Nine space marines entered the derelict. Five remain. One is an infiltrator.
Private Raina Novitski took the position by the airlock’s door.
Ducking next to her, Private John Lang typed out the access code and his wrist-mounted display flashed red. The airlock remained closed. “A security routine must have reset all passcodes when we downloaded the research data,” he said as he unplugged the cable connecting his arm terminal to the door’s override panel. “There’s nothing I can do from here.”
Great. Being stuck on a ship full of bugs was exactly what Raina needed. Especially since they were already down four men.
The five surviving marines standing inside the small room stained with black goo, all clad in combat-adjusted environmental suits, stared at the sealed door. All they needed to finish their mission was to pass this airlock, board their shuttle, and fly away.
“Corporal Shaw, I suppose we’re out of plasma grenades,” Sergeant Braxton said, his matter-of-fact voice clear over the comms.
“Yes, Sergeant.” Shaw’s voice trembled as he spoke. “But I glimpsed a box back in the armory.”
Raina rolled her eyes. If Shaw didn’t want his kid to grow up without a father, he should had quit service after making his wife pregnant. But he just had to be a hero, didn’t he?
“Lang’s the last one who fucked with the door,” Corporal Thorn whispered into the comm, gripping his rifle tight.
Lang covered his wrist display and grabbed his rifle. “What’s your point?”
“That I think you’re an Earthen spy.”
Not this shit again. Raina wished she could shoot Thorn.
“We’ve got forty two minutes before this ship collides with an asteroid, so we don’t have the time for this crap, Corporal,” Sergeant Braxton said, calm but serious.
Not even Braxton believed Thorn’s theories, despite serving together for over two decades. Raina smirked, happy the suit’s visor covered the gesture.
“Lang, where would you need to get to open the door?” Braxton asked.
“I can disable the security routine from the bridge.”
Braxton glanced at Raina. “Novitski?”
Or they could fetch the plasma grenades from the armory. Raina focused, aligning her thoughts with the extended neural interface of the Exorcist System embedded into her helmet. A rapid onset of radio-frequency electromagnetic pulses burst from her, scattering back after colliding with objects, mapping the ship into her intuition.
Yellow dots appeared in the ship’s map in her mind, representing the Hostile Extrasolar Lifeforms, bugs, the scan detected. They were everywhere, but less intensely in the lowers levels. “The armory path is clearer, Sergeant. The ship’s still full of bugs though.”
The sergeant grunted into the comm. “Strike team one: Shaw and Lang. Strike team two: Thorn and Novitski. I lead.”
“Aye, aye, Sergeant,” everyone replied in unison and followed him to the elevator.
“The elevator’s clear,” Raina said over the comms.
The sergeant signaled with his fingers to follow the standard procedure. Lang, Thorn and Novitski took a firing position in front of the elevator while Shaw pressed his back against the wall before tapping the button. In a second, the elevator door slid open. No sign of bugs.
What a surprise. If Raina didn’t see a bug in her mind in the elevator, it wasn’t there. But why trust the girl carrying Mars’s most advanced and secret detection system? Better waste time with pointless procedures.
Thorn and Raina moved in, turning on the flashlights on their rifles. Red emergency lights were on, but the rifle’s flashlights produced, aside from a column of white light, an ultra-violet light in the wavelength that made the phosphor in bug’s bodies glow.
No traces of alien activity. The squad’s remainder moved into the elevator. On the panel by the side shone five numbers, representing the ship’s levels. Floors two and five were red—meaning the elevator was broken there—and the remaining numbers shone blue.
Sergeant Braxton pushed the button for level four. The door closed in a split second and the elevator moved down soundlessly, the downward arrow flashing on a display being the only indicator of them moving.
Before they arrived, everyone fanned out into a tight, semi-circular formation, aiming at the door. The arrow disappeared, replaced with a square. The door opened. In the flashlight’s pale gaze, glowing stains littered the corridor ahead. No bugs were visible though.
“Move out,” Braxton ordered.
They did, Shaw and Lang moving first, Braxton after them, and Novitski with Thorn closing the formation. They had practiced these formations for hundreds of times, all moving in perfect synchronization while sticking to their fields of fire.
Yellow dots popped into Raina’s mind, flashing toward her. “Two bugs approaching through vent shafts by the elevator, four ahead in the corridor.”
“Hold formation,” Braxton ordered and the comm went silent.
Suddenly, they happy to have her around, weren’t they? She still wished she had chosen any other career. Bugs made her skin crawl. Like the rest of his squad, she took a position by wall, kneeling on one knee, rifle braced against her shoulder. Their positioning was decent, given they were in a long hallway with no vents above or under them.
Raina stared at the exit of the right-hand side corridor, wishing space wasn’t so damn silent. The first bug entered the hallway. The being’s core was an insect-like structure, making up for the lack of a head with large amount of limbs. The limbs slowly faded into amorphous, black goo, beneath which hid claws.
Gunfire flashed through the corridor, everyone firing three-bullet bursts. They each still had two more magazines of Radrounds, so he had no reason to save ammo. The bullets released small flashes of light upon impact, tearing the creature apart. Raina gave the bug another burst to ensure its demise and focused on the other bugs entering the corridor.
Raina fired four more swift bursts, joined with Lang and the sergeant, annihilating the creatures coming from the front. They made no sound, falling apart when hit by the Radrounds.
Steel screeched and Shaw’s scream echoed through the comm. Raina glimpsed the sharp bug leg that stabbed him from underneath the floor. By instinct, he tried to jump up. His left leg left the floor, but the magnetic boot held his right firmly to the ground as the boots were programmed to not allow jumping in zero G.
How thin was the floor? Raina couldn’t move, suddenly paralyzed by not knowing. She had seen the bug beneath the floor in her mind, but didn’t consider it a threat due to being a level below them.
Sergeant Braxton switched his clip into penetrating bullets, stepped next to Shaw, and fired at the floor around his foot. The bullets pierced the steel floor, leaving gaping holes. Beneath them, the bug squirmed, fluorescent in the flashlight’s cone. Before the sergeant changed his clip back to Radrounds, Lang joined him, firing a burst at the creature. In a flash of light, its body fell apart.
