Barghest – Chapter 2

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Luck Sometimes Visits a Fool

Hour 0432, Day 062, Year 2148

Ninety-second anniversary of the invasion of Earth.

“That was a hell of a hickey I saw on your neck in the showers last week.” Dan Rodriguez didn’t smile, but his dark skin crinkled around the eyes. Under the shadow of the dirty hat that disguised his standard issue Sol Coalition haircut, he held a vapor pen to his mouth. It wasn’t switched on, but he made a show of using it periodically.

Sergeant Maker kept her eyes on the entrance to the poorly lit commons area they had been staking out for almost twenty-four hours. The niquab that covered her hair and lower face was hot in the recycled air of the station, but it made her pale skin less noticeable in a crowd where humans were typically stained and scarred from deep mine gases.  Without looking at the newly minted private, she responded, “I saw you there as well. My condolences on your shortcomings.”

Unfazed, Rodriguez continued, “Just say the word and I could give you better.”

“Fraternization between junior and senior personnel is prohibited, Fuzzy.” It was true that Maker hadn’t been an officer very long. Also true that there were more experienced, older soldiers on the mission, but she was second-in-command, and most of her team didn’t like her to begin with, so there was no point in giving them any infractions to hold against her. Rodriguez had slept with most of the women in their unit, and some of the men, so shutting down his advances wasn’t a hardship. Only the soldiers on their level were on the same channel, but that wasn’t enough to keep the playboy in line.

“But what is fraternization, really? Surely a little rub and su-”

Faint static in their sub-dermal receivers cut off whatever the private had been about to suggest. “Not to interrupt you, ma’am,” Bretavic drawled, “but we have movement at Position 2.” Maker leaned across the small table to pour more of the low-grade alcohol into Rodriguez’s cup. He slouched in his seat, affording her a better view over his shoulder and easing his hand closer to the service weapon concealed in a pocket of his baggy pants. When she took her seat again, she turned so she faced a service corridor. The station was in the middle of a mining shift, so there were only a few stalls open and even fewer patrons milling around or seated at the common-use tables in the center of the space.

“Copy that,” Maker replied quietly. Rodriguez stared at her face, his mouth tight while he waited for her to assess the situation behind him and for command to make the call. “Two Nicks, could be our targets.” Native to the Cancri System, Nicks were easy to identify. They were bipedal, but had reverse joints and four limbs of equal length. Officially, their species was known by their home system and planet. Unofficially, any human who had served outside Sol used the derogatory term for the lightning fast thieves. Maker focused the scanning capabilities embedded in her contacts; in less than two seconds, she had information on the radiation signature of their technology. It matched the mission file. “Identity verified. Confirmation?”

“Identity confirmed,” came Bretavic’s low response from the second position. Bretavic had been on more operations than the rest of the team combined, and while he didn’t seem to respect Maker – it obviously had more to do with his thoughts on officers than her personally. His call was could be trusted. That should have been all she needed to request the Go order, but Maker hesitated.

“Position 1, status.” The lieutenant in charge was stationed out of her line of sight with his own partner, down a service corridor. His voice snapped with command, bordering on irritation.
“Status,” he said again, this time demanding an answer.  It wasn’t intuition, or some gut feeling; no sixth sense stopped her from making the call so the lieutenant could send her fire team into action. She didn’t think it was fear. She couldn’t have said why, but she took three long, deep breaths before she opened her mouth.

“Hold,” their transmitters barely vibrated with Bretavic’s whisper. A third figure, shorter and more fluid than the Nicks, eased around the edge of the corridor and hovered at the entrance. “Sarge?” The question was breathed more than spoken, but Maker was already scanning. Culler, she thought with a new iron ball of anxiety settling in her belly. She double-checked readout overlaid on her vision before she spoke. None of the mission briefs said anything about Cullers, but if there was one on the station, so close to the border, her superiors would want to know why. There was only one way to find out.

“Command, Position 1 reporting unknowns. Relaying data.” She casually tucked her hands in her sleeves, surreptitiously pressing the code on her touch pad that would send the image to the lieutenant.

For a few tense moments it was quiet, then the lieutenant’s voice was in her head again. “Field call. Additional targets. Alive, if possible.”

