Barghest II – Chapter 15

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Prevailing Winds

 

Year 2153, Day 005, Hour 0600

Ship Classification. Sol Coalition forces identify Culler ships based on a color coded system. The largest are Red Class, followed, in decreasing size, by Titian, Amber, and Citrine. Combat fighters were originally classified as Violet, but the name Urchin – based on their appearance – is used almost exclusively.

Maker was second-to-last off of the transport, a portable power generator weighing down her arms. Bretavic had already finished the shutdown procedures and was leaning against one of the ramp struts, half-in and half-out of the ship. Initial sensor sweeps performed by the Kahlid before it left orbit had found no Culler activity in the system. Upon a rather rough landing, Maker had confirmed that there was nothing but wind and dirt within a hundred kilometers of their location, but storms high in the atmosphere shortened the range of sensors. She wouldn’t be able to sign off on an verification until she had gotten the local comms and sensor station up and running and could make an independent corroboration.

Until that was done, Bretavic was confined to the ship; it was standard procedure that the pilot was on standby until security was established. Add that to the minor repairs that needed to be made and he and Rodriguez would be busy for a few hours at least. Maker glanced past the older man toward their temporary base. The moon, RB14 -7b2, had been targeted for colonization years prior, back when ISG technology was new and corporations were pouring funding into exploration. The base that had been deployed from satellite in the late 21st century had been top of the line then. It had begun auto construction and startup as soon as it arrived, then waited for the manned mission that would bring researchers and colonists. They had never come. The Coalition file didn’t have any explanation as to why. Maker could guess though: cash dried up, better sites were discovered, Culler aggressions made the sector economically unfeasible – something along those lines.

Maker’s eyes travelled over the thick aggregate blocks that had been printed on site and lifted by robotic arms into place. The main building was nearly three stories, and spread out onto the pale, dusty surface in several lower wings. One had collapsed over time, the other two appeared to be in serviceable condition. The ground forces had already moved their rovers and emergency equipment inside and out of the wind, but a few still lingered outside the base. They would check the perimeter and guard the transport ship until Awls gave them new orders – which he wouldn’t do until Maker had the sensors running. She stepped up to the ramp, then immediately paused, spitting out an expletive.

“Could be worse,” Bretavic said conversationally.

Maker eyed the news crew that had been embedded with Awls’ team unhappily. “How. Please. Tell me.” She had been less than excited to see the additions to the transport. Such field reporters were rare, but not so rare that she had never seen one before. Certainly she had heard of them from other soldiers that had been tasked with keeping the civilians safe and letting them get the ‘real’ story on the war effort. Few of the descriptions were complimentary and most centered on how the journalists were constantly in the way and how their reports generally made the boring, bloody, gruesome work of killing Cullers and watching comrades die even worse than usual.

Bretavic waited long enough to respond that she began to think he didn’t have an answer. She shifted, trying to ease the weight of the generator. “They could be interested in us – instead of the brawn.”

“Not likely,” Maker snorted. Rodriguez was helping with the recording equipment – she wondered briefly why Awls had ordered him off of the more important task of ship repairs or comms maintenance, but the camera woman and nice looking young man with a microphone were not there to learn about the support crew. They were looking for a story about brave soldiers that waded into battle with guns blazing. A pilot, a mechanic, and a translator were not very interesting to the viewing public back in the Sol System. Maker preferred it that way. She had already had enough of superior officers asking questions about her background. She did not need her face on a news bulletin. The tension in her shoulders relaxed infinitesimally as she considered the news crew, then immediately returned two fold. Rodriguez had given his patented, thousand-watt smile to the reporter. It was the smile that he used on recent or ongoing conquests. The reporter, a man about her age with silky cocoa skin and a swimmer’s build, winked and smiled back. Maker sighed.

“I take it back,” Bretavic grumbled, watching the same exchange.

“Yeah, they look pretty interested in the ship’s crew.” Maker sighed again. She had at least six hours on the surface, and then another few days catching up to the Kahlid. The Runa was not large enough to avoid the reporters if they decided they wanted a comprehensive interview of all of the soldiers.

“Not that – but yeah. I meant all the nice things I’ve said about Rodriguez. He’s an idiot.”

“You’ve said nice things?” Maker was genuinely curious.

Bretavic shot one more irritated glare at the mechanic and mumbled under his breath, turning to go back into the ship, “Idiot.”

