Authors: Adam Christopher
The author and publisher have provided this e-book to you without Digital Rights Management software (DRM) applied so that you can enjoy reading it on your personal devices. This e-book is for your personal use only. You may not print or post this e-book, or make this e-book publicly available in any way. You may not copy, reproduce, or upload this e-book, other than to read it on one of your personal devices.
Copyright infringement is against the law. If you believe the copy of this e-book you are reading infringes on the author’s copyright, please notify the publisher at:
“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,
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
bullshit. Icy, covered-in-six-feet-of-snow, a hundred light years from anywhere
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
. 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
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.
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.