Often while I am writing one story I find myself getting ideas for others. When writing "Hook's Choice", I included a paragraph that was the basis for this story. You don't need to have read "Hook's Choice" to enjoy this tale.
Apes, watch your spacing!
Lt. Andrew Hook turned to locate each member of his squad.
I dont know how you all lasted this long with such sloppy formations. Spread out! Hook barked at his team trying to express an anger he did not feel.
Hooks Hellions were pulling a remote perimeter watch, walking sentry duty about 25 klicks from the friendly walls of Base Camp Bullfrog. The Hellions had dropped onto Klendathu with the first waves. Theyd been fighting on this God-forsaken rock for over three months and had seen more than their share of excitement. But two weeks ago, the Queen, guiding mind of the entire bug race, had fled Klendathu, taking the battle to Hooks hive, Earth. Though the war had moved on, there was still plenty of cleaning up to do here. With their sovereign gone, the arachnids were leaderless. The bugs didnt get any nicer. Any column of warriors or swarm of hoppers would gladly tear into a trooper unit given the chance. But their attacks were random, half-hearted affairs. They had lost the tight organization and unity of purpose that came from defending their queen.
Hook feared the Hellions were losing their edge as well. Stuck in clean-up duty on Klendathu, their missions seemed perfunctory and unimportant. Like this sentry duty. Protecting the base while it packed up for departure was important to be sure, but it seemed like a waste of a unit that had been sharpened to a razors edge in battle. The squad had barely made bug-contact in the last two weeks. Hook couldnt escape the feeling that the real war was home, on Earth, and he longed to be a part of it.
Just that morning he had received the news he had been wishing for. In three days, the Hellions would be evacd from this putrid rock to join the defense of Earth. They would get their shot at the Queen. He hadnt told his squad. He feared doing so would set their minds on home, causing them to lose sight of the mission at hand. Losing focus like that was the quick road home. . in a box. Keep em focused, keep em alive.
The lieutenant stopped to let his patrol pass him. Already ahead, on point were Pvt. NRairi and Cpl. TPhar in his Duck Marauder. He could hardly prevent Ademonde NRairi from taking the lead; the private laid claim to his warrior Masai ancestry with a vengeance. He was long on fight, short on caution. Good idea pairing him with TPhar. The Skinnie was as levelheaded as NRairi was impulsive. With the Duck he could make sure NRairi didnt get in over his head.
How you holding up, rook? the Lt. smiled as Pvt. Kudrow passed his left shoulder with Sgt. Deveraux on the privates left. Kudrow was a gibbon, a baby Ape, fresh out of basic. Deveraux was wisely wearing the nervous recruit like a glove.
*Suut, tnai, dnall na mitta, riWill, LMal! (*You seem to be moving slow today, Mother!) Andrew called to the tall, slender figure coming up behind him on his right. It was Cpl. MRil, the second Skinnie in his unit and one of the senior members of the squad. Hook took her left shoulder and quickened his pace to match the long strides of the seven-foot TPhetti.
You do well to call me mother since you speak TPhetti like a child, the tall alien replied, mustering the Skinnie equivalent of a wry smile. Speak Terran so I can hope to understand you.
Hook laughed. * Pnaella lagon dnati, shuuti (*I had a bad teacher), he retorted. MRil had been his language tutor.
MRil emitted a long string of glottal clicks, TPhetti laughter. Where I come from, mothers get more respect.
Hook and MRil were an unlikely pair (a comma and an exclamation point as Hook liked to describe them). She was his closest and oldest friend in the service, his teacher in ways far deeper than language. On his first assignment, he had been given a provisional command in the follow-up campaign and occupation of Tophet. His stated objective was to assist in the clean-up of the bug forces on that world. His unspoken assignment was to assess the suitability of Skinnies as soldiers and their possible integration into SICON units. By necessity, he became immersed in TPhetti culture and his guide was MRil, then a clan mother, the senior female of her extended family. She was over twice Hooks age, the mother of three and grandmother of four. She mastered his language so quickly that it shamed him into learning hers. Though she was ostensibly under Hooks command, the green lieutenant had the common sense to recognize her superior knowledge and experience and generally followed her directions. With MRil as his unofficial number one the lieutenant led several small TPhetti units in action against the bugs with great success. He was amazed that this race which had known only peace for centuries was so ably suited for war. They were exceptionally agile. Though less physically strong than humans, they had amazing endurance and the natural eye hand coordination that made them superior marksmen. With these attributes and relatively primitive weapons, they had resisted the bugs for over four years. More importantly, the failed defense of their home and their subsequent enslavement made them enthusiastic volunteers to fight. When his Tophet tour was over, Andrew had recommended MRil for OCS, but bureaucratic stupidity and not a little prejudice resulted in the Skinnie going to basic MI training.
