Authors: Adam Christopher
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.
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
, 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.
” 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.