Maker’s gut was churning. They had set out with four people, including the lieutenant, ready to take down two Nicks. Bretavic and his partner at the second position would provide backup. There was another two covert soldiers on the level below them, and two in the docking bay. That left the pilot and medic on the ship. Standard operating procedures required a minimum of four heavily armed soldiers for every one Culler. That meant that Rodriguez and Maker would have to deal with the two Nicks on their own. She swallowed. Sweat dripped down her temple.

“Additional objective,” she confirmed. “Painting targets.” With a subtle press of her fingertips against the palm of her glove she transmitted visuals to the rest of the team. Through the tech of her contacts, she watched each of the Nicks and the concealed newcomer light up with a yellow glow.

“Party crasher is ours, Team 2. Team 1, you have original targets. Secure and detain,” the lieutenant’s voice was flat, “collateral authorized.”

Maker could feel sweat was dripping down her back and spit collecting in her mouth, but her voice didn’t waver, “Copy.” She and Rodriguez weren’t prepared to handle two Nicks on their own but there wasn’t any alternative. Bretavic and the lieutenant would have the significantly more dangerous target; without any heavy munitions they would need backup as soon as it was available. That meant Maker and the fresh-out-of-training camp private needed to work quickly. The Nicks moved closer to the tables, close enough that Maker could see, unaided, the sandpapery texture of their skin. The third opponent hung by the entrance for several long minutes before easing into the narrow alley behind a row of stalls.

“Go,” the lieutenant ordered.

There was no response from the other maneuver team, but Maker knew they were already in action. She stood and stretched, slowly, before picking up the alcohol carafe and moving around the tables toward a bar. It was the distraction that they had planned to begin with, but her palms were clammy with sweat under the added pressure to succeed. Both Nicks watched her; her contacts tracked the movement of their eyes as she crossed in front of them. She purposefully tripped over a metal chair as she passed, and Rodriguez used the noise to conceal his approach behind them; as soon as he was in position, Maker tossed the alcohol straight into the Nicks’ faces.

The action was recorded by her contacts. Rodriguez slapped cuffs on the upper limbs of one Nick, but the rookie didn’t move quite fast enough to complete the circuit on the ankles. His opponent whipped around, prehensile tail emerging from its tunic to slap the gun out of the private’s hand. Rodriguez rolled to avoid a follow-up kick, but was hit with the tail on its reverse swing. He slid across the floor, knocking over a table and chairs with a shout of pain. The Nick leaped after him, the open end of a pair of electronic cuffs dangling from one leg.

Maker had no time to spare a thought for her partner. The alcohol served in the mining station was poor quality, but high proof. Her Nick bellowed with rage and its tongue slithered out of its mouth to swipe at the liquid burning its eyes. It seized the table between them with one lower limb and flung it out of the way – leaving Maker to stumble backwards into a chair, pulling her weapon and firing as she moved. The first shot was wild, narrowly missing Rodriguez. The second short burst hit the Nick in the hip. Blue blood spattered the floor and tables behind the creature and it stumbled, letting out another deep cry. It’s tail lashed around dangerously. Move, move, her mind chanted. She used the chair as a springboard to fling herself onto the roof of the bar. Her foot caught in the chair back, wrenching her ankle and knocking the seat into the Nick’s legs. She had to crouch awkwardly to fit between the thin metal sheets and the ductwork for the common space, but the height put her out of arm’s reach. Maker holstered her primary weapon and pulled out a net gun. The first shot tangled up the Nick’s left arm; she cursed.  The second hit the center of mass and brought one hundred eighty kilos of tail-slashing anger to the floor. She activated the trigger to magnetize the net. She had forgotten to check the setting – it higher than was recommended for a Nick. The alien would likely have cuts from the pressure, but at least she could be certain it would not move while she assisted Rodriguez. He desperately needed help.

The private had managed to pull a secondary weapon, but not his net gun. The whites of his eyes were large with fear and Maker’s sensors were sending off alerts in the periphery of her vision that his adrenaline had spiked beyond acceptable margins.  Other alerts were softly flashing for the four soldiers in the alley and she could hear shouting. One soldier’s indicator light went out. This is so, so stupid, her brain was pointing out to her, but she ignored it.  Rodriguez fired three bursts in rapid succession and Maker took some slag in her shoulder as she pushed off the roof, reaching for a handhold on a suppression pipe. She fired her net gun at the ground near the Nick’s feet at the same time her hand connected with the hot metal cylinder. She could feel her grip slipping, and only prayed she could hold on long enough. Her heavy boots swung out toward the Nick’s face, but she had not caught it unawares. The net was only tangled around one leg so the creature hissed and ducked, turning and flicking its tail to wrap around her ankles and yank her from the ceiling.