Mounting the rifle on his back, Lang ducked, reached under the floor and pulled out the claw piercing Shaw’s leg. Blood floated into the air, freezing in an instant. In a precise move, Lang pulled out a can of liquefied of instantly-solidifying polymer, ISP, and sprayed on Shaw’s foot. The corporal trembled, shouting in pain into the helmet as the hot polymer hit his skin, Lang switched off the emergency switch on Shaw’s magnetic boot, raised Shaw’s leg and sprayed at the foot’s bottom.
While the polymer was kept hot inside the can, it quickly solidified when in the freezing temperature of space. The ISP served only for suit repairs and thus wasn’t supposed to be used when the underlying bodysuit was broken as the polymer was too hot for human skin. But a burnt foot was a lot better than losing a leg due to the suit’s depressurization.
Lang switched Shaw’s magnetic boot back on and rose.
Panting, Shaw said into the comm, “Thanks.”
Watching this, Raina snapped back into reality. Lang never failed to be the hero. He was the reason she was still in the marine. They enlisted together at the age of ten, graduating the space marine academy at the age of sixteen. Given they were effectively child soldiers, no one else understood them. Often, she felt they were less human than bugs.
By his silence, Sergeant Braxton knew better than to scold Lang about violating the protocols—since the emergency procedure was to first use a solidifying polymer to glue the wound and body suit, then wait for that to solidify, and only afterward use the ISP spray. But they didn’t have the time for that. Though Braxton was sure to talk to Lang about this after the mission.
“I’m sorry,” Raina whispered into the comm. “I had no idea the floor was so thin.”
“You couldn’t had known,” Braxton said, voice calm. “Strike team one, switch with team two and advance.”
Their squad remade the formation, this time with Corporal Thorn leading the way and Shaw limping behind the sergeant, fourth from the spearhead.
As they walked, Raina glanced at the decaying bugs, their insect-like shapes floating around them, liquefying. The bugs were strange creatures, based on sulfurous DNA, coming somewhere from too-far-to-reach in space, but vulnerable to gamma radiation.
Radrounds were bullets with caesium-137 mini-detonators in the tip that caused a short outburst of gamma radiation upon impact. Their remnants decayed soon, though Shaw probably got a dose of radiation as his suit was pierced.
Then again, if things went well, Shaw, the crybaby, could be in a med-bay on their ship within an hour, soon enough to receive treatment.
Yellow dots popped into Raina’s mind. “Bugs ahead,” she snapped into the comm. “Not approaching though.”
“How many?” Braxton asked.
She wished she knew. There was something off and it made her blood turn cold. “Not sure, Sergeant.” Her voice came off weak, hesitant.
Braxton grunted. “Give me your best estimate.”
“Forty, fifty, maybe sixty.” Or two hundred.
“Didn’t you say the lower levels were clearer?”
“They are.” And they had neither the ammo nor the manpower to fight through that.
“Find another way,” Braxton ordered.
How was she supposed to do that? Yes, she had the Exorcist System, but that was just a fancy name for a portable electromagnetic wave emitter. Sure, she could do many things with it, but she still ended up being a walking bug detector ninety-nine percent of the time. And she hated that.
Raina was nine when they found out she had an extremely rare genetic mutation that made her compatible with the new generation extended neural interface. Back then, she was ecstatic, feeling as if they told her she had super-powers. Now, she knew better. And she wished she could slap her younger self. Why didn’t she become a lawyer like her mother always wanted her to?
Because she just had to be young, stupid, and enlist into the space marine. And then she, the idiot, fell for Lang and never found the guts to leave.
She tried to focus stronger on the detector embedded in her helmet. The bugs were everywhere, but they were oddly grouped up.
Raina scowled. Bugs didn’t form groups. They were an unintelligent life-forms that sought heat, so their natural movement pattern was erratic. But as she watched the yellow dots through her mind, they definitely formed clusters. One was straight above them, another one about two hundred feet ahead, and then a smaller one above this largest one, but in the upper floor. The area that held the armory was bug-free. “If we could advance for a hundred feet, get into a higher floor, then we could fight a smaller group, and get back down into the armory, avoiding this large group.”
Braxton pulled back a smile. “I suppose we cannot use the elevator to go up a floor.”
“Negative, Sergeant,” Raina said.
“With how thin the floors are, we could break through the ceiling,” Thorn said and poked the steel ceiling above him with his rifle’s muzzle.
“Move out as Novitski instructed,” Braxton ordered, “Thorn leads.”
The squad started moving. Corporal Thorn led the way, step as light as magnetic boots allowed.
Again, he didn’t trust her. Though this time, she gave him a reason by missing that bug in the lower floor. But Thorn was too slow, paying close attention to every prolonged shadow, every goo stain.
They didn’t have the time for this but Raina complaining would cost them more time.
They passed the next hundred feet, crossing three corridors before stopping in a side room that was once storage. Boxes and spare parts, mostly screws and nails, floated mid-air, filling the room like a cloud of insects. Thorn forced his way through and looked at the ceiling.
In a military vessel, floors were built so they could be isolated for the case of a hull breach. But this was a research vessel, a corporate one on top of that, so compartmentalization fell victim to cost-cutting. Thorn changed his rifle’s magazine into penetrating rounds.
After switching to individual shots, Thorn started shooting the ceiling. As the bullets pierced the thin steel with ease, one after another, Thorn made a circle. After holstering his rifle on his back’s magnetic mount, he pushed his armored fingers through the gaps and tore a hole into the ceiling. Not a large one, but big enough for them to pass through even in their suits.
Yellow dots splashed over Raina’s mind. “Six incoming bugs,” she said into the comm and raised her rifle, aiming at the room’s entrance.
Braxton and Lang knelt into the first row while the other three formed a semi-circle behind them.
