative, Marine.”
Palladio nodded at Alonso, standing nearby. As Marine Gunner, his heavy-duty weapon was considerably larger than the rifles carried by the rest. “Alonso and I can go,” said Palladio. “Sweep the area, pick up Khouri and head back to the target zone.”
“Negative, Marine,” Furusawa repeated. “I’ve lost one Psi-Marine already, and I don’t want to lose another.”
“That’s enough.” The emergency radio buzzed as Furusawa’s voice punched across the channel. The back-up system was low quality and the interference was still there, even worse. A repeated pattern, almost electronic in nature. As the sergeant spoke even Anderson looked up from his position on the ground, where he was working on the computer interface built into the forearm of his combat armor, trying to get the regular comms back online.
Sergeant Furusawa looked over her remaining marines, then nodded. “We continue the SAR. If Khouri got lost in the snow we’ll pick her up on the way back. Grec, start the geophys scan. We’ll head north-north-east.”
Grec blinked as an orange icon appeared in her HUD: an open triangle, hard against the left of her vision. As she turned her head, the icon slid around until it was at the top. North-north-east, the direction marker shared from Furusawa’s HUD over the psi-fi net that linked each of the marines’ armor together.
“Move out,” said Furusawa, taking point, not waiting for the rest of them to fall into line. As they walked off, Grec turned again, wanting to signal with a raised thumb to Khouri, but it was Palladio at the rear now.
Grec dropped her arm, turned back to the front, and listened to the stiff crunch of snow underfoot.
They marched on.
Grec swept the wand of the geophys scanner over the snow in front of her as she walked. To operate the device she’d shifted up to take point, but with the directional marker in her HUD, she knew where she was supposed to be leading the group. She squeezed the wand a little harder and increased the radius of her sweep. The readings from the scanner, relayed to the display on the inside of her visor, were a little weird, but she hadn’t really had a chance to calibrate everything to zero. Not after Khouri had—
Grec frowned, her eyes flicking over the geophys readout. It was an important job and the Sergeant would be asking for a report very soon. Having Palladio send her messages with his mind—messages he knew she couldn’t respond to—was a distraction. She didn’t really know him that well, either. Not like Maryam. But at least Palladio wasn’t using the emergency radio. The back-up system didn’t have private channels. What one marine said, all would hear.
I was her friend, too.
Grec screwed her eyes tight and filled her mind with just one single thought.
She knew she couldn’t “talk” to the Psi-Marine, but maybe her annoyance would be enough for him to sense. At any rate, they marched on and Palladio’s voice didn’t enter her head again. Grec relaxed a little and returned her focus to the geophys scan, but after a while her mind wandered. Wandered to Maryam.
They’d been close, back on the Hit and Run. Tight friendships between regular marines and their psychic counterparts were common. Often, what started as friendship became something much more. Relationships like that were against regulations, but sometimes in deep, deep space, in the middle of the war, blind eyes were turned. Morale was low enough as it was and the Fleet commanders were unlikely to actively discourage anything that improved it, no matter which statute they broke.
The radio clicked on in Grec’s ear. The tapping sound of the interference was loud. As Grec watched, she saw the noise matched the pulse of the geophys readouts running along the bottom of her HUD.
Grec cleared her throat and dragged her attention back to her task. As the team walked forward, Grec swept the wand back and forth again. The readings didn’t change. Nor did they make much sense.
“I’m not sure,” she said, trying to parse the data. She came to a stop. Furusawa appeared at her shoulder.
“I need a report, Private.”
Grec shook her head. “I need to recalibrate, Sarge. The scanner’s bugged.”
“What’s the reading?”
Grec clenched her jaw and focused on sharing the HUD data with her team leader. The psi-fi indicator in her visor flickered briefly as her combat suit made contact with the sergeant’s, and began streaming the data to its computer.
Sergeant Furusawa shifted her grip on her rifle as she waited. “When you’re ready, Private.”
“Data streaming, Sergeant.”
Furusawa’s helmet tilted to one side. Grec waited.
“Negative,” said the Sergeant. “Try re-linking.”
Grec closed her eyes this time. Each of the combat suits could be paired together in a low-level, short-range psychic field—psi-fi, a technology-based by-product of the research conducted by the Fleet’s Psi-Marine Corps. The psi-fi net of each suit did everything, from linking the computer buried in the armor backplate to the helmet’s HUD, connecting various tools like the geophys scanner to the suit’s systems and HUD, to sharing data streams between suits. All Grec had to do was concentrate just a little with her own mind. The suit’s computer did the rest, pairing its psi-fi router with the intended partner unit.
“Nothing,” said the sergeant. Grec opened her eyes and exhaled, and her whole HUD flickered. When it was stable again, the psi-fi indicator was flashing red.
“I have a computer issue,” she said. “Psi-fi just disconnected on me.”
“Me too.” Anderson came over the radio, his voice crushed by the interference.
Grec turned to her sergeant, who nodded, then turned to face the other marines.
“Everyone check their psi-fi net and reboot if necessary. Check in when you’re done.”
Grec let the geophys scanner drop on the tether connecting it to her belt, and flipped the long panel on her armor’s right forearm open. Inside the access panel was a small keyboard and set of sliding switches below a row of LEDs. Grec selected the correct switch for the psi-fi router, flicked it up and down quickly, then waited as the indicator in her HUD went dark, then came back on orange, then a second later changed to green. The others, already rebooted, began checking in.
Anderson. Alonso. Bowen. Palladio. Grec. Khouri. Furusawa.
Grec felt her heart thud in her chest. She spun around in the snow, as did the other five remaining members of the team. They were still one down.
“I heard her,” said Bowen, his helmet swiveling as he looked from the sergeant to the empty white expanse around them and back.
“So did I,” said Alonso. He slid his heavy rifle from his shoulder.
Anderson raised his rifle to the side of his helmet and tilted his head to look along the barrel, aiming back the way they had come. “The fuck is going on?” he asked no one in particular.
Palladio stepped up to Grec. She couldn’t see his face behind his opaque visor, and she knew that her face was likewise hidden, but she recognized his concern, not just for Khouri but for her. She gave a tiny nod. Palladio seemed to pause, then returned the gesture and turned to the sergeant.
