Can You Hear Me Now?
Year 2153, Day 006, Hour 0100
Impacoral. Noun. Proprietary plasma compound designed to absorb kinetic energy. The compound remains in a liquid state until sufficient kinetic force collides with it. Upon collision, the compound hardens, absorbing the energy, and then re-liquefies. It is commonly found in vehicle safety restraints, personal and structural armor systems, and medical immobilization devices. The Sol Coalition utilizes a generic substitute for enlisted personnel combat suits.
Maker fought the urge to press her palms against the side of her head. It would not help her hear Rodriguez any better – given that his voice was being projected into her subdermal transceiver, nor would it alleviate the growing headache at the base of her skull – given that she was wearing her helmet. It was a good thing she had it. The transport had sustained more damage than just a weakened frame during the attack on the base. The heat and atmospheric controls were completely ruined. Without them, the below freezing temperatures on the moon would have resulted in exposure conditions for anyone not properly armored. Kiwidinok drove through the worsening storm while Maker tried everything she knew to boost the comms signal.
“…dust is causing interference. It should get better with each tower you activate.”
“No shit, Fuzz. Is that how communications systems work?”
“Your sarcasm has no effect on me, LT. I just meant….” He faded away and Maker had to tighten her hold on the stabilizer bar as the transport bumped over a series of rocky hills. “…sweeps. I’ve been keeping an eye on those heat blooms. Watch out for…” He cut out again and Maker cursed.
“Could you try to stay on higher ground?”
“This isn’t a scenic tour, princess,” Kiwidinok also had her helmet secured, but Maker could hear the smile in her voice. “But I’ll do my best.”
“If this takes more than two hours,” Maker swore, “I am not above killing the skipper and using his corpse to canoe home.” She readjusted her frequency again, trying to get Rodriguez back.
“Skipper?” Kiwidinok pulled a sharp turn as a rock appeared out of the blowing sand and dust right in their path. They narrowly avoided driving off the edge of a sharp decline before she got the transport back under control.
Maker braced one foot against the dash and held her tablet still against her thigh. “Fat floats better,” she said absently. “Gilligan deserved it more, but he was too -”
“Maker? Lieutenant Maker, come in. Come-”
“Maker here.” She slapped Kiwidinok on the arm as they crested another hill and the transport came to a halt abrupt enough to activate the gel in her armor suit as she was forced against her safety restraint.
“The storm is getting worse. I’m going to lose you soon, but you need to know those Cullers are moving. They’ve split into smaller groups, but I can’t guess direction yet. You need…signal…disturbances…ground yourself or better yet, insulate. Just don’t…” Maker did what she could to get him back, but gave up after less than two minutes. The storm was getting worse, and they had no time to spare.
Kiwidinok complied, and they remained silent until a particularly thick patch of dust obscured the ground in front of them and they were airborne for a few seconds. With a disappointing crunch and grind they landed, protected somewhat from the wind by a large rock formation. They wasted precious minutes locating a target for the winch grappler, then Maker took the wheel while Kiwidinok fired. A barbed claw, a little larger than Maker’s fist flew out from under the front bumper. It caught on the stone lip of the shallow ravine the transport had fallen into. With a hiss of hydraulics, the winch tightened, winding and pulling the transport up. Maker breathed a sigh of relief as they made it to the top. Her death grip on the wheel began to ease. She recalculated their route, and had just put the transport into drive when the crack of thunder ripped through the air.
Instantly, the storm around them lit up with a purplish glow. Lightning arched and jumped through the air. Not connecting the sky and the ground. Horizontally. Directly in front of the transport. Not five meters away.
“I guess we should ground ourselves?” Kiwidinok said rhetorically.
“Yeah,” Maker responded with a dry mouth and fear still causing her heart to beat sideways in her chest. A little closer and the two soldiers would have been less rare and more well done. “Rodriguez occasionally gives good advice.”
Lightning burst between dust clouds more and more often as they closed on their target. A massive column, the band wider than her forearm, descended on the hood of the transport as Maker pulled to a stop. It burst on impact, shattering and splitting into thousands of hairline fractures of electric shock – dancing across the vehicle and wrapping them in a grip of charged purple light. The tires and rubberized interior insulated them from the shock. It took nearly a minutes for it to dissipate. The computer system in the vehicle began to reboot, and the engine was still working. The tech in Maker’s suit alerted her to high concentrations of x-rays and gamma radiation. Anti-matter, found in trace amounts in lightning strikes on Earth, was present in comparatively massive amounts. A warning flashed on her display that her environment was hazardous to her health. You don’t say.
