Lieutenant Hook grimaced as he banked the skimmer.
Brace yourself! He yelled as an afterthought.
His squad either cursed or hung on to something. The sudden appearance of the rippler squadron had taken everyone by surprise, including psychic Spitz.
Whered they come from? Nanoforge growled. If they were in for a firefight, he would have appreciated the Marauder. Which was safe back at base.
What kind of operation is this? Allerka yelled at Doc.
Chiquita looked over at him. The kid was Smokes replacement for the afternoon.
And Allerka was correct: this was supposed to be a joyride. Just an afternoon routine patrol. Smoke was still having medical problems and was spending his day undergoing tests. As such, the squad was a member short and Lt. Bugimus loaned Allerka to Hook.
But a few miles off the coast of Guam, the ripplers appeared.
Every attempt to return to the small base was thwarted, and Hook, in the drivers seat, was now taking the turns harder than the hovercrafts specifications granted. Twice, water sprayed into the back from where the wing had splashed down.
Allerka didnt notice Chiquitas glare, but continued his complaining.
Its our luck, Kai leaned over to whisper to Cyber. He turned and raised an eyebrow.
Look at us, she explained. Were all orphans. Our squad is unique. Now were missing one of our own, replaced by someone who hasnt been through hell, and look what happens.
I heard that, Allerka seethed.
Kai shrugged. Doesnt matter. Im just making an observation.
Doc! Forge! Cyber! Hook ordered. Get those rifles up here!
The three men anchored themselves behind the cockpit and began using their Moritas. Ripplers rained down as the skimmer flew by.
Spitz looked vacantly at the others. They seem to know where were going.
Hook furrowed his eyebrows.
How? I dont even know where were going!
Lieutenant! Doc jumped at the signal his visor sent him. Ive got an SOS on my scopes.
Every trooper flipped their visor down. Indeed, a signal beeped adamantly: ten oclock, a kilometer away. Lima Squad. Their own skimmer was under attack.
Spitz nodded to herself. Engine failure. Troopers down.
Chiquita hit her in the arm. Youre freakin me out, Spitz.
But good job, Cyber reassured her.
Allerkas eyes widened. Theres a psy onboard?
Doc turned around to look at him. Got a problem with that?
Spitz blinked and looked over at Doc with a smile. He returned her smile before helping Nanoforge and Cyber with the downing of ripplers.
Hook raced the skimmer over to Lima Squad. The nearer he and his squad got, the more alarmed they became: the sky around Lima Squad was dark with ripplers. As if the squad was in the middle of a hornets nest of giant proportions.
Sir, Nanoforge asked softly, were not going in there, are we?
Hook gripped the controls more tightly than he already was.
Got a better idea?
Nanoforge shook his head. Not at the present moment.
Not a second later, those other ripplers took notice of Hook and his squad and included their skimmer in the party. Every rifle was up, but the way Hook swerved the skimmer, there were plenty of missed opportunities. Twice, the flying arachnids managed to ram the skimmer, throwing everyone to the non-skid deck.
Several of the Lima Squad members were already in the water, and one was unconscious. Hook carefully lowered the skimmers ramp to the other squads members. Chiquita had rushed back there to help them on board.
The firefight was vicious. Ocean spray almost fogged up the deck, while the ripplers wings whipped the air about the squad, as if they were in the center of a mini-typhoon. At one point, Kai was knocked to the ground by a ripplers wing tip, and she lost her Morita.
In the very next second, four ripplers rammed the skimmers port wing, and the vehicle tipped, spilling all but Hook and Nanoforge into the water.
Youve got to be kidding me! Doc was frustrated, spitting salt water out of his mouth.
Kai popped up beside him.
Tell me this isnt happening.
Wake up, Kai. Like you did that other night when you had the nightmare. Wake up now. Please!
Kai felt helpless without her rifle.
Im tryin, Doc! Im tryin!
Hook shot the skimmer out away from the rippler attack.
Cybers blood boiled.
Hes not leaving us, Chiquita said horrified, supporting the unconscious Lima Squad member. Is he?
Allerkas rifle was the first back into action. He sure the hell is! What kind of squad are you people?
Spitz restrained herself from throwing him a sudden migraine; he was new, after all. Couldnt blame the kid for not clicking with the squad he was there only for the afternoon.
Regroup, if you can, Chiquita yelled to the others. Were sitting ducks alone.
And they can pick us off if were too close together, Kai yelled back.
When the lieutenant returns, Kai, I want us on that skimmer as fast as possible.
Kai and Doc, the furthest out from everyone else, paddled to the others. Allerka, Cyber, and Spitz gave them cover fire. Chiquita checked the wounded man in her arms; his helmet was cracked, and every wave they rode washed away the trickle of blood that streamed down his face.
The other two conscious Lima members swam over to him.
Im Ryan, the young kid told Chiquita, looking at his friend, thanks for the help.
Well get out of here, she said with an ease she didnt feel.
Jordan, Ryan indicated the young man in Chiquitas arms, hes all right?
I dont know. She looked for Doc. Doc, where are you?
Chiq, my dance-cards all filled up. Unless you want to take over for me? Docs Morita was smoking.