“Sergeant, we need to go back,” he said. “Maryam got separated and lost, is all. Horizon blindness. Everything on this iceball is white on white. Won’t take any time to pick her up. She’ll have dug in, back along—”
Furusawa ignored him, and pointed at Anderson. “Shoulder your weapon, Marine. We move to the target.”
Palladio turned to Grec, then back to the sergeant. When his voice returned to the emergency radio he sounded breathless. The popping background sound seemed to swell with his temper.
“We have to go back for her—”
“That’s a negative.”
Furusawa turned to the Psi-Marine. “If she’s lost she’ll have dug in, like you said. We’ll pick her up on the way back. March on, Marine. The primary objective takes priority.”
Anderson hissed over the radio and stomped through the snow, coming to a halt in front of Furusawa, his helmet just a few centimeters away from hers.
“What the hell’s the damn hurry?”
Furusawa actually took a step forward, until her visor knocked against Anderson’s.
“We’ve got our orders, Marine. March on.”
As Grec watched, she could see Anderson adjust his grip on his rifle, his finger inching around the trigger. He held it diagonally across his body, pressed close between him and the sergeant.
“What the hell kind of orders are we following anyway?” he asked. His voice was loud in Grec’s ears, the poor quality of the emergency radio channel distorting it strangely.
The HUD flashed in Grec’s visor. She raised the geophys wand and pointed it back the way they had come.
“You’re close to the line, Corporal,” said the sergeant.
Anderson huffed. “This is bullshit, Sergeant, and you know it—”
“That’s enough.” Out of the corner of her eye, Grec saw Furusawa turn around. Anderson laid a gauntlet on the sergeant’s shoulder. Psi-Marine Bowen, standing closest to the pair, moved up to Anderson, his voice punching across the argument.
“Hey! What’s got into you, Darwyn?”
The geophys readout in Grec’s visor was going crazy. She raised the wand higher.
Furusawa moved over to her. Behind, Bowen was pressing a hand into Anderson’s chest. Anderson shook it off, but the heat appeared to have left him, for now, as the marines gathered around Grec.
Furusawa looked out across the snow plain. “What is that?”
“There’s something moving, something big.” Grec glanced at the wand, then moved it around in a wide sweep. “It’s underneath us.”
The ground shook. Alonso, standing at the back of the group, swore and swung his heavy weapon around, looking for something to aim at.
Grec tried to read the geophys data, but it was moving too fast. Then, as the group watched, the ground opened up a few hundred meters back along the trench they’d carved. The thick snow cover began to cave inwards as the trench unzipped into a wider tear that accelerated towards the marines at an alarming pace.
“The fuck?” Anderson voiced what Grec was thinking.
Grec lowered the wand. She felt the sting of adrenaline, like they’d walked into an ambush. She raised her rifle, as did all the rest.
“Do not engage!”
Grec aimed at the moving ground. She could see the barrel of Alonso’s heavy gun light up in red as he prepared to fire. “Sergeant?” he asked.
The marines stood ready, poised. Grec swore and lowered her rifle a little, backing away. Whatever was under the snow would be on them in seconds.
When Furusawa gave the next order, the marines obeyed implicitly, Grec included.
“Ahead, ten o’clock.”
There was a burst of heavy rifle fire behind them. Grec didn’t turn, just ran in the direction indicated. Ahead, the flat, featureless snow plain began to rise into low hills, striations of dark rock showing through the ice. And at ten o’clock, a larger black shape: the entrance to a cave. They were sitting ducks in the open. Chances are they were sitting ducks under cover, as well, but the cave at least offered options. Grec took a chance and checked over her shoulder.
Alonso paused and fired again into the snow, the superheated plasma bolts throwing up as much ice and snow as the thing burrowing its way after them. At a run, the marines were faster, but in stopping to fire twice, Alonso was very close to their pursuer, the collapsing ground lapping at his boots before he turned tail and fled.
“Cease fire!” Furusawa’s order came over the emergency radio. She was in front and hadn’t stopped running.
The cave was close now. The snow beneath Grec’s boots became shallower, harder-packed. Their powered combat armor made the slog easier, but even so, they would be exhausted soon, pushing through at this pace. Grec only hoped the cave would keep them safe from whatever the hell it was under the snow.
The cave opening had a lip. Furusawa and Anderson jumped over it, then vanished into the blackness, their cries of surprise loud over the radio. Alonso, apparently happy to ignore the First Sergeant’s orders, shouted something about keeping them all covered, but Grec didn’t catch it all, the rhythmic buzzing on the channel so loud it cut out half of his words. She was close to the cave, the lip within reach. Psi-Marine Bowen jumped ahead of her, then she followed. Behind, Alonso had stopped again and rattled off another burst of heavy rifle fire.
The floor of the cave was half a meter lower than the entrance, an icy shelf that fell away at a smooth angle. As soon as she landed on the other side of the cave’s lip, Grec’s legs slipped out from under her. Her backplate cracked on the cave floor and she slid down the incline, into the tangle of marines piled at the back of the cave.
“Jesus, shit.” Anderson picked himself up, the First Sergeant helping him. Bowen and Palladio scrambled to their knees and crawled back to the cave entrance, quickly using the lip to rest their rifles as they took aim. Grec pushed herself onto her knees and turned on the ice, waiting for Alonso to come sliding in.
“Alonso, report,” the sergeant said over the radio. Her voice was swamped with interference. “Report please. Gunnery Sergeant, come in.”
Silence. The rumbling of the sundered ground had stopped, and Alonso’s heavy rifle hadn’t fired again. Bowen got to his feet while Palladio covered the entrance, and moved closer, his movements loud as his hard armor scraped against the walls of the cave. At the back, Grec reached out and touched the walls. While the floor seemed to be a solid block of ice, forming a more-or-less flat, sloping surface, the walls were different. They were dark and shiny, looking almost like graphite, but when she scraped the ceramic-metal plates of her gauntlet over the surface it left no mark.
“Freddy?” Bowen stepped up onto the cave’s lip, rifle in one hand, the butt hard against his armor as he balanced himself against the cave wall with his other hand. He called out again.
Grec glanced at the sergeant, who went to join Bowen. Grec followed.