As soon as the charge had faded Kiwidinok was out of the transport with Maker close behind. The tower did not look like much in the limited visibility of the storm. A squatty bunker hugged the ground. Thick lattice work made of reinforced carbon protected the actual communications sensors as they rose high into the air above, disappearing into a cloud of almond-white dust. Maker struggled with the door when the wind caught it, but eventually slammed it closed against the storm outside. She turned and gracelessly tripped down the steps that lead to the small room that was almost entirely underground.
“I found the generator,” Kiwidinok called out. The night vision on Maker’s display picked out the other soldier’s form, crouched over a portable nuclear bloom box. She manually primed it, and the indicator lights began to glow. “Power systems are warming up.”
Maker turned to the console. It was covered in a layer of fine powder. Decades had passed since the system had auto-deployed. She could only hope there was nothing seriously wrong with it after so much time unused. The process was painfully slow, waiting for the antiquated system to boot up and run through diagnostics. The display system was useless – flickering occasionally to bathe the room in yellow light before crashing again. Adaptive software to link her tablet to the console made the sequence grind to a near halt. Kiwidinok actually placed one finger over the progress bar, just to see if it was actually moving.
“You’re not helping,” Maker muttered, longing for a painkiller and an ice pack for her head.
“To be fair,” Kiwidinok replied as she took up a guard position at the door, “you don’t really look like you’re helping either.”
After nearly twenty minutes, Maker’s tablet pinged with a notification that systems had been activated and were working properly. She took a temporary storage drive from her pocket and laid it out on the console. It would download the appropriate software into the tower’s console and continue to link with the base. She tapped directly into the tower’s signal to send a comm to Rodriguez.
“Base-niner, here,” he responded quickly. Maker was surprised by his use of formal comm etiquette. She wondered if Awls was looking over the mechanic’s soldier. “Go ahead, Zulu.” It was the same designation given to any unusual mission team, there was no reason for the name to make her stomach cramp. That knowledge did not make her feel better.
“This is Zulu. Tower One is up and running. Signal should be active for you in -” Maker glanced at the console, “five seconds.”
“This is Base. Storm is worsening and moving east. Heat blooms indicate a large Culler presence is targeting the base. A second ship has entered orbit. Classification unknown due to interference.” He paused, and for the first time in her life Maker hoped the wind would blow. Hard. So fast and mercilessly that the Cullers couldn’t close on their target. “We have your signal. Loud and clear, Zulu. Move on to the second tower. Double time. Over.”
It had been vital to be quick, to get to the towers before the storm got so violent that no signal could escape the atmosphere. Now Maker was up against a new deadline: get comms running before Rodriguez was too busy defending his life to send a message.
“This is Zulu. Roger, Base. Wil-co.” She nodded to Kiwidinok who was already standing at the door.
“LT,” Rodriguez said in a rush. Awls must have left the room. “Watch your ass. There are several smaller groups of Cullers coming your way. They’re close. The heat signature for the comms tower is shielded by the ground – they shouldn’t notice it unless they are close enough to see it through the dirt out there. But you will be easy to track once you are on open ground.”
Maker took a deep breath. Rodriguez was an idiot. A beautiful, frustrating, pain-in-her-behind and one day his gloating over cards was going to land him a broken nose. But he was her friend. Even with the enemy bearing down on him he was still worried about her welfare. It was against regulation and completely unnecessary – she was just as likely to die on 7b2 as he was – but it was nice to know she had friends.
“Watch your own ass, moron. And get off the comm. I have work to do. Zulu, out.” She disconnected the comm and folded her tablet back into the chest pocket on her uniform, leaving it unzipped in case she needed to access it quickly.
“Get the door,” Kiwidinok put away her Klim and tugged the heavy rifle off of her back, aiming it at the entrance. Maker took out her own service weapon and waited until Kiwidinok gave her a nod, then hit the door latch.
With a bang, the wind caught the door like a sail, slamming it back against the wall of the bunker. Kiwidinok came out low and fast, charging up the stairs with knees bent and her weapon and eyes moving in a sweeping pattern. Maker followed, keeping her own aim off set from her partner’s. When Kiwidinok turned to check the roof, Maker stepped past her, guarding her back and moving toward the transport. She was halfway there and looking west when her headache began to pound. She turned on her proximity comm, bracing for the sound of wind that nearly drowned out her comm link with Kiwidinok. Under the whistle of air moving over metal and the scraping grit of sand grinding across her own helmet, Maker heard something else that gripped her spine with ice.