And then came the waiting, again. Raina hated the silence with her breath inside the helmet being her only company. She liked to hear things, to orientate by that, to hear the enemy before he became visible. But none of that worked in space.
The bugs appeared from behind the corner and the squad opened fire. Raina wished she would at least hear her own rifle. Radrounds tore the creatures apart.
“Where’s the sixth one?” Shaw asked before the last creature fell.
Instinctively, everyone looked at Raina.
Thorn was the first to move, looking up into the hole he made. A bug leapt down at him, claws aiming at his neck. He made half a step back, raised his shoulder and flung up his left arm. The creature twisted the limb before getting thrown off.
A split second later, bullets from the other squad member annihilated the creature.
“You alright, Thorn?” Sergeant Braxton asked.
“I’ll put it back,” Sergeant Braxton stepped to Thorn and caught his arm. This wasn’t the first time Raina watched him doing this. As the combat suits evolved, they offered increasing mobility while compromising on protection. Ever since the eighth generation, the joints were flexible enough to dislocate bones. In a well-practiced move, Braxton and Thorn moved in synchronization to return Thorn’s shoulder into the socket. The marine didn’t even grunt with pain.
Raina expected an insult from Thorn, but it never came. Yes, she missed the bug above the corridor. That was unlike her. But she had no idea what was wrong. Something was messing with her intuition, an eerie subconscious feeling gnawed on her mind.
“On me.” Sergeant Braxton grabbed the hole’s rim, turned off his mag boots, and yanked himself up. The others followed, Shaw needing two tries because of his wounded foot.
In the upper level, they remade their formation with Lang at the spearhead. They prodded through the hallways, soon seeing the ‘COMMUNICATION RELAY’ plaque on a closed door. The empty, steel corridors looked one like another. The bugs had long since devoured all of the ship’s original crew, leaving nothing save for a rare floating pistol, vial, or notepad.
“How many?” The sergeant asked into the comm, looking at the door.
“Eight? Maybe nine…” Raina’s voice trailed off. “They are too clustered to tell. And they aren’t moving.”
“Take up firing positions,” Braxton ordered. “I’ll bait the bugs.”
“That should be Lang’s job,” Thorn said into the comm.
Oh, try that. Raina’s rifle was going to accidentally misfire if they were to use John as bait.
“Do not destroy the relay.” Braxton didn’t bother to argue and walked to the door as if he was fifty years younger. He kicked out the door, fired a short burst and started running back. He didn’t look over his shoulder to see the bugs following, which they were.
Two steps later, his squad opened fire. Raina tried to shoot the swarm of bugs that spilled out of the room. But one was much bigger than the others, large as a well-fed cow. The alien caught up to Braxton and sank a claw into Braxton’s calf.
Braxton pivoted his upper torso and started shooting. The others kept firing. The radrounds flashed on the bug’s body. Goo disintegrated where the bullets hit, but the chitin shell underneath held. The bug stepped back into the room, dragging Braxton with it.
Lang and Raina bolted forward, Shaw and Thorn at their heels. The bug dragged the sergeant behind the corner. Lang was first at the door, switching bullets from radrounds to penetrating ones. The bug was dragging the sergeant to a blob of goo. Lang wasted no time with trying to figure out what that was and shot at the bug’s body.
Steel bullets nicked off parts of the chitin, but didn’t penetrate. He couldn’t get a clean hit on the stick-like body though. Raina, Shaw and Thorn joined him, all trying to hit the body. The focused fire tore off the bug’s parts. The bug let go of the sergeant and darted toward the other four, a whirlwind of claws.
They broke apart to avoid the bug, Shaw and Lang heading into the room’s center, Raina and Thorn retreating into the hallway. With Shaw slow on his feet, Lang had to stop, letting Shaw get behind him. That made Lang the nearest target, so the bug leapt at him. Lang turned off his mag boots and leapt away. He crashed into just-firing Shaw. The corporal spun as Lang hit his shoulder, peppering the room with penetrating bullets. Machinery rimming the room sparked when the bullets tore through the control panels and protective cases, and the screens went dark.
But this gave Raina and Thorn a firing position at the bug’s back. Their bullets pierced the chitin, breaking apart the bug’s body. The bug fell apart. Lang landed on the wall, turned on his mag boots and got on the ground.
Sergeant Braxton lay on the ground, spraying ISP on his leg. That had to hurt like sticking a red-hot iron through his calf.
Breathless, Raina stared at the dead bug. The yellow clusters weren’t multiple small bugs near each other, but huge bugs.
Thorn stepped next to Novitski. “Were they feeding the bugs steroids?”
“In a corporate science ship? I wouldn’t be surprised,” Raina remarked bitterly and kicked a torn off leg. She motioned toward the destroyed computers. “And it’s good that we got all the research data earlier. They should have something about the big bugs.”
Their squad regrouped around them. “Thorn, do a weapons test on the bug’s body,” Sergeant Braxton ordered. One by one, Thorn tried different ammunition types on the bug’s body pieces. Radrounds didn’t work, steel-core rounds needed a clean hit to penetrate, and all the other ammunition types were ineffective.
Thorn flung his rifle on the magnetic mount and drew his sword. When the marine corps started equipping armored suits with swords, everyone laughed. But they turned out to be rather useful with the super-human strength the suit provided, given swords needed no ammo and that the ultrasonic cutting technology actually worked.
Thorn pressed the handle, activating the blade, and swung at the bug’s body. With a bit of resistance, the blade severed the chitin.
Imagining herself fighting this giant bug with a sword made Raina happy that John was here. No one fought with swords like he did.
Though she felt the hesitation from Sergeant Braxton. Older than Raina’s grandfather, he could had retired twenty years ago. Mission after mission, he kept delaying the decision. And the Space Marine Corps was starved enough for manpower to allow him not to retire. He probably liked being the oldest sergeant in the Martian Marine Forces. Though right now, shifting weight from his wounded leg while examining the giant bug, he gave the feeling of reconsidering his retirement.
“Novitski, is the path to the armory still clear?” Braxton asked.