Outside, the white snow plain of Warworld 3663Ω was still, featureless except for a wide trench, snow and ice piled in two great mounds on either side, stretching back two hundred meters. Grec’s HUD projected a grid over the landscape, mapped the disturbed ground and told her that the geographical feature stopped fifty meters from where she was standing.
First Sergeant Furusawa stepped over the lip of the cave, out into the open.
“Gunnery Sergeant Alonso, report please. Confirm your location.”
“Alonso, do you copy? Come in, please.”
Anderson swore, then Grec’s HUD flickered briefly, and went off, and the world was plunged into total darkness.
Bowen took first watch, which just meant standing and pointing his rifle at the cave entrance. The others were gathered at the back wall, two heatsticks from an emergency kit providing warmth and a sickly yellow light. The odd substance of the cave walls seemed to be an exceptionally good conductor of heat, so Furusawa had leaned the snapped, chemical-filled rods against the back wall, trying to keep them off the ice floor in case they melted through. She was sitting next to the sticks, the dead helmet of her combat suit next to her.
As soon as the psi-fi in each suit had shut off completely, they’d had to remove their helmets. The ambient temperature inside the cave was warmer than out in the open—a balmy minus eighteen centigrade—and the heatsticks were beginning to take that up admirably, but in the meantime each marine had unplugged the padding lining of their helmets, the design allowing them to be worn as emergency headgear in just such conditions. Nearby, Anderson sat against the back wall, his helmet wedged between his knees as he worked on the electrical systems inside it with a pair of fine tools.Without a psi-fi network, the helmets couldn’t pair with the combat suit computers, rendering them useless. The suits still had power, that was no problem, but with the psi-fi off for so long, the computers in each had gone to sleep. Over the last two hours they’d tried reboots, switching suit power packs, everything. Nothing worked. Now Anderson was trying something else, seeing if he could boot his helmet separately into a developer mode that would allow him to investigate the glitch.
Anderson didn’t need silence to work, but Grec kept quiet, using the time to process their situation, figure out what the hell was going on and what the hell the First Sergeant was up to.
The others kept quiet too, no doubt feeling the same, thought Grec.
Then her thoughts were interrupted.
I’m sorry about Khouri.
Palladio again, inside Grec’s head. She drew her knees up to her chest, and watched the reflected glow of the heatsticks dance on the smooth wall of the cave.
I know you were close.
She closed her eyes, willed the Psi-Marine to shut up.
But look, she’s out there.
Grec held her breath.
We’ll find her, trust me. And then—
Grec pushed herself up from the cave floor, stepped towards Palladio, and pushed his chest. He slipped backwards on the smooth floor and hit it with a crack.
“Shut the hell up!” Spittle flew from Grec’s mouth. “And get the fuck out of my head.”
“What the fuck are you doing?” asked Palladio from the floor.
Furusawa stood. “Kat, what is it?”
Grec sighed and waved at Palladio. His eyes were wide, his mouth in a surprised O.
“Nothing. Absolutely nothing,” said Grec. She glanced around. The others were staring at her and the Psi-Marine on the ground. Grec shook her head, then went to join Bowen at the cave entrance. Bowen glanced sideways at her, nodded, then returned his attention to the darkening world outside.
Khouri was dead. She knew it. That voice—the one that had reported in after they’d rebooted their psi-fi the first time—it wasn’t her, she knew it. They’d all heard it, but she knew. It had been different. It was something else. Psi-Corporal Maryam Khouri wasn’t out there, waiting for rescue. The other Psi-Marines, Bowen and Palladio, hadn’t been able to find her with their minds, which meant one thing.
She was dead. And Alonso too. Eaten by the monster under the snow.
Grec jumped. The First Sergeant was standing next to her. Furusawa glanced at Bowen, then turned away, indicating for Grec to follow.
“Are you okay?” asked Furusawa.
“I’m fine, Sergeant. No problem.” But Grec’s voice was small and quiet, and even as she spoke she knew that she wasn’t fine, not at all.
“I’m sorry about Psi-Corporal Khouri. I knew you were close.”
Grec felt the heat rise in her face. She had to hold it together. She was a Fleet Marine. She swallowed, and asked: “You think she’s dead? Alonso too?”
Furusawa chewed her lip, but didn’t speak. Grec leaned in closer.
“What the hell is going on, Sergeant?” she whispered. “Was Anderson right? Are you following a different set of orders?”
Furusawa raised an eyebrow. “I’m not sure I follow, Private,” she said, her voice still low but her tone suddenly formal.
“Because,” said Grec, “I’m starting to believe him. This S-A-R is bullshit, Sergeant.”
“Private Grec, I—”
“So what the fuck are we doing here?”
Grec met Furusawa’s eye. The sergeant seemed to be holding her breath.
Then Anderson called out from the back of the cave.
Furusawa turned and walked away. Grec swore under her breath and followed.
Anderson held his tongue between his front teeth, grimacing as he made a delicate adjustment inside his helmet. He twisted one tool clockwise, and his face was lit from below by the familiar glow of the Fleet HUD. Grec knelt beside him and peered into the helmet, watching as the visor displayed scrolling pages of code as it went through a forced reboot.
Furusawa nodded and folded her arms. “Good work, Anderson. Fix the others, then we can get going.”
Grec’s jaw dropped. “Where the hell to? We need to get back to the drop zone and wait for extraction.”
“We can’t go back,” said Bowen from his position at the cave entrance. He indicated the pitch black outside with his rifle. “Not with that thing out there, whatever it is. Not at night.”
Grec waved him off. “With the suits back online the dark doesn’t matter. We’ll be able to see it before it sees us. We’re goddamn Fleet Marines, remember.”
Bowen shook his head. “It’s taken Khouri and Alonso already, remember?”
Grec stormed to the cave entrance and yanked on Bowen’s shoulder. “Yes, I do remember, you son of a—”
The cave was filled with a buzzing sound. It was sharp, loud, washed with static and echoed off the hard walls, floor, ceiling. Grec and the others look around in surprise, and saw Anderson squinting into his helmet, still on his knees. He twisted a tool, and the noise died as abruptly as it had started.
“Fuck, fuck, fuck.” Anderson dropped his helmet to the cave floor.
Bowen looked at the others “What the hell was that?”