After serving in junior positions in two units, Hook received his first full command of a new squad, November squad, Hooks Hellions. In a rare moment of insight, high command felt the young lieutenants experience made him an ideal commander for Skinnies and stacked his unit with them. To his everlasting delight, Private MRil was in his first team.
They had served together now for almost two years, from Carvok to Klendathu. Despite exemplary service and numerous citations, MRil had only inched up in rank to corporal; such was usually the fate of Skinnies in the SICON military. But Deveraux had submitted his paperwork to move up to OCS; the Hellions would be needing a sergeant. With a little well-placed pressure Andrew was sure he could swing a promotion for MRil to top kick.
What do you think of the new kid? the Lt. inquired.
Private Kudrow? the alien replied, swiveling her gaze to the private now twenty yards ahead. Satisfactory, considering his level of inexperience.
Do me a favor, *LMal (*Mother). Hook always used her nickname when his words were a request and not an order. Dont wander too far from the new kid. I dont want him buying it before we get off this rock.
Understood, MRil replied.
Andrew slowed his pace allowing the corporal to move ahead.
And dont buy it yourself either! he added as an afterthought.
In a few moments the flanking guard, Pvt.s Villetran and Leung, caught him up. Things seemed a bit too quiet. He wanted some intel, and Leung was the best source around. Pvt. Patricia Leung, a young slender woman just past her eighteenth birthday, was a spook, psychic, what the Intel boys called a Class 2 Mapper. Her gift was to precisely locate and identify friendly and enemy forces, their strength and movement within a five cubic kilometer radius. Handy trait for a trooper, and a real asset for a squad leader.
Leung, Lt. Hook spoke as he pulled along side the private, Your radar picking up any unfriendlies?
At the question, the private halted, her gaze turning momentarily inward as she explored that strange, internal realm known only to psychics. She hesitated for what seemed like minutes before speaking.
Sir, . . , she paused clearly uncertain. There are so many bugs on this world, I have a hard time sorting them out. She bit her lower lip and her eyes darted left and right like a person trying to find their way through a darkened room. Im getting something close, . . but I cant be sure.
Hook tried to conceal his exasperation. Psychics were a real resource, the Lt. admitted, but he just didnt understand them and could never completely trust them. They were glitchy and temperamental, prone to false alarms and misreads. He stood a moment with Leung, at the back of the pack, weighing her vague report.
Cpl. TPhar, the lieutenant radioed the Marauder driver, whose machine was now well ahead and starting to disappear behind the crest of a small hill. High alert for possible close enemy contact.
If TPhar responded, Andrew Hook did not hear it. The earth beneath his feet seemed to shift abruptly, turn to liquid. Before he could react the ground came crashing into him.
* * * * * * * *
The voices were the first thing he remembered. Strange distorted voices, muffled, like sounds underwater. Though he could not make out the words, he sensed the voices were agitated, frantic. What could they be so excited about? It took him a few moments to realize that he was lying down. What had happened? Had he fallen? Hook opened his eyes and could barely make out the blurred features of a face close to his. With great difficulty he managed to place a name to that face. Villetran, . . yes, Villetran. . Private, member of his team. The privates face shone with sweat and his eyes were wide with apprehension. It was Villetran talking, but there was something else, another noise. A shrill whine, almost a howl.
A chain gun, the Lt. spoke aloud to himself, Whos firing a chain gun? Private, wha . . whats happening? Whos firing?
Hook awkwardly tried to rise, but he needed Villetrans help just to sit up. Once upright, he was slammed with a driving pain in his right temple. Something warm and wet crossed the corner of his right eye and ran down his cheek. The pain made him nauseous and he feared he would vomit or pass out. He took a couple deep breaths to subdue the nausea. The chain gun, the sound of that gun gave him something to hang on to. He had to pull it together.
Sir, Villetrans voice grew steadily clearer, We are under attack. One digger, maybe two surfaced right below us. We had no warning. Cpl. TPhar sent me to find you and get you to safety.
Help me up, Hook spoke, rising unsteadily to his feet with Villetrans assist. The warm streamer on Andrews cheek ran down to the corner of his mouth. The unmistakable taste of blood. How long have I been out?