Braxton limped ahead and the squad filled the formation around him. With three of them wounded, their pace was considerably slower than what Raina would like. She glanced at the display on her wrist. Fifteen minutes left until this ship would collide with an asteroid.
The steel corridors were calm, lifeless save for the occasional smudge of black goo. Careful not to step into that, they moved to where Raina showed them.
Thorn took his rifle to shoot a hole into the ground but wobbled slightly, apparently from the pain in his shoulder. They may have put the joint back together, but the tendons had to be too strained.
“I’ll do it,” Lang said and took Thorn’s place.
“Now, you finally want to be useful.” Thorn snarled but made space.
Methodically, Lang shot the penetrating rounds into the floor. Once he made a satisfactory circle, he kicked the steel plate and the armory opened before them. They descended, turning off their mag boots so they could propel themselves off the ceiling to float down.
Lines of weapons coveredthe walls with complementary boxes of ammo underneath. Since the corporations making weaponry for both Earth and Mars regularly switched sides, all ammunition and magazines were standardized. Everyone resupplied their ammo first. Afterward, Sergeant Braxton kicked off the lock from a protective case and took out the plasma grenades.
They were two, which was surprisingly many for a science vessel. Plasma grenades were essentially the only way a marine could make a hole into a ship’s hull. But they were expensive. Their squad usually had three, but they used them when retrieving the derelict’s research data since some security doors here were actually secure.
Braxton put one grenade into his pocket and handed the second one to Shaw.
Sure, they were all wounded, but they still wouldn’t give a plasma grenade to her and John. What a pile of bugshit. She and John were top-of-the-class from the marine academy, had four years of service and over a hundred successful missions. But they were new to this squad, younger than Sergeant’s grandchildren, and so they weren’t getting a plasma grenade. Bugshit, all of it.
The entire room shook as if a rocket hit the ship.
Raina smirked. Apparently, the universe itself decided to punish the old sergeant for being blockheaded.
“What was that?” Shaw half-shouted into the comm.
Silence was his only answer. Raina focused on the Exorcist System, but picked up nothing other than two of the bug clusters moving around the vessel.
“Doesn’t matter,” Sergeant Braxton announced. “We return the way we came.”
Somehow, she knew that that wasn’t going to work. But no one would listen to her intuition, so she didn’t bother telling them.
Shaw went first, followed by Lang, Braxton, Raina and Thorn. The corridor was every bit as abandoned as a minute ago. With ten minutes left on the clock, they could make reach the shuttle if nothing went wrong.
Despite the vision of safety floating in front of their eyes, they kept the usual pace, maintaining their formation. They passed through a hallway, crossed a turning and stopped. Where the communication relay was fifteen minutes ago was now a pile of rubble blocking the door.
Raina instantly remembered Shaw spraying the machinery when losing balance during the fight. He apparently hit something he shouldn’t had. Which wasn’t too difficult given how hot quantum computers got and how complex was their cooling.
Sergeant Braxton cleared his throat into the comm, apparently trying to shove away his sinking heart. “Novitski, what’s the shortest way to our shuttle?”
Raina focused, scanning the patterns of yellow dots and matching them with her memory of the ship’s plans. Sweat covered her neck and her breath became shallow. “Fifteen minutes, provided we use one plasma grenade to make a shortcut to the emergency stairs, on which we will have to kill two large groups of bugs.”
Silence overtook the comm. They didn’t have fifteen minutes.
“If we would reach the bridge,” Lang said, “perhaps we could use maneuvering thrusters to get the ship outside the collision course.”
Right, John was here, and he was going to get her out of this. Like always.
“Anyone else has a different idea?” the sergeant asked.
“There’s a massive cluster of bugs on the way to the bridge,” Raina whispered apologetically.
“We’ve got plasma grenades,” Lang said as if it resolved the issue.
Those meant nothing, but Raina understood what he meant. And his confidence put her mind at ease. “Okay.”
“Move.” Sergeant Braxton ordered and turned. The others followed. This time, they walked faster. The unsaid truth that Lang’s plan may have been impossible remained hanging in the silence.
They passed through a set of corridors before Raina stopped them, yellow dots popping into her mind. “Bugs ahead.”
At least a hundred. “This would normally be about forty bugs, but I can’t tell the big ones apart from the small ones.”
Braxton nodded. “We set up a firing position and bait them in.”
“Errr… sergeant…” Raina stuttered into the comm, intensely focusing on the Exorcist System. She had enough of this, and focused intense electromagnetic pulses on Braxton’s, Shaw’s, and Thorn’s prefrontal cortexes to sink their self-confidence.
“What is it?”
Her cheeks heated up. “Lang and I can kill that by ourselves.” She knew Lang would now be swearing her in his mind. She would apologize to him later, but for now, she wanted to get off this derelict.
“How?” Thorn spat into the comm.
“Emmm…. Explaining that would take two long,” Raina said, intensifying the electromagnetic impulses.
“Do you…” Braxton stuttered. “Do you need anything from the rest of us?”
“The plasma grenades,” Lang said.
Without a word, Sergeant took out his grenade and handed it to Lang. Reluctantly, so did Shaw, reluctantly.
Raina smirked. Yes, using the Exorcist System on fellow marines was technically treason. But screw that.
Lang put one grenade into the designated holder by his waist and the second one into one of his utility belt’s pockets.
Raina switched the comm into a direct communication line with Lang. “Sorry, John, I had to.”
Using his wrist display, Lang also changed his comm’s setting. “I remember you promising never to use the Exorcist System on our squad members.”
Raina’s face turned into the color of an old tomato. He somehow made her feel guilty. She stepped forward, Lang at her side, advancing toward the corridor, a T-section before them. Bugs were on both sides. “They would die over their pride. And I’m tired of changing squads.”
“So would you over yours.”
She rolled her eyes. Why did he have to be like this? She met Lang in the first year of the marine academy when they were ten. And they haven’t been separated for more than a few weeks ever since. Together, they passed through all test, exams, trials, and together, they were chosen for the genetic enhancement program, the Crusader Project. That one didn’t officially exist, of course, but it wasn’t like they would tell anyone. “There’s over a hundred bugs in the way. We go on maximum power, neural interface, using full mind synchrozation,” she whispered into the comm.
