The little girl looked up at me with wide brown eyes.
Her eyes were clear and ageless, possessing the fragile, trusting wisdom of childhood. She was physically five years or so, but might have been five hundred. The record fragments were still being analyzed.
"So far she's clean," said MedicThree's voice in my consciousness. "I'm starting the deep level scans now. Try to keep her relaxed, Sarge."
Her curly brown hair rustled softly as she turned her head to look curiously at the soft, white walls of the containment cell, before turning her gaze back to me.
"Where's Mama and Papi?"
"They're ... asleep." I felt compelled, as I always do, to tell her as much truth as I possibly could, given the circumstances.
"Can I see them?"
"I'm sorry m'ija, but right now your Mama and Papi are very sick. The doctors are making them well so they can get better, and then soon you can see them."
Her forehead creased.
"Are they going to die?" Her upper lip trembled a bit as she said this, and she fixed her eyes upon my face, studying my expression.
"No, m'ija. The doctors will make them all better soon, and then you can all go home."
"Can I go home with Nana?"
"I'm sorry again, m'ija, but you have to wait here with me while the doctors make sure you aren't sick like your Mama and Papi."
"I want to go home," she said with a quaver in her voice, eyes welling. It was impossible not to be heartbroken.
"Soon m'ija, very soon. Everything will be better soon, you'll see."
"I want to go home." Softly this time.
"M'ija, can you tell me your name?"
Silence. She looked at the floor between her feet, mumbling something inaudible to my ears.
"Please, m'ija, tell me your name. You must have a pretty name, for such a pretty little girl."
She was a beautiful child. Her skin was a soft golden-brown hue, and looking down at the floor, her eyelashes were so thick and long that seeing me must have been impossible. All together, her face, features, hair were distinctive and unique; not something I'd vaguely seen before, fashioned from trendy styles and plain old genengineering.
She ignored me. I lowered myself, carefully, to the soft white floor, looking at her solemnly.
"Sarge, are you sure that's wise?" came MedicThree's voice. I ignored her.
"What's your name, m'ija?" I gave her my winningnest expression.
She looked lifelessly up at me, still pouting. Then she gave me a wan, sad smile.
Her face contorted into an agonized rictus, teeth bared and eyeballs staring from the sockets of her suddenly exposed skull.
"Death!" she screamed in my face, launching herself with vast cunning ferocity at me, arms melting into streaming pools of swarming ants as her beautiful, curly hair dissolved into a hive of buzzing wasps ....
I woke screaming.
"It's alright, it's okay. You're okay ...." I recognized Cara's caressing voice.
I found myself cocooned in my sleepsack, fabric drawn tightly about my bulging arms and legs. My mouth had a bitter, acrid taste, and I thrashed impotently against my restraints. My heart was a triphammer in my chest; my head was throbbing.
"Water," I croaked, and I realized I had screamed my voice hoarse. Saltwater touched my dried lips; bitter tears were pouring down my face.
A water tube made its way into my lips, and I drank deeply. A cooling sensation crept down my throat and up into my sinuses, and presently my headache cleared.
I lay back, slack. I felt weak and dizzy and drained. Darkness peeked around the edges of my vision, seeking entrance. But I was not yet ready to surrender to unconsciousness.
"What happened to the little girl?"
"Shhhh ... relax. It was just a dream, it's not real. She's fine, she's okay. You did well, we got what we needed."
"I don't remember anything. When am I?"
"Would the date have any particular significance to you?"
"You know what I mean," I snapped.
A chuckle. "It's been about 43 standard days since your last action."
"Now calm down, you're doing fine. No use getting excited after the fact."
I looked down at my clenched fists with a sinking feeling. "Just how much of me did you have to reconstruct? If I'm having nightmares likethis, then ..."
"Yes, you were ... damaged. Actually, you're almost done recuperating, which is why I allowed you to wake."
I felt so tired, and inexplicably old. The feeling that the Universe had passed me by and I was adrift, without reference to anything or anyone of personal value to me.
"Cara, I don't recall anything about the mission. What was her name? Did we succeed?"
"The little girl? She was one we were looking for, among others. Your mission was successful. Don't worry, you'll remember everything in time. Now I just wanted to check your cogitation and awareness. You're doing well and recovering nicely, so it's time for you to rest again."
"Cara, I feel like hell. Worse, I barely even know who I am anymore. If this is success, I'd sure hate to see failure."
Cara laughed. "Well, that's natural, since you have been to Hell and back, in a manner of speaking."
"Oh, were you looking for comfort? I didn't notice, I was too busy fixing you up."
"Some day, Cara, you'll have to remind me why I do this."
"It keeps you out of trouble."
"Now that's a funny way of seeing things. Because, as far as I can tell, we run around the galaxy looking for absolutely the biggest amount of trouble we can possibly find."
"Best way to avoid it. And that's why you're so handy to have around."
"Hmmph! And my reward is ...?"
"You'd rather do something else?"
I started to form a reply, and realized just how tired I was. The wear and tear of combat and whatever I'd just been through and sheer mental exhaustion loomed before me, a fathomless black pit. But there were still things I wanted to know before I was frozen again for another uncountable stretch of time.
"Well, I'd at least like to know why."
Cara laughed again. "You always were too curious for your own good. Now, I still have some work to do, and that means you need to rest."
"You're being evasive. And you still haven't told me her name, and what we were doing ... wherever we were." I struggled mightily with nothingness to hear Cara's reply.
"And you need rest. Now. Good night and sweet dreams."
I tried to say something, but the me that was me was fading rapidly into oblivion, and I was finally too tired to care.
It had crept stealthily along the tunnel when the atmosphere rushed first one way into the momentary void, and then a split second later back down the tunnel as a superheated shockwave.