Two of them. Capture the one. Kill the other.
“To your left!”
Heavy rifle fire pierced the air before Maker could turn. A large-caliber projectile caught one Culler in mid-jump, one leg still braced against the hood of the transport as it leaped toward Maker. The force of the impact sent it toppling backward. The second bullet missed, but Kiwidinok followed it rapidly with a third that ripped through a lower limb. The alien screamed, its shrieks lost to the wind even as it dug its talons into the ground and kept moving.
Humans are here!
It was a location call, Maker knew instinctively. Her hunch was backed up by another far distant shriek. She could barely hear it, but the meaning was as clear to her as though the speaker were whispering in her ear. Maker shivered at the imaginary sensation of mucus dripping onto her shoulder.
Stop them! We are coming!
Kiwidinok fired again, and a third Culler fell just as it was becoming visible through the dust. Maker’s hand was shaking, or maybe her vision was wobbling, but she could barely aim to hit the wounded Culler. It collapsed and a fourth alien charged out of the storm.
“Start the transport!”
Maker outranked Kiwidinok, but she wouldn’t argue good advice. She ran for the vehicle, sliding to a stop on the small gravel that coated the ground. Her hand slipped on the handle and she had to try again, fighting to open the door against the wind. Heavy rifle fire kept up a staccato percussion, along with the other soldier’s grunts of effort and curses. The engine turned over and she whipped the steering wheel, forcing the wheels into a tight turn to come up behind Kiwidinok. Maker leaned across the seat and opened the door, and the taller woman backed into the transport, still firing.
She didn’t wait for confirmation but took off as soon as Kiwidinok had both feet inside. Her door bounced open and remained that way until Maker rammed into third gear. She was travelling too fast, too carelessly through the thick dirt and unfamiliar terrain. But she couldn’t slow down. She could still hear them, behind her. Screaming at each other.
Get the others!
Kiwidinok knelt backward in her seat, prepared to wedge open her door and fire behind them if anything came into view. Maker gripped with wheel hard enough that her hands began to loose feeling. The navigational display guided their route, but the wind was getting stronger. It rocked the vehicle every time they crested a hill and the dirt was so thick Maker could barely see five meters in front of her. The Cullers were following. She knew because she could still hear them. Faintly. Impossibly in the storm and with the distance. But she could. The cut of their voice sent hot needles of pain through the base of her skull. Needles that vibrated and twitched with every rock and trench they bumped over.
The air was growing darker. If the moon was turning from the sun or the shadow of the parent planet covering the surface, Maker couldn’t tell. Lightning, purple and jagged at the edges and an angry white-hot in the core, slashed through the air in front of them. Maker slammed on the brakes in an attempt to avoid it, but it was pointless. The energy split, crackling and careening out through the wind in a charged halo of death. Two thick bolts shot out on either side of the transport and then reconnected – right through the engine. The display exploded in a shower of sparks and the motor died. Kiwidinok was thrown backward through the windshield. The force of her movement shattered the plastiglass and her body bowed into a C shape as she flew out into the storm. Maker whipped against her safety restraints. Helmet connected hard with steering wheel. Her teeth snapped down, biting the end of her tongue. Her mouth filled with blood. The lighting faded, but she couldn’t see through the green and white afterimage burned onto her retina. The sound of Cullers had faded, but was still very much present.
Maker opened the door and was jerked back into her seat by the safety restraints. She struggled to unlatch them while she spoke into the team comm.
“Kiwidinok. Can you hear me?” Medical stats on her display showed that the soldier was breathing, heart rate steady, but her suit was reporting possible concussion. She tripped as soon as she stepped out, wrenching her ankle in a twenty-centimeter deep rut. Maker fell flat on her face, knocking the wind out of her. She rolled onto her back and used the fender of the transport to pull herself up, swallowing a mouthful of blood. “Kiwidinok. Do you-”
“We’re here.” The response was weak, but her vitals were improving. Maker still couldn’t see her. “The tower. I found it. With my head.”
Maker hunched over against the gusts as she moved away from the shelter of the transport. A blue location marker blinked on her map, showing her that Kiwidinok was straight ahead. She stumbled several times, and the wind caught her more than once – pulling her off of her feet and setting her down again harshly on her sore ankle. After a minute of struggle, she could barely make out a low shadow through the dirt. Another few steps and she could see the dark grey of Kiwidinok’s suit and helmet, struggling to stand against the wall of the bunker.