Maker privately agreed, but she kept the thought to herself as she walked across the gritty dirt to the base. A quick glance over her shoulder assured her that Rodriguez had begun ship repairs. His tool kit was open beside the blown stabilizer that would make take-offs in the Runa hazardous. However, he was far more interested in the reporter’s generously endowed smile than he was his actual job. She pulled up a direct comm.

“Fuzz, stop chasing ass and get to work.”

“Anything for you LT,” Rodriguez turned to her with a saucy wink and the journalists followed his line of sight. They could overhear his end of the conversation, as he had – predictably – removed his helmet as soon as he was cleared to do so. She was grateful she had kept her helmet on, even though the atmosphere was breathable and the temperature tolerable. Better if the reporters didn’t actually see her.

“You know those steaks my dad sent for New Year’s?” She didn’t pause, but shouldered open the door to the base. Rodriguez, just like Bretavic and Kerry, had loved a real grain-finished choice cut of meat. And she had been happy to share with her friends. “If I see my face on the news, or hear even a breath about the cael crew of this mission in some feed, you will never have another one.”

“That hurts my feelings, LT.” His laughter came over her transceiver. He didn’t say it, but she knew he could afford to buy his own non-printed protein if he really wanted to. Maker surveyed the cavernous space inside the main building and located the comms room, halfway up the back wall along an open corridor. He wasn’t taking her seriously.

“Wouldn’t it be a shame if anyone found out about the series of anti-virals you have been ordered to take? Those sorts of infections can take several months of treatments to clear up.”

“I don’t-” He cut himself off abruptly, obviously hearing her threat. STDs, real or simply inserted by a clever comms officer into a soldier’s record, required immediate – painful – injections. And a temporary ban from fraternization of any kind. “I’m on it, boss.”

Maker acknowledged his compliance with a snort and closed the line. She spent the next hour in the decades old comm room, fishing through databases and waiting on painfully slow and outdated technology. She took off her helmet in the close space, and that is how Awls found her, dusty and sprawled under the console with an access panel lying next to her on the floor.

“Don’t we have a mechanic for that, Lieutenant?”

Maker flinched, startled, and the wires she had been splicing touched accidentally. Power arched across her fingertips, burning the skin and making her curse. She sat up too quickly and hit her head on the underside of the desk as she scooted out. The Major, bulky with muscle and clearly struggling with amusement, caused her to blush.

“I assigned him to ship repairs, sir. That seemed highest priority.”

“Can your pilot take off without the repairs?”

“Yes, sir, but it won’t be pretty. Bretavic can make do with whatever he has, but if this storm gets any closer things will get dicey.”

“How bad are the sensors?”

“I’m just about done.” Maker did not rub the knot forming on her head like she wanted to, but twisted the connectors together then stood to reroute power. “The system in here just needed a bit more juice to expand sensor range through all the dust in the atmosphere. If you would care to wait, I should have a preliminary scan in…” The program she had set to autorun beeped softly as it finished and data popped up on the display. “Now,” she smiled. Then slowly frowned. “That isn’t…” Maker leaned closer, as though that would make the obvious indicators disappear. One, two, four, six, eight, she held her breath, continuing the count.

“What are we looking at, Lieutenant?” The Major’s voice was sharp. He had been with the Coalition since his mandatory service; he had a pretty good idea what sensors were picking up, but he needed precise numbers. Data. Actionable intelligence.

Maker reran the scan, increasing the precision. Holy Hell. Heat blooms on the map were not always good indicators of an enemy presence. Cullers, and their tech, ran cooler than humans. But in the four degree temperatures on moon 7b2 they weren’t hard to spot. Maker could feel her stomach clenching, her shoulder aching, as she drew a red line with her finger across the display.

“This is the storm front. The dust blowing around right now is just a prelude for the mass that is moving this way. All that pressure, wind, and micro-debris was clouding sensors, both on the Kahlid and down here.” Awls, to his credit, didn’t interrupt, but allowed her a deep breath and a moment to continue. “There was already a ship here when we landed. It must have been, or we would have picked it up when it hit orbit. They just fired up their internal systems, so their heat signature has increased.”

“How many?”

That was the million credit question. She typed quickly into the console, double checking her estimates. Her hands were shaking and she clenched and unclenched them a few times, hoping the Major wouldn’t notice. “It’s a class Amber, I’m pretty sure. The system is giving me about seventy-two percent accuracy, but I’ve seen that configuration before. I did a paper on it at the academy.”

“Amber,” the Major repeated with a clenched jaw. “That’s at least two thousand.”

