Authors: Adam Christopher
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
* * *
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
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.
Copyright (C) 2014 by Adam Christopher
Art copyright (C) 2014 by Victor Mosquera