“The door must be on the other side.” Maker slid across the last few meters, nearly running into the other soldier. “Lean on me. They’re coming up behind us.” She swallowed again as they felt their way around the building. Her tongue was bleeding less, but the taste of copper was strong in her mouth, churning in her stomach, and wet on her chin. Kiwidinok found the door, but couldn’t seem to get it open with only one hand. Maker propped her against the wall and threw her weight backward. It came open suddenly, tossing her on her ass. Kiwidinok was swaying, so Maker struggled to her feet and pulled the other woman into the bunker. She barely got the door shut – a gust nearly ripped her out into the storm. When she turned around, Kiwidinok was slumped over the portable generator, trying to get it started. Her helmet was off, despite the below freezing temperatures even inside. Maker could see a contusion already forming on the side of her head. Her eyes were a little unfocused, but the pupils were the same size.
She walled off any concern she might have had. They did not have time for it. “I’ll get the..” Maker reached into her chest pocket. It was empty. Frantically, she searched the other pockets on her suit. She ran through the devices on her belt. She searched the pocket again. Her tablet was gone. She could feel the blood leaving her face. Ice trickled down her spine. Her head pounded.
She had to go back out. Out into the storm. Where the Cullers would see her heat signature, but she wouldn’t be able to see them. Her stomach flipped. Fear and blood churned and rippled, threatening to make her vomit. “I dropped it,” she whispered.
“Your tablet? Shit.” Kiwidinok finished priming the generator and pushed away to stand. She swayed and had to grab onto a support beam to keep from falling. “I’ll get it. You get the console started up.” She took one step, then another, and she was turning, sliding, falling to the floor. Maker winced in pain as her wrenched ankle took all of her weight, but it supported her as she jumped down the stairs to catch the other woman. Kiwidinok’s much larger frame collapsed against her, pressing her against the console.
“Sit down before you fall down,” Maker ordered. She turned on the console and waited until she was sure it was getting enough power. “Watch here,” she pointed at the display. “When it asks for a command, type ‘Run Diag’, got it?”
“Yeah, but this is your job, Lieutenant,” Kiwidinok argued. She slurred the rank a little. “You are here to fix comms. I am here to shoot Cullers.” She reached back for her rifle and nearly fell off the high stool.
“And if they come in here, I’m sure you’ll give ‘em hell. I know where I lost it, I can get it faster.”
Kiwidinok frowned, clearly trying and failing to focus on Maker’s face. “Take this, then. They can’t have fallen very far behind.” She held out the heavy gun.
“I can barely see past my hand out there – that isn’t going to do me much good.”
“It weighs almost ten kilograms. With this wind it will keep you from being pushed around.”
Maker took it without arguing further. She understood Kiwidinok’s logic, but she could also hear the Cullers getting closer. The wind wouldn’t blow her over with that gun on her back – but she couldn’t run as fast either. She repeated her instructions and then went outside, forcing the door closed behind her. The shrieking scrape of Culler language intensified the moment she stepped outside.
They were close. Maker began to run. Her brain fought with her legs. Towards the enemy seemed like a fatally stupid idea. Still, she ran, pushing into the wind and bending over nearly double. She tripped. From the corner of her eye, as she fell, a Culler talon emerged from the storm and passed through the space she had just occupied. Maker rolled away, a scream trapped in her throat. She pulled her service weapon, cursing herself for not having it out to begin with. The Culler was faster. It dropped one talon down so close to her leg it tore through the outer covering on her suit, releasing a spray of kinetic gel. The other talon came down just as she fired. It was a combination of bad luck and shaking hands that the projectile hit the talon directly. Both Maker and the Culler stopped for a moment, watching the tip snap off and cracks snake up the bony weapon. A second later, the alien screeched.
It pulled up its uninjured talon, but Maker was ready. She fired four more times. Point blank. Which of the shots pierced the shell, she didn’t know. It did not matter. The Culler stumbled, and she crab walked away from it as it fell. Her back ran into the transport, but she didn’t have time to feel relief as another Culler charged into view. Maker dodged and it slammed against the front of the vehicle. Its legs got tangled in the dead body on the ground, and Maker used the few precious moments to scramble around to the side and climb into the transport. The heavy rifle was too long for her back, getting stuck on the door and keeping her from sitting down all the way. The Culler came at her over the hood, another on its heels. Purple lightning flashed in the middle distance.