“Maximum capacity is estimated at twenty-one hundred,” Maker confirmed. Awls was considering the data, and Maker glanced at the display again, reading statistics as the outdated sensors provided them. She jumped forward, touching the scrolling information and pausing it, rolling it back.

“What is it?”

“It looks like…I don’t think they are running at full capacity.” Maker took another deep breath, steadying her nerves. She tried not to think about other times she had come up against Cullers. She failed. On the mining station. Three. At VK10. Thirteen. But not all at once. With the Raiders. One. And she had help with it. Given how those encounters had turned out for her physical well-being she knew it was fair to say that one Culler was more than she could be expected to handle. There were twelve ground forces on the moon. Two reporters. And four cael officers, including her.  The sheer numbers were so ridiculous she wasn’t sure her brain was really grasping the situation. Maker was intensely grateful for that. Before Awls could ask for an explanation, she continued, “There is a dense mass, here.” She painted a section of the Culler ship in blue. “It is emitting some strange radiation, this old data base doesn’t have any reference. But, it is taking up a huge portion of the ship. It doesn’t leave a lot of room for bodies. And the heat signatures don’t add up to nearly the maximum. I’d say…eight hundred to a thousand.” Still way too many.

“Do they know we’re here?”

“I doubt it, or they would be moving toward us. The storm is likely blocking their sensors the same way it did ours.”

“So they can fix it, like you did.”

“Yes, sir. But it will probably take them longer. They are in the middle of that interference, trying to look out.” Maker didn’t bother explaining the science behind sensor capacity and refracted signals. “They’ll have shorter range and need more power, and a better idea of where to look, in order to see us. But once they do-”

“I am aware, Lieutenant.” Awls leaned back against the opposite wall, staring at the display. “I want to know what they’ve got on that ship.”

“Sir, sensors-”

He interrupted her, “And I want the Kahlid to know everything we know.” He didn’t have to say it, the reason was obvious. No one would be left alive to report back. Not once the Cullers realized there were Coalition troops on the surface. Even if Awls had ordered a retreat and the ship was ready to go, there was no way a Runa could outrun an Amber. The ship were smaller and less deadly than a Red Class, but that made it much, much faster.

“Sir.” She paused and waited to see if he would interrupt again. “Sir, we do not have the signal strength for point-to-point communications. With the local Lagrange array down, even if we had the strength, it would take two days to get a message to Kahlid.”

“I am aware of the delay,” he sounded angry, and at any other time that might have concerned her. Given her impending death, dismemberment, and possible consumption – hopefully in that order – Maker found that irritating a superior officer didn’t register as particularly concerning. They sat in silence for a few minutes, during which Maker became increasingly aware of the smooth, hyper-sensitive skin over her shoulder wound. She stared at the Major’s crossed arms. He was missing two fingers on his left hand which hadn’t been regrown or replaced with tech. That same hand was covered in a spiderweb of scars that disappeared under the sleeve of his armor suit. Two different soldiers came looking for Awls. Both were waved away.

When he finally broke the silence, it was not what Maker expected. “Tell me about that storm. Is it moving?”

“Not significantly. But the data in our system suggests that meteorological disturbances on 7b2 like this tend to build slowly, then gain momentum.”

“What direction?”

“Every direction. These are seasonal storms that cover this hemisphere.”

“Time?”

Maker was confused, not sure where the Major was heading. “Maybe a couple of hours. Three if we’re lucky. But the temperature is going to drop then too. We’re heading into the shadow of the planet we are orbiting.”

“What do you know about the late 21st century, Lieutenant?”

“Ah,” Maker swallowed, still not sure if the Major had a point or was just trying to take his mind off the impending massacre. “It produced a lot of really bad movies?”

“I would debate that, some other time. The late 21st century had a lot of technical advancements, including a breakthrough in communications.” Maker glanced at the ancient console she had jury-rigged to a portable generator, but held back her disagreement. He continued, “They hadn’t quite got a handle on sub-wave theory yet, but they came up with a work around to allow what we consider middle-distance comms. A local triangulation network that transmitted to a grouping of targets on the other end. There should be some towers on the surface.”

Maker nodded, “Yes, sir. I already found one.” She turned to the display and highlighted it on the map.

“Find the others, and get them running.” He stood up straight and tapped against his bracer, inventorying his ammo. “We may not leave this moon, Lieutenant, but you better believe I won’t let the Cullers get away either.” Awls strode away, presumably to brief his squad, and Maker collapsed into the stool at the console. Her fingers flew over the interface, but her stupid, stupid brain was busy reminding her that she had asked her friends to help her out on the mission. Kerry and Gonzales would have been on the moon either way, but under pressure from Soon to find a crew she had recruited Bretavic and Rodriguez. They were going to die – because of her. She spent the next two hours drenched in guilt and fear.

