Hour 1400, Day 113, Year 2148
James, (i.e. a james) noun: Derogatory term for a late twenty-first century real-time language translation program. So called after the Sol Coalition implemented use of the first models during negotiations with another species. Misuse of a common alien phrase resulted in the imprisonment and later execution of the political liaison in charge of discussions, Randolph James. Resistance among troops to use the infamous device resulted in a preference for human interpreters.
Ex. “Should we ask them to put away their weapons?” “Our unit has a james, not a translator.” “Oh, might as well start shooting then.”
Maker crouched across from Kerry and tried to breathe quietly. Although the perfectly shaped tunnels made walking easy, they also carried sound long distances. Because a high zinc and iron content in the rock interfered with the range of their tech, they were forced to rely on more primitive means of searching for the enemy. Their ears.
Kerry was well suited to the task, but it made Maker nervous. In order to best use his genetically superior hearing he had removed his helmet. With her night vision switched on, the warm skin on the back of his neck looked soft and vulnerable. Cullers were faster than humans. Their hearing was better. They made up for poor color sight with a sort of echo location that gave them eerie accuracy, even in the dark. Sneaking around in their base without using every advantage she had would be stupid. I’ve done stupid things before, Maker reflected as she considered how easily a Culler talon could pierce Kerry’s skull. It wasn’t that bad. A phantom pain in her shoulder belied her thoughts.
Kerry gestured to the y-intersection a few meters ahead of them. He placed his hand over his mouth to keep his words from echoing and spoke quietly. “At least three on the right, moving away quickly. One on the left, maybe, but there is some clanking.”
Maker raised an eyebrow. Kerry was usually concise and specific to a fault. “Like a mechanical sound?” Her words were transmitted directly to Kerry’s implant. He paused again, tipping his head and listening, then nodded.
A bead of sweat trickled down her temple. The tunnels ran deep, and they had been slowly making their way lower for nearly two hours. She was hot, and could smell her own nervous sweat in her armor suit. They had only run into one Culler, who had seemed just as surprised to see them as they had been to see it. Kerry, in lead position, had shot a non-lethal round at point-blank range. Right into the alien’s face. Although the hit had made it viciously angry, it had also disabled its vocal ability. Suppression rounds fired by four weapons and Kerry’s knife in the thing’s hip had taken it down far easier than Maker had anticipated. Since then, the only signs of life they had come across were distant movement. All of the Cullers were making their way to the front line to face the Coalition. Except one. Maker knew well the expression about cats and curiosity, but in this instance she couldn’t ignore the whisper in the back of her mind.
What is so important to keep a Culler from the fight? Why dig these tunnels? Why defend them?
“Left,” she ordered. “Slow and steady. I’ve got point. Kerry, behind me, ears open.” She knew he wanted to argue, but she wasn’t going to stare at his exposed head for the rest of the mission – imagining what his brain would look like spattered on the wall. It was another twenty minutes of soft steps, pauses, and listening before Kerry tapped her shoulder.
“Twenty meters.” His voice was so low her receiver barely picked it up. “Down and curving around to the left.”
“Weapons ready.” Maker added, “Assess first and try not to shoot me.” A nervous giggle, presumably from the rookie, came over the comm and then was stifled.
One step. Two. Five. Each footfall sounded loud in her helmet. The slight crunch of dust and pebbles under boots made her stomach clench. She reached the bend before she could hear through the proximity comm what had alerted Kerry. Faint clicks and soft shrieks, like muttering, was interspersed with an irregular mechanical sound. Clanking was a fair description. Or uneven grinding. She held up one fist, ordering a silent stop, and took a deep breath. As slowly as possible, she eased around the corner.