“Some kind of interference,” said Anderson. “Maybe deliberate jamming, I don’t know. It’s swamped the psi-fi. We’re still screwed.”
Furusawa crouched on the cave floor, and stared at the heatsticks.
“It was on the emergency radio too,” she said.
Grec nodded. “And the comms before that.”
Bowen and Palladio exchanged a look, then Palladio tapped his temple. “We heard it too.”
“Shit,” said Furusawa.
Grec moved to her pile of gear at the back of the cave and pulled out the geophys wand. She turned it on and the row of lights blinked on at once, then went out. A moment later, they began to pulse. There was no sound, but as Grec held the scanner up, the other marines gathered around, staring at the wand. The lights flashed to the same rhythm as the buzz from Anderson’s attempted repair. The comms specialist shook his head.
“That’s a hell of a jammer.”
Grec gave a thin smile. “Works though, doesn’t it? It’s knocked us out, totally. Left us helpless in a cave.” She looked up at the sergeant. “Do your mystery orders cover this?”
The two stared at each other for a moment. Out of the corner of her eye, Grec saw Bowen and Palladio exchange a worried look. Then, finally, Furusawa shook her head. She turned to Anderson.
“Break out the lightspeed field transmitter. We’ll contact the ship, get an evac. This isn’t part of the mission at all.”
“Fuck, finally,” said Anderson, before turning to his corner of the cave. He flipped his pack over and began pulling out the heavy-duty transmitter.
Grec stood and folded her arms. She nodded at the sergeant. “You going to tell us jarheads what these secret orders are?”
“No,” said Furusawa, then she raised her rifle and walked to the cave entrance, indicating to Bowen that she would take over the watch.
One side of Grec’s face was warm. She shifted, the sensation of her skin sticking to something hard and smooth helping to rouse her.
“Wake the fuck up.”
That, and Anderson whispering in her ear, his breath hot. She opened an eye and pushed herself more upright against the curved wall of the cave.
“Darwyn? What is it?”
Grec looked around. Palladio and Furusawa were asleep on the other side of the cave. A fresh pair of heatsticks had been snapped at some point and rested against the back wall, which had grown very warm indeed. Near the heatsticks, it looked as though the ice floor of the cave had melted a little, the dark of the rock below showing through.
Anderson stood back, and smiled. Grec watched him, then rubbed her face.
“They’re out there, see,” said the comms operator. He pointed to the cave entrance. “Alonso and Khouri. They’re fine. They’re just waiting for us to come out and join them. You coming or what?”
Grec blinked. It was still night outside. She felt groggy. The cave was stuffy, the heatsticks having done a fine job of keeping them from freezing to death.
Then she noticed the problem.
She pushed herself to her feet, and took a step towards the unguarded cave mouth. As she moved, Anderson stepped between her and the entrance.
Grec indicated the cave entrance with a nod. “Who’s on watch?” she asked. “You?”
Anderson closed his eyes and slowly shook his head. “Don’t you get it, Kat?” he said. His smile vanished, replaced by an expression that was tight and angry, one that Grec didn’t like. Anderson took a step forward and Grec instinctively took a step back.
Then Anderson looked away and tilted his head, and the smile came back. He nodded. Grec felt ill. He was listening to something. But, surely, he wasn’t listening to—
“Yes,” said Anderson to the air, then he turned back to Grec. “It’s bullshit. Bull. Shit.”
Anderson waved his arms, indicating the cave, the sleeping marines. “This. All this. Bullshit. Search and rescue? Search for what, huh? Rescue who? Rescue fuck, is who. But it’s fine, it’s okay. I’m dealing with them.”
Grec shook her head, then went to wake the sergeant. Anderson had always been edgy, but he was cracking under the pressure. Grec wondered when his last Fleet evaluation had been. Surely he must have been due for a new one, one that would take him off active duty.
As she bent down, Grec noticed more of the floor had melted. More than that, it looked as though someone—Anderson, presumably—had been digging into the softening ice on the other side of the cave, revealing something black and long, part of the rock of the actual cave floor. There was something about it that made Grec curious. She moved closer to get a better look, but Anderson grabbed her arm and pulled her back around to face him.
“Get off,” she cried out, pulling away. Anderson’s grip was tight and as she struggled just got tighter.
“We’re going now, bitch,” Anderson said. He turned towards the cave entrance, pulling Grec after him.
Anderson turned his head. Furusawa was crouched on the cave floor, a pistol in hand, aimed at the marine. Nearby, Palladio was awake, his eyes open and fixed on the scene, although he hadn’t moved from his position on the floor.
“Don’t you fucking get it?” Anderson let go of Grec, who scrambled back to the others. Anderson didn’t seem to notice. Instead, he pointed again to the cave entrance. “They want us out there, now. Come on! We have to go, now, or we’ll blow the whole mission.”
Grec glanced down at Palladio. The Psi-Marine slowly raised himself up. Anderson pointed at him.
“It’s their fault, you know?” he said. “They’re doing this. But I’m dealing with it.”
Furusawa kept the pistol level. “Dealing with what, Marine?”
Anderson waved his hand. “Them. Those fucking freaks.”
Palladio held his hands up. “Hey now, I don’t know what you think is going on, but—”
It’s okay, Kat.
The voice in Grec’s head was new, but familiar. The relief she felt was instantly swamped by something else: fear. Cold, vertiginous fear.
Grec looked at the others. They’d stopped fighting. They must have heard it as well. Palladio shook his head.
“It can’t be her, can it?”
Grec opened and closed her mouth a few times, unable to find quite the right words. She wanted Khouri to be alive, to be out there somewhere on the snow plain, lost but dug in, knowing that all she had to do was stay put and conserve power and keep warm and the others would collect her later. The Fleet left no one behind, not now, not ever.
But . . .
A different voice. Furusawa flinched.
Gunnery Sergeant Alonso.
“Palladio,” called Furusawa. “Talk to them.” At the other end of her steady pistol, Anderson stood and smiled, his eyes closed.
Palladio crouched next to the sergeant.
“Why not?” asked Grec.
“Because,” said Palladio, looking up. “Khouri is dead—I can’t sense her. And Alonso isn’t a Psi-Marine. It can’t be them.”