“That will exhaust us and deplete our suits.”
“But we will win.” Raina stopped sideways to the T-section, grabbing her rifle, one leg slightly in front, the second a bit in the back. She engaged her suit’s neural interface and clenched all her muscles. Normally, a suit moved with the user, copying the movement of limbs. Neural interface reversed the process, making the armor move by reading the brain activity, dragging the body inside. Normal soldiers couldn’t use that because the extreme acceleration and deceleration with which the suit moved would tear apart their bodies.
But Crusaders weren’t normal soldiers.
Lang stepped behind her, matching her stance so his heels almost touched hers. This was going to hurt. But she loved this dance they could so rarely do. Using the panel on her wrist, Raina switched off the Exorcist system’s limiters, flipped her suit from medium consumption mode into full power, and focused. She aligned her thoughts with Lang’s, entering his mind in a move they practiced a thousand times. Through the funnel, she connected their visions, seeing what he saw like an overlay over her own gaze.
And through the link, she shared with him the enhanced intuition she got through the Exorcist System.
As if they were one being, they stepped into the T-section. Bugs were on both sides of the long corridors. They both fired, more precise than a machine. Each bullet killed a bug. More bugs swarmed into the hallway. Raina and Lang kept shooting, advancing step by step with Lang in the lead. The small bugs didn’t get close and the large ones skittered into the hallways. They ignored them at first, focusing on the small ones with the bullets.
When the large bugs from behind were approaching the crossing, Lang dropped his rifle, letting it float in the air, and drew the plasma grenade. In a seamless move, he removed the pin and threw the grenade behind himself. Yes, Raina could probably handle them, but he didn’t want to risk her getting hurt. The grenade bounced off the third bug and exploded straight beyond the T-section.
No matter how many times she saw a plasma grenade blow up, she never got tired of it. A second of nothing, a small flash, and then everything in a twelve feet radius around the grenade sublimated into nothing, as if an invisible monster bit off a piece of reality. Three-thirty thousand degrees Fahrenheit hot, freshly ionized plasma then cooled off a second later, so everything beyond radius got hit by a sticky, slightly warm substance that quickly vanished.
Three bugs disappeared in the explosion, but so did the hallway, creating a delay for the ones that followed. With a faint smile, Lang drew his sword and met the big bug in front of him. He parried the stab of a chitin claw and severed the alien in half, sliding under the next strike of the next bug before cutting that one in two.
These bugs were bigger than the ones in the simulator, but that made them slower and easier to hit. For a normal human, they would be too fast. Yet for a genetically enhanced soldier who could comfortably fight at six gravity equivalents of pressure with senses amplified by the Exorcist system, this was doable.
The bugs swarmed over them, but Lang was already fully absorbed into the fight, dodging, parrying, cutting, moving the bugs down like a grim reaper. Raina kept up for a while, much longer than she expected. But cold filled her body and mind started clouding. Unlike John, she didn’t have the stamina for this. She slashed apart the bug in front of her and stepped sideways. “The rest is yours.” She leaned against the wall not to be in the way, letting Lang shield her and she tossed her sword into the air.
John caught the hilt with his free hand, immediately using it to cut off a bug’s leg. Raina loved watching John fight. She kept the neural link going to heighten his senses and shorten his reaction time. She had seen this a thousand times but had yet to grow bored. While she got into the Crusader Project due to her compatibility with the Exorcist System, John got there through sheer physical ability. Nobody fought like him.
She watching the fight as if it was a performance only for her, him dancing among the bugs. A few minutes later, the fight was over. John towered above her, two swords in hands, looking like a reincarnation of a god of war. And dozens of bugs floated in the hallway, chopped into pieces. John exhaled and leaned against the wall opposite the corridor.
Raina disconnected the neural link. Her display flashed red, saying low power on every surface. With a few swift taps on her wrist, she shut down the Exorcist System to conserve the suit’s power. She also flipped the power mode to minimum consumption, watching John do the same. Cold wreathed her body and breathing became harder. The minimum power consumption also meant minimum-necessary life support, so the temperature inside the suit dropped to nearly to the point of freezing and the concentration of oxygen fed to her helmet decreased to normal.
She flipped the comm to the squad channel. “The hallway’s clear.”
Her voice was weak over the comm, but not due to the lack of signal. Breathless, Sergeant Braxton led Shaw and Thorn to the T-section. Bug parts floated everywhere. When Braxton’s Captain assigned Lang and Raina to his squad, Raina overheard the captain describing them as weird but good.
She wondered if weird but good would be the words Braxton would use to describe them now that he was forcing his way through floating bug bodies. In under two minutes, they killed enough bugs for a small platoon to boast about it for years.
Yet Raina’s mind started slipping into unconsciousness. She needed a break. But she let her senses dull without a worry. John was here, and he wasn’t going to let her die.
Lang and Novitski both leaned against a corridor wall, their wrist display’s controls shining yellow. In the power saving mode, they wouldn’t be useful for combat.
On the way, Shaw picked up their rifles. He handed Lang his. “Can you walk?”
Lang put on a bitter smile. “Slowly.”
No one chuckled. “Four minutes left.” Braxton said and limped through the hallway. The others followed. A corridor later, they entered the bridge. Goo stained the chamber, but monitors and control panels shone into the darkness. And they all flashed in red: COLISSION IMMINENT – CHANGE COURSE.
“Lang, can you do this?” Braxton asked.
“Aye.” Lang sat down into the pilot’s seat. All his muscles throbbed, mind cloudy with pain. He would recover soon though. Thanks to the excessive amount of genetic enhancement he went through, he always did.
Thorn shadowed him, watching over Lang’s shoulder. Lang pondered if he could understand anything from the lines of text and flashing lights. At best, Lang estimated that Thorn could get the general idea that he was now looking at the thrusters.