She lost her grip on the pipe with a sharp curse and a friction burn that was painful even through her glove. The artificial gravity slammed her into the floor, and her already injured shoulder clipped a chair on the way. She was stunned for a precious few seconds, while her display was screaming at her that her team was in danger and a target was closing in.  She fumbled with the clasp on her weapon holster, and drew the gun in time to fire point blank into the bare foot of the Nick as it was poised to stomp on her chest. It screamed and flinched away from her, scrambling for purchase but unable to crawl away from the magnetic lock of the net Rodriguez had fired.  The private was pushing to his feet, one arm was bent unnaturally but her tech notified her that he had already used his field meds to dull the pain. She was panting when she pushed onto her feet and with manipulation of her control glove she dimmed the stats for Rodriguez.

With the closest proximity individual muted, her tech turned towards the next member of her squad. The lieutenant was dead. Maker’s breath caught in her throat. She scrambled with the controls in her glove to pull up a locator map. His body was only a few feet from the corridor where he had been positioned. The Culler had taken him out before he could even fire his weapon. As she verified the readout that specified brain death, her stomach clenched and the hairs on the back of her neck stood up higher. That thing, the enemy, was still on the station with them. And she was now in command.

Another indicator on her display went dark. Another soldier was dead. Her back was throbbing, but she ignored the med kit on her belt. She didn’t have time for it, and her tech was streaming reports of Bretavic’s team that made her swallow curses. “Secure and notify transport of incoming,” she ordered Rodriguez. She didn’t wait for his nod or acknowledge the pale strain in his expression before she forced herself into a jog. There was no one to dodge or yell at to get inside as she approached the far end of the commons area. All of the walkways had been deserted within moments of the first shot. Some shops had been hastily closed. Others held the telltale anticipation and occasional terrified movement that betrayed their occupants.

The alley was quiet and dark when she approached, and Maker’s breath was hot inside the veil over her face. She almost tripped over a body a few feet from the entrance and she quickly put her back to the wall to scan her surroundings. The corpse at her feet wasn’t the only one in the alley; another body lay half in- half out of a shop, and there was a dark, shiny wet trail the width of a man’s shoulders up the side of a building and onto the roof. She double checked her display.  The second position team was alive, their stats below desired levels but steady. With a press of her fingertips into her palm she activated her locator. The two soldiers were outlined in blue, one hidden from normal sight by a twisted pile of sheet metal and debris. The other lay halfway down the alley, faintly visible in the indirect glow that bounced off of the ceiling.

“Eyes,” she whispered. Her legs were shaking. Her belly cramped and she had the inconvenient urge to urinate. The word was inaudible, but the vibration in her throat was picked up by her implant and transmitted.

“Eyes plus thirty,” she heard the quiet voice, knew it was Bretavic under the debris. His stats were not good, but he sounded more angry than in pain. “Your right, roofline.”

Maker kept her eyes moving over the buildings, searching for movement while she quick stepped to his location, and knelt next to an opening in the debris. “Status.” A long piece of hair had worked out of the veil while she fought and stuck to the sweat on her temple.

“I can cut free with my torch – maximum sixty seconds. Gonna be noisy.” She couldn’t see his face, but she could hear the wince in Bretavic’s voice, “Right leg is toast. We both used our meds, my partner took another hit to the head.”

Maker was supremely aware of the slight weight of her med kit against her hip. Each soldier had only been issued one for the mission. Nicks were tough, but four on one was a good bet with the element of surprise. The third enemy had put them on the losing end of all but the longest odds. It didn’t matter. A Culler needed to be dealt with as soon as it was identified, and Maker wouldn’t have minded some answers for why the mission was blown all to hell. She swallowed and brushed the sweat from her eyebrows. Why the Lieutenant is dead. Why Private –  she silenced her thoughts with a shake of her head and focused. Without her med kit, she could only take one, maybe two hits before she went down. An officer’s first priority had to be the mission, then the team. Her gut churned. She didn’t know any of the men well, but she didn’t think she could sacrifice them to ensure success and quick movements were more easily tracked by Cullers, so escape would be difficult. Unless they had a distraction. Or a decoy. So, so stupid, she repeated to herself.

