I couldn’t breathe. My heart was plastered to the roof of my mouth.
Gone. By the goddesses. Everything is gone. Oh no…no no no. Everything! The galaxy has opened up and swallowed…everyone who was there. Five hundred legs from where I stand, it’s all gone. Chief Karran. Jax. Pilage. Roark the mechanic. That guy Mimms. No one’s left. They’re all…
I wanted to walk over and see it, see the charred, smoking bones of what used to be Base. Destruction. Emptiness. The hole. It seemed impossible.
Something stopped me—some shred of sense. Even if the blast managed to wipe out all the Mitties, someone would be left. All it took was for one set of eyes to spot me—movement in a hole where there shouldn’t be—and we’d be found. We’d be known.
“What now, Captain?” someone asked. Esch.
Dhani looked at me, too. The thing we’d all feared, even selfishly, had just occurred. Defeat in battle. Loss of the base and everyone in it. Loss of our only means off this planet. It could be that we were the only Humanoids left alive on P-75, at the moment.
But that would change.
Goddesses, we are screwed!
I clenched my teeth, fighting down vomit. It was my show, now. My command. The ranking officer, if by chance.
I checked the ‘safety’ on my rifle. Now seemed to be a good time, with it pointed at the steaming floor. The sharpness of the stink was from the crystal burn. It went—the charges worked. Our side had the nerve to deny their side the thing they sought. Victory.
The black tunnel around us had potential only for one thing—a way to get somewhere else.
“We need to find a way off this rock.”
Bohlshivra meant a pair of supply craft parked at Base’s rear platform. They were capable of getting a few supplies and crew into orbit, but probably wouldn’t have fuel for more than that. And that’s if they survived the blast, which sounded ludicrous in my mind.
“Nah, they’re gone,” Esch said. “If those guys were too dumb to flee, those things are history.”
“That is safe reasoning,” Prubius said. “Only solid mountain would have saved them from destruction.”
My friend was probably right. The ceiling above apparently belonged to the part of the mountain which wasn’t blown open. It would’ve taken more than a miracle for those vehicles to be intact.
“But we have to find out,” Dhani protested. “What if?”
“We can find out from a distance.”
They looked at me.
“Check for a map. This place has a network of caves, right? The geo reports said so. Now, we’ve got five or six hours of daylight left.”
“Probably five,” Bohlshivra said.
“And we’d be fools to think that blast got all the Mitties, right? Or that the next boat-load isn’t on its way down here right now. So, we take what we can and put as much distance between ourselves and Base by sundown.”
I could hardly believe my suggestion. It was a command, now. I hadn’t even set foot outside Base since I got here. Now, for better or worse, the five of us were to embark on an uncharted exploration of an unpopulated, icy world? Some order.
“Seriously?” Esch asked.
I shot back, “I’m open to ideas.” This argument would be quick.
“There is no other logical course of action,” Bohlshivra said, going to the bin. “It is time to become creative.”
Creative is right.
Of the seven Humanoid species in contact in the galaxy—Humans like myself used ‘Humanoid’ whereas Pashunderrans would use a ‘Z’-word—four were united under the T.U. flag. Those from Pashunderra were identical in size and shape to us Humans. They’d evolved on a rocky world where, for millennia, they weren’t the dominant species. Much of the planet knew giant, unintelligent scorpions as the dominant predator. If memory serves, the blue skin and red hair—unbelievably—gave them camouflage among the mineral-rich rock. They learned to make tools and cultivate crops and stand still when threatened, counting on the scorpions’ poor eyesight under the weak sun to grant them another day. Life changed the moment an ancestor realized sparks would set the large pigrahb plant afire. They were saved by flame. Fifty thousand years of evolution, however, hadn’t taken away their great coloring.
Tchushkins come from the mostly-desert planet of Tchushkolarya. Like Bohl, they’re generally a bit taller and broader than Humans. From what I’d seen, females have the size advantage over males. Their lavender-hued skin and larger, dark eyes gives them protection from the sun, which is so brutal that most of the population now lives in the canyons. I couldn’t recall if they had body hair and lost it over eons, or never had it at all. Instead of hair, Tchushkins have crips—two-foot long tapering tendrils that emerge from the top rear of the skull and hang down. Often, they’re arranged by fashionable clips or, in Bohl’s case, tucked under a winter-weather cowl. The crips have nerves for feeling and some sensation (like geologically-threatening vibrations) but can’t move on their own as appendages. Males have two, girls and women have three. Like the Pashunderrans, their tendencies ran to the less-aggressive side of things.
