Authors: Adam Christopher
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?”
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.
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
—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
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. “
” 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
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.