Only about four minutes, sir.
Private, find me my Morita, Hook managed with some effort to stand unsupported. He was still confused but the fog was lifting.
While the private hunted the LTs weapon, Hook keyed his comlink to the sergeant.
Sergeant Deveraux, situation report,
Though the lieutenant was now becoming aware of the electronic chatter in his earphones, he did not hear the voice of the sergeant. No answer to his command.
Sir, Sgt. Deveraux is missing. Villetran spoke, returning with the lieutenants rifle, Havent seen Cpl. MRil either. Everythings confused.
Hook took the Morita, checked the clip, and @#%$ed it.
Private, just get me to that chain gun.
* * * * *
The scene before Andrews eyes was surreal. The world had changed; nothing was as he remembered it. The landscape that had once been flat and featureless was now strewn with rock and slabs of baked earth. A hill of debris 15 feet tall and a half kilometer across had sprouted out of nowhere. With Villetran at his left, Hook stumbled clumsily up the huge rubble hill. At the crest, he realized he was on the rim of a vast tunnel that dropped steeply into darkness at his feet. Further along the edge of the crater they found the source of the noise they were following: the chain gun on TPhars Marauder. TPhars Duck was facing down the burrow opening, spitting long bursts of tracer fire into the pit. Through the haze of smoke and dust, Hook could just make out NRairi on the opposite side of the crater pouring gunfire and Masai epithets into the hole. Behind him on the ground, sagging like a grounded blimp was the bullet riddled carcass of a digger. Leung, Morita at the ready, walked out from behind the bloated corpse. The lieutenant picked his way through the rubble to a position on the Marauders left.
Corporal, whos in command here? Hook asked.
Sir, I believe that I am TPhar responded silencing the gatling gun. Two confirmed digger bugs breached directly below the squad roughly 15 yards from my position. One confirmed kill, the other still in the burrow, believed dead. The squad was scattered in the breakout. I lost contact with you, Sgt. Deveraux, Cpl. MRil and Pvt. Kudrow. Pvt. Villetran was sent to locate the missing, while Pvt.s Leung, NRairi, and I engaged the bugs. You are the only trooper weve recovered so far.
Any other hostiles, either in the burrow or topside
No sir, my scanners show no movement within 5 klicks.
Thank you corporal, Lt. Hook keyed his comlink to the entire squad. Cpl. TPhar, you will remain at the burrow rim to watch for any bugs that might be crawling up the diggers burrow. Contact Bull Frog and alert them of our status and request immediate backup. Alert medical evac as well. NRairi, Leung take a perimeter watch 30 meters from the crater mound. We dont want to be caught by warriors or hoppers while were staring down a hole. Villetran, you and I will fix lines and search the burrow for the missing. Any questions? Alright, get moving.
At the LTs command, the Hellions separated to their assigned tasks. Hook and Villetran set their lizard lines near TPhars position on the rim. Since the tunnel was still hot, they rappelled down the burrow face first, Moritas ready, in case they met any unwelcome company. Within minutes they left the sickly red light of Klendathus sun behind and were descending in total darkness. About 70 meters down, the long vertical tunnel took a small sideways bend creating a ledge. Planted grotesquely on the outcrop was the corpse of the second digger. Its soft sack-like body had burst, spewing entrails and dark juices all over the tunnel walls. The Hellions had done their job well. The digger had been shot from the tunnel rim and plunged to its death down its own burrow. In a narrow corner of the ledge they made a more welcome discovery, two powersuited figures, one crouching over the other. Only when the light from Hooks helmet crossed his face did the one trooper look his way. It was Deveraux. Hook tried to speak to him but the sergeant tapped the side of his helmet followed by a slashing gesture across his throat indicating his radio was out. Hook drew near to the sergeant and touched his helmet to Deverauxs, enabling them to communicate.
Mike! Andrew had to yell for the sergeant to hear him. Are you alright? Hows Kudrow?
Both men looked down at the private as Villetran hooked his med cable to the access port in the unconscious privates suit.
Im okay, I think, sir, Deveraux replied, the strain in his voice betraying the pain he was trying to hide, Ive got the use of my legs and my hands, though my left sides pretty banged up. Kudrow didnt fare so well.
Kudrow has a non-displaced vertebral fracture at L5 and S1, Villetran reported, His spinal cord looks okay. Ill lock his suit servos to stabilize him just to be sure. Hes unconscious, but Im detecting no significant brain swelling and his cerebral blood flow is good. Im thinking minor concussion.