The Heloppikans were with us, but I’d only seen one or two during my training time, and none here on P-75. Shorter, paler, black-haired people from Helops, their reputation was for being a bit edgy. No surprise as their planet had just emerged from a 23-year conflict. Though they likely hated the Mitties, there wasn’t enough political will or resources to unite with us—officially—and risk being dragged right back into brutal conflict. Their planet was a rainy land of scavengers and memorials.
Mitasterites are, by the course, just like Humans. They have gray skin and prominent, ridged noses. The last of the seven races to enter the modern age—computing devices and space travel—it may be their population missed a few thousand years of necessary psychological evolution. Two hundred years ago, when Tchushkin explorers first visited the planet to say hello, Mitasteros’ inhabitants were just beginning work with root medicines, digging tools and wind power for sailing ships. Many were entrenched in a violent religion. They got to leap ahead when they should’ve had to crawl, like the rest of us.
To be fair, a few Mitties joined us—fierce fighters who simply didn’t believe the horse-satok propaganda from “home.” The vast majority, however, were willing participants in the terrible war machine. And that war machine had set its sights on P-75. They’d used stealthy galactic-velocity jumps to hide behind P-91. They waited while their agents sabotaged our cruiser support, and they moved in for the kill. Mine and Prubius’ shuttle was the last round of support for this miserable ice cube. There was no other help. It was 1,300 of us against the armada of them.
Now it was the five of us.
The Mitasterites would keep coming—that’s something I was sure of. If I had any money—or use for it—I’d have bet on that.
Chief Karran and I once talked strategy over soup dinner. She liked me and Anita Cha because we were the only women sharpshooters. Hell, there weren’t too many of us women in the whole place. Two days ago, at Intake, I caught the eye of a civilian mom and her two kids. They were getting on the transport I’d just disembarked. For a bunch of us guns, it was the last flight in. For the civilians (and a few wounded troops) the last ride off this planet. Was that concern and sympathy in her eyes? Did she know things about the Enemy? I’ll never find out.
The Mitties had come for the szellenyte. Stable fuel. And even though the geologists said we were sitting on the largest deposit of the crystal, this wouldn’t be the only one. There could be other, more massive deposits deeper in the ground.
Even if the Mitties couldn’t have the fuel for their war plans—the taking of Antahrrus Five being next—they needed this place. P-75 and P-8 were the only ones in the system with hospitable atmospheres. While this rock was unfriendly, Eight’s warm landmasses were bombarded by acid rain. Whatever the chief chemical component, the crap is corrosive enough to eat through standard hull plating. The Mitties wouldn’t come up with specialized hulls and protected circuitry for a stepping stone of world.
Plus, P-75 has water. Amazingly, all of us Humanoids—Mitties, too—are similar enough in composition that drinkable water is equally crucial. They couldn’t live without it any more than we could. Karran said the Mitties’ water synthesizers soak a lot of juice from the global ships’ batteries. It would actually be more efficient to come to the surface and lift off with loads of ice. From what I remember of my brief fuels class, that seems incredible.
The only good news for us was that we weren’t going to run out of water. Any ice we melted to drink would have a slight hazelnut taste, that’s all. As long as our battery packs held out—and our bodies kept generating warmth—we’d have the water. Probably some of the cleanest stuff in the galaxy, too.
So we had water, about five days’ worth of rations, a few supplies and no objective other than survival. Esch took point with his rifle, followed by Bohl with the rapid-fire. (He also preferred the truncated, less formal version of his name.) The rapid-fire is a smaller weapon, and I wondered if Dhani would try to strap it on. He was keeping to his thoughts for now. If it came up—and I hoped it wouldn’t—we could find out how cumbersome the weapon was with only one arm. None of those scenarios was appealing.