Come outside. Khouri’s voice again, echoing inside Grec’s head. Furusawa turned to her, her face pale.
“Don’t you get it?” said Anderson. He leapt forward, grabbing the pistol from the distracted Sergeant’s hand. She made a grab towards him, then backed off as she found herself covered by the marine. Anderson waved them all together, until the trio were backed against the rear of the cave.
“Anderson, come on,” said Furusawa.
Come outside, said the voice in Grec’s head that sounded like Alonso, but wasn’t.
“We’ve got to finish the mission,” said Anderson, rictus grin on his face, his free hand rubbing the side of his head.
“Darwyn, what are you doing?” asked Palladio, one hand reaching out to his teammate.
Come outside, Kat, said the voice in Grec’s head that wasn’t, couldn’t have been Khouri. When the voice spoke, there was a buzzing in the background. The weird interference; the jamming signal. And beneath that, other voices—two, three, four—voices that Grec didn’t recognize, all saying the same thing.
Anderson’s aim wavered, then he pulled the gun up and rubbed the heel of his hand into the other side of his head, stretching the skin around his face. His eyes were closed in pain.
“Make them stop,” he said. “Make them fucking stop.”
Furusawa nudged Grec with her elbow. Grec glanced sideways, met the sergeant’s eye, and nodded. She tensed herself, ready to rush forward with the sergeant to disarm and disable Anderson.
“Now,” said Furusawa. She powered forward. Grec went to move, but stopped. Furusawa came to a halt, the pistol in Anderson’s hand nearly touching her forehead.
“Make them stop,” said Anderson. His face was red, tears streaked down it. “Please, make them stop.”
Grec held out her hands. “Drop the gun, Darwyn. Come on.”
Anderson shook his head, then it drooped, his eyes closed, and he moaned in pain. Again the gun hand moved up as he rubbed his temple.
“You don’t get it, do you? Any of you?” he laughed, and pointed to the corner of the floor that he had dug out during the night. “We’re sleeping with the dead and you don’t even get it.”
Grec looked over at the hole. There was something there, under the ice. Not the floor of the cave, but…
“Give it up, Marine!” Furusawa ordered.
Then Anderson’s head snapped up. He smiled, nodded, looked at each of the other marines in turn.
Then he said “Yes, I give up,” put the pistol to the side of his head, and pulled the trigger.
They found Psi-Marine Bowen’s body just outside the cave entrance, a single plasma bolt wound on the back of his head. Anderson must have set his sidearm to silent and shot the Psi-Marine while he was watching the darkness outside.
Now Bowen’s body lay next to Anderson’s on one side of the cave. First Sergeant Furusawa, Psi-Corporal Palladio, and Private Grec stood around the hole in the ice floor near the opposite wall.
Grec had been right. Anderson had found something under the ice, where the heatsticks had begun to melt the cave floor.
A body. A Fleet Marine, although his armor was black rather than the standard blue and olive and had no visible insignia. The corpse was only exposed from the shoulders to head, the rest of him still locked beneath the ice. He was one of the Spec Ops team, had to be.
He wasn’t wearing his helmet. Instead, his bare head was crowned with a nest of what looked like melted metal, tangled strands of varying thickness webbed over his scalp, trailing down over most of his face. At random points, the metal strands poked into the marine’s skin, tiny spots of dark red leaking out around each entry point. It was hard to see under the ice, but it looked like there was more of the grey webbing wrapped around the rest of his body.
It was Grec who broke the silence. “What the hell happened to him?”
“The Spider got him,” said Furusawa.
Grec raised an eyebrow. She gestured at the body. “What, and stored the body on ice?”
“Wait . . .”
Grec and Furusawa turned to Palladio. The Psi-Marine had his eyes closed. Without opening them, he began pointing to the floor.
“There’re more. Four.” He opened his eyes, then knelt down and scraped at the floor. Here the ice was still frozen, but it was a little soft. Palladio managed to slough a few centimeters of frost off the surface, enough to see something else dark further below.
Another body. The Spec Ops team was here, in the cave. Under their feet.
Furusawa stood with her hands on her hips. “Can we get them out?”
Palladio tapped his temple. “Wait, wait . . . they’re dead. But . . . it’s weird, I can sense their brain activity. There’s not much there, but there’s . . . something. I don’t understand it.”
The sergeant pointed back at the partially uncovered body. “Looks like that webbing penetrates the skull. Could it be connected to the central nervous system?”
Grec shook her head. “For what?”
“That’s the question,” said Furusawa. She stood. “Can you operate the lightspeed transmitter, Private?”
“Good. Set it up. It’s time to get a ride home.”
It was nearly dawn, the abyssal blackness beyond the cave mouth softening to a pale blue.
“Try it again,” said Furusawa.
Grec nodded with a sigh, and shifted her position on the ground next to the lightspeed transmitter. The device was a rectangular panel, fifteen centimeters thick, with a handle along one side. The front was studded with big, bulky switches and knobs, designed to be easily operable by the armored gauntlets worn by a marine out on the field. The transmitter was most commonly used as a beacon, bringing in an airstrike, or marking a target for an orbital attack. Or, in emergencies, calling for rescue. The transmitter was more powerful than the comms units built into their combat suits, which were dead anyway.
Grec flicked a switch, opening the lightspeed link, and repeated the words she had spoken the first time around.
“Blizzard SAR alpha-three-six-six-three to U-Star Hit and Run. Respond please.”
She glanced up at the two marines standing over her, then held her breath. She knew what was coming next. She twisted the controls.
The rhythmic buzzing filled the cave. The same sound as on the comms, as on the emergency radio. The same signal picked up by Grec’s geophys scanner. The same sound heard by the Psi-Marines. The same sound heard in Grec’s head when the voices of the dead had “spoken.” And here it was on the lightspeed link, stronger than ever.
They were cut off, well and truly.
A thought occurred to Grec, something she had wondered about when they had first come into the cave. She looked up at the ceiling, then stood from the transmitter and walked over to the wall. She ran her gauntleted fingers across the surface—as she had noticed before, it was hard, glassy, a dark silver-grey. Maybe there was something in the cave itself that was interfering with everything . . . although that was impossible, as there were only a handful of alloys that could block a lightspeed signal . . .