Orange and white light bloomed in her night vision from something extremely hot. Her display flashed a radiation warning, which she ignored. The stupid part of her brain whispered that things were beyond shot to shit if radiation poisoning was not top priority. Unfortunately, there were more pressing problems. Like what the hell is that, Maker wondered in consternation. In the center of a large cavern was a ten meter tall cylinder, approximately three meters across. A tubular casing surrounded the middle section, and from it supporting struts stretched to the ground. The central component graduated out in size below the casing, until it was nearly fifteen meters across where it reached the ground. Through the soles of her boots she could feel a slight vibration that was timed with the grinding sound. Directly above the device, a shaft opened in the ceiling. Maker checked her map and guessed the shaft was one of the dark openings she had first noticed inside the crater. If that was the case, there were at least three more devices like the one she was looking at.
She transmitted her view back to the others, with a command to hold position. The clicking was still audible, but muffled. Piles of debris, rocks and dirt mostly, were interspersed along the cavern walls. Stupid, stupid, stupid, she cursed internally. Maker sprinted to one and pressed her back against it, keeping the top of her helmet below the meter-high barrier. Abruptly, the clicking stopped. Maker held her breath. One-mississippi. Two-mississippi. Three- missi-
Vermin. The Culler voice sent a chill of fear down her spine. Finished by now if they weren’t crawling into the equipment. Maker let out a silent, shaky exhale. Cullers tended to use the word, vermin, to describe humans. Apparently it could mean any small, irritating creature. Faint, scratching steps alerted her to the Culler’s movement. Its lower talons snagged in the dirt and kicked pebbles across the ground. A frisson of electricity spiked up her nerves, and Maker’s hair prickled. The Culler paused, and then spoke again, as if into a comm device. Close, close. He used some words that she could only assume were a measurement. Synchronize the others. Reinforcements will be ready for you… The clicking sounds grew unintelligible. Partly due to unfamiliar vocabulary, and partly to something muffling the Culler’s voice. Another bolt of electricity turned Maker’s stomach. The Culler paused, almost like it was listening. Yes. Pull back to the ridge before the seismic activity.
Abruptly, the tension pressing down on Maker released. She hadn’t realized how much pain she was in until it was over. She found herself curled into the sharp rocks, clutching her belly. Her head was pounding, her vision swimming with pixelated lines and sharp blurs of light. When the pressure released, she sagged in relief. A loose stone dislodged from the pile and rolled across the floor. A scratch. A whisper. Then, before she could grip her weapon, the Culler was on her.
Vermin! Trash! It shrieked. Its knobby rear legs, the joints sharp with bone spurs, dug into her hips through her suit. The talons drove toward her helmet, and when it could not break through, the huge claws bent backward to expose the hands. Kobby fingers, like green, warty wood, tapped against her face shield. The beak was already exposed, thick mucus dripping onto her helmet. You cannot stop – Its threats cut off abruptly as containment netting wrapped around its torso and pulled it to the ground half beside, half on top of Maker. Kerry was there an instant later, silencing the shrieks and clicks with a projectile straight to the exposed jaw. Maker’s head was still reeling, her eyes having trouble focusing on the bright heat of Kerry’s face in her night vision. Slimy spit, or snot, or digestive juices smeared across her face shield.
“Are you hit?” He asked quietly.
“Sarge, you okay?” Rodriguez was far louder over the proximity comm.
“Fine,” she managed to sound far more in control than she felt. She swiped one forearm across her helmet. “Fan out. Secure the room.” Kerry sat her up and then moved away, listening and looking for threats. There was one other exit from the cavern, in addition to the way they had come in and the vent in the ceiling. By the time each team member was reporting, ‘clear’, she had blinked away the blur and lights in her vision. A dull throb of pain at the base of her skull remained constant as she stood, echoing the bruises she was sure were forming where the alien had landed on her.. “Rodriguez,” she called out, “what am I looking at?”