Lightning had fried the software, but the engine started when she hit the button. Maker floored the accelerator. Loose gravel spit out behind the wheels, flying up into the open door and pinging against her helmet. As soon as she had traction, Maker jerked the wheel hard to her right and the Culler on the hood slid to the side, talons gouging into the metal. She bumped over another- the body or a live enemy she couldn’t be sure. She couldn’t see anything but white-brown dirt, grey skin and chitin, and huge black eyes. Everything came to a halt suddenly and Maker slammed against the steering wheel. She bit her tongue again. Her helmet cracked diagonally across her vision. The backlash tossed her out of the open door of the transport and she skidded along the ground for several meters. Her ears were ringing. Her neck was wet with blood.
She turned her head to spit rather than swallow the coppery liquid. Within arm’s reach was her tablet. Lying on the ground next to the rut where she had twisted her ankle. Well, she thought dazedly, that was lucky.
An electric shock passed through her body, centering on a spot of lava-hot pain at her right shin. Her vision tunneled and then went black for a moment. When she came to, she was being dragged by one arm.
They were passing the ruined transport. Maker reached up with one hand and unclasped her glove. With a yank she was free and she scrambled under the vehicle. She had to lay flat on her belly to clear the twisted running board, but once underneath there was enough space to roll over. The Culler screamed in fury. The sound stabbed at her brain and she could not help but slap her hands over the sides of her helmet. She could see it pacing back and forth, its feet making tracks that were blown away within seconds. Maker struggled to think of what she could do. She reached for her Klim, but it was gone.
Another shocking wave hit her back, making her muscles clench and her eyes roll back in her head. She seized, the involuntary motion rolling her away from the new attacker and towards the first Culler. It then shoved an electrically charged staff under the vehicle, and Maker was forced to roll again. The defense would not work for long. If the two aliens timed their attack, they would be able to pin her between their staffs. Maker scooted up, towards the front of the vehicle and the dripping appendages that had been severed upon impact of the transport with the bunker. She held the barbed head of the grappler in her gloved hand while she reached the other up under the plate that protected the engine from debris. She was forced to jerk her legs out of the way as another staff probed for her, crackling. Finally, her hand closed over the control box for the grappler. She yanked hard, desperate to pull it down where she could see it and hopefully make it work. A staff found her knee and she seized again. The sudden clench of her muscles ripped the box from its mounting. The grappler fired.
Screams filled the air. Some were Maker’s; her hand was smoking, fragments of her remaining glove had been torn away and left her hand bleeding and covered in a thin coating of kinetic gel. There was too much language. Too much pain and noise for her to make out what was being said, but then the first Culler fell. It thrashed, clawing at the grappler that had entered under the plating at the knee and exited through the back of the thigh. Blood – pink-grey and thick – poured from the wound, spraying against the ground and the vehicle. Maker swallowed bile and rolled out. She cleared the twitching remains and tried to stand. She had one hand on the heavy rifle, trying to bring it around to defend herself.
The second Culler was already waiting. The staff hit her in the shoulder. Hard. The force combined with a gust of wind and Maker was knocked off her feet and pushed ten meters away. She hit the ground face first, her helmet splintering into a spiderweb of fractures. Move, move, move, she chanted to herself over the cacophony of screaming Cullers, wind, and weapons fire. She rolled over, pulling the rifle with her and aiming. The Culler had already braced one foot on either side of her. He raised his staff over his head, the energy in it audibly charging, as Maker raised the barrel of her gun.
Purple lightning cracked through the air. It found an opposite charge in the staff and locked on, brightening and increasing in intensity until Maker had to shield her face. In an instant, it was over. The Culler crumpled. Maker might have sat stunned until it was too late, if not for the tech in her suit trying to reboot and shorting out. Another Culler was approaching through the dust. Maker scrambled to her knees and crawl-ran towards her tablet. Her fingers closed around the edge and she clasped it to her chest as something grabbed her bad ankle. It twisted, cutting and pulling. She flipped over, the motion throwing her up into the air and then slamming her back against the ground. Her eyes closed involuntarily against the pain. Her faceplate shattered. Crumbs of plastiglass fell across her cheeks and nose.
The Culler was leaning over her, pressing its slimy padded finger-tubules against her forehead and temples, grinding the helmet shards into her skin. Its eyes flashed silver at the edges.
Maker fired the heavy rifle. The kick back slammed the butt into her armpit, and she felt the joint dislocat with a sickening grind. She fired again. And again. The volume of the screams in the distance increased, along with the pounding in her head and the pulses of black at the edges of her vision. By the time she ran out of ammo, there was nothing left but a pile of viscous meat spread across her legs and staining the pale dirt of the ground.
Maker let her head fall back. The wind picked up. Freezing dust blew across her face and stuck to the tiny scratches and sticky blood on her skin. She closed her eyes against the sting.