Whered I put my dancing shoes?
It took Doc two waves and endless paddling to reach Chiquita, Ryan, and Jordan.
Here comes the lieutenant! Spitz warned.
About time! Allerka shouted.
With Nanoforges Morita blazing, Hook brought the skimmer in down almost on top of the squad, and all of them flinched.
Get in! Nanoforge roared.
Sounds like a Klingon, doesnt he? Doc was almost giddy with relief to see that paint-cracked ship hovering above them.
The ripplers never let up, but they were definitely kept at bay. Seconds that felt like minutes, the squad, along with Ryan, Jordan, and Pokka, clambered back aboard the skimmer.
Back on the deck, Chiquita was amazed at how young all three Lima members looked. Doc was checking Jordan when Hook took off again.
Three more, Lieutenant. Spitz pointed to Limas sinking skimmer.
If they go under, Cyber told her, slamming a fresh clip into his Morita, they should be safer underwater than they are now. Talk about sitting ducks.
That makes us the next available target, Cyber, Chiquita intoned.
Doc got back to his feet. Just a concussion, he told the worried Ryan and Pokka. Now whered my rifle go?
Kai smirked, and answered by knocking four ripplers out of the sky.
Coming around for another pass, Spitz told the others, watching Hook deftly maneuver the overworked skimmer.
So what does this mean, really? Chiquita asked to no one in particular. We pick up the others and voila! we become target number one.
Can you people just shut up? Allerka raged. Do you guys always have to have the last word?
Kai blinked in surprise.
Must be his first firefight, Cyber whispered to Spitz.
She nodded, concentrating on the location of the now submerged Lima members.
Talk to me, Spitz, Hook said softly, Im thinking this is our last shot.
Theyre under the water, about three meters from the skimmer. No! Not this way that way.
Hook corrected the direction of the skimmer, not completely absorbed in his driving. Mentally, he recognized the solidifying of his squad and admired the sound of the constant rifle firing.
Without their weapons, Ryan and Pokka felt useless sitting on the deck of the other squads skimmer. They exchanged several glances of self-pity and anger while keeping an eye on the swarm of ripplers.
Someone get this guy! Spitz yelled as Hook slowed the skimmer.
Without a thought, Ryan jumped into the water, startling Pokka.
That kids insane! Nanoforge grunted.
Pokka nodded. Nothing new.
Ripplers strafed Ryan, but that only gave Cyber a chance to work on his sniper skills.
Ryan grabbed his squad-mates arm, and together they swam for the skimmers ramp. Doc helped them aboard.
Its not my place to say, he said quietly to Ryan, but please dont do that again. Ive got my own squad to think about.
Ryan froze. It dawned on him that he put these other troopers at risk.
Im Im sorry. He stammered.
Theres another one, Spitz pointed out to anyone who could spare aid. This time Doc and Ryan pulled the Lima member aboard together.
How many more, Spitz? Doc called.
How are we doing, people? Hook called out.
When no one answered, Doc spoke up.
Theyre doing fine, el-tee. You can see blue sky again.
Heres the last two, Doc. Spitz looked back to where Doc and Ryan helped the last two Lima members on the skimmer.
Were clear, lieutenant, she told Hook.
The ripplers, who up until then were content with slamming the skimmer and flying over the troopers, suddenly unleashed their venomous stingers. Everyone ducked as Hook swerved in and out of the paths of the strafing ripplers. Guams coastline loomed ahead, and the troopers felt a welcome rush of renewed energy and safety. Spitz was on the radio, asking for backup.
It surprised them when someone actually got hit by a ripplers spear.
Who is it? Hook demanded.
Spitz looked back to see Doc bending over someone. She broke her own rule of invading someones head and searched their thoughts.
Hook felt both pride and shame at the same time. He was fiercely defensive that none of his troopers were wounded. And yet, Allerka was in Smokes position. Was it right that the substitute receive injuries for stepping up to the plate?
I see a fighter! For the first time, Pokka spoke up.
Only a few of Hooks people took the time to see their reinforcements. The sky was still too busy. But the fighters did arrive and the ripplers sensed they were now outnumbered and outgunned.
Hook drove the skimmer up onto the beach. After his first calm breath since the ripplers surprise attack, he turned to check on his squad. They were circled around Allerka, who was suffering convulsions as Doc frantically worked on the kid. Blood was leaking from Allerkas throat, and his eyes were wild.
Doc said nothing, but Chiquita slightly shook her head.
Subclavian artery wound, Spitz sent the message to Hook.
He shot her a look.
What does that mean?
If the tango is like making love, Allerka labored to breath, his eyes empty, why doesnt anyone want to dance with me?
He stopped breathing.
Doc struggled to remove the kids upper body armor, but it was too late. The ripplers poison had completely shut down Allerkas internal organs. One stupid spear that successfully broke through the armor and embedded itself deeply between the clavicle and upper rib. Even the anti-venom foam didnt stop the acidic reaction to Allerkas armor. Or his skin.
It was silent on the skimmer that afternoon, and the Lima squad members felt conspicuously out of place.