We chose to conserve energy rather than hustle. There was no place to hurry to. Five people walking down an ancient lava tube, exploring so-called virgin territory. Following a few rises and turns, I wondered what Bohl thought of the place. For generations, his home planet of Tchushkolarya had been in a state of geologic flux. Many thousands of long tunnels and caverns were left over from their last Ice Age, when one of the continents (Lokt?) chose to sit down and pout at the volcano party. The decimation must’ve been an amazing sight, pre-dating civilization by 20,000 years. There are cities down there now, occupying enormous crevices in the desert floor. Up on the true surface, it’s too damned hot to think.
The rock underfoot was amazingly smooth, like nothing had touched it since the last time molten material flowed through. How hot was that stuff? Three thousand degrees? Four thousand? Granite and quartzite, I bet, and what else? Materials were never my strong suit. A lot of the troops here, like Joffe, had gone through training regimens in demolition—learning how to cobble together odds-and-ends to blow through doors or hide bombs among secondary hulls. This war may have been new—five months on—but soldiers had been preparing for a long time.
Preparing. Cecilia. What happened with Cecilia? Why didn’t she do her job?
Ahead of me, Prubius pulled our makeshift sled. He and Bohl had used a hand-welder found (amazingly) in the bin. They cut the lid in half and welded those new pieces as skids to the bottom of the bin. Warped by the heat but usable, the bin and some of its contents survived the blast. Luckily. We had a medical kit, two flashlights, some rope, a thermal tent, twelve rations bars and arms. These included nine ammo cells for Prubius and myself to split, six cells for Bohl’s Nitruga B3, two undamaged ones for Dhani’s weapon and fourteen for Esch’s TDK-Delta. A lot of the guys back there were using the Deltas, as they’re called. Joffe loved his. I wondered what made Bohl’s Nitruga so appealing. If memory serves, they were pricey weapons.
I was happy with my Giovanni 19. I’d always liked its central balance and, at less than five bars, it wasn’t heavy to carry. The Nitruga weighed twice as much, some of the added due to the impressive scope. Bohl could sight a target from five miles out with that thing. The rapid-fire was heavy, too—probably seven bars’ worth. The internal workings were almost identical in function to our rifles, but everything was thicker to handle the continual discharge. There were combat stories of those guns being fired until parts melted.
My rifle’s reduced weight seemed just as good a choice as my preference in clothing. In two layers, my suit weighed about one-and-a-half bars, not including boots. Not bad considering the suits from ten years before would’ve weighed three times as much and not be as warm. I’m glad I’d listened to Joffe about my footwear—boots instead of some of the slippers other sharpies were wearing. I’d be screwed right now. There was no telling how long we’d be marching, today or forever. Preparation was key.
We brought along miscellany that survived and ammo cells for two other weapons we didn’t have, in case we pick one up somewhere. “You never know if something usable can be ejected from a blast-zone,” Prubius said. It was an idea that seemed alternatively ridiculous and plausible. It was black to think in those terms, since there’d been people at the heart of that blast zone. A lot of people.
What choice did Karran have? With the szellenyte, the Mittie global ships could launch an assault on Antahrrus Five. At least that’s delayed for a while. She did something.
A pang of hunger grabbed my attention. It was 1:17 now, or eight hours since I ate breakfast. I couldn’t eat much, some roasted oats with fruit. Call it nerves. Bohl caught my attention, shoveling in as much pork and pigrahb root as he could. We all respond differently to stress, it stood to reason. Soon after, Joffe started herding us to the nests.
Hunger. Twelve rations bars. That wasn’t going to last long among the five of us. With small bites, half-a-bar per day gave us about five days. But it would take discipline. I used to haul down two of those things immediately after a long workout. The teacher in Crisis Management joked that food rationing was easier when being held a prisoner of war. You didn’t have to make the hard choices. The choice to wail and moan about being hungry was answered by the one carrying a rifle butt.
Food. I could ignore the hunger for now, but there was no ignoring fate. At some point, we’d have to find P-75’s wildlife out of necessity.