Lang breathed heavily into the comm before he spoke. “Grab onto something.”
“Why?” Thorn asked.
Lang didn’t answer, staring at the screen.
Thorn grabbed his shoulder and shook him a little. “I asked you something.”
Lang almost fell from the chair. Rather than arguing with Thorn, he checked that Raina held herself by the nearby control panel. On the screen, Lang selected all the maneuvering thrusters on the ship’s port side and rear, turned the power slider to maximum and pressed the ignition button. The entire ship shook and Thorn almost fell, having to grab Lang’s chair.
The red-texted warning disappeared from the monitors. And even Thorn exhaled with relief. But he froze the second later. On another monitor, he saw the feed from the radar. On the oval display, two dotted lines marked the territories of the Martian Democratic Union and of Earth Confederacy. The ship was now in the neutral zone, but was hurling toward the EC’s border. And close enough to be visible on the radar was an earthen cruiser. “Why are we flying toward EC’s warship?”
“I sent us in the direction necessary to avoid the asteroid,” Lang said, voice cold. “I’ve got no idea where we’re flying.”
Braxton crossed the room, verifying what Thorn told him before towering above Lang, looking over his shoulder. “Can you change our trajectory?”
“Negative.” Lang pointed at an empty, red progress bar on the screen. “All the maneuvering thruster’s fuel was spent by us avoiding the asteroid.”
“What a coincidence.” Thorn snorted. “First, we get locked here after Lang fucks with the airlock, then the communication relay gets accidentally destroyed when Lang bumps into Shaw and, now that we cannot hail our own fleet, the same Lang sends us toward an Earthen warship.”
Braxton cleared his throat. “Lang, can you override the protocol that shuts down the airlocks?”
“Aye, Sergeant.” Lang rose and walked toward another terminal. Braxton shadowed him, watching his every move, making sure he stood in a way that he would see the entire screen. Lang knew that Thorn had been suspicious of Lang since he joined the squad. But Braxton never believed that. Until now.
Lang sat down and started quickly typing on the keyboard. The pretty visuals of ship’s defense systems were soon gone, replaced with a white text on a black background of a command line. Lang cared little for the Sergeant standing above him. There was no way the old soldier ever went through coding classes. The old marines didn’t need to know this stuff. Back in their days, most weapon systems were run by centralized AI’s that used relays scattered through the Solar system.
Now, those relays were destroyed, victims to pirates and the cold war between Mars and Earth, and the Solar system internet network was reduced the public internet. Centrally coordinated adaptive algorithms were replaced with soldiers adjusting everything manually. Lang ran a password reset.
“For the password, put in, all caps, BRAXTON-one-one-one-dot.”
“Aye, Sergeant.” Lang typed the password so Braxton would see it. Now, time for the accusation. The sergeant made Lang secure their escape route, so he no longer needed him.
Braxton sighed and straightened his back. “Lang, give all your weapons to Corporal Shaw.”
Lang stared at the sergeant, acting surprised. “Pardon?”
“You heard me.” Braxton lowered his rifle, aiming at Lang.
Shaw approached, motioning Lang to hand over his weapons. Reluctantly, Lang gave him his pistol, sword, and rifle.
Lang frowned. Why wasn’t Raina saying anything? “Novitski?” he asked into the comm.
Adrenaline rushed through Lang’s veins. He switched the comm to speak only to her. “Raina?” he shouted. She stood in place like a statue. But that didn’t require anything since falling in zero gravity was impossible and the mag boots held her in place.
Sergeant Braxton walked to her. “Her life signs are weak and she’s probably unconscious.”
That wasn’t good. With her suit set in power-saving mode, Raina could settle in sleep due to the low temperature if she didn’t wake up. “Raina, wake up!” Lang shouted.
“What is it… John? I’m tired.” Raina yawned audibly. “Let me sleep… some more.”
“We’re still in a mission. You cannot sleep yet.”
“But I’m too tired…” Raina’s voice trailed off. But then it returned, livelier. “Why does Thorn have your rifle?”
“Because Lang is suspected of treason,” Sergeant Braxton interrupted them, talking into the comm. Raina never switched her channel into the private one. “Can you walk, Novitski?”
“In a bit,” Raina said and changed the channel to speak only to Lang. “What happened?”
“Nothing much,” Lang replied. “But play along. We need to conserve energy for when we run into more bugs.”
“Okay.” Raina smiled and turned the comm back to the squad channel. “Negative, Sergeant. I can’t move.” She sounded much calmer now.
Braxton sighed into the comm. “Thorn, take Novitski’s weapons. Lang will carry her.”
“Aye, Sergeant.” Thorn walked to Raina and took her rifle, pistol, and sword, catching them on his suit. After that, he switched off her mag boots, letting her float in the air, and he carried her to Lang.
Gingerly, Lang took Raina into his arms.
“Move out,” the sergeant commanded and they left the bridge. Shaw went first since he was the slowest, Braxton second, then Lang and Raina, Thorn closing their formation. While them flying toward the Earthen cruiser was a problem, all they had to do was to get into their shuttle before leaving the neutral zone. They needed under ten minutes to reach their shuttle while they had good fifteen-to-twenty minutes in the neutral space.
They passed through a corridor, crossed a four-way intersection, and headed straight toward the elevator. A smile crept onto Lang’s face. They were almost in the shuttle. Soon, this mission would be done.
“Bugs!” Thorn shouted over the comm.
Shaw raised his rifle and a split second later, four bugs passed the turning ahead of him.
Lang snorted, seeing the bugs flooding into the corridor. Only now, the others realized that Raina couldn’t function as a bug detector with her suit in the power-saving mode.
Shaw raised his rifle and fired. But the bugs were too close and too many.
Lang and Raina watched the bugs swarm into the hallway. “We have to help them, John,” Raina said after switching the comm to her private channel with Lang.
“Yeah.” Lang sighed, glancing at the bugs stabbing at Thorn’s legs. “I’ve got about forty seconds of high power mode left in my suit.”
“I’ve got a bit more.”