“Wait for my signal, then get cutting. Grab the bodies, if you can.” She stayed close to the left wall of the alley, running her fingers a few millimeters over the uneven surfaces of poorly repaired shops, and jogged forward. She scanned the area, visually and with her tech while she unclasped her kit, folding it open with one hand and toggling the dosage on the transdermal syringe. She crouched in preparation, and then her transmitter crackled.

“Cullers! Down, three down!” The all team channel was wide open, something that could only be done by the commanding officer unless casualties were taken. Weapons fire was close enough to be heard through her transceiver over the screams of the soldier six decks below. Kerry, heavy weapons support for the nondescript little hauler they had come in on, had gone through basic training with her. His familiar tone was even despite his volume and situation. “Transport down! Cullers! Two in the bay, one in the weeds! Request immediate assistance! Respond!” Maker almost dropped the kit, her brain trying to claw its way out of her head with fear, trap! Trap! TRAP! They had all recognized the Culler that followed the two Nicks into the commons, but none of them had anticipated more. She cursed herself; it was her fault, her fault that they hadn’t immediately notified the transport. It had been her call to maintain transmission silence with the ship that was waiting for them in the docking bay after the lieutenant went down. Her fault that two soldiers were dead on their level and three more bleeding down below.

“Go!” This time she yelled the command while she jumped away from the wall. She slammed the blunt end of the syringe into the soldier’s neck hard enough to damage the skin. Maker’s boots pushed against the floor, adrenaline and terror surging through her veins. The sound of a gasp for air and the sudden rise of the soldier behind her barely registered. “Retreat! Cargo is expendable, if necessary! Go, Go, Go!”

She knew that they obeyed her orders. They were well trained, and her display tracked their movements until she pushed team location to the bottom of her tech priority. An explosion shook the entire deck, making her list to one side in her sprint. There was only the flash of yellow across her vision as she reacquired a painted target and then the Culler was on her. Thirty kilos of damp cloth and wiry muscle dropped from directly above, striking her wounded shoulder and back. The impact sent her flying forward and she didn’t manage to tuck before she hit the floor. Maker threw up one forearm in defense and scuttled backward on one hand and her knees as the Culler bounded forward. The hooked talons of its arms easily pierced the ceramic weave of her body armor. Her visual display winked in and out as the circuitry in her glove and sleeve was ripped away, leaving a long, shallow gouge in her arm that welled blood. Its head pressed close to her and she gagged on the smell of rotting plant matter and tasted bile in her mouth.

“Human,” it said, making the sounds of the word despite not having a mouth. The talons withdrew and rose again. Maker fired.

Her weapon was at an odd angle, given that she could barely feel her hand, but four incendiary rounds punched into the soft underside of the Culler in rapid succession.  An unholy sound of pain and fury, like dry ice grinding together, pierced her ears.The fifth and sixth rounds tore chunks of white flesh away and found purchase in the ceiling. Incendiary rounds were stupid, and overkill. Her weapons instructor would have had her running laps, full gear, for firing at that range in an enclosed space. Lucky for me, he’s not here, she thought wildly, or lucky for him. Then her ammo exploded. The splatter of gore hit her and she curled onto her stomach before the structural beams above began to fall. Two heavy weights, one after the other, dropped on her back and neck. She wasn’t sure how long she lay flat on her stomach, but when she became aware of the wet veil sticking to her lips and tasting of rot she threw up. She tore the material from her face and rocked to the side, away from her vomit. The motion slid debris off her back, freeing her.  The floor was slick with the ichor of the Culler and her own blood, and she fell twice, banging her knee hard, before she could brace herself. Her vision slid sideways, or maybe it was the floor that was moving, but she crashed into the wall and fell again before the world righted itself.

“Report,” she rasped, shaking her head to push away the ringing in her ears and the black halo that threatened to seal her vision and drop her back into unconsciousness. The communication implant was barely functional, little more than an open channel, without the connection to the tech in her armor, but she tried to contact her team anyhow. “Report,” she demanded again, this time louder. She forced her legs to work, and although she felt the pain in her knee and back it was a distant second to the fire in her arm. She switched her weapon to her off hand, which was in better condition as it only had a single puncture wound at her collarbone.