“Oh God,” Grec whispered, her hand falling away from the wall.
Furusawa stiffened. “What is it?”
Grec reached toward the wall of the cave again, then yanked her hand back, as though expecting a shock. She turned to her sergeant.
“This isn’t a cave.”
“What do you mean?” asked Palladio from behind them.
Furusawa reached forward, running her own hand over the wall. Then she scratched at it with the metal tip of her gauntlet, and gasped.
“It’s made of herculanium.”
“How can a cave be made of herculanium?” asked Palladio, joining them at the wall.
“Because it’s not a cave,” said Grec. “It’s an eggshell. We’re standing inside a Spider egg.”
Grec held the geophys wand in one hand, her other tightly wrapped around the grip of her rifle, as she stood in the cave’s—in the eggshell’s—entrance. Without the automatic adjustments provided by her helmet, the snow plain was a brilliant white expanse of nothing in the morning light, bright enough to hurt. And without the HUD indicators, they would have to follow the trench back to the drop zone or get lost in the snow.
The trench that was carved not just by their own march, but by whatever was out there, hiding somewhere under the surface.
Grec wondered what it was doing here. Spiders hatched en mass in deep space; not planetside, not alone. Vast asteroid fields comprised entirely of hollow herculanium spheroids were carefully mapped by the Fleet, providing data on Spider population and spread. The hatcheries were also a boon for both the Fleet and private mining companies alike, enterprises which frequently clashed as they moved in to process the eggshells into more manageable herculanium ingots. The metal was something both sides of the war were in need of—the Spiders were made of it, as were the U-Stars of the Fleet.
Grec had seen Spider eggshells before—two specimens, one intact, another smaller example split in half, were held by the Fleet Academy on Earth for training. Grec remembered the workshop, being lectured about the Spider lifecycle as the tutor led them around the interior of the divided specimen, a hemisphere ten meters across. The Spider lifecycle was as mysterious as the gestalt’s very origins—how the mechanical, robotic machine creatures were somehow constructed in miniature on a Spider factory planet, billions of baby creatures packaged into eggs which were then scattered into space when the planet was deliberately shattered. The eggs drifted, the Spiders inside growing, building themselves into larger machines of war until they were ready to hatch.
An entire division of the Fleet was dedicated to studying this process, hoping to find some flaw, some secret which would enable the Fleet to get the upper hand in a war that was going poorly.
But a Spider egg on a planet? It was embedded in the side of the hills, making it mistakable for a natural cavern. It must have crashed, split open, disgorging an undeveloped Spider which, perhaps following a natural instinct, had found protection by burrowing into the snow. It must have been an accidental arrival, because Warworld 3663 was light years from anywhere, and uninhabited—of no interest to the Spiders, and, consequently, of no interest to the Fleet.
Except the Fleet had sent a Spec Ops team. A Spec Ops team that the Spider had caught, wrapped in web, and preserved under the ice floor of its old egg.
Grec lowered the geophys scanner and turned back to the others in the cave.
“They were here to get the Spider, weren’t they Sergeant?” she asked.
Furusawa said nothing. Palladio nodded. “And we are too, right? S-A-R wasn’t the mission. The Fleet wants the Spider.”
“And,” said Grec, “they’ll just keep sending teams in until they get it.”
“Or until they run of out marines.”
Grec nodded. “Like they ran out of Spec Ops. They’re too valuable. Better to send in regular marines, with Spec Ops to lead them.” She stepped down off the lip of the entrance and walked up to Furusawa. “Am I getting warmer, Sergeant?” She paused. “At the briefing, you spoke over Commander Weinberg. Is First Sergeant even your real rank?”
The geophys scanner bleated. Grec swore and checked the reading, then ran back to the cave entrance. Palladio followed.
“What is it?” he asked.
Grec pointed the scanner out into the open. The lights still pulsed with the interference from the cave, but the genuine data was too strong to be swamped completely.
“It’s moving again,” said Grec. “Shit.” She’d have to leave the questions for later.
“We go back to the drop zone, signal for evac.” Furusawa shouldered her rifle and picked up the lightspeed transmitter. “We’ll open a channel when we’re clear of the interference.”
Palladio stepped back into the cave. “We go out there, we get eaten.”
“Or we stay here and get added to the larder,” said Furusawa. She stopped at the entrance and handed the lightspeed transmitter to Grec, who took it in one hand. “Use the geophys,” said the sergeant. “We can watch it with the scanner, stay out of its way until we can get a signal up. Palladio can scramble the Spider’s sensors with his psi.”
“It takes more than one of us to jam a Spider,” said Palladio. “We’ll be dead before we reach the drop zone.”
Furusawa flicked the safety off her rifle and the end of the barrel flickered to red. She stepped up to the Psi-Marine. “Just do your job, Psi-Marine, and I’ll do mine.”
Grec pointed at the bodies of Bowen and Anderson at the back of the cave. “What about them? And the bodies under the ice? The Fleet doesn’t leave anyone behind, Sergeant.”
Furusawa smiled. Grec felt ill.
“You’re in the Spec Ops now, Marine. Different rules.” The smile dropped. “We travel parallel to the trench, but stay clear of it. Let’s go.”
They ran out onto the snow plain. Out of the herculanium interior of the cave-like eggshell, warmed all through the night by heatsticks, the change in temperature was like a slap in the face. Grec heard Palladio swear behind her even as her own breath caught in her throat, the freezing air threatening to choke her.
She stumbled onwards, the First Sergeant—or whatever her real rank was—ahead, plowing a path through the snow that got steadily deeper and deeper the farther they got from the hillside, until just a few meters later it was up to their knees. The augmented strength of the combat suits—the powered joints and motivators by design unaffected by the armor’s offline computer—lessened the effort required to run through the snow, but not by much. If they still had their helmets, Grec thought, and the psi-fi link between their minds and the suits, then the armor would have responded to the task. As it was, they made difficult and slow progress.
Then the geophys scanner buzzed in Grec’s hand. Movement, below them.
“We’ve got company,” Grec shouted over the crunching schwoosh as they moved through the snow.