“Save it. I’ll go high power, clean this up, and you will go on medium power afterward to get us back to the shuttle,” Lang said.
“Okay,” Raina smiled. “Go.”
Lang released her from his grip and tapped his wrist panel to change the energy mode and to engage the neural interface. His body heated up, all the resistance in the suit vanished, and the increased concentration of oxygen washed away his pain. He stepped back, took his sword from Thorn’s magnetic mount and slashed apart the bug clawing at Thorn’s chest.
In a fluid move, Lang slid past Thorn, hacked apart six bugs within a second and bolted through the hallway.
A bug just pierced Sergeant Braxton’s shoulder, preparing to get to his neck. Lang cut the bug in two, the next three as well, and headed toward Shaw. The corporal was barely visible among the bugs, covering his head with his arms in a futile struggle. Lang crushed a bug beneath his mag boot and started swinging. Seconds later, no bug remained and Lang switched his suit back into power-saving mode. Panting, he verified he still had about fifteen seconds worth of full-power left. Enough.
But he was exhausted, pulse beating in his temples, breath heavy and labored. In the hallway, droplets of blood floated among the bugs, freezing. He sheathed the sword and ducked above Shaw. The corporal had multiple stab wounds on both his legs and his arms. But his pale face was visibly breathing beneath the visor.
“This’ll hurt,” Lang whispered into the comm and took out the ISP spray. One by one, he sprayed the wounds. Shaw would end up with a lot of burnt flesh.
Back in the hallway, Novitski turned on her mag boots and was giving the same treatment to Thorn. His legs had a dozen wounds each and his suit a puncture gaped above his abdomen. She had to fix that first, but she was too tired to use anything other than the ISP spray. Thorn shook in his suit, screaming with pain, but he didn’t stop Raina.
Once Lang finished with Shaw, he turned toward the sergeant. Aside from a thin claw struck through his shoulder, the sergeant was fine. With wobbly steps, Lang walked to the sergeant. He felt so cold, freezing in the suit’s emergency mode. He couldn’t feel the bottom half of his face anymore.
Sergeant Braxton was trying to grab the claw to pull it out of his shoulder, but the fragment was too thin to catch with the suit’s massive hands. From his utility belt, Lang pulled out small pliers, caught the sergeant by the shoulder, and used the pliers to remove the claw. Braxton sprayed the wound himself and Lang returned the pliers into their place.
“Permission to take back my weapons?” Lang asked over the comm.
Braxton sighed, apparently not knowing what to think. “I’m too old for this. Permission granted. For Novitski as well.”
“Thanks, Sergeant,” Land uttered and got his gear back from Thorn. He was thankful for the weightlessness as that was the only thing preventing him from falling. His suit’s emergency mode was too cold, draining his strength.
Novitski also collected her weapons and looked at Shaw and Thorn, who stood helpless in place, unable to walk on their wounded legs. “We need to somehow carry the wounded,” she whispered as talking any louder felt like too much of a strain.
“I’ll prepare something. You two, rest.” Braxton retraced their steps, looking for a utility room. He vanished into a maintenance room and soon came back with a rolled up reserve cable and a long, iron stick.
Braxton started working on Thorn. He turned off his mag boots, moved him to Shaw, who he also made float. Afterward, he lightly tied them together using the cable and put the iron rod between them to work as an anchoring point. Yes, they were like two pigs tied around a roast, but it worked. “Are you two functional?” Braxton asked when he finished.
“Somewhat,” Lang said and Novitski concurred.
“I need one of you to help me carry them and the second one to scout ahead.”
Lang stepped to Braxton and took the other end of the iron stick. Sure, Braxton could carry them both thanks to the weightlessness. But with only one arm, he would bump them against the wall in every turning.
Raina switched her suit into the medium power mode, grabbed her rifle tight, and led the way. She turned the comm to speak only to Lang. “Still in there, John?”
Her jaw clenched. That didn’t sound good. And she knew she couldn’t handle more than few bugs. Instinctively, she ran her tongue over the cyanide capsule in her tooth. That was one of the features of being the Exorcist System operator. As if the system’s self-destruction switch—effectively a bomb wrapped around her head—wasn’t enough, she also had to have a cyanide capsule. The Exorcist System was a technology unique to Mars, so the Space Marine Corps did its best to prevent it from falling into Earthen hands.
As her mind wandered, her consciousness started slipping and she stopped walking.
“Raina, you okay?” Lang asked over the comm.
“Yeah…” Her voice trailed off again but she stepped forward, mind clouded and vision blurry. “Just a bit tired.”
Lang laughed shortly into the comm. “Remember the house we wanted to build on Earth after the war would end? The one by the sea?”
She shook her head softly. Of course, she did. And out of all the topics John could had chosen to help her stay awake, he had to choose this one. “The house will be by the forest.”
“What’s wrong with the sea?”
They crossed another hallway and the elevator loomed at the end, illuminated in the red emergency light like a beacon of hope. Raina smiled. “It’s creepy with just water everywhere, like an endless bathtub.” At least that was how it looked on pictures and video. Martian cities, being habitats rotating in Mars’s orbit, had nothing like forests or seas or mountains or anything similar. Sure, there were swimming pools and parks, but everything was so apparently artificial.
“The forest is full of weird animals,” Lang pointed out.
“They aren’t weird!” Raina stifled a laugh and pressed the elevator button, the door opening soundlessly in a split second. “They are cute.” They entered the elevator, Raina remaining by the door while Sergeant Braxton went all the way to the end, carrying Thorn and Shaw together with Lang. Raina pressed the button and the elevator started moving upward. “This war won’t end, will it?”
“Perhaps one day,” Lang said, failing to sound optimistic. How sweet that he still thought he could slip a lie by her. Earth and Mars have been at a cold war since the 22nd century and it was now the 24th with no peace in sight.
The elevator reached the top floor and the door opened. Raina stepped out, looking for bugs.