“Two levels below you, Sarge.” Rodriguez’s voice sounded far away, and she could hear the tremor in it. “I left the door open.” She saw what he meant as soon as she cleared the alley. A smoking hole, approximately two meters in diameter had been blasted in the floor of the commons area. Bretavic was leaning heavily on his partner, standing at the edge. He lowered the body of the lieutenant down carefully. Then, between the two of them, they managed to shove a snarling, netted Nick through the hole before seating themselves on the lip.

Bretavic looked over at her, but Maker didn’t hold his gaze. The corridor the Nicks had first entered through was full of shadows that had not been there moments before. As though all of the artificial lighting had been turned off, the space was one large darkness. Maker’s throat felt tight, she was sharply aware of the warmth of blood as it ran down her arm and pearled on her fingertips before plopping against the metal floor plates.

“One in the weeds, confirm please,” she whispered. Bretavic slowly turned his head to follow her line of sight.

Kerry’s voice, thick with breathing sounds, came through, “Correction. One cold in the bay, two in the weeds. Both bloodied.”

Two Cullers, holy hell, she thought. An inappropriate urge to giggle pushed against her lungs from the inside. If her tech was still operational, it would have been flashing medical warnings and situational readings. She shifted her weight and bit off a scream when the exposed meat of her arm brushed against her hip. Tech would have shorted itself out anyway, trying to record this FUBAR mission. One Culler had wrecked two soldiers and nearly ripped off her arm. In her current condition, with the second team wounded and vulnerable in the center of the room, two of the aliens would leave nothing behind but bloodstains and service tags.

“Status,” she said. Even she could hear the high-pitch in her voice.

“Position 4 – A KIA, B Med, Position 6 – A Steady, B Med, Position 7…A Med, B KIA.”

Two more dead, in addition to the lieutenant and his partner, including the pilot. The medic injured and out for the fight, same for Kerry’s partner. The only other soldier they had with real flying and maneuvering experience was Bretavic, and he was several floors and two Cullers away from the ship. And injured.

It was supposed to be a simple snatch and grab – two Nicks that intelligence reported had flight records and communication codes for some runs through Culler space. Nicks were strong and fast, but not well armed. It was why she was assigned second-in-command; her first time out as an officer. It was why she had the specialized recording tech along with her field gear. So I can be evaluated. The giggle warped into a full out laugh and she had to swallow it hard. She was now responsible for seven other lives, plus at least one Nick that she was supposed to bring back still breathing. And the bodies of the fallen. And a Culler that should be taken in for questioning.

Eight days as a sergeant had to be some kind of record.

The darkness in the corridor shifted. Maker blew out a long breath and brought up her gun – elbow slightly bent, both eyes open. She toggled through the magazine selection menu with her thumb. Incendiary and pellet rounds were empty. She had a full load of armor piercing. From the corner of her eye she watched Bretavic free his weapon; the faint blue glow of his munitions selector mirrored her own.

“Team Two en route.” Maker stated calmly. A distant part of her mind was proud of that, despite that sour ball of fear trying to rip through her gut. Bretavic turned his face to hers, and his mouth was turned down in a frown that threatened argument. He knew what she was planning, and he didn’t like it. If she had been faster, or a better shot, or had any experience outside of boot camp and eighteen months on border patrol, she might have come up with a better idea. But she wasn’t. She didn’t. She was responsible for the team, and they need to get back alive – or at least in as few pieces as possible.  “Sending you wings, transport.” Bretavic hesitated, then nodded subtly. “Fuzz has the cargo. You are on mission. Repeat. On Mission. Fire it up and you are go to launch at will. I am in the weeds. I say again. I am in the weeds.” Bretavic wrapped his free hand around his partner’s vest and his bicep bulged under his armor as he lowered the man into the hole and let go. His eyes stayed on the shadows, but he lifted one hand above his head, and she could clearly make out his middle finger as he gestured toward the corridor. “I read you Team Two.” She responded. “Out.”  Bretavic pushed off the edge and disappeared below.