From behind: “Incoming!”, and then three muffled thuds as Palladio opened fire with his plasma rifle. Grec turned to see the Psi-Marine shooting from the hip as a large area of the ground behind them began to bulge upwards, the snowy covering cracking and sliding apart in great slabs as the Spider stood up from its cover. Palladio swept his rifle up, spreading his shots up the shifting mound of snow. The pulse ammo sparked as it hit something, stripping away more of the ice and snow, revealing the machine rising up out of the ground.
Grec fumbled with her own rifle to fire, but with the geophys scanner and the transmitter in hand, she was slow. Before she had brought her weapon to bear, the sergeant grabbed her shoulder and pulled her backwards.
Behind, Palladio had ceased fire and was running away from the Spider, which seemed to pause, perhaps getting its bearings.
It was silver grey, the same matte color as the herculanium of its egg. The machine’s body was spherical, perhaps ten meters across and formed from individual curved plates which slid and shifted as the thing moved. From between the plates, a red light shone—the light, Grec knew, of the solar plasma that boiled in the creature’s core, a power source held in check within a lattice of magnetic fields. Eight eyes—four large, four small—formed an optical array on the front of the body, surrounded by other stubby sensors and antennae of varying size and length, all made of something black and glassy.
Palladio stopped and turned, firing on the enemy machine again. His pulse fire skittered across the machine’s sensor array, but didn’t seem to have any effect.
“Scramble it!” Furusawa called out.
Palladio stopped shooting and lowered his weapon. He stood still, and then after a moment the air was filled with the buzzing, clicking sound. This time it wasn’t just in Grec’s head. It was a real sound, reverberating over the snow plain.
Palladio collapsed onto his knees. “I . . . can’t do it. We’re not the only ones needing evac—it’s sending out its own distress call. The signal is swamping everything else.”
They were dead, Grec knew it. As if responding to her thoughts, the machine rose higher into the air, eight huge, curved, knife-like legs erupting from the snow, flexing, straightening as they lifted the Spider into the gray sky. Five meters. Ten meters. Twenty. Palladio toppled backwards.
Grec dropped the transmitter and leapt forward, reaching for the Psi-Marine laid out in the snow. She got close, nearly close enough to grab one arm and pull, only Furusawa was on her shoulders again. The Sergeant yanked backwards and the pair fell into the snow.
“Get off!” yelled Grec through a mouthful of snow. She jabbed an elbow backwards and was met with a cry from underneath her, then she pushed herself back to her knees. “Palladio!”
The Spider stood over the Psi-Marine, who lay, unmoving in the snow. The machine’s spherical body rotated backwards a few degrees, until a pyramidal structure on its belly was pointed at the Psi-Marine.
“No!” But Grec was helpless. Behind, she heard Furusawa unearthing herself from the snow.
The Spider’s mouth opened.
The heat was incredible, even from a distance, blasting out in a wide cone from the opening in the machine as its churning plasma core was exposed. Snow and ice vaporized in great clouds of steam around Palladio. He cried out and rolled over to escape the inferno, his face buried in his arms.
The Spider lowered its body down, the whole structure leaning forward on the four larger, scythe-like legs, as two of the smaller forward supports—more like articulated arms than legs—reached forward.
Grec scrambled in the snow until she had her plasma rifle back in her hands. She raised the sight to her eye and took a deep breath, forcing herself to calm, to make the shot. Their weapons had been useless against the herculanium shell of the machine creature, but there was an opportunity here to hit something far more vulnerable.
The furnace-like mouth of the Spider was angled down towards the ground, towards Palladio. Grec’s target was small, but relatively stationary. She opened fire, sending white tracer pulses towards it. The first couple impacted on the surface plates on the front of the Spider, but the next flew true, vanishing into the interior of the machine.
At the ends of the Spider’s arms, pincer claws opened, shut, opened, shut.
Grec’s shot had no effect. The Spider was unstoppable, even in this immature state. She heard Furusawa order her to run, but the roaring of the Spider’s distress call was deafening and Grec decided that she hadn’t heard her properly. She raised her rifle to her eye again, pressed her cheek against the side of the weapon. Perhaps she could take out the legs, or the arms—maybe the joints were fragile, more susceptible to plasma bolts—before the thing got Palladio.
She took aim, trying to track the movement of the creature’s arms, but she was too slow. The pincers grabbed Palladio by the legs, and he cried out as he was pulled backwards. Grec swore, fired, but too high—if she tried for the arm joints now she’d hit the Psi-Marine. Her shots tore up the front center of the machine, dragging a vertical line between the sensor array on the front, but as the impact flashes faded, she could see the shots hadn’t even scratched it.
The Spider was oblivious, apparently content with its catch, as it began to sink back into the snow, dragging Palladio with it. The machine’s legs folded in and then the body itself vanished below the ground. Palladio slid backwards, the pincers still around his legs, and then was gone. Soon there was nothing but a mountain of torn-up snow and ice, surrounded by a small lake of steaming melt water. Palladio and the Spider were gone.
Grec dropped her rifle, screamed at the sky, then looked over her shoulder. Furusawa had resumed their journey back to the drop zone.
Grec grabbed for the lightspeed transmitter, then pushed herself to her feet, using the rectangular box for leverage.
Then she trudged after the sergeant, and she kept the safety on her rifle off.
Furusawa had stopped, and was looking up at the gray sky like she expected the unbroken cloud layer to part and for salvation to descend from the heavens. Grec could see her body heaving with effort, her breath gathering in a cloud in front of her. Since the Spider had taken Palladio, their journey had been uninterrupted, the geophys scanner silent.
Furusawa turned around and Grec raised her plasma rifle. She had it aimed right between the sergeant’s eyes.
“You need to tell me about your orders,” said Grec. For her part, Furusawa didn’t react, she just regarded the marine with a smug expression. Grec ground her teeth and kept the rifle level. Perhaps that was to be expected. Spec Ops were different from the rest of the regular recruits, and the two divisions rarely mixed well.
“S-A-R, plain and simple,” said Furusawa. It was like she said it as a challenge, a dare for Grec to accept or reject.
Grec’s finger curled around the rifle’s trigger. Like Furusawa, she was hot from the run, but the air temperature was perilously low and she knew that out here in the open, without the protection of their helmets, they would freeze to death soon enough. If they weren’t evacuated.
If the Spider didn’t get them first.