The summons from Awls to the floor of the main building came just as she completed her final calculations. Maker ran down the stairs, tripping twice and banging her knee against the unforgiving concrete surface.

“-will close on our position,” Awls was saying. Except for the two soldiers stationed on the perimeter, his squad was gathered around him in a loose semi-circle. Kerry and Gonzales were slightly separate at one end with Bretavic and Rodriguez nearby. The news crew had set up out of the way and were filming. Maker gripped her tablet in one hand and her helmet in the other and hurried up between Kerry and Bretavic. “I want this base as secure as it can get. You have all noticed the weather is worsening, and things are not going to improve in the near future. Temperatures are dropping and when the storm actually hits, expect fluctuating visibility of no more than ten meters.” He glanced at Maker, and she nodded.

“I found the other towers, sir,” she stated quickly. “But they are offline. According to the database, they have plenty of stored fuel, but a manual restart is necessary to boot them up and link them to the comm system here. The first of the three is closest, but it will be hit by the storm front in the next forty minutes.” She relayed a map to the rest of the group. “The others are in the opposite direction on the far side of this base. You’ll have to move fast to start them in sequence and get back before the worst of the winds get to us.” She glanced down at her tablet as Awls selected the soldiers that would go with him to get Rodriguez to his destinations.

The Amber had fully started all of its ground systems. It was only a matter of time before the Cullers knew there was someone in the abandoned base.  Wind picked up outside, whistling against the sharp angles of the structure. Another sensor sweep completed, and Maker bit back a frustrated groan as new data slowly populated on her screen. Two heat blooms had separated from the Amber. They were headed for the base.

“Sir!” Another update started rewriting her screen. The objects were moving fast. “Urchins! Two of them headed-” An explosion rocked the base and dust fell from the ceiling. Soldiers took cover around her as Awls barked orders into a comm line. Maker snapped her helmet into place and tucked her tablet into a pocket just as another hit rocked the building. She fell, barely managing to roll with the impact, and came to an abrupt halt against a support column.

“With me!” Awls disappeared out the door, two-thirds of the squad following him. Maker didn’t have to hear to know his destination. The Runa, their only transport off of the moon and the best weapons they had, was sitting outside. Vulnerable except for the co-pilot and a single guard. Weapons fire accompanied the increased scream of the wind – not wind, she finally recognized. Ships. The Urchins were performing bombing runs.

Gonzales spoke over the proximity comm. “Lieutenant Maker, orders?”

Awls was busy, and Maker was technically second-in-command. The next highest ranking officer. She glanced around wildly. The reporters had wedged open the door and were filming from the entryway. Smoke and dust was billowing into the large chamber from one of the smaller wings. A soldier was flat on his back, a part of the mezzanine railing had broken off and pinned him to the ground. Her mind was blank, her heart lodged somewhere in her pelvis where it was too afraid to even beat.

“LT.” Rodriguez said quietly over his proximity comm. He had been knocked to the floor as well, and was struggling to get up. He was there because she had asked him.

“Gonzales,” she snapped. “Get that man up and under the support structure. You,” she pinged another other soldier whose name was listed on her display but that she didn’t take the time to read. “Get those reporters down and inside. Now. Kerry, support fire.” He nodded and picked up a heavy gun from their meager supplies and hustled out the door. She offered Rodriguez a hand and as soon as he was standing pushed him toward the stairs. “This base must have some primitive defenses. Find out what they are and get them working.” He didn’t reply but took off at a run. She pulled her tablet and glanced at the map. Four more Urchins had taken off. One blipped off the screen moments later – possibly lost or downed in the storm. The others veered off course from the base. She shoved the data back into her pocket while she alerted Awls to the incoming targets. Maker relieved Gonzales, ordering her to back up Kerry, and did a quick exam of the injured soldier. His suit had taken the brunt of the impact, but he had the wind knocked out of him. Bruised ribs, maybe one or two cracked, were the worst of his injuries. She pulled his med kit while he gasped for air and toggled the inventory for a stimulant and pain suppressant. He was sitting up in moments.

Another explosion sounded outside, but further away. Maker focused her tech on the team stats. Two soldiers were dead. Another three wounded, including Awls and the co-pilot. Kerry spoke into the unit comm line as an Urchin screamed overhead. “Both targets,” he paused and a crash shook the ground, followed by a series of small explosions, “down.”