We gotta get these two topside, Hook surmised, Stay with them and get em hoisted out of here ASAP. Theres no telling what may be crawling up this tunnel. He turned again to the Deveraux touching his helmet to the sergeants
Mike, do you know where MRil was when all hell broke loose?
Sir, Im not sure. . . everything happened so fast. I remember seeing TPhar up ahead and I was shadowing Kudrow. I thought maybe MRil was coming up on my right, but I cant be sure.
And you havent seen her in the burrow?
No sir, I didnt even know it was a burrow till you told me.
Hook couldnd suppress his smile. He turned again to Villetran.
Private, Im going to continue down the burrow to try to find Cpl. MRil. Get these two topside and await retrieval. Ill keep you posted on my progress.
Cpl. TPhar, Hook now keyed his com to the Skinnie on the surface, Provide any support Pvt. Villetran requires from your position. When he reaches the surface with Kudrow and Deveraux, make sure they stay put. No one else comes down the burrow, understood? Sit on them if you must.
Acknowledged, came the reply from the surface.
Sir, Pvt. Villetran protested, Are you sure this is such a good idea?
No private, it is not a good idea, but its the only one I have at the moment. See to your patients.
Without further delay Hook reattached his descent line and eased himself over the lip of the ledge and into the darkness below. As he descended he wrestled with a sick apprehension that had settled in the pit of his stomach. The troopers above had barely survived their fall even with their protective armor. If MRil fell further, the chances of her survival were. . .
Andrew did not have time to finish his thought. A soft fog began to shroud the beam of his headlamp.
Damn, its methane! Hook whispered to himself. It could only be a leak from MRils suit, a very big leak. Advancing with his visor down to better see through the haze, he soon spotted the warm silhouette of his trooper. MRils body was splayed like a starfish across a finger of rock protruding from the burrow wall. She was not moving. Her suit appeared intact, but the soft clouds of methane enveloping it told another story.
Found MRil, Hook barely managed to calm his voice, She looks critical.
Bracing his feet on the promentory of rock, he hoisted the body of the Skinnie onto his shoulder. She was remarkably light, almost weighless in his arms. Moving her was probably a mistake but he had no other options.
It took only three minutes for Hook to reel himself to the surface, but it seemed like an eternity. When he reached the top, most of the Hellions were gathered in an anxious knot along the edge.
Back up! the lieutenant barked at his team, Get back to your perimeter watches. TPhar, give me a hand here.
With a sudden pneumatic hiss, the Marauder popped open and disgorged its pilot. The Skinnie carried his T box with him; the Tophet box was a first-aid and suit repair kit adapted to the special requirements of Skinnies. Hook laid the body of his friend on the ground as gently as he could. He knelt beside her bringing his face close to hers. He tried to see her face, but her suits decompression had fogged her faceplate with condensation. TPhar joined him and hooked his sensor cable to her suit.
Major suit breech, the helmet-torso seam is blown with a smaller leak in the right shoulder. Her atmosphere has vented completely. Lieutenant, please use the suit seal to slow the leaks, while I attempt to restore her atmosphere.
Hook pulled a small aerosol can from his hip pouch and sprayed a generous foam bead along the helmet and shoulder seams. Before the foam could harden however, methane bubbles hissed to the surface; MRils suit was still venting. He tried another bead, exhausting the spray can. For a moment it appeared that the leak had stopped, but before Hook could celebrate, the bubbles reappeared. With no other tools at his disposal, he placed his hands over the larger leaks. Andrew could only watch helplessly now as TPhar hastily assembled a series of hoses and filters from his kit. He attached a hose to the port on MRils helmet.
Hook keyed his comlink to base communications. Bullfrog, we have a trooper down, critical! Whats the ETA of our evac.
We have retrieval prepping for lift off, the base controllers voice answered, Estimated time to your twenty, seven minutes.
Sir, TPhar interjected, This repair will not last long enough to reach base camp. Well need a retrieval with an environmental chamber.
Damn, Hook swore softly; he should have thought of that. Bullfrog, we need a Tophet retrieval. Is the prepped ship T compatible?
Negative, November squad. Only two T-retrievals still in-theater. One in turnaround, the other returning from Sector Zulu 7-2-7.
Hook estimated that ship was 35 minutes away at least, assuming it even had fuel to reach his twenty.
Bullfrog, please redirect airborne T-retrieval to our postition at Baker 9-9-0. Tell them to hurry; we have a trooper critical. Over.