There was almost an equilateral triangle between Maker, the corridor, and the hole, but the leg that would have been her likely escape route was heavily littered with broken tables, chairs, and unidentified bits of tissue that might have once been a Nick. She picked up a table as quietly as she could, not that the small movement was easy to hear past the whine and grate of tons of stressed metal and machinery that made up the mining station. She went down on one knee and braced her weapon against the edge of the table. Surprisingly, her injured arm obeyed her command and managed to rip the det pack from her belt. She raised the pack to her mouth, and tasted copper and salt on her lips as she ripped it open with her teeth.  Two coils of detcord, each spiraled like a snail on a peel away sticker, fell out along with a simple detonator.  She removed the backing from one and pressed it against the tabletop – dead center. The other she tucked into her pocket.

It was the first rule of munitions training not to put things that go boom anywhere near your genitals, but Maker wasn’t expecting to live long enough to worry about the condition of her reproductive system. In the deep recesses of her mind, she felt a little distant regret for that. Then darkness shifted again, and she could barely make out the shine of emergency lighting on wet, grey skin. She took a deep breath, ignoring the stabbing pain in her back and clicked out the only phrase she had ever learned in Culler:

I’ve got garbage that is faster! You’re too weak to eat!

The effect was both better and worse than her xenospecies linguistics instructor could have ever known. The scream that rent the air was painfully high pitched and accompanied by a blur of movement from the corridor. One Culler streaked to the right, towards the hole, while the other barrelled straight for her. There wasn’t time for multiple shots. With a gentle recoil that belied the force of the projectile, an armor piercing round fired. Maker didn’t watch to see if it hit the target near the hole, but surged to her feet with everything she had, throwing herself back toward the alley and pressing the detonator.

Time slowed down. A white haze pressed around her, vibrating slowly in synchrony with the hum in her ears. Her feet were strangely hot, but there was a breeze on her face. She could feel her heart beating, pushing blood through her veins, into her head, forcing her to think. Maker blinked, and then time caught up with her. She slammed against the back wall of the alley, shoulder first, breaking through the thin metal of a poorly secured door and crashing into an empty shop space. Her armor reacted accordingly, the layer of kinetic gel hardening to absorb the energy and then releasing into a fluid state again. It wasn’t enough to keep her from feeling it – and did no good at all where her suit had been damaged. Agony lanced up her arm and radiated from her back like a fission reaction. She thought she cried out, but she couldn’t hear any sounds. She brought a hand up to her head, trying to find the split that must be in her skull because her brain felt like it was going to explode. Sticky, hot liquid coated her fingers and made the grip on her weapon wet. She stared at it for a moment, dumbly, wondering why her ears were bleeding.

The last Culler found her like that, slumped against a dirty wall and looking at her own blood. It was on her before she even knew it was there. Bony legs, slippery with the mucus secreted by Culler skin, pressed into her thighs. One talon stabbed into the wall by her face, flicking curls of metal against her cheek and forcing her to look up. The other talon found the hole in her less damaged shoulder and dug in, twisting and turning until she thought she would pass out from the pain.

It was bleeding. Thick, goopy liquid coated its clothing, pumping from a hole in the chest. She briefly considered that it was almost exactly center of mass – just like during training. Then the creature twisted that talon again and she screamed.

“Human,” it said. It made several clicking sounds, and then, “Human was waiting for the traders.” Maker’s pants were wet, not from urine, she was fairly sure, although that wouldn’t have surprised her, but from the combination of cold sweat and blood that was dripping off her body. The Culler leaned in close. Its eyes, larger and blacker than seemed possible, dilated, revealing a silvery center that seemed to bore into her. “Why.”

Maker felt like a ton of bricks had been pressed onto her chest. Her brain was being squeezed, and it hurt. Holy hell, everything hurts, was all she could think. There was more clicking, and the talon withdrew from her shoulder. Both razor sharp appendages reached toward her face, pricking lightly against her flesh – just enough to break the skin. “Human.” The word sounded tinny, like it was coming from far away through an old fashioned megaphone. “Tell.” As if in slow motion, the skin of its jaw and neck split. It wasn’t a mouth – Cullers didn’t have mouths according to xenobiologists. It was a beak and stomach. Like an octopus, Cullers ground their food and ingested it directly.  Maker had never seen one outside of a textbook. It was less attractive in person. Her head was ringing and her tech was flashing and blinking with red warnings. The beak moved sideways, grating against the hard plate of bone underneath. It sounded anticipatory.