Maker jerked out her tablet out again while the ground forces collected wounded and bodies and retreated into the base. The sensors refreshed twice, but no more Urchins appeared to be moving their way. Yet. A mass of heat had left the Amber and broken into two factions. She couldn’t tell what direction they were going. “Rodriguez, status.” Kerry came in with the heavy gun in one hand and Awls slung over his opposite shoulder. The Major was awake, and she tracked his orders on a separate line as he sent two soldiers out to secure a perimeter. Sensors refreshed again and she cursed her inability to link the base to the tech in her suit as another Urchin abruptly winked out. Two others made a turn somewhere to the south of the base and then headed back to the Amber.

“I found it. We have a couple of rail guns – old school – and what amounts to an electromagnetic fence. No kinetic gel, just a surface armament of ceramic plates. Great for taking few hits from laser cannons or heavy projectiles, but useless against actual infantry.”

“Anything you can get working, do it.”

“On it.”

Kerry set Awls down next to her. An arched opening to one of the intact wings of the structure was the best protection from falling debris, should the building collapse. He bit down on a sound of protest, but the medic was there in an instant, reviewing his vitals and preparing an injection. One of the Major’s arms was blackened and hung limply at his side. He awkwardly removed his helmet with the other. Maker set up a priority line for battle comms between all the soldiers and ordered Gonzales to keep an eye on the news crew, who were far too excited and ready to film for Maker’s taste.

“My tech is out,” Awls said through gritted teeth. “Get me my tablet.”  She fished it out of his pocket, unfolded it, and quickly sent over her own data. He held out an open palm for it. “Report.”

“No more fighters on the horizon at the moment, but the Amber can carry another twenty, so I expect another wave once their sensors figure out they lost the first two. The storm is picking up speed and they have Cullers on the ground – no indication of targets yet.”

“Defenses?”

“Mechanics is working on it.” Awls snapped at a soldier and directed him to assist Rodriguez. When his eyes focused on her helmet again, Maker couldn’t help but note that one pupil was slightly larger than the other. The medic would have noticed, but he was prioritizing the shrapnel that had lodged in the commanding officer’s side.

“If they weren’t going after the ship intentionally before, they will now. Get it inside.” Maker nodded and it was the work of nearly twenty minutes for the soldiers to force the huge overhead bay door up so that Bretavic could maneuver the Runa in. Maker was busy cataloging the injuries that the medic found and trying to keep tabs on Rodriguez and the reporters, but even she noticed the damage to the ship. Although the stabilizer that was broken during landing had been repaired, the outer hull had taken a serious hit. Two long gauges in the plating exposed the gel underneath which had bubbled up and hardened upon contact with the atmosphere. The engine was hot as well, glowing in a way that should have only happened during ISG field creation and collapse. Bretavic requested a direct comm to the Major and Maker patched him through. Whatever he had to say, she knew it had to be bad if he wouldn’t simply walk off the ship and state it in person. In front of the others.

“Sir, the ISG is completely useless. The sublight engine has taken damage and is overheating. I’m not sure if we could reach escape velocity for takeoff, and if we do I do not recommend spooling up the ISG. Radiation leaks are within acceptable limits for the moment, but any power demand from the ISG could fracture the containment system.”

Maker missed Awls’ response as Rodriguez opened a line to her. “I need to speak to the Major.”

“Hold,” she said, interrupting the current conversation. Awls indicated she should put Rodriguez on the line with Bretavic. The bold mechanic did not mince words.

“I can give you guns or a fence, not both, and that’s only if I tap into the power systems on the ship.” Bretavic informed him of the damage, and Rodriguez cursed. “Er, sorry, sir.”

“How long could we maintain a fence against infantry attacks?”

“Indefinitely, I’d say. But that won’t stop anything airborn. And we have a more pressing problem.” Maker couldn’t think what could possibly be more pressing than their imminent deaths. “The first communications tower is down.” Maker tore through various command screens on her tablet, frustrated by the wait for her system to sync with the base. Confirmation came too slowly, and far more quickly than she would have liked.

“Confirmed, sir. Station one has been hit.” She flicked back to her map. “Urchins are moving back home. No additional units in range.

“You have twenty minutes to bring me a solution, Sergeant.”

“Yes, sir,” Rodriguez replied.