The private had already moved closer to the Culler device, and was carefully studying an open access panel. He did not touch the control systems. Smarter than he acts, Maker thought. “Not sure yet, Sarge.” He murmured to himself, then lay down on the ground, pressing his face close to the edge where metal met dirt. “A drill, maybe? Do Cullers mine? Hydraulics,” he drifted off into muttering, “open pit would be more…”
There was a noise of surprise from Gonzales, and Maker frowned. Mining indicated a permanent presence or at least resource extraction. As far as she knew, Cullers brought all of their fuel and supplies with them from their home system. It’s never been located, she considered. How far away must it be for the SC not to have found it yet? And how much energy is wasted hauling everything needed to support an army? She walked over to the machine and squatted down next to Rodriguez. Humans had pushed out into neighboring arms in the Milky Way. Intelligence networks and trade alliances with other species extended that reach even further. It was reasonable to assume that wherever the Cullers were from, it was a long, long way away from Sol. Maybe on the other side of the galaxy, Maker thought. That brought up a host of other questions that she didn’t have the time or pay grade to consider at the moment. Such as reasons to attack a pre-interstellar culture like Earth if there were thousands of systems separating the two species. More importantly, it was an easy jump to conclude that it would be more efficient to get some of those supplies locally. Bringing an army across a galaxy would have enormous cost – in time and resources. Finding fuel and materials at the destination was tactically and economically beneficial.
“Status,” Maker requested as she stood and walked around the device.
“Clear,” Kerry repeated. The vibration was still going, but there was no product anywhere that Maker could see. Mining activities should result in ore, or gas, or something.
“Clear,” said Gonzales. Maker put one booted foot up on a strut and hauled herself up to look under the casing. Exposed circuitry and what looked like pipes were putting off enough heat to glow white. Her radiation sensor began to chime a warning.
“Uh, clear,” the rookie stated, his voice trembling a little. The pounding in her head had synced tempo with her alarm, and Maker was irritated by the sound, the pain, and her inability to come face-to-face with a Culler without feeling like she was going to lose the contents of her stomach. Her spine still felt cold and tingly.
“I think this might be a matter regulator,” Rodriguez said. Maker glanced down to see he had removed his helmet. Maybe not so smart. He held a small tool in each hand and was adjusting something inside the open panel. Exotic matter, she thought, but didn’t say. It was an area of research that had been on the cutting edge of human science before the Repulsion and had only recently begun to be explored again. Suddenly, he pulled back his hands, stepping back as far as he could with one stride. “Maker,” he said seriously. “Get down. Now.” She obeyed quickly. Rodriguez wasn’t the type to give orders unless the situation was dire. He opened a direct comm line to her. “This isn’t a mining operation.”
“I didn’t think so,” she answered. “So what is it?”
“I have no idea, but we do not want to be here when it is done charging. See this indicator?” He pointed, and Maker switched off her night vision to get a better look. The device emitted a faint red light, and where Rodriguez was pointing, a display showed a meter that was nearly full. “Whatever they are doing here, they aren’t pulling something up – they are pumping it down.”
Maker swore. Long. Creatively. Using words her father would have been ashamed to hear she knew. She could think of a few reasons to collect exotic matter in large quantities – none of them were good. Blowing up a planet for one. She was certain there were others – all probably less good. “Can you reverse it?”
“Uh,” Rodriguez shrugged, “maybe? If I had a whole team that knew what the hell they were doing and a few days?” He scratched at his head and scrubbed on hand across his face. “Look, Sarge, I’ve had basic mechanics training. I’m only making some guesses here.”
“Worst case scenario?” She unclipped her helmet, wincing at the rotten-vegetable smell of the dead Culler and the hot, humid metal taste in the air. “Give me your best guess.”
“We fiddle around with this, screw up the pressurization, and ka-boom. No more VK10 system.”