The plasma scoured away much of its mass, and the loss of the microwave collection units in a fury of EMP had reduced it to using internal reserves.
Tirelessly, patiently it clung for an eternity of minutes to the ceiling of the blackened tunnel, undulating towards the likely entrance point of the attackers to lay in wait, obeying the last instruction set downloaded into its distributed nervous system.
When our drone gunship rolled into the tunnel ahead of us, it had let the 2 meter armored ball pass under it unmolested. In its low power state, covered by a membrane of scorched foglets melted inextricably with their nearest neighbors, it had gone undetected by our advance eyes.
Some inexplicable sense developed by evolution, rather than genengineering, told him just before it happened. Point looked up and triggered his hellbore directly into the dropping grey mass.
Heavy's independently conscious arms also took note of the threat, firing their weapons almost simultaneously.
The squad point defense network tasked all available grazers on his behalf.
It was too late. Too much firepower in too confined a space.
My reflexes were good that day. I was halfway to the ground when all hell broke loose.
Between the atmosphere pouring crazily down the 2200 kilometer deep puncture we had made in the planet's crust, and the environmental systems that had been present in the complex, there was the barest wisp of air in the tunnel. Fractional-kiloton detonations of hellbore bolts shredded the attacking utility fog, turning it and the trace atmosphere into a shockwave which brushed aside my suits active plasmatic shield, plucked me from the air and flung me spinning back into the kilometers wide hole excavated by our corebombs.
I came to on my back, arms akimbo. My thoughts were hazy and clouded, and I was beginning to feel the sharp sting of a body-wide sunburn. I was at least 30 meters from our insertion point, and my muscles weren't yet answering my commands.
None of this boded well.
I checked the roster, and it was as I feared: more than half my squad was incapacitated due to shock, radiation, or worse. I noted in a detached sort of way that I was borderline myself; I pushed the thought away. I couldn't afford further reductions in firepower.
"Sarge -- you there?" came Spotter's voice.
"Yeah, I'm here. Tactical situation?"
"Big Cluster---- Sarge, Point got ambushed at short range by some sort of fog. I don't know how it evaded our sensor drones. He took it down, but collateral damage ... I'm sorry, Sarge. It happened too fast."
"S'okay, Spotter, nothing you and Sniper could have done. But I'm going to need you now more than ever, to make up for lost time."
"The mission's still a go?"
"Yes, Spotter. You've heard the briefing -- we go for broke."
My head cleared and I suddenly felt a lot better. I looked up to see my fireteam's Medic treating me. The queasy feeling in my stomach and sunburn subsided; MedicThree nodded to me then went over to treat Heavy.
The gunships formed a perimeter around us while I realigned my squad, cursing the delay of precious moments. Obeying my half-instinctual, half-visualized command channel flickering on the borders of my subconscious, we readjusted: Corporal dropped the remnants of FireTeam Two back as I brought FireTeam Three front and center. Sniper sent an EMP bomb and three micromissile carriers swooshing over our heads and into our erstwhile insertion point. A blast of static echoed the detonations.
Our Powerdrone extruded new tentacles, and presently our hellbores re-linked and powered back up. I felt my team breathe a collective sigh of relief; I damped down my worry at the delay.
SpecThree took point. Heavy caught my eye and I nodded; he went next, followed by MedicThree and myself. The remnants of FireTeam Two took our rear.
We swept past our fallen comrades to the patiently waiting gunship, which had gone into autonomous hold-until-relieved mode, the fireworks barely denting its densely armored hull. I looked at Point's remains; a pang of guilt for my mislaid plans. One of Point's hive-brothers would probably just laugh at me in his infuriatingly reckless way; that kind of existence just gave me the shivers.
I was angry at the waste. Point's armor probably could have just absorbed whatever the utility fog was trying to do to him until we'd neutralized it, but he was always superfast on the trigger. Of couse, that made him perfect for the job. I filed away the dilemma for later.
Okay, concentrate on the mission. It's just us down here; animal intelligence and instincts backed by thousands of years of military technology.
We fell into our intensely-practiced, intricate dance. The gunship, a smoothly-rolling ball of dense armor and weaponry directly tasked to SpecThree via laser-link, advanced to a position, coating the tunnel with a shell of ballistically conducting fullerene and defensive nanites. At each checkpoint, the Powerdrone dropped a fusion-powered EMP generator through the containment tunnel, the violent energy surges barely constrained by the fullerene mesh and foamed titanium. My team sprinted from position to position, in carefully choreographed overlapping fields of fire. We were all extensions of each other, direct neural connection maintained by an invisible spiderweb of laserlinks.
A defensive sensor/clusters fired its antiswarm lasers uselessly into the armored hull of our gunship, its ECM desperately jamming the drone's targetting systems. Canister rounds from Sniper (who had made the shot tens of seconds ago) arrived and deployed defensive chafflets, occupying its attention and fire. Corporal, with his heavy hellbore, popped out from cover to take the shot. The white-hot expanding sphere of plasma rippled past us, sucking the tenous air along with it.
In this way we secured three kilometers of maintainence tunnel, solving the puzzle of each defensive installation with feint,
counterthrust, and coup d'grace.
"Trouble ahead, Sarge," Spotter's voice was a flicker in my mind, as I caught the full thought-image. We surged forward at top speed; a blurring succession of canisters sped by us, Sniper's full clip on autofire. Ahead, just in front of the Vault door that was our destination, the tip of a borer emerged from our defensive counter-swarm sheathe, followed shortly by a crash as the rest of the maintainence drone broke through. What must have been the enemies last reserves of
synsects and attack fog swarmed along every surface of the drone, seeking shelter from the storm of our EMP.
Like infantry throughout the ages, we dove to the ground and fired at the onrushing, nightmarish mass of enemy charging us.
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