Hooks gaze turned to the TPhetti corporal working feverishly at his side. TPhar whats happening? Hows she doing?
Sir, Cpl. MRil is alive. Using the decon filter and a reserve methane cannister, I have restored a suitable atmosphere in her suit.
Excellent work corporal! How long can you sustain the atmosphere?
At the current leak rate, about 20 to 30 minutes.
Close enough! Hook rejoiced, That should hold us till help arrives.
Sir, the TPhetti corporals voice was soft, almost apologetic, There is a problem.
But Hook did not hear. He leaned close to the MRils faceplate. With the atmosphere restored in her suit, the condensation cleared and he could see her long pale face. Her color was returning and there was life in those great black eyes.
*MRil, prekyez dnuti (*MRil, can you hear me?)
The aliens eyes blinked slowly as though she were awakening from a deep sleep. Tentatively, her lower mouth tried to form itself around the shape of words. Her long limbs began to stir.
*Tnollai. Dnall hundlo kii (*Dont move. Youre safe) Andrew leaned in close to reassure her.
Youre bleeding. The voice was hoarse and weak, but definately MRils.
Hook had not noticed the spots of blood forming on the inside of his face plate as he leaned forward. In the warm rush of seeing MRil alive, he had completely forgotten about his head wound. Unexpected tears burned in his eyes. His closest friend in the whole world lay injured, pulled from the edge of darkness . . and she was worried about him.
Its going to be okay, Corporal, Hook replied trying to sound official, but the unsteadiness in his voice betrayed him, Evac is on the way. Were going to get you home.
The squad. . ? MRils eyes widened as she remembered the team.
Two injured, besides you, but everyone is in one piece. Andrew reassured her allowing himself a relieved smile. As he spoke, he noticed the continued rapid movements of TPhar at his side. Time on Tophet had taught Andrew how to read Skinnie body language, and he didnt like the message TPhar was sending. At that same instant, he noticed the increasingly restless, purposeless movements of MRils arms and legs.
MRil, whats wrong?
She paused a moment, almost unwilling to answer. Nothing really. It just seems to have gotten a bit cold. . .
Hook turned to the Skinnie corporal beside him for an answer.
Sir, TPhar responded, I tried to tell you a moment ago. My repair has restored a breathable atmosphere for the corporal, and I can replace the gas that is still leaking from her suit. But the inflow of gas combined with the venting from the leaks is purging all the heat from her suit.
Hook appreciated the dire nature of TPhars report. Living on a uniformly warm planet, Skinnies were poikilotherms, cold-blooded beings, like reptiles on earth. They depended entirely on external warmth to maintain their body temperature. Drops in environmental temperature that humans tolerated easily were quickly incapacitating to a Skinnie, and finally lethal. Hook looked down at his hands that were still pressed to the now dozens of tiny leaks in MRils suit. He desperately repositioned his hands to try to stop all of them but there were too many bubbling up through the sealant.
What can we do?
Sir, everything that can be done is being done.
Hook looked at his chronometer. Damn, retrieval was still at least twenty minutes out.
Villetran, Hook ordered, Get on your comlink and remind retrieval that our situation is critical and tell em to push it!
Lieutenant, MRils quiet voice was still hoarse, but now the words started to slur, I will be fine. There is plenty of time.
Hook knew otherwise. The restless movements of MRils limbs had already slowed and within minutes would stop altogether. Her face which had glowed with life moments ago now began to darken visibly.
*!LMal, Suut dnatti tlini!(*Mother, you will not leave me now!)
*NDrew, dnatti punita lapi laquez di natti (* Andrew, it is a decision neither you nor I can make)
Villetran! Hook shouted never taking his eyes from MRils face.
ETA Eighteen minutes, sir
*Pnaella toclati kuni? (*What can I do?) Andrews tears mingled with the dried blood on his faceplate.
NDrew andu prequez. NDrew, NDrew andu prequez. . . NDrew . . .
It was the death prayer; any Skinnie knowing death was near would call to their dearest friend or family member to help them on the last journey.
*Pnaella dunte, LMal. Pundataennitta (* I am here, Mother. I will watch you through the dark.)
Punda taennitta, MRil echoed TPhar.
They were never sure exactly when it happened. The restless churning movements stopped, her skin slowly darkened, and the fire in the great black eyes dimmed, then went out
The shadow of a retrieval ship passed over the tiny group of soldiers. The air stirred at the breath of its engines. But no one moved. A darker shadow had already fallen over them.