Esch was on point with a flashlight strapped to his rifle. He kept the beam on low power, probably hoping to buy an extra sec or two before someone else saw it. Next was Bohl with Dhani’s rapid-fire. Dhani was third, carrying a backpack of supplies. In case the unforeseen happened—again—it made sense to break up the rations and ammo. We’d lopped off his trapped arm just above the elbow, and he’d elected to have it in a sleeve instead of tucked awkwardly inside. “Maybe it’s something,” he’d reasoned to me. Now the shortened appendage looked particularly useless, clad in bandages under a white and gray suit. Like it was my fault, somehow.
The tunnel ahead seemed to be getting lighter. Relief flooded me. We were heading back toward the surface in some fashion. I preferred that to dropping further into the crust of this world. Sure enough, Esch soon turned off the light and slowed. The tunnel forked—the primary dark one headed left while a lighter one opened to the right. He paused and we all came forward for a look.
My best guess was that a section of the lava tube wall has collapsed or eroded, for the lighter path appeared more as a canyon under a greenish layer of ice. Enough daylight was getting through to spell potential. The path also seemed to climb as it curved, moving closer to the surface.
“What do you think?”
“Mark the time, one-twenty-five. We try this way, first. If we hit a dead-end, we’ll know how long it takes to come back.”
Not one of us had a real map. We had the piecemeal memories of topographical images in our heads, which wasn’t much good in a practical sense. It was crap, really. If one person had told me there was a possibility I’d have to navigate P-75 on foot—a time and a thing after the battle—I’d have grabbed a damned map. Now, if you couldn’t say we were lost, we were at the least off the trail. And we were only a few miles—in whichever direction—from Base. To me, the only part which counted was that we weren’t a few miles up from base, as in lifting off. With several Mittie cruisers in orbit, that wasn’t the place to go, at the moment. Our Enemy would not take prisoners. Certainly not after this fiasco.
The smoothness underfoot gave way to crunchy, rough ice. We were closer to the surface. I wondered what the wind was like on P-75. That would seem to be the primary difference between our being below ground or on the surface, since we couldn’t really count on solar heat. The wind got worse at night, they said, sometimes churning up the snow into zero-visibility conditions. It never mattered—or it hadn’t yet mattered. I’d given very little thought to the climate here on the planet in these three days. Probably the same for a lot of us. Too focused on the number of troops and tanks and guns pointed in our direction. Dress in the warm layers they recommend, get an ammo cell in your gun and get ready.
Who has time for the weather?
We were climbing, or the surface was dropping toward us, or both. Yes, things were lightening, more natural warmth coming through the green ice. Dhani glanced back at me, a bit fearful. Esch lifted his gun a little. None of us could really guess what we’d soon find, other than the battlefield we left behind. The world felt too quiet.
The ice thinned and parted. The planet’s purplish sky peeked through as a sliver. Purple. We’d passed noon, Conversion. On this planet, at the midpoint of the rotational cycle, the thick atmospheric layer of geridia particles produces something bizarre. It’s as if they all turn their backsides to the solar radiation. In the span of twenty secs, the sky changes from light green to an intense purple. Conversion. We gawked at it the day I arrived—such a strange phenomenon. It seems impossible. But then, you’re standing looking out at white mountains between lavender hues when, a min before, they were under greenish hues. Enough to make one think their eyes are playing tricks.
The sliver grew wider. Esch paused. He and Bohl trained their weapons on the top of the canyon. “Anything?” he asked.
As a Tchushkin, Bohl’s eyes and ears were better than the rest of ours. I trusted him to detect danger quicker than the rest of us—even trained sharpshooters.
“Nothing,” he stated. “No, wait.”
A flutter of movement skirted the top of the canyon’s left wall. Esch tensed but Bohl looked relaxed.
A little brown head peeked over the top. A long-beaked bird. It chirped.
“The local wildlife,” Prubius observed, turning to me. “At some point, we will need to discuss the zoology of this, our new home.”
“Zoology? The animals, you mean?” Dhani asked.
“Correct. Questions of food and survival will be more pressing in the future.”
“Survival?” Esch had his gun on the bird, but didn’t look ready to shoot.
The small creature alighted and was gone from sight without a sound. Maybe not signaling others was a positive thing for us. There were birds that hunt in packs—on Rhyosh, at least. I knew nothing of these creatures on P-75. I hoped the lone curious representative didn’t spell danger, or anything else.