Maker squeezed the trigger.

She could feel the burn against her the top of her thigh where the bullet grazed, ripping right through her armor until it connected with the pelvis of the Culler. Its beak gnashed shut and she was grateful for the blood in her ears so she couldn’t very well make out the shrill sound of its scream.  It fell backward, flopping, almost comically, like a fish out of water, and flailing with its talons – less comically. One bit into Maker’s calf and she let out a guttural shout. Her bloody, numb right hand wrestled for her net gun, and when she finally got it to fire, it only captured the Culler’s top half.  She had no way to turn on the magnetic locks, so it was just a wire mesh that the thing couldn’t seem to cut through, even with its deadly talons. Maker stared at it for a few precious moments, stunned that she was alive – mostly.

She holstered the net gun, and an overwhelming sense of exhaustion came over her. She tugged at the niquab still covering her hair and neck with her gun hand, but it was too difficult to remove. Maker decided that was fine, because where it had been too hot before, she now felt a shiver dancing along her skin. She might have curled up right there, tried to rest in the shell of the building, if the owners of the shops had not started to reappear. She saw one on the far side of the commons, barely noticeable with the near-dead flicker of her contacts. Another leaned out of a building, speaking into a communicator and pointing to the trail of Culler-bits that had been smeared across the floor. The mission was supposed to have been easy, quiet, and not leave any impression with the locals that the Sol Coalition had any interest in the little mining station. Somewhere in her most-definitely concussed state, she realized that plan would be blown to hell once station security arrived to find her, the shot-up Culler, and all of her Coalition issue equipment.

“This is Command, respond.” She struggled to her feet and only had to pause for fifteen or twenty seconds to steady herself and be certain she wouldn’t throw up from dizziness. “Command calling, over.” Her throat felt hot and raw, but she kept repeating the call out, softly, as she picked up one twisted corner of the net. The wires bit into her glove every time the Culler moved, and Maker finally turned and shot the thing in the foot. It still struggled, but not so violently. She bypassed the hole in the floor, knowing she would not be able to jump down two levels, even if she used the Culler as a landing pad, and headed for the corridor.

Locals were noticing her, and they weren’t friendly. Several armed residents of the station followed her progress closely. “Command here, call back,” she continued to try to raise the transport as she limped down the hall. There was a small standoff at the lift doors, and Maker wasn’t sure what finally made the armed miners move: the sight of her gun, or of the snarling, shrieking Culler behind her. She kicked the creature in the head with her boot once she had it in the lift. The movement sent a spear of fiery agony up her thigh and into her back. At the push of a button they descended to the docking level without any further noise from the prisoner. Unfortunately, it seemed to come around as she approached the bay and the growing stench of rotting plants. What little was left of a Culler after a vapor round from a heavy rifle dripped from the walls and ceiling. It made her prisoner thrash wildly. She shot at it again, but missed. “This is Command, please respond.”

“Transport here, Command.” Static and crackles accompanied Bretavic’s deep voice, but the transmission was understandable. Maker’s heart seized hard and then started beating in double time in relief.  The soldier continued, “Locals are starting to rumble, time to go.”

Maker entered the bay to find the ship prepped and ready; the thrum of the engines reverberated dully against her throbbing ears. A loose group of ten to fifteen miners blocked the door to the operations center; there would be no leaving the station without accessing control for the docking doors. Rodriguez was braced against the hydraulics for the ship’s ramp. Next to him, holding a heavy rifle and surrounded by spent cartridges, was Kerry. Rodriguez looked pale, but determined, as he kept his eyes on the crowd. Kerry was as complacent as ever, his weapon on the miners. He glanced at her quickly, and spoke to the private with his usual calm tone.

“Sarge could use help.”

Without responding or looking away from potential hostiles, Rodriguez holstered his handgun and held out his arms for the rifle. Kerry drew his service weapon and sidestepped toward her. Maker would have met him halfway if she didn’t have to stop twice to kick at the snarling Culler. Adrenaline was wearing off, and pain and exhaustion were rapidly taking precedence. She issued orders in what she hoped was an authoritative voice, but she doubted it came out that way, “Warm up the forward cannon.” Kerry took the net from her and hauled the Culler up off the floor with ease, never losing his targets. He moved quicker than she did, easily picking his way through the blue Nick blood that streaked the ramp even with his thrashing package.