“Fuck S-A-R.” Grec sniffed the frozen air. “Is the Fleet so desperate to capture a Spider in secret they’ll send down a ground team with a false briefing?”
Furusawa laughed. “The briefing was accurate. You just weren’t given the whole picture.”
Grec moved the rifle forward. “Try me.”
The sergeant rolled her lips, then pointed at the transmitter Grec had dumped in the snow.
“Get the transmitter set up so we can signal the Hit and Run.”
“Tell me what’s going on or we’ll wait here for the Spider to get us.”
Grec swung her rifle to one side and shot once into the snow, then returned her aim to Furusawa’s forehead.
The ground shook.
“I don’t think you should have done that,” said the Sergeant.
Grec looked around as the air was filled with the buzzing, chirping sound of the Spider distress call. The ground shook again and the snow behind them exploded in shower of white snow and blue ice. The Spider rose up from the ground, its scissor legs unfolding as it stood.
Beside Grec, Furusawa dropped to her knee and raised her rifle, taking aim. Grec knocked the barrel down.
“Wait!” she said, and pointed.
The Spider lowered one of its pincer arms to reveal Palladio, held upright in the machine’s other claw, the two pincers having been cupped together like a protective shell around the marine. From under the machine’s body, hot exhaust from its mouth blasted clouds of steam from the ground as it periodically opened and closed, opened and closed, like the thing was breathing.
The Spider stood, rocking slightly on its legs.
“Palladio?” Grec called out. “He’s alive!”
He was bloody, battered, and had one arm wrapped firmly around his middle. His eyes were closed, like he was concentrating.
“I managed to hack its psi as it pulled me under and got it to resurface, but your shot attracted it.” Palladio winced in obvious pain. “Quick. I can’t hold it for long.”
“He’s jammed it.” Furusawa lowered her weapon. “Good work, Marine.” She turned to Grec. “Signal the Hit and Run. We’re going to need a cargo hopper—I’ll give you the request code.”
“You’ve got to be fucking kidding.”
Furusawa ignored her and turned back to the machine. “You wanted to know what my orders were. You might well get the chance to find out.”
The Spider shuddered, and there was a change in the tone of its distress beacon. Atop the machine, Palladio shifted and gasped in pain.
“It’s a battery, Kat,” he called, his eyes still closed. “It’s using the lost team as a psychic battery to boost its distress beacon.”
“That’s why it took Khouri. It figured out what she was, then came after the rest of us.” Palladio cried out in pain. “It’s trying to use me too . . . I can keep it jammed, but its drawing on the others back at the cave. It’ll break free before help arrives.”
The Spider shuddered again and one leg crept forward.
Palladio was right, Grec knew. It took whole fireteams of Psi-Marines to jam Spider networks. One Psi-Marine—one injured Psi-Marine—couldn’t last long. Not even against an immature Spider—one that was tapping into the extra psi-power provided by its victims stored under the ice.
As if on cue, Palladio gasped and the machine took another step forward.
Grec dropped to the snow. Maybe they had a chance, a slim one. She only hoped the Hit and Run was ready and waiting.
“No time,” said Palladio, shaking his head. His arm dropped from his middle, revealing cracked combat armor stained scarlet with blood, which trickled down over the optics of the Spider. “No time.”
The transmitter was ready. Grec looked up, saw the Sergeant raise her rifle.
The Sergeant fired, not at the Spider, but at Palladio. His body jerked as the plasma round hit him, then he slumped forward. Grec rushed toward Furusawa, taking the sergeant out in a tackle. They toppled sideways; as soon as Furusawa hit the ground, Grec pushed herself to her knees, wrenching the sergeant over on to her back, and pulled her gauntleted fist back for a punch.
The air was suddenly still, quiet. Grec looked up. The Spider’s beacon had shut down, and the machine itself dimmed, the red light shining from between the moving body plates fading. The mouth on the underside closed, and the Spider fell, its legs collapsing. Grec cried out in surprise and dived to the side, grabbing for Furusawa as she did so, but the Sergeant was heavy in her combat armor and as the Spider’s body collided with the ground, Grec was thrown into the air. She landed back in the snow, filling her mouth, nose, eyes. She coughed, gasped, tried to get herself upright. She slid again, and managed to roll over and look back.
The Spider had fallen clear of Furusawa, but the sergeant wasn’t moving. Grec crawled back to her, then saw the snow underneath the sergeant was quickly turning red. Embedded in the sergeant’s chest was a long, curved piece of metal, part of one of the Spider’s pincer claws. Furusawa’s eyes were open, and she stared at the sky, looking for the rescue that had never come.
She’d found Palladio’s body lying a few yards away, thrown clear from the falling Spider. She dragged him and the sergeant away from the wrecked Spider, which lay smoking in the slushy snow.
The sergeant had made the right decision. Grec knew this, even though she wasn’t sure she would have been able to do it herself. Despite being dragged under the snow and injured, Palladio had reached out with his mind to jam the Spider’s AI. The only way to prevent the Spider from burning out his mind and then killing Grec and the sergeant was to kill him. Suddenly breaking the psychic link—a link amplified by the minds of the dead marines the Spider was using as a battery—would send a shockwave back to the Spider, enough to fry its CPU. Furusawa had realized this and took the decision, one that would have saved her had Grec not intervened.
Had Grec not intervened.
She’d searched Furusawa’s body, found nothing out of the ordinary. No sealed orders, no secret ID card that revealed her true rank and identity. As far as the official record would go, she was just a First Sergeant in the Fleet Marine Corps. Killed in action, Warworld 3663. The Omega classification could be removed, at least.
Grec knelt in the snow and activated the transmitter. Now clear of interference from the Spider’s beacon, the transmitter’s signal light shone bright blue, and the device began to softly beep.
Fleet Marine Private Katarina Grec knelt in the snow. She thought of Alonso and Bowen and Palladio. She thought of Anderson, and of the secrets that had died with Furusawa.
She thought about the Fleet and how fucked up it was and how maybe she didn’t want to be part of it, not anymore.
She thought of Maryam Khouri and she looked up into the sky, and she waited for rescue.
“Cold War” copyright © 2014 by Seven Wonders Limited
Art copyright © 2014 by Victor Mosquera