With caution, we soon emerged into the bottom of a receding canyon. It gave the impression that a great mound of ice had cracked and split. We were coming out the bottom that was gouged out some time before. Maybe eons before.
There was no sign of the Mitasterites. A plus, but it would be temporary. As Prubius had saliently put it, losing the szellenyte stockpile was a fiasco for them. His word-choice was apt: Their command certainly thought of the deposit sitting under our base as their property to claim. The soldiers and equipment they lost in the attempt (all those guys the lot of us were picking off) would rank lower on their priority list. Almost everything about our enemy’s mind-set was economy-based. It bothered me to no end.
Underfoot was rock with a thin layer of ice over it. Fortunately, our path climbed slowly. If it was too steep, we wouldn’t be able to get out. Not yet. I trusted the five of us to get creative with our supplies, when the time was right.
Ahead, a view opened up. Preciless 75 was a rugged world of whites and grays under her purple sky. Below us, within a mile, the sea began. The pale aqua plain pushed out to fill the horizon to the right. If I was correct, the white chunks were icebergs.
There were no trees within sight. Here and there, clumps of tall brown grass poked out of the blanket of snow. But no trees, a sharpshooter’s best friend. Thick and green (or orange on Pashunderra) worked best. Hide, find your holes, count the leaves between your immediate self and the target in your scope. They taught us how to gauge the amount of interference, how to not worry about most twigs. The non-tangible nature of beams was that you’d cook your way through many biological obstructions. In a pinch, a shot through a thin tree trunk was better than no shot at all.
Dammit, here we had nothing. P-75 might’ve lost all her trees in the time before us and this stupid war. Call it bad luck or the evolution of a dying world. Whatever the reason, the five of us were exposed. And trouble would find us out here in the whites and grays.
On Precor Max, my home, there’s no snow. You can find frost and ice if you hike into the mountains. What falls from the sky couldn’t be called snow. It hurts too much—dropping in dark gray, beetle-sized chunks. Sometimes, the accumulation is pretty in the sunlight, viewed from cover or photograph.
What we were looking at here was beautiful—soft and inviting. I got to play in snow at a Rhyosh training camp. That, someone said, was a dusting, a tenth of a leg. What I saw now had a loveliness that made my heart ache. Snow in all lateral directions—even a crusting on the icebergs, if I was seeing correctly. But not a green thing in sight.
Then I was struck by Reality: We were stuck on an ice planet, with limited food and resources. In other words, desolate. Would there be a time when I could look back and recall both the harshness and the beauty? In the way that, as a girl of thirteen years, I looked at my uncle’s hunting rifle and saw both the ability (to drive off those vultures) and the reality of what it did?
We could see 300 degs, or three-fourths panorama. A wall of ice to the right seemed to be getting lower, promising an expanded view ahead. We went slowly. At the moment, we had no cover from Mittie satellites. Hopefully, the eyes on their orbiting ships were trained solely on the patch of destruction behind us. At a dip in the wall, Esch and Bohl got low, weapons ready as they peered over. Prubius dropped his sled harness with a satisfactory grunt. We all came over to look.
Behind us, beyond the white bulge of the mountainside we’d just come through, rose a column of gray smoke. It stretched far up into the purple. Wide and slow moving, coming from an explosion that was hours old. A great column of the stuff being pulled slowly up into P-75’s atmosphere. We couldn’t see the actual source of the gray, but that wasn’t necessary. We all knew what had happened there.
We survived that?
Dhani and Prubius swore quietly.
“Nobody survived that,” Esch declared. “With the way szellenyte goes off, there’s probably fissures in the valley floor.”
Bohl grunted in agreement. “A few in the tanks, perhaps.” He raised his scope.
“It looks like a volcano,” Dhani observed. “I can smell it.”
“Do you think there is any fire left? Secondary explosions?”
“Possibly,” Bohl offered.
It was silent, by the course. Though we were miles away, I wondered how anything that huge and terrible could be silent.
My nose stung and my eyes began to itch unexpectedly.
Jax. Karran. All those people.