“Okay,” she said slowly, “let’s not do that. How about we-”
The rookie screamed as he was tossed across the cavern like an old pillow. Maker’s contacts displayed his status, showing that his armor had engaged and he was alive. She had little time to focus on that as two Cullers surged into the room. One dug his talons into the rock wall and ran along the vertical surface, shrieking. The other headed straight for her and Rodriguez. Maker acted without thought. She swung her helmet and hit Rodriguez in the gut, sending him sprawling to the ground, then the Culler was on her. She barely managed to get her helmet between her chest and its body. The talons were free to rake along her sides, catching and tearing at her armor. It was clicking at her, but she couldn’t concentrate on the words past the wave of hot pain in her head and the frantic struggle to keep her face and belly away from sharp claws and crushing limbs. It took two hits in rapid succession, the weapons fire unsuppressed and deafening in the rock chamber.
The Culler rolled off her and then braced for another attack. It was just enough time for Rodriguez to aim and fire. An incendiary round went right through the thing’s eye, sending a rain of wet tissue and thick blood shooting out behind its head. It kept coming. “In the neck!” Maker screamed kicking out at the knee joints and slamming her helmet against one talon to pin it to the floor. The Culler shrieked. It reared up and lifted one mangled appendage, the claw at the end missing. Thick pink-white gore clotted the dirt, embedded with shards of bone and chitin.
“I was aiming for the neck!” Rodriguez shouted back. He fired again. Three standard projectiles hit in rapid succession. Two bounced off of the plates across the chest. The third wedged in, sinking under the skin. Abruptly, the Culler staggered back, swiping its good arm at the wound. Maker didn’t hesitate, but pulled her service weapon and unloaded an entire round. Her position on the ground angled the shots up underneath the creature and the exoskeleton that protected it. It fell to the dirt in a heap.
“Report,” Maker snapped out. Her brain was throbbing, her eyes swimming. She tried to scroll through her display to check on the members of the team, but couldn’t focus on the text.
“Clear,” Kerry answered, slightly out of breath.
“Minor wounds, I’m good,” Gonzales’ voice sounded faint.
“My only injury was from you,” Rodriguez panted. “I’m clear.” The rookie didn’t respond. Maker rolled to her feet, walking carefully to keep the spinning ground under her.
“I said report,” she said into the comm. The private had been tossed against a pile of rubble, and for a moment, Maker thought that he was just catching his breath. As her vision cleared, she noticed that his hips were twisted almost perpendicular to his shoulders. She maximized his stats on her display. He was alive, barely.
“Rook,” she said softly, kneeling on the ground next to him. “Hey, rookie, no laying down on the job.”
“I-I-” His voice was soft and sounded wet, from tears and snot or blood she couldn’t tell through his helmet. “I can’t feel my legs.”
“Well,” she said calmly. She was surprised at how collected she sounded. “That’s not surprising. Your back is broken.” Maker had her own med kit, and the private’s as well. She could dull the pain. She could stop external bleeding if he had any. She could inject him with stabilizing foam to keep the broken bones from crushing his spine. She could not make him able to walk, much less run, through enemy territory. “Don’t sound so down about it, Private. No big deal.” She replaced her battered helmet and hoped it would conceal the fear – the truth – on her face.
“Wha- what?” He gulped loudly.
“We deal with this sort of thing in the field all the time,” she lied. “Right, Gonzales?”
“Oh, yeah,” Gonzales responded easily. Maker noted that she had resumed her position watching the entrance. “No sweat.” Gonzales continued to speak calmly, telling a story about a previous mission she had been on where a soldier lost an arm and a leg and apparently continued to man his heavy gun.
Maker opened a direct line to Rodriguez and Kerry. “Fuzz, I need something to stabilize the private. Whatever you can find to make a gurney – rip the struts off that device if you have to. Kerry, scout ahead a bit. We need a fast route out of here. Preferably something with few obstacles and lots of sensitive equipment to blow up.” They both answered affirmatively, and she turned her attention to trying to boost her comm signal. There was nothing on the wide band frequencies, nor could she get through to Peters. Maker checked her countdown clock. There was only an hour left before her sniper was scheduled to leave his position and head back to the main force.