“I’d appreciate it if you’d open the door,” she called out to the miners. Her voice sounded strangely far away and outside her own head. A few men shifted, looking at one another, and one raised a gun.

“Target painted,” Rodriguez said softly. She was close enough she could have heard it without the transceiver, if her ears weren’t still bleeding sluggishly. Her tech flickered, for a moment showing the aggressive miner outlined in yellow.

“Hold targets,” Maker stated flatly. She couldn’t feel the gun in her hand, couldn’t feel much of anything past the pain. So much pain in her arm, shoulders, back, thigh, calf. So much pain that it blended together into a red haze that surrounded her vision. The mission was mostly screwed. They were supposed to bring both Nicks in alive; one was dead and she wouldn’t be surprised if the other followed soon, if the amount of blood he left behind was any indication. They had involved locals, and although their armor was unmarked and mostly covered by civilian clothing, the miners would have had to be brain dead to not suspect the Sol Confederation. One fourth of her team was unconscious, another quarter dead, the rest severely injured. We’re already FUBAR, she thought, there is really no reason to be polite. She focused on the crowd. “You can open the door,” she told them, “or I can.” She stepped onto the riser for the transport and spoke lowly so that only the transmitter would pick it up, “All aboard, raise the hatch.” As the hydraulics began to work, she called out to the miners, keeping her gun ready, “You have two minutes.”

As soon as the ramp was sealed, Bretavic leaned out of the cockpit to nod at her, but she couldn’t manage a response as she stared at the floor of the cargo hold. All of their dead had been recovered, and someone had attempted to cover them with a cargo tarp. It wasn’t large enough. Too many bodies, she thought woodenly. Only their faces were concealed; their legs stuck out, stiff and spattered with fluid. Maker couldn’t stop staring at the boots. The lieutenant’s were polished to a high shine. Despite orders to remain covert, he must not have been able to help himself. Habits ingrained during training were hard to break. She looked down at her own feet. Her rough brown boots were dusty and scuffed before they became covered in blood. I should take better care of them.

Rodriguez found her standing in the hold next to the stretched out corpses of her team. He escorted her out of the cargo area and helped her to lie down on an empty bunk where he could administer meds and emergency bandages. Maker was vaguely aware of Bretavic noting the dock doors opening and ordering the team to strap in, but she could focus on little past the sweet relief of pain killers as Rodriguez injected her. Kerry found them there once they were in open space.

“Passengers secure?” Her tongue felt thick in her mouth, and Kerry’s pale hair and skin looked fuzzy. The flat nose and wide cheekbones that signaled his genetic modifications blurred a little, so that all she could clearly make out was the dark slashes of his mouth and eyebrows.

“One Nick, one Culler. Both pissed as hell, but they’ll live,” he responded and took a seat on the floor in the narrow walkway between the bunks, his back against the bracing near her feet.

She glanced at the bed opposite her and could make out a soldier’s form. “The others?”

“They’ll make it,” Rodriguez replied. “Although you might not. Shit, Maker,” worry seeped into his voice, “why the hell didn’t you follow Bretavic down? You’re lucky those Cullers didn’t eviscerate you.” She pulled her eyes away from Kerry’s head to look at the private. He was frowning, the expression making his handsome face even more attractive. He was only a year younger than her, but in that moment of drug-induced simplicity he looked sickeningly youthful. Eighteen, she recalled from the mission brief files, probably not even done filling out yet.  He could have died, like the others. Hell, I almost shot him myself…a couple of times. Rodriguez cut away the clothing and what was left of her armor over her chest and shoulders. She had never seen anyone die before. Suddenly she felt sick again, and had to close her eyes and breathe shallowly to hold back the urge to vomit. The private didn’t seem to notice as he continued to work, or he attributed it to pain. “There’s nothing I can do for your shoulder joint, anyhow. Hopefully the medics at base can save it. But you’re going be in surgery for a long time, at best.”

Maker swallowed several times, and was aware of the weight of Kerry’s head, leaning back against her uninjured leg. She should have been more concerned with her shoulder, but what had been fiery agony was subsiding into a dull throb that seemed far away. Everything seemed far away. She realized it was the meds, making her comfortable and loosening her tongue, but it didn’t stop her from mumbling, “Just make sure they take the det cord out of my pocket, first.”

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