“Could any of our guys have made it?”
“I wouldn’t bet on it,” Esch said. “So small a chance, you wouldn’t risk trekking back to find out.”
I swallowed against a pang of sadness, knowing Esch was most likely correct. “And the Enemy?”
“Unlikely, Captain,” Bohl said. “It is my belief that that explosion cracked the mountain in two. The blast wave would have flattened everything within a mile.”
“But we were protected by the mountain, right?”
“Correct, Dhani,” Prubius said with a sigh.
Saved, by chance and a rock wall, because we chose the unknown path. If we hadn’t, the five of us would be strewn among the dead in a field of debris. Like jetsam from an open spaceship door.
There’s nothing left.
Bohl checked a spot with both scope and naked eyes, then repeated.
“What are you thinking—the other sniper’s nest?”
“Yes. If memory serves, their perch sat on the crest, exposed.” He pointed. “The mountain here falls away sharply, at least two hundred legs’ drop from our position. That is the only route back.”
“What does that mean?” Dhani asked.
I could picture what he was talking about—a deathly cleft of green ice and white between us and what might remain of Friendlies.
“Without climbing gear or radio, we have no way of knowing for sure if any of our people are left back there.”
Prubius shook his head. “For all we know, that whole side of the mountain is gone, too.”
“Yup,” Esch said, turning about. “What’s the order, Captain?”
I glanced at him, then back to the scene of destruction. From here, the billows of smoke seemed to move slowly. The smoke must’ve filled the remains of Base. Would the Mitties’ investigators be brave enough to go in there? Bohl was right—the remains of our temporary home would’ve certainly collapsed into the cavity that held the szellenyte. It would be an unstable, smelly dark mess. The Enemy’s investigative methods were unknown, beyond the fact that they were thorough. If nothing else, the large part of a multimillion-turops mission just blew up. They’d invested too much time and money to not want to know why. No matter how this horrible war played out, there’d be a lot of anger and questions for a very long time.
“Why did Cecilia fail?”
“Good question. That would’ve taken care of some of our problems.”
“Some,” I remarked. “The battery is three rockets. We counted four Global Attack Ships, with two more on the way.”
“On the way. Do you mean, late?”
“Had to stop for coffee or something,” Esch remarked.
“The Mitties must have hacked her from orbit,” Prubius offered.
“How?” Dhani asked, glancing at me.
“They have smart people, too.”
Prubius said, “From what little I know, they could have read a carrier wave coming in. There were lots of communications messages going back and forth. However they did it, I would not be surprised if the Mitties have an entire army division dedicated to cyber warfare.”
“We do, too, don’t we?”
“Yes,” Bohl replied. “Their location is secret.”
“I wonder what zingers they’re going to come up with.”
This qualified as a zinger in any book. Cecelia’s defense rockets were supposed to launch. They didn’t. Even if they did and inflicted a lot of damage, it wouldn’t have stopped the invasion force. The Mitties wanted this place too badly. They were still coming.
Time to move on. Standing there waxing nostalgia and letting the cold creep in on us wasn’t a good idea. I made a point of nudging Bohl toward the unmade path ahead. “How deep is it there?”
Bohl and the rest turned to face the snowfield before us. I couldn’t see much rise and fall there.
“We’ll post-hole if we have to,” Esch said, removing the power cell from a spare rifle. No reason to risk getting his hand shot off. We resumed course with Prubius still dragging the sled.
Hours passed in shuffling quiet and checking over our shoulders. Whenever hills rose on either side of the manageable path, Esch kept us close to rock overhangs. He used the disarmed rifle as a staff to check the snow depth. I’d read about this, but had never seen it done. It slowed us down a little. Looking back on occasion, the rising smoke grew more distant. A pair of small birds flew by, and their behavior seemed normal. P-75 might soon forgot we Humanoids had ever set foot here.
We entered a valley between two great hills. It looked like a place where someone could do sledding. Idly, I watched a few more birds loop past and wondered how far it was to the ocean. In this place, distance seemed irrelevant.
“Prubius, do you think—”
Bohl raised a hand, calling for silence.
A sudden, whirring noise cut off my thoughts and sent my heart up into my throat.