“-treats that prosthesis like a damn miracle,” Gonzales was saying. “My friend swears it is better than the real thing. He can jump out of a transport at twenty meters and not even feel the landing.” Maker opened up her comms as far as they could go, rerouting power from her armor suit’s internal sensors and reaction system to extend the signal as far as she could. Her display was crowded with information on her team’s stats, the signal penetration through the crater rock, and map coordinates aligning their position with the surface. A hand on her knee startled her concentration.
“Sarge,” the private whispered. “If I’m…going to die here, please…please don’t let the Cullers get me.” His fear was a palpable thing, gripping her heart with two hands and squeezing.
“Shut it,” she said sternly. “That’s an order. You’re on my team, Private. And there is no whining on my team. Got it?”
“Yes, ma’am.” He didn’t sound relieved, exactly, but he stopped talking about dying.
“I have movement, one hundred meters,” Kerry said quietly over the team channel. “Stand by.”
“It’ll be rough, Sarge,” Rodriguez said, approaching with a coarse cut metal brace and his tool kit. “But I think I can-” He continued talking as he sat down on the debris, but Maker tuned him out as her communications equipment flared to life.
“-Two, you have left. Team Three, you have-” the signal cut out and Maker stood and worked desperately to narrow down on the channel. After what seemed like minutes, but was probably only a few seconds, the gravelly deep voice returned. “-eapons hot. Crater blows in T minus forty minutes. Legionnaires, keep your-”
“Team leader,” Maker spoke quickly, hoping whatever soldier was on the other end could hear her, “this is Zulu-actual. There are friendlies in the crater. I repeat, there is an SC unit in the crater, be advised. Over.” No response came, but she could see the line was still open. “This is Zulu, I am sending you our coordinates.” She flagged the shafts that marked where devices like the one next to her were probably operating. “Do not, I repeat, do not fire upon the targets. There is unknown tech – extremely volatile. Confirm receipt, over.” Sweat was running down her back and chest, stinging where it met the lacerations made by Culler talons. “Team leader, do you copy, over.”
Kerry spoke softly, “All clear.”
“Get this strapped on and you can ride all the way back to base,” Rodriguez said conversationally to the injured private.
“This is Zulu, do you copy, ov-” The communication was cut. Maker stood motionless, feeling the vibration in the floor and the distant, muffled booms of heavy guns and laser cannon fire. We’re going to die here.
“Sarge?” Gonzales was backing up, preparing to guard their rear while they tried to get out.
“Kerry,” Maker said. Her chest felt too small for her lungs. We are going to die. “Get back here. You’re on transport duty. Gonzales, on the rear. Rodriguez, you have flank.”
“Which one, Sar-”
“Your fucking choice,” she bit off, too scared and angry and scared to let him make light of the situation. “I have point.” Kerry appeared back in the cavern, moving quickly. His helmet was secured to his belt. “Let’s move.” It was everything she had not to pick up her quick step to a jog. A jog to a sprint. She had not set a timer, but the countdown was still rolling in her head. Trickling down to the beat of her pulse. Forty minutes until the unknown team detonated explosives, or called in an airstrike, or set a few laser cannons to self-destruct. It didn’t matter how. When they brought the crater in on itself, it would bury her team alive.
And when those devices go, we’ll be lucky if there is enough left for the Coalition to identify the planet.
Her breath was coming fast and hard, not from the pace, which was far, far slower than she would have liked. From fear. Fear that she was going to die. Fear that her team would die. Fear that the thousands fighting in the trenches, who didn’t even know they had been depending on her, would die. Fear that whatever the Cullers had really been doing on that stupid, mud-slicked purgatory would go unreported. It was like an icy pit in her gut that grew heavier and colder with each thought until it threatened to burn a hole straight through her.
Five minutes out they ran into a Culler patrol. Gonzales took a talon to the leg. Rodriguez’s stats bottomed out before coming back on – she didn’t see what happened, only that his suit looked burnt and he spoke with a slur afterward. She was too busy trying not to choke on the river of blood coming out of her nose and the flashes of light across her vision. Culler activity was becoming frantic; singles and small groups were harder and harder to avoid.