Maker assisted the medic and ran comms, sending Awls information as it came in since his suit was malfunctioning. Twenty-one minutes later, Rodriguez appeared at the bottom of the stairs, his helmet missing. Maker could feel the news crew creeping closer, trying to get the conversation recorded and no doubt eager to put the idiot mechanic’s handsome face in the next breaking report feed. She shot a quick directive to Gonzales, who moved to intercept the camera.

“Options, Sergeant.” Awls was still as brisk and hard as ever, but analgesics had kicked in, allowing him to concentrate on the problem. Not that Maker was sure it would do any good. Fix the weapons, and we can shoot until we run out of munitions. Fix the fence and we can hide until Cullers can bomb the roof down on top of us. Fix the ship and we can be shot down in orbit. Fix the communications problems and the Coalition will know where to find our corpses. A sense of unreality was beginning to set in for her. There was no winning solution.

“I can compartmentalize the fence and manually flash it on and off in sections, allowing us to use it and one of the rail guns. That is all I can squeeze out of the available power.”

Awls’ most experienced soldier, Kiwidinok, had completed inventory and squatted down next to the Major and Rodriguez, her weight balanced on the balls of her feet. “We can last thirty-six, maybe forty-eight hours with what we have. Possibly more if the storm slows their progress and keeps the waves of attack smaller.”

“Comms is the priority,” Awls responded. Maker actually dropped the spare med kit she was holding and stared at the small group on the other side of the room. Two days to get a signal to Kahlid, then at least another day or two for Captain Jones to return for them  – if she could. No communication was going to save them, and the Cullers would be long gone by the time any Coalition forces arrived. A quiet voice whispered in the back of her mind that the aliens had made fortifications before, at VK10. They might do it again.

“I might have an idea there,” Rodriguez said quickly. “It will take some time, and I could use Maker or someone with technical training to help, but I think I can reroute the signal and use this base as the third tower. I’ll have to borrow a few circuits from the ship, but it can be done.”

“Do it.” Awls was breathing shallowly and Maker picked up the kit she had dropped, scrolling through his med stats and moving toward him.

“We have another issue,” Rodriguez continued at the same time that Kiwidinok said,

“We have a slight problem.”  The two glanced at each other over Awls head. Rodriguez motioned that she should go first. Kiwidinok removed her helmet and brushed shiny black hair away from her razor sharp cheekbones. “We’re down to one land transport. They were both prepped and ready when the Urchins showed up. The one left runs, but I wouldn’t load it to capacity or the frame might collapse.”

“The manual override in each tower is going to require that someone be there, in person, to enter the command to connect once it has booted up. The instructions are pretty simple – unless,” he shrugged and pulled his face into a strange apology, “something else goes wrong. If we had an extra tech I would say send them. Just in case.”

Awls’ usually bronzed skin had taken on an ashen quality. “How much weight can the transport hold?”

“I wouldn’t put more than two on it,” Kiwidinok replied. “And that is taking a risk. Definitely not Kerry or anyone close to his size.” Maker arrived just as Awls’ eyes began to roll back. With a moan and a flick of his wrist, he jabbed another transdermal syringe against his thigh. She watched as his stats rose again. Ampakines, amphetamines, and eugeronics flooded his system. His eyes opened wide and his heart rate rose. So did his blood pressure. The coagulants holding his injuries together held, but Maker wondered how many times the Major could force himself to remain alert before it caused permanent damage. He took several deep breaths and waved the medic away. Unfortunately, Awls was not the worst of the wounded.

“Kiwidinok,” he said, his voice stronger, “take Maker and get those towers running. Rodriguez, grab whomever has the best training and get to work on those systems. Shut down any non-essential systems. That includes heat and oxygen enrichers.” He opened a comm line to the entire unit, but Maker could barely concentrate on the words as her own assignment sank in. “Split into two teams and rotate between perimeter defense and recoup. Get your helmets on and your suits charged. It is going to get cold in here.”

Maker must have responded correctly, but she couldn’t have said if she saluted or not as she found herself woodenly following the tall soldier outside. They were alone with a thousand Cullers, and she was preparing to drive into a deadly storm so that Awls could send a message. Kiwidinok spoke over the proximity comm as she pushed open the door.

“Chin up, Lieutenant,” she said. “maybe we’ll get the opportunity to blow holes in a few lobsters before backup arrives.”

“Do you have any idea what the chances of that are?” Maker stared. Kiwidinok flashed a brilliant white smile and then snapped her helmet into place.

“Pretty good, I’d say. I’m an excellent marksman.”

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