Lang sighed. Time to finish the mission. He didn’t feel ready when he decided to make the move during this mission, seeing the derelict conveniently heading into EC’s territory. Neither he felt ready now. But for Raina, he would do anything. He switched his suit into the full power mode, engaging the neural interface, and threw the makeshift stretcher upward, tossing Shaw and Thorn into the sergeant’s face. In a seamless move, Lang took the second plasma grenade from his utility belt, removed the pin, tossed the grenade into the elevator in the way that it would bounce among the walls, and stepped out.
He jabbed the close button and the door closed behind him. Lang walked forward, taking the rifle into his hands. Raina turned, staring, confused.
“Don’t hold your breath.” Lang raised his rifle, shifted to a single shot, penetrating bullets, and fired. With machine-like precision, he hit the air tubes running up Raina’s neck and her precious air reserve started blowing into the space instead of into her helmet.
The grenade exploded. The entire elevator and surrounding walls sublimated into nothing. By the trained instinct, Raina left her mouth open, breathing as if she wasn’t running out of air. The space drew air from her lungs, which would explode if she were to held her breath.
With sure moves, Lang stepped to the airlock and typed the unlocking code into the door. Not the one he showed Braxton, that one was for the hangar bay door, but the one he put onto this airlock when they first entered the ship. He stepped to Raina, turned off her mag boots, pushed away all her weapons, and shoved her into the airlock. By her wide, darting eyes, she still hadn’t realized what was going on. The airlock closed, but he didn’t make the other side open.
Lang flipped the emergency unlock on Raina’s helmet and removed it from her head. Letting it float around them.
Raina stared with wide eyes, mouth gaping. She would lose eyesight in about ten seconds, so Lang didn’t waste time. He pressed her against the wall, and pulled out the pliers, aiming for her mouth.
To let the air flow from the lungs, she couldn’t seal her lips, and she intuitively opened wide to dodge ice-cold pliers. Perfectly, he grabbed her tooth with the cyanide capsule, and tore it out with a jerk. Droplets of blood and cyanide floated in front of Raina’s face, freezing instantly.
Lang pressed on his wrist display to make the shuttle door open, and threw in Raina and her helmet.
She gasped for breath, eyes refocusing on him.
But her suit was locked in a power-saving mode since she spent all the energy. And being exposed to the vacuum of space even for the few seconds exhausted her.
Lang entered, made the shuttle’s door close, and gripped her by the suit and caught helmet. He dragged her straight for the emergency evacuation capsules, Raina struggling feebly. She was out of strength. He walked to the nearest capsule, opened it by pressing the control panel, and jammed Raina inside the steel coffin-like space. With the now-free hand, he crushed the display inside the capsule to break the emergency opening system, and tossed Raina’s helmet to her feet. She stopped struggling and started crying instead. He shut the capsule door and exhaled.
Tiredness washed over him. Raina didn’t have enough space inside the capsule to put on the helmet, so she couldn’t trigger its self-destructive mechanism. With slow moves, he started removing his suit.
Raina turned on the comm, her crying now echoing into Lang’s ear. “Why?”
“Thorn was right.” He slipped out of his suit, adjusting the earpiece that was connected to the bodysuit beneath. “I’m an infiltrator, an Earthen Ghost.”
“And I mean nothing to you?” she shouted, anger mixing into the weeping.
“You mean everything to me.” He sat into the cockpit, detached the shuttle from the derelict and launched into space. “Which is why I’m sending you to Earth.”
“To be a prisoner of war for my whole life?” Desperation seeped into her voice, blending with pain and sadness. “I’ll never betray our home.”
“That will be up to you.” Lang steered the ship to fly toward the Earthen cruiser. “Yes, you could not say anything and live your life in a cell. Or, you could cooperate, get a house by the forest you always wanted, and work at some Earthen laboratory to help them make their own version of the Exorcist System. Far, far away from bugs and war and everything else.”
Raina paused for a moment. “And what about you?”
“Forget about me. You will live happily on Earth while I’ll die up here among the stars.” Lang sighed and took off the comm’s earpiece. A second later, he hailed the Earthen cruiser.
“This is ESS Okeanos,” a male voice replied as the voice-only hail over the open channel was accepted.
“This is a diplomatic vessel with the designation alfa-gamma-epsilon-four-seven-three-five-one-triple eight. Requesting immediate medical attention for an injured VIP.”
Silence took over the comm. Now, the officer at the other end was busy looking up the code. And in the secret codes book, he would see the code as belonging to the Ghost Company, Earth’s most elite covert force. “Granted. Should we pick up the VIP?”
“Negative. Open the loading bay and I will send her over in an emergency capsule.”
“Roger.” Lang typed on the keyboard and verified the loading bay indeed opened. The mechanism for accepting emergency capsules was one of the better inventions of the 24th century. The aiming, launching, and landing was all done by an algorithm, so all Lang had to do was to press the button.
But before that, he put back on the earpiece. Raina’s weeping broke his heart, his eyes watering and stinging, but he forced his voice to sound confident. “You will have a nice life on Earth, I promise. Much better than anything you could ever have in space. Despite what people say on Mars, Earth is a paradise you never could had imagined.”
She was silent for a moment, and then she whispered. “You will forever be alone.”
Lang sighed. He took off the earpiece and launched her capsule. On the screen, he watched her capsule float through space, adjust its trajectory with miniature thrusters, and then land in the cruiser’s landing bay.
Afterward, Lang changed the coordinates to fly into the back to the Martian territory. Long minutes were needed for him to calm down. He would miss her until the end of his life.
But now, he had to resolve another matter. From his utility belt, he fished out the USB stick onto which they downloaded the data from the science vessel. After plugging it into the shuttle’s terminal, he verified the drive indeed contained massive amount of experimental data on bugs. He could scramble the data to ensure Mars wouldn’t get it.
But what would that help?
He decided not to and pocketed the stick. He would return to the Martian fleet, claiming his squad died on the ship and present the data they retrieved as the result of their sacrifice. His dead squad members would be called heroes, given post-mortem military medals and awards, and he would keep being a marine.
And perhaps, one day, this war would end and he would go to Earth to meet Raina.