Fourteen minutes out Maker almost walked off the edge of a cliff. She barely caught herself, collapsing against the rock face. Her toes the only part of her touching the narrow ledge above bottomless darkness. The sound of heavy guns grew louder.
Sixteen minutes out they were climbing up that same wall. Maker led the way – as she had both hands and feet and no luggage. Kerry followed, the private strapped to his back. Rodriguez with a burned and wrapped hand and Gonzales with an oozing leg wound brought up the rear. Kerry nearly fell once, as an impact shook the entire structure.
Thirty-two minutes and they turned a corner into a Culler stockpile. Crates and containers of every size sat next to what looked like data terminals. “Get whatever you can,” Maker ordered Rodriguez. “You have three minutes.” He immediately crouched under a console and pried off an access panel with his knife. Gonzales and Kerry kept watch while Maker set half of the ordnance they had with them. She pinged the location on a map and sent it on a wide band flagged for the ‘legion’. She had no idea if the team leader she had heard over the comm would see it, but she didn’t want any soldiers to walk into an inferno. The regular impact of air strikes, not yet at the crater, but close, had begun.
Thirty-nine minutes out and Maker knew they would not reach safety. She peered around a corner in the tunnel – straight out onto the ridge of the crater. Cullers swarmed across the surface, manning laser cannons and shrieking. Loping down other passages with frag and poison gas grenades ready for the Coalition. Maker tried to holster her gun so that she could get her rifle, but her hand slipped on the casing. She missed her belt and nearly dropped the weapon. Her hands were shaking, her head was pounding.
“Sergeant Maker,” the wounded private called out softly through the proximity comm. “Thanks for not leaving me.”
“Don’t be stupid, fuzz,” Rodriguez said. Maker could not help a hysterical chuckle. Rodriguez was two months on duty, and calling another private a fuzz – a rookie.
“Yeah,” said Gonzales, who was several years Maker’s senior. “Sarge said everybody goes home. So stop yapping and pay attention. You’re gonna tell this story for years.” Maker could feel tears on her face, but she didn’t think she was crying. She watched a Culler, taller and skinnier than the others, grip the controls for a laser cannon and swing it in a wide arc. The sound of his battle cry was like dead wood breaking through ice.
“You’ll never have to pay for another drink,” Rodriguez said cheerfully. Maker could hear him reloading his rifle.
“A real panty-dropper.” Kerry’s lack of inflection made them all laugh, even the private.
“Oh, ouch,” he gasped. “Don’t – that hurts.”
“Okay,” Maker said, glad to note her voice did not quaver. Her hands were still shaking. “Helmets on, weapons hot. I’ll take a wide spray, you head-”
Loud, dangerously close large-caliber rounds beat into the ridge line. Cullers screamed and fell to the ground. Others were blown apart as they were caught in the fire. On alien braced his legs and threw himself with a shriek of rage straight into the air. Maker watched as his head snapped back, the force of impact from a heavy gun round stopping his flight and sending him plummeting. Her comm startled her.
“Zulu, Zulu, Zulu. This is Air Support One-Seven. Over.”
It took a second of wild disbelief before her training kicked in. “Air Support One-Seven, this is Zulu. Over.”
The bottom edge of the transport, side door open and a pair of legs hanging out around a gun mount, swung into view a few meters above what was left of the ridge. “Zulu, this is Air Support. We are holding at your position. Care for a ride? Over.”
Maker was certain she was crying now. Her mouth tasted like copper and salt. She was fairly certain she recognized the voice. “Air Support. This is Zulu. Do you have room for five? One wounded. Over.”
“Zulu, this is – ah, hell. Maker, get your ass in here. I’m tired of stayin’ still while those lobsters are shooting at me. Over.”
Maker laughed, feeling crazy and drunk on relief. She waved her team forward and brought up the rear. “On our way, Bretavic. Thanks for the lift.”